Copyright Debra Anne Davis 2004
Published in Harvard Review 26, Spring 2004
reprinted as "Betrayed by the Angel" in Utne,
Fighting the Devil by Killing the Angel
Mrs. W. arranged us alphabetically, so I spent my entire third grade year
sitting next to a sadist named Hank C. Every day, several times a day,
whenever the teacher wasn’t looking (though he became more bold
as the year went on and he wasn’t ever caught) Hank would jab his
pencil into my arm. He was shorter than me, and I’d look down on
his straight brown hair and he’d glance up at me with a crooked
smile and then he’d do it: jab jab jab.
get up from his seat often to sharpen the point; I’d sit in my seat
in dread, listening to the churn of the pencil sharpener in the back of
the room, knowing the pencil tip would seldom touch paper, would be dulled
instead by my skin. I’d go home with little gray circles, some with
dots of red in the center, Hank’s own bull’s eye, all up and
down my left arm. I remember it was my left arm, because I can see myself
sitting next to him, wearing one of the outfits, not just a dress, but
an outfit—matching socks, hair ribbon, even underwear—that
my mother would put me in each morning; I look at him and hope, maybe
not this time, please no more, and he glances at me (or doesn’t—he
got so good at it that after a while he could find my arm without looking)
and jab jab jab. Each time I hope he won’t and each time he does.
just endure. This is what is happening there’s nothing I can do
about it. I’d hope he would stop on his own. Go away just go away
now, I think, don’t say; go now. One day after school I decided
that I couldn’t (wouldn’t?) take it any more. I decided that
I would tell the teacher the very next time he did it. Of course I’d
have to wait for him to do it again first. I felt relief.
I went to
school the next day ... and we had a substitute teacher instead of Mrs.
W. So I lost some of my resolve, but not all of it. Hank seemed in better
spirits than usual. He started in soon after the bell rang, while we were
doing workbooks. Jab jab jab. I stood and walked to the front of the room,
my lime green or bright yellow dress brushing against the gray metal of
the teacher desk. “Hank always pokes me with the pencil,”
I told the stranger. My voice was much smaller than I’d hoped. I’d
said it like a whisper; I’d meant to sound mad.
go back to your seat and tell me if he does it again,” she said.
And that was it. I never could work up the nerve again to walk the fifteen
feet to the big desk and blurt out the nature of the boy’s crime:
always, he pokes me. I continued going home each day with pencil wounds.
When I think
about this now, I wonder, how could I have let it go on so long?
I would never let someone do that to me now. Why did I allow it then?
I knew he was wrong, that what Hank was doing to me was something you
could get in trouble for, was something the teacher would disapprove of.
Why did I endure the pain so long? And why when I was finally able
to tell on him, was my voice so small? I don’t think the substitute
teacher even understood what I’d said; my tone was so incongruous
with the content.
I knew the
teacher, any teacher, would be on my side, might even allow me to change
seats so I wouldn’t be hurt any longer—and would certainly
chastise Hank. I wasn’t scared of Hank exactly. His power over me
was limited to the space we occupied at the rectangular desk we shared;
on the playground, on the other side of the classroom, his pencil couldn’t
reach me. He was no threat without his pencil, without proximity, without
the situation he’d created and I’d allowed.
I think, was that I simply wasn’t mad at him. When I went to tell
the teacher, my voice wasn’t loud in a burst of righteous anger,
as was perhaps appropriate. It was demure. I didn’t want to bother
her. Maybe I didn’t want to see Hank punished. Maybe I didn’t
think I deserved not to be hurt. Maybe it just didn’t seem that
big an aberration, didn’t seem like life wasn’t supposed to
be this way, because this was how it was. Even though no one else was
being poked at every day, maybe this was just my lot in life.
* * *
25 years old. I’m alone in my apartment. I hear a knock. I open
the door and see a face I don’t know. The man scares me, I don’t
know why. My first impulse is to shut the door. But I stop myself:
You can’t do something like that. It’s rude.
invite him in, but suddenly he is pushing the door and stepping inside.
I don’t want him to come in; he hasn’t waited to be invited.
I push the door to close it, but I don’t push very hard; I keep
remembering that it’s not polite to slam a door in someone’s
He is inside.
He slams the door shut himself and pushes me against the wall. My judgment:
He is very rude. I make this conscious decision: Since he is being
rude, it is okay for me to be rude back. I reach for the doorknob; I want
to open the door and shove him outside and then slam the door in his face,
rude or not, I don’t care now. But, frankly, I don’t push
him aside with much determination. I’ve made the mental choice to
be rude, but I haven’t been able to muster the physical bluntness
the act requires.
I realize the game is lost already. He is stronger than I am, I assume,
as men have always been stronger. I have no real chance of pushing him
aside. No real chance of it unless I’m very angry. And I’m
not very angry. I’m a little bit angry.
the fact that I didn’t shove with much force, he is angry at me.
