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How a 1950s film helped me understand my pain after sexual assault like nothing else could

April 22, 2019 9:00 am

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Here, HG contributor Ryan Coleman reflects on how  1950 film, Outrage, directed by Ida Lupino, addresses the trauma survivors experience after rape like no other film of its time—or ever. Please read with caution if these subjects trigger you.

Everything happened when I was 16. And again when I was 18, and then at 21. Now it feels like nothing happens at all.

Last year, I attended Turner Classic Movies’ Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. I was six months into an internship at a film magazine. Though I fantasized about the festival being a big networking opportunity, I found myself more or less alone, wandering in and out of screenings scattered along Hollywood Boulevard. No one to tell me what to do, but no one to share my time with. No one paying me to be there, but no one waiting on my dime. It was essential Los Angeles, alone and surrounded by a sea of thousands.

Early that Saturday, I padded my sleepy eyes like a cat and walked into the dusty, geometric courtyard of the Egyptian Theatre. The Egyptian was Hollywood’s original temple to cinema before founder Sid Grauman set up shop at the Chinese Theatre a few blocks west and started doing the handprints in cement thing. I saw The Wizard of Oz here when I had just turned 17, trekking the intimidating distance from the San Gabriel Valley with my friend Emily in my mom’s Chevy. After the movie, in that same courtyard, a man grabbed Emily’s wrist. He glided between the two of us like a ballroom dancer, his back at a slight gentlemanly bent. I couldn’t see Emily’s face. She squirmed away, struck by panic, and grabbed my hand. We ran onto the sidewalk without looking back—I don’t think either of us wanted to remember what he looked like.

I hadn’t told Emily what had happened to me only months before, and she had never told me what was always happening to her. Somehow, we both knew. Later in the car, safely munching on Del Taco crinkle fries, she confirmed something that we’d both been learning about being femme or female in this world. “It’s like what the witch says. When she’s melting,” she said to me.

I smiled but kept focused on driving. “I’m melting?”

“After that,” she said, staring at the road being sucked underneath us. “What a world. What a world!”

As people piled into the Egyptian, I settled into a seat under the projection booth in the back. There were empty seats on either side of me. I didn’t think too many people would come to this kind of movie at this time of day. I was wrong. The space around me quickly filled up with men. My soft, genderless body hardened, guarded. I glanced down to ensure that the man suit I’d plastered over it was convincing enough as luminescent beams broke out over me, striking the screen: Ida Lupino Presents, “OUTRAGE.”

Outrage is a low budget, 75-minute black and white film that English-born actress Ida Lupino directed in 1950. It tells a story of rape and its aftermath with an unusual, compelling mix of documentary storytelling and noir aesthetics. At the center of the film is Ann, a young woman from Capitol City, a midwestern American town experiencing a postwar industrial revitalization. Ann’s life is good and her future is bright—she’s employed as a draftsperson at a local mill, she’s engaged to a devoted young man (Robert Clarke), and she lives with supportive parents.  Every afternoon, Ann visits a lunch cart on the mill campus and picks up dessert for herself and her fiancé Jim. She silently bears the crude pickup attempts of the grease-stained counter attendant while she waits for her order. We understand this is part of her daily routine.

Early into the film, Ann works late one night. On her way home, the camera captures her at the top of a flight of stairs, emerging into a different kind of world—one unlike the sunshine-filled Leave it to Beaver hamlet of the film’s opening. This is a bleary, shadow-soaked world of violence and isolation threatening to drag Ann in like a sinkhole. The rejected waiter pursues Ann in a horrifying six-minute sequence accompanied only by the sound of her frantic footsteps and cries for help. The man rapes Ann, which the censors at the time prohibited Lupino from depicting. An exhausted Ann collapses on a truck horn which blares through the attack—this was Lupino’s substitution. Lupino later described its intended effect as “puncturing” the audience.

What follows is, full stop, the most honest and unrelenting depiction of trauma I’ve ever seen committed to film.

Outrage violates one of the unspoken rules of writing that we don’t often talk about—probably because we don’t want to believe that it’s also an unspoken rule of life: When something bad happens to us, we are supposed to be granted a reprieve so that we can learn something, pursue justice, or heal. But after this unimaginably horrible thing happens to Ann, bad things don’t stop happening to her.

Instead, the rape drops into the ecosystem of Ann’s inner life like a toxic pollutant, seeping out and infecting everything it touches. The careful arrangement of her young life—parents, job, fiancé—now crowds in on her, breathing down her neck and grabbing at her wrist. Nothing has changed, but that’s the problem—Ann has. There was only room for who she was, not for everything she has since taken on.

I didn’t describe what happened to me at 16 as rape until a police officer informed me that it was. I didn’t describe it as anything at all until I had to.

At 18, my rapist went to prison and I had to tell my parents everything. In two months, I’d move from California to Washington for college. Then my mother was diagnosed with cancer. At 21, the day of my graduation, she died. In the dark of the Egyptian, months and years after all that, a powerful feeling broke over me. At once relief, bitter depression, and, yes, outrage. I couldn’t believe someone so long ago had gotten it so right.

Ann flees Capitol City after being met with disbelief and excruciating pity. By the end of the film, she has settled on a citrus farm outside Santa Paula where she is attacked again. This time, a man is mad that she won’t dance with him. In self-defense, Ann bludgeons him over the head with a wrench. A few people in the audience clapped. I covered my mouth to suppress a sob so intense it nearly came out as a scream. Not only will the intrusions never cease, we’ve become so accustomed to them that we respond with applause to a woman not getting raped.

I don’t know how you’re supposed to deal when life just keeps going. For years, I’ve turned to film to cope with the trauma of my rape. Is that because there’s safety in other people’s stories? Is it because of my gender identity? I was raped as a man, but I’m not sure that’s what I am anymore, or ever was. A therapist who I only saw once asked me if rape was the cause of my gender dysphoria; I wanted to slap them. Of course it wasn’t. But now, I think about how tangled everything is: Rape is an attack on someone’s relationship to their own body. At best, it estranges them. More often than not, it explodes every connecting thread. Somewhere between the body of the man who raped me and my own male body, there is an explanation for the deep fear and revulsion I have for men. My gender identity precedes all of this, but how could it be untouched by the turbulence? That’s a story I’m still unraveling.

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For a while, I felt only outrage about Outrage. How has no one heard of it? Why have Ida Lupino’s six vital directorial efforts been buried when the pulpy noirs she starred in are easily streamable? Now, alongside my outrage, there is an odd, evacuating sense of comfort, like the calm after a cry.

Outrage is a connective thread to a kind of collective victims’ past. This is what representation does: it reminds us we exist.

Knowing someone else told the story in a time when stories like that were never told—and not just sympathetically but righteously, indignant—restores a sense of continuity that rape tries to kill. I take that small reassurance and head back to my seat. The reel keeps spinning.