Longlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction
The crime of rape sizzles like a lightning strike. It pounces, flattens, destroys. A person stands whole, and in a moment of unexpected violence, that life, that body is gone.
Award-winning writer and public health executive Michelle Bowdler's memoir indicts how sexual violence has been addressed for decades in our society, asking whether rape is a crime given that it is the least reported major felony, least successfully prosecuted, and fewer than 3% of reported rapes result in conviction. Cases are closed before they are investigated and DNA evidence sits for years untested and disregarded
Rape in this country is not treated as a crime of brutal violence but as a parlor game of he said / she said. It might be laughable if it didn’t work so much of the time.
Given all this, it seems fair to ask whether rape is actually a crime.
In 1984, the Boston Sexual Assault Unit was formed as a result of a series of break-ins and rapes that terrorized the city, of which Michelle’s own horrific rape was the last. Twenty years later, after a career of working with victims like herself, Michelle decides to find out what happened to her case and why she never heard from the police again after one brief interview.
Is Rape a Crime? is an expert blend of memoir and cultural investigation, and Michelle's story is a rallying cry to reclaim our power and right our world.
"Urgent . . . an indictment of one of the most glaring contradictions of the US criminal justice system."—The Boston Globe
"Is Rape a Crime? is a unique intervention in the memoir and social justice genres. Bowdler is an uncommonly gifted writer. She is thoughtful even when describing horrible wrongs; lucid and captivating even when describing the sort of psychic pain that typically eludes words."—Moira Donegan, The Guardian
“A brave, illuminating book that’s difficult to read and impossible to put down.”—Brandeis Magazine
"A damning testimony to the many ways in which our institutions fail survivors of sexual assault. Bowdler turns an investigative eye to her own life, recounting the story of her assault and the reactions by police and the legal system that fell short of what she needed in the aftermath. This account stands alongside her historical analysis of these systems, a criticism of their structure, and her ideas on how our society can better serve survivors."—Corinne Segal, Lit Hub
"Michelle Bowdler provided a gift when she attended my History of #MeToo class at Miami University (OH). The students were wowed by her bold and brilliant book Is Rape a Crime? and by our time with with Michelle. In our post-meeting discussion, several of the students were moved to tears—some out of sadness, some out of happiness, some out of relief. Michelle's book and our conversation with her inspired hope within the students for change. It was a book and an event we will not soon forget."—Kimberly Hamlin, Professor of History, Miami University (OH)
"Is Rape a Crime? is a powerful account—a compelling read that is literally hard to put down. The book combines an inside view of what psychologist Jennifer Freyd refers to as institutional betrayal (by the police in this case), as well as a deep and long term account of the aftermath of rape. That every generation since the 1960s has had to retell versions of these multiple traumas is deeply disturbing. Yet with careful nuance, Bowdler both undercuts progressive narratives of change and balances her account of trauma within the context of a redemptive family and work life. This book makes 'survival' concrete in all its complexities."—Professor Estelle B. Freedman, Stanford University, author Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation
"Is Rape a Crime? is gorgeously written and at times gut-wrenching. So much of this book is profoundly eye-opening. Not only the personal and interpersonal aspects, but also the realities of how sexual assault still isn't taken fully seriously by our police or criminal justice system. I'm someone who researches on trauma for my work, and yet I was consistently shocked by what I learned about how the author's case was handled by police, and how their apathy affected her as a kind of 'second assault.' Bottom line—I'm someone who reads everything I can get my hands on in this field, and this is one of the 3 or 4 best books I've ever read on the topic of Trauma."—Christopher Eagle, Senior Lecturer in the Study of Human Health, Emory University
"As I reread Michelle Bowdler’s book Is Rape a Crime?, I am reminded of what an incredible contribution this work is to our field. Bowdler’s writing is articulate, vulnerable, authentic, and real while at the same time integrating a strong empirical foundation. A must read for anyone working to combat sexual violence. So grateful to have this text as a resource for my students."—Danielle Rousseau, Criminal Justice Professor, Boston University
"Is Rape a Crime? is a book that defines our field."—Dr. Ann Olivarius, Women’s Right’s Lawyer
