JUNE 17, 2019
THE YEAR IS 2009, and Nora, the main narrator of Rachel Cline’s contentious new novel, The Question Authority, is a disarmingly blunt, fiftysomething woman bewailing her lost cat, the death of her mother, her “shitty” job at the Department of Education, and her decaying apartment. Nora’s deadpan existential whining — followed by elaborate descriptions of her bedroom view, as if she’s mentally rehearsing for the novel she will one day write — are undeniably relatable. So is the way Nora shamelessly asks herself, “What am I to do with my conflicting emotions?” even before the novel’s central conflict has been introduced. She is obviously referring, very much in-character, to the conflicting emotions that plague us all.
Nora is a textbook navel-gazer, comically deflated, awaiting an event that will give her life purpose. This event turns out to be an assignment to settle a lawsuit against Harold Singer, an eighth-grade teacher accused of pedophilia. And this assignment forces Nora to reckon with her own experience of sexual abuse. At the single-sex private school in Brooklyn Heights she attended as a teenager, a hiply progressive 26-year-old teacher (“he’s always reading to us about black people”) was, according to Nora, “fucking” most of his students. This teacher, Rasmussen, targeted Nora’s estranged best friend, Beth, who just happens to be the opposing attorney in the Singer settlement. Beth and Nora’s high school abuse quickly takes center stage, with the lawsuit becoming a convenient point of transition into the past, a secondary plot meant to facilitate introspection.
Cline shows what it’s like to be deeply confused about past abuse. Her characters oscillate between self-blame and outraged recognition of Rasmussen’s guilt; murky memories are bookended by strident moral exhortations; shame is challenged by bursts of jealousy (why didn’t he choose me?). Cline depicts the convoluted emotional roller coaster of coming to terms with past abuse with candor and honesty — an achievement embodied in the narrative structure, which follows Nora’s stream of consciousness, her imaginative attempts to recreate her teenage years, across six days. We follow her efforts to come to terms with abuse through two sets of eyes: those of her childhood and those of her adult self. Both perspectives are jumbled and confused. Teenage and adult Nora believe that Rasmussen “hadn’t taken advantage of us; we’d each had a choice” and, at the same time, that “he was a predator.”
I opened The Question Authority searching for nuggets of wisdom that could help me parse my own childhood experience with a deeply flawed, much older man. What I found was my own fraught thought process magnified, reproduced. “Was Rasmussen a criminal? Was I harmed?” Nora asks, hoping that definitions and labels will resolve the murky reality of what she remembers and feels. But to what end? I kept asking myself. While I can appreciate Cline’s ability to convey frankly what it’s like to be deeply conflicted regarding a sexual experience, Cline fails to explore how Nora’s attitudes work to reaffirm harmful ways of thinking, such as victim-blaming and himpathy. Instead, Cline uses Nora’s experience to muddy the waters of the #MeToo movement and complicate reductive, hashtag portrayals of sexual abuse.
Reviews of The Question Authority have generally asserted — in blurber Kate Manning’s words — that Cline “adds depth and nuance” to the #MeToo movement, but the novel actually represents a harmful attempt to minimize and complicate #MeToo’s most basic goal: to empower the survivors of sexual violence and hold abusers accountable.
Cline frames Nora’s efforts to understand past sexual abuse as simply a way to fill her existential void, a modern-day madeleine that, once dipped in some cognitive dissonance, promises to “connect the dots” between past and present. Pursuing retrospective justice is depicted as merely a project of self-analysis, akin to a tough therapy session, as opposed to an endeavor with wide-ranging, tangible ramifications. Nora laments the loss of her “cat boyfriend” before proceeding to Google the age of consent in 1970s New York; serious attempts at reckoning are often paired with juvenile, comically sad scenarios. This wouldn’t really be a problem if it didn’t lead to a disturbing sense that Nora’s struggle to understand her past abuse is counterproductive and selfish, especially in light of the looming “child molester” court case. After all, Rasmussen already served time for his crimes; the students Rasmussen raped are adults, no longer vulnerable children. In comparison, the teacher on trial, Singer, is currently harming students. Rummaging through Singer’s legal file, Nora finds a poem written by one of his former students, which begins with the line: “Fourteen is old enough / You told me.”
