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On Keeping Secrets and the Power of Stories: a guest post by Michele Bacon

woman covers her face with her hands

At 17, I was madly in love with a clever, playful, adorable boy. I loved him fiercely. And—to my utter surprise—he loved me. Together, Michael and I did theater, marching band, and speech team. Over three (mostly) blissful years, we shared everything: our most cherished dreams, our ugliest failures, our triumphs, and our personal insecurities.

I say this not to induce envy (or eye rolling), but to emphasize how serious our relationship was.

About six months after we broke up—when I was 21—I confided in him: I had grown up in an abusive household. Michael was stunned that I’d never told him.

I had never told anyone.

During my parents’ messy divorce, I spoke with the judge, lawyers, and a therapist I adored. My father didn’t like that therapist’s analysis, so we saw another therapist. We were dug into our church at the time, so I spoke with my minister, too.

Those adults were keen to help me, but I never divulged what my father had done to me and to my family. The horrors I experienced, heard, and saw were too embarrassing and shameful. I was broken, and I thought sharing my abuse would taint people’s opinion of me. And, in a way that is now difficult to understand, I was terrified that telling would get me in trouble.

Until a few weeks ago, I had told only three or four friends. But now I’m saying it (to the Internet, no less): I grew up in an abusive household.

Being hurt—physically, psychologically, or emotionally—changes a person.

It made me feel that I was less something than everyone else. I started believing emotionally or physically abusive relationships were okay. That heavy, awful feeling, defined how I viewed my place in the world.

It still does.

Now, let’s be honest, we all have at least one ugly secret that devours us from the inside as we try desperately to conceal it. Perhaps you pretend to not be dyslexic. You don’t talk about your twin who died at birth. You conceal your gender or sexuality. You are poor. You are passing. You’re losing your hearing. You’ve left your religion.

book cover: Life Before. Dirty red sneakers sit in front of a backpackIt doesn’t matter what it is; everyone has something. And we all have the right to keep parts of ourselves private. And I have, for a long time.

Last month, I admitted to a room full of people that I had grown up in abuse, and that my greatest childhood fear was that my father would murder my mother. After I spoke, several women told me, privately, that they had the same secret. Or the same childhood. Or the same fear. Me too echoed around me, and several people said they’d never told a soul.

That is the power of stories: Me too.

Imagine how my life would be different if I’d had that moment at 13. Or 17. Or 19. During my teen years—that amazing intersection of opportunity, energy, and idealism—Me too could have changed my life.

In the last month, I’ve shed the fear that everyone would reject me if I revealed my ugly secret, and I’ve realized that hiding what I perceive as shameful parts of myself doesn’t make them any less a part of me. In the last few weeks, stories have poured from the hearts of readers. They’ve said me too. This shouldn’t have happened to any of us, but it did. For the first time in my life, I am not ashamed. I am done keeping secrets. And I am sharing my story, and the ugly parts of me.

Stories are powerful, and sharing stories makes us stronger. These days, I walk into author talks at schools and libraries knowing someone might ask personal questions. I feel vulnerable, but I’m doing it, and I am encouraging other people to tell the stories they can bear to share. Your story might come at just the right time. Someone who is hiding in the dark shadows of shame may hear “Me too” and step into the light.

 

author photoAbout Michele Bacon 

Michele writes fiction for adults and young adults. She lives in Seattle with her family. Her first novel, Life Before, publishes June 7th, 2016. She loves hearing from readers, fellow writers, and anyone who would like to say #metoo.
You can find her:
Via email at writer(at)michelebacon(dot)com
On Twitter @michelebacon,
On Instagram as WriterMicheleBacon
On Tumblr as michelebacon

 

About Life Before

book cover: Life Before. Dirty red sneakers sit in front of a backpackFor seventeen years, Xander Fife has been keeping secrets. (Almost) no one knows about his abusive father. If he can get through this summer, he’s off to college, where real life finally begins.

