Thursday, December 14, 2017

They Made of My Body an Iron Maiden: Medieval Torture and Modern Rape

Trigger warning: artist's depictions of torture; written descriptions of rape and torture.

When I looked at these photos and and at how I look in this dress, I found myself thinking a lot about Medieval (and early Renaissance) literature and art; therefore, by default, I found myself also thinking about Medieval Christianity and the ways in which some of its literature and iconography help me as I struggle to cope with the physical and emotional effects of being a child sex trafficking survivor. I don't believe the Judeo-Christian stories literally, of course, and I don't swallow any theology whole, but it can all help, in its own way.

(A note: I am using the word "Medieval" fairly loosely here, not as an academic, but as a lay person. The Renaissance flowed almost like a wave over Europe, taking root earlier in some places and later in others. So, at times, I will blur the lines between the two. If you are a Medieval scholar (you know who you are, oh former professor of mine), I hope I don't irritate you too much.)

April Cornell dress: vintage; Right-hand ring: Effy; Shoes: Ecco; Earrings: Bespoke
There is very little in our modern, Western culture that even admits the existence of human experiences as tragic as mine. Crippling torture, sadism, pedophilia, gang rape, the pimping of children ... these are not things my culture even acknowledges, let alone helps people deal with. 

But I need help. Rapists broke my body. I am in constant, debilitating pain, worse now than ever. And I don't know how to deal with that.

A gargoyle devouring a woman on St. Giles Church in North Wales
Though I do have a (very unconventional) faith, was raised Quaker, and am nominally Jewish, I'm really not a religious person. But my lifelong love of English literature drew me further and further back in time, past the Victorians, past Shakespeare, through Middle English and Chaucer, all the way to a passionate study of Anglo-Saxon literature and language. Anglo-Saxon, known in academic circles as Old English, is very old indeed, spanning approximately 400 years, from 650 to 1050 AD. To most people, it doesn't resemble English at all. 

My interests also led me to learn about many past centuries of art and iconography. If you know anything about the long historical period called Medieval, you know that most of its art and literature deals with Christian themes, so my studies necessarily steeped me in an almost visceral sense of the religious zeitgeist of the period. People spoke, wrote, sculpted, and painted differently then, and they thought differently too. Their themes were almost always Christian, and their Christianity was itself different: it was Medieval.

And, oddly, I find that it contains within it some metaphors and concepts that help equip me... if not exactly to make sense of my life's many cruel tragedies, then at least to wrestle with them. 

But how did I start thinking about all that just by looking at this dress? 

It's a vintage April Cornell dress, probably from the 1990s, and its pattern and colours are beautiful. First I felt it made me look like I'd stepped out of the set of Little House on the Prairie ...

... but then I decided that it looks much more like a Vietnamese Au Dai.

But, ultimately ...

... with its "slashings" allowing other fabric to peek through, it reminds me of Medieval dresses.

It doesn't feel modern at all. It doesn't even feel 20th Century.

The colour too reminds me of the gorgeous, lapis lazuli paint that hit Europe in the late Medieval period and had a huge impact on its art. It must have been very expensive and I can't imagine that peasant women like these two would ever have owned a dress in this phenomenal blue, let alone worn it to gather hay! 

But when have artists ever let women's realities affect their depictions of women? 

They tend to prefer romantic versions of us, the wind tugging at our frocks ...

Wind Flowers by J.W. Waterhouse
... as in this pre-Raphaelite, romanticized vision of a Medieval maiden, gazing contemplatively ...

... and decoratively into the middle distance. 

Real women were and still are more practical and earthly, as was I when I ordered this dress on Etsy. Aside from the beauty of its fabric, its main attraction to me was its looseness. Though it's only a size medium, it's very voluminous, like a modern size 2X. When I'm having a bad pain flare, which is often, a dress this loose and flowing puts no pressure on my waist or lower back and therefore doesn't exacerbate my pain. That's priceless. 

