In Torrey Peters’s recent novel Detransition, Baby, a character named Reese, a trans woman, considers her past attraction to Stanley, a violent cis man:
Reese wanted…to get hit in a way that would affirm, once and for all, what she wanted to feel about her womanhood: her delicacy, her helplessness, her infuriating attractiveness…. In old books she had read, Reese remembered women saying that if your husband doesn’t beat you, he doesn’t love you, a notion that horrified the feminist in Reese but fit with a perfect logic in one of the dark crevices of her heart…. So yeah, Stanley, bring it on. Hit Reese. Show her what it means to be a lady.
Reese understands the purpose of male violence against women. It is a tool designed, as Jacqueline Rose writes in her new book, On Violence and On Violence Against Women, “to remind the girl or woman of what she is”—to gender her as female. For Rose and for Reese, gender-based violence is not caused by sexual difference—neither attributes aggression to, for example, an excess of testosterone—rather it establishes the hierarchy of sexual difference. And just as Reese believes what the world has told her in a thousand ways—that being hit makes her a woman (one suddenly sees behind the veil of the seemingly innocuous expression “to hit on”)—Stanley believes what the world has taught him, that hitting Reese makes him a man.
Rose would only add that for Stanley and men like him, violence is not the expression of a power they have, but of power they lack. Stanley—the name can’t help but recall the hyper-butch bravado of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire—may be rich, white, and a man, but he is still a human being, i.e., limited, mortal, frustrated. Unable to have the total power we all unconsciously desire, he settles for violence and the power it gives him over Reese. As Rose would put it, he hits her to shore up his “fraudulent authority.”
Psychoanalysis has a word for this behavior, and it is “narcissism.” “Narcissism starts with the belief that the whole world is at your feet, there solely for you to manipulate,” explains Rose.
Beautifully self-serving, its legacy is potentially fatal—as in the myth of Narcissus, who drowned in his own reflection in a pool—since it makes it well-nigh impossible for the human subject to see or love anyone other than themselves. Aggressivity is therefore its consequence, as the child struggles with the mother or whoever takes her place against the dawning recognition that they are as helpless as they are dependent on others to survive.
What is “fraudulent” about the authority of Stanleys everywhere is that it is rooted in denial. Women can and do commit acts of violence. But male violence interests Rose because it expresses the fundamental psychoanalytic mechanism of shame, projection, and denial. Boys and men are taught that masculinity means an absurd omnipotence, mastery, comfort, and prowess. They fail—how could they not?—to live up to that ideal. Many cannot tolerate their own vulnerability, which is coded as weakness, so they project vulnerability onto others, usually women; having disowned and disavowed it, they then try to destroy the woman who has come to represent (or embody) that vulnerability, through harassment, abuse, assault, rape, bullying, blows. The state colludes with this psychological and social project in policies that limit reproductive freedom, cruelly degrade asylum-seekers, and refuse trans people self-determination, to name only a few examples.
Harassment and sexual abuse are not, therefore, “the unadulterated expression of male power and authority”; quite the opposite. Violence against women has a frantic quality; it is something that one can only resort to; it protests too much. Which is not to say that it doesn’t hurt to be hit. Fraudulent authority is often deadly.
Those who have read Rose’s previous books will be somewhat familiar with the contours of this analysis. On Violence and On Violence Against Women takes up a subject she has not covered before—the dynamic that has lately been termed “toxic masculinity”—but it does so according to a conceptual approach she has been refining for decades. This is not a criticism; one of the lessons of Freud is that you never know yourself as well as you think you do. The story of the shifting, creative ways that shame and denial pervert our social arrangements cannot be told too many times. I would go even further: it is because Rose consistently draws on psychoanalytic principles that her work remains surprising and original.
Rose first read Freud while getting a graduate degree in Paris. It was a transformative encounter, generating a lifetime of writing on psychoanalysis, politics, and feminism. But its most immediate result was that when she returned to England for her Ph.D., she scrapped the thesis idea that Frank Kermode had approved with her application, and went to his office to propose a project on Peter Pan and fantasy. According to Rose, Kermode responded to the new idea by lighting his pipe and saying, “You know, the one we accepted you for is very boring.”
