On The Guilt Project: Rape Morality and Law & Tragodía 1: Statement of Facts by Vanessa Place

The Guilt Project
by Vanessa Place
Other Press, 2010
336 pages / $25  Buy from Amazon


Tragodía 1: Statement of Facts
by Vanessa Place
Blanc Press, 2010
430 pages / $45 (HB), $25 (PB)  Buy from Blanc Press




Among the individuals in Los Angeles who are responding to heavyweight issues exists an  uncanny force: Vanessa Place. A criminal defense attorney, she defends what some categorize as the lost, the wretched: indigent criminals, repeat sex offenders and violent predators. Some criminals learn valuable lessons while incarcerated; others leave prison refueled, angry and ready to re-enter what’s left of the world as a less worthy version of themselves, less interested in following pre-ordained rules. This is where Place steps in: the blurry space between offense and re-offense, perpetrator and victim, right and wrong, ethics and morality. Place explains, “I work as a combination street sweeper and factory worker. I follow what’s gone before, mopping up after the bloody mess, squaring the legal corners, assembling the lives disassembled by tragedy, and reducing reams of paper to bite-sized pellets.”(p.2)

In addition to The Guilt Project: Rape Morality and Law (Other Press) and Tragodía 1: Statement of Facts (Blanc Press), Place is also the author of Dies: A Sentence, an experimental, constraint-based work as one continuous sentence, the Los Angeles-inspired novel La Medusa, Notes on Conceptualisms (co-authored with Robert Fitterman) and multiple chapbooks (via Lulu and Ood Press). Place also co-directs Les Figues Press with Teresa Carmody. Even though Place’s background lies in the conceptual and experimental, she now decidedly focuses on how her writing practice both supplements her day job and reconciles with America―from a realistic and mythological stance. The movement from Place’s previous work to this legal system foray indicates her growing concern with her position. This shift also suggests that one should never confine their practice by following any previously charted precedent.

In The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality and Law, Place sees the American justice system to be based upon oversimplified codes, actions deemed as crimes and complimentary punishments intended to compensate both the victim and those related to said victim, which create convoluted consequences as either a direct result or uncontrollable offshoot. The American prison system’s reality and its variable statistics are disappointing. Prisons are often privatized, transforming prisoners into fiscal commodities, prisoners are segregated using over-simplified categories (race, sexual orientation, ethnicity) to prevent violence, as well as assessed in ways meant to be preventative―in theory. America has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, where criminals are predicted to re-offend if given shorter sentences. Yet, should this statistic grant the courts the right to incarcerate prisoners for unreasonable sentences as a prevention technique against recidivism?

Even though violent crime is on the uprise, Place reminds that too little reform (and often too late) occurs in regards to how the American prison system approaches rehabilitation, justifiable sentence length and any responsibility associated with proper treatment for prisoners singled out for either short and long-term incarceration. The author discusses how post-prison life or life available in America after being marked as a sex offender is bleak, lacking tangible opportunities to reintegrate into any community―even if the offense was a one-time-only affair. Being affected by a judicial system that is unable (or unwilling) to register shades of grey, instead choosing satisfaction in an absolutist world dominated by black-and-white extremes, it’s remarkably easy to taint a life with one flippant, erroneous decision. Place explains:

The legal definition of rape is no longer forced sex, or sex without consent; it is sex without “affirmative and ongoing” consent. This definition is protean. It includes men who grab women off the street or seek them as they sleep, and men who have sex with drunken women who say yes or sober women who never quite manage to say no. It includes men who put knives to their wives’ throats and women who nod yes and then decide, mid-ride, no thank you. (5-6)

This definition is jumbled; it includes individuals who otherwise would not be considered rapists if it was not for the ‘ongoing’ aspect of this new definition. What once counted as one decision to either participate in consensual sex no longer applies, unless this one pivotal decision never changes over time. Place adds, “This categorical elasticity means there are now more rapists and molesters among us. There may be more people willing to report being raped, but there are also more behaviors classified as rape, more ways to become a rapist than ever before. We think we’re surrounded, but we’ve surrounded ourselves.” (6)

There are too many flaws in America’s judicial system to count, but Place responsibly examines them with a razor-sharp scrutiny and hard-earned logic. Her cool-headed tone allows an interested reader entrance despite the content’s awkwardness―even when The Guilt Project‘s subject matter  shares graphics of real-life crimes and twisted aftermaths. Even when it’s hard to turn the page, because of disgust, shock or an emotion associated with a once obscured tragedy now in view.

