July 19 2024

Texts "of" and "after" Terror with Rhiannon Graybill

Interview with Rhiannon Graybill

Rhiannon Graybill joins Kristian Petersen to discuss her award-winning book Texts after Terror: Rape, Sexual Violence, and the Hebrew Bible (Oxford University Press). Through the book, Graybill critically and authentically engages with many of the Hebrew's Bible's most disturbing narratives, while displaying remarkable loyalty to the promise of remaining interested in the question of what comes after sexual violence.


Kristian Petersen:

Welcome to Religious Studies News. I'm your host, Kristian Petersen, and today I'm here with Rhiannon Graybill, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Richmond and co-winner of the 2022 AAR Book Award in Textual Studies. She's here to speak to us about her book, Texts After Terror: Rape, Sexual Violence, and the Hebrew Bible published with Oxford University Press. Congratulations and thanks for joining me.

Rhiannon Graybill:

Thanks. It's great to be here.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah, this is an exciting book. I'm hoping everyone will check it out. It should be mentioned that the book does deal with accounts of rape and sexual violence, so I want to just prep listeners for those kinds of discussions. The book and the title: you have this phrase "after terror," which in my reading, marked a shift in previous approaches to the Hebrew Bible, and you pivot from this "text of terror." Can you tell us a bit about this framework for your project, the "after terror," and what both of these conceptions mean within biblical studies?

Rhiannon Graybill:

Sure. So the phrase "texts of terror" is a phrase that gets used a lot in biblical studies to talk about really nasty stories where terrible things happen usually to women. It's usually used for gender-based violence or sexual violence. Sometimes it's also used for texts that are homophobic, so it's like the really bad text in the Bible where really nasty things happen. The phrase "texts of terror" is also associated pretty closely with Phyllis Trible, who's sort of the mother of feminist biblical criticism. She wrote this amazing book in 1984 called Texts of Terror, where she talks about four stories about sexual violence or violence against women in the biblical text. And this book is still a classic. It still gets taught all the time. It was a really important and influential book for me as a young scholar and of thinking about what kind of feminist things we can do with the Bible.

So in calling my book Texts After Terror, first of all, I wanted to pay tribute to Phyllis Trible. So you can think about after, after can mean a tribute to. We often see this in naming musical pieces, but I also wanted to think about the way that Trible's framework is still very much dominant in how we think about sexual violence.

Sexual violence is a terrible thing. Rape is an unthinkable tragedy. And often our way of talking about sexual violence both in the field of biblical studies and in many conversations about sexual violence in the contemporary world imagines that there's no "after," like nothing can happen after rape except for, you can be a traumatized rape victim who maybe tells your story to help protect others. And so I wanted to think about an "after" that's a new kind of way of thinking about the problem of rape and thinking about the experience of victims or survivors, and also thinking about new ways we could read these old texts that have really terrible content and have done a lot to harm a lot of people, but also were kind of interpreted -- we kind of got stuck in the same sort of small interpretive patterns.

And so I want to think about after that, new ways to read old stories.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah, it's great. And this is the thing I took away most from the book, these kinds of approaches you're laying out, which I think are very well thought out and articulated. Part of this is you do a lot of work with designing categories of analysis, and when you're talking about accounts of rape and sexual violence, you use these categories - fuzzy, messy, and icky - which for many listeners probably don't make sense. So can you talk a little bit about how you're using these categories?

Rhiannon Graybill:

Yeah, and I'm excited to get to talk to you about these because these are categories I talk about in the Hebrew Bible and also contemporary experience, but I think they really can apply to a lot of different parts of religious studies or other ways of talking about sexual violence.

My basic argument in the book is that frequently sexual violence is fuzzy, messy, and icky. And I use these vernacular terms very intentionally because I want to think about finding a different register of language and finding new ways of talking that kind of capture our own experiences of sexual violence. One of the things that sort of influenced me while I was writing the book was I was teaching a lot of undergrads. We know there's a lot of sexual violence on college campuses and the way the scholarship would talk about rape or sexual violence, and then the way that it would be talked about on campus, the way I would talk about it with my own friends, there was a real kind of - the registers just didn't align. And often, the sort of messiness of sexual violence wasn't captured in scholarly language.

So my three categories: fuzzy, messy, icky. "Fuzzy" is a way of talking about the ways that trauma can often interfere with our memory or our way to talk about experiences. I also wanted to identify or give a name for the way that sometimes something will happen, something kind of bad or even terrible, but you won't necessarily know what kind of category it should fall into. So is this something that's just like, oh, a weird funny thing, or, oh, is this actually maybe sexually assault? So I wanted to hold a space for the way that our experience is often "fuzzy" until we're able to process it with other people.

