When Jaydn DeWald introduced me to Carmen Maria Machado and Dani’s The Low, Low Woods, I knew that I wanted to include it in my “Monsters, Race, and Comics” class. Jaydn also introduced me to Machado’s “The Husband Stitch,” and before starting The Low, Low Woods we read and discussed Machado’s story in class. One of the overarching themes in both texts deals with the discrediting of sexual assault victims and their experiences. This comes up in “The Husband Stitch,” at multiple points, as I wrote about in the previous post. Specifically, it arises at the end of the story when the narrator says that her husband was not a bad man “[a]nd yet — .” Here, the narrator points out the mental and physical abuse she experiences from her husband through the absence following her thought.
The other moment occurs when the narrator relates the time that she told her parent that she saw the grocer selling toes in the store. The narrator’s father quells the narrator’s fears by telling her it was potatoes, not toes. The narrator acquiesces to this “logic,” but she conclude by telling the reader, “As a grown woman, I would have said to my father that these are true things in this world observed only by a single set of eyes.” Her parents, particularly her father, deemed her observation and experiences as absurd, illogical, and false. However, they were the narrator’s experiences. This connects later with the narrator’s comments about her husband.
The believability and credibility of survivors runs throughout The Low, Low Woods, a graphic novel that explores various themes and issues of sexual assault. The text centers on two friends, El and Vee, as they work to discover what happened to them in a movie theater one night. At the start of the film, they became unconscious and woke up at the end, delirious and unsure what happened. Over the course of the story, they discover that they were drugged, essentially, and sexually assaulted. They also uncover that all of the women in Shudder to Think, PA, a coal mining town, have experienced the same thing, yet no one talks about it.
Over the first few issues of The Low, Low Woods, El tries to convince Vee that something happened to them in the theater, yet Vee refuses to even think about it, let alone acknowledge that something could have happened. Immediately after the event, as the ride home, El tries to figure out what happened. She asks if Josh, the theater employee, roofied them. Vee dismisses all of it, telling her friend that she needs to get home.
At the start of the second issue, Vee talks about the first time she met El. Vee was in the woods collecting leaves, and El was using a knife that her father gave her to carve things into trees. A skinless man attacks Vee, and El comes to her rescue, stabbing it in the back and scaring it off. El’s knife stands out in this sequence. In the third panel, we see El’s hands opening the pocketknife as Vee narrates, “Long before the mystery of the movie theater. . .” On the knife handle, we see the phrase “Toldyaso.” This image reinforces, even though we do not yet know what happened, the credibility of El’s story and her assumption that Josh assaulted her and Vee.
After El stabs the skinless man, she goes to check on Vee. In one panel, we see Veen on her knee starting to stand up and El’s hand, hodling the small knife. Vee tells El, “I’m just glad you had that.” El responds, “It was a gift from my dad. He said that everyone should carry a knife because you never know.” Here, El directs our attention to teh threat of sexual assault and the vigilence that she, as a girl and eventually woman, must take in order to protect herself. We don’t see the words “Toldyaso” in this panel, but they exist, because we have seen them before, and serve as a reminder that it’s not just the physical assault that impacts a victim, it’s the emotional impact, couple with the physical. of others not believing the victim’s story that denies the victim a voice.
Later, at a party at Heaven on Earth, El and Vee see Josh. El brandishes her knife at him, and Vee grabs it from her hand, closing it in the process. During this sequence, Vee talks to El about college applications, telling her she can make it to college. In one panel, as Vee tries to convince El by telling her “I hear there are tons of hot lesbians in Western Massachusetts,” she holds out her hand, with the closed knife and the inscription showing, towards El. The last panel on the page shows Vee looking at El as El tells her friend she can’t afford college and as she olds the knife in her hands and looks at it. We see the phrase “Toldyaso” staring out at us, and at this moment, El again begins to tell Vee about what she thinks happened in the theater.
El tells Vee that she knows something happened because when she used the restroom after the movie her underwear was inside out. Vee, again, dismisses everything, emphatically telling El, “You’re a fucking liar.” El accuses Vee of wanting to just bottle up and suppress what happened, telling her friend, “I would never lie to you about something like this. You can’t just skip town and forget that something happened. You can’t forget that you forgot.” Vee tells El that she can “stay and wallow” in her feelings and she maintains that nothing happened, thus causing a rift between them as Vee walks away from her best friend.
While, as readers, we do not know, at this point, what happened in the theater, we know that something took place, and we feel that Josh assaulted El and Vee. Both of the girls are victims, and they are both dealing with the event in different manners; however, what stands out is that El vehemently knows something happened and tries, tirelessy, to convince her best friend that they were sexually assaulted. Yet, Vee doesn’t believe her friend, she discredits her. This is what happenes with the narrator in “The Husband Stitch,” and this is why, after her father tells her there aren’t any toes at the store that the narrator cannot bring herself to say her husband is a “bad man.” She has even discredited herself and her own experiences at that point.
The knife, with its inscription of “Toldyaso,” serves as a constant reminder that we must listen to the victims of sexual assault because when we refuse to do that we heap more pain and suffering upon them as their perpetrators escape any condemnation. I’m reminded of seeing a video the other day of a man speaking with police as they try to tell him to stop stalking a woman. The man tells the officers that women want to be raped and forcefully assaulted, that’s why they run from men like him. Teh cops don’t do anything to the man. They let him go, even when the man tells them he’s stalking the woman. If, God forbid, something happens later, will people believe the woman even with the video evidence? This is what “Toldyaso” gets us to see. We cannot discredit someone’s experiences when it comes to sexual assault because when we do we continue to harm the individual.
We’re taking off for the holidays, so no new posts until January 2023. We’ll start off next year with another post on The Low, Low Woods in the next post. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.