I love a good road trip. I have since the summer I was 16, the last summer I spent in my hometown of Columbus, Indiana (which I jokingly call The Other Columbus, or Columbus-Not-Ohio). It’s a place people sometimes know for the mid-century architecture and the outlet malls—or for being the town from which Mike Pence sprang.
That summer, I got my first job as a waitress at a local rib joint and bought my first car. From that moment on, I never stayed too long in one place, preferring the possibilities of the open road to a life of the same-old, same-old. She’s independent, people would say. Tough. An adventurer.
Lately, I’ve had the good luck of traveling more than usual, to promote my first book—a memoir about cars, wanderlust, and the death of my only sibling, who killed himself two weeks after turning 29. The travel, though, has involved planes more than cars. On one flight to New York City, I watched Won’t You be My Neighbor, a documentary about Mr. Rodgers, whose show my brother and I grew up watching. Two women near me watched it, too, and when we landed, we looked up at each other, all drying our eyes. Look for the helpers, Fred Rodgers had said. Always look for the helpers.
On my return flight, I decided to avoid another public crying episode and selected Thelma & Louise, which I remembered as a story of women gone rogue—with some fun, some trouble, a little sex, and a Fonzie-jumps-the-shark kind of ending. But watching it now, after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, a year into the #MeToo movement—I realized it was a complex film about sexual assault and rape culture.
The difference between my memory of the movie and the film I saw devastated me.
I’ve joked before with a few of my friends that when we get some free time, we’ll go on a road trip. We’ll play Thelma and Louise, we’ve said, only without the dying. We laughed at that part about not dying. Have fun. Don’t die. That’s all Thelma and Louise wanted, but it didn’t work out for them.
Thelma & Louise is about two women who want to take an overnight road trip to a cabin together, exactly the kind of thing I would do; exactly the kind of thing I do, every chance I get. Louise, the more tightly-laced friend played by Susan Sarandon, rallies Thelma, the comparatively relaxed and bubbly one played by Geena Davis. Thelma packs a gun—because oh, come on, Louise… psycho killers, bears, snakes! I just don’t know how to use it. So will you take care of it?
They spend their first evening in a restaurant. When they sit down, Louise says: “I haven’t seen a place like this since I left Texas.” She wears her hair up tight and worries when Thelma accepts attention from a flirtatious stranger. “You said you and me was gonna get outta town and, for once, just really let our hair down,” Thelma says. “Well, darlin,’ look out ’cause my hair is comin’ down!”
They drink. Thelma dances with Harlan, the local barfly who’d flirted with her. Once she gets she’s puking drunk, he hits her and tries to rape her in the parking lot. Louise finds them. She has the gun.
HARLAN: Now, calm down. We were just havin’ a little fun.
LOUSIE: Looks like you’ve got a real fucked up idea of fun. Now turn around. Just for the future, when a woman’s crying like that, she’s not having any fun!
HARLAN: Bitch. I should have gone ahead and fucked her.
LOUSIE: What did you say?
HARLAN: I said suck my cock.
Louise shoots him dead. From this point on, the two women are pretty much doomed. After, Thelma asks why they didn’t call the police. “Only about a hundred people saw you cheek to goddamn cheek with him all night, Thelma,” Louise yells. “Who’s gonna believe that?! We just don’t live in that kind of world.”
They don’t. Or didn’t. I didn’t, and don’t either. Which means you didn’t and don’t, too. So here we are—all in it, or in on it, together.
The women flee, tying knot after knot in their own nooses as they go. Louise’s boyfriend comes through with some money, but then a hitchhiking cowboy gives Thelma her first orgasm and steals it from them. (Notice the high price women pay for pleasure of any kind.) Thelma feels so guilty about almost getting raped, and then getting robbed, that she robs a convenience store to make up for it. Now they’re both wanted. When a police officer stops them, they escape at gunpoint, leaving him in the trunk of his car after shooting it a couple times for ventilation.
Thelma tells him to be sweet to his wife: “My husband wasn’t sweet to me,” she remarks, “and look how I turned out.”
Next they school a long-haul truck driver who’s been sexually harassing them for days on the road. They don’t harm him, but they do blow up his rig. Soon after, they’re cornered by cops and take the only way out—death by convertible and Grand Canyon.