With "fuzzy," I also wanted to gesture at the way that drugs and alcohol can affect our memory and our understanding of experience. We know alcohol is a huge part of sexual violence on college campuses, and it's something that we talk about in very sort of, I don't know, cagey ways. So I wanted to talk about all that with "fuzzy."

With "messy," I wanted to really name the way that with experiences of sexual violence, we have this sort of ideal where you have the perfect victim and you have the bad rapist that jumps out of bush and attacks the perfect victim. We also know that's not how sexual violence usually happens. Often victims and survivors are not perfect victims or perfect survivors. Often a bad experience will kind of spiral out, to think about a phrase - "it gets messy" - or something like that. So I want "messy" to capture all the ways that experience doesn't fit into a neat box. And I was also interested in the way that women, and sometimes also queer men, especially kind of femme queer men are often described as a "hot mess," which is a very kind gendered insult that also has a sort of sexual baggage.

And then "icky" is the term where I've gotten the most pushback, but also I think it's the most useful. I wanted to think about things that were creepy, that were unpleasant, that sort of  - without necessarily rising to the level of actionable language, so think about if you bring a Title IX case, is it considered a finding of a violation or not? - but just that sort of "icky" experience. And there were two things I really wanted to think about here. One was the way that we will often use coded language to talk to each other. So if I say to you, "oh, that's a little bit creepy," you know what I'm saying. Even if I haven't said anything really specific. And the other thing that I wanted to think about with "icky" was sort of the experience of when you read a story of sexual violence, the way that aspect can kind of transfer in the classroom.

So one example I used in the book is there's a biblical story about Lot and his daughters and after going through this terrible experience where the city they live in is destroyed and Lot's wife is turned into salt by God, Lot and his daughters are living in this cave. His daughters think they're the only people left alive. And so they get their father drunk and they have sex with him or rape him while he's drunk and he doesn't know what happens. And then they have these babies who become the neighbors of the Israelites. So this story, there's a lot about sexual violence. Is Lot the victim, are his daughters maybe the victims, whatever you think it's about, it definitely feels "icky" when you're reading it and it feels really "icky" when you're teaching it to a room full of freshmen. So I want to think about that experience and how that's really central to a lot of what happens when we think about and talk about and experience sexual violence.

So those are the three sort of categories of fuzzy, messy, and icky that are really at the heart of the book.

Kristian Petersen:

And these I think are definitely going to be applicable in other areas, as well as you offer some kind of novel approaches to these narratives in the Hebrew Bible, these new kind of interpretive tactics. And I'd love to take these one by one because I think AR members will really benefit from these approaches. The first is, refusing to claim a position of innocence. Can you tell us about this tactic?

Rhiannon Graybill:

Yeah, so I think as interpreters we really want to be able to have bright lines of who's the good guy, who's the bad guy, and also in approaching the text, I can claim a kind of moral position. Trible, who I talked about before, talks about the role of the feminist critic is to bear witness to violence, and that's a very kind of like morally marked role. I want to talk about, I think as critics we're always kind of contaminated, right? Feminist theory teaches us we're always situated in things, but I think also, sort of resisting that kind of desire to claim the moral high ground, and have purity in text, and also claim that we as interpreters have access to a kind of pure, perfect interpretive position from which we can judge texts or judge accounts of sexual violence is a really important kind of step for us to take as interpreters.

Kristian Petersen:

The next you have is resisting paranoid reading positions.

Rhiannon Graybill:

Yeah, this I'm sure a lot of listeners will pick up on this. I'm borrowing this from Eve Sedgwick in her amazing essay, which is called "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or You're So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You," which is a perfect title. And what she does in the essay is she basically uses the category of paranoia to talk about the way that a lot of theory has developed these kind of paranoid meta narratives. So you have a master theory that explains everything and she talks about how paranoia is actually a very paralyzing kind of position or mode to be in, in relation to the text. So in my field of feminist biblical studies, one example is the kind of master story, and I hear this a lot from students - "the Bible is bad for women," "everything is terrible in the text." And it can be kind of fun to have a master narrative, it can certainly be intellectually easy, you just slap it on every text you read, but it also is sort of limiting the kind of interpretive possibilities you have.

I think the other thing I find really useful in Sedgwick, she talks about this idea that if we expose that violence or injustice is happening, that magically the act of exposure will then cause that to be resolved. And I see this a lot in scholarship in my field where people are like, "oh, well if we just expose there are bad things in the Bible, let's tell people," but we know there are bad things in the Bible. That active exposure itself is not sufficient to do something. So I want to think about besides being paranoid about the text, what attitudes can we take towards it?

