In the beloved 20th century classic To Kill a Mockingbird we hear a similar tale in which a white woman again falsely accuses an African American man of raping her. We are justifiably outraged at the inequities of the trial and the sentencing that ultimately leads to the death of Tom Robinson. Atticus Finch is surely one of the most admired heroes in the American literary canon. But the plight of Eula Mae goes largely unnoticed. We know that Eula Mae is beaten by her father and probably sexually assaulted as well. Tom Robinson is kind to Eula Mae but she knows that if her father finds him there he will beat her as he has many times before. So she makes up a tale that Tom is the one who has assaulted her. Her story ignites the town and battle lines are drawn. Atticus has the uncommon courage to defend Tom even though he knows that it is unlikely that he will get a fair trial. We applaud his courage and we weep for Tom but we have little sympathy for Eula Mae. She brought this own herself, right? But we know that she didn’t, that forces beyond her control made her as much a victim as Tom. Her sexuality and its ownership became a celebrated cause but the real woman will go on, suffering poverty, disrespect and abuse until the end of her days.
The history of rape as a normative act within our culture is long and strong. It continues into the present day in the egregious accounts of sexual assaults on college campuses and in the military. It remains a continuing struggle to prosecute the crimes in courts of law rather than as infractions best kept silent behind the closed doors of institutions. While many men may be horrified by the act of rape and feel certain that they would never force a woman sexually, they find it difficult to identify with the woman and the pain and humiliation that she feels. Women understand among themselves that they are vulnerable at all times to rape but it doesn’t rise to a level of cultural consciousness. That is, it remains a secret shared among females and somehow not communicated to males. In The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen (Bantam Books, New York, 2011) a woman comes upon her friend surrounded by a group of men outside a bar. She knows that her friend is in trouble and she stops to help her. “There was a strange but universal understanding among women. On some level all women knew, they all understood, the fear of being outnumbered, of being helpless…Having too much to drink and losing their ability to be forceful enough to say no…All women remembered these things, even if they had never happened to them personally. It was part of their collective unconscious. PP. 102-103” It is the subjective experience of rape that has yet to rise to a level of cultural awareness.