What makes The Guilt Project unusual in comparison to other law & society texts is Place’s decision to hybridize her subjectivity as a Los Angeles-based criminal appellate attorney with an objective examination of the law. Place slides smoothly between these two modes, with care and concern for the reader’s ability to grasp both her plight and that which belongs to America. How often is the firsthand perspective of a defense lawyer, one defending another who is most likely guilty, shown? Place comments:

My job is not predicated on innocence. In our famously adversarial system of justice, we the actors play the parts that are as important as the play. It’s a cliché that a society is judged by how it treats its most despicable members, a cliché that mindful people accept in the abstract and reject in practice. But freedom of speech is only when the opinions are vile, and due process meaningful only when applied to the daddy who rapes his son. Sex offenders are our most despised citizens. To defend them without reservation, I have to absolutely accept their guilt. My job is not to defend the innocent, but to defend. (1-2)

Place’s duty is not to prove innocence when none exists, but rather a legal question of “did the State have the right to take the essence of these peoples’ lives, or how many lives are being sacrificed to a series of social expediencies, or to cultural arguments that have already been won?”.(9) For instance, should sexual offense be placed in the same category of evil (which Place defines as “an act, not a cultural metaphor, not a social backdrop, not entertainment”(10)) as genocide, as despicable as the Holocaust? Place notes that such repugnance towards anything deemed as an obvious evil is, in a way, a source of pride or merit badge based upon placing one’s self against any opposing force. And by doing so, an “us” vs. “them” dichotomy thrives, allowing “us” to believe that “they” are worth nothing: less-than-human.

Place does not play “devil’s advocate”―those whom she defends are usually guilty: “I pray that all my clients are guilty because if they’re innocent, something went hideously wrong at the trial, and that something is almost always impossible to undo.”(231-232) She illuminates how the American justice system fails to respond to heinous crimes effectively by following through with a series of oversimplified assumptions based on stereotyping, masked exploitation and calculated booby traps which ensure that a criminal cannot avoid re-offending once back on the streets. By the nature of faulty definitions, classification glitches and feigned concern for the well-being and future of these once-criminals-now-again-citizens, America sets itself up for an infinite cycle of wasted resources and disappointing statistics.

The author claims, “We have become a nation that insists on innocence. Unlike other countries, we’ve been able to dodge a lot of blame based on our lack of collective history.”(233) Place is not searching for redemption: “my accusations against the law are also my confession.” Perhaps, the best that America hopes for is thorough rehabilitation which overrides at least some damage caused to both victims and their perpetrators.

Place’s recent release Tragodía 1: Statement of Facts appears deliberately timed; it serves as an appendix to The Guilt Project. Tragodía 1: Statement of Facts is transcribed texts taken from legal documents and appellate briefs which focus on the prosecution and defense of violent sexual crimes and those involved. Place doesn’t offer answers or subjective opinions―she avoids cajolement, opting for hard facts. So many cases that one might grow nauseous and enshrouded in a fascination rooted in this miserable underbelly. Words recontextualized relay gruesome details of unfortunate scenarios which speak to one another in a medley, similar to a cultish lock-in or a wellness retreat gone awry.