What’s more, the summer before college will be amazing: lots of pick-up soccer, long days hanging out with friends, and an epic road trip. Xander also is banking on some long overdue nights with his ideal girlfriend, the amazing Gretchen Taylor.

Instead of kicking off what had promised to be an amazing summer, however, graduation day brings terror. When Xander’s mother is murdered, his family’s secrets are thrust out into the open, and Xander must confront his greatest fear.

Armed with a fake ID, cash, and a knife, Xander skips town and assumes a new identity. Hundreds of miles from home and in danger, one thing is clear: Xander’s real life is already in progress and just getting through it isn’t enough.

 

Take 5: I’m in a Bad Romance, books about abusive relationships

February is not just about romance, it is also a month dedicated to raising awareness about teen dating violence.  One study indicated that 25% of 8th and 9th graders reported that they had been victims of dating violence.  Here are some YA lit titles on the topic to help raise awareness and start discussions.

Bitter End by Jennifer Brown

Publisher’s Annotation: When Alex falls for the charming new boy at school, Cole — a handsome, funny, sports star who adores her — she can’t believe she’s finally found her soul mate . . . someone who truly loves and understands her.

At first, Alex is blissfully happy. Sure, Cole seems a little jealous of her relationship with her close friend Zack, but what guy would want his girlfriend spending all her time with another boy? As the months pass, though, Alex can no longer ignore Cole’s small put-downs, pinches, or increasingly violent threats.

As Alex struggles to come to terms with the sweet boyfriend she fell in love with and the boyfriend whose “love” she no longer recognizes, she is forced to choose — between her “true love” and herself.

Karen’s note: I don’t think you can ever go wrong with Jennifer Brown when it comes to thoughtful contemporary fiction that makes you think about current issues, and this is no exception. 

Dreamland by Sarah Dessen

Publisher’s Annotation: Wake up, Caitlin

Ever since she started going out with Rogerson Biscoe, Caitlin seems to have fallen into a semiconscious dreamland where nothing is quite real. Rogerson is different from anyone Caitlin has ever known. He’s magnetic. He’s compelling. He’s dangerous. Being with him makes Caitlin forget about everything else–her missing sister, her withdrawn mother, her lackluster life. But what happens when being with Rogerson becomes a larger problem than being without him?

Karen’s Thoughts: I am a huge fan of Sarah Dessen and this was the first book by her I read.  It is so well done.  I recently heard Dessen speak and she said that she has received mail from teen readers saying that they wished that she had kept Rogerson and Caitlin together, which is of course disturbing. 

Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn

Publisher’s Annotation: Like father, like son.

Intelligent, popular, handsome, and wealthy, sixteen-year-old Nick Andreas is pretty much perfect — on the outside, at least. What no one knows — not even his best friend — is the terror that Nick faces every time he is alone with his father. Then he and Caitlin fall in love, and Nick thinks his problems are over. Caitlin is the one person who he can confide in. But when things start to spiral out of control, Nick must face the fact that he’s gotten more from his father than green eyes and money.

Karen’s note: This book is not an easy read, but it is an important one.  It really captures the emotions involved in the issues.

Rage: A Love Story by Julie Ann Peters

Publisher’s Annotation: Johanna is steadfast, patient, reliable; the go-to girl, the one everyone can count on. But always being there for others can’t give Johanna everything she needs—it can’t give her Reeve Hartt.

Reeve is fierce, beautiful, wounded, elusive; a flame that draws Johanna’s fluttering moth. Johanna is determined to get her, against all advice, and to help her, against all reason. But love isn’t always reasonable, right?

In the precarious place where attraction and need collide, a teenager experiences the dark side of a first love, and struggles to find her way into a new light 

Karen’s notes: Unfortunately, this is not a title I have read yet, but it appeared on a lot of recommended lists so I am including it.

Falling for You by Lisa Schroeder

Publisher’s Annotation: Rae’s always dreamed of dating a guy like Nathan. He’s nothing like her abusive stepfather—in other words, he’s sweet. But the closer they get, the more Nathan wants of her time, of her love, of her…and the less she wants to give.

