Book Review: Any Man by Amber Tamblyn (2018)

June 29th, 2018 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A Searing Indictment of Rape Culture

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for rape, including the rape of children and nonhuman animals, as well as victim blaming, transphobia, suicide, PTSD, anorexia, self-injury, and more.)

It’s a pain … it’s a cellular pain now, okay? It’s not a memory, it lives in me like a heart.

Ten years ago, I was having a beer with a friend after work and a few hours later, I was violently assaulted and left for dead behind a dumpster. No, worse—I was left for living. My assaulter wanted me to live through what I had experienced. It was a gesture of torture, a most excruciating gift.

She was just a normal woman.
She had brown hair and brown eyes.
She wasn’t pretty. She wasn’t ugly.
She wasn’t really old but she wasn’t young either. She was just a normal woman.

When I first read the synopsis for Any Man, I was skeptical. Best case scenario, I thought it might be a well-meaning – but ultimately doomed – attempt to foster empathy for survivors of rape by switching up the genders: making the perpetrator a woman, and her victims men. I say doomed because, let’s face it: the same misogynist stereotypes that blame and shame women also silence male victims. If women are the weaker sex, how frail must a man be to be physically overpowered by a woman? How can a woman “rape” a man when intercourse hinges on his arousal? (Assuming a pretty narrow definition of rape or sexual assault, this.) If men are DTF 24/7, how can one possibly be raped? And so on and so forth.

Worst case scenario, I worried that Maude – the “serial female rapist who preys on men” – would be reduced to a femi-Nazi caricature, a bitter, man-hating harpy who attacks and emasculates random men, perhaps as a misguided form of revenge for past trauma. Maybe she’d even inspire her own fan club or copycat vigilante group. And while there are echos of this misogynist cutout in the public’s reaction to Maude, I think we’re meant to see it as ridiculous, even horrifying. Because, at the core of Tamblyn’s writing lives a sense of compassion for Maude’s victims – and, by extension, all victims/survivors – as well as a keen and incisive understanding of the trauma they’ve experienced.

Honestly, when I realized that Amber Tamblyn was the author, that’s the moment I decided to take a chance on Any Man. Her feminist cred earned her the benefit of the doubt; if anyone could do this story justice, I thought (hoped) it might be her. And Tamblyn does not disappoint: this is easily one of the “best” books I’ve read this year. Acerbic, witty, and as shrewd as it is painful to read. Any Man is not an easy book to read, or even one that’s particularly enjoyable (though there are some odd, unexpected moments of levity, such as Tamblyn’s imagined Twitter celeb reactions), but it’s powerful and memorable and really goddamn important.

Beginning with Donald Ellis of Watertown, New York, Any Man follows the wake of devastation that a female serial rapist – who the police will eventually dub Maude, after her OkCupid profile – leaves in her wake. The narrative takes place over a period of ten years, as Maude’s victim count grows from one to two to five (undoubtedly much higher since the majority of rapes go unreported, for the very reasons explored here). She operates mainly in the Northeastern United States (as far as we know), and her complete and utter lack of a pattern makes her especially difficult to catch.

Her victims range in age from ten to sixty-four; they are married, or single; they have children, or not; they are white, or biracial; one is an openly gay celebrity, while another is a trans man. Maude may initiate contact with the victims weeks before the encounter, or ambush them entirely. Her choice of weapons and method of attack vary wildly. One thing each attack seems to share in common is its unique depravity. (THIS BOOK COMES WITH A STRONG TRIGGER WARNING.)

One thing this lack of a pattern (which runs contrary to every episode of Law & Order: SVU, like, ever) does is cleverly exposes the hypocrisy of rape culture and victim blaming. Donald Ellis shouldn’t have been out drinking without his wife, the rape apologists argue. And Jamar Sands’s sexual contact with Maude was consensual, at least initially (and until he wasn’t) – how are we to know he didn’t just backtrack when the world found out about his deviant sexual kinks? Or just regret the whole incident the next morning, when he woke up covered in blood that was not his own?

