“Why didn’t she say something?” That’s what a reader asked me back in 2013, angered that Wendy suffered in silence after an assault. My YA novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, grapples with a survivor’s dilemma: speak up and risk not being believed—or worse, being destroyed by the perp and the public.
And listen to the same chorus ringing out today.
When a woman speaks out shouldn’t be the point, but watch it become the subject. Trust that Wendy’s silence is complicated, as is her eventual speaking out.
The simple truth is what Jessica Goldstein said so well recently in McSweeney’s: “As young girls, we feel like maybe now is a good time to just throw something out there. See if it sticks. A PSA to all grown men on the face of the Earth: We do not want to have sex with you.”
Let’s try this again: Why didn’t she say something?
Because what happened is too horrible to put into words.
Because reliving it might make you faint or vomit. Or kill yourself.
Because he’s older.
Because Mom is overwhelmed by her life and always upset about something.
Because he’s Mom’s boyfriend.
Because he knows a ton of people in this town.
Because you won’t be believed.
Because everyone will talk about you.
Because now you’ll be That Girl.
Because everyone else is living a simpler, happier life and your trauma will interrupt theirs.
Because you’ll be asked why–about the outfit, about the time, about the situation. About the relationship.
Because you must have done something to encourage him.
Because smart girls should know better.
Because the candy store at the mall uses girl bodies to sell sugar.
Because someone near you just made a joke about sluts.
Because you’re busy looking over your shoulder in the parking lot.
Because close to 50% of Alabama electorate just voted for a pedophile.
Because my friend’s daughter just asked, “Will boys and men think it’s okay now to assault me?”
Because one of my husband’s friends was assaulted yesterday by a man on the streets of Raleigh, who did exactly what our President Elect said he can do with impunity.
Because my gay friend wept this week, wondering if she and those she loves will be safe.
Because my colleague just said, “I’m getting myself ready to be referred to as one of ‘The Blacks’ for four years.”
Because her friend in Asheville was just followed by a man at the Wal-Mart demanding to know who she voted for, and when she said, “Not Trump,” he followed her to her car.
Because I am finally understanding with my own fears a small part of the fear and trepidation that one of my black friends describes as daily life for her and her son profiled by the police. Now I get a police state in a whole new way.
Because of my former students who are black and brown and Asian and gay and Muslim and beautiful; because of all the girls and women and boys and men I know who are survivors of sexual assault. Because of two students who I just learned committed suicide because they were not welcome in this world.
Because I just finished a YA novel about a girl afraid to come out, whose friend gets assaulted at a party and then slut shamed by the school community, and who wonders if as a teen journalist she should go the TMZ or NYT route.
Because I’m working on a new novel about extreme narcissism and how its reach is wide and lethal.
Because. Because. Because.
Note: Some of this post is adapted from “How Much Reality Can I Take,” posted originally on April 16, 2011.
“Time for another sweeping generalization: YA novels will end with more connections (new ones or healed ones) than disconnections. And most certainly, the book’s major relationships will not be left disconnected.….that teen reader is delivered to an emotionally safe landing place. The assurance that there will be such a landing place represents the line between YA and adult literary fiction.”
By page 24 of the YA novel Rage: A Love Story by Julie Anne Peters, we learn that the protagonist, Johanna, has lost her mother, has been abandoned by her sister, has been assaulted by a mentally disabled boy at school, and has a crush on a decidedly violent girl named Reeve. Oh, and did I mention that Johanna works for hospice?
When I pick up novels, I need a coherent story woven to produce meaning. I don’t turn to narrative for a “here’s what’s happening” reflection of reality, the fact that life is terrible sometimes or all the time. There is plenty of hell on earth to go around–disconnection, as Qualey calls it, abandonment, and abuse. Johanna of Rage connects with no one, really, in these first pages and is pretty much abandoned or ignored by everyone. She also shows no signs of conscience or love. Her actions are based on either fear and lust.
This doesn’t mean Johanna won’t find parts of her best self beyond page 24. I just wasn’t willing to wait around for a sign.