As Rae’s affection for Nathan turns to fear, she leans on her friend Leo for support. With Leo, she feels lighter, happier. And possessive Nathan becomes jealous.

Then a tragedy lands Rae in the ICU. Now, hovering between life and death, Rae must find the light amid the darkness…and the strength to fight for life and the love she deserves.

Karen’s notes: You can read my review here

Have more titles to add to our list?  Please leave a comment.  We love book recommendations!

Take 5: Teen Issues, sexual violence in the life of boys

Source: Buzzfeed

When we think about sexual abuse and rape, we often think of women.  But the truth is, boys and men can and do get sexually assaulted.  In fact, while the stats indicate that 1 out of 3 girls will be a victim by the time they are 18, the stats are not much better for boys with 1 out of 5 reporting abuse by the time they are 18.  And we know that stats are often under reported, marginalized or discounted.  Especially for boys because we tend to think that boys are too strong or too big to be victimized.  But sexual assault isn’t always about overpowering someone physically, which can and does happen even with boys, but it is about grooming and building twisted relationships and emotional/psychological power-plays.  This project, referenced on Buzzfeed, demonstrates some of the various threats and statements that have been made to boys from their abusers or when they tried to report their abuse.

Earlier today, I reviewed The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely, a book that looks at the abuse of 3 boys in the Catholic Church.  It is just one of many important titles that help shed a light on this topic.  Although difficult to read, it is important that we do in fact read these books because they help bring that which is hidden in the dark into the light so that victims can know that they are not alone, so that friends and family members can help gain empathy and provide support, and so that we may one day bring this type of abuse to an end because all will understand what it is, how our children are victimized, and recognize the signs.  Knowledge is indeed power.  Here is a list of a few other titles dealing with the topic of sexual abuse in the lives of boys.

When Jeff Comes Home by Catherine Atkins
Publisher’s Annotation: Two years ago, Jeff Hart was kidnapped at knife point. Now his kidnapper is releasing him to return home. But when Jeff finds his family, he feels shell-shocked and unable to tell anyone what happened. He can’t believe that anyone-not even his family or friends-will understand what he went through. Jeff isn’t the same person he was before, and he never will be again. 
 
Karen says: Released in 2001, this was the first book I read that I can recall there being a male victim.  Most sexual abuse cases are not kidnappings by strangers, as depicted here, but it is gut wrenching to read about Jeff’s guilt and confusion. 

Nicholas Dane by Melvin Burgess
Publisher’s Annotation: His most substantial book to date, this compelling story of a teenager caught in a corrupt 1980s Care Home is a powerful study of a particularly highly-charged and distressing subject. Handled with great sensitivity and engrossing narrative drive, it is an important addition to the understanding of how childcare can go so wrong. 
 

 

  Swagger by Carl Deuker
Publisher’s Annotation: When high school senior Jonas moves to Seattle, he is glad to meet Levi, a nice, soft-spoken guy and fellow basketball player. Suspense builds like a slow drumbeat as readers start to smell a rat in Ryan Hartwell, a charismatic basketball coach and sexual predator. When Levi reluctantly tells Jonas that Hartwell abused him, Jonas has to decide whether he should risk his future career to report the coach. Pitch-perfect basketball plays, well-developed characters, and fine storytelling make this psychological sports novel a slam dunk

Boy Toy by Barry Lyga
Publisher’s Annotation: Josh Mendel has a secret. Unfortunately, everyone knows what it is.
Five years ago, Josh’s life changed. Drastically. And everyone in his school, his town—seems like the world—thinks they understand. But they don’t—they can’t. And now, about to graduate from high school, Josh is still trying to sort through the pieces.

 
Heather Booth says: “I think this is a good one because the boy needs to confront and understand the problems with society’s idea of male sexuality before he can admit that he was actually abused by his teacher.”

