League of Men
Suddenly this seducer appears
Rereading the story now, the detail I keep returning to is the broken coffee table, the shards of glass. It reminds me of the scene in Heathers where Heather No. 1 issues her dying croak — Corn nuts! — and then falls, smashing her own glass table. The scene opens with a shot of Heather asleep, not lying down but reclining, in a satin-draped bower. The whole movie has that stylized, magical quality. The same is true of Jackie’s story, which is why the article caused such an uproar in the first place. It beggared belief. You read it and thought: Unbelievable! And in retrospect, the failures of its naturalism seem so clear. The dark chamber, the silhouetted attackers, gathering close . . . But most of all, it’s the table, the crystalline pyrotechnics of its shattering. That’s the place where the narrative strains hardest against realism, wanting to move into another register altogether. The shards enchant and wound and scintillate, like the Snow Queen’s icy darts. A man’s body “barrels into her, tripping her backward.” Someone, we’re told, is kneeling on her hair. We can picture the strands — “long, dark, wavy” — outspread all around her. I wonder if the model here could be Ophelia as rendered by John Everett Millais: a young woman supine, long tresses floating. Has Jackie ever seen the painting? It’s a famous work, and a staple of undergrad art-history classes, which is how I first encountered it. I still have the textbook, one of those volumes in Taschen’s Basic Genre series, Pre-Raphaelites. I was the type of teenager who liked the Pre-Raphaelites, and Heathers. Maybe Jackie has similar tastes. But then what was she doing at a frat party, hanging out with a frat guy?
Speculation is pointless when information is so scant. I’ve been speculating anyway, intermittently, ever since her story was debunked — speculating about why she told the story in the first place. This has been an exercise in intense frustration. Vague suppositions about her personality and its possible disorders are far from satisfactory. What I’m looking for is something resembling an actual rationale, and this is what has proved elusive. There is no biography, no case history, no leaked documents, nothing at all to go on except the story itself — Jackie’s story, as told to Sabrina Erdely, who told it to the world in her now-infamous and now-retracted article. And that is why I keep rereading, not constantly, but occasionally, when some random prompt, like a Reddit headline about the civil proceedings against Rolling Stone, brings the sorry affair to mind.
But it occurs to me that I’ve been forgetting one of the basic precepts of my education, which is that a story should not be read as a cryptic map of its author’s psychic maladies. The author lies beyond diagnosis, because the author, like Ophelia, is dead. I could read her story the way I was taught to read any story — as a story, a work of literature. Such a recalibration opens up other lines of inquiry. For instance, if it’s literature, what sort of literature is it? When the specimen is perplexing, begin with the question of kind. What is the category, the Basic Genre?
The story would appear to be a dark pulp-fiction potboiler, melodrama in a gothic vein. But it has no structure to speak of, no real arc, and no suspense, no sense that events are hanging in the balance. To the contrary, a certain inexorability seems to drive the action — people make choices, and yet it feels as if something beyond human volition is at work, some kind of dark enchantment that drives the characters toward their violent rendezvous, which is not a climax in the traditional sense because it’s not the culmination of anything. And then there’s the question of tone, a particular timbre of weirdness or a specific shade of shadow. These impressions hardly constitute an objective opinion, but my opinion on this matter is admittedly not objective. It’s a gut feeling I’ve attempted to justify with only the slightest effort to correct for my confirmation bias. In my defense, I can only say that taxonomy is an inexact science. My classification of this story as a fairy tale is not necessarily more subjective than any other venture into binomial nomenclature.
The fairy-tale genre has its own internal taxonomy, which is governed by the venerable Aarne-Thompson-Uther system. ATU indexes more than two thousand “tale types” from hundreds of cultures, grouping them under a variety of elaborately nested rubrics (Magic Tales, Stories About a Fool, The Truth Comes to Light, et cetera), and assigning each type a unique code. These designations have long been a lingua franca among researchers, the coordinates in a vast nebula of vernacular narrative.