By page 24 of my YA novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, we’ve seen Wendy at age 15 ripped from her home to a new state, furious with her narcissistic mother, and bullied by a Mean Girl. Enough bad things happen that a writing partner told me at one point during the drafting process, “I just want to see Wendy happy.”
I understood what she meant. I answered this concern by showing Wendy passionate about something, which led to new chapter where Wendy struts down a school hallway with her life soundtrack blaring, Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Wendy’s not doing cartwheels of delight, but she’s empowered and she’s inspired, enough to take on the Mean Girl. I also revised to introduce two other teens, Tanay and Andrew, who reach out to Wendy and show an interest. It’s not happy-happy-joy-joy portrayal of life, but, there’s some hope for real relationship.
Is that enough light to balance the darkness? I like to think so.
I’m a huge fan of The Wire, The Killing, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and House of Cards. I willingly follow gruesome mafia killings, sociopathic politicians, and desperate drug deals. I do avert my eyes, I do gasp in horror, and I do think about these situations long after the credits roll. Why? In each of these stories, someone has hope, faith, or ambition to change something. The characters grow, they face consequences of their actions, and they struggle to find meaning. Even the sociopaths get their due; no one escapes unscathed.
Officer McNulty of The Wire strives to be “natural police,” and Bunk and other cops rise to the occasion alongside him. In Episode 4 of Season 1, McNulty and Bunk return to an old murder scene, and while cussing colorfully with gruesome images of the murder victim splayed out on kitchen linoleum, garner enough evidence that sloppy police work didn’t recover before. They go back to do a job right, and amidst the graphic horror of things, there is renewal and hope.
Weeds, on the other hand, I had to stop watching. Tell me if you love it and found a moment of redemption; I couldn’t stick around with the careless, flippant, and nihilist lifestyles.
I write about sexual abuse and recovery. I write about racism and adultery and envy and isolation. There are sociopaths, and there are pedophiles. But as I present shades of various hells on earth, I need to know there is love and redemption somewhere in this mess. I need my Wendys to find a reason to keep dancing.
Nihilism supposes that no one’s looking out for us. No one cares now or later. If the world you write about has no journey towards Good or Right, just photographic rendering of actions, habits, and tendencies, then those readers like me who believe there’s a purpose to our lives may not stay for the rest of the show.
At the end of the movie Immortal Beloved, the young Beethoven races away from home in the middle of the night, having been beaten horribly by his father–so badly, he will one day lose his hearing. The movie imagines young Ludwig diving into a pond and floating, a smile lighting his face as he suddenly sees the glorious array of stars in the pitch-black night. The soundtrack swells with Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, often called “Ode to Joy.” In the midst of great sorrow is respite and healing peace. While his ears ring with pain, the boy still hears the strains of a melody in his head, beauty he will one day create.
We all seek joy, that “bright spark of divinity” Schiller wrote of in his poem “Ode to Joy” and Beethoven set to music. Literature can give us that safe landing space where happiness thrives. Stories can let us trust for at least a moment, perhaps only in our heads, that all is well.
How much reality is too much reality in a young adult novel? Let me know your thoughts.
Ask these questions of your favorite YA novel:
“I’ve lived in silence and denial for 22 years and I can’t spend another moment in that. In order to truly heal I have to speak my truth and I have to speak the whole truth.”
— Wade Robson
Dancer and choreographer Wade Robson has gone public with a claim that for seven years, Michael Jackson sexually abused him. When asked why he is telling this story now, he said:
“All it takes is a little bit of education into child sexual abuse and realizing how unfortunately typical my scenario is. The trauma and the psychological effects of child sexual abuse last for so long. I had no understanding of this until up to just over a year ago. I’m just at the beginning of my healing process. I ‘m sure I’ll be dealing with this for the rest of my life.”
What Robson calls “typical” makes sense to me. As an educator, friend, and girlfriend, I’ve heard many tales of sexual abuse from survivors. People are afraid to come forward, and so they don’t. Children are shaped by the adults, and if an adult who is a constant presence and influence tells you the earth is flat, the sky is fuchsia, and sexual abuse is love, then you believe it. Later, when these same survivors are cutting, isolating, rebelling, or contemplating suicide, many times they don’t call the abuser a predator. They keep silent, feel terrible, and ask themselves, “What’s wrong with me?”