In the 1980s Rose cotranslated and coedited Feminine Sexuality, a volume that helped introduce Lacan to an Anglophone audience. She also wrote several influential texts of film theory. With her 1991 book on Sylvia Plath she became known to a more general readership. In 1996 she published a book about Israel and Palestine and South Africa’s legacy of apartheid, subjects she has since returned to repeatedly. She has also written many essays on female writers and icons (Virginia Woolf, Christina Rossetti, Emma Goldman, and others), a reinterpretation of the Dreyfus Affair, a book about mothers, and a novel from the point of view of Proust’s Albertine.
She has the gift that the greatest expounders of psychoanalysis share, of compressing difficult theoretical ideas and making them immediately applicable and illuminating. I will always remember a passing comment in her essay on Marilyn Monroe from her collection Women in Dark Times (2014) that likened the media’s and the public’s maltreatment of the actress to the psychoanalytic “truism” that “one member of a family can carry the unconscious secrets of the whole family, can fall sick as it were on their behalf.” A simple but startling moment, tossed like a breadcrumb on a looping path. (It is fitting that a psychoanalytic critic would be especially brilliant in her seemingly casual asides.)
On Violence and On Violence Against Women is her most overtly topical book, covering a smattering of hot-button issues of the Trump years: Me Too, trans identity, the fate of migrants in Europe and the United States; there are also three essays on South Africa. It is not a work of history and does not discuss, for example, how the dangers of being a woman today compare with the dangers of the past. Many of the essays began as lectures or articles for the London Review of Books, where Rose is a frequent contributor. Each ranges widely, mixing literary criticism, analysis of the news or current events, psychoanalytic theory or case studies, and her own reporting.
Janet Malcolm’s line about meeting Rose in person—“That she was an adept of a theory of criticism whose highest values are uncertainty, anxiety, and ambiguity was a curious but somehow unameliorating facet of her formidable clarity, confidence, and certainty”—is true of her voice on the page, too. The more I read her, the more I see the world through her questions. Rose doesn’t discuss pandemic anti-maskers in her new book, but with her as a guide you see that resistance to wearing a mask has been bound up with denying one’s vulnerability to illness.
Whether the subject is abuse or apartheid, an individual or a nation, Rose maintains that what’s hastily buried will rise up like a revenant. The more a trauma is denied, the more powerful it will become. She cites a South African psychologist, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who in 1996 witnessed a group of seven- to ten-year-old girls playacting a scene of “necklacing,” a form of murder that occurred in their township between 1986 and 1988, in which suspected collaborators were killed by being trapped in a burning tire. “It was an act which they could not have witnessed and which their parents most likely would not have talked about,” Rose writes. And yet here was one little girl acting as the leader, performing all the horrible roles, culminating in her own pantomimed death. Those who found the protests of Rhodes Must Fall, a South African student movement that began with an effort to take down a statue of a British imperialist and grew to include calls for free education and more, too heated or “unreasonable,” Rose writes, “would do well to look here.”
Rose understands that whatever is being repressed belongs to us. “How,” she asked in Proust Among the Nations (2011), “as individuals and as citizens of nation-states…do we countenance, and then take responsibility for, the most disturbing versions of our own histories?” This might mean that one generation picks up a burden that another generation has refused—in the US, one would point to the Black Lives Matter protests—or it might mean a collective displacement of shame. In an essay on asylum-seekers and the brutality and sexual violence they are subjected to at borders and in detention centers, Rose theorizes that it is the white European’s own frailty and need that are conjured by migrants, that the “vulnerability” of migrants is what “makes them so hated.” (The nation as Stanley, locked in denial.) Tellingly, “refoulement,” the legal term used to describe the deportation of migrants to their country of origin, is also the French word for repression.
Rose has described her career as an ongoing investigation into the “backstory”—the story that exists alongside or behind the public or official “performance of who we are.” This backstory—the word is catchier than “repression”—“is both being heard but also has to be silenced in order for the person to go on believing in themselves in the way that they do.” “The Back-story” is also the subtitle of one of the essays in On Violence and On Violence Against Women. This piece, called “Trans and Sexual Harassment,” begins with Freud’s early encounter with a young girl he calls Katharina, a landlady’s daughter who confesses to him that she was sexually abused by her father. Katharina is troubled by symptoms—difficulty breathing and hallucinations of her father’s vicious face. Rose uses Katharina’s case to pose a question that recurs throughout the book: “What does the discovery of human sexuality, as pleasure and/or danger, do to the human mind?”
