Plagued by a scene from Neal Stephenson and George Jewbury's 1994 novel Interface
, in which the character Eleanor Richmond delivers a stiff lecture over the phone to another Black woman who doesn't want to report her daughters' sexual assault to the police because their assailant has threatened to murder her if she does so. Furious, Eleanor tells her to call the police and buy a gun to protect herself. Her new employer, Senator Marshall, teases Eleanor that "you changed your position on gun control": "If that woman you were just talking to had to fill out a bunch of forms and get permission from the government to have a gun, she wouldn't be able to take the advice you just gave her, would she?"
We're supposed to give three cheers for Eleanor "pounding some common sense" into the other woman's head. After all, Eleanor is right: the other mother ought to stand up to her daughters' rapist and seek justice for them. But I can only give two cheers. Maybe only one.
Firstly, the anonymous woman on the phone is clearly trying to protect her daughters: the reason she rings the Senator's office is to find out if the rapist can be forced to take an HIV test. Secondly, when Eleanor asks if she has called the police, the woman responds, "Shit no. Why would I want to call them?... I called you for serious advice, girl." What have this woman's experience with the police been that calling them about a serious sexual assault seems pointless? Thirdly, Eleanor asks: "Ma'am, how could being killed possibly be any worse than having your daughters raped?" Orphaning them as well wouldn't be worse?
Violence against women is an overwhelming fact; why shouldn't women be able to use firearms to protect themselves from burglars, rapists, or violent boyfriends and husbands? As Eleanor reminds the Senator: "I have a gun, and I know how to use it."
In the US, in most states
, a licence or permit is not necessary to buy a gun; that is, you don't have to know how to use a gun in order to own one. If the woman on the phone can afford a gun and ammunition, will she also be able to train in its basic use (and safety measures - remember, she has "little daughters")? How much will it cost, can she afford to take the time off work (if she is doing casual work this could be a serious issue), and how long will it take?
In short, is "just go and buy a gun" a sufficient response to a woman in a life-or-death situation? Would it make more sense to provide emergency permits, including free and immediate training, to women (or anyone) in danger of violence who choose firearms as a defence? Moreover, rapists routinely threaten their victims with murder if they report the crime. If the police aren't going to protect women who report men's violence, we're back at square one: why report it in the first place?
This has to be seen, of course, in the context of the gun control debate in the US, which is sometimes framed in feminist terms of women's self-defence - while at the same time the National Rifle Association has fought all the way to the Supreme Court for the right of convicted domestic violence offenders
to own guns*.
I think the scene is meant to accomplish two things: show that both the "liberal Democrat" Eleanor and the conservative Senator have more in common than Eleanor realises (in fact, Mitchell dismisses liberal/conservative and even Democrat/Republican as meaningless distinctions). They are both "common sense" folks frustrated by people who won't fix their own problems**. And damned if they're going to give them the tools they need to fix those problems. Whether or not we think of the caller as negligent, she certainly sees herself as almost helpless: the HIV test is the only response she's been able to come up with (although how she thinks she can force "that G" to take the test without police intervention isn't clear). A trained advocate could have laid out all her options, legal and medical, and connected her with the support services that could help her and her family try to get justice - or at least survive. Instead, she receives a lecture from a well-meaning but clueless phone jockey.
ETA: Similarly, much later in the book, vice presidential candidates are interviewed about the education of "inner city blacks": "twenty-five years from now, what will life be like for these people, and what will you have done to make that life better?" Two candidates give vague responses, one has a plan for education via television, and Eleanor Richmond has this response:
"Abe Lincoln learned his lessons by writing on the back of a shovel. During slavery times, a lot of black people learned to read and write even though they weren't allowed to go to school. And nowadays, Indochinese refugee kids do great in school even though they got no money at all and their folks don't speak English. The fact that many black people nowadays aren't getting educated has nothing to do with how much money we spend on schools. Spending more money won't help... It's just a question of values. If your family places a high value on being educated, you'll get educated, even if you have to do your homework on the back of a shovel. And if your family doesn't give a damn about developing your mind, you'll grow up stupid and ignorant even if you go to the fanciest private school in America."
Eleanor is, naturally, a shoe-in for the role of VP. If "inner-city blacks" have poor grades or drop out of school, it's their own fault, and nothing can be done about it; policy-makers are off the hook, and everyone else can stop worrying. Eleanor has given everyone what they want. Everyone, that is, for the parents and kids living in poverty and struggling in under-funded, unsafe schools, whom she has thrown under the big yellow bus.
I can't decide if the authors believe Eleanor's response is so obviously sensible that the reader will simply nod their approval, or if their whole point
is that Eleanor has simply told everyone what they want to hear - which is, after all, the SFnal basis of the book.
* Partly because of legal loopholes, guns are a disaster
for women in the US experiencing stalking, dating violence, and domestic violence.
** Cf the AI in the Hugo-nominated Cat Pictures Please
. As secritcrush points out
, Bethany doesn't respond to its clueless intervention because she is mentally ill.