My first thought on consulting this resource was that Jackie’s story should be coded ATU 312, The Bluebeard, a tale type in the Magic category, Supernatural Adversaries subcategory. Angela Carter’s retelling is titled “The Bloody Chamber.” That’s what the frat guy’s bedroom is, I thought: the bloody chamber, the site of awful truth, incarnadine. But no — Bluebeard’s young wife is on a quest. She’s taking risks and she knows she’s taking them, defying orders, doing exactly the thing she’s been forbidden to do. That’s not what happens in Jackie’s story. As her tale begins, there is a young woman. She’s probably not a virgin, but she’s definitely not a wife. A maiden, let’s say. She might be looking for sex, romance. Or she might just be trying to get from point A to point B. In any case, she’s going about her life, and suddenly this seducer appears.
It’s such a strange story, when you think about it. Not the dark forest, the lurking beast — those elements feel familiar enough. It’s the act of impersonation that is so bizarre.
I remember a book from my childhood, the wolf on his hind legs in a dress and apron, with a ruffled lady’s cap perched between his ears. It wasn’t a scary picture. It was comical and kind of cute. At age 4 or 5, I already understood this was a picture of the past. I knew that the dress and the cap and the whole story were old-fashioned, safely cordoned from the present.
But whoever invented the story — ATU 333, another Supernatural Adversaries tale — didn’t see it that way, because old-fashioned is a modern concept, and the people who invented the story didn’t have modernity. They didn’t have ruffled caps or gingham aprons or a notion of quaintness to which these garments belonged. And they presumably did not have a concept of the wilderness, not the way we do. We think of the wilderness as bounded and finite. For them, it was the matrix in which everything else took place, the default, always ready to reclaim its territory. What did it feel like to tell this story about a wild beast when the wilderness pressed so close? What did it look like, in their heads? If you take away the cozy familiarity of that image — a wolf impersonating a grandmother — what are you looking at?
The story is starkly bifurcated: forest, house. The impersonation happens in part two. Part one is considerably more transparent. Intercepting the girl, the wolf engages, charms, inveigles. In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim puts it flatly: “The wolf . . . is the seducer.” Bettelheim thinks the girl is attracted to the wolf but also frightened of him because she’s not yet sexually mature. His influential reading comports with the interpretations of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Erich Fromm, who all see the beast as a projection of the girl’s sexual confusion.
The wolf is a seducer, or he’s a rapist whose modus operandi includes a seduction phase. Beyond the psychoanalytic tradition, the latter interpretation predominates. In Carter’s brilliant rendition, “The Company of Wolves,” the wolf is a handsome if homicidal lycanthrope, and the sex is consensual. But this is a polemical revision, an implicit endorsement of the idea that the canonical tale is “a parable of rape,” as Susan Brownmiller argues in Against Our Will. Jack Zipes, a leading scholar of fairy tales, agrees. ATU 333 “is about violation or rape,” he commented in the London Telegraph in 2009.
In view of the foregoing, I feel confident in my classification. The version of the tale that concerns me — Jackie’s version — is a loose variation, with additional beasts entering the picture in the second half, and nary a grandmother in sight. But ATU deals in tale types: variations, even dramatic ones, are expected. And when you look at her parable’s essential lineaments, there really isn’t much ambiguity. Interception, flirtation, change of venue, the transformation of seducer into Supernatural Adversary: ATU 333.
Fairy-tale experts are not often quoted in major dailies. Zipes’s remarks in the 2009 Telegraph article were occasioned by the work of anthropologist Jamie Tehrani, who had used a method called phylogenetics to analyze thirty-five versions of ATU 333. Phylogenetics was developed to evaluate evolutionary relationships among species, but it is also used to study the evolution of cultural phenomena. As the science correspondent Richard Gray reported, Tehrani’s genealogical data-crunching indicated that the thirty-five versions of the tale “shared a common ancestor dating back more than 2,600 years.” If this finding is accurate, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the tale type came into existence around 2,600 years ago; it only means that the recorded versions began to branch, to evolve along separate tracks, at that point. The original story could theoretically be much older.
Last year, in the Royal Society journal Open Science, Tehrani and coauthor Sara Graça da Silva published an analysis of some seventy tale types indicating “with a high degree of confidence” that at least thirty-one were rooted in remote antiquity and another nineteen had a “more than 50 percent likelihood” of being similarly aged. Commenting on these findings in another journal, evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel said: “What really interests me is why these cultural forms exist. . . . Why do these things seem to have such longevity?”