Nora routinely tosses aside the task of dealing with important legal evidence in order to brood over her own past. The novel ends with the Singer hearing, which Nora arrives at unprepared. “At the bare minimum I can read aloud from a great deal of paper,” she comments, the fate of a predator in her hands. Cline emphasizes Nora’s blunders throughout the case: she forgot to advise the witnesses on what they should wear and zones out when called upon to make her case. Cline ultimately presents #MeToo as a self-obsessed, almost masturbatory project, an endeavor that is less about justice and more about self-examination, as seen in this revealing exchange between Beth and Nora:
“Obviously you’re on some mission for justice or something — wasn’t that your grandfather’s big poem? Anyway, you’re trying to settle old scores. I think you should recuse yourself.”
“Virtue, not justice.”
The difference between justice and virtue is key: justice, derived from the Latin jus, meaning law, is outward facing and useful, while virtue, derived from the Latin virtus, meaning moral perfection, is inward facing. Nora’s investigation into her past falls squarely in the “virtue” category. “I still wonder if I was the only girl who refused [Rasmussen],” she ponders, in different iterations, throughout the novel, only to find that her sense of virtue — of being the only one to say, “No” — is built on a false memory. Instead of rejecting Rasmussen’s advances in the photography dark room, Cline shows that a 14-year-old Nora willfully posed for a topless photograph.
In the chapter before Nora sees the photograph, Cline strategically inserts Nora’s grandfather’s poem, “The Pursuit of Virtue at Brooklyn Heights,” which “represented the principle of virtue as a girl child in a nightgown, awakened from a bad dream.” Nora half-jokingly calls this poem “her legacy.” The photograph, which features an exposed “childlike left breast,” is a perversion of the poem’s virtuous subject. Instead of awakening from a bad dream, innocently clad in sleeping attire, Nora’s 14-year-old self let herself be undressed and led into a toxic situation, a bad dream of sorts. At first, Nora doesn’t recognize herself in the photograph. “I never let him do that!” she snaps, before giving way to inevitable recognition:
I look at her face [in the photograph] and it is my face. Not an early draft, but me just as I am in this very moment: half-defiant, half-hidden, determined to observe and know, but not asking any questions I don’t really want to hear answered, either. I didn’t want him to fuck me, but I had wanted him to see me and exclaim my beauty.
The photograph helps Nora recognize her embarrassing agency, her complicity, the fact that she, like her classmates, craved Rasmussen’s affirmation and attention. Fourteen-year-old Nora is “trapped in a mesh of light and shadow,” a symbol of many relevant binaries — sin and virtue, knowledge and ignorance, victim and abuser. Shamefully, Nora dwells in these gray areas. Cline shows that Nora wasn’t “virtuous” after all; she was, in her own words, “weak.” Cline suggests that Nora’s virtuous self would have rejected, not merely evaded, Rasmussen’s advances.
Nora subsequently places the photograph atop her dresser, to “see what it feels like to live with her.” In other words, Nora resigns herself to confronting and accepting her failed virtue, a decision that ends up being exactly what she needed to start living a better and happier life. Her scenes of whining come to an end, and her cat Tin Man — a cheeky reference to Nora’s “emotional wiring problem” — finally comes home, rescued by a “little girl […] in her nightgown.” Instead of hugging the attention-seeking child, Nora lets the elevator doors close and “follow[s] the cat […] but he slips away, bleating and hovering in the corner.” Nora symbolically rejects the easy, attainable image of virtue — the equivalent of Tweeting #MeToo — for what Cline depicts as a more challenging sense of agency.