33 Snowfish by Adam Rapp
Publisher’s Annotation: On the run in a stolen car with a kidnapped baby in tow, Custis, Curl, and Boobie are three young people with deeply troubled pasts and bleak futures. As they struggle to find a new life for themselves, it becomes painfully clear that none of them will ever be able to leave the past behind. Yet for one, redemption is waiting in the unlikeliest of places.  See also Little Chicago by Adam Rapp.

There is also Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, which I discussed here, and Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen and Inexcusable by Chris Lynch, which appears on an earlier list of titles dealing with sexual violence in YA lit.

Robin also wanted me to point out there there is a newer nonfiction title on the topic called Rewind, rebound : a teenage guy’s book for dealing with sexual abuse by Mindy Loiselle.  It was released in 2010.

Here’s the 411:

We’re going to Google Hangout and do a “virtual discussion panel” with authors Carrie Mesrobian (Sex & Violence), Christa Desir (Fault Line) and Trish Doller (Where the Stars Still Shine) on Wednesday, January 29th at Noon Eastern to discuss Sexual Violence in the lives of teens and YA lit.  You can join us for our virtual panel.  We will also be attempting to record it so you can view it later.  Some of the questions we will be discussing include how writers go about making realistic representations to raise awareness and give teen survivors a voice. These are all good books with some good discussion and I recommend reading them.  In fact, read them before January 29th and join us.

More About Sexual Violence in YA Lit on TLT:
What It’s Like for a Girl: How Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama made me think about the politics of sexuality in the life of girls
Sexual Assault Awareness Month, talking to teens about consent and rape part 1 and part 2
Should there be sex in YA books? 
Plan B: What Youth Advocates Need to Know 
Because No Always Mean No, a list of books dealing with sexual assault
Who Will Save You? Boundaries, Rescue and the Role of Adults in YA Lit.  A look at consent and respecting boundaries in relationships outside of just sex. 
Incest, the last taboo 
This is What Consent Looks Like
Street Harassment
That Time Matt Smith Perpetuated Street Harassment Culture at Comic Con
An Anonymous Letter to Those Who Would Ban Eleanor and Park
Take 5: Difficult books on an important topic (sexual violence)   

Because No Always Means No: a list of titles dealing with rape and sexual harassment

April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month. And we had a lot to say about it.  The bottom line, no means no (and silence doesn’t mean yes).  That should be the message – always.  It’s what we need to be teaching all people, both boys and girls, at all ages.  Respecting others is at the heart of ending all violence, including sexual violence.  This type of education begins at birth and continues throughout all of our lives: all people are people and are worthy of respect and safety and to live a life without fear.  I teach my children that they can’t touch others without their consent.  That means any and all touching.  And of course there is always the golden rule; whatever your personal faith may be,  “treat others as you want to be treated” seems like a common sense life principle.  The reciprocal is that others can’t touch them without their consent.  It seems like such an obvious thing, and yet every day people fail at this.  Every day people are assaulted and raped and robbed of their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  It’s not easy to read about it or talk about it, but we have to.  Information – education – is the only way to end sexual violence.  Here are some titles that deal with this subject in various ways.  Read them.  Talk about them.  Develop empathy for the victims.  Speak out against violence and speak up for its victims.

SPEAK – Laurie Halse Anderson

Melinda Sordino busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops. Now her old friends won’t talk to her, and people she doesn’t even know hate her from a distance. The safest place to be is alone, inside her own head. But even that’s not safe. Because there’s something she’s trying not to think about, something about the night of the party that, if she let it in, would blow her carefully constructed disguise to smithereens. And then she would have to speak the truth. This extraordinary novel has captured the hearts of teenagers and adults across the country.  Author Laurie Halse Anderson is a spokeperson for RAINN, you can read more about it here.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT  – Coleen Clayton   


When Sid finds herself on a ski lift with hunky local college guy, Dax Windsor, she’s thrilled. “Come to a party with me,” he tells her, but Dax isn’t what he seems. He takes everything from Sid-including a lock of her perfect red curls-and she can’t remember any of it.

