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9 July 2021updated 17 Aug 2021 1:17pm

“Cat Person” was a story with a clear villain. But life is always more complicated than that

Real relationships rarely fit into neat narratives about power dynamics and abuse. Perhaps fiction shouldn’t either.

By Rachel Connolly

There is always another way to tell any story. “Cat Person”, a short story by Kristen Roupenian that went viral when it was published in the New Yorker in 2017, was about a relationship between a young, desirable woman and a chubby, loserish older man, Robert, who turned out to be a textbook misogynist. The kind of man who frets, pathetically, about why women “never fall for the nice guy” but then turns around and calls them “whores” when they reject him. A man who fitted neatly into popular stereotypes about terrible men and the awful dating market, behaving badly in a story that felt very flattering to read, as a woman.

Now, a new version of that story has emerged. In an essay in Slate, Alexis Nowicki claims Roupenian lifted details in the story directly from her life. “The similarities to my own life were eerie: The protagonist was a girl from my small hometown who lived in the dorms at my college and worked at the art house theater where I’d worked and dated a man in his 30s, as I had. I recognised the man in the story, too… Could it be a wild coincidence? Or did Roupenian, a person I’d never met, somehow know about me?”

Nowicki tells a story about Roupenian: a female writer who had an “encounter” with a man, learned about his previous relationship with a younger woman, wrote a short story about it from the young woman’s perspective in which she didn’t change identifying (but, I would say, generic) autobiographical features and assumed an an abusive power dynamic. The short story unexpectedly ends up in the New Yorker, goes viral and is even made into a film, leaving the younger woman feeling confused (and I think, fairly, angry), particularly given that the man involved had died since the story’s publication.

[See also: The subtle art of soft power]

“Cat Person” ends when Robert sends a text to the young woman containing one word: “whore”. This proved that Robert was not just an unattractive guy who the narrator felt embarrassed about fancying and having sex with, but a living embodiment of “toxic masculinity” who she was wise to jettison. But Nowicki’s story ends with her reflections on what she perceived to be a good, fulfilling and normal relationship with a man who was significantly older, but not a bad person. There is a palpable sense of the bafflement and frustration she feels, having had her life story dramatically reframed by a stranger.

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Taken together, the two stories offer complicated and conflicting ideas of the different ways we all use each other, men and women, for sex or professional gain or any number of other things, often without even realising it; what it means to control a narrative; the unpredictable way that a chain of events can evolve once it starts; the assumptions we make about other people’s lives and decisions based on tropes, or our own belief systems, which are often nothing to do with them; and the difficulty of ever knowing how anything we were involved in actually went or what the truth of it was, the trouble of never knowing what anybody else is really thinking or up to.

The most striking element of Nowicki’s essay, to me, was that she said she has felt, at times, encouraged to almost retrospectively traumatise herself about a relationship she regarded as a good one, because it had been rewritten to fit a popular narrative of power dynamics and abuse. Because that’s the way everyone else sees it now, thanks to “Cat Person”. I think it speaks to her emotional maturity that she seems to have resisted this. And I think it speaks to the grey areas and messiness of life that these frameworks of power, victims and abusers, often don’t quite fit onto situations in the way we expect.

I have had so many confusing relationships and sexual experiences with power imbalances, of some description, that I have absolutely no idea what to think about: whether I should feel bad, or like a victim, or whether these complicated relationships are just part of life. I have also had situations that are absolutely not a grey area, but that I still have no idea what to think about.

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Years ago, a person who I was very good friends with tried to force me to have sex with him. I know that was a bad thing to do, and we are not friends any more because of it. But I also know that he was my friend for a very long time, and I don’t think he is a totally bad person. Honestly, I don’t know: maybe he is, but I don’t think so. Whenever I think about it I feel sad and confused, all these years later. When I think of him, I still think of my friend, who was funny and kind, and a nightmare when he drank, and often bent over backwards to help me out.

Even if I did know how to feel about it, I would still have no idea what to do about it. I could phone the police, but I don’t really know what they would do. He has a vaguely public-facing job, so I could tweet about it or something. But I don’t agree with public shaming as a rule. Too often it seems to spiral unpredictably, and I don’t think it’s right that he should lose his job, or be ostracised from friendships. Even if that would be just, I don’t personally want to be responsible for it. I would feel guilty about doing that to anyone. 

[See also: How TikTok conquered the world]

I could try to feel worse about it, but I don’t know what good that would do me. My boyfriend at the time responded pathetically, and I’m more angry at him than my former friend, even if I know that isn’t fair. Other people have done things to me which are far crueler and more vindictive, but which don’t fall inside the bounds of things that are legislated over, and so I just have to live with them, as we all do. Perhaps even by telling this story, with all its ambivalence, I will be accused of undermining feminism. But as women we are always being told what to think and feel about things; there should be space to admit confusion.

I knew I was supposed to read the last line of “Cat Person” and cheer, punch the air at this representation of what it means to be a woman in the world, pat myself on the back for struggling constantly at the hands of so many terrible men, and quietly set aside any of the questions I might ask myself about the way I have treated people. About whether I have always been as nice or as fair as I could have been, about whether the revulsion I have felt towards some men after consensual sexual encounters is really because they are bad or toxic.

But I didn’t. I hated it. Alexis Nowicki’s story was about unanswered questions and trying to live with confusion and grief. That story felt more true to me.

[See also: The science of sexual conflict]