Rose sees Katharina and her traumatic passage into sexuality as the backstory of psychoanalysis (just because psychoanalysis is dedicated to unearthing repression doesn’t mean that it is innocent or without its own repressions), in which to become a woman the girl must first be broken:
The news that she is a girl will arrive, not as biological revelation from inside her body as the traditionalists insist against Freud, but more as a form of psychic puzzlement, when the outside world inflicts its demand that she crunch her sexuality into shape.
Whether or not one is abused, the sexual norm itself is constraining. Rose goes on to connect the trauma of abuse with trans experience, which both, “in their starkly different ways…alert us that our sexual arrangements are not innocent.” She quotes the trans writer Kate Bornstein: “I think everyone has to work at being a man or a woman. Transgender people are probably more aware of doing the work.”
In its final third, “Trans and Sexual Harassment: The Back-story” turns toward literature, as many of Rose’s essays do. She writes about Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, a retelling of the Oedipus myth in which Oedipus is trans, and Anna Burns’s Milkman, in which a paramilitary officer in his forties abuses a young girl. Rose finds hope in literature because it is where the mind can play with the most difficult and horrifying events of life; she calls Milkman “interior monologue as talking cure” and praises “the power of writing to foster resistance and to create a fairer world.” These bursts of cheerleading sit uneasily next to the more sophisticated psychoanalytic ideas, and at times feel like concessions to genre or audience.
Still, if such rhetoric is unsatisfying or sentimental, it’s not wholly wrong. Writing does something to our lived experience, after all, and even though there is at best a broken line between literature and political equality, and the word “resistance” lands with the thud of Trump-era liberalism, we would hardly want to dispense with the idea that art has the power to make the unseen visible, to put a form to experience, and to bring something new into the world. As Rose put it in a 2011 interview, “Writing is about going to a place of difficulty, feeling one’s way around in it, and seeing whether one can survive by creating some kind of order about it.”
For women, the special problem is how to square desire and oppression—how to, as Rose wrote in Sexuality in the Field of Vision (1986), “recognise our part in intolerable structures,” and be “neither the pure victims nor the sole agents of our distress.” In On Violence and On Violence Against Women, she insists that any feminism worth its name can’t simply denounce violence as something done to women. Violence is “a crime of the deepest thoughtlessness”—a crime of refoulement—and its antidote is thinking. This is a Freudian spin on an argument inspired by Hannah Arendt. (The title of the book references Arendt’s On Violence, just as the title of Rose’s previous collection, Women in Dark Times, alluded to Arendt’s Men in Dark Times.) Rose reads into Arendt as one might interpret a dream, teasing out all the latent implications of phrases such as “the impotence of bigness” or the directive that we “think about what we are doing,” so that Arendt, who was hardly a fan of psychoanalysis, nearly emerges as a theorist of the unconscious.
For Rose, thoughtlessness is both cause and effect of violence. “Harassment is always a sexual demand,” she writes,
but it also carries a more sinister and pathetic injunction: “You will think about me.” Like sexual abuse, to which it is affiliated, harassment brings mental life to a standstill, destroying the mind’s capacity for reverie.
The word “reverie” comes from Christopher Bollas, whom Rose cited in her exquisite collection On Not Being Able to Sleep (2003). “Thought stalls on an event it cannot bear to contemplate, can go no further,” she wrote in that book. “Shame and rage spell the end of mental freedom. The task of psychoanalysis is not so much to undo forgetting, but to put poetry back into the mind.” In this way of looking at things, what literature or criticism can do is not dissimilar to what occurs for a patient in an analytic session: it can move us—Rose’s “us” toggles between the individual and the collective—beyond where we are stuck.
If all lawyers, judges, university administrators, and human resource managers were suddenly turned into Jacqueline Rose, would the world be completely dysfunctional or a paradise of rehabilitative justice? Perhaps a little of both. Part of what makes it challenging to hold complex ideas about desire and assault is the pressure to apply a standard of judgment and dole out consequences. Rose does not work under those pressures. She does not make it her job to know what the appropriate response to X or Y crime should be. She acknowledges that “the only available options, at least to date, seem to be too much legal intervention or not enough.” While her essays on Me Too do not explicitly address what is to be done with guilty men, her writing on the problems that result when reconciliation is incomplete, or without reparation, suggests that we shouldn’t assume the work will ever be finished.