Tehrani offered some general but intriguing speculation on that question in a 2013 PLOS One article. “The faithful transmission of narratives over many generations and across cultural and linguistic barriers,” he wrote,
is a rich source of evidence about the kinds of information that we find memorable and [are] motivated to pass on to others. Stories like Little Red Riding Hood . . . would seem to embody several features identified in experimental studies as important cognitive attractors in cultural evolution. These include “minimally counterintuitive concepts” (e.g. talking animals) [and] “survival-relevant information” (e.g. the danger presented by predators, both literal and metaphorical).
As defined by anthropologist Pascal Boyer, a minimally counterintuitive concept (MCI) is a concept that meets all but one or two intuitive expectations of a given ontological category. For instance, a wolf that is just like a normal wolf except for the fact that it talks is an MCI. If you keep adding counterintuitive characteristics — the wolf talks, flies, is purple, can turn into water — you will arrive at a maximally counterintuitive concept (MXCI). According to Boyer, an MCI is easier to remember than either a mundane, thoroughly intuitive concept or an MXCI. This memorability is what makes the MCI an important cognitive attractor.
The second type of important cognitive attractor that Tehrani identifies, survival-relevant information, needs no explanation. And clearly, ATU 333, aka “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Little Red Cap,” “Cattarinetta,” et cetera, is trying to say something cognitively attractive about predators, literal or metaphoric. The question is what. It tells us to stay away from them, but that is axiomatic where predators are concerned. Other animals don’t require a whole cavalcade of concepts to warn them away from creatures that want to eat them (literally or metaphorically), so why should we? There’s an issue of economy here, a need to justify the tale’s cognitive load. Because human memory is not infinitely capacious, there is a limited amount of space in any oral tradition. If a story, or part of a story, is taking up some of that space, then it’s there for a reason.
All the interpreters I’ve surveyed think ATU 333 works to socialize girls into normative femininity, either by helping them resolve subconscious conflicts (the psychoanalytic model) or by terrorizing them (everybody else’s model). Brownmiller argues that the story instills in girls a victim mentality, reinforcing the idea that they are too weak to take risks, and that if they do take risks, anything that befalls them is their own fault. By this logic, the moral of the story is not simply Avoid rapists; there’s an element of preemptive victim blaming as well. Even with this elaboration, however, one detects a mismatch between the simplicity of the message and the convolutions of the plot. If you stray from the straight and narrow you’ll get raped, and your life will be ruined, and we’ll all blame you: there’s a short, sharp shock for you, cognitively speaking, especially if you’re, like, 5 years old. Threats of violence and draconian sanction tend to stick in the mind all on their own. No need to construct a baroque and bulky narrative edifice.
It’s all very murky, like looking at a corroded artifact in a warped, beclouded vitrine. The label says USE UNKNOWN, as museum labels occasionally, hauntingly do. All we can be sure of is that whoever made the thing understood its purpose, and that it did have a purpose. At some unknown point in history, ATU 333 made sense — maybe not what we would call sense, rational sense, but sense. Its enchantment had a use, once upon a time.
A boy is trudging through the frozen winter steppe. I can picture this vividly. Actually, I don’t picture it at all — it’s just there, a smash cut in a movie in my head. I see it from the point of view of the boy. The icy fur of his hood frames an endless snowscape. The day is very silent, very sunny, very cold. The hood traps a cloud of warmer air, but even within this humid microclimate his face is freezing. His feet crunch through crust then plunge into powder; he sees the crystals of his breath, hears himself breathing, someone else breathing. There’s another boy with him, a kid he’s known his whole life. Are they best friends? Have they always hated each other? For some reason, my imagination refuses to hazard an opinion on this. Heavy breathing, crunching snow, occasional joking, bickering — two teenage boys, 14, 15 — but they’re too out of breath to speak much, trudging through the frozen winter steppe. Though they’ve been psyching themselves up, expressing eagerness to reach their destination, each is secretly consumed by a yearning to turn around and go home.
This is fiction, what I’ve just written. It might or might not also be history.
