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

Mark Z. Danielewski’s debut novel House of Leaves is known most notedly for its self-aware structure, nesting doll style of narration, satirical nature, and, of course, its sheer creepiness. The novel’s themes of mental illness, suicide, addiction, and repression have been thoroughly analyzed in publications such as The New York Times and Purdue University’s peer-reviewed academic journal Modern Fiction Studies, as well as in countless online forums. Critics and fans of the novel have failed, however, to analyze the various instances of sexual violence in the novel and the role that they play in our interpretation of the text. The inclusion of rape, incest, molestation, and sexual assault in the plot, dialogue, and character histories influences the meaning of the characters, the house on Ash Tree Lane, and even the emotions of the characters—most notedly the characters’ feelings of something uncanny. Uncanny is defined in the novel as a sense of “not-being-at-home” (page 25) so readers can—and should—connect the uncanny nature of the house to how some unexplainable thing might feel wrong for a long time after being a victim of sexual violence, especially when the event is repressed. The prominence of sexual violence in House of Leaves and its omittance from analysis only emphasizes its importance when finally reviewed, and the instances, references, and effects of sexual violence chronicled by the novel connect so heavily to the other more obvious themes that we must realign our understanding of the book as a whole and view the house as a parallel to something rather than taking it at face value.

First and foremost, the consequences of sexual violence as described in the novel parallels the effects that the Ash Tree Lane house has on its visitors. The words “sex” and “sexual” are used on 18 pages throughout the book, and “rape” is used on four (as indicated in the Index); however, there are also other descriptions of both sex and sexual violence in the novel. Karen Green and Clara English—two of the more developed characters—both either state or imply that they have been victims of rape in the past. Several other characters have sexually violent histories assigned to them by Johnny Truant after he undergoes the transition from toying with sex—going to far as to flirt with his stripper love interest by “sticking exclusively to the subject of sex”—to viewing sex as a conduit to “desire and pain” (Danielewski 105, 265). Karen and her husband Will also view sex as something positive, and a lack of as a problem indicative of deeper marital issues (Danielewski 62). These characters, like most people, understand that sexual experiences are supposed to bring happiness, entertainment, and sometimes connectedness. In a similar fashion, the characters, like most people, also believe that our homes are expected to be a place of peace, contentedness, and comfort. When either of these pleasures are manipulated into something sinister, it becomes “surprising, unsettling, disturbing but most of all uncanny” (Danieleski 24). Billy Reston furthers the connection by directly referring to the house’s unexplainable physical anomaly as a “goddamn spatial rape” (Danielewski 55). Its foreignness and impossibility are uncomfortable, stressing Karen and Will’s emotional and physical intimacy alike. Karen is anxious and extremely claustrophobic, and the house aggravates this by reminding her of her own childhood rape. She grows increasingly distant from Will as he tries to explore the “rape” of their home, and their marriage is only fixed in the end, when she overcomes both her sexually violent history and her fear of the house.

Karen Green’s adolescent sexual trauma left permanent emotional scars that, when exacerbated by the house’s strangeness, caused her to withdraw from any physical or emotional affection. Her estranged sister claims that their step-father once raped them both and trapped them in a well outside, and although Karen denies this, her sudden disengagement and aloofness around the time of the purported event is indicative of trauma. She began practicing her smile in the mirror and “hardly spoke in class,” transforming from an outspoken tomboy into the epitome of high school popularity (Danielewski 58). She later became a model—literally—of the sexually perfect female, her practiced smile “tragically […] flawless” (Danielewski 59). Her perfection was feigned, and a professional in the novel suspected that her severe panic attacks and claustrophobia “stemmed from early adolescent betrayal” and “increased proportionally with the level of intimacy [experienced]” (Danielewski 59). When the closet—the first mystifying aspect of the house—appears between her bedroom and her children’s bedroom, her sexuality changed. She and Will had been enjoying an increase in physical affection, but after the appearance of the closet, she admits “I can’t. I don’t know why. It terrifies me.” (Danielewski 62). Not only is she explaining that she “can’t” emotionally or logically process the so-called “spatial rape” of her home, she is also explaining that its appearance makes her uncomfortable with her husband’s sexual advances; thus it is no accident that the closet is attached to their bedroom. Will is equally as perplexed and disturbed as she by her abrupt change, explaining that whenever he makes so innocent of a sexual advance as trying to kiss her, “she practically starts to cry” (Danielewski 62). The disruption of Karen’s home psychologically affects her in a very similar way that her sexual trauma does, and so these two instances which seem completely separate both begin to be viewed as a “rape.”

