One of my librarian friends and I were talking a few weeks ago about what we were reading. She said "I've actually just finished binge-watching Veronica Mars, and now that I think about it, I think it's a show you'd really like." She thought for a second, clearly struggling to put a weird thought into words. "Part of it is about how she was date-raped and is trying to figure out who her rapist was...and that seems like, you know. Sort of your thing."
Another awkward pause.
"Not that..." she hesitated.
So I jumped in. It's not that I can say I like reading books about rape. That really would be weird. Instead, it is that I am drawn to books (and yes, TV shows and movies) that deal with women's issues in serious, realistic, and thought-provoking ways.
And one of those issues is rape.
"Interestingly enough," I told my librarian friend, "I just finished a YA novel about something similar, Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E. K. Johnston."
She and I had talked late in December about how, while everyone else thought the YA novel All the Rage (also a novel about rape) was this generation's Speak (ditto on subject), we both thought it was confusing. I read the last part three times but I still didn't have a clear vision of what actually happened. All the Rage takes a character who is already on the fringe—Romy Grey is from the poor side of her small midwestern town—and then pushes her out even further into isolation and doubt when she is raped by (and then reports) the sheriff's son. The book is about how people can turn victims into scapegoats and how girls need to take care of each other (but usually don't) and how the flaws in the system give rapists freedom to repeat their crimes. It's a harrowing, gritty book, but still: I can't quite exactly explain what happened to Romy. Maybe that's the point—and it is a well-established fact that I don't need clean, tidy endings—but I wanted to leave the book understanding what she experienced, and I didn't, so I felt a little...at odds.
But I'm glad such novels exist. Ones that are willing to look at what happens to a girl's psyche when she becomes a victim. Ones that examine how society itself enables such horrible things to happen. By writing fiction about rape, we take away some of its power, because it can become a thing to write about just like any other topic. It's not exempt and it shouldn't be hidden away without conversation, and novels can bring it into the light.
So while, no, I would never say that novels about rape are a genre I am specifically drawn to, they are novels I will usually read, because sometimes reading—even fiction—can be a form of witnessing.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear, takes a totally different approach than All the Rage. The main character, Hermione Winters, is the only daughter of wealthy parents. She's spending the last week of summer before her senior year at the cheer camp she's gone to since she was 14, but this time she is the captain of her squad. At the party at the end of camp, she is drugged and raped, and the rest of the novel is about her process of dealing with this violent experience that she has very little memory of.
I liked many things about this book. I liked that it challenged my I-don't-like-cheerleaders perspective. I liked that Hermione, even as a popular girl, had to grapple with people's stares, whispers, and assumptions. I liked the friendships and the relationships in the story.
I liked mostly that the author took this approach, started with a girl who wasn't a victim of anything, whose life was really damn fine, and then made her a victim. It changes the dynamic of the usual story somehow. Hermione has a strong support system: involved parents, strong friends, access to mental healthcare. It felt like a story that started with a "what if" question: What if a wealthy, successful teenage girl is raped? What does it do to her life? Does it cause her to lose any of the markers of her success?
What I didn't like is that the answer to the question felt like "no." Hermione changes, of course, as the result of the rape. But she never breaks. She is sad, she is nauseous, she is traumatized; she has a freak-out moment later on in the book, but she never crumbles. It doesn't feel like she ever truly reacts to the rape in a visceral, raw way.
And maybe the point of her non-reaction is that, with the right resources, a rape doesn't have to break you. Or that she was a strong character who refused to be broken. Who took control of her experience and acted the least like a victim that she could.
That is positive, of course.
But for me, it doesn't feel believable. It feels almost...glossy. Yes: many, many people are strong enough to survive a rape and not have it ruin their entire life. No victim needs to be defined as a victim for the rest of her life. But I don't believe there wouldn't be any dramatic choices, or any backlash, or any destruction. Dealing with the outcome, suffering through the backlash and surviving it—what a victim must plunge through during her recuperation—and coming out on the other side as a changed person is where the power of a rape narrative lies.
And it felt to me like Hermione never plunged anywhere. Like she never went through but went around instead.
I read novels about rape not as a voyeur but as a witness. As an act of solidarity and a refusal to let it be a hidden topic. Exit, Pursued by a Bear was an interesting story. A good exploration of "what if." But by making Hermione so strong, the writer made the process invisible. There was almost nothing to witness.