In Amber Tamblyn’s bracing new novel, Any Man, a serial rapist is attacking a disparate assortment of men across the Northeastern United States. The fact that the attacker is a lone woman makes it more confusing and humiliating for the victims, who become even more frustrated because the police can’t find any trace of her, much less a motive or a pattern.
Only one of the victims ends up seeing the rapist’s face, while the rest are drugged, violently assaulted and even maimed. After dealing with their own feelings of shame, inadequacy and powerlessness, the shell-shocked men undergo a second wave of assaults from the voyeuristic media, variously unconcerned police departments, and even their own friends and family, who wonder how these men could “allow” themselves to be hurt.
By reversing stereotypical roles and making the rapist a woman, Tamblyn could have settled for creating a cathartic revenge fantasy, a story that would take on even more emotional resonance in the current climate of sharp political divisions and increasing awareness of women’s rights and empowerment.
But Tamblyn is going after something much deeper and more nuanced in Any Man. Instead of turning the male victims into typical caricatures who deserve punishment — an abusive boss or a cheating husband, for instance — the author instead presents most of them as dynamically unique individuals who reveal their souls, hopes, fears and even gallows humor in separately distinctive and poignantly moving ways.
Although these men have their flaws, such as the outrageously opinionated gay, conservative celebrity Sebastian White, it’s obvious that none of them morally deserves to be attacked and traumatized. What’s maddening to the victims and the increasingly frightened men of the Northeast is that there appears to be no reason — logical or otherwise — why the rapist chooses her victims. When Tamblyn finally, briefly, tells the story from the point of view of the infamous rapist — who’s known only by the seemingly innocuous name Maude — near the end of the book, Maude's motivation turns out to be shockingly blasé and casual.
“There’s a tendency to create female antagonists who are nurturing in some capacity,” Tamblyn says by phone “inside of a Target in the middle of somewhere.” She's accompanied by her husband and daughter on their way to Spokane, Washington, as part of her book tour, which includes a discussion with novelist Janet Fitch on Thursday, July 12, at Skylight Books in Los Feliz. “I wanted to get rid of those types of tropes. I wanted to create somebody who was literally and metaphorically untouchable in the world.”
By not giving Maude a justification or specific reason for her attacks, Tamblyn emphasizes the sheer randomness of these rapes — the victim could be any man, as the book’s title implies. “I think there’s a flippancy about [the title] that’s purposeful,” she says. “I want to expose people who have predatory behavior. … Anybody will do in terms of Maude’s victims. … One of the most haunting lines to me as the author is, ‘It’s just something I like to do now and again,’” Tamblyn says of Maude’s reason for attacking strangers. “It’s a sense of enjoyment that’s purely sociopathic,” she adds, in contrast to the motivations of such real-life female serial killers as Aileen Wuornos, whose early experiences with rape and abuse have been linked to her own violent tendencies.
“I did a lot of research about female predators, but I couldn’t find much about female serial rapists,” Tamblyn says. “In men, it’s a real attitude. Harvey Weinstein didn’t have a type. It was any woman he could take advantage of under any circumstances. … Male predators don’t even think they’re predators.”
It’s such a charged and potentially polarizing subject that the writer felt the need — perhaps to reassure her readers — to add an unusual dedication to her husband, actor-comedian David Cross, at the beginning of the book: “Honey, don’t take this the wrong way but this book is dedicated to you.”
Tamblyn is well positioned to tell such a bold story. As a co-founder of the Time’s Up movement, the actor (Joan of Arcadia) and director (Paint It Black) has been one of the most insightful and fearless voices on sexism in the film industry. She wrote about her own experiences around abusive men in Hollywood in a compelling account for The New York Times, “I’m Done With Not Being Believed,” and she offered support and a way out for other women in a 2016 column for Glamour, “The Frame That Holds the Big Picture: How Mothers and Daughters Can Change the Way We Talk About Being Women.”
