The Mississippi River. Audubon Park. The Garden District. For Barry Raine, these locations will always be settings for the kind of terribleness that forever alters a life, even when it doesn't end it.
On a muggy October night in 1981, Raine, a New Orleans native and then a college sophomore, drove with three others -- two males including his brother Paul, the other a female named Catherine -- to the river's edge by Audubon Park. They were planning to hang out, drink wine, listen to Catherine's classical guitar.
A man neared the gathering, then stood over them. He seemed crazed, and offered to sell them coke. Then he was pointing a gun. He forced the three young men to strip and wade neck-deep into the river, and he raped Catherine, insisting she tell him how good it all was. The man, named Zachariah, seemed to be out to cause not only hurt, but also degradation. It was as if he sought to bring them down.
"It is dark now, and my body is completely wet from the lapping water of the Mississippi," Raine would later write about the event. "Zachariah points one of the .38s at Paul and me, making mock gunshot sounds, as he pretends to shoot each of us. 'Pow! Bang!' he yells, laughing a snarling laugh. He approaches me again, and slams the toe of his cheap loafers into my genitals. The systemic pain is an instant, agonizing surprise. My legs draw up, my knees are pulled to my chest, as the burning, wrenching nausea boils up from the bottom of my groin and shoots into my abdomen. ... I feel like I have to vomit and cry at the same time. I keep moving around, and Paul whispers, 'Stop moving, Barry. Be still.'"
The recounting of this attack comprises the first 10 pages of Raine's startling memoir Where the River Bends, recently published by Ontario Review Press. What follows the book's opening scene is the author's attempt to answer the question: What is it like to be baptized in such violence? After becoming a crime stat, then what?
For Raine, writing provided one answer. "What I'm doing is looking back as a 39-year-old man to his 19-year-old kid self, to figure out who I was then, and who I am now," he says, speaking during a phone interview from his home in New York City. "One of the reasons I wanted to write this, and Catherine felt this, too, is that as grand as it might sound, other people who've been through this might get something out of it."
Raine, now a freelance writer, worked as an editor at magazines and in publishing houses in New York City for more than a decade before deciding to approach this book. "It's something I had buried and wanted to keep it there," he says. "I kept pushing it away, but as I first started to write about it, all these repressed memories started popping up over a period of several months, and I started to realize how they affected my view of the world since that time, when I was 19."
Raine's nearly completed manuscript passed through several publishers, unclaimed. "Some editors were afraid to touch it, because of the subject matter," he says. "A lot of the marketing departments of the big companies thought it was a hard sell." A chance encounter with author Joyce Carol Oates led to the book's eventual release on her imprint, Ontario Review Press.
Where the River Bends follows Raine through the aftermath of that October night: the hospital, NOPD, the courts, his encounters with Catherine's parents and his own. For a time, violence seems to be his constant companion. Getting off the Algiers ferry one day, he is slammed off his bicycle; a housewife in a nearby yard fires a gun in the air and scares the attackers off. And on a student trip to Italy, Raine is threatened again. This time, he fights back the small crowd and improbably scares them off.
But it's harder to vanquish the lingering effects of what happened to him and his friends on the Mississippi banks. Criss-crossing through the story are two themes: masculinity and race. How can Raine face his father, and Catherine's father, after he and two able-bodied men proved themselves unable to stop one drugged-up attacker? To make matters even more problematic, Catherine's attacker, Zachariah, was a black man. This racial difference between attacker and victim means Raine found himself in a no man's land, on one side surrounded by racist reactions by whites to the black-on-white crime, and on the other by the race- and class-drenched posturing by Zachariah's African-American defense attorney in the ensuing trial.
"I was raised with a father who was very racist and a mother who was not, and who was constantly trying to work against that force in our house, and in society," says Raine. "I'm well aware that the difference, whether the attacker was black or white, was huge. And it definitely carried a hell of a lot of weight. The subject of race that I confront in the book, none of it is comfortable."
Also uncomfortable for some New Orleans readers will be the vivid and detailed depiction of one of their city's notorious crime waves. Raine has friends and family still living in New Orleans, and he says he has already heard, indirectly, from some locals who are upset about his portrayal of his hometown.
"Someone who works in the tourism industry was told about the gist of the book and read part of it and became very annoyed that I was writing about crime here," he says. "She said it's the kind of thing that New Orleans is known for, and the tourist commission is trying to work against. ... New Orleans is not a city that likes to be criticized."
Where the River Bends is as subjective as any memoir, yet other voices also emerge in its pages. Catherine's story is told in fragments. Raine hears of her nightmarish journey through Charity Hospital immediately following the rape. More details of the October night are provided in her testimony at Zachariah's trial. Then, several years after the incident, Catherine meets Raine for lunch at Figaro's. Over a plate of fried calamari, she admits that she thinks there is something in her that triggered the rape.
There is also a brief courtroom encounter with Zachariah's parents, as well as Raine's flawed attempt to meet Zachariah himself. As a freelancer on assignment in 1995 from the British newspaper The Daily Mail on Sunday, Raine covered New Orleans' crime and corruption, then making international headlines because of the gory details of the Antoinette Frank case. While researching that story, Raine uncovered documents related to his own attack, and he decided to try to visit Zachariah, imprisoned in Angola. It's a feeble effort, with Raine unsuccessfully posing as a disinterested journalist to gain access.
"I really didn't know what the purpose would be in the end," he admits. "He had petitioned many times for a retrial. What was he going to say to me, 'I didn't do it?' And I was going to say, 'Why did you do it?' What would that bring to me, or to anyone?"
Raine says he hates the word "closure," and by the end of Where the River Bends, it's plain he's not going to offer any easy resolution for his own story. So what's to be gained by opening wounds from a 20-year-old crime in the city? Plenty, says Raine: "The worst thing to do is to isolate oneself."
- Author Barry Raine says he has already heard from New Orleanians upset about his frank depiction of his hometown in Where the River Bends.