Friday, April 01, 2022

Karen Moe: Interview with a Fierce Survivor - plus a brief MIZMO memory!

The event page for Karen Moe's book launch at Massy Arts - taking place April 2nd, at 23 East Pender - has a pretty compelling opening paragraph: 

Imagine being a carefree, independent young woman enjoying life. Your bold, adventurous spirit pulls you to travel to distant locales. Then out of nowhere, you’re abducted, assaulted, and raped. That is the terror-filled experience that Karen Moe survived almost thirty years ago.

Not only did Karen survive the experience, she managed to turn the tables on her abductor (a serial rapist), not just getting free but setting in motion the process of his capture, having the wherewithal and concern for others to get his license plate number. In the process, she was transformed - which becomes the subject of her first book, Victim: A Feminist Manifesto from a Fierce Survivor.

In the interest of honesty, I must here admit that I have not read Karen's book, but have known her for some time, and have even seen some of her past performance art, Lethe, which, like her writing and art criticism, "focuses on systemic violence in patriarchy: be it gender, race, the environment or speciesism" (quote from her artist's bio). I vividly recall watching video with her in the breakroom of a dayjob we shared of a performance piece she did themed around Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, wherein she was bound in police tape, trying to free herself while, as I recall, sounds sampled from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre soundtrack played in the background. No horror burlesque, it was a somewhat grim and uncomfortable piece, showing Moe's willingness to break boundaries and make herself vulnerable in her work. Talking with her about it afterwards revealed her to be an incisively smart and funny woman, with whom I had more in common than I expected. 

With the help of an audio refresher courtesy of Co-Op Radio - I felt qualified to ask Karen a few questions about her book and the experiences that informed it. 

Karen Moe by Stasia Garraway

Allan: How did you feel when your abductor died in prison in 2016? How did you come to be aware of that? Were you working on the memoir at that point? How did his death affect you?

John Lennihan died in prison in California in August 2016. I found this out because, yes, I had started to write the book. Just started. I wrote the first sentence for Victim in November 2016. This is a sentence I am incredibly proud of. For me, with writing, it’s all about the first sentence. It’s a gift. A miracle. Once I have the first sentence, the book or essay is destined. The rest is a foreshadow waiting to be filled in. This sentence is: “I have lost the mustard yellow suede jacket from that time.” With that, the book began to pour out. And, very soon after that revelation of the first sentence, I came upon the ending. I just realized that I can’t tell you the rest of what I was going to tell you … because it will spoil the ending of the book, an ending that I am very proud of. Mostly because it was so fun to write. Agents and other publishers have said I should scrap the ending. But I refused. But I will tell you, perhaps enigmatically, when I found out that Lennihan was dead, I felt how an artist feels. To quote myself: “It was time to perform an autopsy on my twenty-eight-year-old psyche.” However, like all art, what ended up happening in real life was meant to be and added to the literary play of the book.

I don’t know if you get into it in your book, but what were you like before the abduction? Where were you in terms of being a feminist and activist? Would it be fair to say that the experience “transformed” you? Was there anything lost that you miss, now? What is the most valuable thing you gained?

To get into the meat of your question right away: I have no idea what I would miss that I lost.

As I say in the book, “[l]ike all sexual assault victims, it’s impossible to know what we were like before it happened. It is from then on always after.” (Victim 163). And, not only does that not have to be a bad thing, it is unrealistic to think you will be ‘the same’ again once you have lived through extreme violence. How can a rupture never have happened?

But yes, it would be fair to say the event transformed me. You have hit the manifesto jugular, so to speak, of the book:
One of the main effects of my personal victimization has been an acute awareness of injustice, especially regarding sexual assault. Whenever I watch or see or read or hear about rape, prostitution, or pornography, I feel like I am being raped all over again. But, the interesting thing is, it’s not personal anymore; it’s not just about me. And, it may sound strange: it’s not all bad. It is as though, through an experience that is perceived as—and is—horrifying, there is more to it than that. Instead of being weak, passive, and defeated, my experience as a victim kicked me in the ass. It made me start doing something about it. (Victim 144-45).