As the character of Wendy says in my novel, “I’m bad. Hounded by night creatures. Stamped by the smoothest of criminals.”
Survivors might even protect the perpetrator and return to him. There still can be trust and loyalty in the face of abuse. The relationship between predator and victim is emotionally complex and can be paralyzing static. When ages are dramatically different, the dynamic is not unlike a carnivore with fangs sunk deep in the weaker animal. Imagine hearing when you are seven, You’ll go to jail. I’ll go to jail. This is love. This is right. It’s you and me against the world. We’re soul mates.
Do you easily lose that imprint to trust your abuser, that stamp so deep it forms daily thought and action, automatic as your ABCs? Do you just slough off those routines and habits like a cloak and say, I’m over it? I remember unpleasant incidents from 1978, 1981, and 1983. And those fifth, seventh, and ninth grade moments still impact how I see myself. Sometimes I am still that embarrassing nerd who uses too many big words, that “big palooka,” or that girl in the “dog parade.” If I still recall these little slings and arrows from formative years, I can’t imagine how sexual abuse might have changed my life. I know my self-perception and esteem is shaped by my interpretation of those experiences. We evolve in response to experience; it doesn’t disappear but gets locked into our bones.
So if Robson was indeed abused, to say that Robson should have just outed his story at 14, 24, or even now—like that’s an easy thing—is like me saying I should feel comfortable broadcasting how Carolyn mocked me in front of the fifth grade class and Colleen called me a big palooka in front of two girls in the Parish Hall and Andy called me and my girlfriends “the dog parade” in the freshman hallway. These aren’t trophies from my adolescence I like to brag about; I look weak, ugly, and lame. Again, these are just the little wounds of everyday living; these aren’t sexual violence or trauma.
Just like coming out of the closet, there is much to lose when you voice your truth. If people know you’ve survived something ugly—never mind your claiming that someone they like has committed evil—you are not only truth-teller but life-changer. You are breaking the rules of the game, stopping the dance, and flipping others’ perceptions. You will be hated for speaking up.
You may wonder, why risk it and speak up now and take up the fight? Robson’s detractors claim he’s a liar who wants money. Perhaps. Perhaps Robson is making this all up, and he’s not experiencing PTSD in his thirties, and he doesn’t need justice. Perhaps he’s only money driven. Perhaps.
But this is not my battle nor me trying to prove Robson right or wrong. I don’t know him personally. This story, to me, is about why survivors don’t tell truth right away, and what the dynamic of abuse creates. Instead of taking sides, we should ask, How does abuse happen, and how do predators work? How long does it take—or should it take (because people ask, “Why’d he wait so long?”)—a survivor to confess the abuse? What does the data say?
In my book, Wendy nurtures a rarefied Michael Jackson obsession. It’s a point of connection between her and her mother’s new boyfriend, who gains her trust through music and charisma and attention. Her mother ignores her, but he doesn’t. As he gains her trust, her crush ignites, and her hopes for a stable future with him as a potential stepdad soar. Until the day when the flirting goes way past flattery to molestation, and then rape.
At first Wendy thinks it’s her fault, that she somehow brought this on herself. It doesn’t matter that she’s 15 and he’s 45. She still takes full responsibility. She says, “For nights I’ve dreamed of cleavers separating his hand from his arm, his head from his neck. But each dream ends with my hands, arms, head flying into outer space.”
As I wrote this book, I had in the back of my mind the testimony of several people (friends, former partners, and former students). I read The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse with its stories of many survivors. I learned about profiles of predators, the patterns of grooming and abuse, and the trauma that persists long after the crimes have stopped. I listened to evangelist Joyce Meyer’s story. But I don’t pretend to be an expert. My fiction bubbles up for many reasons, and no doubt one of them is response to stories told to me, my artistic processing of the tears, fear, and physical and mental breakdowns I was privileged to share.
Wendy knows one thing for sure: her voice will out. She doesn’t know how or when, but it stays like a chant in her head her when she can’t sleep at night. “Coming soon,” she says, “The Big Reveal. This girl will peel back the glittering glove, and she will doff her mask.”
