Whatever else it should have—women in white or doors that won’t close or the governess who fell in love with the valet—a ghost story must, M. R. James says, pass one test. You should think on hearing it: “If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me.”
What else should it have? It’s usually at night; it’s hard to tell what’s true or false; it’s somehow about the past, about history, about a preceding event that cannot, in this moment, be fixed by the one who is being haunted. There’s an unveiling where something that seemed normal (a room? a sound? a person?) turns out to be a horror: sometimes immediately, sometimes after (the hitchhiker who died years before you dropped her off). It’s rarely believed, or maybe, you only believe it when it happens to you.
“Some people do not believe in ghosts,” Charlotte Riddell writes: “For that matter, some people do not believe in anything.”
I think my rape was a ghost story. (Maybe lots of them are?) At least in the sense of genre. You can switch out a ghost for all sorts of things and keep the motif stable: a changeling, a golem, a vampire. But I think that’s a mistake. It’s not monstrous impulses: it’s history that can’t leave the living alone. What allows rape but things from the past, whatever their name—privilege, entitlement, structured structures that function as structuring ones—suddenly taking over, overwhelming the different or new forms that the relationship between those people should have taken? “Structures aren’t people,” an undergrad professor once told my class after we read Catherine MacKinnon and were all—extremely indirectly but, in retrospect, quite obviously—trying to ask how we would have sex again. “But,” he went on, “you have to work to keep it that way, and sometimes that work doesn’t work.”
“And so we run into the first big point about the ghost story that we are going to want to carry with us: ghost stories are often a matter of law, as long as we understand law as the profession that helps us to deal with the past, with its burden: the consequences of past actions,” Simon Hay writes, concluding: “A good lawyer is one who can make the past go away and is so indistinguishable from an exorcist.”
Of course, Hay is talking about the Golden Age of ghost stories, the 1880s to the 1920s, and about a specific story, the one quoted above: Riddell’s “Open Door,” where a lawyer rids a great hall of its ghost. But I am talking about my friend and I—who were both lawyers and, by most accounts, good. You don’t know me, but anyone who did would not be surprised that I chose restorative justice as my exorcism. I would have told you, at the time, that I was too tired for transformative and too realistic for retributive. I would have said that I wanted to deal with just this one ghost, not all of those that haunt the carceral state, nor an entire system constructed to favor him over me (Juan Rulfo’s “un ruego contra miles de ruegos”). Years later, I told a friend, I worried that I had been less concerned with deterrence than with a specific opportunity. The one where I get to say to him: I am stronger than you—in this way, if not, as we discovered, rather violently, in another. I don’t need a structural explanation or the State to back me up. This is personal: you are accountable to me. The one where I get to hear him say to me: I did this to you. I don’t know, even now, if this is an unintended consequence or the promise of restorative justice.
In fiction, the Golden Age of ghosts gives way to the detective. And maybe it’s that way for most women. (And some men, yes, but we’re talking about form.) You see enough ghosts and then you become a detective, but a special kind, who tries to prevent crime by acting on information that—in the future conditional—would become clues. A medievalist wants to take a group of students to the movies (surprise it’s just you!). A client wants to discuss his case, but at a bar (surprise it’s not his case!). I was young when I learned to make my life with men one of hedging bets and folding and occasionally just not playing at all. I lost some anyway, obviously, and even if you haven’t, I imagine most people reading this have been at the table when another woman loses.
So, what is restorative justice for the rest of table? Or, I suppose, is there any? Everyone is standing around a body of water, watching someone drown, starts the most common law school hypothetical on the subject. Which one of them has a legal duty to help? Very few, you find out. Bystander accountability, a minor issue in the classroom, becomes a major one outside, especially for those of you who, like me, have had the dubious occasion to love or work with or for men who were other women’s ghosts. When it was my friends who were the accused, I tried to do what I thought the rest of the table should: balancing care and honesty with not disavowing other women. I am almost certain, though, that I mostly failed, in part because I did not fully understand that while I, like many women, was taught to follow the rules of the game, This Man Might Rape You, none of these men—my friends, others’ rapists—needed to bother with its analogue, Might I Rape You.
Some people don’t believe in ghosts.
The ultimate promise of transformative justice is addressing the positive obligations of the entire relational field—everyone in and around and under the water—which seems so desperately important to me now. Because here’s a thing that actually keeps me up at night: you can, hopefully, with luck, with true commitment, with societal support, raise your son not to rape. But I can’t raise my daughter not to be raped.
If you’re not very careful—or even if you are—something of this kind may happen to you.