Arts & Culture News

Center Stage at Texas Theatre Isn't the Best Place to Discuss that Rape

Fine people of Dallas, pull up a chair. Don't worry, most of you aren't in trouble.

We need to have a discussion about full transparency during a public Q&A. It isn't a talk I like having, but after Tuesday night's unfortunate incident at Texas Theatre, it seems that sliding a library brochure under the door of your bedroom will not suffice. Not this time, anyway.

Things started great. My best friend and I went to see the Found Magazine tour, which over the years has grown into a sort of tradition for us. Our friendship has spanned three cities, and so we've listened to Davy Rothbart (Found's founder and regular This American Life contributor), read treasures from discarded scraps of paper in South Florida, Austin and now Dallas.

But it wasn't until Dallas that shit got crazy. Go ahead, sew that last sentence on a pillow.

Things were going according to their typical, lively meter, with Rothbart barreling towards another successful event. Really, he was in the home stretch. He would have made it too, but then, it happened. He asked for a member of the audience to come on stage. A girl lept out of her chair to aggressively volunteer, and just like that the whole mood shifted. I knew, right then, that this show was getting hijacked.

I remembered her instantly. It was the same girl who had charged up and down the isle, forcing handouts on us during the set, instead of simply taking one, and passing the rest along. I'm also fairly certain that she's also the voice that accused another audience member of being "a stalker" when he requested a specific song from Davy's singer/songwriter brother, Peter. Other Rothbart had tried to chill the scene out, post disruption, by asking the voice who her favorite musician was. She answered curiously that she's "just recently really gotten into James Blunt." An odd sentiment to hear out loud, especially in 2012.

But we would hear more from her. Much more.

The audience interview idea came to Davy before the tour launched. He's just published a book called My Heart is an Idiot, and it's filled with personal essays based around interactions he's had with strangers. It's a fun read, and a seemingly upbeat concept that he thought would be a nice tour tie-in. He's been doing this in each city they visit, calling up an audience member and asking a series of well-tested questions, like "what did you do today?"

Tuesday, it seems, wasn't a great day for this guest. She might have had a little tift with her now-boyfriend, who's been crashing with her since they met on Halloween. We're still unclear of the details; her retelling of the day's events meandered through a range of emotions, with anger taking the lead, but offered few specifics of note.

Next, we learned about her father's death. It was a natural response to a question about her fondest memory. Don't worry, the actual memory that gave her joy involved him taking her on a motorcycle ride to see Return of the Jedi, but that was prefaced by "My father died in 1986."

Things turned from awkward to uncomfortable when she began addressing her alcoholism. She has less than a year clean. I believe the question was "what is your favorite cocktail?" One drink is all it takes, and then it's "straight to Crack Town," according to her.

At this point, the thought of fleeing, of simply packing up and walking out just didn't feel like an option anymore. In part, because I'd grown so uncomfortable that I'd twisted my limbs around themselves in my chair. I looked like Kermit the Frog, preparing to get crammed into a locker.

Davy asked the next question sitting patiently in line. For anyone else, it would have lent itself to a harmless, but humorous anecdote about the uncomfortable nature of adolescence. But no. Davy would not escape that easily. Not this time. The doors are locked, we're all in the car and Our Guest has commandeered the wheel. She's driving this bitch straight to Crack Town.

As the words "tell me about your first sexual experience" were leaving his lips, time simply slowed. My friend and I clutched each others shoulders. She turned her head and whispered the words looping through my own mind: "Please don't say rape. Please don't say rape. Please don't say rape."

"Well," sigh and pause, "it's an odd story." She admitted to being a late bloomer who had held on to her virginity until the age of 20. I finally relaxed.

YES! Stop there! Make that the confession! We'll applaud you for it! Anything! Just stop now! Those thoughts crept though my forehead like sweat.

"And then I was raped."

There's a silence that followed that was unlike any I'd ever experienced. Had I stumbled into a torturous first date parody from a Judd Apatow movie? Was this, in fact, really happening? My friend immediately denied all of it, saying "This isn't really happening. This isn't really happening." But it was, in fact, and did, happen.

At this point, I took a break from existing in my own body. I let myself float above my physical form and calmly look down at the audience below. They were frozen. Some with open mouths. Others clinging to the hands or shoulders of whoever was sitting next to them. And a couple, the creepiest ones who I noted mentally to never interact with, ever, were smiling.

I took the conversational lull as a chance for some inner real talk, inspecting the meaning of the word "bravery." Here's the deal: whenever someone overshares at a situation like this one, the way we cope with it, as a viewer, is by saying that it was "so brave" of them to admit that terrible thing.

I disagree.

After much debating, I settled on bravery as being "a selfless act benefiting the greater good, possibly at personal expense." This was none of those things. If anything, it was the reverse. Choosing to share what would take most people three for four sessions with a counselor to reveal -- something she knows first hand, since she'd earlier discussed having had "a lot of therapy" -- is a selfish act.

It removed the audience's ability to do what they came to do: have a pleasant, albeit nerdy, night out. And replaced that with attention and shock value for its teller.

Initially, Davy Rothbart was speechless. Then, he moved forward like a champ, doing all that anyone in his situation could do: offer empathy. Somehow he pulled it off, and sounded authentic enough to make the rest of us feel slightly more comfortable. But as soon as that Q&A wrapped up? I was out. Gone. My feet left flames behind them like a Delorean hitting 88 miles per hour.

So Dallas, when you're in a Q&A situation -- especially one that you volunteered for -- please keep it light. Stick to your tested arsenal of party stories or go with Things You Say To Parents. But don't bring up that time a man violently ripped your hymen out two decades ago. Please. Save something for the second date.

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Jamie Laughlin
Contact: Jamie Laughlin