A Clockwork Clarion

(Trigger warning: rape fantasy stories, stalking, gang-rape prank, misogyny, sexism)

I’ve been reading the #YesAllWomen twitter stream (a backgrounder is here, for those who haven’t been following it), and decided I needed to share my own story. I tweeted about this earlier today under my handle @MorganJLocke, but decided to go into more depth here, because it is, yes, outrageous and appalling, and I haven’t really talked about it since it happened, except to a couple of people closest to me.

This is going to make some people—people I care about—uncomfortable. The internet might fall on my head. So be it. The #YesAllWomen thread reminds me that we don’t get past the misogyny that is (STILL! WTF!) endemic in the SFF community, by sweeping the nasty stuff under the rug. It’s time to clean house.

Throat-Clearing

  1. This is my faithful rendition, as best I can recall them, of some Unfortunate Events that happened when I attended Clarion SFF Writer’s Workshop* in 1981, including a rape skit in which I was the unwitting and unwilling “rapee,” on our last night together at the workshop. Human brains are not A/V-capture devices and some of the details may be wrong, but in essentials, yes, this really happened, and no, I’m not exaggerating**.
  2. Clarion is one of the best workshops out there, and this post is not a condemnation of the workshop, nor the people who run it. Neither the administrators nor the instructors had advance notice of the skit. It’s my opinion that this could have happened at any workshop, under the right circumstances.
  3. I’m not naming the skitsters’ names, and I’d appreciate it if you’d respect their privacy, too. The people involved were, and still are, my friends and colleagues. It was a case of severe bad judgment on their part, without a doubt, and I don’t excuse their decision to go through with such an awful idea. But I have long since forgiven them; it was a stunningly stupid stunt, but it happened in an overheated situation, and they have gone on to do many kind things for me in the intervening years. I don’t want to bring the internet down on their heads, either.
  4. But as I said, it’s important that we air out these kinds of issues, when they happen, and understand why they happen, if we want women to feel safe, and be safe, in proximity to men.

So here goes.

What Happened

In 1981, I was accepted to Clarion. Prior to my acceptance, I was a single, nerdy engineer, a young woman recently graduated from college, transplanted from New Mexico and trapped in small-town coastal Texas among married couples and horrible bigoted racist misogynist gasbags (including my boss—there’s another juicy #YesAllWomen story right there).

I had been writing stories since I was eight and mostly stuffing them in drawers. To alleviate the frustration, boredom, and loneliness of that Texas stint, I took a continuing-ed writing class. A woman there told me about Clarion, and I applied, and was accepted (the day after I was accepted to the Peace Corps, in fact).

That Clarion acceptance letter was the first professional validation I ever received as a writer. I’d submitted one novel manuscript, and had it summarily (justifiably) rejected. Since this was before the advent of the internet (before even personal computers—we all wrote on typewriters back then- yay archaeo-tech!), there were no online watering holes for people to gather at, to connect with other SFF writers and fans and hone our craft. I had never been to a convention. I wasn’t even aware of them, except vaguely as some big noisy-but-maybe-kinda-cool thing that happened in the cities. Since I was rather introverted, I wasn’t sure I’d want to do conventions anyway***.

But Clarion, now, that was the Real Deal. Maybe I could do this writing thing after all. I found a way to come up with the fee (which was incredibly reasonable for a six-week course), accepted the Peace Corps offer, and gave notice. In early June I headed off to East Lansing. I looked around that first evening at my fellow attendees and realized I had found home. What a delightful collection of witty, smart, nervous, wacky, nerdy people! From Day One, I was in love with Clarion and my fellow Eighty-Onesies, every one.

My delight came to be tempered over the coming days and weeks by a few of the men among us, who had a bad case of male entitlement, and who imposed their stalker-y, rape-y mindset on us women. (And no, not all the men.)

For instance, the first week, we read and critiqued each others’ submission stories. One guy had written a story about a ship overrun by space pirates. The ship’s captain was a woman. The head pirate overwhelmed her in the futuristic space shower and raped her, and she “wasn’t sure if she liked it” (I will never forget one of my classmates’ evisceration of the scene—including climbing up onto a chair to show him how a trained ship’s captain would not let being nude in the shower keep her from defending herself—she had some martial arts training and it was a thing of beauty to watch her go at it).

Another of our attendees was a man older than the rest of us (who were in our early to mid-twenties). He became fixated on one of the women. He started including her in his stories, describing her and her actions in highly sexualized ways, with a primary focus on her breasts (she was well-endowed). He also started hitting on her, and she had to repeatedly fend him off. The rest of us tried to hang around her as much as possible so he wouldn’t have a chance to corner her. It was rather awful and pitiable and embarrassing.

Last, but by no means least, came the rape skit. It happened on the last night of the workshop, during the good-bye party.