Throughout the movie there are hints that Louise is triggered to shoot Harlan in part by her own past rape back in Texas, an experience she never discusses. She refuses to drive through Texas, creating a longer route to refuge in Mexico, a choice that doesn’t help them.
THELMA: You want to go to Mexico from Oklahoma and you don’t want to go through Texas?
LOUISE:You know how I feel about Texas… We’re not going that way.
THELMA: I know, Louise, but we’re running for our lives!Don’t you think you could make an exception just this once?!I mean, look at the map. The only thing between Oklahoma and Mexico is Texas!
I’ve heard it said that children who experience extreme neglect eventually stop crying because they no longer expect their needs to be fulfilled. I see the parallel here in Thelma & Louise, which is to say rape culture, which is to say our country. Louise knew not to get help because, it’s implied, help never arrived when she’d been hurt and cried out before. Reporting rape often causes secondary trauma through questioning, blame and exposure. It’s like giving a hungry child who cries the belt instead of food.
Almost every woman you know knows this silence.
LOUISE: I said, I don’t wanna talk about it!!
I don’t want to talk about it either.
I know the girl I was when this movie came out in 1991—a girl who had already experienced multiple assaults—and I have little doubt that when I saw the movie, the assault and misogyny washed right over me because I already assumed that’s the way things went. Or, as David Foster Wallace put in the opening of his This Is Water speech: One fish asks another, how’s the water? The other fish responds, what the hell is water? That’s how rape culture works. By 16, I was steeped in those waters, acclimated to them, and, like everyone, I navigated that fishbowl the best way I could to survive.
My parents never talked to me about sexual assault, though my mother did once save me from a pedophile who ran the Schwinn BMX biking team, of which I was a pint-sized member at age eight—the youngest by far, and the only girl. She did what women have known to do for ages: quietly remove themselves from the situation. She pulled me from the team, with my consent, and the pedophile carried on as usual, unaffected.
I did once fight of an attacker while hitchhiking solo in the wilds of Alaska. And I did hike a fat chunk of the Appalachian Trail, most of it solo, after I ditched my partner who fell asleep each night with mace by her head. She was terrified because of her past with assault, she’d told me, a topic that made me always reroute the conversation. True, two women our age had been found the summer before in the same area, bound, gagged and stripped, with their throats slit. Still, I found her fear repellent. I might have even said to her: You’re inviting bad energy. You’re making bad luck.
I already knew victims of sexual assault were seen as weak. I would be strong. I would drive all over the country. I would hitchhike alone in Alaska. I would hike the Appalachian Trail solo because my partner was too weak to keep up with me. I weighed 98 pounds, my breasts two sizes smaller than they had been when I was 15 and 16. I could become invisible, my friends joked, by simply standing sideways. I could not, and would not, be caught.
These stories are in my book—but the stories where I had been caught aren’t, because I still didn’t want to talk about it. Which has worked out pretty well, my whole life, because no one else seems to want to talk about it, either. No therapist has inquired, though I’ve had only two. No lovers have inquired. With one college boyfriend, I began, for the first and perhaps only time, to talk about one of my assaults. We were having coffee and cigarettes in a booth at an all-night diner built over a river in downtown Missoula. I tried to tell him because, at age 19, I could already sense that my past was affecting my present, my ability to trust and bond and be a healthy kind of sexual. He put up his hand and said: “I’m sorry. I can’t hear this.”
A few years later, I asked my first creative nonfiction teacher: “But what do I do about all the weird things, like the sexual stuff?” He’d become a mentor after reading my stories about growing up in a wacky family in Indiana. He was the first one to tell me I had a book to write, a memoir. He considered my question, looking me dead in the eyes for a moment, and said: “That stuff? That’s a different book.”
I was relieved. I had artistic approval to keep not talking about it.
Fifteen years later, a summary of the assault from the summer I was 16 found its way into a chapter of my memoir. None of my readers said much. Why would they? We’re all women. Such stories aren’t new to us. When the note came back to compress that chapter, again I felt relief. I cut the assault passage, though traces of it remain:
I grabbed on to [my first car] like a life raft and it anchored me against the undertow of being a gullible, self-loathing sixteen-year-old-girl in a town I never understood, a place I could never call home.