In February 2002, a group of archaeologists working in central France made a startling discovery. Excavating a Gaulish fort known as Gondole, they came upon a grave that contained the skeletons of eight horses and eight men, carefully lined up in two rows. Before burial, the men had been positioned so that each grasped the shoulder of the man in front of him, and the skeletons had stayed that way, perfectly in place. There was no sign of trauma on the bones and no way of knowing how the dead had met their end. But a 2006 report from the archaeological institute Inrap (Institut national de recherches archéologiques preventives) hypothesizes that the men committed suicide. The report quotes Julius Caesar, who in Bellum Gallicum wrote about Gaulish warriors called soldurii. These soldurii, he wrote,
enjoy all the conveniences of life with those to whose friendship they have devoted themselves; if anything calamitous happen to them, either they endure the same destiny together with them, or commit suicide; nor hitherto, in the memory of men, has there been found any [soldurii] who, upon his being slain to whose friendship he had devoted himself, refused to die.
Archaeologists Dorcas Brown and David Anthony have linked this grave to a tradition they argue was already ancient when Caesar was leading sorties across the Rhine. They draw the connection in their 2012 article “Midwinter Dog Sacrifices and Warrior Initiations in the Late Bronze Age at Krasnosamarskoe.” Krasnosamarskoe is a town in western Russia, not too far north of the Kazakh border. About four thousand years ago, it was the site of a peculiar settlement whose inhabitants killed and ate a great many dogs and a number of wolves, first roasting the animals, then chopping them into tiny pieces and consuming them. All of the animals were slaughtered in winter. (This is known from their teeth, which register seasonal variations in diet.)
The culture associated with the site is known as the Srubnaya. Noting that no evidence of canine feasts has been found at any other Srubnaya settlement, the authors suggest that in this society, “eating dogs and wolves was a transgressive act . . . a taboo-violating behavior of a kind often associated with rites of passage. In this case the passage was a transition to a status symbolized by becoming a dog/wolf through the consumption of its flesh.” They conjecture that the site “was a central place for the performance of a winter ritual connected to boys’ initiations, a place where boys became warriors.” The boys must have “trudged through the frozen winter steppe” from miles around to converge there.
Arguing from evidence too complex to summarize here, the authors assert that the Srubnaya people spoke a language that belonged to the Indo-European family, which also includes Farsi, Sanskrit and its descendants, and almost all European tongues. Proceeding from this premise, Brown and Anthony conduct a rapid survey of Indo-European literature, mythology, and material culture, ranging across millennia to track the persistent association of dog or wolf symbolism with “youthful war-bands that operated on the edges of society, and that stayed together for a number of years and then were disbanded when their members reached a certain age.” These war-bands “shared several features”:
they were composed of boys . . . who fought together as an age set or cohort; they were associated with sexual promiscuity (Latin, Vedic, Celtic); they came from the wealthier families (Latin, Vedic); their duties centered on fighting and raiding, but could also include learning poetry (Celtic, Vedic); they lived “in the wild,” apart from their families, without possessions (Latin, Vedic, Celtic); and they wore animal skins, appeared as if they were wolves or dogs, and bore names containing the word wolf or dog.
In Vedic texts dating back some three thousand years, the authors find “midwinter dog sacrifices . . . explicitly linked with ritual specialists described as dog-priests.” These priests ministered to “youthful dog-like raiders who divided the year between raiding and learning poetry and verses.” Brown and Anthony cite a linguist who showed that “the dog priests . . . and their winter sacrifices represented an extremely archaic aspect of Indic ritual,” considerably older than the Rigveda.
The authors point to a wealth of suggestive details in European traditions as well. In ancient Greece, noble youth (ephebes) trained for war dressed in animal skins, while in the Roman Lupercalia, “the skin of the dog or wolf was carried or worn by the adolescent sons of the aristocrats, who ran around the walls of Rome, symbolically protecting the community.” While the etymology of Lupercalia isn’t conclusively documented, it is widely presumed to derive from lupus, in which case it would mean “Wolf-Fest.” In the Volsunga saga, Sigmund dresses his nephew in wolf pelts and instructs him in raiding and combat; in Celtic legend, a great hero is called the Dog of Cullan (Cuchullain); and in Germanic myth, the berserker god Odin goes tearing through the forest on winter nights, his dogs baying at his heels.