Most of us had bonded pretty well over the six weeks of Clarion, despite the aforementioned creepy-dude stuff****. We had engaged in a goodly number of squirt gun fights, rowdy drunken carousings, costume parties, gags, and assorted mutually-consenting sexual liaisons, of course, as people are wont to do during six weeks of close proximity under intense emotional circumstances. We had been very much a music-and-skit-oriented group (my favorite being the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Di), had written our own lyrics to a lot of tunes, and that last night we performed some of our favorite songs, iirc.

Most importantly, we had written hard, read deeply, held long discussions of craft. We had learned to take and give critique, and see our own works more objectively. We had learned a bit about the business of writing; we had imprinted on the instructors in a big way.

We had undergone a rite of passage. We had graduated. We were Real Writers—Kate and Damon told us so!—who now just had to go out and do the demanding and rewarding work of creating SFF other people wanted to read.

Now here we were, on the last night, saying good-bye to people we hoped would be our friends for life. Our last two instructors, Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight, were there, as well as Algis Budrys, I believe, and Tess, our wonderful Clarion administrator—as well as essentially all our group, and a couple of former students, one of whom was another wonderful guy who was the assistant admin.

At some point during the evening, three of our group strode in dressed as Alex and his droogies from the movie “A Clockwork Orange,” singing the words to the tune “Singing in the Rain.”

At first I was smiling when they strode in. They were my friends, after all, and they were really hamming it up. But we had watched the movie shortly before the end of the workshop, and I had found it horrific—repugnant. It seemed to me that the movie excused—even glorified—the worst aspects of pathological male dominance. I remember during my one-on-one with Kate that last week, I had had a long talk with her about my concerns about the movie’s themes.

Here’s a link to a YouTube video containing the beginning of the rape scene—it cuts off before the rape itself, but be warned, even so, it’s deeply disturbing.

Alex and his thugs use trickery to gain entry to a couple’s home. They cheerfully use tape to silence both the man and the woman. They beat the man and rape the woman. The YouTuber cuts off the scene before the rape itself occurs, but what happens next is that Alex uses scissors to remove her clothes, while singing “Singing in the Rain.” He does so by grabbing the stretchy knit fabric on her chest, pulling it out, and snipping it to expose her breasts. Thankfully I don’t recall the details about how he used the scissors to make an opening to access her genitals, or what happens to her after he rapes her, and I have no intention of watching the movie again to find out. (If you know, no; please don’t share.)

So anyway, my three classmates come into the main party room dressed like Alex and two of his droogs.  Two of them were among my closest male buddies. The guy dressed as Alex was a rather cute guy whom I wasn’t as close to, who I believe may have had a thing for me—but I hadn’t wanted to get involved with him.

They made their way through the crowd over to me, picked me up, singing the song from the movie rape scene, and laid me on the floor. (I’m a small woman and they were big men. ) The two “droogs” held me down while “Alex” got out a roll of duct tape, I think it was, and taped my mouth. I could be conflating events with the movie but I thought there were scissors and that “Alex” was going to cut the buttons off my shirt. My shirt was a light cotton blouse with buttons down the front, and all the buttons came undone as I struggled, trying to get away from them. It was late summer and very hot, so I wasn’t wearing a bra.

Yes, this really happened. No, I’m not exaggerating.

When it first started happening, I couldn’t believe it. Literally couldn’t believe it. It was when they put the tape on my mouth that I freaked out. I tried to fight them off but maybe they thought I was just going with the gag—I’m trying to be kind, here—they kept going with it for several more seconds.

I am going to tell you the first names of the people who helped me: One of my fellow students, Maggie, pushed them aside right after that and gave me a hand up. That reassuring look she gave me—“You’ll be all right, I’m here to help you”—will stay with me the rest of my life. Thank you, Maggie, for seeing my distress and stepping in.

By this time, obviously, the guys had stopped the skit. I took off the tape and re-buttoned my shirt. I remember looking around at everyone and feeling disoriented. The guys were standing there looking sheepish and may have made some reassuring noises at me. I made my way toward the back of the group.

Terry steadied me and asked if I was OK, so did Stan. I found my way among the other students to the very back, and sat next to the student from a prior year (not the assistant admin), who leaned over and said softly, “I hope you’re not going to make a big deal out of this.”

I didn’t want to spoil everyone’s party. I didn’t want to be the reason we had a sucky, shame-filled ending to such an important milestone in everyone’s life. So I just sat there quietly for a while, and the party moved on.

Looking back, I can honestly ask myself, what were they thinking? Of all the cruel idiocy! But at that point, all I wanted to do was get through the rest of the last night and the morning departures with as little emotional aftermath as possible. I locked it down.

Later that evening, one of my female friends confessed that she had known—she had helped them create their costumes. She apologized sincerely, I remember that.