I know why: It’s because I’ve been rude to him. He is
insulted. I am a bit ashamed.
into our roles quite easily, two people who have never met each other,
two people raised in the same culture, a man and a woman. As it turns
out, a rapist and his victim.
* * *
my students, college freshmen, these two questions once: What did
your parents teach you that you will teach your own kids? What did
they teach you that you won’t teach your kids?
young woman said, “My parents always told me to be kind to everyone.
I won’t teach my children that. It’s not always good to be
kind to everyone.”
was so young, but she knew this. Why did it take me so long to learn?
* * *
on this stuff makes me a little crazy. Sitting at my computer typing for
hours about being raped and how it made me feel and makes me feel makes
me distracted, jittery—both because I drink too much strong coffee
and because writing goes beyond imagining into reliving.
I have to stop, leave. One day, I stopped in the middle of a sentence
(I couldn’t remember Samantha’s mother’s name …
see below) and laced up my hiking boots, zipped up my parka, put on my
brown hat and brown gloves, threw some Milk Bones up the stairs to distract
the dog, and marched out into the not too bitter mid-winter day.
decided I needed to reread Virginia Woolf. I’d been making notes
to myself for a while—“angel” or just “Woolf”
scribbled on scraps of paper on my desk and in the front pocket of my
backpack, to go buy the book, the book with the angel in it. (I could
feel her hovering as I typed; I know the exact color and texture of her
in front of the Women’s Studies section of a bookstore right across
the street from a university. Started to read every title. There were
a lot of books, all kinds of books. But they weren’t what I wanted.
I couldn’t find the right book, the right essay (I’d forgotten
what it was called exactly; the angel wasn’t in the title). I
kept searching. I wanted the secret; I needed Virginia Woolf to tell
me, to remind me, how to throttle my angel.
* * *
What could be easier than to write articles and to buy Persian cats
with the profits? But wait a moment. Articles have to be about
something. Mine, I seem to remember, was about a novel by a famous man.
And while I was writing this review, I discovered that if I were going
to review books I should need to do battle with a certain phantom. And
the phantom was a woman, and when I came to know her better I called
her after the heroine of a famous poem, The Angel in the House. It was
she who used to come between me and my paper when I was writing reviews.
It was she who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that
at last I killed her.
from “Professions for Women,” Virginia
* * *
There was TV. Reruns of reruns of “I Love Lucy” and “The
Flintstones.” “I Dream of Jeannie.” “Bewitched.”
I can’t even think of a show from my youth that had a single female
character who was smart, self-confident, and respected by others. My sister
and I would lie on our stomachs, heads propped on fuzzy cotton pillows
with leopard-skin print covers, watching, indiscriminate, mildly entertained,
Samatha was smarter than Darren, it was obvious, but she hid her intelligence
just as she hid her magic powers, powers Darren didn’t have, powers
that made him angry. Samantha’s mother, Endora, used her powers
with confidence and even flair, but she cackled and wore flowing bright
green dresses and too much make-up; she was a mother-in-law. I was supposed
to learn how to be like Samantha, not like Endora; and I did.
of this is news, of course; we can all see those sexist stereotypes quite
easily, now. But just because I can see, understand, and believe that
something is false, that it’s not right, now, doesn’t mean
it won’t continue to be a part of me, always.
Eden calling Larry Hagman “Master.” How many times did
I hear that?)
* * *
[Women] must charm, they must conciliate, they must—to put it bluntly—tell
lies if they are to succeed.
* * *
big,” I say. I turn my head up. I smile. Why do I say this?
I ask myself, even then. Well, it is big. (And, unfortunately, he will
be shoving it up my ass in a few minutes.) And, I want to flatter
him, so he won’t hurt me any more than he already plans to. I, yes,
I am trying to flirt with him. I’ve learned about flirting and how
it works and what it can do. (It can get people to like you, to do things
for you, to treat you well.) It’s a skill I have honed. And
I’m using it now. To save my life. (And, hey, it worked! Unless
of course he hadn’t planned on killing me in the first place.)
smiles down at me (I’m on my knees, naked, leaning against my own
bed, my hands tied behind me, my head in his crotch) proudly.
* * *
You who come of a younger and happier generation may not have heard of
her—you may not know what I mean by the Angel in the House. I will
describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was
immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult
arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken,
she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it—in short
she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own,
but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.
* * *
Back when he was pulling my jeans off, this is what happened: He
kneeled behind me, reached around the waistband to the fly, and pulled
until all the buttons popped open. (He’d already tied my hands behind
my back.) Then he crawled back a few feet and began to pull the
jeans off from the ankles—a stupid way to try to take someone else’s
pants off, but I didn’t say anything.
