by Delaney McLemore
Behind the story you hear is the one I wish I could make you hear. -Dorothy Allison
When my car rolled down Third Avenue in Huntington, West Virginia, for the first time in five years, I watched the buildings I’d known shift with time. What used to be Shamrock’s Bar, where I smoked my first cigarette, was a shuttered building, still silent in the years since closing. Further down the road, past Marshall University’s contained campus (a strip of city blocks clogged with sweatpants-clad students), there are new hotspots, places I’ve seen my old friends frequenting on Facebook.
Five years after moving away from Huntington, it would be easier for me to list the restaurants I felt safe in, rather than the list of food I would not buy. I took a left on Fifteenth Street, passed the bar where my first rapist (yes, first; while I lived in Huntington, I survived sexual assault multiple times) had been a bouncer; a right on Fourth Avenue, past where Club Echo had been, where he took me as an underage first-year student to sip vodka drinks the color of NyQuil. I rolled toward downtown, parallel to the Ohio River, and passed the series of establishments that had knowingly employed my own and other sexual predators, even after public condemnation. My skin was mottled with goose flesh. It felt like their ghosts were looming.
The first ghost arose from my nineteenth birthday, when I was raped by my then-boyfriend.
The first ghost arose from my nineteenth birthday, when I was raped by my then-boyfriend. I realized what had happened four days later, after the fog of Jägermeister cleared from my head. When I reported what had happened to the graduate student advisor of our shared program, I was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement maintaining I would not report the assault as long as I was protected from further harm. Under duress, I agreed to the terms: my rapist was banned from contacting me; I wouldn’t be required to work with him; I would be safe in that space. The next day, he was at his computer when I entered the office. He pretended I wasn’t there. I was forced to continue as though nothing had happened.
Early on in my recovery from the assault, I learned the only way I felt vindicated was when I saw someone’s face as I told them what happened. They looked crestfallen, then they would comfort me. Weeks later, those same disappointed faces were laughing with my attacker in their wedding photos, or at a football game in Cleveland. When all the people we knew had heard my story, I went wider. At every bar I blacked out in, at every restaurant that hired him (after he dropped out and decided to become a chef), I would make it known: that man is a rapist. Two and half years after the attack, he apologized, started inviting me out for drinks where he worked. His bosses, a team of brothers who had scooped my attacker out of poverty, knew what he had done to me. He had told them. And then they promoted him. By the time I left Huntington, I was well known for my outspoken activism related to sexual violence. My first rapist’s name was synonymous with my own, tied to the places he worked and the people who shielded him.
I come from small-town Oregon, from a rural community whose two largest industries are timber and academia. It wasn’t until I left Oregon, though, that I felt I was a part of a community. I learned what that meant in West Virginia, the only state entirely within the Appalachian Mountains. The connective tissue of an Appalachian whisper network is the size of its communities, insulated as they are due to the intersection of systemic environmental, economic, and sociological factors. The stereotypes of Appalachia come to mind: flashes of The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia cutting to Jamie Oliver quotes from his time trying to change Huntington, WV’s eating habits. The girl drunk in the back of a pickup truck, smoking a Pall Mall light and listening to Tyler Childers on the radio. These inflated images are how people want to view Appalachia, and West Virginia in particular, because then there is someone to feel better than. When outsiders enter this space (like I did and continue to do), there is quick and swift vetting. In maintaining their tightknit, small population (necessary for the creation of whisper networks), the people of Appalachia choose to protect their own, to keep their communities safe and informed in order to combat the outside forces that have for so long blighted their lives.
In the Weird Appalachia group, a digital microcosm of politically left Appalachia, much of the page is filled with images of radical anarchist opossum and raccoon memes and the sharing of events or writing. Peppering this feed of the funny and informative are warnings, mostly from women, about predators in our community. “This guy Kyle[*] has been arrested on multiple counts of sexual abuse by a person in a position of trust.” “…Know that the guy who directed this film is a confirmed rapist and there are receipts on this matter. He’s admitted it in writing.” “I’m finally putting his face with the experience I’ve shared openly. This is completely unacceptable and he should have left me the fuck alone.” Posts warn Asheville, Lexington, and other cities and towns of specific risky men, followed by supportive comments from the group members. Here, space is being taken to share the knowledge of harm in order to prevent further abuses. This is the essential purpose of a whisper network and it often comes in response to failed protections by the systems supposed to protect us.
