Mac McClelland wrote for years from disaster zones. Last week she wrote from inside the experience of her own PTSD and how violent sex helped her cope. Now she faces both backlash and praise.
By **Lauren Kelly**
By arrangement with AlterNet.org.
Journalist Mac McClelland is known for her fearless reporting from disaster-stricken regions—the Gulf Coast following the BP oil spill and post-earthquake Haiti, for instance.
But since the June 27 publication of her essay “I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me on This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD” on the GOOD magazine website, McClelland has become a more controversial figure. While much of the public conversation about the piece has been productive, some of the criticisms have been off-base. Worse, there are some media outlets (namely, mainstream media outlets) that have twisted McClelland’s essay into a narrative about how she “staged her own rape”—something McClelland neither claimed nor inferred in her essay, thus blurring the line, dangerously, between consensual violent sex and rape.
The essay describes how McClelland’s reporting trips to places like Haiti left her “undone” and suffering from PTSD. It also contains a description of how McClelland learned to process that trauma by first fantasizing about, and then engaging in, violent sex.
Here McClelland discusses those fantasies with her therapist:
“‘All I want is to have incredibly violent sex,’ I told Meredith. Since I’d left Port-au-Prince, I could not process the thought of sex without violence. And it was easier to picture violence I controlled than the abominable nonconsensual things that had happened to [Haitian rape victim] Sybille.”
Later in the piece, McClelland describes an intentionally violent sexual encounter with a man named Isaac:
“And with that he was on me, forcing my arms to my sides, then pinning them over my head, sliding a hand up under my shirt when I couldn’t stop him. The control I’d lost made my torso scream with anxiety; I cried out desperately as I kicked myself free. But it didn’t matter how many times I managed to knock him over to the other side of the bed. He’s got 60 pounds on me, plus the luxuries of patience and fearlessness. When I got out from under him and started to scramble away, he simply caught me by a leg or an upper arm or my hair and dragged me back. By the time he pinned me by my neck with one forearm so I was forced to use both hands to free up space between his elbow and my windpipe, I’d largely exhausted myself… I did not enjoy it in the way a person getting screwed normally would. But as it became clear that I could endure it, I started to take deeper breaths. And my mind stayed there, stayed present even when it became painful, even when he suddenly smothered me with a pillow, not to asphyxiate me but so that he didn’t break my jaw when he drew his elbow back and slammed his fist into my face. Two, three, four times. My body felt devastated but relieved; I’d lost, but survived.”
Many reactions to McClelland’s piece have focused on the writer’s courage and strength for sharing such difficult details of her life. In fact, as noted in a Ms. Magazine interview with McClelland, most of the reactions have been positive, along the lines of:
“In a world where too few people have the guts to talk about the many, many ways post-traumatic stress disorder can truly screw up your sex life, I am so proud to say that I know someone who has the personal strength to face the possible (unwarranted!) backlash and hurtful responses this piece could bring in exchange for standing up and making sure that the millions of people around the world who are dealing with PTSD for many reasons know that they are not ‘the only’s.’”
At the same time, some people have expressed that they are troubled by McClelland’s therapist apparently supporting violent sex as a treatment for McClelland’s PTSD, without a disclaimer in the piece that such therapies are not typically recommended for PTSD sufferers. (While McClelland says her therapist was initially “wholly unmoved” by her talk of trying to control violence, she eventually asked McClelland, “Do you have anyone who can do that for you?”)
“It’s going to take more than Slate putting my face on their front page, connected to an article that says I’m a whiny racist narcissist, to deter me from writing about this, because I think it’s important. ”
Beyond those rather reasonable concerns, the essay has been interpreted in a much worse light by a number of people. For instance, a group of 36 female journalists and researchers who have all live or worked in Haiti responded with an open letter to GOOD, noting that while they respect “the heart” of McClelland’s essay, they “believe the way she uses Haiti as a backdrop for this narrative is sensationalist and irresponsible.”
Even more provocative was a piece in Slate’s XX Factor by Marjorie Valbrun. Titled “Mac McClelland: What’s Happening in Haiti is Not About You,” the piece argues that McClelland’s essay is “another clichéd, egocentric article about documenting unimaginably terrible things experienced by powerless, broken, poor people who are victimized on a regular basis.” She adds, “I’m annoyed that people are often more interested in a story about poor black people/poor black country/genocide in the Sudan/etc. when the central character in that story is a white person.”
While Valbrun and the journalists who wrote the open letter are correct that Haiti is all too often portrayed as a “heart of darkness” and that narratives about white visitors are often met with more interest than stories about actual Haitians, some other journalists pointed out that many of the arguments made against McClelland were unfair. Afghanistan-based journalist Una Moore:
“McClelland’s piece for GOOD is not a scholarly article about Haitian history. It is not even a reporting piece about Haiti today. It is a personal essay about one reporter’s literally physical battle with her psychological demons. (How difficult is it for other media professionals to distinguish between these?) McClelland isn’t obligated to fill her essay with any more context than is necessary to make sense of her own actions.”
She adds, “The piece is titled ‘I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease my PTSD,’ NOT ‘I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How I Eased my PTSD with Violent Sex and You Can Too!’ It is not a how-to guide.”
In response to the “What’s Happening in Haiti Is Not About You” headline, McClelland tweeted, “Word. Hence: http://mojo.ly/gZg6aZ,” linking to one of her in-depth reported pieces on Haiti.
She also defended her piece in the Ms. Magazine interview:
“This was not my Haiti coverage; this was about me. In terms of the depiction of Haiti, none of those other journalists are denying that Haiti has a serious, serious rape problem. There are a lot of guns in Haiti—that is also true. And that’s pretty much the only thing I say about Haiti, other than my personal experience there with a couple of unfortunate and predatory men.
I knew that something was going to happen. I just didn’t know that a New York Times correspondent was going to be so ridiculous as to suggest [on Twitter] that because I had sex with a [French] peacekeeper I am a geisha for the NGO-industrial complex.”
She makes it clear that she isn’t backing down. “This won’t be the last thing that I write about this particular issue,” she says. “It’s going to take more than Slate putting my face on their front page, connected to an article that says I’m a whiny racist narcissist, to deter me from writing about this, because I think it’s important.”
Copyright 2011 Lauren Kelley
This post originally appeared at Alternet.org.
Lauren Kelley is an associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer and editor who has contributed to Change.org, The L Magazine and Time Out New York. She lives in Brooklyn.