The self-tie in the back makes it possible for me to make the waist as tight or as loose as my pain will permit. I wish this style, last en vogue in the early 90s, would make a comeback. April Cornell still employs it and, as a consequence, I have now bought three of her dresses new, and one vintage. Disability style is a real thing. Pain can dictate what we wear.

And I have been in a lot of pain for months. I mean, I'm always in a lot pain. Several months ago, I filled out a very long questionnaire before I went to a pelvic pain clinic. The doctor told me that my pain levels were 75/100: severe disability. That was before my relapse last August. 

Life has been extremely difficult, to say the least. 

Why? The short version of the story is that, nearly 40 years ago, not for the first time and not for the last, Smother sold me to a group of men whose jizz was more important to them than my life. For three days, they raped me so sadistically and so frequently that they destroyed my back forever.

And I've been paying for their pleasure - in my pain - ever since. 

How the hell am I supposed to make peace with that, let alone make sense of it?

Nowadays, we seem to believe that we all have the power to control our lives, our health, and how we feel about both. If we just "think positive," we are told, we will get better from illness and even from disability. This is, obviously, bullshit. It's also an extremely cruel myth, implying as it does that, if a person does not get better, she simply has not been trying hard enough to be positive. 

Any sensible person, any person who has been enslaved, or tortured, or wrongfully imprisoned, knows that we do not always have control over our lives. And, sometimes, when that control is forcibly taken away from us, it creates a cycle of strife and abuse that can follow one for a lifetime.

The idea that we can be anything we want to be, and that anything is possible? That too is bullshit. It's also modern. 

I first came across the idea of Fortuna when I was reading the Nun's Priest's Tale in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Fortuna and the wheel of fortune is a pre-Christian concept but survived into the Medieval period (and into today, as evidenced by the television show of the same name). Fortuna turns the wheel on which humans' fortunes are determined. The wheel randomly determines whether we are a king or a pauper, or even whether a king becomes a pauper, and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. 

In Medieval Christianity this idea easily dovetailed with the belief in a God-given predestiny over which we have no control. Indeed, there are some Christians who still believe in this. Whatever befalls us, we're told, is God's will, not our own. I do not actually believe in a God so cruel as to will suffering on innocents. But this conception of God does admit room for the reality that what happens to us and what we become is not always in our control. 

It's not fair. It's awful. But it's true. Life can be extremely cruel, and, in an age of plagues, in an age when a mere tooth infection could kill, in an age before modern medicine ... 

... people understood that life's cruelty includes tortuous physical suffering...

Crucifixion by Matthais Grunewald

... sometimes at the hands of others. This awareness is exemplified in the story of Jesus, born to be tortured and killed, not because he did anything wrong, but, indeed, because he was on the side of right.

It wasn't fair. It was awful.

Torture of the Macabean Brothers
Medieval literature is filled with stories of martyrs and saints (often one and the same), who endured horrifying tortures. Such suffering was actually somehow glorified since it showed what such people would risk enduring for a love of God.

There were also those who purposely inflicted physical pain upon themselves, whipping themselves or wearing hair shirts as a way of proving to God that they were not wed to the body and earthly pleasures but were instead wed to faith.

The Ecstasy of St Maria by Gianlorenzo Bernini

It's not really a surprise then that one sometimes finds a disturbing but unmistakable eroticism in depictions of the agony of the saints.

In such art, it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between religious rapture, physical pain ...

... and sexual pleasure. Indeed, try to untangle the two in Saint Teresa's own description of the event depicted in this sculpture:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God.

Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 
Leave it to the Pre-Raphaelites to pick up this theme. This is a painting depicting a romanticized version of a Medieval story. But guess what else it depicts? Rossetti's own wife's death! It sure as hell doesn't look like death to me!
Crucifixion by Anthony Van Dyck
Even Jesus' demise is often depicted as more beautiful, and, yes, sexy, than tortuous. How can this bear any resemblance to the reality of a brutal, painful death?

The Martyrdom of Saint Margaret
It doesn't. Torture to death looks more like this, but it feels far far worse. 

