Dr. Strangelove

Show me the way home
I’m lost
Show me the way home
It hurts too much

—Phil Roy, “Show Me the Way Home

So, let me explain about Dr. Strangelove (wiki).

I dated a guy during my first year of college who was basically in love with Dr. Strangelove (the film, not the character) and wanted me to see it. I refused—first out of apathy, then general disinterest for war movies (satirical or no), and then just to irk him a little… because that’s just how I am. (I had a different boyfriend later who let me needle him and still made me do whatever it was that he wanted… because that’s just how he was [and is]… like go to see Casino Royale even when I was an avowed James Bond hater.)

Anyway, this guy was just waiting for the nuclear apocalypse so that he could take his KA-BAR out into the wilderness and fend for himself once and for all. He was a right-wing, gun-loving, self-proclaimed libertarian who hated affirmative action and thought that feminism had run its course because men and women were equal already, just different. Oh, and he was also against a woman’s right to choose.

But that’s another story. I never did see Dr. Strangelove while we were dating, and at the end of our first year in school, we broke up. We remained friends throughout college (he hated that other boyfriend I mentioned, for example, and eventually I told him to just suck it up) until one night in December of our senior year, when our relationship was irrevocably damaged. That is to say, he raped me.

I’m still taking ownership of that idea—the idea that what happened to me on that night was rape—but no matter how I put two and two together, it still adds up to… that. It’s hard to think about; I have many triggers—his name is one that I had to deal with when I got a new job and one of my supervisors not only had the same first name but also the same last initial. Usually, I don’t think about it. I’m not over it. I mostly know my triggers, such as they are, and I avoid them.

What the hell does this have to do with Dr. Strangelove, right? Well, this semester I’m taking a creative writing class because such classes—even though I already have a terminal degree in creative writing—help me and force me to write, and if I want to call myself a writer, I need to actually do some writing.

This writing class is split into three parts—poetry, fiction, and screenplays/playwriting. To help students learn about characterization, plot development, timeline, structure, and so on in the last category, the teacher has taken to showing the class good film examples of said. Tonight, that meant watching Dr. Strangelove. All of it. And then talking about it for 45 minutes afterward.

The teacher told us he was bringing in the film last week, and I was… disgruntled. I mentioned after class that day that I had an ex-boyfriend who loved the film, but we hadn’t parted ways amicably (an understatement if I’ve ever said one) and that I wasn’t really keen on remembering that bullshit. But after my off-handed comment, I honestly didn’t think much more about it.

Then, when he actually did bring it in today [Tuesday evening, 29 November 2011], I said, “Are we seriously going to watch the whole thing?”

And he said, “Sure, why not?”

And I rolled my eyes and said, “Fine.”

And then I sat through the entire film. And you know what? Objectively speaking, it isn’t a half bad movie. Stanley Kubrick is nothing to shake a stick at, so to speak. But I sat there, unable to really focus on the movie to really enjoy it (or scoff at it, or have any normal reaction at all)… because all I could think about was him. Because it had been his favorite movie. And it had been his hands on me, even after I’d told him “no”.

Half way through the film, I slid down in my chair, sick to my stomach, and wrote in my notebook:

watching this movie all I can think about is [him] holding me down in that geology lab @ [our school] that night.


and then I scribbled over the entire page to mark it out.

As soon as the film was over, I knew had been a terrible, terrible idea for me to have watched it when the only thing I could really see was… that, and as soon as the teacher gave us a five-minute break, I was out the door and down the steps to find a relatively unoccupied restroom.

I went into the nearest available stall (the very first stall had a sign taped to it that read “OUT of ORDER”—ridiculous, the things I remember) and threw up. Or rather, I would have thrown up, except that I hadn’t eaten much before the class since I was intending to eat when I got home. (I’m sure you can imagine that didn’t happen.)

After a few minutes, I stood up and went to the sink to wash my face. I went back to class (“You okay?” the teacher asked, and I nodded) and sat silently while the class discussed the film’s characters and structure, fists clenched in my lap. I was so wrapped up in my own crap—just trying not to explode or implode, just trying to stay in that holding pattern until I could go home and fall apart in the privacy of my own room—that I didn’t even notice the film has a single woman character (thereby utterly failing the entire Bechdel Test) until someone pointed out that she’d been wearing a fucking bikini in her only scene.

Finally, at the end of the discussion, the teacher turned to me and said, “You haven’t said a single thing. What do you think?”

And I said, “I’m not going to talk about this film.”

And he said, “What? Having some ex-boyfriend ruin one of the greatest comedies ever to grace the silver screen? What a tragedy.”

And I nearly just cracked up and laughed out loud because he really had no idea how right he was. It is a fucking tragedy, and you know why? Because I sat through the entire thing. I could’ve gotten up at any point and just said, “Fuck this. I know when I’m being triggered” but I didn’t. I didn’t really know it was a trigger at first, but the moment I realized it, I should’ve removed myself from the situation. I had every right to do that, but I didn’t because—as one of my waterbrothers said—I’m “certainly a committed student”.

Really, though, it’s because I still want people to like me, want people to not dislike me, want to not rock the boat, want to be “a good girl”, want to believe that if I do the right things—say the right things, wear the right things—that I’ll be safe. But I wasn’t safe that time. I had thought I was safe, and I wasn’t. I was with someone I trusted, and he betrayed me.

I left the class and started shaking. I called one of my waterbrothers and hung up the phone on the second ring. He called me back. I told him I needed him because I knew I was about to have a panic attack and I didn’t want to be alone. I drove home on autopilot and he found me there, sitting in my car, hyperventilating. He took me back to his house and held me while I cried and told me that I was safe, that whatever had happened was over now, and that he would hold me for as long as it took.

And then, after I’d calmed down some, he kissed me. And he kept kissing me, and I was thinking to myself, “Again? Please, not again.” But I was kissing him back because I actually do like him that way sometimes and I was just reacting, but it was too soon—still, even after all this time—and too fast, and after a few minutes, I was trying to get away and saying “no, no, no” over and over.

He held me there, and it wasn’t the same kind of hold as the one that time because suddenly he was whispering urgently in my ear, “God, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry” and I was shaking and crying again and he was holding me tightly, saying, “Goddamnit, I’m so sorry; you were vulnerable and I took advantage and I’m so sorry”.

And I wanted to scream at him, “Yes! Yes, you did take advantage!” but I didn’t because I couldn’t get the words out in between my sobs. When I could breathe again, he stroked my hair and let me just lean against him, listening to his heartbeat, for a long time.

Finally, just when I thought maybe he’d fallen asleep, he said, “Something happened tonight that made you remember something traumatic that happened to you, and I was supposed to be safe for you, but instead I made you remember twice. I’m so, so sorry. I’m no better than him.”

I was silent for a minute, thinking about it, thinking maybe I should agree with him, and then I leaned up and looked him in the eyes and said, “Yes, maybe you did, but you know the difference?”

It was his turn to be silent for a minute, and I could tell he didn’t believe there was a difference. Finally, I prodded him further, “Do you?”

“What?” he asked gruffly.

You stopped.”

Viannah E. Duncan

Viannah E. Duncan is a writer and activist hailing originally from Los Angeles. She lives outside of Baltimore, Maryland, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. She has a cat, Cleo.

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