Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement Edited by Shelley Oria
Reviewed by Andi Zeisler
It’s been two years since #MeToo grew from a modest hashtag to become a movement that destabilized previously bullet-proof icons of power, and in the process put to rest the sneering assessment of social-media activism as a toothless performance of wokeness. But the question of whether the effort to make sexual harassers, coercers, and abusers accountable for their actions has “worked” is one that the media news cycle has worried over more or less since it began. With no agreed-upon metric for what constitutes success, the answer seems to be ... maybe?
Yes, a handful of the high-profile men whose patterns of behavior yielded a critical mass of allegations and evidence have seen actual consequences: They’ve had the C’s, E’s, and O’s stripped from their titles, lost lucrative broadcast deals, been made socially radioactive, and, in at least one case, seen criminal prosecution. And there’s no question that #MeToo mainstreamed a vocabulary to describe the range of behaviors that may not qualify as outright assault or quid pro quo harassment, but that nevertheless have a demonstrable negative impact on the livelihoods, careers, and potential of too many women.
On the other hand, it’s clear that more than a few public figures believe that #MeToo is a kind of frustrating career roadblock that they can get around with a combination of strategy and timing, tiptoeing back into book deals and radio shows and comedy clubs, shell-shocked by the indignity of consequences. Furthermore, there seems to be a misunderstanding in some corners that what curbing sexual harassment in workplaces demands is not less sexual harassment or even a more equitable leadership model, but fewer women who might potentially cause problems.
But it’s undeniable that the same urge to promote solidarity among survivors that in 2006 prompted Tarana Burke to type those two words into a MySpace account remains necessary in what mainstream media insist on calling the “post– #MeToo era.” The importance of #MeToo is that it helped us recognize with retroactive clarity that history has always minimized, erased, and reworded the lived realities of women. We only had to flip the tapestry to see how many women— trailblazers and unsung heroes, “difficult” outcasts and national laughingstocks—were connected within a complex tangle of threads and loose ends.
To document social change as it happens—and to do so in a time when news never stops breaking—is challenge enough, but capturing #MeToo with nuance and care requires reckoning with the number of stories that have no measurable outcomes and no neat endings. Impeccably reported new books like Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement, Kate Kelly and Robin Pogrebin’s The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation, or Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and the Conspiracy to Protect Predators are gripping, but they still keep the focus largely on the perpetrators.
This makes the new anthology Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement, seem even more unassuming by comparison. The book, whose title is taken from Christine Blasey Ford’s September 2018 testimony during the confirmation hearings of now-seated Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, collects 22 personal essays, poems, and prose pieces, all brimming with emotion that’s barely contained by their brief format. Edited by author Shelly Oria, the book has none of the advance publicity of this fall’s meaty #MeToo titles; it feels consciously compact, a kind of jewel box of literary voices, each piece reflecting the shine of its neighbors while nestled in its own velvet nook. Written by authors with identities that are underrepresented in #MeToo’s public face, including women of color and queer and transgender people, some of the work is impressionistic. Some is straightforward, linear, timely. Some are clearly fiction, others fiction that feel like nonfiction—in Oria’s own contribution, alltoo- real violence (a woman hands out pamphlets about her friend who was hit by a car while trying to get away from a street harasser) is interrupted by wish-fulfilling violence (the narrator murders a man who asks how she knew the friend); the cartoonishness of the latter feels almost unfairly amplified by the believability of the former.
Many of the works in the book speak to the first part of Blasey Ford’s recollection, the way she identified, with clinical precision, the hidden place where sickeningly familiar memories are stored. “Indelible” stands at odds with the American legal system’s regularly dismissive approach to cases of sexual harassment and assault, its age-old assumption of women as unreliable narrators of their own lives. But indelible does not mean inflexible. As Kaitlyn Greenridge notes in the book’s first essay, “Your Story Is Yours,” the manner in which we give voice experiences of harassment, abuse, and coercion can be dependent on who is listening, who will understand, who will believe. (“You used to tell the story as a joke. It was easier that way.”) Karissa Chen echoes this indelible malleable in “My Body, My Story,” writing “Sometimes my body tells me things whether I want to know them or not.”
But the second half of Blasey Ford’s statement— the part about the laughter—is less in evidence here. What she acknowledged is that sexual predation and humiliation have long been sanctioned experiences of male bonding: The laughter is the point. The groping, the dick-waving, the sexual mocking are the means to an end; the recipient of them just the vehicle. Childhood sexualization, purposely humiliating advances, and cruel humor have punctuated #MeToo tales like a joke-shop can of mixed nuts, opening and reopening to eject a springloaded snake with a loud pop, surprising even when you know it’s coming. The experience of being the butt of a joke and also being expected to laugh simmers in Indelible’s subtext, but remains underexplored in these writings.
That’s not to say that the pieces themselves don’t contain the dark humor that feels necessary to numb #MeToo’s painful mundanity: the Twitter post you write when a favorite actor’s name trends on Twitter and you hope fervently that they’ve died and not, say, harassed someone out of a career, the grim eyeroll shared with a coworker as you listen to a higher-up plead the innocence of his pal who would never, ever send creepy after-hours DMs. Not surprisingly, one of Indelible’s standout pieces lampoons the absurd, inescapable mediation of #MeToo: Elisa Schappell’s “Re: Your Rape Story,” plays out in emails between a freelance writer and her editor as they wrestle with what needs to be a simultaneously tragic, triumphant, and marketable account. (“This shouldn’t be hard for you, just tell us what happened to you, and how you got past it. I am not saying that the ending has to be uplifting, but you know.”)
The question of who Indelible in the Hippocampus is for seems worth asking. #MeToo has established that a critical mass of us have experiences that hit points all along this spectrum; social media and the demand for daily content have offered a wealth of them. The anthology’s straightforward intentions— we have stories, here they are—are neither trajectory nor incitement. In many ways, Indelible feels like a young relative of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler’s 1996 stage play that bloomed into a movement. Ensler ’s words, channeled through different characters, challenged generations of norms that alienated women from their anatomy— and, by extension, their potential for both pleasure and power. It marked a shift in time where words made public what privacy had never protected or empowered.
The Vagina Monologues is, these days, everything from edifying to hopelessly essentialist, but there’s no question that it was foundational in inviting women to recognize that, whatever you’ve experienced, you have not done so alone. Indelible in the Hippocampus, too, invites us to bear witness to the voices that aren’t the loudest, the splashiest, or the most demanding of a platform, but are the ones in whose many facets we can all recognize ourselves.
Andi Zeisler is the author of We Were Feminists Once and is the co-founder of Bitch Media.