Ithaca, N.Y. — Molly McDowell starts by giving her audience a warning — not that she ever got one.
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“Welcome to the ‘trigger warning’ comedy show,” the comic says to the downtown Ithaca club.
“I’m your entertainment — and, possibly, the topic of discussion at your next therapy session. … And if you don’t laugh, you’ll be the topic of discussion at mine.”
The joke is a good opening, both because it’s funny and because it may very well be an adequate warning of what’s to come.
McDowell, 33, was raped last winter. Like thousands of women across the country every year, McDowell has not seen criminal charges filed against the alleged perpetrator.
Unlike thousands of women across the country, McDowell has turned to stand-up comedy to take back control of an experience that she says has in so many ways defied her ability to choose her own fate.
That power was on full display at a show at Lot 10 in downtown Ithaca earlier this month. McDowell talked into the mic softly and quietly — a sharp and powerful contrast to the biting, acerbic jokes that comprise most of her set.
“The whole rape situation, I have to say, was partly my fault — you’ve probably heard the statistic that 60 to 70 percent of victims actually know their attackers,” she says.
“So if I had been willing to go through life completely unknown it probably never would have happened — so fuck me for having friends.”
She pauses. “Like, literally,” she says.
Joking about being raped to an audience full of mostly drunk males may defy expectations for coping with the aftermath of a rape.
It may feel crass. It may feel wrong to combine entertainment with such a personal violation, or somehow incommensurate with the horror of the crime.
McDowell sees it differently. For her, turning the rape into a form of humor actually puts it where it belongs: in the realm of the absurd, the surreal, the deeply maddening.
“I have an extraordinarily dark sense of humor,” she says in an interview in late December at a local coffee shop, “and the way I deal with tragedy is by joking.”
She’s not alone. Jewish comics like Mel Brooks have made light of the Holocaust. Gabriel Iglesias derides slurs against Mexicans. Chris Rock discusses slavery, the Jim Crow codes and pervasive modern racism.
Molly McDowell talks about being the victim of a rape. It’s what works for her.
“It’s like blowing off steam. It allows me to be able to laugh in the face of this and to have some method of control over it,” she says. “It’s a way for me to talk about what happened and have power over it and have it be my story.”
“It’s important for us to come forward because we’re the human beings behind these crimes and we shouldn’t be invisible.”
McDowell has now performed her set throughout much of Central New York — including Binghamton, Syracuse and Elmira — and has done about one set a week for several months now.
The reactions, she admits, have been mostly positive but also mixed.
“People seem to have no trouble believing victims, but when we ask someone to come on a journey with us, it’s, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can,” she says.
She says she understands the hesitancy about laughing at her set. But it should be clear, she adds, that she’s asking people to feel OK laughing about the rape.
“Hello, context, people,” she says. “We want you to laugh.”
But just because something is funny doesn’t mean it can’t also be serious.
McDowell noted that she had recently gotten advice from a fellow comic that her set could often “feel really angry at times.”
“I said, ‘Yeah, I am angry,’” McDowell recalls. “I am mad.”
This reporter has now attended three of McDowell’s stand-up sets.
Each time, as McDowell begins, members of the audience turn to look at their friends. They know that they’re at a comedy show, and they know that it’s expected that they’ll chuckle at even wildly off-color jokes.
But does that make this OK? Should they stifle their laughter — or risk appearing to get pleasure from a woman’s horrific pain? Can you laugh at a rape joke? In public?
McDowell doesn’t give them time to deliberate. The jokes at the Lot 10 show came out, one after another, in rapid-fire succession.
One of her favorite bits is that her reported rapist was an athlete and is therefore “really good at forcing things where people don’t want them to go.”
“He’s gained a lot of weight since college, and you know you’ve been reading too many body positive feminist blogs when you’re afraid of fat shaming your rapist,” she says.
The laughs flow more freely. Members of the audience stop looking at friends. McDowell has their attention.
“The dude is such a narcissist,” she says, “he’d be so pissed off to find out I’m up here talking about him — not because I’m calling him a rapist, but because I’m talking about how fat he’s become.”
McDowell had just moved to Ithaca from Connecticut when she was raped.
The subsequent legal process was a nightmare: being asked to relive the crime repeatedly, to hear of the alleged perpetrator’s denials, and to eventually learn that prosecutors did not think they had enough evidence to bring the case forward.
(McDowell did speak extremely highly of the Cornell University Police Department and its officers, saying that they treated her with respect and made serious efforts to bring the case to trial. In particular, she thanked Investigator Stan Slovik and Chief Kathy Zoner.)
She didn’t report the rape right away. “I felt that the easiest thing to do would be to pretend it never happened. I tried to just go on,” she said.
It took about four days from when the rape occurred to when she went to police, according to McDowell. A lack of physical evidence further complicated the effort of the investigation, she said.
In March 2014, she learned that the DA’s office wouldn’t be pressing charges. She appealed but was denied, she said. (She eventually got a civil order of protection against the man.)
In the meantime, McDowell was struggling. She said the rape has affected her job and just about every facet of her personal life.
“For awhile I was really trying to force the recovery process by cracking jokes to myself,” she says. “And it wasn’t working — I would just be really sad.”
Then the day came when McDowell was walking with a friend. McDowell made a joke about the rapist. This one, somehow, felt therapeutic.
“We were saying, ‘Is it okay to laugh? We said, ‘Are we sick individuals for laughing?,’” McDowell says.
Molly McDowell is angry. She is also funny.
Back in front of the Lot 10 crowd, McDowell recalls a conversation she had with an attorney as she pursued civil litigation in the case.
“We’re sitting there talking about my recourse and I got to the part where I said he has a wife and (this attorney) said, ‘Oh! He’s married!,’” McDowell said.
“And I said, ‘Yes, counsel, the real tragedy here is that he cheated.’”
McDowell grits her teeth.
“The thing that pisses me off the most — I mean, besides EVERYTHING — is that the investigators questioned him and this guy says … ‘ugh, I didn’t cum,’” McDowell says.
“You go to the trouble of committing a major crime — this is a Class A felony … you go to the trouble of committing a Class A felony and you don’t even accomplish the stated objective of the crime? … You lazy asshole.”