During the ordeal, was there anything – life experiences, literature, film, etc from the “before” that helped you deal with the experience, that provided you resources to draw on or helped keep you alive… or were you mostly improvising?

While I was tied up in the back of the van you mean? Are you asking me if I was thinking about literature and film, then? No. My “[e]yes [were] widened almost to unblinking, adrenalin pumping, heart pounding, spinning webs of get-away strategies.” (Victim 18)

Okay, let me rephrase the question - what resources did you have to draw on? Did you have past encounters with male violence, self-defense training, anything in your kitbag that you could rely on to help you survive your ordeal?

I actually relied on nothing. I wasn't thinking of literature or movies and I have never taken a self-defense class and I psychologically overpowered him. I guess I was improvising. Adrenlalin. Survival instinct. However, maybe I have street smarts. Maybe I'm talented with the proverbial poker face. I don't know. I just became obsessed with getting away.

I understand if you don’t want to go into detail here – “read the book” is a fair answer! – but can you say anything here about how you psychologically overpowered your abductor? Did you learn anything in so doing that you could apply in later life, or principles that could help others? (I am assuming that helping others is a huge impetus for writing this book).

There is a funny part during a terrible part where I am thinking very seriously about getting the gun. Being from Canada, where there is a lot of paperwork for a hunter to get a hunting rifle, I reasoned with myself: “Look, let’s be realistic here. Even if you got the gun, you wouldn’t know how to use it. There is that big silencer that you aren’t even sure is a silencer, and have you heard of something called ‘a safety’?”(Victim 42). Maybe if I had known how to use a gun (I knew where it was), I would have gone with my idea of getting the gun (I had the opportunity, a pretty grim opportunity, but an opportunity nonetheless). However, because I had no idea of how to use the gun, I opted for psychologically overpowering him.

I don’t know if I learned anything about how strong and smart I was that I could apply later in life. (I learned what a power drug adrenaline is, though). I have been told, for example, in one endorsement that I survived the unthinkable and another that I took what would break most people and turned it into triumph. I don’t know if that’s true. I am not another person. I was lucky in that I don’t think the serial rapist who happened to abduct me had killed yet. But he did leave the victim after me (his final victim) for dead and I found out 28 years later that, along with the gun, he’d had brass knuckles in the vehicle. But for some reason, he didn’t use them on me.

However, what I did learn or gain or acquire is an embodied and psychic awareness and knowledge of a system based on exploitation. You can know that theoretically; however, once you have lived through it, you know acutely what needs to be revolutionized. Yes, perhaps ironically, I became a revolutionary after the abduction. However, this is not uncommon. Many people who have survived and embodied extreme violence end up committing their lives to helping others and dismantling a top down way of being (hierarchy) that needs to exploit in order to exist. The same ideological system of greed and taking that has raped me in my life (the abduction was not the only time) also rapes the earth through an extraction economy.

However, I also state in the book, “I certainly wouldn’t wish my particular form of initiation into the realm of righteous anger on anyone else, but this is a good anger, a healthy anger, an anger that motivates.” (Victim 145)

Tell me about the “hero” award. I haven’t heard about that before…?

Yes, I will be presented with “Ellie Liston Hero of the Year Award” on the last stop of my US tour in Ventura, California on April 28th when I read and present during National Crime Victims’ Week. Ventura is where the trial was held in 1996 and John Lennihan was given a life sentence. Even though I was the one who caught him (not in terms of a net or a leg hold trap or running up behind him and bonking him over the head which I definitely would have liked to have been able to do), I never had my own trial. I was the key witness in two other victims’ trials, the main case being for the woman he left for dead. Because of the extremity of what he did to her, the case became homicide. If it had only been about what he did to me (merely numerous rapes, strangling, being hit and threatened with a deadly weapon), he may not have even been convicted. In the 90s, my ‘complaint’ may very well have been proclaimed ‘unfounded’ as so many others were and still are. I write about this (I don’t think I leave anything out) and any potential cracks in my arguments are sealed up with over 270 endnotes.