Last month, Tamblyn was one of about 900 film-industry professionals who were invited to become members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, as part of belated attempts by the predominantly white and male organization to include more women and people of color. “It’s a lovely gesture to be a voting member of the Academy,” says Tamblyn, whose father, Russ Tamblyn, has long been a member. “Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of women there. It brought up a lot of thoughts when I was invited. It’s a small step. The next step is to go after reviewers — far more than half of reviewers are cis white men. That leaves the rest of us no voice.”
Beyond her personal experiences, Tamblyn is an unusually evocative writer who can persuasively enter the minds of her various characters. She proved that she was far more than a dilettante celebrity author when she published three books of poetry, Bang Ditto (2009), Free Stallion (2011) and the morbidly engrossing portrayals of tragic Hollywood heroines Dark Sparkler (2015), all of which were marked by her richly inventive imagery.
In Any Man, Tambler juxtaposes impressionistic, surreally poetic stream-of-consciousness passages from Maude and her victims with jarringly tacky and rude comments from talk-show hosts and tweets by gossipy celebrities and pundits from across the political spectrum. “I wanted to go back and forth between the poetic world and then bounce to the opposite side of that with the outside world,” Tamblyn explains.
The most mysterious victim is Michael Parker, a trans man whose own thoughts are never revealed. Instead, only the barest outlines of his life and tragic death are sketched through a series of alternately comical and horrifying fictional tweets from such figures as Bill O’Reilly, Alex Jones, Whitney Cummings, Ann Curry and Katy Perry’s hair stylist.
“It hurts not getting to know him — and that’s the point,” Tamblyn says. “The trans community is the most marginalized, sexualized and taken-advantage-of group. He doesn’t silence himself; we silence him. I force the reader to not have the satisfaction [of knowing him]. … It’s an indictment of all of us.” Parker’s own story doesn’t belong to him, she laments. “It belongs to social media.”
Tamblyn gets deeper into the mindset of Maude’s first victim, Donald Ellis, a schoolteacher, poet and father who is found unconscious in an alley, bleeding profusely after his penis has been amputated by Maude. After struggling with self-loathing and accusatory questions from his family, and then being exploited on a sensationalist talk show, Ellis goes on to become a popular advocate for victims of abuse.
“I felt like a sun in a perpetual state of setting … an unending sense of twilight,” Ellis comments on a radio show. “Everything I did, everything I said, was dusk. My whole life had turned into impending nightfall. My existence was just caught light, suspended in semidarkness.” Later, in a newspaper opinion piece, Ellis writes, “I’m not one for witchcraft, but I believe in the power of spells. In the potential of many voices speaking at once in order to be finally healed.” Ellis concludes his column with an eloquent poem of self-redemption: “This mind contains many moons/pulling gravities. Every memory is an ocean,/every remembrance a tide. I have the right to recede./I have the right to swell.”
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“I feel kindred spirits with him,” Tamblyn says. “I share with him that sense of privacy being violated and becoming an activist. The world at large sometimes forces you into being a voice where you think a voice might be missing. Even if you don’t want to, there’s still a responsibility to speak up. Which is how the #MeToo movement began. Nobody wanted to, but we had to do it.
“The change we want is incremental,” she says. “It’s important to keep creating art that is about it, to have these difficult dialogues. … People focus on the singular act of violence of rape and not all the violence that comes after it,” she continues, pointing out how many victims are threatened with bankruptcy when their powerful abusers sue them. “My hope is that cisgender white men will learn to police themselves, as opposed to leaning on us to do all the work. And for women and everyone else — you want to know why we waited two decades to say something? Read this.”
Tamblyn looks forward to chatting with Janet Fitch at Skylight Books. “I’m a fan of hers,” she says of the local literary icon, who was a regular presence on set when Tamblyn directed the film version of Fitch’s novel Paint It Black. “It was a very reciprocal creative experience.”
Amber Tamblyn discusses Any Man with Janet Fitch at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz; Thu., July 12, 7:30 p.m.; free. (323) 660-1175, skylightbooks.com.