Justice Isn’t Possible: Why I Write

I watch a lot of true crime shows: Forensic Files, Dateline, Deadly anything. And one thing, amid all the grizzly horrors some human has inflicted upon another, always strikes me—not due to its surprising or particularly revelatory nature, but because of its predictability.

When a surviving family member or friend of, say, a murder victim comments—usually after some guilty verdict has been rendered, before the screen fades to black—the survivors almost always say some version of this: “Although it doesn’t bring my loved one back, I’m glad this person is unable to hurt someone else.” The words tremble from jowls worn down into frowns of permanent grief, the eyes tired and swollen from saltwater surges.

It doesn’t bring my loved one back. I return to this thought often these days when I think of my writing, my life, injustices, endured.

I’m not here to argue whether our justice system in America is just or actually does the job of imparting justice. I’m also not here to argue in favor of other justice systems, the old eye-for-an-eye deal or otherwise.

No. I am here to sit with this thought of things that, once taken, can never be returned to us—how much in life, once done, can never be undone. Life is not a document on a computer screen, a keyboard with a delete button. It is not a rough draft. It is, immediately, each second, the final and only draft of the story of one’s life. If your eye is taken, taking the eye of the person who stole yours doesn’t return your eye to you.

This doesn’t mean we should let this lull us toward inaction and just let wrongdoers continue harming others. Whenever we can, we must at least try to ensure that these people are unable to hurt someone else. That much, at least, is possible.

But what doesn’t seem possible to me is justice. If we define the term as a sort of “making whole” once more of a person or people harmed, it is a thing the human brain can conceive of and the human heart may long for. But that doesn’t make it a thing that exists.

This being said, the further a person is in their own existence from a certain type of body—namely, a white, cisgender, heterosexual male body—the further that person will likely find themself from being able to experience the type of “justice” some legal systems around the world are able to offer. The #MeToo movement has highlighted what many survivors of sexual violence already knew: It is extremely difficult to obtain justice in the form of a conviction against a sexual predator.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 5 American women will experience attempted or completed rape; in 2018, only 25% of those incidents were reported to police. More generally speaking, of incidents reported, less than 6% result in arrest, and less than 1% result in a conviction, according to The Washington Post. And the median length of convictions is two years, according to RAINN, with 60% rearrested for committing new crimes—sexual or otherwise—within three years of the original conviction. None of these statistics speak much to the sex crimes for which a statute of limitations has expired.


When I drafted my first poem about Medusa in 2007—my second semester in graduate school, working toward my MFA—survival of another kind was on my mind. My mother had battled breast cancer and won, yet I had come to notice through the years since her double mastectomy something unjust about the way some men perceived and treated women like her who’d survived such tragedy—something that, for whatever reason, recalled to mind that mythic woman with snakes for hair, that body transformed into something considered so terrifying, it turned anyone who looked upon it to stone.

But as I delved deeper into the myth—or, more to the point, the myriad variations of the myth—I moved away from that idea and toward what, to me, is the real crux of Medusa’s story: She is a woman who, in many versions of the myth, is raped by Poseidon on the altar of Athena; then, as if that wasn’t heinous enough, she is transformed into a monster by Athena, who, it would seem, holds Medusa, not Poseidon, responsible for the crime that occurred. Medusa is a woman doubly punished, by man and woman alike, robbed multiple times over of any form of justice.

“But she can turn people to stone,” you might say. “Isn’t that some kind of justice she can wield against others?” I would argue, as I do in this poem, that it is merely a substitute, at best. And while Medusa possesses a supernatural power others do not, power and justice are, in the end, two different things.


I didn’t come to grad school with a specific project in mind. There was no grand plan to write the great American poetry collection, whatever that would even be or be about. And even after I’d realized that, for whatever reason, this Medusa thesis was something I needed to write—after all, I held firm in my faith in the project even after one of my professors encouraged me to abandon it entirely—I really couldn’t articulate why.

In Medusa, I saw so many women I knew. Women from movies like The Accused, Dolores Claiborne, and more. But also a loved one who was abused as a child; that predator got away with it. Another who was raped by multiple men in a single night; those predators, too, were never charged. And another who was assaulted as a child and assaulted later as an adult; still more predators walking free. And then there was me.

The last day of workshop, my thesis advisor and our small class of five were hanging out in my apartment, stuffed full of pasta I’d made to celebrate and lethargic from our carb comas. But after reading and discussing the last round of poems we would ever share together, my advisor turned to me—her blue eyes twinkling with that mischievous, inspired sparkle I’d come to know well over the two years of our program to mean she’d had some sort of epiphany—and she dropped the key to a queendom in my hands: “What if you brought these personal poems you’ve been working on together with the Medusa material and interwove them into a single story?”

