This Book Tells The Story Of The 17th Century Sexual Assault Survivor Who Changed Everything
Speaking directly to the rising #MeToo and Time’s Up movements is a new novel that you'll definitely want to add to you TBR pile this spring. A timely debut, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough blends historical fiction with poetry to recreate the all-too-true story of the first recorded account of a sexual assault survivor winning the legal battle against her assailant. That victim was the artist Artemisia Gentileschi, who at just 17-years-old was one of the most talented (though unknown) Italian Baroque painters in the world — and who, in the wake of her assault, was faced with having to choose between her talent and her voice.
Spoiler alert: she chose to raise her voice.
Out now from Penguin Random House, Blood Water Paint transports readers to 1610 Rome: into Artemisia’s studio where she was raped by her painting instructor, and the courtroom where her life changed forever. For lovers of writers like Laurie Halse Anderson and An Na, Blood Water Paint is feminist historical fiction written in verse, giving readers a glimpse into the teen’s most intimate thoughts while highlighting a centuries-old, yet startlingly familiar time and place where men took what they wanted from women with practically no consequences.
Playwright and author Joy McCullough adapted Artemisia’s story, from a play produced by Live Girls! in 2015, keeping young readers in particular in mind. “Verse appealed to me partly as a playwright, since I’m used to telling a story in a sparse, stripped-down way,” says McCullough, in an interview with Bustle. “Also, the events of this particular story are brutal. There’s rape, there’s torture, there’s decapitation. Certainly those events have been depicted in prose fiction. But writing about them in verse allowed me to take a reader into the sheer horror of the events without immersing them (or myself) in every traumatic detail. A writer can elicit images and emotions in a few words of verse that might require pages of prose. That economy of language can be both safer for the reader, and more powerful, I think.”
But play-to-verse isn’t the only evolution Artemisia’s story has undergone over the years. As 17th century painter, her story was forgotten for nearly 200 years before Artemisia reemerged as a feminist icon in the 20th century. Now, she’s speaking to 21st century women through McCullough’s novel. I ask McCullough if she has a sense of how Artemisia’s story evolved over time, and what led to this renewed interest in both her art and her experience.
"A writer can elicit images and emotions in a few words of verse that might require pages of prose. That economy of language can be both safer for the reader, and more powerful, I think.”
“I imagine there have always been women who’ve discovered Artemisia’s work and story in dusty art history volumes and clung to it,” McCullough says. “The transcript from her rapist’s trial has been preserved for more than four hundred years, and I feel certain that preservation was through the efforts of women who insisted this story mattered. I discovered her in 2001, as a passing reference in The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood. And I think the Internet has made it easier to share her work and her story.”
But the retellings of Artemisia’s story haven’t always been the clear nod to feminism that Blood Water Paint is. “There was a film about Artemisia in 1997. It’s classified as a romance, and Artemisia insists to the end that she was never raped, and Tassi [Agostino Tassi, Artemisia’s rapist] confesses to raping her only to end her ordeal during the trial,” McCullough says. “The filmmaker has said she ‘didn’t want to show her as a victim but like a more modern woman who took her life into her own hands.’” An interesting choice of words, since Artemisia was subject to torture — thumbscrews, that nearly destroyed her hands and her ability to paint — in order to prove to the court that she was telling the truth.
“That ignores the reality anyone can read in the pages of the trial transcript,” McCullough says. “Artemisia repeats while under torture, ‘It’s true, it’s true, it’s true!’ I’m so wary of the insistence on presenting women as survivors and never victims — certainly Artemisia survived, but to ignore the fact that she was a victim erases the egregious violence done to her.”
Although Blood Water Paint speaks powerfully to the conversation around sexual assault happening in the United States right now, McCullough admits having mixed feelings about the #MeToo movement itself.
"...certainly Artemisia survived, but to ignore the fact that she was a victim erases the egregious violence done to her.”
