Saturday, 21 January 2017

Review: 'Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives' by Leigh Gilmore

As some of you know, I am very interested in women's voices and women's narratives. Although my expertise largely lies in medieval English narratives, I also busy myself with reading up more current explorations of the roles of women within our contemporary world. Thanks to the recent rise of interest in feminism, more books are now seeing the light of day exploring the different ways in which this world is skewed against women. When I read the blurb for Leigh Gilmore's Tainted Witness I knew it was the type of book I wanted to read straightaway. I enjoy academic reads, hence my never-ending desire to stay at universities, especially when they're well-researched and well-written. Thankfully both are true for Tainted Witness and it has been an incredibly enlightening and fascinating read. Thanks to Columbia University Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 17/01/2017
Publisher: Columbia University Press
In 1991, Anita Hill brought testimony and scandal into America's living rooms during televised Senate confirmation hearings in which she detailed the sexual harassment she had suffered at the hands of Clarence Thomas. The male Senate Judiciary Committee refused to take Hill seriously and the veracity of Hill's claims were sullied in the mainstream media. Hill was defamed as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty," and Thomas went on to be confirmed. The tainting of Hill and her testimony are part of a larger social history in which women find themselves caught up in a system that refuses to believe what they say. The Anita Hill case shows how a tainted witness is not who someone is, but what someone can become. 
Why are women so often considered unreliable witnesses to their own experience? How are women discredited in legal courts and in courts of public opinion? Why is women's testimony so often mired in controversies fueled by histories of slavery and colonialism? Tainted Witness takes up these questions within a rich archive, including Anita Hill's testimony as well as Rigoberta Menchú's account of genocide in Guatemala; Jamaica Kincaid's literary witnessing in Autobiography of My Mother; and news coverage of such stories as Nafissatou Diallo's claim that Dominique Strauss-Kahn raped her. Bringing together legal, literary, and feminist frameworks, Leigh Gilmore provides provocative readings of what happens when women's testimony is discredited. Throughout, Gilmore demonstrates how testimony crosses jurisdictions, publics, and the unsteady line between truth and fiction in search of justice.
In Tainted Witness Gilmore casts her eye over a number of high-profile cases and books which caused controversy and saw female witnesses become "tainted witnesses", disbelieved and vilified, hounded and abused. The desire not to believe what we wish wasn't true means that many victims find themselves abused again as witnesses. Seemingly there are stories every day of victims of sexual assault being victim-blamed, of perpetrators being saved by their class, position and race. Look at how Donald Trump responded to the women who accused him of sexual assault, how the media chose a side and how even "Pussygate" had hardly any impact and then tell me there is no need for a book that looks into why we don't believe female witnesses. But Tainted Witness doesn't just look at sexual assault, it does much more than that. Below I want to give a short description of what Gilmore's book covers since I want to show how much work Tainted Witness does, how much it connects and what it tries to do.

Gilmore's first chapter looks at Anita Hill's testimony during the 1991 Senate confirmation of Clarence Thomas in which race, gender and sexual abuse in the workplace came together. While he was confirmed, she was defames. Gilmore makes an interesting case both for the role race played as an all white hearing questioned the African-American Anita Hill, as well as highlighting the absence of awareness regarding sexual abuse in the work place, for which a legal definition and framework now exists. In her second chapter Gilmore explores the case of Rigoberta Menchú, whose testimonio I, Rigoberta Menchú shed light on the conflict in Guatemala and the massacres of indigenous people. Similarly to Hill, Menchú found her narrative and personal life investigated, her motives questioned and her ideas spurned. The third chapter focuses on the memoir and self-help books, moving from a book such as The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison, which chronicles an incestuous relationship with her estranged father, to Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which tells the author's journey of survival and self-help. Gilmore highlights how some women who tell their stories don't fit how we want victims to look (like Kathryn Harrison) or how self-help books eradicate personal history and background for a universal humanity. Chapter four revisists Mortensens' Three Cups of Tea as well as Jay Kristoff's Half the Sky and how the stories of underpriviliged or "other" girls (read: non-Western girls) are used by humanitarians to sell a story. In the guise of telling the witness' story, Gilmore shows how their stories are, in a way, appropriated and abused. The picture of a girl in a hijab has become a rallying cry, for all the wrong reasons. The final chapter looks at the testimony of Nafissatou Diallo, who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of rape and was vindicated in the Bronx court, as well as Jamaica Kincaid's novel The Autobiography of my Mother in which her perhaps unlikeable main character grows up loveless, as well as with the burden of her homeland's (Dominica) colonial past. These two women allow Gilmore to contrast a witness in court to a literary witness. Diallo was equally vilified, if not worse, as Anita Hill and her case allows Gilmore to analyse the he said/she said formula which somehow still always ends up in his favour. In her conclusion Gilmore explores the feminist roots of #BlackLivesMatter and how its activists make themselves knowing witnesses, publicising that which others would like to remain secret.

The role of witness is a difficult one, since it often involves personal morals, prejudices and expectations. Since women already receive less credibility than men, thanks to centuries of writing on "men's superior intellect", it makes the position of a female witness a very difficult one. Gilmore covers a whole range of subjects, yet her writing on sexual abuse victims/witnesses is what struck me most. Between 2 and 10% of reported rape claims are found to be false, which is both an incredibly small number and a terrifying number considering about only one out of 10 rapes is reported. The dangerous thing about rape culture and the narratives we build around rape cases is that many of us become a part of it. The famous he said/she said formula is one we all use and all recognise, yet it is one which is fundamentally skewed because it opens up both the victim and perpetrator to the same level of scrutiny. Female witnesses are tainted by this scrutiny in a way male witnesses often are not, and Gilmore's precise and detailed research into the above cases really brings this home. Although Tainted Witness is dense and at times complicated, it is a very rewarding read. 

I give this book...
4 Universes!

Tainted Witness is very dense but it has a lot of important things to say. It is a fascinating insight into the role of witnesses and how the legal framework works regarding female witnesses. Although one would like to hope female witnesses have it easier now, statistics as the one above regarding reported rapes show that the fear of being tainted still stops many women from reporting crimes. I will be looking for a hardcover version of this book because I want to reread it and highlight it, write notes and thoughts, comb its bibliography for more books to read and borrow it to other people ready to be enlightened.

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