‘One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery’ by Karyn L. Freedman

Book Reviews

One Hour in Paris coverReviewed by Carlyn Schellenberg (originally posted Mar. 31, 2014)

Most rape survivors who pen their stories do so with the aim of bringing awareness to rape’s staggering commonness, to remove the negative stigma, and to make the private nature of the assault public, so that their voices are heard. Karyn L. Freedman wrote One Hour in Paris for all of these reasons, but also to understand the body’s reaction to trauma and how trauma affects memory. Most importantly, Freedman dedicates her memoir to all rape survivors: “if I am sure of anything it is that there are innumerable other survivors out there whose experiences mirror mine.”

Over the course of an hour in Paris, a violent rape changed Karyn L. Freedman’s life forever, tearing her from her innocence, soiling her relationships, and crippling her with anxiety. Nearly twenty-four years later, in her dark memoir, Freedman shares her truth.

One Hour in Paris chronicles twenty-two-year-old Freedman’s European travels, a trip that grinds to a halt in Paris. She meets up with her lover, Stream, to stay in his colleague’s apartment. Soon after, a night of brutal assaults by a man named Robert leads to statements to police and, ultimately, a plane back to her Winnipeg home. The five-part memoir covers the rape’s aftermath (trips back to Paris, including a court date), and Freedman’s long recovery process. One Hour in Paris spans a twenty-year period, from the 1990 assault to a touching visit to Botswana where she speaks with rape survivors, to a return to the scene of the crime years later.

Winnipeg-born Freedman is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph, and some of her academic research has focused on trauma. The memoir is part of her research, and she uses her personal experience to discuss the workings of trauma and memory. One Hour in Paris is largely about understanding panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the global scope of sexual assault of women as explored through Freedman’s academic expertise. One Hour in Paris is part non-fiction narrative, part academic essay or textbook, and based on psychological, philosophical, and medical understandings. In relation to the narrative, Freedman retrospectively analyzes her feelings, flipping back and forth from the narrative to her analysis of her psychological and physiological responses to situations in the story.

Freedman’s telling of certain experiences is very moving, such as her parents’ unconditional support following the rape. Her interactions with rape survivors in Botswana are also incredibly moving:

One of the women in her twenties told me that she had no idea that people in countries like Canada were subject to rape. Another said she had never heard anyone speak publicly about rape. And one of the teenagers told me in an indelible moment that hearing my story would change her future because it showed her that recovery is possible.

A particular scene during her rape also gives us insight into what those last seconds are like for women who don’t survive their brutal rapes:

He then took the knife and traced the blade across my bare breasts, back and forth, up and down, about six times in total. I held my breath and suspended all thought, waiting for the knife to sink in. The absolute terror that I felt in those seconds still haunts me today.

Freedman’s use of foreshadowing also keeps readers on their toes. Information pertaining to the events will be given directly prior to the actual narrative. In the case of the rape, this sentence occurs before she even arrives at the apartment: “I caught a glimpse of him only once, in the early hours of August 2, 1990—and at the time he was at a police station, behind bars in a holding cell.”

Much of the informational and analytical aspects of the memoir are gripping. Freedman explains why statistics can be less interesting: “The problem with statistics is that they are easy to ignore. There is anonymity in numbers, which can make it hard to hold on to the facts—the people—behind them.” She goes on to describe “the stories behind the numbers” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo:

Sons are being forced to rape their mothers; and fathers are being forced to rape their daughters. And the nature of the raping is extremely violent. According to news reports women are first raped, and then often their vaginas are mutilated by knives, butchered by bayonets, or blown apart by guns.

While the above are examples of successful methods of involving the reader, in other cases Freedman is not so effective. The conjunction of narrative passages and academic terminology works to keep the reader interested, but at times interesting examples are scarce and dull terminology and explanations abound. For example, several pages are devoted to the history of post-traumatic stress disorder and its identification in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is helpful in the understanding of trauma, but a more interesting example could have been used to break up the history.

But nothing can take away the reclamation Freedman now has of her own experience. Analyzing rape using her firsthand knowledge gives her permanent power:

Power imbalances in society create the conditions that make it possible for men to rape, and it is also true that men may rape out of a desire not for sex but for absolute power and control over another person. But for the survivor, rape is all about sex. It is about having the most private parts of your body used sexually, violently, against your will.

As a way of navigating the theme of memory, Freedman constantly explains how her memory has worked in relation to her attack, and how sometimes facts about the case are at odds with her memories of the event. Atypical of memoirs, but relevant due to this memoir’s themes of memory and trauma, she also explains that her memory may not be perfect, but that this is the best account she can give. For example, in the prologue:

It is a true story from start to finish, though I am likely guilty of some exaggeration and evasion, however inadvertent. For instance, as I remember it, the knife that was pressed into my neck (and other body parts) during the attack was ten inches long with a shallow serrated edge, but at least one reliable record of my experience—the official transcript of the pretrial indictment, which contains my deposition—says nothing about whether the knife’s edge was serrated.

Freedman does omit information. We don’t know much about her sisters and how they supported her post-assault—although perhaps that information was deemed irrelevant to the story somehow—and, more importantly, we aren’t provided any account of her visit to Stream after the rape, which clearly (in addition to the rape) defined the relationship’s undoing. Perhaps painting him as near-anonymous post-rape is a literary technique. Perhaps after not calling her after the ordeal (and because he is, in whatever miniscule, indirect way, accountable for the rape), he doesn’t deserve to be revisited in the narrative. Regardless, their meeting in New York is acknowledged but not elaborated on, and the missing details are certainly relevant to the story.

We get fragments of lightness in One Hour in Paris—the fleeting moments travelling through Europe before the fateful night in Paris, and the retrospective nostalgia for her early twenties identity and innocence pre-rape, and for her relationship with Stream—but the memoir is, as one would expect, dark. The long-term psychological trauma (paranoia, panic attacks, anxiety during sex) inflicted on Freedman—who rejects pity—by her assailant is harrowing. Yet, light also squeezes in: from over twenty years since the rape, Freedman has learned what works for her in terms of therapy. After almost a decade of no therapy after the assault, she finds that talking to others who’ve been in her shoes is the most cathartic and therapeutic, as well as taking anti-anxiety medication, and a form of therapy where she can relive the experience with boxing gloves.

Other than the more transparent impression from the memoir that recovery and reclaimed power is possible, the most salient message in One Hour in Paris is one of hope. Freedman emphasizes that sexual violence is global in scope, and women and children are predominantly the victims because they are more vulnerable (she notes that rape of men is unlikely outside of prisons). The Botswana passage provides a beautiful, uplifting image of rape survivors with different nationalities telling their stories and empowering each other in the process.

Freehand | 208 pages |  $21.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1554811953

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Carlyn Schellenberg

Carlyn Schellenberg is a writer and associate editor for the Winnipeg Review.