Once inside, M went into a bathroom. The lights went off. When they came back on, appellant had a knife at M’s throat. He told her to undress; she refused. After some back and forth, appellant threatened to “do it” to M’s 13-year-old daughter, D. M agreed to undress, and appellant threw her onto a mattress in a bedroom. He tied M’s hands behind her back, tied her legs and ankles, and gagged and taped her mouth. Appellant orally copulated M, had her orally copulate him, then vaginally penetrated her. He asked M how would she like him to do that to her daughter. She said to leave her daughter alone (RT 3:1504-1508, 3:1512). (p49)

Place provides facts and witness perspectives from physicians, forensic psychologists, private detectives, lab technicians, criminalists and experts of perceived authority. These individuals augment Place’s selection of briefs with unearthed evidence. This writerly ambition demonstrates a spectrum of socio-political concerns, confessions and depositions; Place encourages readers to take a closer, even exhaustive double-take at the conflicting state of American law and society. It is too common to overlook factual minutiae. Statement of Facts compels not only because it is a thoughtful appropriation exercise but because it metaphorically relays the world as a universal “book” which is edited either justly or unjustly―where entire chapters, paragraphs or footnotes are deemed accessible or cut from the final proof in one authoritarian sweep. The act of publishing material considered by the general populace to be too raw, difficult or unprofitable is necessary so as to advance future liberties rooted in flexibility.

Assessing the factual, in its pure and unadulterated form, is an immediate concern. Freedom of speech and expression continues to be tested, stretched and questioned; this is evident when considering recent incidents, ranging from the Wikileaks/Julian Assange phenomenon to the Arizona shooting of U.S. representative Gabrielle Gifford (and eighteen others). Both indicate how how political strain affects or bleeds into the responses from both citizens and the masses. Some may find Tragodía 1: Statement of Facts to be unreadable; the work also resides as part of Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Publishing the Unpublishable” series on UbuWeb. The editor explains:

What constitutes an unpublishable work? It could be many things: too long, too experimental, too dull; too exciting; it could be a work of juvenilia or a style you’ve long since discarded; it could be a work that falls far outside the range of what you’re best known for; it could be a guilty pleasure or it could simply be that the world judges it to be awful, but you think is quite good.

With this gesture of publishing that which is usually muted or forgotten, Place exalts our obsession with both truth and power to another level―even if difficult to reach. The future of writing depends upon uncomfortable frontiers.


Jacquelyn Davis is an American writer, arts & culture critic, independent curator and educator. She is the founding editor of the small publishing press and curatorial node valeveil which is devoted to strengthening creative connections between America and Scandinavia.

Tags: , , , ,


  1. Katelyn

      The only way I’m coming up with to read that first quotation is repulsive.

      Pretending that we have a systemic problem with locking up people who “only” decided that their desire to get off was more important than their partner’s right to withdraw consent is ludicrous. (As compared to the notorious difficulty of convicting on rape charges?) Pretending that “affirmative and ongoing” consent is just too hard a bar to clear is demeaning to all the sex-havers of the world.

      Raping an acquaintance who’s too drunk to speak is not the same as raping a stranger at gunpoint is not the same as raping your wife when she says she’s not up for it. And getting bashed and permanently injured isn’t the same as getting slapped by your partner. That doesn’t make any of those things not-assault.

      It’s unfortunate, because criticism of sex offender registries and prison policies is definitely important. Linking that criticism to the already hugely prevalent idea that a checklist of conditions have to be met for rape to “really” be rape undermines that criticism.

      (“We’ve surrounded ourselves”??? Fuck off.)

  2. VPlace

      Katelyn, I agree with what you are saying–but my argument is that rape, like murder, should be made into degrees. Not all of these acts are equivalent, though they are all certainly criminal. I am, as you seem to be, advocating for a more nuanced societal approach to punishing sex offenses and dealing with various kinds of sex offenders.

