Nonfiction | Intersections

A Response to Biden’s Open Letter

On the things that get projected back from a blank slate

Vice President Biden, I saw your letter to the unnamed woman who was a victim of rape on the Stanford campus. I wanted to appreciate your support for the powerful solidarity it seemed intended to offer. But I couldn’t. Your letter did things you did not intend for it to do.

Her forceful statement to her attacker stirred a nation. She wrote about the places she found pine needles, and by the end of the letter, they seemed like parasites. Her words made me reflect on the life cycle of sexual assault: how it incubates in society, finds a willing host to do its bidding, lodges its molted barbs into victims, and then gets replicated in the police station, the courts, and our living rooms. They calmed her down, she said, by reminding her, “it’s just the flora and fauna, flora and fauna.”

She didn’t address her attacker by name. Or, maybe more accurately, she unmistakeably addressed us all: “You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me,” she said, “and that’s why we’re here today.”

Vice President Biden, I want to think more about why we’re here today.

In your compassionate response to her statement, you did what so many victims of sexual assault wish to have people do: you believed her. You took care to blame her attacker as an individual, and as a product of the culture of rape that goes far beyond him. (And for the record, like others who have considered these systems in depth, in cases of rape, I prefer the word “victim” to “survivor.”)

You respected her anonymity — the same anonymity that allowed countless other women to see themselves in her pain. The gallantry of your response also allowed countless other men to see themselves in your anger. But as you repeated the phrase “I do not know your name,” I felt my stomach sink in despair: five times, you confirmed that your letter was not to one individual rape victim — not really. Rather, your letter was to every woman this one woman represents. For me, it begged the question: who did she represent to you?

I don’t know much about the victim. I don’t know how old she is; where she went to school and for how long; whether the doctors who examined her, or the police who questioned her, or the journalists who wrote about her saw her as sympathetic, believable, and white. But I know that many white women my age — women who have attended parties at schools like Stanford, and may or may not have experienced similar assaults — could see ourselves clearly in the victim’s words. I wonder, if the victim had used words that were less familiar to people like me; if she had written in a style that marked her as a member of another ethnic group or another class; would women like me have found it so easy to rush righteously, symbolically, to her side? Would you have?

Why did you choose her as the ideal victim to receive your generous public solidarity?

In your letter, you wrote, “I see the limitless potential of an incredibly talented young woman — full of possibility. I see the shoulders on which our dreams for the future rest.” The woman is indeed remarkably talented, courageous, and inspiring. But were those the reasons you stood up for her?

I appreciate what you as an individual did for her as an individual with your open letter. And I believe it brought comfort and hope to many others, besides. But Vice President Biden, you’ve been in public service for a long time. And while your letter was special and striking, I am even more struck by the commonalities across all of the cases on which you’ve been silent.

Where were you last fall, when you could have directed your virtuous outrage toward the attackers who murdered Keshia Jenkins? You are a longtime champion of measures to combat violence against women. As a black, transgender woman, Jenkins was a member of a group who experiences astronomical rates of gender-based violence — including rape and murder. As a student at Temple University, Jenkins was also a member of another group you singled out for extra care and attention in your letter: college women.

Only you know why the particulars of Jenkins’ story did not provoke the sort of response you had for the victim at Stanford. I believe that you are mindful of the symbolism of your office, and try to use your platform to effect helpful change. But I also know that you are an elected leader of a democratic system: your power both a product of the will of the people, and a force that can, in turn, change it. When you chose the words you chose in your open letter, which of these was at the front of your mind? Did you feel that you were mirroring the values and priorities of the people you represent? Or were you trying to help us be better?

Vice President Biden, I know that your letter came from a good place. But when I zoom out and look at the whole situation, I believe it is part of the problem. When I read the victim’s letter, beyond a woman who is thoughtful, compassionate, and eloquent, I saw a blank canvas. I imagine this made her an ideal person for you to be associated with. In the absence of details about her life, she could be a perfect symbol. She could be whatever we needed her to be.

What makes for a good political ally? Is it someone who has never overstayed a visa? Never broken a law? Never engaged in work that some find immoral?

Vice President Biden, I’ve done all of those things. Each one of them. If my life were to take a horrific turn, and I were to find myself in a courtroom, face to face with a man who had raped me, would my testimony be articulate enough to win credibility and sympathy from a judge, or a Vice President? What are the qualities that make a victim sympathetic? And what do our answers to that question tell us about ourselves?

Vice President Biden, when I read your letter, I saw the supportive words of one man trying to comfort and help heal a young woman. But I also saw your words in the context of a long and deeply ugly legacy. I saw the public performance of protective indignation that white men have enacted over the bodies of white women since this country’s earliest days. Emmett Till was lynched because some white men in Mississippi felt protective indignation about a white woman. In his failed presidential bid, Ted Cruz seemed to speak exclusively to the men among his mostly white supporters when he portrayed trans people using the restroom as an almost existential threat to “your daughter” and “your wife.” Again and again, these men invoke the urgency of the safety of white women’s bodies — but noticeably, no one else’s.

Vice President Biden, you wrote of your “furious anger” that the victim at Stanford was “ever put in the position of defending [her] own worth.” Who are the ones you think should be doing it for her?

Does everyone deserve those allies, or just some people?

By choosing this woman to support this time, in this way, Vice President Biden, I think you’re actually part of the problem. What was clearer than all the words in your letter was the message that this woman mattered more: wherever she sits in the hierarchy that orders our lives, the very existence of your letter said this woman belongs at the top. This is the story of a woman who deserves to be elevated.

I don’t know why any person rapes another person, but I know that in every case, it has to do with re-enforcing power and hierarchies.

Your letter closed a narrative loop that America loves. Knowing only of her profound suffering, uncomplicated by knowledge of the ways she is different from us, we could only try to feel her pain. And then we got to enjoy the cosmic satisfaction of a hero vindicating her honor.

I’ve been thinking about what it means that she was unconscious at the time of her rape, and that she was unnamed at the time you wrote your letter.

What makes a perfect rape victim? If she had cried, or screamed, or explained her feelings, would it have been less fun for the rapist? If the public knew her name now, are you afraid that the media would talk about some part of her past, and politicize your support for her? What details of a life could make the act of supporting her inconvenient for you? 

If people knew her name, would it turn out that she was imperfect like the rest of us?