That’s how so many of us have learned to survive assault—by keeping lists of places we won’t go, things we won’t do, people we refuse to see. We amputate these parts of ourselves in the hopes that we will never let assault happen to us again. We leave jobs and relationships and entire states as a way to protect ourselves in a culture that won’t protect us, a culture where the roots of blame trace all the way back to the Bible.
Eve ate the apple and look what happened. No one wants to be the bad apple, the bruised fruit, the woman who let her hair down and killed paradise.
THELMA: I know this whole thing was my fault. I know it is.
LOUISE: There’s one thing you oughta understand by now, Thelma, it’s not your fault.
It has been said that trauma can be passed on through generations, through DNA, or abuse, or learned behavioral patterns. Imagine the power of the silence behind sexual assault. Imagine it running up your family line, an inherited muteness you can trace back for thousands of years. Imagine generations so steeped in it that they are born knowing not to cry out, not to speak of it—whether it’s in the wiring of their brains, the architecture of their DNA or an inability to attach language to events, they’ve been gaslighted into un-remembering.
If you can imagine it, it might look a lot like Thelma & Louise. It might look so similar that a girl like me, well-versed in assault, watches the film and is so riveted by the characters’ independence that she sets her sights on the only kind of lust that feels safe: wanderlust.
Be tough, she thinks. Be a badass. Don’t ever let them catch you again.
LOUISE: We’re not giving up, Thelma.
THELMA: Then let’s not get caught.
LOUISE: What are you talkin’ about?
THELMA: [indicating the Grand Canyon] Go.
[Thelma is smiling at her.]
When I was young, I thought this ending too campy. I still possessed limitless energy and an irrational kind of hope. I didn’t yet know how small you become when delete one part of yourself after another.
For most of my thirties, I felt my experience with assault hadn’t much affected me, because I was a functional human—a mother of two with a husband and a Masters’s degree and, eventually, a full-time job teaching community college. But I see now the kind of emotional nerve damage I’d suffered, how I felt so much nothing about assault until I felt something, and how then it was the emotional equivalent of a lightning strike.
That’s why they call them triggers. That’s why Louise’s was so fierce and literal. I’m fed up with the Midwestern grin-and-bear-it notion of strength I was raised on, stoicism tempered with niceness. On the plane, the ending of Thelma & Louise made the 40-something me cry because I have driven off too many cliffs in this lifetime already.
THELMA: You awake?
LOUISE: You could call it that. My eyes are open.
THELMA: Me too. I feel awake.
THELMA: Wide awake. I don’t remember ever feelin’ this awake. Everything looks different. You know what I mean. I know you know what I mean.
I don’t want to talk about my assaults for all kinds of reasons. My experiences pale in comparison to what others have endured. I went to high school with a girl who would joke about vomiting during forced oral sex when she was 12, and we thought that story awful, but not uncommon. I also have my own family and emotional well-being to consider. And I don’t owe anyone my stories; they belong to me alone.
Is it possible, I wonder, to let them go without letting them out?
THELMA: Louise. Where are we going?
LOUISE: I don’t know, Thelma! I don’t know! Just shut up a minute so I can think.
I will tell you that Mike Pence’s hometown is my Texas, that since I was 15 and 16 I have never felt totally at ease in a dress and tights, that I am careful with champagne in the company of men. I will tell you that if I never again hear the Van Morrison song And It Stoned Me, my life would be better for it.
THELMA: Louise… no matter what happens, I’m glad I came with you.
LOUISE: You’re crazy.
EXT. DESERT ROAD – DAY: Louise swerves off the road and begins driving across the desert. All the police cars take off across the desert after them. They are now being pursued by at least 15 cars.
THELMA: You’re a good friend.
LOUISE: You too, sweetie, the best.
The older I get, the more I notice all the women out there like me—holding the best parts of life in one hand while binding the rest together with chicken wire, duct tape and silence. The older I get, the louder the silence becomes. If you want to tell your story, or talk about your Texas, I will listen. I will try to be a helper, as so many of you have been mine. And if you don’t want to talk about it? I get it. I hear you, too.
Either way, I want to second what most of us already know: That the water is cold. The water is bullshit. The water in this fishbowl needs to be changed.
Melissa Stephenson’s writing has appeared in publications such as Lit Hub, The Washington Post, ZYZZYVA and Fourth Genre. Her memoir, Driven, was released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July of 2018. She lives in Missoula, Montana with her two kids.
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