Wendy Redbird Dancing wants the truth to unfurl. Maybe Wade Robson does, too. But since I’m not his judge, I’ll trust only in my fiction. It attempts to represent the testimony of those I love. And that testimony tells me that sexual abuse happens, it’s hard to tell, and the outing of it can be a lifelong journey.
This Mother’s Day, I’m thinking of those who are unable to celebrate. Those who never had a mom to begin with, even if technically, there was a mother in the house.
In my novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, Sunny Revere is not a good mom. She is a classic narcissist, obsessed with finding and keeping boyfriends. And there are many–a “revolving door,” as her daughter describes it. Also top of Sunny’s list is the pursuit of her own happiness–political dreams and artistic interests. In between, if her daughter happens to cross her path, Sunny will occasionally parent. She thinks she’s a great mom because she strives to be Wendy’s BFF.
At 16, Wendy is well aware of these stark facts. She has accepted and so far, survived her mother’s weaknesses with a certain amount of stoicism. She says, “With Sunny it’s best to sift out troubling information, as she’s flummoxed by most facts. Facts require decisions, and Sunny’s best at dithering.” Sunny has spent a lifetime flitting from one location and job and boyfriend to another, dragging Wendy along, and never facing the black-and-white truth of parenting: sometimes, you have to put yourself last.
Wendy’s built the necessary walls to handle the perpetual transitions. But the one thing Wendy finds she can’t face so easily is abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriends. She will spend a lifetime overcoming these traumas.
“My mom forgot to get me a birthday cake.” “My mom didn’t show up for the one award I got in middle school.” “My mom pretended the abuse wasn’t happening.” Over the years, I’ve heard such stories from students or friends, or I’ve seen them happen without the person complaining. It was just assumed Mom had too many things to do, or that she had a date, or that the house is always a little bit crazy or chaotic whenever mom is there.
Those who grow up with a non-mother can turn out to be many things. They might be resilient, persisting no matter what life hands them. They may be possessed by their own victimhood, demanding much from a world they feel owes them something. They may be hardened, even flat-lining, or addicts, liars, and cheaters. They may be loving and embracing caretakers, giving relentlessly to others, swearing to never inflict on others what they suffered. They can be so busy trying to prove they are worthy that they achieve great success. However they evolve, the mark of the bad mother stays with them.
When I write about a situation like Wendy’s, it’s out of sympathy, not empathy. I try to relate, but am blessed to be a spectator. In my book, I was able to write a dedication to both my parents:
All I know is, I am so loved I can’t measure it. I am able to write today because you always gave me hope and space as a child to let creativity flourish. You gifted me with trust that my ideas matter.
My mother, Katherine Fairchild, is a loving, brilliant, and beautiful woman. She is incredibly selfless, having sacrificed herself for me countless times. My accomplishments, my hopes, my joys, and my sorrows have always been of great interest to her. She is delighted for me, concerned for me, and willing to listen endlessly. She is happy to spend time with me, anytime. She has never been one to ask, “But what about me?” Unconditional love is my mother’s specialty. I credit her with being the mother of my inventions.
Now she is gradually doing more and more for herself. We call her the best writer in the family and celebrate her occasional focus on herself. She recently published a story called “Sunday at Aunt Seri’s,” a vignette from her childhood that captures the beauty and strangeness of a visit to an aunt’s hardscrabble farm where turkeys swarm her like oncoming and relentless waves. My mother is gifted at capturing images and moods, and her characters are authentic. She has also crafted several stories where oddball characters muddle their way through life in great seriousness that turns slapstick.
For someone who never has said, “I deserve,” my mother deserves far more than she’s ever given herself. I hope this Mother’s Day weekend she will take a note from her daughter who has been allowed to grow up self-directed and self-confident, without someone else’s black hole of neediness interrupting her development. In other words, I want my mother to give herself the same attention she always gave me. Meanwhile, I have a role model who inspires me to ask how I can be less self-focused and more selfless.
Not everyone gets a mom like mine. Today, I celebrate Katherine Fairchild and the blessing I have in her. I also celebrate those who have overcome their mothers with grace and courage.