Caught in a downward spiral, Sid drops her college prep classes and takes up residence in the A/V room with only Corey “The Living Stoner” Livingston for company. But as she gets to know Corey–slacker, baker, total dreamboat–Sid finds someone who truly makes her happy. Now, if only she could shake the nightmares, everything would be perfect…

Witty and poignant, Colleen Clayton’s debut is a stunning story of moving on after the unthinkable happens.

THE MOCKINGBIRDS – Daisy Whitney


When Alex wakes up one morning next to a boy from her school, flashes of the night before begin to come to her. She was date raped.  Alex seeks the help of her boarding schools secret justice society – The Mockingbirds – to help get justice for the crime committed against her. Whitney emotionally captures Alex’s journey to seek justice in a world of privilege. Emotionally raw and compelling, this is a great book for discussing the topics of date rape and the concept of justice.

EXPOSED – Kimberley Marcus

In the dim light of the darkroom/I’m alone, but not for long.

As white turns to gray, Kate is with me.

background of the dance studio blurred,

so the focus is all on her–legs extended in a perfect soaring split.

The straight line to my squiggle, my forever-best friend.

Sixteen-year-old Liz is Photogirl—sharp, focused, and confident in what she sees through her camera lens, confident that she and Kate will be best friends forever. But everything changes in one blurry night. Suddenly, Kate is avoiding her and people are looking the other way she passes in the halls. As the aftershocks from a startling accusation rip through Liz’s world, everything she thought she knew about photography, family, friendship, and herself shifts out of focus. What happens when the picture you see no longer makes sense?

LEVERAGE – Joshua C Cohen


Joshua C. Cohen began writing “Leverage” after reading a news account of a horrific attack by a group of high school seniors on their fellow underclassmen. When the victims reluctantly came forward, instead of receiving offers of help, they were ostracized by the surrounding community for sullying the reputation of the school and causing a cancellation of the football season. Joshua’s fascination with that part of human nature–the need to keep quiet when awful things occur and how that leads to victims getting wronged twice–is what started the whole story that eventually led to “Leverage.”

MONSTROUS BEAUTY – Elizabeth Fama


The mermaid Syrenka falls in love with a mortal, a decision that comes with horrific consequences.  In the future, 17-year-old Hester is afraid to fall in love because of a curse that seems to hang over the women in her family.  Although there are mystical elements to this story, there are several disturbing scenes of sexual harassment – and rape – that tie these women together and show what type of treatment many women have had to deal with for centuries.  This beautiful, haunting story led me to write an entire post about the almost casual way some men will harass women and the things that women must endure on a daily basis: What It’s Like for a Girl: How Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama made me think about the politics of sexuality in the life of girls.

RAPE GIRL – Alina Klein

Hey, look. It’s that girl. That rape girl, right?Valerie always wanted to be the smart girl. The pretty girl. The popular girl. But not the rape girl…That’s who she is now. Rape Girl. Because everyone seems to think they know the truth about what happened with Adam that day, and they don’t think Valerie’s telling it.. Before, she had a best friend, a crush, and a close-knit family. After, she has a court case, a support group, and a house full of strangers.. The real truth is, nothing will ever be the same.. Rape Girl is the compelling story of a survivor who does the right thing and suffers for it. It is also the story of a young woman’s struggle to find the strength to fight back.

GOING UNDERGROUND– Susan Vaught

Del’s a good kid, but he became a social outcast when his girlfriend texted him a revealing photo . . . and the police got involved. Now he’s finally met a new girl, but complications threaten to bring his world crashing down again. Will Del be able to overcome his past? This must-read, all-too-believable story features a likeable guy caught in a highly controversial and timely legal scenario.

