Rape and Memory in Teju Cole’s ‘Open City’

My decision in the Morning New’s Tournament of Books is finally live, so I can reveal that I picked Teju Cole’s Open City over Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, and I can finally discuss both books without tipping my hand about what — or how — I’d be judging.

There’s a fascinating discussion in comments about the key event in the book. Julius, a somewhat depressed psychiatrist who is the main character in the novel, spends much of the book reconnecting with Moji, a girl he knew when they were both growing up in Nigeria. But towards the end of the novel, Moji reveals her real motivations for getting to know Julius as an adult: Julius sexually assaulted her when they were young teenagers, and she’s wanted to see if he remembers his actions and feels regret or remorse. Commenter Neighbors73 raises an objection that others brought up as well: “I guess I’m the only one who is still struggling with the idea of a 14 year old boy forgetting he’s a rapist?”

I can understand why some readers might find this jarring. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t. The power of that conversation between Moji and Julius lies in its dissonance, the fact that an event that was shattering for one person was forgettable for someone else. And this is the kind of thing that can happen when we don’t treat boys and girls equally about what consent means. It’s just as important to teach boys that no genuinely means no as it is to teach girls to say no in the first place. Putting sole responsibility on women is a sick joke when men can override their lack of consent.

And when we don’t teach boys what consent genuinely means, and why obtaining it is critical, this is where we get these horrendous differences in memory. I don’t think it’s unreasonable that someone would forget a one-time sexual encounter in a lifetime of them if that’s the way their lack of knowledge and empathy lead them to read an assault. And I find it all too plausible that a 14-year-old could rewrite what for a woman was a lifechanging sexual assault into a routine, and barely-remembered hookup at a party. Julius didn’t forget assaulting Moji because he’s a sociopath who can easily put a rape out of his mind — he forgot assaulting Moji because he doesn’t understood himself to have assaulted her in the first place. This doesn’t absolve him of moral responsibility, then or now. In fact, it shows him to be more globally detached and inconsiderate than we’d previously seen. It’s a revelation that forces us, and Julius, to revisit everything we’ve come to understand about him.