I don’t recall talking to my guy friends about it, the ones who did the skit, but I am certain they apologized, at some point, because I remained close to them afterward and never would have continued our friendships, if they hadn’t convinced me after it happened that they cared about me and felt badly about it. That I do know.

Other than my good-byes with Kate and Damon and A.J. the next morning, where I broke down and sobbed (and I mean the messy boogery heart-rending kind of sobs—though I didn’t connect it then with what had happened the night before—good compartmentalizing, eh?) (interestingly, so did the guy who had played Alex), I remember nothing else of my last twelve hours at Clarion.

Lessons Learned

Looking back, I have a lot of thoughts. Mostly questions I was afraid to ask my classmates back then. I may have made a few grumbling noises at the time about how the skit hadn’t been such a great idea, and I’d been uncomfortable being surprised by that…but I certainly never let any of them know what I was REALLY thinking and feeling.

If I had, it probably would have gone something like this.

To the guys involved: So, just out of curiosity, how were you planning on ending the skit, if Maggie hadn’t intervened? “Ha, ha, Laura! Fooled you! We weren’t going to actually gang rape you in front of all your classmates and instructors and everyone.”

No, of course not. You were just going to lead right up to the instant before the rape, I guess—pinning me down and using on me all the tools (the scissors? and tape) that had been used in a horrifically violent rape scene in a movie everyone watched just a few days before. Without giving me any advance warning of what you had planned, or chance to say, “No thanks!”

Second, did you think it would end with me bouncing up after you had publicly sexually humiliated me, laughing jovially with you and slapping you on the back, thanking you for the “compliment?”

Seriously, guys, you know I love you, but what the fuck? What the ever-loving FUCK?

And to my female friend who helped them stage it: Jesus Christ, woman—you know I love you, too, but when they came to you with this idea, why didn’t you say something like, I don’t know, maybe a gang-rape prank/skit is not in very good taste? Or, if you thought it was such a great idea, why didn’t YOU volunteer to be the “rapee?”

And lastly, I do wish one of the instructors, or the administrator, or someone in charge had stood up and said something, right then  (though on one level, I really get it. They were probably as stunned as I was. When something like that happens, it can leave you speechless). I wish that the burden hadn’t fallen solely on me to decide whether to point at the gnarly pile of elephant crap right there in the room with all of us, and point out just how badly it stank.

__________________

*A six-week writing workshop for aspiring science fiction and fantasy (SFF) writers, whose descendant workshops are still active and important learning spaces for SFF writers today.

**And btw, if your first reaction was something like, that can’t be real, it’s too extreme, she must be exaggerating or misremembering, I recommend you spend some time to ponder why you need to distance yourself from what I’m telling you. A big reason women don’t tell our stories is that, after having already had to absorb the pain and shock of personal violation and assault—often by the very men we love and trust—we then have to decide whether we will take the risk of talking about what happened, and risk being called a liar—having our experience trivialized or minimized—or being treated as if we were the ones who did something wrong.

***I changed my mind after Clarion, once I had friends to attend with.

****Unfortunately, women have to deal with this kind of thing so much that while the other stuff was annoying and creepy, if it hadn’t been for the Clockwork Rape Skit, I think most of us women would have considered it pretty much the same-ol’-same-ol’ and moved on… just the usual male-predatory background noise all pre-menopausal women have to deal with.

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About MJL

I write science fiction and sling other memes on the side. Drop a line in comments!
This entry was posted in Feminism, NSFW, Science Fiction, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to A Clockwork Clarion

  1. hekateris says:

    Jfc. Just reading this was an example of WHAT THE EVER FUCKING FUCK.

    I can’t even.

    Also, I love your books from LJM to MJL.

  2. MJL says:

    Thanks so much, hekateris. I appreciate the support, and love that you like my books. 🙂

  3. Eileen Gunn says:

    Thank you, Laura. That must have been difficult to re-live/write, but it is, in its complexity and in the ambiguity of people’s motives, an event that needed to be recounted in this context.

  4. Angel7306 says:

    Wow. Just wow. Also, in reference to your last ps, don’t assume menopause makes it stop.

  5. MJL says:

    Thanks, Eileen. Steve pointed me to your #YesAllWomen twitter post, and it was another what-the-fuck eye-opener.

    Angel, I thought about that, but as a post-menopausal woman, my experience has been different from when I was younger. The pressure of men’s gaze eased and I became invisible. I no longer mattered because I was visibly old. It’s a different problem–a shift from harassment to ostracism/ silencing.

    Of course, you do see older women getting harassed in the press for having the indecency to have opinions in public… the many extra special flavors of misogyny! :-/

  6. Huh says:

    Does it end with menopause?

