Rape and the Republic

Rape of Lucretia

Lucretia by Artemisia Gentileschi

On Wednesday 13th November 2019 Lucretia sold for €4.8 million establishing a record price for the work of the 17th Century Female Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi.

The subject matter, the suicide of Lucretia, is the founding event of the Roman Republic. Sextus Tarquinus, the son of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (last King of Rome) raped the virtuous wife of the chief magistrate Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus.  In front of her husband and father she accused her rapist and took her own life in shame.  Her self sacrifice led to the overthrow of the monarchy and the creation of the Roman Republic.

Lucretia is one of those memes that has re-occured in art through the centuries, an icon of virtue, an innocent despoiled by brute power.  The rape itself forms one subject and the suicide another, both lurid, sexualised and even pornographic.

The story is a patriarchal morality story.  Despite her innocence the “path of virtue” for Lucretia is to take her own life.  That way she does not saddle her upstanding father and husband with “damaged goods”.

When Christianity rose to power suicide was deemed a sin.  But the raped innocent was expected to commit a symbolic form of suicide.  She was removed from polite society.  If she was pregnant she was sent away to bear the child in secret, in a convent if rich or in a Magdalene Laundry if she was poor.   Many an Irish girl was put on a boat to England to have her child abroad, or to avail of an abortion.  Good Catholic families specialised in sweeping their morality under the carpet of convenience.

To this day the legal systems in most countries are weighted in favour of the rapist and against the victim.  Her silence is rewarded with discretion as the rapist trots off to find his next victim.  Her accusation is questioned in detail and her character is torn to shreds in the courtroom where her sexual history and clothing choices will be used to paint her as a loose woman, a woman of dubious virtue, no Lucretia.





Deliverance is a movie directed by John Boorman, based on the novel by James Dickey.  Dickey is also a poet and when you get to the end of this post I have included a poem from his pen.

Different people will have different immediate reactions to the film Deliverance.  Ask people who have seen it what is their enduring memory.


Some will immediately go to the duelling banjos scene.

Yesterday we heard Burt Reynolds passed away.  When the film was made in 1972 Reynolds was the epitome of American masculinity.  The role turned him from a TV star to a Movie star in an age when that was an enormous difference.  He famously went on to turn down roles as James Bond and Han Solo.  He starred in Smokey and the Bandit, and in Cannonball Run, specialising in roles that involved muscle cars and beautiful women,  He went on to become a director.  Later in his career he won an Oscar playing a porn movie director in Boogie Nights.

In 1972 male masculinity looked like this:

deliverance 2

A lot of guys who saw the movie identified with Jon Voight.  He wants to be confident, strong, macho and shallow like Reynolds character.  But he is afflicted with human emotions, conscience, doubt.  But in the end Voight summons up his reserves of masculinity and kills the guy he thinks is the bad guy.  And then has these doubts about if that was really the bad guy after all.

Deliverance 4

For me the real hero, the real man of the movie, was Ned Beatty.  Ned played the victim of the seminal male rape scene that made the movie a significant milestone in world cinema.  The movie opened the door to male vulnerability and allowed men to open discussions about abuse.  The movie shattered the Burt Reynolds image of what a man should be and gave us the Ned Beatty truth of what a man is.

Ned Beatty allowed himself to be stripped naked, slapped, abused, insulted and raped, all on celluloid for the consumption of a world audience.  That took guts.  That took bravery.  Bur Reynolds played the easy role, Beatty did the hard stuff.

Deliverance 3

So ask me what is my enduring memory of the film.  The characters kill the guy they think is the rapist.  They bury the body in a valley that is being flooded by the construction of a dam.  At the end of the film they realise they may have killed the wrong guy.  Voight dreams of that lake behind the dam, he dreams of the serene water at dusk, no breeze, not a ripple.  And then…………