After four decades of avoiding photography due to the repressed incident with Rasmussen, Nora takes another photograph — which is how the novel ends. By accepting her imperfection, Nora transitions from being the “vulnerable” object of a snapshot to a photographer herself. Cline’s idea of empowered reconciliation rests on the victim’s ability to accept guilt, bear the mantle of moral imperfection — or, as Nora puts it, “meet[ing] my shadow at the crossroads” of past and present and accepting that it is a shadow, a version of herself darker than she might have wished.
Cline’s decision to portray Nora’s eventual empowerment as a journey of failed virtue, as opposed to a search for justice, is a long-winded way of criticizing #MeToo’s victim/abuser binary. In her Harper’s article criticizing #MeToo, Katie Roiphe captures Cline’s basic point in a couple of sentences: “As a culture, we seem to be in the midst of dividing ourselves into the flawless and the fallen, the morally correct and the damned. Are the Twitter feminists perfect? Because I know I am not.” This formulation mirrors how countless others have criticized the #MeToo movement — let’s all just be more nuanced, they argue, let’s stop being so extreme.
Emphasizing the culpability of the victim is a harmful and heedless project. #MeToo uses the binaries of victim and perpetrator, the language of the law, in order to encourage social justice — not because #MeToo activists are simplistic and can’t see between the lines. As philosopher Kate Manne emphasizes in Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (2017), American culture displays an “excessive” amount of sympathy toward men in cases of sexual abuse, a phenomenon she labels himpathy. In cases of himpathy, the victim,
is envisaged not as playing her difficult part in a criminal proceeding, but rather as seeking personal vengeance and moral retribution. What’s more, she may be seen as being unforgiving, as trying to take something away from her rapist, rather than as contributing to upholding law and order.
Sure, Rasmussen may have been “a great teacher,” as Nora likes to emphasize, but why are his admirable qualities relevant when considering the fact that he raped children? And why does it matter that “men will always desire girls in that maddening stage of beauty [early teens]”? Nora’s almost obsessive insistence that “Rasmussen had taught us things we would never have known otherwise — not just about sex but about music, and art, and writing, and politics” are, in Manne’s words, classic examples of “exonerating narratives” that try to render the abuser more sympathetic. And so are Cline’s intersecting chapters — letters or interior monologues from a suicidal Rasmussen and his accomplice wife, who’ve been dealt their fair share of tragedy. Cline’s novel is a clear example of why complicating questions of consent and agency does little more than affirm why the #MeToo movement was so necessary in the first place: to reframe the conversation around women’s experiences; to try to purge ourselves of himpathy. Nora’s experiences are presented honestly, but they are not beyond criticism.
I understand all too well the illusion of my 14-year-old self having agency; I paraded through New York City wearing nearly nothing, soaking up catcalls like fuel. Cline’s novel is an example of the dangers of taking one’s own experience too far, using it as a compass, because no matter how much I feel that I had agency as an eighth-grade girl, I know that I was a powerless being, vulnerable to the sweet nothings of an older man, ready to do almost anything for affirmation. But that doesn’t mean I deserved to be taken advantage of or that I should feel guilty for what happened. Once I expunge my internalized himpathy, I see a child being preyed upon by men who should have known better, who perhaps did know better, and who should be held accountable for targeting the vulnerable.
What feels most harmful about Cline’s exploration of #MeToo is that the moral situation depicted in the novel is so painfully clear: Cline’s characters were children systematically abused by a teacher. Ambiguity doesn’t resolve anything here; indeed, the real-life consequences of complicating the victim/abuser binary are clearest in the case of children. Consider a recent case in France, where a 28-year-old man escaped a rape conviction after having intercourse with an 11-year-old girl. Insisting that the child was capable of giving consent, the defense lawyer stated: “We are not dealing with a sexual predator on a poor faultless little goose.” (Up until last year, France had no legal age of consent.)
The Question Authority distracts readers from the actual work that needs to be done for girls and women worldwide — to empower, understand, and diagnose abuse without the scourge of himpathy clouding our judgment.
Tatiana Dubin works in book publishing and spends her free time researching the Mesopotamian Goddess Ishtar. A recent graduate of Brown, her writing can be found in Xeno and The College Hill Independent.