Review of The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad by Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan

Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012. 160 pp. $14.95. paper.

by Rosalie Morales Kearns

Years ago I attended a women writers conference where a woman in our fiction-writing workshop read aloud to us from a novel she had started. As I recall, the plot involved members of a book group, all women and all survivors of domestic violence, who agreed to a revenge pact. Each one, they decided, would kill a man who had abused someone else, a man with whom she had no connection.

It was a hot, sunny day, I was a bit drowsy from lunch, I was being read aloud to. Violent men were about to meet their doom in deeply satisfying ways. What stands out in my memory is how soothing the experience was.

I don’t know whether the writer ever finished her novel, but of course it leapt to mind as I read The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad, a satire by Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan. The title handily telegraphs the novel’s plot: as members of a knitting group start confiding in each other, they find out that they’re all survivors of rape, and the rapists in question (high school counselors, relatives, clergymen, ex-husbands) have never even been arrested, let alone prosecuted. The women avenge each other by killing those rapists. With their knitting needles.

There are various subplots: A female police officer is sympathetic to the knitters. The fourteen-year-old daughter of one of the knitters discovers what her mother is up to, and argues with her about the ethics of using violence to stop violence. A group of fundamentalist Christian men form a new organization, MAWAR (Men Against Women Against Rape). Best of all are the unctuous TV newsman Franz Maihem and his go-to expert, FBI agent Chet Stirling, who function as a clueless Greek chorus throughout the book as they report on the unexplained knitting-needle murders: first they insist that the murderer is an alienated young white male; then, when the knitters send a communiqué to the FBI (“We will stop killing rapists when men stop raping”), proclaim the message incomprehensible: “We’re baffled. We have no idea what this could possibly mean.”

Avenging rape as a motive for murder is found is some mysteries and mystery-thrillers (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.), but non-genre fiction doesn’t seem to go in much for plots that revolve around women killing men—and in the case of Knitting Circle, it’s lots of women, killing lots of men. I can imagine this novel making some readers uncomfortable. No doubt others will dismiss it as “political,” a novel with an agenda, although that complaint has always puzzled me. It’s also a political choice, I would argue, to create characters who are perfectly comfortable with the status quo.

The style as well as the subject matter won’t be to everyone’s taste. Don’t expect the attributes of a “straight” literary novel, the unspoken standard of literary fiction with its conventions of deep investment in characterization, meticulous attention to visual detail, and careful verisimilitude. In Knitting Circle, we’re in the realm of parody, not realism, as the authors demonstrate from the opening pages, when a mob is “celebrating the city’s victory in the National Chess Championship. . . . After an evening of rioting, setting small yet well-designed fires in dumpsters, and overturning police cars, the nerds howl with grape soda-induced laughter as they reenact their most impressive chess moves.”

On first read, the humor occasionally struck me as too lightweight, almost sophomoric (each time the police chief appears, for example, he’s reading a different “expert on crime”: Sherlock Holmes, Encyclopedia Brown, Hercule Poirot), but as I considered it more, I realized that Jensen and McMillan were making specific stylistic choices. The police chief is cartoonish precisely because the novel draws on a wide range of pop-cultural forms: Vonnegut and other satiric novelists are clearly an influence, but so are cartoons, TV sit-coms, Saturday Night Live skits, film spoofs like the Naked Gun series, and mockumentaries like Christopher Guest’s Best in Show or A Mighty Wind. The book’s cover blurb describes it beautifully as “Monty Python meets the SCUM Manifesto.”

Although some readers might smirk more often than laugh, there are plenty of spot-on, chortle-out-loud scenes and wonderfully deadpan whimsy. At a typical knitting circle meeting, “after a few preliminaries and pleasantries, the women get down to the businesses at hand: knitting and stopping rape.” The touchy-feely Red Moon Sacred Gyn Mill Tea House serves “wheat-free, dairy-free, sugar-free gingerbread wimmin and gyrl cookies.” Glenn Beck makes an appearance, at his chalkboard, redrawing a pair of crossed knitting needles so that they form a swastika (he also denies that rape is even possible, bless his little heart). Sentences that at first seem to meander end up packing a punch: the female police officer, Sandy Dougher, is “as beautiful as the Mona Lisa. As beautiful as the sweeping boughs of a western red cedar. . . . As beautiful as a sharp kick to a rapist’s testicles.”

