home / interviews
Irish Independent (Ireland)
Fall 2001 (exact date unknown)
Hymns to the violence
When Tori Amos was brutally raped 16 years ago, like many women she felt it was her own fault and was filled with self-loathing. As the daughter of a preacher, she had been taught sex was evil. But music, as ever, was her salvation, she tells Joe Jackson
SOME people sing to make a living. Tori Amos once sang to stay alive. Hymns. As she was raped. At the age of 23. On her deliciously provocative new album Strange Little Girls, however, Amos, now 38, sings, in part, to her one-year-old daughter Natashya. And that journey, from being a victim of rape filled with hatred for oneself, sexuality, men, women, God, love and life to having a child with a man you adore does epitomise Tori's evolution over the past 16 years. Or longer, given that she also is the daughter of a Methodist minister, which set in her soul, from the start, almost irredeemably negative associations with sex. Specifically female sexuality.
Yet, before we start, I must say that what follows is a distillation of 10 years of conversations with a woman who, for a time, even phoned me as her friend. However, when we met recently Tori was reluctant to revisit subjects such as her rape experience. Understandably. But obviously, I can't tell her story without doing so.
Amos was born in North Carolina and recalls "being five years old with an Afghan coat thrown over me, lying there, not knowing what this passionate feeling is, but sensing, 'There's something missing.' From that point I put everything into music."
Around the same time she started studying piano at Baltimore's Peabody Institute. And later discovered groups like the Beatles and Doors.
"I remember waving a copy of Sergeant Pepper's in my father's face and saying, 'This is what I'm going to do!'"
Yet Tori never told her grandmother -- a monolithic puritan whom she "hated" -- what she wanted to do with the lead singer of Led Zeppelin.
"I couldn't understand all this talk of women being 'of the devil', and that only 'evil women' gave away their virginity before marriage," Amos explains. "Yet when I was 10 I heard Robert Plant and wanted to give him my virginity. I thought it was like sharing peanut butter and jelly and holding hands!"
Tori smiles sadly at this memory of lost innocence. "But I waited a long time before giving up my virginity, because of guilt, and feeling, 'How can I be a nice girl and want to do this?' And the need I had for males to respect and accept me probably came from an overwhelming need for my father. But he didn't respond to the 'bad girl' in me. And even at that age I felt Jesus was a living presence in my life."
Indeed. Tori also "nearly always" believed that "if Jesus was, as he claimed to be, a whole man", he "had to have had sex with Mary Magdalen", and so, in her "most private fantasies", wanted Christ Jesus to be "the boyfriend" she was waiting for.
"I may have felt guilty about the thought of doing it with Jesus, but then I'd say, 'Why not? He was a man!'"
Can Tori see why people might see such thoughts as blasphemous?
"I'm a minister's daughter, of course I can!" she responds. "But that's what I write about in Icicle, when I tell of how I used to masturbate at home, as a teenager, while my father and his fellow theologians were downstairs discussing the Divine Light I was exploring the 'Divine Light' within myself. And anyone who sees that as blasphemous can go to hell! That's how women are paralysed, disconnected from their own powers by religion.
"For centuries, the Church has slammed a crucifix between a woman's legs and even masturbation is a way of dislodging that cross, of self-empowerment. How dare anybody say my honouring my woman-ness in that way, my opening to the energy between my legs, is a sin? That was my act of defiance, of asserting myself against the oppressive force of religion. Jesus is used to bludgeon down your sexuality and leave you with layers of shame, of feeling sex is not can never be part of love, life, God. The message is you're scum if you partake in sex. But we, as women and men, are not scum. Not sexless. We are a blend of the spiritual and the physical. To deny either is like trying to walk on one leg."
TORI believes that the spiritual and physical sides of her own nature were sliced even further apart the night she was raped at knife-point.
"It was me and a gun and a man on my back
And I sang 'Holy Holy' as he buttoned down his pants
Me and a gun and a man on my back
But I haven't seen Barbados
So I must get out of this
Yes I wore a slinky red thing for you
Does that mean I have to spread for you, your
father, your friends, Mr Ed."
Tori wrote that song which subsequently own a Visionary Award from the Washington Rape Crisis Centre five years after the experience. She'd seen the movie Thelma and Louise and during the scene where Thelma's would-be rapist is shot dead by Louise, flashed back to her own rape, felt a rush of rage and release, then later the same day wrote the song.
"Me and a Gun is about forgiving myself," she explains. "And as I was writing that song I realised the biggest mistake I made was not seeking help from people who understood. Nobody was there for me the night it happened. I just cut off the experience, not knowing that in doing this, I was letting it take control of me inside."
So how does a woman reconnect with her body after rape and not just associate sex with violence?