"Is Rape a Crime? is beautifully written and compellingly told. In 2020, we were all looking for solutions and this book was right on time; it is one we should all be reading."—Anita Hill, University Professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Legal Scholar and Author
"I promise you, this is the most important book you will read this year. With searing clarity and unflinching honesty, Bowdler’s account of her rape and law enforcement’s repeated failure to investigate it, will enrage you, shock you, inspire you, and ultimately change you forever. Bowdler is fighting for all of us, recovering all our stories—this is indeed our manifesto."—Alison Smith, author of Name All the Animals
"A devastating, necessary, and compelling account of one woman's experience combined with astute analysis of our country's troubling relationship to sexual violence. Bowdler's book should be required reading for all who live here."—Melissa Febos, author of Whip Smart and Abandon Me
"Beyond Michelle Bowdler’s lucid prose, what I find most remarkable here is this: even when the stakes are personally overwhelming and she feels as if she cannot go one step further, Bowdler constantly thinks of others—her roommates, her mother, her wife, her children, and, as she discovers how many rapes go un-investigated, her fellow survivors. Smack in the middle of a story filled with headlines, the uncanny humanity with which Bowdler tells her story is moving, urgent, and necessary. In this she shows us a way toward repair."—Kenny Fries, award-winning author of In the Province of the Gods
"Is Rape a Crime? filled me with equal parts rage and awe: rage at the grave failures and chronic indifference of our 'justice' system, rage that the question can be asked at all. I am in awe of Michelle Bowdler’s resilience, her activism, and the devastating matter-of-factness with which she tells her story and makes her case. This book is a must-read for every human."—Christopher Castellani, bestselling author of Leading Men
"Michelle Bowdler’s memoir is a powerful testimony and eloquent plea to rethink how rape is handled in America and around the world. Bowdler's writing is beautiful, compelling, and urgent. This book is a knockout."—Alysia Abbott, author of Fairyland
"As a fellow survivor, I am in awe of what Michelle Bowdler has achieved with this masterful, suspenseful, and impeccably researched book. Bowdler courageously searches for an answer to her central question even when it seems the answer is devastating: It’s not that we don’t believe victims; it's that we don’t particularly care. But this is not a book about despair. Arming the reader with knowledge and the power of storytelling, Is Rape a Crime? is essential reading for a better, more just society."—Grace Talusan, author of The Body Papers, winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing in Nonfiction
"Michelle Bowdler's remarkable, beautifully constructed book is essential reading. It forces us to confront both the reality of sexual assault and the repeated brutalities of a system that treats survivors of rape with disdain and neglect. And yet Bowdler is no victim. This book is not only a memoir but a call to action, one that will inspire and galvanize every reader."—Ayelet Waldman, executive producer and co-creator of Netflix's Unbelievable and author of A Really Good Day
"A deeply personal look at the experiences of one rape survivor combined with the systemic and shocking societal brokenness that multiplies that harm, Michelle's book should be on the ‘important reads list’ for everyone over the age of eighteen living in the United States; for survivors, for those who care about and for them, for medical and criminal justice professionals, psychotherapists, and social activists who insist on dignity for all. Michelle Bowdler reminds us, 'sustained change takes time and persistence and it is never only about one person.' It is about all of us and our everyday actions both small and large."—Janet Yassen, LICSW, Co-Founder of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center
“Raw, visceral, urgently researched, and impeccably argued, Michelle Bowdler’s Is Rape a Crime? is a book for our times. From the horrific crime she suffered—one familiar to too many women—she extracts a public call to action, forcing us not to turn away from a message at once vitally personal and publicly searing. I felt honored to read this book, and changed by it. Bowdler’s voice is one we need.”—Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, Lambda-award winning author of The Fact of a Body
"Intimate, powerful . . . An urgent, necessary, stark exploration of 'one of the most horrific violations that can happen to a human being.'"—Kirkus Reviews
"Provocative and illuminating . . . Bowdler’s memoir is a thought-provoking, personal account of violence and its long-lasting ripples."—Laura Chanoux, Booklist
"A brilliant study of how society views rape."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Reviews from Goodreads
I am sitting in the back of a police car, like someone accused of a crime. It is the first night of summer in Boston. I do not have on handcuffs; I have not been read my rights. I am a victim, not a prisoner, but...