BREATHING UNDERWATER– Alex Flinn


It was only a slap. Well, maybe more than one. And maybe Nick used his fist at the end when the anger got out of control. But his girlfriend Caitlin deserved it–hadn’t she defied him by singing in the school talent show when he had forbidden her to display herself like that? Even though he’d told her that everybody would laugh at her because she couldn’t sing and was a fat slob? Both were lies. Because Caitlin was so beautiful, the only person who understood him. Out of his desperate need for her came all the mean words and the hitting. But now Caitlin’s family has procured a restraining order to keep Nick away, and the judge has sentenced him to Mario Ortega’s Family Violence class, to sit around every week with six other angry guys who hit their girlfriends. And to write a journal explaining how he got into this mess. In what PW called “a gripping tale,” a 16-year-old, who is considered perfect by his classmates, suffers a turbulent home life with an abusive father, and he himself follows the pattern of violence.

EASY by Tammara Webber

When Jacqueline follows her longtime boyfriend to the college of his choice, the last thing she expects is a breakup two months into sophomore year. After two weeks in shock, she wakes up to her new reality: she’s single, attending a state university instead of a music conservatory, ignored by her former circle of friends, and failing a class for the first time in her life.

Leaving a party alone, Jacqueline is assaulted by her ex’s frat brother. Rescued by a stranger who seems to be in the right place at the right time, she wants nothing more than to forget the attack and that night–but her savior, Lucas, sits on the back row of her econ class, sketching in a notebook and staring at her. Her friends nominate him to be the perfect rebound.

When her attacker turns stalker, Jacqueline has a choice: crumple in defeat or learn to fight back. Lucas remains protective, but he’s hiding secrets of his own. Suddenly appearances are everything, and knowing who to trust is anything but easy.

INEXCUSABLE – Chris Lynch

“I am a good guy. Good guys don’t do bad things. Good guys understand that no means no, and so I could not have done this because I understand.”

Keir Sarafian knows many things about himself. He is a talented football player, a loyal friend, a devoted son and brother. Most of all, he is a good guy.

And yet the love of his life thinks otherwise. Gigi says Keir has done something awful. Something unforgivable.

Keir doesn’t understand. He loves Gigi. He would never do anything to hurt her. So Keir carefully recounts the events leading up to that one fateful night, in order to uncover the truth. Clearly, there has been a mistake.

But what has happened is, indeed, something inexcusable.

THE GOOD BRAIDER– Terry Farrish


Gr 9 Up–The Good Braider follows Viola on a journey from her home in ravaged Sudan to Cairo and finally to the folds of a Sudanese community in Maine. Viola’s story, told in free verse, is difficult to read without a constant lurking sense of both dread and hope. In the opening scene she gazes at the curve of the back of a boy walking the street in front of her, only to view his senseless execution moments later. This tension never completely dissipates, though it takes on different forms throughout her story; by the end it is replaced not by the fear of execution or of the lecherous soldier who forces her to trade herself for her family’s safety, but by the tension of walking the line between her mother’s cultural expectations and the realities of her new country. Yet while Farish so lyrically and poignantly captures Viola’s wrenching experience leaving her home, navigating the waiting game of refugee life, and acculturating into the United States, she’s equally successful in teasing out sweet moments of friendship and universal teenage experiences. Viola’s memorable, affecting voice will go far to help students step outside of their own experience and walk a mile in another’s shoes.

POISON STUDY – Maria V. Snyder  (Fantasy)


Shivers, obsession, sleepless nights—these are the results not of one of the milder poisons that novice food-taster Yelena must learn during her harrowing job training but of newcomer Snyder’s riveting fantasy that unites the intelligent political focus of George R.R. Martin with a subtle yet potent romance. Through a stroke of luck, Yelena escapes execution in exchange for tasting the food of the Commander, ruler of Ixia. Though confined to a dank prison cell and doomed to a painful death, Yelena slowly blooms again, caught up in castle politics. But some people are too impatient to wait for poison to finish off Yelena. With the help of Valek, her steely-nerved, cool-eyed boss and the Commander’s head of security, she soon discovers that she has a starring role to play in Ixia’s future—a role that could lead to her being put to death as a budding magician even if she hits each cue perfectly. Yelena truly has an awful past containing physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, so there are some disturbing flashbacks to that–however, they aren’t gratuitous, and definitely help explain her as a character.

