By Misty Sol
*TW: Sexual Assault*
Cinespeak, a local nonprofit focusing on alternative cinema, asked me to moderate a conversation around Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have it". I hadn't seen the film in years-- since college, actually-- but I remembered liking it. I remembered it being artsy, black and white, a great score. It was sexy, maybe even feminist, if I remembered correctly. I figured I'd take the time to watch the film again. And yeah. I could #boycotttheoscars. I watched the movie on a late Sunday. I was so triggered, I spent the next week in a kind of sleep walk. I'm not 19 anymore, and so the movie was everything I remembered and many things I didn't. I didn't remember that at the climax of the movie the main character, Nola Darling, is raped by her lover. In the scene, she asks for companionship and what she gets is rough, violent, sex and humiliation. In an interview in 2014, Spike Lee is quoted as saying:
"You know what my biggest regret is? … The rape scene in 'She's Gotta Have It.' If I was able to have any do-overs, that would be it. It was just totally…stupid. I was immature. It made light of rape, and that's the one thing I would take back. I was immature and I hate that I did not view rape as the vile act that it is."
As a teenage girl viewing this movie in the '90s, I didn't even see it. I didn’t recognize what was depicted in that scene as “rape”. Back then all I saw was a relatively light hearted rom-com. Watching this movie in 2016, 30 years after it was released, and 20 years after my first experience with sexual assault, it’s so much heavier and a much more complicated watch. I'm even wondering about that title, now: what is it exactly that she’s gotta have?
Nola’s sexual appetite doesn’t seem so strange or urgent as the title suggests, so it’s not "the D." And strangely missing, is any mention of the trauma the character would naturally experience after being raped or what her recovery process could look like. After paying close detail to the emotional and physical world of Nola Darling throughout the movie, both the camera and script are silent about the after-effects of the rape on her body, mind and spirit. We don’t see her caring for her wounds or bruises due to the forced and rough entering of her body. We don’t know if she has back pains or nightmares. And although Nola in the final scenes, shown begging her assailant to love her, to please take her back, only days after the attack, gives the viewer some sense that she is imbalanced due to the trauma of the assault, all possible discussion of that is quietly swept under the rug with a liberating speech about how she owns her body and doesn’t want any of the 3 men she’d been seeing. The end.
What she’s gotta have is Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS). It’s the medical term given to the form of PTSD rape victims experience. Its effects are similar to what researchers and practitioners see in combat veterans: pain, anxiety, depression resulting in loss of employment or school placement (and homelessness as a result), crying more than usual, criminal behavior, substance abuse, difficulty concentrating, memory loss and confusion, guilt, shame, sleep disturbances, low self esteem, self abuse and mutilation, isolation, and suicide attempts…and on and on. RTS is a medical diagnosis that qualifies as a disability in many states. Where is the acknowledgement in our community, in the US media in general, that this health epidemic exists? If we are to believe statistics, more than half of Black women will experience rape in their lifetimes. Where is the media that tells these stories of people, especially women of color, who struggle daily to tether themselves to reality in the wake of a sexual assault? This is not to say that all people will experience these symptoms equally. Some may have none at all. But for many people of all genders, rape can be a life altering experience.
It happened the first time in my last year of college. Sometimes the symptoms of RTS were so bad, I’d lie in my bed for days, unable to complete school or work, unable to articulate the violation. I was left without even a memory of it. There was only a hole there where the memory of the experience should have been and I fell into it.
At my lowest point, I remember a tool that a sister friend (who had also experienced rape) gave me. She advised me thus: Schedule out your entire day in 15 minute increments. Write everything down and carry it with you everywhere. If you feel confused, angry or sad, just look down and read and you’ll know what to do next.
I made it through in that manner on difficult days. I’ve thrown those lists and old journal entries away. Counting the years and reading my footsteps would be like watching the pages of my life ripped out and thrown into a fire. Who wants to turn around and see that?
When I told my writing mentor I was having such a hard time with this blog post, she asked me If I had thought about writing with compassion. After a pause, I told her that of course I know that hurtpeoplehurtpeopleandabuseandsocietalpressureandofcourseIhavecompassion. I never pressed charges...I...
Have you tried writing with compassion…for yourself? She interrupted.
And I stopped speaking because I hadn’t tried that. I was raped more than 20 years ago and still say to myself out loud sometimes, “Misty, I love you, and…it wasn’t your fault…” I have to hear myself say it to know it’s true. I hadn’t written with compassion for myself because I’m still learning what that means.
Rape is like this: Someone holds you down and rams all the hatred and disgust this society has for itself inside you... and then you stagger around, coughing, bleeding and trying to shit it back out. But it’s stuck, and eventually you forget that the hateful thing inside you wasn’t yours to begin with. At that point, how the fuck do you find it, let alone write it? Compassion?
She’s Gotta Have It. It stunned me. Threw me. Sent me back to an experience I’ve only been able to see in a dark mirror. But it forced me to look at what I had come through and where I was, on my journey to wellness. What she’s really gotta have, what got me through, was a bag. You know? A medicine bag, a juju bag, a knapsack, a tool kit, holds my supplies for when it gets too hard. I have this bag I made out of compassion. What my mentor was telling me, is that I could also put writing materials in that jawn.
No. Not yet. I haven’t written like that for me, like that for myself, yet, except what you're reading starting now…..
She’s gotta have (in her bag)...
At least one hand to hold
Breath of life...
Misty Sol is a writer, story illustrator, and sometimes singer. She loves making meals from scratch, streams, daydreaming, tiny houses, big ideas and Black history.