Like Karen, Johnny Truant also undergoes a mental transition in the novel with regards to sex, viewing it as something possibly sinister after his love interest Clara English admits to him that she was once raped. This confession haunts him for years, and he compares it to the emergence of “sharp thorns” that “spiked with hurt” and held a “poisonous bloom” (Danielewski 264). The profound effect his realization that sex can be malicious has on him and his analogy to describe it is truly interesting. Johnny refers to his mindset prior to Clara’s confession as a “blissful bower,” and afterwards it falls, “overrun by weeds and vines” (Danielewski 264). A bower can be defined as a cage, a woman’s bedroom in a castle, a leafy shelter in a garden, or as a structure made during courtship displays by the male bower bird. Thus, interpretations of his analogy include, respectively, that: The cage of ignorance in his mind has been opened to dangerous new knowledge; Women’s bedrooms literally and figuratively aren’t safe; His innocence is changed as the Garden of Eden’s innocence changed; And lastly, his willingness or ability to attract women has fallen. Defining bower as a woman’s bedroom is especially poignant since it directly connects one’s sexuality and one’s home, again playing into the idea of “spatial rape.” It’s powerful imagery with any interpretation, but Johnny’s main purpose for his analogy is to explain that his delicate, flower-like innocence has been irreversibly made more threatening by the “thorns” and “poison” of Clara’s confession. What’s more interesting still is that after this, Johnny goes on to ascribe short, fictitious stories of sexual violence to his friend Lude’s sexual partners in a list titled “Lude’s List Revisited” (Danielewski 264). Clara English’s confession is the only non-disputed instance of sexual violence in the novel, but Johnny feels justified in creating these stories because he sees Clara as proof that anyone could have a similar past that they hide or repress since sex is no longer strictly inherently good in his mind. In the order that House of Leaves is written, Johnny’s revelation coincides with his increasing fascination with the mystery of the house on Ash Tree Lane and his disengagement from reality. Johnny would only explain the Clara English situation and its effects at this point if he felt a relevant connection between it and the existence of the house’s anomaly, thereby emphasizing yet again the intimate nature of the home and the inherently sexual violation felt when the home is made unknown (when it becomes uncanny).

Danielewski claims his own childhood was traumatic, and though this does not necessarily mean that he has personal connections to rape or other forms of sexual violence, it does explain why viewing the home and sex as equally intimate, and their violations equally disturbing, is so important to consider when analyzing House of Leaves. He describes his childhood home as having held “many very painful and dangerous resonances” and shadows that are “impossible to light and very, very deep (“Haunted House” 115). He also claims that every detail of the novel was intentional and that he has expected every analysis thus far, and that women hugely impacted both his life and his novel (“Haunted House” 106, 111). Thus, given his statement that homes resonate the emotions of its inhabitants, that nothing in the novel was an accident, and that women heavily influenced the novel, it is impossible to ignore the theme of sexual violence any longer, lest readers don’t care to acknowledge and understand a glaring element to the labyrinthine novel. Like “Lude’s List Revisited,” it turns out that the Ash Tree Lane house never actually existed, nor did any such “spatial rapes” actually occur. But also like Lude’s revised list, the matter of truth is irrelevant, because “no one-is ever presented with the sacred truth, in books or in life” (“Haunted House” 121). Whether or not the violation of the home or the body actually happened, their possibility of existence and how intimately, sexually disturbing and uncanny that feels is the only thing that matters.

 

Works Cited

“A Conversation with Mark Z. Danielewski.” Interview by Sophie Cottrell. Random House, https://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/0400/danielewski/interview.html

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.

“Haunted House-An Interview with Mark Z. Danielewski.” Interview by Larry McCaffrey and Sinda Gregory. Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 44:2 26 Mar. 2010: 99-135.

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