  7. Lizzy L says:

    Laura — I was one of the instructors that year, and am embarrassed and ashamed to say I have no memory of this event. (I’m not saying it didn’t happen, only that I don’t remember it.) I am sorry it happened, and I can’t imagine now why I or one of the other instructors didn’t react and stop it. The sexual tensions/dynamics were pretty difficult during that workshop, I recall, and remained difficult (for some of the participants) for quite a long time.

    I honor your decision to expose this in such detail.

    And — yay Maggie!

    • MJL says:

      Hi, Lizzy, so happy you stopped by! Thanks for the words of support, and no need to apologize at all. It didn’t happen while you were there. On reflection, I’m not 100% sure that week’s Gr’ups were in the room. I thought they were, but it’s been a very long time since it happened and I can’t be sure. It’s also very possible they thought I was a willing participant. A lot of people might easily have assumed that.

      It was also literally right before everyone was leaving–a few had probably already departed before the party, and most of us were leaving early the next morning.

      Yes, I think there was a lot of sexual dysfunction among our group, and that exacerbated things…

    • MJL says:

      (And yes, Maggie rocks so much! I have looked for her for years, but she thoroughly vanished afterward.)

  8. Lizzy L says:

    You’re right, of course, I had left by then, which is why I don’t remember it. But I wish it hadn’t happened. (I wish I had a time machine. If my mother had wheels she’d be a Buick. Um.)

    The level of misogyny in our culture, magnified and exacerbated by the internet, is pretty stunning, isn’t it.

    • MJL says:

      Oh my blob, it totally is.

      There’s this weird bifurcation. There are people who are becoming better informed and speaking out… and then there is the ever-intensifying drumbeat of misogyny.

  9. mainecharacter says:

    Thanks for speaking up about this. I’m not a big guy, but if I’d been there, and known you weren’t a willing part of the skit, my immediate reaction would’ve been some very hard shoves, yelling, “WTF?”, and then putting them on the floor. No warning, no consent. And then maybe they’d get a glimpse of what they’d done.

  10. MJL says:

    I appreciate it, MaineCharacter.

  11. Ellen Datlow says:

    What a horrible thing to do to someone. It was a betrayal of any trust your group had built up over the previous six weeks. I’m sorry you had to go through it and I thank you for bringing it up now and being able to see more clearly what “should have/could have” been done/said at the time.

    This reminds me of an incident from my freshman year of college. It’s too complicated to explain perfectly, but the gist of it: one female friend told the rest of us (male and female) that the male she was with (who we were all close to as well) had attacked her –when the woman answering the phone freaked out, the supposed victim told her/us they were just joking!!! All I could ever think was WTF did they think they were doing.

    How can one explain it? The idiocy of youth?

  12. Kay Mixon says:

    Oh my dear dear sister. This brings tears to my eyes and breaks my heart. You are such a special spirit I am so so sad that happened to you. I know you are strong and have forgiven and I know how much you want the world to be a better place. That is what you have done your whole life. Always educating and teaching and walking the walk. I want the whole world to know just how special and strong you are. I love you so much. Your loving sister.

  13. Holy shit. I’m sorry they did that to you. I know that feeling you described, not wanting to ruin other people’s good time while feeling violated and not knowing what to do about the feelings and then being upset later and not even connecting them. It’s very crazy-making to have to ignore your feelings out of respect for the people who actually made you feel that way to begin with. Terrible. Thank you for sharing the story.

  14. Danny Sichel says:

    What the fucking fuck. I am so profoundly sorry that this happened. I am so profoundly sorry that they somehow had the notion that it was a “good idea”. Oh, for a time machine and a rolled-up newspaper.

  15. Danny Sichel says:

    I’d originally thought of a time machine and something a bit *harsher*, but then remembered that you said they did apologize and you did forgive them, so… a rolled-up newspaper, WHAP on the snout. NO! BAD! What the HELL do you think you’re doing!

  16. johnmburt says:

    Nightmarish, in a very literal sense.
    Which is not to say that I doubt that it really happened — I have seen how closely real life can resemble the worst of nightmares.

  17. Deirdre says:

    Holy fuck, I thought my Clarion experience was bad, but thankfully it was nothing like this!

    • MJL says:

      I’m very glad to hear that too, Deirdre. And btw, thank you for all your great work and posts on this subject matter. Very important contribution.

  18. hopdavid says:

    A Clockwork Clarion is being cited in a blanket condemnation of Clarion workshops: http://james-nicoll.livejournal.com/5011664.html

    • MJL says:

      That’s very annoying. I’ll check it out later. Thanks for alerting me.

      I’m not saying that Clarion (or any workshop) is for everyone, but it made a huge positive difference in my life and validated my desire to be a professional writer. The whole point of my post was that male entitlement and disregard for women’s bodies are so endemic in our culture that even at Clarion–a gold standard among workshops, and run by people very seriously committed to the safety, success, and well-being of their students–sexual harassment and assault can occur.

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