Are you able to win over most people to the idea that, as you use it, the term “victim” can be one of empowerment? Have you encountered any particularly defensive, hostile, challenging or otherwise interesting reactions to that idea?

I have definitely encountered defensive and hostile reactions to the use of the term/reality ‘victim’ and especially as the title for the book. The title has always been Victim, ever since I started thinking of making something out of the story. This is because victimization in patriarchal hierarchy—which guarantees exploitation—is inevitable. 

One woman every 17 minutes is raped in Canada, one woman every 2 minutes in the US, and one woman every 18 seconds in Mexico—and it’s been estimated that a good 50% go unreported... and this is ‘just’ talking about rapes of women. What about the sexual abuse of men and predominantly boy-children? It has been estimated that 1 in 33 men has experienced an attempted or complete rape in their lifetime and studies between 1996 and 2005 found that 14.2-16.4% and 64% of females had been sexually abused before the age of 18. The majority of sexual assault and abuse are of still women and girls; however, we cannot leave out the men and especially the boys. Regardless of sex or gender, the motive for rape is always the exploitation of another human.

Victim is a reality, and the exploitation and power abuse extends beyond the human. It cannot be denied, so we have to look at it. And, as I argue in the book, because—especially according to the statistic that 64% of females had been sexually abused before the age of 18 from 1996-2005—the majority of females and many men already have an embodied knowledge of injustice and, in that sense, we are all already warriors. We already have the majority.

I also talk about experiences and things I have learned in Mexico about victimization, vigilance and not forgetting that which victimized us so that it won’t happen again. I say: “I must not attempt to erase the scars of my victimization: I must have the strength to honour them. So that they won’t happen again.” (Victim 144)

‘Victim’ is not as simple as mere empowerment. It is more like reality. And I don’t really like the word ‘empowerment.’ It reminds me of superficial self-help books that don’t go into any detail of what we are empowering ourselves from or against or to be. Without deep understanding, empowerment can support the enemy. If we think of what Koa Beck designates as ‘white feminists’ (even though my skin is white, I found out, thankfully, a quarter of a way into her book by the same name, that I am not one), white feminists (and the woman doesn’t have to be ‘white’ to be one) empower themselves by striving for what ‘successful’ men in patriarchy have: the ability to abuse power and individually profit. The ability to victimize.

I am complicating the term and reality of "victim." And, those who resist my title—and many will—I really hope will read the book. I challenge them to.

However, as I say in the book, regardless if the ubiquitous reality of victimization and guarantee of exploitation in Western patriarchal hierarchy: “we don’t have to be abducted and raped to know this: we just have to look around and care for others beyond ourselves.” (Victim 36). What is needed is an ideological revolution from individualism to empathy. It is obvious that this system doesn’t work if we care to look around and feel and get beyond ourselves. I said in a recent interview with Massy Arts, the rape of a child you know and the rape of a child you don’t are equally unforgiveable. And, I would add, it is worth raging about and fighting against the fact that these atrocities are happening all of the time, especially in the so-called third world where children are sold to first world men for $3000 because they haven’t been violated—read "raped"—yet, and their as of yet unsullied state and innocence is perhaps the ultimate act of power abuse. After their young bodies have been used, their value in the sex tourism market progressively decreases. By the time they are a young woman, they are worth sometimes as low as $3 per rape. This happens. Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho writes a lot about this from her investigations.

You and I share an interest in rape-revenge films and horror films – as a feminist, do you have a favourite? Rape revenge films are often regarded as a kind of morally dubious/ suspect/ exploitive genre – do you agree with that? What would you like to see in a horror movie about patriarchy? (If your story were made into a film, what do you worry might get changed or altered?).