As for berserking, the Old Norse Ynglinga saga describes warriors who “went without shields, and were made as strong as dogs or wolves. . . . And this is what is called the fury [wut] of the berserker.”
This quote appears in the essay “Homeric Lyssa: Wolfish Rage,” by Bruce Lincoln, a professor of religious studies at the University of Chicago. Lincoln considers the contested etymology of the Greek word lyssa, “martial fury,” arguing that it clearly comes from lykos, “wolf.” In the Iliad, lyssa is “a state of wild, uncontrolled rage which is possessed by certain highly gifted warriors.” While analogues of this concept are found globally, as in Malay amok, such frenzied martial rage is “particularly well documented among the various branches of Indo-European.” In addition to Germanic wut, there is Celtic ferg and Iranian aesma.
Lincoln emphasizes the historic depth and geographic breadth of this notion of the lupine warrior:
Of all the powerful or carnivorous animals . . . the wolf seems to have been the most important for the Indo-European warriors. Reflexes of the old word wlkwo, “wolf,” are found in literally hundreds of proper names, and [in the names of] numerous peoples, such as the Luvians, Lycians, [et cetera]. . . . Stories of lycanthropy are well known among the Greeks, Romans, Germans, Celts, Anatolians, and Iranians, and these would seem to be traceable to these ancient warrior practices.
In Germanic myth and legend, say Brown and Anthony, these feral war-bands “are called Männerbünde . . . a label often applied [by scholars] to all similar Indo-European institutions.” Männerbünde means “men-league,” league of men.
Toward their conclusion, Brown and Anthony speculate on the psychological benefits of a symbolic transformation into a beast of prey. The wolf warriors, they surmise, “would feel no guilt for breaking the taboos of human society because they had not been humans [at the time].”
Finding some way to deal with guilt must have been crucial, not only for individual members of the leagues but for their societies as a whole. This is because membership in the Männerbünde lasted only for a set period. If you were still alive at the end of that time, you had to integrate yourself back into your old community. In order to perform the roles society now needed you to perform — family man, working stiff — you had to shed your tainted and bloody savage identity.
For some, this would have been impossible, no matter what psychological mechanisms were deployed to help. But many others must have managed the reintegration well enough. The rotation back into normalcy is documented in the Vedic texts: “At the end of four years, there was a final sacrifice to transform the dog-warriors into responsible adult men who were ready to return to civil life. They discarded and destroyed their old clothes and dog skins. They became human once again.”
The boys trudged through the frozen winter steppe. That’s an evocative phrase, to me. But does it describe something that actually happened? Bruce Lincoln, for his part, is agnostic. In the preface to his 1991 collection of articles, Death, War, and Sacrifice (not a beach read), he addresses the then-raging debate over so-called postmodern relativism and stakes out a kind of soft poststructuralist position with which I am in sympathy. “If myths tell stories about the long ago and far away for purposes of the place and moment in which these stories are told,” he writes, “the same may be observed regarding other forms of narrative, scholarship included. . . . This is not to say that scholarship differs in no way from myth, or that research produces only fictions. . . . Still, the books and articles which scholars write and the lectures they give are not just descriptive accounts of something that unproblematically ‘is.’”
Something that unproblematically is. Another evocative phrase, especially insofar as it implies its opposite: something that problematically is. We are dealing with ontology, with ontological categories (fact, fantasy, history, fiction) and with things that exceed those categories, pressure them, make them buckle. A supernatural adversary, a werewolf, a psychotic unkillable superwarrior: what is such a creature if not an ontological affront, a thing that should not exist but insists on existing anyway? That seems as good a definition of a monster as any: a being that should not be, but is; a counterintuitive concept with a highly negative valence.
I’m not sure whether one should say that a monster is a minimally counterintuitive concept or a maximally counterintuitive one. MXCI is by far the more charismatic abbreviation, but it’s only in fiction that monsters are reliably charismatic. In reality, it really depends on the monster.
“When the wind sets the corn in wave-like motion, the peasants often say, ‘The Wolf is going over, or through, the corn,’ ‘the Rye-wolf is rushing over the field,’ ‘the Wolf is in the corn.’”
This is Sir James Frazer, writing in The Golden Bough. He is using corn in the older British sense of the word, as a general term for any type of grain.