Kristian Petersen:

You also talk about tracing sticky affect. What do you mean by this?

Rhiannon Graybill:

I get this from Sara Ahmed who is a queer feminist affect theorist. A lot of people in AAR doing really great stuff with her work. Ahmed talks about affect as being something that attaches to text to bodies, to objects. I really noticed this happening in stories about sexual violence. So sometimes, like in a biblical story like the story of Tamar, who is David's daughter, she's the princess, she's raped by her brother, or also, like if you think about any kind of account of sexual violence probably on your own home campus, there is a way that survivors become these kind of unhappy objects, so after something happens, they become this like cause of bad feelings, it's better to exclude them from the social narrative because they make us feel bad because they remind us that our efforts to prevent sexual violence have failed.

So sticky affect is a way of thinking about how certain characters or stories or texts or also scholars get associated with certain kinds of feelings and then that gets communicated sort of among readers or interpreters. Another example is the way, I think sometimes in biblical studies, it feels like feminist biblical criticism is asked to be the part of the field where we feel bad about bad stuff and you see a feminist scholar come in, you're like, oh no, she's going to give a killjoy paper about some more bad things. And so then that affect is transmitted and I wanted to name that and also think about what else, how else we can sort of respond to things.

Kristian Petersen:

And the last approach will probably be most familiar, but you talk about reading through literature. So could you tell us how might reading biblical rape stories with or through other literary works, how does that help us understand them?

Rhiannon Graybill:

So in the book I pair most of the rape stories I talk about with some kind of contemporary literary example. I'm especially interested in fiction that's been written by millennial and Gen Z authors. I think that scholarship does a lot in getting us to sort of shake up our categories, but also pairing an ancient text or any kind of object you're working on with something that is not commenting on it but is addressing the same issues can be really helpful. So I'm less interested in literary texts that are retelling the Bible than I am in stories that sort of have similar kind of gestures to the Bible. I'll give you two examples. One example in 2016, there was a short story that went viral called "Cat Person." It's just about this kind of icky, gross sexual encounter between this college student and an older man, and then later she doesn't want to have a relationship with him and he calls her a whore.

It's really all that happens in the story. When it was published in The New Yorker, it went viral. A lot of people thought it was nonfiction. It became this kind of flashpoint for sort of talking about what's wrong with sex in America now. I think it's really interesting as an example of the kind of Fuzzy, Messy, Icky categories I talk about in the book. And so I use that to sort of talk about biblical rape stories. I pair it with a narrative in a biblical book where God seems to be portrayed as a rapist. Another example that I found useful is The Handmaid's Tale. So I'm sure many of your listeners are familiar with The Handmaid's Tale, right? This is Margaret Atwood's classic novel about a dystopian future where basically women's reproductive rights have been taken away, and you have this institution of handmaids who are women who are modeled on biblical handmaids and forced to have sex with the men, like high-powered men in the society, to be surrogates for people that aren't able to have children. I'm sorry, that was not a great explanation of the novel, but I'm going to trust that most of our listeners - 

Kristian Petersen:

People will know it.

Rhiannon Graybill:

Yeah, you know it. So one thing that's interesting - I was rereading The Handmaid's Tale while I was working on this book - we often use this novel as shorthand to talk about rape in popular culture, or a lack of reproductive rights. But in Atwood's actual novel, Offred, who's the protagonist, specifically says what happens to her is not rape. She specifically says this. And I was really taken aback because it went against the whole way I've received the story. And it made me really interested in thinking about the kind of problem of how we as critics try to narrate people's experience to them. But at what point am I doing violence by telling someone that their own account of their experience is not right? So if Offred says she's not being raped, but the reception history says she is, that's an interesting, tricky, ethical and interpretive problem.

And I think we see a similar kind of dynamic in a lot of biblical rape stories and especially that space of what comes after or how victims and survivors process or respond to their experience. In biblical studies, especially in Trible's book, there's a tendency to sort of treat rape victims and survivors as if there's no afterlife. So Trible puts pictures of tombstones in her book for the four women she talks about, but two of the women are still alive. So they have these gravestones she's drawn for them, but they're not dead. And I think that's a really kind of interesting troubling gesture, and I want to think about pushing back against that. So literature helps me do all that.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah, yeah. It's helpful for non-biblical studies readers as well to kind of connect in a new way. There's tons throughout the book. Of course, you go into very many, well-known stories from the Hebrew Bible of Bathsheba and David to the relationship between Hagar and Sarah and others. At the end though, you kind of name your new feminist approach to biblical sexual violence and you name it, "unhappy reading." And I want to make sure we have time to talk about that. So can you tell us what this approach looks like and then what is the goal of unhappy reading?"