  3. jackie wang

      okay–i am a big fan of les figues press and enjoy some of vanessa place’s work–but i have a lot of issues with vanessa’s book The Guilt Project. i am a prison abolitionist, an anarchist (critical of the state) and anti-rape. i have a bro who is serving 2 life sentences in prison since he was a juvenile, so i am very critical of the criminal justice system without being “naive.” i generally sympathize with VP’s desire to reveal how rape laws are used to criminalize perverts or teens that have consensual sex when there is an age gap, but not with with rapists who engage in coercive sex.

      that being said, i also obviously also disagree with the legal definition of rape and consent and do not think lengthy sentences are the answer. but the problem with VP’s method is it advances its argument by reducing “rapists” to the legal category–from perverts to serial rapist–without considering what an ethics of sexual relations might look like when we apply a more nuanced framework. the book is framed almost entirely in terms of the “perpetrators”–which is to be expected since she is a criminal defense lawyer and has an intimate connection to that perspective (i wonder how the book would be different if VP were, say, the director of a battered women’s shelter). but when we’re thinking about rape, we cannot ignore social context in which these “acts” take place–that is, within a patriarchal culture where systematic violence is enacted against women as a class.

      i think VP falsely characterizes how people respond to rape when she asserts that people always side with the “innocent” and demonize the rapist. it’s true that people side with the “victim” (i prefer the word survivor) in theory, but not in actual cases. whenever a rape charge is brought against a powerful man, the majority of the population tends to side with the perpetrator, especially when the survivor is poor, a person of color, promiscuous, or a sex worker (because people think that sex workers can’t be raped). for instance, the recent strauss kahn incident (

      with that being said, middle class white women are the most likely to receive the sympathy of the public (this was blatantly apparent to me when i was researching sexualized police brutality against women for a film i made), which means that media’s attention to rape ignores and obscures how being black and poor makes you more at risk of being raped or assaulted (while less likely to warrant sympathy, attention, or help). sex workers/promiscuous women are almost always portrayed as “asking” to be raped. i have seen the rape-sympathetic mentality play out in my community countless times, where the entire discussion is framed in terms of the perpetrator. a former housemate of mine was raped by a serial rapist (at least 5 women called him out) who had a lot of clout in the art community in baltimore and she was defamed publicly while the rape sympathizers lamented the fact that the guy’s life would be “ruined” (he was never actually held accountable by anyone). what about the lives that are ruined by rape?

      it’s troubling when our anti-morality (like VP’s) turns into a kind of “invisible” morality–where the interests of certain people who exercise domination over others are maintained at the expense of those on the receiving end of violence. when VP reminds us that a society should be “judged by how it treats its most despicable members,” i also wonder about perhaps judging a society by what it does to ensure the safety of its most vulnerable members–sex “perverts” who are persecute by a neo-victorian morality might be included in this category.

      also–perhaps i should remind people that not all people who are doing work around rape issues are doing so within the criminal justice system or prison industrial complex. surely the second wave, sex-negative model is about longer sentences and harsher punishment, but groups like INCITE Women of Color Against Violence and The Audre Lorde Project (specifically the Safe Outside the System collective) are developing solutions outside of the legal system…because the oppressiveness of the prison industrial complex and increased police presence in poor POC communities puts those communities at greater risk. (if yr a poor WOC and mother and you call the cops about domestic violence or rape, there’s a good chance you might lose custody of yr children…cops also sometimes rape/assault women who call for assistance in domestic violence incidents. the law doesn’t always protect those who are raped.) in summary, i would have liked to see more “imagination” and nuance in the analysis and the way the discussion is framed.

  4. jackie wang

      like VP, i am also against applying the “sex offender” label to people for life…esp in cases such as consensual sex among adolescents when there is an age disparity.

  5. Katelyn

      Thanks for clarifying. I’m skeptical about the likelihood of degrees of sexual assault being used more justly than discretion in sentencing is now, but I’m not as knowledgeable about the subject as I could be. I’ll be interested to read your book.

  6. VPlace

      And I would be interested to hear what you think afterwards–I may fail to convince you. Which would also be interesting.

  7. The Claudius App
  8. lauracarter

      While the content may be terrifying, it is also largely demystifying, and there’s a need for that demystification, I think. – glamour can be one of the best ruses, in order to deepen listening skills. At least that was my response after having been “shocked” at first when I read some of the excerpts on UbuWeb a while back.