I know. The rapists who destroyed my back strung me up just like this (only without my feet touching the ground) and proceeded to rape and torture me in every way they could think of. I was ten, or maybe nine.

The artistic eroticization of pain, something by no means restricted to the Medieval period, disgusts and upsets me, because I am the victim of one of its natural offshoots: sadism. I was sacrificed on the alter of my rapists' sexual pleasure. 

There's nothing pretty about it for the victim.

I don't know just what's happening on the right there. Did the victim get hold of a knife with which to exact revenge on his torturer? I wish I could have done that.
There is a terrible physical intimacy between torturers and their victims. Bodies are so close, sweat, body fluids, blood, and odours intermingling. Did Jesus feel this? Did he smell it?

If the torturer is also a rapist, as is the case far more often than many people realize, this vile intimacy is increased. I've never understood how two body parts can be touching and feeling such opposite physical sensations. How could I be in such excruciating pain while the person causing it, the body part causing it, was in such exquisite pleasure? How could I feel such overwhelming revulsion while they felt such all-consuming lust? 

A Stanley Cup rioter in Vancouver in 2011, by either Liam Hanman, Jesse Donaldson, or Matt Chambers
Make no mistake: sadists become euphoric in their cruelty. I've seen their self-satisfied faces, heard their self-congratulatory laughter, watched them high-five each other over my tortured little body.

For them, it's a brief moment of orgasmic glee...

... for which I am paying in a lifetime of excruciating physical pain. 

They made of my body an iron maiden ...

... in which I suffer forever. They made my body a prison chamber that shuts me off from the world they still happily inhabit.

The Lady of Shalott by William Holmam Hunt
I've always resonated with Alfred Tennyson's poem, The Lady of Shalott, which is based on a Medieval Arthurian legend. In the poem, the Lady of Shalott is shut up in a tower, shut off from the world. If she even looks out her window to observe the world, let alone goes out into it, she will die. So she observes it in a mirror and weaves what she sees into a tapestry. The tapestry is beautiful but it is a mere approximation of what she desires and deserves: a real life in the real world. 

I feel like that. The imprisoning tower is my own body. The tapestry is my writing. Like the Lady of Shalott, "I am half-sick of shadows." I don't know who cursed the Lady of Shalott to her life of isolation but I know who cursed me, and why: sadistic rapists, for pleasure. 

The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot by J.W. Waterhouse
Finally, the Lady of Shalott decides she can bear it no longer and turns around to look out the window to the world she wishes were her own. Her mirror, all she has of the world, cracks "from side to side," and the threads of her tapestry, all she has of life, unravel and fly upon the air. 

"The curse has come upon me," she cries. She does what she can, venturing out into nature, but she knows her fate. Soon thereafter, she dies. Her body cannot endure her brief freedom. She can not escape the curse.

The Lady of Shalott, painted by Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal, Rossetti's wife, whom he depicts dying in Beata Beatrix, above
Nor can I. The curse came upon me long ago, in the bodies of rapists. 

I hope I weave a pretty good tapestry, but I would gladly give up that skill for a lifting of the curse. 

So, what do I do with all these painful emotions: grief, anger, sorrow? Many modern Christians would have it that I should forgive my tormentors. I think that's absurd. I am no meek, forgiving soul. I'm more interested in trying to prevent rapists from bringing the curse upon others, than I am in forgiving them for what they did to me. 

Besides, everyone knows that a sinner has to be truly repentant to be forgiven. Show me a repentant pedophile and I'll show you a pig with wings.

What kind of a God would ask me to forgive? Not mine.

These book titles seemed bizarrely appropriate: The Holy Book of Women's Mysteries, Targets of Hatred, and Memory and Abuse
So what do I want for my torturers? I want revenge. I want them to be punished. I want them to be cursed as they cursed me: with never-ending pain. I make no apologies for this.

I turn to my reading and education to find precedent for the kind of punishment I wish upon the people who punished me, though I had committed no sin.

