While I was reading An Untamed State, I was not aware of the striking similarities between Roxane Gay and the protagonist of her novel, Mireille Duval Jameson. Gay and Mireille were both born in Nebraska to Haitian parents who moved to the United States in pursuit of better lives. Both had ambitious, hard working fathers that worked as engineers and were able to escape their poverty-stricken roots to start a new life with their families.
Unfortunately, Gay and Mireille both also experienced horrific events in their lives that they continue to struggle with. In the book, Mireille is kidnapped by a gang of armed men that surrounded her car outside of her parent’s mansion in Port-au-Prince. The book covers her thirteen-day captivity in the slums while the leader of the gang, the Commander, attempts to force her father to pay a ransom for her release. Being kidnapped is only the beginning for Mireille. Her stubborn father refuses to pay the ransom and as a result she is gang raped, beaten, and tortured. The riveting, yet excruciatingly detailed story chronicles her experiences during captivity, as well as her seemingly impossible attempts to recover from the events and rejoin society.
Roxane Gay was gang raped in the seventh grade- by the boy she considered to be her boyfriend and his friends. She went on a bike ride in the woods with him and ended up in an “abandoned hunting cabin the woods where no one but the boys who were there could hear me scream.” Read her personal account here. Gay chose not to tell anyone about the sexual assault and attempted to move on from it.
The Guardian reported years later, “on the face of it, her life was good. She had a well-off, supportive family, a strong academic record, a potentially sunny future. But she had spent seven years struggling with the unmanageable secret of a childhood sexual assault, and her life was unraveling”. Gay abandoned her studies at Yale and fled to Arizona with a 44 year old man. She cut off all communications with the outside world, and only returned to the Untied States when her parents found her. Afterwards, she remained close to home to finish her studies at a local university, and later began writing as an outlet and escape.
Gay is 39 now, and over the last 18 years she has published countless pieces of fiction and non-fiction, only to find herself described in recent months as an overnight sensation. Gay is a social activist and has been able to use her platform to tell her stories, as well as those of others, in order to raise awareness about different social issues in order to spark changes.
Gay got her idea for An Untamed State after hearing her parent's Haitian friends tell a story about a kidnapping in Haiti. She set her story in Haiti as well , and as previously noted, created a protagonist that comes from a very similar background as herself.
The first person account of Mireille's kidnapping, rape, and torture were extremely difficult for me to read. I cringed throughout the book and was desperately hoping her ransom would be paid. It wasn't, and I read and learned about things that I didn't imagine could happen. I realized that I didn't know true cruelty. I hadn't seen helplessness. “My own experiences with sexual violence gave me insight into the aftermath Mireille experienced,” Gay later writes in an e-mail. “That sense of being unmoored from the life you previously [led], and the determination it takes to try and get back to a new normal.” Gay's unfortunate experiences gave this story a personal feel that gave me insight into harrowing realities associated with kidnapping and rape
Violence and kidnapping have become increasingly prevalent in our society because it is "exciting", but as a result we fail to realize the real consequences these things have in the real world. Gay said she is "troubled by how we have allowed such intellectual distances between violence and the representation of violence. We talk about rape, but we don't carefully talk about rape."
Gay uses her story to dispel the popular opinion our society has of rape and violence. These things do actually happen to real people and lead to long term struggles. Gay's powerful novel opened my eyes up to the unfortunate reality many have had to face.
With regards to her story, Gay wrote:
I am not brave. I am not strong. I am not special. I am one woman who has experienced something countless women have experienced. That’s what matters here, that having this kind of story is utterly common and that perhaps, by sharing these stories, we can become appropriately horrified about how much suffering is borne of violence."
I think it should be unreadable or unwatchable when you talk about sexual violence," Gay says. "So I tried to write to that point of unreadability, where you have to look away. It's not that I wanted to traumatize the reader, but I wanted to be true to the story as I felt it needed to be told. And so I stared the violence down instead of writing around it. I made myself cry a couple of times, but then I would step back and remind myself that it was a novel."
"Gay is a remarkable writer, an astute observer of Haitian society and a deeply sympathetic, unflinching chronicler of the compromises people make in order to survive under the most extreme conditions.”
AUTHOR OF LITTLE CHILDREN
AND NINE INCHES