One and Five Chairs

Joseph Kosuth,

Joseph Kosuth, “One and Three Chairs.” (1965)

Content Note: this piece contains descriptions of sexual violence.

ONE AND FIVE CHAIRS

The empty chair is the passenger seat of his car;

I am fifteen years old.

They always tell young women not to walk home alone at night,

so I accept the ride I already know will take me anywhere but home.

When it is over, he asks for a kiss as a token of his generosity

in granting me “safe” passage.

O captain, my captor; I carry in my blood and the melanin of my skin

the knowledge of what we women have survived to reach the shores,

knowing full well that it is not freedom

that awaits us when we disembark.

——-

The empty chair is the dressing room of the high-school theatre;

I am sixteen years old.

Four hands on my body, under the guise of a prank,

grasping at my arms, then my bra, until the flimsy material comes undone.

It’s a joke, they say,

and I, the girl-doll, dutifully laugh.

As I re-clasp the bra at the middle of my back,

I run my fingers over my vertebrae.

It occurs to me that if I could sharpen them enough through starvation,

perhaps they could swiftly slice open any hands

that would ever again dare to touch this flesh.

——-

The empty chair is the bare stage of the black box theatre;

I am seventeen years old.

As our scene study from A Streetcar Named Desire comes to an end,

my theatre instructor tells my scene partner to

“keep going as if you were raping her.”

This is not in the script. There has been no rehearsal.

I am not permitted to file my objection, because

I am suddenly face to face with sweaty brow and insistent hands;

there is an audience and so I mumble: “those aren’t the lines.”

Of course there are no lines; this is unscripted.

At least, I reason, the scene has the authenticity of fear.

Weeks later, I learn that my scene partner has assaulted another woman in my class.

I want to say I am surprised,

but I know that he is well-rehearsed in his craft.

——-

The empty chair is the waiting room of health services;

I am twenty-two years old.

He is a stranger, a fellow student.

His chatter is friendly at first, then insistent. I am polite.

Of course I am always polite.

Then he is everywhere; even waits after-hours for me to emerge

from a late doctor’s appointment.

I pull phrases out from my arsenal: “Please leave me alone. I already have a boyfriend.”

Shoulder-grip. I am suddenly aware that there is no-one around.

“You need a new boyfriend.” His breath is hot on my neck.

At campus security, I am given a neon pink rape whistle

and a glossy pamphlet on stalking.

“Don’t worry,” the woman says to me.

“He just sounds like the misguided kind of stalker. They’re mostly harmless.”

Mostly.

——-

The empty chair is the faux leather couch in the graduate lounge;

I am twenty-four years old.

It starts at my feet: my boots being wrestled off,

and as I sit up to protest, I am vice-gripped across my chest,

pressure against my sternum.

I do what I have been told I ought to have done before:

wrestle, twist, say no, no (louder), and stop, with an extra

please for all the socially ingrained female politeness that I still cannot shake.

Without my glasses, I cannot make out the figure standing near the

elevator doors that are in my field of view,

cannot scream,

cannot do anything.

A while later, there is another ding of the elevator, and I am released before anything else happens.

I splash water on my face, re-touch my lipstick.

Could have been worse, I say,

as I pull up yet another empty chair to my table.

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95 comments

  1. Such a powerful post! I wrote a post recently on my blog quite similar to this. Touching on how sexual assault isn’t always just forced sex, there are so many other advances and situations that are just as frightening and leave as much of an impact on a young girls life. Feel free to have a read of it on my page. It’s entitled, “It’s Always The Victim That Gets A Life Sentence” x

  2. This is so true. Even the fact that NGOs who educate women to report crimes reject requests to take action against offenders only because nothing has happened yet. Spot on statement – “Sounds like the misguided kind of stalker. They are mostly harmless.” Powerful, indeed. I am gonna share and repost. Thank you for writing this blog!

  3. Sad cruel world where power corrupts minds to take without asking. Abuse of power kills so many light bulbs and abuse of physical strength in rape is the worst scar to bear. All wounds will heal have Faith…big wounds will always heal

  4. I wrote a poem on rape culture sometime ago and this post just reminds me of that poem. But better still it leads me into the mind of someone who’v heard 5 empty chairs. I envy your courage….,

  5. Like others, I also found this to be powerful. Sad commentary on society. Powerfully sad. The symbolism of the empty chair most chilling.

  6. Its never black and white…one and five chairs just painted a grey picture. When you can’t label it sometimes it’s even worse because you feel like your in limbo. Justice never found.

  7. The empty chair is the empty room in this dark hotel. Where she sleeps waiting to awaken, the door opens, it’s the drunken father who comes in to touch. And touch, and touch. She pulls away, and pulls and pulls so he leaves. “I thought u were your mom” she turns to sleep to awaken to a new day.

  8. I really don’t know why femininity acquiesces to violation and therefore violence. What has happened to individual responsibility to do no harm to others? Meanwhile, women who are accosted are scared with deep wounds that hang around them like weighted chains. I pray for all who have be wounded this way. Bless you for sharing your stories. Sharing can help us all break through to a new paradigm.

  9. Honest, raw, …well done.

    I want to add that, you must, for your sake and for every woman’s sake — overcome the ingrained social female politeness, only though, when it puts you in harm’s way, because it’s every woman’s duty to slay that dragon in order to access her innate power of protecting self and loved ones as well as the planet, women all need to collectively slay the dragon of social expectations of politeness (at all times, even when in danger), in order to collectively work toward a just soicitey that is free of patriarchy and violence.

  10. Beyond the fucking beyond!!!! Utterly superb, heart-breaking …. I’m almost at a loss for words. In a similar vein you might enjoy my poem ‘Once Upon an Ordinary Day’ on my blog http://www.theliberatedsheep.com …. ‘Food Was Never the Problem’ comes to mind too … Your poetry is just breath-taking! I doff my cap to you dear poet! Blessings, Deborah.

  11. Its really great written. And you are really brave.
    Its an eye-opened and really we all have to learn the respect for women.
    Would you Mind if I reblog or published on my blog…

  12. Its really great written. And you are really brave.
    Its an eye-opened and really we all have to learn the respect for women.
    Would you Mind if I reblog or published on my blog…

  13. Breathtaking read. The poignancy of your style is that it gives way to the substance, which is, in this case, highlights the burden of being born women. What is most unfortunate, is that this is by no means eye-opening for female to read; truly testimony to the reality of this injustice. Thank you for sharing with us

    Willow

  14. You have reach billions of woman, today men too are being telling us they have been assaulted. But, in writing you have open your horrific pain and suffering. I do not think of your writing as story, I think of it as a reality,
    You must live with. You used your talent in the highest literary form. At the same time, it not a competition between one writers reality. Each person’s experience is unique; you can speak for those who can not speak;
    That is what makes your writing unique. I like to see, it funded by your followers who can afford, to turn it into a global play. This does not, negate what happened, it does negate those with talent like yours, and with horrific pain like yours as being less, it just means that today, theatre
    Is a way to press universities in theatre to change, and these male and female distributors who get way with horrific crimes against beautiful inner woman and men. How today you loved by the world.
    Woman and Men

  15. I’ve recently experience sexual harassment and it pains me to know that it’s something many of us must have in the back of our minds. Thank you for sharing.

  16. I am woman, polite-safe-trusting. I am sorry and sad and angry that this happened, happens and will continue to happen. Turn the spotlight on those monsters, on their deeds so just maybe…it will cease.

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