The Golden Bough is essentially a real-life version of The Key to All Mythologies, the colossal scholarly enterprise that drives the Reverend Casaubon to his grave in Middlemarch. Most readers know Frazer’s work as a nine-hundred-page book, but this tome, published in 1922, is in fact an abridgment of a twelve-volume series composed over a quarter century (1890–1915). We are informed at the book’s outset that Frazer’s study grew from his desire to understand a strange Greek ritual involving a sacred grove, its priest king, and the titular tree branch. In order to fathom the nuances of this mystery, the author finds it necessary to canvas world folklore in its entirety, paying particular attention to the relict pagan customs of Europe. As he conducts his tour, Frazer gradually reveals the unheimlich occult logic underpinning such heimlich festivities as Maypole dancing. (The influence of his studies may be detected in the inestimable 1973 film The Wicker Man, among other forays into creepy British-bohemian neo-folklore.)
It turns out that a lot of Europe’s relict pagan customs involve wolves. Especially but not only in “France, Germany, and Slavonic countries,” the animal is strongly associated with the harvest: the act of cutting the ripe grain is conceptualized as chasing the wolf, or sometimes the dog, out of the fields. As the harvesters work their way through the rows, they gradually eradicate the tall, rustling vegetation in which the wolf conceals himself. Danger lurks as long as there is somewhere for the beast to hide. According to old proverbs, “The wolf sits in the corn, and will tear you to pieces.” Children are warned not to stray into the fields, or “the Wolf will eat you.”
When the last of the crop is harvested, the dog or wolf is symbolically killed — cause for rejoicing. In many communities, this final sheaf “is called the Wolf,” and may be made into an effigy, often clothed like a person. “This indicates a confusion,” Frazer observes, or a conflation. The wolf is simultaneously envisioned “as theriomorphic (in animal form) and as anthropomorphic (in human form).”
Confusion is the rule with the wolf. The relationship to society is tense and conflicted. The wolf shouldn’t be where he is, in the fields, and yet his transgression is part of the natural order of things, the annual cycle of ritual and agriculture. Sometimes, instead of being killed or in addition to it, the wolf is feted in procession, given gifts. Near Cologne, “it was formerly the custom to give to the last sheaf the shape of a wolf. It was kept in the barn til the corn was threshed. Then it was brought to the farmer, and he had to sprinkle it with beer or brandy.”
While the wolf is killed and/or celebrated in autumn, he sometimes shows up at another time of year. “In midwinter,” says Frazer, “the Wolf makes his appearance once more. In Poland a man with a wolf’s skin thrown over his head is led about at Christmas; or a stuffed wolf is carried about by persons who collect money. There are facts which point to an old custom of leading about a man enveloped in leaves and called the Wolf, while his conductors collected money.” This old custom sounds like blackmail, as if the wolf were running a protection racket.
The wolf-racketeer is enveloped in leaves because, of course, he lives in the woods. The fields he haunts so relentlessly are not his habitat. They are the liminal space between village and forest, the place where the wolf pushes his luck — or plays to the edge, to use the alpha-male metaphor favored by former CIA and NSA chief Michael Hayden. In his memoir, Playing to the Edge, Hayden explains that his title refers to “playing so close to the line that you get chalk dust on your cleats.” What’s interesting is the way this assertion about testing boundaries is in fact an admission of crossing them. Hayden is describing an ethos of maximum risk-taking, of doing whatever you suspect you can get away with as a matter of course and a matter of honor. Hesitance is not for wolves but for animals of a feline persuasion. If you and your teammates are all about getting chalk dust on your cleats, then there is no doubt whatsoever that some of you will cross that chalked boundary, from sheer momentum if nothing else.
It’s a story about violation or rape. Let’s assume it was always a story about violation or rape, from the beginning, 2,600 years ago or more. But was it always a story about a wolf? Or was it about a boy — a boy, or rather a man, or rather someone on the cusp between the two — in the skin of a wolf?
