“Let’s Talk About Sex[ual Violence], Baby”

Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is full of evils: monsters, spaces that defy physics, paranoia, murder, suicide, addiction; but a theme that goes curiously unexplored in academic discussions regarding the beast of a novel is the inclusion of sexual violence.

What is even curiouser is that most of the examples of sexual violence are surrounded by discrepancies over whether or not they actually happened. For example: Johnny’s mother Pelafina attests that the staff of her mental health hospital are raping her; Karen Green’s estranged sister says that they both were raped by their step dad and put down a well; Johnny’s lover reveals that she was raped, but then takes it back and is angry that she said anything.

The most interesting examples, I think, are the ones that Johnny gives by ascribing false stories to the women of his friend Lude’s sexual conquests. Why this transition from lightheartedly and superficially toying with sex and romance, to viewing it as something possibly dark, disturbing, and wrong? Why are these anecdotes included, and how does it affect our psychological understanding of the characters, storyline, and house itself, if it should affect it at all?

On the most superficial level, it seems to be a parallel to the house. Our homes and our sexual experiences are supposed to be comforting, enjoyable, and generally positive. When these expectations are violated and transformed into something invasive, dark, wrong, and negative, it seems especially heinous and disturbs us at a deeper level.

The references to rape and other forms of sexual violence also accentuate the theme of repression in the novel, and the way the house feeds on the deep psyche of the people inside it. Freud’s theories regarding repression come into play here: Sexual violence in House of Leaves is perhaps the most poignant example of repression and resulting conditions, such has post traumatic stress disorder. Karen never even enters the labyrinth until the end–as a last resort to save Will–due to her intense claustrophobia, undoubtedly a result of being put down a well after being raped by her stepdad (if that really happened).

The labyrinths of the house are even described as a “spatial rape,” so it’s confusing to me that such a glaring aspect of the novel has been so thoroughly ignored.The most reasonable explanation I have is that it’s socially unacceptable to discuss uncomfortable sexual experiences and their effects on victims, so critics have easily ignored its inclusion in House of Leaves when there is such a ridiculous amount of other interesting themes and conundrums to discuss. It’s fairly easy to get around: Freud talks about repression? Let’s talk about Johnny! Karen has claustrophobia? Well at least she overcomes it! Johnny makes up stories for Lude’s partners? He’s crazy!

The fact is, though, that this is a hugely interesting aspect of the novel, and we shouldn’t ignore it. The references to sexual violence should be enhancing our understanding of the novel and the characters, because it’s the most disgusting, influential, and (arguably) important evil in the novel.

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