Rhiannon Graybill:

So I talked about "unhappy" readings towards the end of the book. In particular, talking about the story in biblical studies known as the story of the Levi Concubine. It's found in the Book of Judges in Chapter 19. This is a really, really troubling story about, it involves the gang rape, murder and dismemberment of a woman, and then a war that kind of follows after this. And so, I wanted to leave the story out of my book at first because I felt like, I developed this framework of "fuzzy, messy, icky," of sort of thinking about de-sensationalizing sexual violence, thinking about everyday experience, thinking about actors, and I felt like the story was just too horrible for my framework to work. And so I wanted to leave it out. And then a colleague was like, "you can't leave it out. It's not responsible scholarship." She was right, so I put it in the book.

I was unhappy to have it in the book, and then I got to thinking about unhappiness. And I think that actually unhappiness is a really important feminist and queer position. And so when I talk about "unhappy" reading, I'm trying to name a whole kind of collection of things. One of those things is sort of being unhappy about the fact that there are stories that we can't give a nice little feminist ending and put a bow on. Whether that is a sort of redemptive reading, where you find a sort of something good or hopeful or sort of like, this woman dies but her name lives on, or something like that. So I wanted to push back against that tendency. I wanted to push back because sometimes an unhappy reading, sometimes we're unhappy because we read the same terrible stories over and over and we teach them over and over and we start to feel sort of exhausted or even bored by them, and then like what kind of person is bored by a story about horror? That kind of person is a terrible person. And also maybe you are that kind of person?

So I wanted to think about the kind of unhappiness of exhaustion of responding to trauma. Sometimes unhappiness, like unhappy reading can be that you don't get that kind of catharsis of having a good cry or feeling sad at the end of the story. It's still messy, it's still unfinished. I think for me, the really important thing is that unhappy reading is an ongoing sort of process instead of this sort of act of bearing witness. Another phrase that Trible uses is, she says, "The work of feminist critics is to tell sad stories." And if you think about this, telling a sad story, right, you're the critic, you're in control, you're telling the story, the form of the story or the content is something sad is already established. It's very much of a relation of power, and it's also kind of a static way of approaching something.

For me, unhappy reading is dynamic. It's wrestling with the text. It's being open to the fact that you're going to have to keep going back over and over again. You're never maybe going to find a way to sort of be like, okay, yeah, I solved that one. I feel like this is done. But it's that ongoing wrestling with the text, which I think is also - unhappy, is not always, I mean, unhappiness can also be a space of possibility, and I want to name that. It's not for closing things, it's opening up other possibilities even if they're painful and incomplete and partial. And so that's how it connects to the idea of an "after" too.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah. Well, it is a wonderful book. I could imagine all sorts of ways that people across our field will benefit from it, but I'd love to hear how you imagine others in the study of religion, whether it be Buddhist studies or Islamic studies, might benefit or apply some of your approaches to their own work.

Rhiannon Graybill:

So I would love to see "fuzzy," "messy," and "icky" as categories that could move outside of biblical studies. I think there's a lot of possibility for that. I think "unhappy" reading, too. And I think that sort of thinking categorically in this way lets us connect across the parts of religious studies without sort of, you know, relying on shared stories or kind of shared moments in history. It gives us a different way of connecting. So it's a way that I, as a biblical scholar could connect with somebody in Buddhist studies who's working on sexual violence without having to, sort of, do a more traditional kind of like genealogical approach.

I also would love to see and be able to bring into my own work in biblical studies - I mean, I would love for it to go the other way too. I think this kind of vernacular category building where we're sort of thinking about everyday language, thinking about contemporary conversations, and then using that to think about the material that we study, I think that that's something that can be really usefully developed really with any kind of textual or experiential material. And I would love to be able to bring some of that biblical studies.

Biblical studies is sometimes a little bit pokey to pick up on things as a field. Like we're burdened with history and you know the quote that talks about history is a nightmare wing on the minds of the living? Sometimes I feel like that as a biblical scholar, but I think we can sort of use contemporary issues that fire us up and also kind of contemporary literary and other media culture as ways to destabilize that and find new ways of relating. That might be too meta, but I would love to have this work connect outside of biblical studies and I want to bring more of that back into biblical studies. I think we all benefit from that.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah, that's great. It is a wonderful book. Congratulations again on the award and thanks for taking time to talk about it.

Rhiannon Graybill:

Yeah, thank you so much.

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