about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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A Review of Unravelings
by Sarah Cheshire

Spencer Dew

One of the ways power dynamics work is through invisibility. Maybe you’re equal, after all. Maybe you are the one with the real power. And maybe such a stance is naïve, but it’s also often a mutual naïveté, especially within a rhetoric of education. We (professors) speak of the vulnerability we bring to the classroom, of how learning is a collaborative effort. Teaching is intimate, even in front of a crowd. Individual mentoring, the sharing of personal creative product and process, and the grey scale darkens. Professors exist embroiled in petty politics, always at war within their little fiefdoms; squabbles of egos swollen and bruised, contests over scant resources. To share such struggles with students is another form of intimacy, and certainly that further confuses matters, complexifying the layers of power, raising shadow puppets and paranoid narratives. Nothing mentioned so far need be motivated by either predatory desire or bad faith. But that can slip in easily enough, like a razor through warmed skin, a marble dropped in a big bag of similarly-shaped candies. Then comes the blood, the broken tooth.

Cheshire’s primary interest in this slim and timely book is that uncertainty, the mist and its miasma that rises up around the relations between student and teacher, student and administrators, employees and other employees and their administrators, mentee and mentor, what can feel, at times, like two people standing alone in a room (a kitchen, let’s say) but are always beings enmeshed in webs of power relations.

Maybe that sounds like snow-flake language. Laura Kipnis, in her book on Title IX, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, argues that the current focus (currently being first softened, then stripped away, by Betsy DeVos) on campus rape culture and the use of Title IX to investigate and prosecute both assault and harassment is predicated on a model of feminine victimhood. For Kipnis, Title IX is a blow to feminism, a means of disempowering female students. Kipnis is also, without doubt, one of the powerful.

The narrator/editor of Unravelings, the voice that speaks in fragments and stitches together fragments—scenes and statements a fictional Title IX deposition, bits of Gmail letters and texted notes, memories presented in draft form, sometimes crossed-through, sometimes emphasized as known to be true, gives us a world of disorientation. This Title IX proceeding is certainly not a witch-hunt of the sort Kipnis fears; it’s more like an account of a haunted house, terrified and uncertain, questioning every memory and second-guessing every piece of evidence. That is one of the ways power works: disorientation, doubt.

Some details: a professor urging a student to use a non-university controlled account, in order to discuss confidential issues related to campus policy beyond the prying eyes of administrators; a request, likewise, let’s meet in places where the higher-ups won’t see; a hand on a hand in an advising session; mixed drinks; “showing me beautifully harrowing excerpts from his yet-to-be-published anthology.” Is this love, the student asks herself. Is this insanity?

The Title IX office says it “is required to investigate these claims to ensure that the institution as a whole remains a safe learning environment for students.” This certainly does not answer the question of love, or madness.

Cheshire’s book contributes to thinking about college rape culture and the need for Title IX even as it offers its own critique, one deeper than that of Kipnis, for Cheshire’s concern about the investigative proceedings are essentially narrative concerns. This gives Unravelings a broader relevance, for the worry examined here is about legal discourse and its relation to the stories it examines, stories it insists cease to be subjective but can, through judication, be ruled fact or not-fact. Cheshire’s non-linear approach is less an attempt at experimental fiction than what could be called a mode of legal realism. Memory is tricky, power dynamics are smoky and disorienting, desire melts away and remakes the world—these are basic truths of human experience, but inconvenient truths for legal discourse or Title IX investigators, who here, in their struggle to make sense of our narrator’s experience, come across as the most naïve of the characters involved.

Sacrificed in favor of attention to such disorientation is attention to poetry, largely the subject of hearsay in these pages, witnessed only in glimpses:

Disquiet: a word he would always scrawl on the pages of my stories, describing the sensation of mutedness; like the grazing of a hand over thinly veiled flesh, or a scream muffled into a pillow, or a memory that has no words, maybe a body tumbling in slow motion through a space unbound by gravity, or the soft roar one might hear if one amplified the sound of an eyelash fluttering—

Poetry, after all, has no place in Title IX investigations, though it is central to the situation here, to definitions of intimacy and to the actual work of teaching supposedly taking place. But the legal mind here labels anything expressing emotion with the words “[potential evidence?].” There’s something surgical to that, like the swipes of red marker that redact so-called sensitive information from the emails reproduced here.

The objectivity of the medical is what legal discourse seeks to emulate, of course, as if our actions were symptoms: “Doe reports experiencing increasing paranoia that the college administration is ‘surveilling’ her and Professor X,” reads one Title IX passage. “Doe has ‘panic attack’ in Sylvia Plath section of the college library. Reports suddenly becoming overcome by a feeling that ‘she can no longer recognize or trust her surroundings,’ accompanied by ‘acute dizziness and a loss of breath.’” This, of course, is the voice of authority, the discourse of power. Cheshire gives us Foucault versus Plath.

How is it that I’ve come to hold two contradictory memories at once?” our narrator asks. This is not a question legal discourse can handle, just as such discourse cannot compute the double disavowal in this statement, which reads as fraught with truth: “I said I shouldn’t be here. He said, you shouldn’t be here—I leaned back, he leaned in. He leaned back, I leaned in—” As Cheshire’s narrator says, “We were flesh to flesh, that night in his kitchen—Everything else is subject to interpretation.” Such interpretation is multiple, another instance of power imbalance. Some interpretations have consequences; some just have meaning.

Unravelings is a disturbing book. Here in a moment when social media feeds are filled with the testimonies of #MeToo, when the country itself is represented by a man proud of his history of sexual assault, elected in the wake of his own testimony in praise of abuse as a benefit of power, to explore the shifting surfaces of one person’s experiences and to see, even in the process put in place to help victims, another level of victimization, of disorientation, and of power stripping agency and authority away from an individual—this makes for a painful read, lacking any of the satisfactions of moral or narrative or legal clarity and simultaneously dispelling any illusions we might have, as readers and citizens, that those three forms of clarity are necessarily concurrent, even synonymous. Memory, narrative, and desire, meanwhile, are revealed as deeply entangled, an entanglement that furthers confusion. Such disorienting force marks this book as a potential prompt for several necessary discussions—particularly about power and about legal culture, on campus and off campus.

Official Etchings Press Web Site

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