So you know, I am not interested in horror films. I am not interested in any form of gratuitous violence. Even though it’s what I fight against, I am not interested in violence. I wish I didn’t have to pay any attention to it at all. I also find horror films boring because you know how they are going to end even before they start: a group of naïve soon-to-be victims are soon-to-be brutalized usually by being sliced up in some way. The soon-to-be victims typically have little to no character development so the viewer doesn’t connect to them and, therefore, we don’t mind much that they are brutalized by the charismatic serial killer anti-hero. Who is talked about and remains a part of popular culture? The serial killer. ‘Freddy’ comes to mind. Do we remember any of his victims? I have never heard anyone talk about them. Because of the centralization of that which brutalizes and murders (in horror films and in Western patriarchy), this tendency reinforces exploitation and violence. Perhaps I am not an expert in the horror genre—I did research Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original) for my Lethe project years ago, and that certainly was a part of the pattern I just described. Also all of the other mainstream horror movies—maybe there is more to it and the cult, underground films actually deconstruct themselves. However, those in the mainstream, which have the largest audiences and ideological influence, reinforce everything that I fight against.

However, yes, I do enjoy rape revenge. It’s my favorite genre! But not all. I don’t enjoy gratuitous violence and over-simplified, reductionist, characters (in that sense, the selection is quite small). The 2017 movie Revenge by Coralie Fargeat is a rape revenge film, although I read somewhere that the director doesn’t think of it as such. She was going more for the over-the-top special effects a la Tarantino with blood spurting like a hose (hoses probably were used) that it’s so outrageous and virtually baroque (so it’s kind of beautiful in a way). We do not connect with the main character, she who wields semi-automatic revenge at the end—or I didn’t anyway. And she is incredibly hot so objectified once again as her physical feminine perfection is sexy and sullied with mud and little to no clothing. This film gets nowhere in terms of revolutionizing the victim, and I don’t think the Fargeat cared if it did. Even though the men are idiots and we don’t mind them being killed, it is pure sensationalism.

However, the rape revenge film that is in my opinion pure rape revenge is Emerald Fennel’s Promising Young Woman. I say it’s pure rape revenge because it’s real. It is taken from reality. Yes, I very much admire I Spit on your Grave, and the main character Jennifer Hills is a well-developed, complex character (which all victims are. We are all human and, therefore, complex). However, it is fantasy in the sense that she is able to kill all four men who gang raped her. Unfortunately, I don’t think this would ever happen. However, the story of Promising Young Woman could. The main character Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, is absolutely developed. We love her. Fennell’s film complexifies the whole reality of rape and privilege in patriarchy (the power to rape and the impunity of rapists, especially those of the upper classes). It talks about victim-blaming, internalized victim-blaming where the victim blames herself. It talks about PTSD and, it is not an all-out ‘happy ending’ in terms of the woman getting absolute revenge. It is a real ending, loaded with contradiction and ambivalence. After I saw Promising Young Woman in 2019, even though my book was finished, I added a part on rape revenge.

Chanel Miller’s book Know My Name is also rape revenge. As is my story. Both of our stories are taken from absolute lived experiences. There is revenge. The victims do win. But the triumph is interrogated, as nothing is ever one-dimensional. And this is not only interesting, it’s also important. As I say in my book, “neither side was going to claim absolute victory. Damage would be taken on both sides, and roles would be switched as this real-life game progressed. But, in the end, one would lose more than the other, even though the winner definitely lost a lot and, paradoxically, gained a lot too.” (Victim 44-45)

The ultimate revenge, is revolution: eradicating, dismantling rape culture. Even though I fall into the category of ‘radical’ feminist, I call myself a Logical Feminist. Even though revolutionizing ideology is far from simple, the reason for it is: anything that has anything to do with exploitation is wrong.

How did the book come to be published…? I do not know Vigilance Press or Vigilance Magazine, but looking at some of the articles - there's something you wrote on the logging at Fairy Creek - and the fact that some of the site is in Spanish - knowing you divide your time between Vancouver and Mexico - makes me wonder if you are not just being published by them, but involved more deeply…?