Deliverance 1

Cherrylog Road; by James Dickey

Off Highway 106
at Cherrylog Road I entered
the ’34 Ford without wheels,
smothered in kudzu,
with a seat pulled out to run
corn whiskey down from the hills,

and then from the other side
crept into an Essex
with a rumble seat of red leather
and then out again, aboard
a blue Chevrolet, releasing
the rust from its other color,

reared up on three building blocks.
None had the same body heat;
I changed with them inward, toward
the weedy heart of the junkyard,
for I knew that Doris Holbrook
would escape from her father at noon

and would come from the farm
to seek parts owned by the sun
among the abandoned chassis,
sitting in each in turn
as I did, leaning forward
as in a wild stock-car race

in the parking lot of the dead.
Time after time, I climbed in
and out the other side, like
an envoy or movie star
met at the station by crickets.
A radiator cap raised its head,

become a real toad or a kingsnake
as I neared the hub of the yard,
passing through many states,
many lives, to reach
some grandmother’s long Pierce-Arrow
sending platters of blindness forth

from its nickel hubcaps
and spilling its tender upholstery
on sleepy roaches,
the glass panel in between
Lady and colored driver
not all the way broken out,

the back-seat phone
still on its hook.
I got in as though to exclaim,
“Let us go to the orphan asylum,
John; I have some old toys
for children who say their prayers.”

I popped with sweat as I thought
I heard Doris Holbrook scrape
like a mouse in the southern-state sun
that was eating the paint in blisters
from a hundred car tops and hoods.
She was tapping like code,

loosening the screws,
carrying off headlights,
sparkplugs, bumpers,
cracked mirrors and gear-knobs,
getting ready, already,
to go back with something to show

other than her lips’ new trembling
I would hold to me soon, soon,
where I sat in the ripped back seat
talking over the interphone,
praying for Doris Holbrook
to come from her father’s farm

and to get back there
with no trace of me on her face
to be seen by her red-haired father
who would change, in the squalling barn,
her back’s pale skin with a strop,
then lay for me

in a bootlegger’s roasting car
with a string-triggered 12-gauge shotgun
to blast the breath from the air.
Not cut by the jagged windshields,
through the acres of wrecks she came
with a wrench in her hand,

through dust where the blacksnake dies
of boredom, and the beetle knows
the compost has no more life.
Someone outside would have seen
the oldest car’s door inexplicably
close from within:

I held her and held her and held her,
convoyed at terrific speed
by the stalled, dreaming traffic around us,
so the blacksnake, stiff
with inaction, curved back
into life, and hunted the mouse

with deadly overexcitement,
the beetles reclaimed their field
as we clung, glued together,
with the hooks of the seat springs
working through to catch us red-handed
amidst the gray breathless batting

that burst from the seat at our backs.
We left by separate doors
into the changed, other bodies
of cars, she down Cherrylog Road
and I to my motorcycle
parked like the soul of the junkyard

restored, a bicycle fleshed
with power, and tore off
up Highway 106, continually
drunk on the wind in my mouth,
wringing the handlebar for speed,
wild to be wreckage forever.


As babies we have none of it, as children we want it not and as we age and grow weak and decrepit it slips away from us as our bodies let us down.  But for most of our lives we value our dignity.  If die we must at least let us die with our dignity intact.

Sadly this was not allowed to one young Indian woman who died in a hospital, a long way from home. Savita Halappanavar died from childbirth complications in a modern western hospital.  She was, as least in part, the victim of the medieval and sexist influence of the Catholic Church dominance of schools and hospitals in Ireland.  The chaotic state of abortion guidelines for the medical profession in Ireland is a throwback to the misogyny of a church which does not permit priests to marry, but tolerates their abuse of children.  Where is the dignity in that?

Half way around the world another Indian girl died in a hospital a long way from home.  Victim of a brutal gang rape and a subsequent assault designed to kill her in the most undignified way possible.  To add to her misery the police, instead of caring for her, argued with each other over juristiction at the scene.

And what of the rapists?  Products of a Delhi slum.  Do they have dignity?  Did they ever?

How can we protect dignity in others if we have never known it ourselves?  For this reason I am very proud of my 16 year old son, who is travelling to Kolkata in February.  His mission is to bring dignity to the street children of that city.  That is a gift that will last a lifetime, and more.  Once you give dignity to a child they will want to pass it on to their own children.

If you would like to know more about his trip you can follow his blog on wordpress:


and if you are moved to help him reach his target, press this link.  He is over three-quarters of the way there, so please help him make his target.


As for those two Indian ladies who died in such tragic circumstances, I offer a poem out of respect.  May they rest in peace and live long in the hearts of their loved ones.

Break, break, break ; by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Break, break, break,
         On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
         The thoughts that arise in me.
O, well for the fisherman’s boy,
         That he shouts with his sister at play!
O, well for the sailor lad,
         That he sings in his boat on the bay!
And the stately ships go on
         To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand,
         And the sound of a voice that is still!
Break, break, break
         At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
         Will never come back to me.