On the Internet, in friend networks, across small towns and cities throughout Appalachia, whisper networks are used to reclaim agency in response to our choices being taken. This tradition is inherited, a generational protection tactic passed between grandmothers and aunts, mothers and daughters. I found families of women in West Virginia who adopted me as though I were their own daughter or niece. We see this reflected in the work of Dorothy Allison, an Appalachian writer well-known for her keen portrayals of life in Southern Appalachia. With her fictional work in the short story collection Trash and the novel Bastard Out of Carolina, Allison forces her audience to confront poverty, incest, abuse of children, generational depression, and the mythic tenderness of childhoods forged by fire. The works are known to be semi-autobiographical, so Allison’s turn to nonfiction in her hybrid memoir/performance piece, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, was an answer to the questions lingering underneath her fictional writing: how much of what she wrote had really happened to her?
Allison uses Two or Three Things to tell not just the tragic story of the violence she faced as a child, but the beauty her mother radiated, the care she felt for her sisters, and the lessons she learned from her aunts and other women relatives. It’s here where Allison reveals the whisper networks that shaped the lives of these Appalachian women, the grandmothers and mothers of the women living in Appalachia now. Recalling the ways people spoke of her family, Allison writes,
“My cousins and I were never virgins, even when we were. Like the stories told about Janis Joplin in Port Arthur, Texas, there were stories about us in Greenville, South Carolina. The football players behind the bleachers, boys who went on to marry and do well.
‘Hell, it wasn’t rape. She never said no. Maybe she said stop, but in that little bitty voice, so you know she wants you to love her, hell, love her for ten minutes or half an hour. Shit, who could love a girl like her?’”(36)
The stories that passed between the people in the town, those who chose to see what they wanted to see when they looked at these girls, the never-pure, were their own kind of whisper network, the more insidious variety.
The stories that passed between the people in the town, those who chose to see what they wanted to see when they looked at these girls, the never-pure, were their own kind of whisper network, the more insidious variety. When society marks vulnerable people with slander, there are predators who will hear of their potential prey. In Allison’s story of the women in her family, and in the larger whisper networks of Appalachia, predators use the reputation framed by society to justify their damage. With the insulated nature of communities in the Appalachian Mountains, shaped by forces both optional and ingrained, information can become just as quickly harmful as it is protective.
In the whisper networks created within a family or a group of friends who have earned trust, the less-than-flattering, the offensive, and the tragic histories and lessons of each life are shared as a way of warning, to create a different opportunity for those not yet soiled by harm. Allison explains how she learned what life she wanted watching the women she loved:
I thought about stories I’d been told, about women whose men left them or stayed to laugh out the sides of their mouths when other men mentioned other women’s names. Behind my aunt Dot was a legion of female cousins and great-aunts, unknown and nameless—snuff-sucking, empty-faced creatures changing spindles at the textile plant, chewing gum while frying potatoes at the truck stop, exhausted, angry, and never loved enough. (37)
A whisper network is only as effective as those willing to believe the knowledge imparted… and if they don’t, it could turn around and cause worse damage to the person who shared.
Allison is able to find protection in the wisdom of her aunts, using the information that they share with her about how their lives were formed in order to avoid the same pitfalls. They warned her with their complaints, their affairs, their wound-tending that a life beyond that struggle could be within her reach—but she had to choose to follow the difference in herself. A whisper network is only as effective as those willing to believe the knowledge imparted… and if they don’t, it could turn around and cause worse damage to the person who shared.
I asked the people of Weird Appalachia what they considered whisper networks in their lives. A woman from North Carolina messaged me about a man she knew who was facing the reality of an abuser in his life: a friend had been outed as a violent sexual predator and the men in their community who had found this out were prepared to forcibly exile the predator, packing up his belongings in the middle of the night and telling him to leave town. It reminded me of an episode of a crime drama, and I imagined her friend holding the man by his neck against a wall. Another woman, who I met but lost touch with, reminded me of the time I outed her rapist on Facebook for hurting someone else. She said she was glad I did it, but had been angry then. It was her story to tell.
In Appalachia, the sense of community is informed as much by the landscape that defines the region as the social and cultural touchstones that have lasted over time. Whisper networks have been, and continue to be, a tool used within Appalachian communities, both large and small, in order to protect vulnerable populations from facing harm. As communication technologies continue to offer new opportunities for sharing knowledge, the people of Appalachia will continue to adapt and define justice outside of a broken legal system. With a whisper of a name, something can be restored.
I wrote a poem about taking my first rapist’s name and using it for my daughter, a gender-queering of a word that would have its critics (my mother included). It came from a thought I had, about how his name no longer held any power. About how I had taken that power from him. In participating in Appalachian whisper networks and outing my rapists in order to protect others, I have turned the facts of their invasions into action of my own. By sharing these stories, we turn what has happened to us into a testimony.
Delaney McLemore is currently pursuing her MFA in Nonfiction Writing at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Her work can be found in Entropy, Anastamos, and The Public Magazine. She lives in New York.
[*] Names have been changed
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