Detail from a diptych by Jan Van Eyke
And I find it. Boy, do I ever find it! 

The god of old ...

Detail from The Last Judgement by Fra Angelico
... was a vengeful one. The hells I see depicted in Medieval and early Renaissance art bear a strong resemblance to the hells I endured as a sex trafficked child. Sinners are tortured in manners that mirror their own sins. This includes a punishment much like the grotesque intimacy my rapists inflicted upon and into me as they devoured me, body and soul.

And there is a beautiful, golden, flip-side to this: 

The Last Judegement by Fra Angelico
Heaven. The just and good, those who have suffered sorely in life, are finally set free of all that suffering, rising up to their reward: relief ...

... the beautiful golden relief of the absence of pain, and danger, and fear. 


All my life, I've longed for peace, and I cannot achieve it, not in this much pain. I don't know how. Perhaps, just perhaps, after death?

This is probably why many paintings and sculptures of Jesus and of martyrs in their suffering look so rapturous, and, yes, even erotic. Jesus suffered terribly for three days. But he knew what was coming next. That must have been a balm. That must have helped.

Three days? I suffered for seventeen years. I still suffer. My pain, which came and went when my body was younger and stronger, has been constant and severe for a decade. And, unlike Jesus, I don't know what comes next.

Wouldn't my suffering be easier to bear if I did? 

I don't have that certainty. For I don't read the Bible literally. I don't know how anyone can. I know myth and metaphor when I see it, and that's what these stories are: useful ways to help us wrestle with our experiences of good and evil, cruelty, and human suffering.

They aren't real. I know that.

Besides, I was no martyr for some greater good. I was a martyr for jizz, filthy lucre, and drugs. There is no greater purpose to my perpetual physical agony. Just jizz.

Ascension in the Perchersky Monestary
Glory be to God?

Yeah, right.

It would be nice to have certainty. I do have hope, strong hope even, that there is some kind of Heaven after death, some kind of relief and peace.

But I'm still down here, living in my curse:

... the iron maiden they made of my body ...

... gazing at a world I cannot have ...

... finding helpful stories and knowing they're just stories ...

... cursing cruel Fortuna ...

... for tossing me to this fate ...

... hoping and praying ...

... that release from "this mortal coil" will bring with it the relief I've never known. 

(I'm sharing this with Tina's Pink Friday, High Latitude Style, Not Dead Yet, Not Dressed As LambFashion Should Be Fun, Rachel the Hat, and Adri Lately.)


  1. Thanks for linking up to Top of the World Style. Great research.

  2. Charlotte, I had no idea that you had gone through all of that as a child. I can't even imagine. It's horrific and your torturers deserve to suffer an eternity in hell. And I believe they will. I don't blame you for not wanting to forgive them. This verse came to mind while I was reading your post: "I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33. The "trouble" you have had in this world is heartbreaking and unfair. I don't know why good people suffer and bad people seem to get away with it. I think that is the point of the bible. Not to show us how to be good people but to show us that the world is broken and there is no hope but in Jesus. I have faith in Jesus because he has overcome death and suffering and there is an eternity with Him that we can look forward too. But I do pray that you would be able to find some peace in this world.
    Jeans and a Teacup

    1. Thank-you for your compassion and caring. I do want to remind people though that, as I said in this post, I am Jewish, I do not believe the Bible stories literally, and I do not believe that "there is no hope but in Jesus." I have never believed in Jesus as christ, lord, or saviour; even when I was a small child, I knew that story was not for me. Instead, what I'm writing about here is how the Christian stories, like all good literature, provide useful metaphors for my own tragedies. In that sense, yes, they give me hope.

      If you're curious about what I do believe, I think you'd be really interested in this post about my unconventional and very strong faith:

      The God Question: What I Do (and Don't) Believe

  3. Thank you for sharing, and turning your pain into some enlightment (is that right ? I’m not an English-speaker..) for your readers. We all need to know.

    1. Sounds perfect to me. It's a pun too, since the Enlightenment came a bit after the Medieval period.