Bodies In Space

Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land takes place almost entirely in an empty locker-room. Two high school athletes named Amy and Ester straddle and stand on its benches, spread and sprawl on its floor, leaving Gatorade bottles and Hostess wrappers in their wake. They discuss menstruation and athlete’s foot, imagining their blood leaking out of their swimsuits and their skin flaking on the floor. When Amy takes a pill to induce labor, Ester asks her what she will do with the “thing,” and Amy, panicking, suggests that she puts it in a locker.

The abortion is sudden and bloody on the locker-room floor. On opening night at the Boston Center for the Arts, one woman left the theater, hand over mouth. Her companions remained seated but welcomed the excuse to look away from the stage.

Theatre-goers expect the abortion, though. The program has two pages devoted to placing “abortion in context.” The play’s most jarring scene comes a few minutes later, when a janitor pushes an industrial mop down the theater’s left-hand aisle. On stage, he picks up crumpled newspapers and wipes down the set. He scrubs the brown stain in the middle of the floor, until it becomes watery and red, and then disappears.

In the wake of the staged abortion, the janitor denies the audience emotional reprieve. Watching him feels like closing your eyes after looking at the sun, and seeing a yellow sphere burn behind your lids. On the clean, empty stage, the girl’s twisted body remains as afterimage.

The bodies we are forced to imagine stay with us longer than the ones displayed on stage. Early in the play, Ester asks Amy whether she’s ever wondered what her organs taste like—steak, maybe. Another character remembers that after they kissed at a party, Amy asked him to tell the other guests that he came on her face. When the hostess asked her to leave, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Amy and Ester reconstruct their bodies with words, inhabiting empty spaces.

This insistence on female presence comes to Boston at a crucial moment. Last spring, Harvard University conducted a survey that found that one in three graduating seniors had experienced sexual assault while enrolled. President Drew Faust released those results just a week before the opening of Dry Land, calling for an emergency assembly in Harvard’s Science Center. Strangely, though, as students and administrators reckoned with those results, female bodies rarely entered the conversation.

If, after  Dry Land, the female body burned as afterimage, then after the assembly, it faded into white space. David B. Laibson, an Economics professor and member of Harvard’s Task Force on Sexual Assault, delivered a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation. By its conclusion, the central fact of assault had been buried under percentage points, breakdowns and breakouts. In that narrow lecture hall, where students sat on hard metal seats, and clean vacuumed aisles, one could no more see flesh and blood than an elephant squatting on the stage.

The discussion moved from female bodies to gendered spaces. Midway through the presentation, Laibson noted that 14% of reported assaults took place in “single-sex social organizations that are not fraternities or sororities”  That statistic framed much of campus discussion in following weeks. In her e-mail to the student body, Faust proposed four areas of further investigation, including “the locations where [sexual assaults] occur.” Chair of the Sexual Assault Task Force Stephan D. Hyman echoed that sentiment, asking the College to interrogate “the relationship between social spaces and sexual assault.” Though most administrators first responded to the survey with moral outrage, they quickly turned to narrow analysis. Because that analysis focused more on the where of sexual assault rather than the how and why, it lended itself to logistical calculation rather than human understanding.

Students, too, focused their analyses on the logistics of assault rather than the fact of it. Some sought to combat Harvard’s problem by absenting themselves from problematic spaces. A student and a professor published their resignations from exclusive Final Clubs. Several students publicly refused to “punch” those organizations . Others demanded that Harvard restructure those spaces. A Crimson editorial demanded an investigation of the Clubs and one student wrote in to suggest that “the Women’s Center occupy the Porcellian building.” Such arguments implied we can eliminate the sexual assault the way a surgeon eliminates cancer: localize, then remove.

On one level, this approach makes sense. But fighting sexual assault exclusively by fighting Final Clubs offers only a simplified solution to a more complex—and more human—problem.  It’s easy to spot the women slipping behind hired bouncers, tightly wrapped torsos angled sideways. It’s harder to see the flesh and blood under those tight dresses. So, we look at the architecture.

When we fail to consider the presence of female bodies in all spaces, we risk excusing ourselves from dealing with them. Administrators have sidestepped criticism with with vague nods to “inclusivity” and donations to House social budgets. Meanwhile, laying the guilt on certain spaces pardons those who don’t occupy those spaces. It’s the old fallacy of rape—only strong, powerful men could commit such a crime—mapped onto Harvard’s social scene. When one man confesses to the guilt of Final Clubs, those not in Final Clubs can absolve themselves of sin. One resignation letter ended with a plea for Harvard to “rise from the ashes of assault into a new awakening.” If we awaken only to the problem of spaces, and not to the problem of human nature, we might as well just stay asleep.

Fortunately, Harvard women have begun to reinsert their bodies into the campus discussion. Two survivors published bylined narratives of their assaults in the Crimson. The point of such articles is clear: to match names, individual identities, to numbers. If administrators and students respect these narratives, they must not only acknowledge female presence, but see beyond victimhood. The survey defines penetration as “when one person puts a penis, fingers, or object inside someone else’s vagina or anus.” Man as actor, woman as acted upon. One Crimson op-ed noted that “one of every six women who received a diploma last May was raped.” In between the tragedy of rape and the triumph of commencement, those bodies live and breathe in every space on campus. We must meet them in every state, in every place.

Perhaps that what makes Dry Land truly radical. The bodies it forces us to imagine suffer, but they also just exist. Ester sits on Amy’s stomach, and then tickles her, making her laugh until she pees. Amy presses the soles of her feet against Ester’s butt, and shouts “I’m fondling you!” Ester does not take off her swimsuit for a week as a superstitious measure before swimming for a college recruiter. She develops a full-body rash, and triumphs. The play ends as Amy watches Ester’s recruitment video, silent in front of the elegant swimmer on screen. Ester is not beautiful in the way that the girls in the magazines left in the locker-room are. She is beautiful in grossness rather than perfection, in the privacy of the moment rather than in the public gaze.

If Dry Land fills empty spaces, it also imbues moments of pain with triumph. After the abortion, after the clean-up, Amy and Ester practice delivering a presentation about the Florida wetlands. They describe swamps and green ferns that gave men gangrene and malaria and stymied agriculture. Now, the swamps and green ferns are paved over but still present, heavy and throbbing under strip-malls and freeways. They are a reminder of past injury, but also the secret of progress. As Amy and Ester exchange notecards on the now-clean floor, their voices grow louder. They are strengthened by the phantom stains of blood.