The House That Rape Built

By Emily Waples

February 4, 2022

The House That Rape Built

Rancher by Selah Saterstrom

CW: Rancher is an essay with rape. This is not to say that Selah Saterstrom’s Rancher is an essay in which rape happens, or that rape is a peripheral event. I use the phrase “with rape” rather than “about rape” to acknowledge Saterstrom’s own assertion of purpose: “This essay isn’t working towards anything,” she writes. “It is a being-with. It is trying to be with something.”

This enduring presence is no small feat, especially when—as Saterstrom intimates by way of, or rather in lieu of, closure—the dominant cultural narrative is that which comes after: the meaning-of, the healing-from, the accounting-for, the reckoning-with. An essay itself, Saterstrom notes, is conceptualized as motion: it turns, we say. But being-with substitutes suspension for motion: it abides, resides. And Saterstrom is preoccupied with one residence in particular, as she announces in the essay’s first line: “My rapist bought a house with a swimming pool in El Paso.”

This house, the rancher of the title, is emblematic of the undeserved spoils accumulated by the man who raped her at fourteen: “a respectable rancher with a pool, wife, and two kids active in sports programs at their Catholic school.”

­A staple of midcentury American architecture, the ranch house soared in popularity post-World War II; in many ways, it is the quintessential Boomer milieu. A rash of these single-story, asymmetrical, wide-eaved, pitched-roofed, open layout constructions sprang up across the American southwest especially in the 1940s and 50s, attempting to accommodate an expanding population of the white middle class. In suburban tract housing developments, ranchers reigned.

In Saterstrom’s essay, the rancher functions as a realization of and container for the right kinds of desire—namely, capitalist, heteronormative consumption, and (re)production. The wife and two kids are trappings of status no less than the fact of homeownership. But it is the pool in particular that rankles Saterstrom: “It is true that my disdain for my rapist includes the fact that the rancher has a swimming pool,” she admits, “something I have wanted for myself my entire life.”

Rancher interrogates, in prose that probes its wound, what it means to want something for oneself after having been rendered the victim of someone else’s violent desire. For Saterstrom, a photograph of her rapist “standing in front of the rancher with its swimming pool” triggers a posttraumatic psychotic break; meanwhile, her rapist—or “Raper,” as she at one point deems him, cementing his identity in the act and action of rape—persists unpunished and unperturbed in “a remodeled open-floor concept suffering from gilded TJ Maxx elements.” To this, Saterstrom can only flatly protest: “I don’t think he should get to have a rancher with a swimming pool”—that he, of all people, should enjoy these tacky assets, this capital, this home equity. “But the fact is that he has these things,” she admits. “And more.”

*

I’m thinking about Christine Blasey Ford’s doors.

In her 2018 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ford noted that the catalyzing event that led her to reveal the details of her sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh at the age of fifteen had been a home remodel. She’d needed, she noted, to explain to her husband why she’d insisted on the installation of a “second front door.” She had to rationalize, psychologize, for his sake—for he demanded explanation—how badly she needed to create a means of escape, to knock down her own walls and flee being fifteen, trapped in a room on a bed with a boy’s hand held over her mouth. She’d needed to engineer exits in a world where men like Kavanaugh still exist.

The story of the second door was promptly seized upon by right-wing pundits as supposed evidence of Ford’s duplicity: real estate records were dredged up, and a slew of gotcha posts crowed that the second door had been put in years before Ford exposed her motivations to her husband in couples’ therapy. On the matter of the door: why hadn’t she said anything sooner? And on the matter of the rape: why hadn’t she said anything sooner? Men on the Internet demanded explanation.

As if the time-loop of trauma is not precisely the point: “The sense that you don’t know how to end anything or that things don’t end,” Saterstrom writes. “The terrible, smooth underbelly of ongoingness. Which brings up another aspect of life after rape: the unforgiving public.”

*

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that domestic architecture should act as impetus for narratives of sexual violence; the private spaces we inhabit are always at risk of inching into view: a photograph, an illuminated window, an open door. Rancher exploits this aura of lurid interiority in companion illustrations by H.C. Dunaway Smith from a series titled Imaginary Anatomy. These are an arresting collection of vividly-colored botanical-anatomical images, symmetrically-splayed across the page like overdetermined Rorschach blots. In lieu of the requisite ink stains resembling bifurcated animal hides, bats, moths, butterflies, our eyes track teeth, arteries, nerve endings, hands, a thyroid gland, an open mouth.

Rorschach tests have been used as an instrument to investigate childhood sexual abuse. Trauma is validated by what you say you see. Interpretation is a testament.

But of course, testimony is up for interpretation.  

Rancher is an essay with rape, and an essay with rage. Invoking Maria Goretti, Italian-Catholic patron saint of sexual assault and rape victims—“You might say that she is the patron saint of the #MeToo movement,” Saterstrom muses—the text invites indignation at the narrative of a murdered eleven-year-old turned virgin-martyr by a culture bent on redemption rather than revenge. Saterstrom invites vicarious delight in the retaliatory tale of the band of students at St. Maria Goretti High School for Girls in South Philadelphia, who in 2004 chased down a man who’d been exposing himself on school grounds and collectively wrestled him to the ground, punishing him with kicks. Yet as to her own rage—it simmers with understatement: “I don’t think he should get to have a rancher with a swimming pool.”

For what it’s worth (which is, as we or sexual assault survivors know, nothing), I don’t think Brett Kavanaugh should get to have a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court of the United States.

But the fact is, as Saterstrom shows, some men have these things. And more.

Rancher by Selah Saterstrom

Burrow Press
 $25.00 Limited Edition Hardcover | Buy Now

 

 

WaplesEmily Waples teaches in the Biomedical Humanities program at Hiram College. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Southern Humanities Review, and elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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