I hadn’t stopped writing poems about what I considered then to be non-Medusa things, including some things that had happened during my childhood, a combination of clear memories and an indistinct knowledge that haunted me from before a time I could even remember having acquired it, kind of like how we all know how to walk but can’t remember when or how we learned to. And the Medusa work, at that point, had focused on her adulthood, which is really all we hear about in the best-known tellings.

I was willing to bring the two together, but it would mean a reimagining of both sides of the equation. Medusa could no longer be someone separate from me. She had to fully enter my world, in present time; I had to open the door, look her in the eye unflinchingly, and embrace her here.


I was grateful for the elective component my MFA program built into our degree requirements. It was a welcome relief, in many ways, from writing, editing writing, talking about writing, reading more creative writing…

I chose a feminist theory class, which surprised no one who knew anything about me, but it was curious to me, at least, that it had taken me so long to finally get into this type of women’s studies course.

Among the many texts we read was Helene Cixous’ “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Of course, this text is widely taught and well-known, but at the time, I interpreted it as another sign from the universe that I was moving in the right direction, chasing this Medusa who’d been elusive but ever-present in my mind since that initial poem draft about her inspired by my mother’s illness.

Looking back now, upon recently revisiting Cixous’ piece, there was quite a bit that, admittedly, went over my head. I wasn’t yet the person I needed to be to more deeply understand the text—much like, I came to realize only years after graduating from my MFA program, I was not the person then that I needed to be to write the Medusa book that sought to be written. That part of my education, my self-awareness, was not yet complete.

Still, there was something intriguing about Cixous’ bold proclamation: “You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.”

I wasn’t sure I quite bought into that; Medusa, to me, was brimming with a righteous and quite justified rage at the injustices dispensed upon her—though that rage could be seen, from a feminist perspective, as beautiful. But I did agree with one of the earliest statements in Cixous’ piece: “Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies—for the same reason, by the same law, with the same fatal goal.”

Unsurprisingly, my work has generally not received the warmest reception from male writers. This is, in fact, why, before I applied to graduate programs, I specifically sought out only those universities that had at least one female faculty on staff—ideally, many more. I ended up somewhere that had two, and my work was still subject to the same tired feedback from some male professors and colleagues.

If you’re a female writer reading this, you likely know the drill—along with some of the coded labels workshop misogynists employ to degrade us and our writing without specifically identifying the feminine and/or feminist aspects they find revolting: Domestic. Confessional. Unrelatable. Blah, blah, blah.

Much like a survivor’s traumatic experiences can drive them away from their body, long to disassociate from or discard it in a vain attempt to simultaneously discard the violence that harmed that body, mind, and spirit, I could sense these men trying to drive me away from writing, from this new body I sought and was creating, instinctively, to take refuge in.

I’m grateful to Medusa for lending me her strength, for not letting them win. Too many women—too many survivors—have been silenced already.


I haven’t always had a strong sense of why I’ve been drawn to writing. I read a lot of books as a kid, I often tell people who need a quick and easy explanation, and that’s true. It’s also true that writing seemed to come naturally to me. A lot of writers—myself included—like to say our drive to write is about some sense of urgency; that too, for me, at least in part, is true. There is urgency to the story I’m sharing in “Head of a Gorgon.” It, like each and every survivor story, needs to be heard.

But the more I worked on the manuscript, the more Medusa revealed a deeper reason to me; her voice now was more than just the whisper it had been when I first heard her call.

She too knew what I knew: that justice for us would always be impossible. There is nothing any legal system can provide survivors that deletes—like writers delete the unnecessary elements of their stories—what the body has suffered, what it became because of that suffering.

But in telling this story, in using our voices, there could be reclamation. There could be, as I strive to accomplish in this poem, reinvention.

Or, as Cixous said, “She gives that there may be life, thought, transformation.”

No, it doesn’t bring my loved one back—the girl unharmed. Nothing can. Justice isn’t possible. Instead, through writing, I am delivered another one that, if only I am brave enough to embrace her—woundedness and all—I can still, perhaps even more fiercely, love.

Raegen Pietrucha writes, edits, and consults creatively and professionally. Her chapbook, An Animal I Can’t Name, won the 2015 Two of Cups Press competition; her debut poetry collection, Head of a Gorgon, was published with Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in May; and she has a memoir in progress. She received her MFA from Bowling Green State University, where she was an assistant editor for Mid-American Review. Her work has been published in Cimarron Review, Puerto del Sol, and other journals. Connect with her at https://raegenmp.wordpress.com and on Twitter: @freeradicalrp.

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