We are shown a seemingly deliberate contrast. The wolf is in the forest, his proper domain; the story establishes him there. But then he reappears, having infiltrated the human world. We are looking at this old, old story through an incredibly blurry lens, but that much is clear: the wolf is in the forest and then he’s in the house. Not just in the house — the figure of the wolf is now merged with a person. And not just any person — a little old lady, a grandmother. This is an especially ludicrous confusion of the theriomorphic and anthropomorphic. It suggests that our wolf possesses a deranged sense of homicidal mischief. “The better to see you with, my dear . . .” It’s rather a lark, to him, this escapade of stalking, rape, and murder. Of course, his arch locution is a latter-day fillip. But the way he practically teleports from wilderness to house — ta da! — suggests to me that his tricksterish nature was always integral to the tale. Like the theriomorphic-anthropomorphic wolf in the grain, the wolf in this story is a liminal figure, an embodiment of some occult state in which binary conditions are impossibly, gruesomely conflated.
I say gruesomely. Let’s suppose that we are talking about an actual historical phenomenon: “youthful war-bands . . . that operated on the edges of society, and that stayed together for a number of years and then were disbanded when their members reached a certain age”; cohorts of young men who were educated in poetry and verses and fighting and raiding, who lived apart from their parents, bonded passionately to one another, perhaps less so to everyone else; boys systematically encouraged not just to fight and to vanquish but to depredate, to become wild animals, to wreak maximum chaos on their enemies. Once you make that choice, as a society, to create that institution, how do you keep the chaos at bay? How do you make sure it never turns against you? The answer is, you don’t. Sometimes chaos redounds, refracts, lurks where it doesn’t live, shows up at your door. When it does, if you’re lucky, it will simply demand its tribute and be on its way. But sometimes, that’s not what happens at all.
Why gruesome? Let’s further suppose that this story, ATU 333, originated among people who subscribed to a logic whereby a boy in a wolf’s skin is a wolf. This is not an impersonation, not a disguise. It’s a deformation of ontological categories achieved through what you might call magic. The boy looks nothing like a wolf — he looks like a boy wearing a wolf pelt — but he is a wolf. So, if a boy in a wolf’s skin is a wolf, wouldn’t a wolf in Grandmother’s skin be Grandmother? Yes, yes, I’m being morbid, lurid and morbid, but still, might that be the picture the story initially conjured? A boy who has become a wolf transforms himself into yet another thing, obscenely lampooning the ritual that made him what he is, perhaps to make a point (You expect me to stop being this monster I’ve become, to suddenly become something else? How’s this for something else?), perhaps just for the fuck of it. Slaying, flaying, grotesque travesty . . . Is that what ATU 333 is asking us to see? Here is an image of maximum chaos, to be sure, a violent collapsing of binaries that must not collapse if life is to make any sense: male/female, young/old, outside/inside, bestial/human, slaughtering/nurturing, profane/sacred. An MXCI, no doubt about it, but not at all difficult to remember, because it achieves its counterintuitive excess through a single operation, this spectacularly sanguinary rupture of oppositions, this ontological carnage. This image — this vision of total, totally malign misrule — would be a powerful cognitive attractor, would it not?
Our contemporary interpretations of ATU 333 are really so patronizing, so presentist. It may be true that, in recent centuries, the story became a tool for cowing girls into sexual docility, but that was not necessarily its original function. With this in mind, how might we reinterpret the tale?
We might at least entertain the possibility that ATU 333 reflects the values of a society with more mettle and less hypocrisy than our own. Perhaps the story was first told by people who understood how grossly contemptible it is to make decisions, as a society, and then assiduously deny the consequences of those decisions — deny those consequences with an intensity that looks very much like hysterical blindness. Maybe this unknown ancient society, however grievous its flaws, at least had the guts to confront its own ugly choices. It could have been a parable of rape, yes, of rape and murder and the most extravagant transgression imaginable. But possibly it was less a warning than a ritualized mnemonic. Maybe its function, or one of them, was to ensure that no one could forget or deny the price they had agreed to pay, the price of maintaining a Männerbünde, an institution of wolfishness.
There is no darkly romantic teleology here, no unbroken chain of historical inheritance linking wolf boys to frat boys, just as there is no primordial wellspring of masculine violence that forces wolf boys to kill or frat boys to rape. There are two institutions, two leagues of young men, one belonging to an archaic and semi-mythic past, the other flourishing here and now. Institutions, by definition, are not natural or primal. They are not what just happens when you let boys be boys. They are created and sustained for a reason. They do work.