"That is the core problem," Tori agrees. "And I couldn't. I broke off the relationship I'd been having with a man for two years, ranting and raving about how I didn't want him in my life. And that hatred choked me, kept me from my relationship. You do want to punish men. So part of me did become a prostitute. Not in the sense one would normally use the word, but according to the religious definition. I had to be a hooker to have sex. Having felt I let myself and all women down because of my vulnerability the night I was raped I had to tell myself I was in complete control, feel like I was getting paid. Part of me was seething with revenge. But sexually, for years I wasn't able to love or give to the extent, say, that I wanted to have kids with a man."
Even so, Tori could still "put everything" into her art. She could "channel this energy" during a show, yet the moment she walked backstage Tori "closed down, sexually". Despite the fact that Eric Rosse, her boyfriend, was aching to help her.
"People must be told about the self-loathing that follows rape and how it is the greatest breakage in divine law to mutilate themselves," she says "Emotionally, I mutilated myself by feeling I'm not worthy of being loved and f**ked at the same time. I killed a part of myself. I already had the hatred women feel for themselves in the Christian Church in terms of that tyranny of believing love is one thing and lust another that was where I began to be segregated within myself but the rape compounded that feeling a thousandfold.
"So what this means is that Eric has to say, 'I am not the man who raped you.' And when we make love he'll leave on the light and say, 'Look at me, what's my name?' And, more important, 'What am I doing? I'm f**king you. Say it.' And I'll try to say it. Then he'll hold me and say 'and I love you'. So I am healing, ceasing to see myself as a victim, which is the only way out of all this."
Yes, that was Tori talking to me in 1994. And such revelations did make Eric feel she'd violated their relationship. Though they finally broke up because "we couldn't grow any further together and didn't know why". And she "had to hit rock bottom, feel incapable of having intimacy with a man again without getting physically sick", before the healing began.
"After he left me, I crawled, I grieved for the lost woman. But that was my firewalk, my rite of passage. And I finally made the journey back to man, by making the journey back to woman," she explains.
"Partly because I now see Magdalen as the blueprint for woman, the high priestess, the sacred bride of Christ, with whom she obviously had sexual relations, and children. But this was robbed from women. Now I see that the programme of 'What is a woman?' has been around much longer than my rape experience. So part of my healing is understanding how to pull those fragments of the female psyche together. Because after the rape I blamed myself. Yet as I started to claim my true worth as a woman not from the reflection of myself in the eyes of men, but from within myself, in that ancient setting I finally began to open up again."
In 1998, Tori married sound engineer Mark Hawley.
"But I'm not looking to him for my womanhood, though sex is part of it," she explains. "And how that happened was a slow process. But, at one point, I looked up, tears running down my face, and said, 'I can do this.' And he held me. It was sacred. Yet it wasn't the act of being able to be sexual with a man that made me feel complete as a woman. That happened after I travelled to the core."
And then from that core came a child. Following three miscarriages.
"After those miscarriages, I was depressed and decided, 'It is not on the cards for me to be a mom,' so I made a choice to not wait for some internal event to happen that was beyond my control."
Which means it must have been one hell of a joyful moment when Tori was told she was pregnant.
"I'd lost the others within the first trimester. So when Mark and I went for that ultrasound, our hearts were in our shoes," she responds. "The radiologist was there, I had my feet in the stirrups, then it got quiet. And it was in that moment, before, I heard the tears of nurses. But this time what I heard was, 'Guys! Little dancing feet!' Then they turned the screen around and truly, Joe, tears of joy flowed from both of us."
And, yes, of course Tori is still deeply in love with Mark. But she's not going to have any more children.
"Let's not get greedy! I'm just going to enjoy being a mother. And I'm also a musician so I must be true to that."
To conclude this tale of Tori's "firewalk", are those life-long manifestations of fragmented soul the Methodist, the Magdalen, the musician and so on now finally integrated rather than segregated?
"It's coming!" she says, laughing. "But on the other hand, on the new album I tell the stories of 13 women through the songs of male performers like Eminem, Neil Young, Lennon and McCartney and the other Joe Jackson! And it is an album about violence and identity. So this still is part of my process of self-integration."
But, in essence, is Strange Little Girls an album for her daughter Natashya?
"Funny you should say that," Tori responds, "because when I was hearing some of the malice towards women expressed in these songs, I looked at her and said, 'In 1968, when the new age was coming out, I wouldn't have expected it would be like this is in 2001.' As Joe Jackson said, 'Things are getting better/ But nobody's really sure.' So I looked at her and thought to myself, 'Welcome to the New Age, Tash.' Meaning this album really is her mommy picking up the gauntlet and saying, 'It's got to be integration, not segregation.' In the widest possible sense."
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos