On a flight back to Amsterdam from a recent trip to Kenya, I stumbled upon a short story by JM Coetzee, titled The Dog. The story focuses on an unnamed female who makes a daily journey on foot to work. En route, she passes a private property guarded by a vicious dog. The story has no particular location, although the language spoken between the characters is French. Work and homeward bound, She is harassed by this dog. It is a terrifying and beastly hound, with sharp teeth, a stinking breath (no doubt) and a keen smell for female blood:
“She fears him, and he knows it. Twice a day he can look forward to it: the passage of this being who is in fear of him, who cannot mask her fear, who gives off the smell of fear as a bitch gives off the smell of sex”.
In spite of the nonspecific context, the story first made me think of the rich white suburbs of South African cities, such as Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town. Large properties with elaborate security apparatus, including massive gates and walls, line wide leafy streets. Due to the apartheid-era Group Areas Act, rich white suburbs are commonly situated well outside of the CBD and a substantial distance from poor black, and racially-mixed areas. Almost all of these massive properties with swimming pools, tennis courts, gyms, numerous garages, and so on, are kept immaculate (and, to be frank, functional) through the hard work of black domestic staff.
Almost all of this staff no longer live at their place of work as in apartheid days (in what was known as ‘servants quarters, or on bigger properties, ‘the compound’). Instead, they live in the areas that have affordable rent. They end up having to travel outrageously long distances to their place of work. Often using a combination of trains, buses, minibus taxies, and walking by foot to eventually reach their destinations. This journey can cost around 60% of their punitive wages, and it is common that the travel time takes between one and half and 3 hours each way door to door (not to mention the effect of frequent delays, strikes or sheer unreliability of these transport services).
I grew up in these wealthy white suburbs, both in Johannesburg and elsewhere - in smaller towns in the Free State and Mpumalanga. We always had domestic staff. I know from talking with them, and from my own observance, that the dogs many of the white home owners kept were downright vicious. Many scenes easily flash through my mind of black domestic workers walking past white owned homes in the early morning or late evening, minding their own business, and then being harassed by some brutish Rottweiler or pit bull going berserk behind a fence. Teeth bared, eyes enraged and body seething with rage. What if this dog were to break free?
The gruesome reality is that sometimes these dogs have broken free. In fact, in a cul-de-sac near my parents past home in Johannesburg, one of these Rottweilers did break the fence. A Zimbabwean domestic worker who had been employed nearby for something like 20 years was malled. It took the owner of the dog ages (and a second bloody incident with another, different domestic worker) to agree to put the brutish hound down.
The second issue this story brought to mind is that of Harvey Weinstein’s very public sexual assault scandal and the subsequent public discourse around the #MeToo campaign. This is due to how Coetzee weaves commentary on gender power dynamics into his story explicitly, describing how the dog must ‘smell’ her fear and gain satisfaction from domination:
“Whether [the dog] knows she is a female, whether in his eyes a human being must belong to to one of two genders of dogs, and therefore whether he feels two kinds of satisfaction at once - the satisfaction of one beast dominating another beast, the satisfaction of a male dominating a female - she has no idea.”
At the heart of the incredible bravery of so many women now disclosing their history of sexual assault, is the issue of consent and what constitutes as ‘fighting back” or “saying no”. This is a tricky issue to pin down. So often sexual assault is not a clear cut case of rape and explicit force or attack. Commonly, rape is perpetrated by someone close to a woman - in her family, her partner, or within the workplace.This closeness can be construed in so many ways, and, after having said “no” or “stop”, when women are perpetually pursued, and men continue to force themselves, it is often the case that the woman freezes with fear, or gives up out of shame, and/or a feeling of hopelessness. Fearfully doing nothing to stop the assault, or deciding that its wiser to no longer fight back, is at the centre of the “oh but she wanted it/enjoyed it” narrative.
The Dog concludes with the woman walking away and giving up trying to persuade the dog owner that his hound is traumatising her. The owner (an older man) is patronising and dismissive. Eventually he grows annoyed and shouts at her to “Go, go, go!” Disappointingly, she gives up: “Without a word, she retreats; the door closes behind her.”
I saw myself in this woman. I kept silent about sexual assault for years out of shame and guilt. I punished myself with self-loathing instead of blaming the perpetrators. Contemporarily, It happens so often that I’m faced with an incidence of clear gender discrimination, yet, its just so much easier (and usually in my best career/relationship/socialising interests) to ignore it. When I say nothing and let a chauvinistic comment or act slide, I ask myself whether or not this ambivalence stems from my own lack of self-love and self-worth, something so many women of my generation seem to struggle with.
Upon returning to Amsterdam I attended a yoga class during which the teacher asked us to do some spring cleaning. She suggested that spring is a time to sweep out old cobwebs, to eradicate negative habits in life, and to set new positive intentions. I impulsively knew which habit I want to eradicate - the desire to loose weight. I have wanted to be ‘just that bit more slender and toned’ my entire adult life. This desire saps my energy and throws me into frenzy when I’m stressed or exhausted. Its stupid and persistent. Its a manifestation of a lack of self-worth (and an unhealthy dose of perfectionism). As a rape survivor, I know now that more than anything I was robbed of self-worth. From this point onwards, I learnt to seek love in others, and to feel as though admiration from men is a necessary litmus test for my value as a human being. I think a whole separate blog is need to explain this connection, but its there, its been there and has vibrated beneath the surface for me ever since I can remember. Ever since I was first raped.
And so, frustratingly, ironically, the barking dog feeds my desire to fill the empty space left by past violation. Perhaps this is what Coetzee was getting at. Perhaps he’s asking why she continues to walk the same route? Why not take a different road? Is this bravery and defiance- her dealing with the owner would say no. So, instead, is it compulsion? A weird magnetism between victim and perpetrator, where the will of the later completely overpowers the former: “One day, the dog says, this fence will give way. One day, the dog says, I will tear you to pieces”. The terrible and inevitable embrace.