It is worth recalling that when Rose first published her essay on sexual harassment in 2018, the public conversation around Me Too was stuck in a generational deadlock that the critic Lidija Haas memorably described as a “collective fatigue” that “resembles a form of feminist solidarity unto itself.” Reading Rose at that time was like opening a window and letting the air in. At its best, her musing, abstract style exemplifies the mental freedom she prizes. “Most of my sentences take several paths at once,” she has said. “It’s because there are a very few moments in my thinking where the possibility of alternative avenues to thought don’t present themselves in the process of writing them down.” Her prose has the feel of spiraling in many directions; it is invigoratingly alive.
Where others see an either/or, she sees a both/and. Thus On Violence and On Violence Against Women insists that we should be both vigilant about sexual abuse and harassment and refrain from simplifying or denying our individual desires, which are complex, aberrant, unruly. The idea seems indisputably true, if vague; Rose’s questioning leads her away from the details of particular sexual scenarios.
She uses statistics to establish the crisis that women face (“in Brazil, a woman is the victim of physical violence every 7.2 seconds”) and notes that the greatest risk to women comes from intimate partners (in South Africa, “every three hours a woman is killed by her partner”). But the statistics feel pro forma, and she herself does not seem very interested in them. “Feminism is not served by turning violence into a litany,” she writes. “Such a strategy does not help us to think.”
One of the most gripping essays in the book—and the only one that gives an extended close reading of one situation—is an essay on the 2014 trial of Oscar Pistorius, the disabled South African runner who killed his girlfriend, the model Reeva Steenkamp. There is a backstory to this, too. In February 2013, a seventeen-year-old black girl named Anene Booysen was raped and murdered in Bredasdorp. The day after her funeral, Steenkamp posted on Instagram, “I woke up in a happy safe home this morning. Not everyone did. Speak out against the rape of individuals.” In South Africa the hashtag about sexual violence is not #MeToo but #AmINext. Four days after her post, Steenkamp was dead. Her death attracted the worldwide media attention that Booysen’s did not.
Rose’s careful attention to detail, her power as a close reader, yields startling insights. “One of the most striking things about this trial,” Rose writes, “is that wherever you look, you see bodies that are broken.” Pistorius was born missing both feet and became a Paralympic champion runner; Steenkamp’s back was once injured in a riding accident; Pistorius’s older brother was in a car accident during the trial and arrived for closing arguments in a wheelchair. Everyone knew, because Pistorius never denied, that he fired the gunshots through the bathroom door that killed Steenkamp—the bathroom, which Rose calls a place of “purity and danger” and describes as “not just the scene of a killing, but the first place you go in order to wash away the traces of the crime.”
The question underlying the trial was What was he thinking? Pistorius claimed that he believed Steenkamp was an intruder. Is that true? How could we ever know? And if it is, did he intend to kill the intruder? He also claimed, perhaps believably, that he wasn’t thinking when he fired the gun. Where one observer might see Pistorius’s weeping in the courtroom as exculpating, and another might see it as hypocritical or fake, Rose sees it as real grief that has no necessary connection to guilt or innocence or an attempt to influence the verdict: “As if guilt cannot intensify grief. As if you cannot regret with all your heart what was your most fervent wish only seconds ago. As if love and murderousness are incompatible.” (Likewise, when Harvey Weinstein collapsed outside the courtroom, Rose did not wonder if he was faking it. Instead, she saw it as “an inadvertent display of the fragility…of the human body.”)
At one point, Pistorius insisted that the high-pitched screams heard by witnesses to the murder were his own. This “moment of unanticipated and welcome gender confusion” was also a moment when a man silenced a woman, trying to free himself by taking her place, becoming the victim. Doing so may have been especially tricky for Pistorius, who had lived under the intense pressure to heroically overcome and even deny his disability. During the trial, the defense portrayed Pistorius as “crippled and vulnerable,” while the prosecution painted him as “perfect and empowered.” His fate therefore depended on his “ruthlessly dismantling his lifelong, most carefully nurtured, image of himself.” (He was found guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced to five years in prison, which was increased on appeal to fifteen.)
What has the most force in Rose’s thinking are not her conclusions but her questions. “What, in moments of historical crisis, is being passed down from one generation to the next?” she asks in a chapter on Rhodes Must Fall. “What do we not want to know about the past? What do we not want to know about ourselves?”
Rose has never practiced as a psychoanalyst, but her way of drawing the reader along, of thinking aloud and in many directions, feels like something out of a clinical session. Her real power, what makes her necessary as well as unique, may be how she teaches readers to ask probing questions on their own. The question “What do we not want to know about the past?” has no single or definitive answer, and no book can resolve it. But we must keep asking the question.