How the book came to be published is a book in itself. When I first started submitting Victim to ‘dream’ agencies in NY and London, I found a website that said: “Oh, you think writing your book was hard!” For me writing a book is not hard—it’s not easy of course, it requires great discipline—but that great discipline is not hard to have when the writing, when art, is a joy. All artists are happiest when they are making art. When I have days or weeks or (be still my beating heart) months or years when ‘all’ I have to do is write and make art, I definitely don’t have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. I awaken with a light heart. That said, yes, the writing part is easy because it's a joy. The publishing part was hell. I almost had at least three nervous breakdowns. But I believe in the power of never giving up. And, here you go: Victim lives.

Vigilance Press is new indie press and an imprint of Vigilance Fierce Feminisms Magazine. Yes, it is a bilingual magazine (English and Spanish). I write a lot for Vigilance because I spend so much time in Mexico. Vigilance Fierce Feminisms Magazine is ‘for people who believe in the power of never giving up,’ the same as I do. It’s a perfect fit. Victim: A Feminist Manifesto from a Fierce Survivor is Vigilance Press’ debut publication.

Anything I should say about the booklaunch? It sounds like there will be music? (I recognize Soressa’s name, anyhow). What is planned for the night?

The Vancouver book launch and US Tour kick-off for Sexual Assault Awareness Month at Massy Arts is full. There is a 40 person capacity and I have 41 (I had to ask for one more for a good friend who was late signing up!). Yes, Soressa Gardner is playing. However, there will be more events in Vancouver in May and June (the Canada Tour will begin in late June). If people would like to keep up on events, interviews, podcasts etc, they can sign up for the newsletter at You also get the first 21-page preview when you sign up. And, books are on sale on all online booksellers now! They will be available in select bookstores like People’s Coop Bookstore, Massy Books, Spartacus, Western Sky Books in Vancouver; Two Friends (Arkansas); Bookman’s (Arizona); and Café Con Libros and Bank of Books in California (to start). [See the end of the interview for news about an eBook discount, if that's your preferred format]

Since this is a blog read primarily by local music geeks, there are possibly people out there who know MIZMO, if you are game to talk about the band. Who was in the band? Do you talk about MIZMO in the book? Did you write any songs about these experiences? Ever think of putting those demos out into the world, or revisiting that material?

Yes, the first thing I did when I got home to Vancouver after the abduction in 1994 was start a Rock & Roll band, MIZMO. I was traumatized but I also had a lot of knowledge about violence from that trauma and I was able to write songs so easily. And I had the rock 'n roll rage that was so potent in the 90s with Grrl Power. Ironically, this was one of the happiest times of my life … being on stage especially. Yes, I talk about MIZMO in the book. And about the lead guitar player who is now dead. He was the only person who was really there for me when I got back, traumatized, with all of the complexities of that, from Arizona in 1994.

I did have PTSD. I didn’t actually realize that until writing the book. I was a mess. But Rock & Roll loves it when people are messed up. The messed up rock star is very romantic and charismatic. But then I lost everything. I crashed. I have nothing from this time. It is the only regret of my life breaking up the band when tensions began between players. I thought I could do it again. But you never can. We had magic and I didn’t value it enough. Because I didn’t value myself. I thrashed around not caring about anything. I don’t even have a photo. I had a CD of a few unmastered recordings. Really bad quality. But I cherished it. I had it before I moved to Mexico City in 2015. Now I can’t even find that anymore. Maybe it’s in my very chaotic storage locker! When you told me you saw a MIZMO poster in the rubble of a demolished house, Allan [actually it was glued to a wall that was coming down, around the Woodwards building demolition/ renovations], that made me happy and sad. Did you take a picture? I know you didn’t go in and get it. Maybe I’ll write a story about that. The poster in the rubble. All we have is what happened. And, in the end, even loss and regret are interesting.

Karen Moe at the book launch on March 30th in Lantzville BC - the "I Wrote Half My Book Here" launch. You can hear more from Karen Moe and the book, Victim: A Feminist Manifesto from a Fierce Survivor, on this podcast. There is also a streaming link for her booklaunch (which I believe is sold out). eBooks of Victim will be on sale from April 4th to 6th on Amazon for $1.99! 

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