And over and over again, like that kick to the rapist’s testicles, the hard truths of male violence against women are sprinkled amid the silliness. Characters discuss the abysmally low percentage of rapists who are ever incarcerated. Right after the description of the chess nerd riot, a character travels to an unfamiliar part of the city at night and “adopts the walk that all women from an early age learn to use in scary places: rapid, firm, and purposeful. . . . Appear confident. Show no fear.” Here is part of the argument between fourteen-year-old Marilyn and her knitting circle mom, Gina:

“You can’t just take the law into your own hands.”
. . . “I couldn’t possibly do a worse job wielding the law than they [police and the courts] do.” . . .
. . . “You’re asking for social chaos.”
“Marilyn, social chaos is when 25 percent of all women are raped and another 19 percent have to fend off rapes, and nothing is done about it.”

When the police hold a meeting on how to stop the knitting-needle killings, Officer Dougher raises the eminently sensible question: “What if we do our jobs and stop rapists?” She is met by silence. Her police colleagues provide no answer to her question, ever.

And sometimes the hard-hitting facts and the goofy humor coincide. When the hapless FBI agent finally concedes that the knitting-needle killers are women, Franz Maihem asks him how he reached his conclusion:

“Well, Franz, they’re just like every normal rational serial killer in every way, but for one bizarre, freaky exception.”
“What is that, Chet?”
“It’s almost unheard of in the long, illustrious history and tradition of serial killing. It’s frankly horrifying.”
“Tell us, Chet.”
“All the victims are men.”

There are other trenchant observations along the way: on religion, on diet plans, on capitalism, on the ubiquity of television. One of my favorite commentaries is by knitting circle member Brigitte on male-female relationships:

“First he comes to a [knitting circle] meeting, next he’s telling me what to wear and to make him a sandwich. Gradually it escalates. . . . Brigitte gets lost and it becomes all about ‘we.’ ‘We hated that movie.’ ‘We plan to buy a house in the suburbs.’ ‘We decided that Brigitte’s soul was superfluous so we sold it.’ . . . Fuck that.”

The authors put some amusingly blasphemous, if improbably self-aware, dialogue into the mouth of a MAWAR member: “Where in the Ten Holy Fucking Commandments does it ever say, ‘Thou Shalt Not Rape’? Huh? The answer is, it doesn’t. In fact, the whole fuckin’ Bible is filled with rapes that fulfill God’s merciful will.” New Agers come in for skewering too, in the form of a self-help guru arguing that rapists should be met with compassion: “Since I’m not really a stop rape kind of guy, and since I don’t want to feel bad about not being a stop rape kind of guy, it’s important to me that no one else try to stop rape, or it will make me feel inferior, like I should actually be doing something.”

What’s interesting to me as a feminist is how soothing the novel is. This is partly because it’s structured like a happily-ever-after bedtime story: the novel opens with the now-grown Marilyn explaining to her students how the knitters and their allies put a permanent end to rape. But there are also interesting parallels to the “cozy” subgenre of mystery novels. Think of Miss Marple in her quaint village, puttering around in her garden as she solves a murder or two. In the typical cozy, the victims are unsympathetic people whom we don’t see while they’re still alive. We have no access to their perspective and don’t have to expend emotional energy feeling sorry that they’re dead. We can forget that a terrible crime has propelled this lighthearted romp. Similarly, Knitting Circle is propelled by a double layer of violent acts: the original rapes, and the subsequent murders of the rapists. And yet we end up with an oddly comforting story where, after “the rage and frustration and sorrow of thousands of years of taking it and taking it and taking it,” there is “the joy of finally fighting back.”

Unlike most spoofs, The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad raises unsettling questions: What do unprosecuted rapists deserve? When is retributive violence, or vigilante justice, called for? Should I feel such glee at these deaths? As if these weren’t disturbing enough, there is a subtle parting shot, located on the back cover, right above the price, where the book’s category is listed as “Fiction/Relationships.” The perfect finishing touch for this strange combination of hilarity and righteous anger.

Rosalie Morales Kearns is an Albany, NY-based writer. One of the stories in her collection Virgins and Tricksters (Aqueous Books, 2012) earned a Special Mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize volume. Her stories, poems, and nonfiction have appeared most recently in Witness, The Nervous Breakdown, Necessary Fiction, and Her Kind.