The nasty word “rape” has a way of permanently attaching itself to all who come in contact with the act it describes. Yet sports stars, buoyed by a fame that often includes a bubble of bad-boy charisma, seem magically able to dodge its taint.
Accused rapist and L.A. Lakers celebrity Kobe Bryant is, of course, all the rage these days.
But his uncanny situation is hardly something new.
Remember Dallas Cowboys stars Michael Irvin and Erik Williams? In 1996, both were accused of sexual assault — and both were acquitted. The next year, Boston Celtics forward Antoine Walker was accused of failure to prevent an attack taking place in his home.
Add to that list Mike Tyson, who in the early ’90s raped Miss Black America contestant Desiree Washington in his hotel room, served three years of a six-year sentence, and went right back to making millions.
Fact as fiction
At least one spectator, though, isn’t forgetting the other side of these stories.
“When the Mike Tyson case came out, a lot of people really dogged Desiree Washington,” remembers novelist Dawson Perkins, author of the new novel The Team (Agate, 2004).
After Washington accused the famed heavyweight champion of attacking her, she had her own motives questioned for showing up at Tyson’s room late at night.
“We don’t know what type of person she was,” Perkins continued during our recent talk. “We don’t hear anything about her.”
Perkins — who began her story of a woman raped by a basketball star years before Kobe Bryant’s name was associated with scandal — uses her book to examine the hype about athletes and sexual violence from what might seem at first an obscure angle: that of the victim.
“It doesn’t bother me that Gwen rubs some people the wrong way,” the writer insists. She’s talking about the main character around which her timely novel revolves: Gwen is an ambitious young Atlanta resident who drowns herself in work to avoid her past — namely, her being assaulted by a popular basketball star while she was a college freshman.
Early in the book, the heroine reveals the true self she carefully disguises — and the novelist chooses interestingly combative language: “She wanted to look professional, assertive — take no prisoners and leave no evidence.”
The protagonist then turns fierce words on herself: “I am Gwendolyn Fagan, dammit. Get a grip….”
Perkins goes on to write: “[Gwen] tugged on her jacket and took a deep breath. Whatever freaky vibes had invaded the air and were causing all this foolishness would have to cease; she needed to get back to her tough-as-nails stance.”
When it comes to Gwen, the reader is allowed full access. She’s a hard-edged businesswoman who allows herself no time for a social life — but that’s just her surface.
“[After the rape] Gwen really planned to change who she was, to become a professional,” Perkins explains in our interview. “Everything she did was as a result of what happened to her.”
But recovery tends to require more than just stuffing a bad memory into the mind’s recesses like a soiled hankie. And though Gwen seems to have everything under control, her world quickly comes apart when handsome, well-spoken Xavier suddenly shows up at her office. The new employee is instantly the boss’ pet and the object of all the women’s desire — but the former NBA star is also none other than the best friend of Terry, Gwen’s college attacker.
Scoring against stereotypes
The book here makes a bold move: Perkins refuses to play to the comfortable assumption that the friend of a rapist will likewise be a predatory jerk — and that the victim of a rape will never again feel sexual desire.
Though Gwen wants nothing more than to believe her new coworker is as evil as his former teammate, everything about Xavier stubbornly proves her wrong. Pushed into collaborating on a project with him, the heroine comes to realize this blast from the past has no knowledge of her dark secret.
She’s also increasingly aware of a growing attraction between them.
“Gwen hardly recognized [Xavier] without his suit and tie, but damn he looked good,” Perkins writes. “His attire was simple — a white T-shirt with a blue swoosh logo on the left side of his chest and a pair of blue jean shorts that revealed his sculpted calves … If ‘fine’ were a new drug, Xavier should be bottled and FDA approved.”
Chalk it up to sexual healing: The author daringly constructs love scenes every bit as graphic as the book’s early rape incident.
“I wanted Gwen to have a fulfilling experience as an adult,” Perkins says of the point in the book where the main character allows herself the intimacy she’s run from since her college years.
It’s a brave strategy — allowing Gwen the kind of sexy persona habitually used against rape victims in court.
“I have to admit,” the author continues, “when [the book] got out there, I wondered if I should temper that. I realized people are going to be reading that.”
But the passions Gwen discovers within herself — both in her anger and in her sexuality — relate to the person she was before she was assaulted.
“Gwen was a little hot mama,” Perkins says with a laugh. “But because of Terry, she was never going to put herself out there again.”