In order for the Männerbünde to do its work, it was necessary to turn boys into wolves. We don’t even know, we cannot and will not name, what we are creating when we somehow transform boys into people who have lost the moral intuition that a woman’s body belongs to the woman — who don’t suspect that a woman’s body is not like a piece of furniture on the curb, not something that belongs to whoever can lift it. We don’t know what this means, this absolute objectification that cannot, logically, be just a vile anomaly in an ethical system otherwise egalitarian and humane. We don’t know what these crimes mean, these assaults that could not occur so regularly, so predictably, were it not the case that all the players are playing to the edge, not just the small percentage who actually cross the line and rape. We don’t know what work this institution performs — this institution of American alpha-bros, of jocks, frat guys, popular dudes, these tight-knit cliques of privileged and socially dominant young men — and we don’t know what bargain we have struck, and strike every day, when we permit this institution to exist in a status quo that appears impervious to growing scrutiny and serial outcries and ever-increasing awareness of “incapacitation rape,” this so often bloodless and invisible violence. There is, as yet, nothing and no one to make us know it, nothing to make it public knowledge, knowledge that we all share and that we all acknowledge that we share. To create that kind of knowledge, you must have more power than whatever forces are working to maintain oblivion. This, too, was a basic precept of my education. Of course, analogous things could be said about so many regimes of disavowed violence — but I’m concerning myself with the one that Jackie concerned herself with.
This is the story I’ve come up with, about the story Jackie told: she did it out of rage. She had no idea she was enraged, but she was. Something had happened, and she wanted to tell other people, so that they would know what happened and know how she felt. But when she tried to tell it — maybe to somebody else, maybe to herself — the story had no power. It didn’t sound, in the telling, anything like what it felt like in the living. It sounded ordinary, mundane, eminently forgettable, like a million things that had happened to a million other women — but that wasn’t what it felt like to her. What it felt like was lurid and strange and violent and violating. I have no idea what it was, whether a crime was involved. There’s a perfectly legal thing called hogging, where guys deliberately seek out sex partners they find unattractive so they can laugh about it later with their friends. Maybe it was something like that, or maybe it was much milder, an expression of contempt that was avuncular, unthinking, something that transformed her into a thing without even meaning to. Whatever it was, this proximate cause, she didn’t know what to do about it. To figure out how to go on from that moment without dying from rage, you need something she didn’t have. You need self-insight, or historical insight, or at the very least a certain amount of critical distance, a wry appreciation of the ironies of it all. She didn’t have any of that, and that’s why she lied, knowingly or unknowingly — or, most likely, both at once.
So she told the story to Sabrina Erdely, who told it to everyone else. Erdely frames the bloody melodrama against a backdrop of dry reportage, to extraordinarily compelling effect. We know she decided to write about campus rape before she knew which campus rape she would focus on. She needed to find the right crime, one both exemplary and outrageous, something to create the shock of defamiliarization, to rivet and enrage. I wonder if any journalist in that situation could have resisted the story she found. Imagine interviewing the young woman who had survived a gang rape, and imagine her telling you that one of the rapists had ordered: “Grab its motherfucking leg.” If ever there was a fact that was too good to check, it’s this one, this amazing line, with its hideous, show-stopping pronoun. And the haunting thing is that Jackie couldn’t have come up with that lotion-in-the-basket locution without knowing something true about the way some guys talk and think. That knowledge really is powerfully, memorably distilled in those four bloodcurdling words.
To the extent that Jackie was aware that what she told Sabrina Erdely was not true, it was destructive and wrong, cruel and stupid. If she really was not in command of reality, that would mitigate her culpability, but it wouldn’t change the nature of what she did. It was violence. And to me, it was a betrayal — or that’s what it felt like. I knew it was irrational to feel that way, but that’s how I felt. I want to condemn it, and I do condemn it, but I also think I can guess what she was saying, or would have said, which can’t be said reasonably. It must be said melodramatically. Something like: Look at this. Don’t you fucking dare not look. I’m going to make you look. I’m going to make you know. You’re going to know what we’ve decided is worth sacrificing, what price we’ve decided we’re willing to pay to maintain this league of men, and this time, you’re going to remember.