He was having a little trouble because the pants weren’t slipping
off as, obviously, he’d envisioned they would. He tugged, and then
began yanking. “Stop fighting!” he growled at me. Ooh, that
pissed me off! “I’m not fighting!” I sassed back
at him. And I wasn’t. How dare he! Accuse me, I mean. Of fighting.
* * *
Above all—I need not say it—she was pure. Her purity was supposed
to be her chief beauty—her blushes, her great grace. In those days—the
last of Queen Victoria—every house had its Angel. And when I came
to write I encountered her with the very first words. The shadow of her
wings fell on my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room.
Directly, that is to say, I took my pen in hand to review that novel by
a famous man, she slipped behind me and whispered: “My dear,
you are a young woman. You are writing about a book that has been written
by a man. Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts
and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of
your own. Above all, be pure.”
* * *
thing being raped did to me: It caused me to be sometimes rude to
strangers. Not out of anger, though, but out of fear.
25 when I was raped. I’m 35 now. This happened last week.
in a coffee shop, reading a textbook for a class I’m teaching. The
curriculum for this course is “challenging”—which means
it’s difficult for the students but that it’s kicking my butt,
too. I have to study daily to keep up with the material. I actually enjoy
this challenge and spend a lot of my free time preparing. So, I was sitting
at a little round table, folders, a spiral notebook, pens spread out around
me. My cappuccino sat, at the ready, near my right hand; the textbook
lay open in front of me. I had my head down, staring at the pages in front
of me, trying to absorb what those words had to tell me. To an observer,
it might have seemed that I was reading the most fascinating book ever
After a while, I took a little break and brought my now-empty cup back
to the counter. There was a guy at the counter waiting for his drink.
“What are you reading?” he asked up to me (I was several inches
taller than he). He had a big smile on his face, a friendly smile. He
wasn’t creepy; he was being friendly. I sensed these things. “It’s
a textbook,” I answered. I was looking at the floor now, not at
his face any longer.
“Oh! What class are you studying for?” he asked.
“It’s a class I’m teaching,” I said. Oh no.
“Where do you teach? At --- College?”
“No,” I said flatly and tried to smile a little. I felt nervous,
pinned. I knew the conversation wasn’t over, but I simply turned
and went back to my little table. He stood there at the counter, probably
watching me walk away and wondering why I wouldn’t answer his question,
why, against the unspoken code of our culture, I hadn’t at least
finished the exchange with a friendly word or a wave. But there was no
way I would tell him (or you, notice) where I taught or what I taught
or anything else about me. And there was no way I could explain this to
him courteously; the whole exchange made me too nervous. I certainly wasn’t
angry at him, but I was a bit afraid. And right there in the coffee
shop, I felt the presence of my angel, the rustling of her skirts:
“Be sympathetic,” I heard her reprimand me, sweetly. “Be
tender. And pure.” I couldn’t be polite, but I did feel
Though I wasn’t finished with my reading, when I got back to the
table, I gathered up my things and left.
* * *
I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill
her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that
I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me.
* * *
bent down to gently arrange the towel over my bare and oozing body, after
it was all over with. “You were so good-looking, I just couldn’t
resist,” he told me.
And for the first time in my life, I didn’t enjoy being complimented
on my physical appearance. Why, I wondered at that moment, had I ever
wanted to be considered pretty—or kind, or good? Compliments
mean nothing. Or worse, compliments mean this. What good does such a compliment
* * *
Thus, whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo
upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her. She died hard.
Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder
to kill a phantom than a reality.
* * *
killed her. Yet. Maybe I need to go out and get an inkpot to fling at
her. Hmm, I wonder how she’d hold up against a flying laptop. I
can imagine hurling (I don’t really think I could “fling”
a computer, even this one) this ten pound black plastic box at her (she’s
up in the corner, to my right). It easily tears through the soft blue,
rough cotton of her ankle-length gown (she has a long, thin white lace
apron tied around her waist). The computer crashes into the space where
the walls and ceiling meet; she falls to the carpet. And then what?
She’s dead. And how do I feel about that? Guilty? Relieved?
Well, I don’t think I’d want to stuff my pockets with rocks
and wade into a river. (Did Woolf ever really kill her angel? Or
is it the angel that killed her?)
What I want to know is this: If I’m ever physically attacked
again, will I fight to save myself? And will I be fighting out of
righteous anger or out of unstrung fear?
What I need to know is this: Is the angel really the one who needs
* * *
guess I’ll get twenty years in the penitentiary for this....”
he says, and waves his hand across the room, at “this,” at
Just for this? Just for doing this to me? Twenty years is a really long
fact, he got thirty-five years. On a plea bargain. The police, the lawyers,
the judge—the state, the legal system—even he, the criminal,
the rapist, thought he deserved decades in jail for what he’d done
to me. Why didn’t I?