“I have to admit to some cynicism about the movement. Almost nothing has changed in more than 400 years since Artemisia was tortured in a courtroom, after all. Why should things change now? Part of that cynicism is self-protective — it’s deeply painful to hope for change and be denied again and again," she says. "But I think the current discourse is valuable even if the only outcome is the encouragement to speak up and share these stories. And as some survivors share their stories, those who aren’t able to speak will realize that they are not alone, that it wasn’t their fault, and that deeply entrenched misogyny isn’t simply a cultural norm we must accept.”
I wonder what Artemisia’s story says about the different ways women are and are not allowed to tell their stories in the world. “For me [the novel] is ultimately about how important and powerful it is to tell one’s story, and be heard,” McCullough says. “Which is what the #MeToo movement is also about. The more survivors share their stories, the more others feel the support to tell their own stories, or even face and name stories they’d maybe never even recognized as assault.”
Agostino Tassi isn’t the only man by whom Artemisia is victimized; in the novel nor throughout her young life. Her father, Orazio Gentileschi, is a deeply complex character — refusing to send her away to a convent when her mother died, empowering her to become an artist but taking credit for her work, exposing her to her rapist in the first place, and ultimately supporting her in her decision to prosecute Tassi but accepting the hardly-just verdict.
"The more survivors share their stories, the more others feel the support to tell their own stories, or even face and name stories they’d maybe never even recognized as assault.”
“Orazio, as I have [written] him anyway, is deeply flawed,” says McCullough. “But by the standards of the time, some of his actions were remarkable. Most widowers in his situation would have sent their daughter to a convent, or kept her as little more than a housemaid. He recognized his daughter’s talent in a time when no one nurtured talent in women. And he stood by her through a lengthy trial that probably did more harm than good to his professional prospects. But I hope that the actions Orazio takes in support of Artemisia are the barest minimum today’s male advocates would take — he believes her, he uses his privilege to take on her rapist. Good. But this all came after he spent years using his daughter, signing his name to her work, and putting her in a terrible situation when he hired an instructor known for violence and left them alone together on a regular basis.”
Whether or not Orazio’s character is able to speak to the role of male advocates in today’s Me Too movement is an equally complicated question to answer. “I give Orazio some points for standing up eventually,” McCullough says. “But what if he hadn’t waited until the violence had been done? In today’s movement, I hope male allies are listening, and centering survivors. But I also hope they’re actively calling out rape culture, examining how they’ve contributed to it, and talking to the men and boys in their lives about consent and how they relate to women, because that’s how we’ll change the culture. It doesn’t matter how many women tell their #MeToo stories if those who perpetuate rape culture aren’t listening and changing.”
While so much of Artemisia’s power lies in her decision to not only speak her truth but to maintain that truth in the face of shame, ostracism, and ultimately torture, as a fellow female artist, writer, maker, I wonder if the story of Artemisia’s rape might overshadow the story of Artemisia’s art, and what kind of problems that poses. I ask McCullough, who knows the history of Artemisia’s mark on the world much better than I, about this.
"It doesn’t matter how many women tell their #MeToo stories if those who perpetuate rape culture aren’t listening and changing."
“There is so much more to Artemisia’s story, and Artemisia’s art, than the slice I’m focusing on in Blood Water Paint,” she says. “She went on to be the first woman ever admitted into the Accademia dell’Arte del Disegno in Florence, to live and paint in the English court of Charles I, to correspond with Galileo Galilei, to teach her own daughter to paint.”
McCullough says, “I chose to tell the story of her rape — and her survival — because I don’t want to ignore that part of her story. I believe telling stories of sexual violence helps those who can’t tell their own stories to recognize and name what happened to them, which is a huge step toward healing. I hope those who read the book and are inspired by what she achieves and overcomes in this one small telling of her story will fall down a rabbit hole of researching her amazing life. Maybe one of those readers will write their own book about the next stage of her life, about whatever piece of it most inspires them.”
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.