But then there’s Pear O’Sullivan, who Maude ambushed at his door. Pear answered his doorbell and was cold cocked on the head, only to wake up handcuffed to a radiator. Did he somehow invite this attack? And if you can’t rationalize this particular assault away, what does that say of the rest of Maude’s victims?

Despite the popular admonitions – that women’s shouldn’t go out alone, or late at night, or drinking, etc. etc. etc. – a minority of assaults follow this stranger-in-an-alley narrative. More likely, women and men are assaulted by people they know: their boyfriends and husbands, their friends and acquaintances, police officers and priests, and on and on. And these are also the accounts that are least likely to believed. If an assailant could be anyone, even someone you know and love and trust, are any of us truly safe? (Plus, there’s the whole presumption that women are sexually available until we can prove to the public’s satisfaction that we are not, so. But I digress.)

As the title suggests, Any Man is more about the survivors than their rapist. Tamblyn tells the story from the alternating perspectives of five (well, six) of Maude’s victims. As the years tick by, we watch them struggle to cope, to heal, to make sense of what they’ve been through, and come out the other side alive, though not unscathed. Some find meaning in activism; Donald, for example, launches an America’s Most Wanted-style podcast to help catch (alleged) rapists. Pear attends therapy and becomes a mentor of sorts for Jamar. True to his nature, “controversial provocateur author and TV personality” Sebastian White capitalizes on his tragedy and writes a book. (Totes not judging here.) Michael Parker, Maude’s trans victim, kills himself – though whether because of the assault, or because he’s outed by the national media, is unclear. (Both probably.)

And can we talk about Maude’s last two victims? By introducing Sebastian White – an outspoken, ultra-conservative gay pundit clearly modeled after Milo Yiannopoulos – Tamblyn challenges us to have compassion for all victims, even those who are unlikable and, let’s face it, overtly hostile to Tamblyn’s intended audience. Meanwhile, Michael Parker serves as a reminder that we must be inclusive in our feminism, and take trans and genderqueer folks as they are. While the media insists in misgendering Michael, make no mistake: he was a man, no matter the gender assigned or name given him at birth. Maude seemed to accept this; do you really want to be less progressive than a serial rapist?

While this book does come with a pretty big trigger warning – Maude’s crimes are abhorrent and rival those of Josef Fritzl in sheer sociopathy – Tamblyn thankfully avoids describing the assaults in great detail. She takes great care to remain respectful of the victims – who are fictional, yes, but represent the millions of women and men who will experience rape in their lifetime. The story is told through an odd mix of narrative, stream-of-consciousness, poetry, personal diaries, talk show transcripts, podcasts, tweets, and even a last will and testament. Sometimes these various pieces of media have a special significance to a specific survivor, providing depth, nuance, and a sense of uniqueness to his voice and perspective. The result is weird, at first, but ultimately quite powerful and compelling.

I think Pear made me cry the hardest, between Maggie and his will. Maggie the Magnificent Maple Tree. Holy hell did that story give me feels.

Now that I’ve read Any Man, I’m still not sure what Tamblyn’s intentions were in centering male survivors. So much of the victim blaming that’s thrown their way is nearly identical to the bullshit women survivors face; it almost feels interchangeable. There were moments – more often than not – when I stopped thinking of the characters as male survivors and just thought of them as survivors, period. No doubt women who have experienced rape and sexual assault will find much to which they can relate. Perhaps Tamblyn’s intention was simply to get eyeballs on the page – or male eyeballs that wouldn’t normally bother with a book about rape?

Whatever her reasons, Any Man is a valuable addition to the literature on rape culture. I think it might be especially useful to those who know someone who has been assaulted – Any Man can help the friends and families of survivors understand and empathize with what their loved ones are going through. But then, doesn’t this include most – if not all – of us?

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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