Coming soon:

CANARY – Rachel Alpine  (August 2013)  “almost exactly like the Stuebenville case but basketball”
Kate Franklin’s life changes for the better when her dad lands a job at Beacon Prep, an elite private school with one of the best basketball teams in the state. She begins to date a player on the team and quickly gets caught up in a world of idolatry and entitlement, learning that there are perks to being an athlete.

But those perks also come with a price. Another player takes his power too far and Kate is assaulted at a party. Although she knows she should speak out, her dad’s vehemently against it and so, like a canary sent into a mine to test toxicity levels and protect miners, Kate alone breathes the poisonous secrets to protect her dad and the team. The world that Kate was once welcomed into is now her worst enemy, and she must decide whether to stay silent or expose the corruption, destroying her father’s career and bringing down a town’s heroes.

FORGIVE ME, LEONARDPEACOCK – Matthew Quick 


Today is Leonard Peacock’s birthday. It is also the day he hides a gun in his backpack. Because today is the day he will kill his former best friend, and then himself, with his grandfather’s P-38 pistol.

But first he must say good-bye to the four people who matter most to him: his Humphrey Bogart–obsessed next-door neighbor, Walt; his classmate Baback, a violin virtuoso; Lauren, the Christian homeschooler he has a crush on; and Herr Silverman, who teaches the high school’s class on the Holocaust. Speaking to each in turn, Leonard slowly reveals his secrets as the hours tick by and the moment of truth approaches. (male rape)
List compiled by the Librarians at YALSA-BK and annotated by Sarah Littman.  It is posted here with Ms. Littman’s permission.


More on Sexual Harrasment and Rape on TLT:
Sexual Assault Awareness Month, talking to teens about consent and rape part 1 and part 2
Also, I talk about Teaching Consent at Campus Progress

Edited to add the title Monstrous Beauty, 5/07/13

What It’s Like for a Girl: How Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama made me think about the politics of sexuality in the life of girls

Please note: this post is on a sensitive subject and can have triggering discussions for some.
 
“What have we here?” a cocky teenage voice said.
A group of boys ducked under the short doorframe into the room.  A particularly tall one stared through the open window with his mouth gaping, as if she were an animal in the zoo.
“Good day t’ ye,” Hester said. “I did not see ye at my door, or I should not have carried out such a graceless act.  Would one of ye care to rest yourself?” She motioned to the chair near the door.
A boy with a Boston t-shirt who looked to be about her age pushed his way past the others. He pointed in the direction of the bed. “I’d like to rest myself there, with you.” Machine-gun laughter burst from behind him.” – Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

Monstrous Beauty is the story of an older teen named Hester.  Hester lives in Massachusetts, a place still rich with history and legend and some believe, magic.  Hester is a lover of history with a scientific bent, she does not believe in magic.  A few days after Hester was born, her mother died.  The same thing has happened to every woman in her lineage as far back as they can tell.  This knowledge has made Hester take a vow that she will not allow herself to fall in love so that she is not tempted to marry, bear a child and suffer the same fate as her ancestors.  In an alternating storyline, we hear the story of passionate lovers Syrenka and Ezra.  With each turning page it is clear that their stories intersect in ways that Hester could never have imagined.

While reading Monstrous Beauty, I had a variety of reactions and immediately closed the book upon finishing to write a post about an aspect that I found both true and troubling.  Monstrous Beauty is many things: it is a richly dark gothic tale that slowly peels back the layers of a centuries old mystery and helps our young heroine, Hester, break a family curse.  The building blocks of the story are put together so incredibly well, almost flawlessly.  It is a mastercraft lesson in storytelling.  I give it a 4.5 out of 5 stars.

But there is one aspect of the story that I found deeply troubling: there is some incredibly disturbing sexual brutality, both outright and implied.  In fact, in the first 100 pages Hester is approached and put in sexually threatening situations twice.  Syrenka herself is raped in a moment that becomes the catalyst for our story.  I found this unnerving.  And then I spent some time really thinking about the implications of what life is like for a girl and how it is depicted in Monstrous Beauty.  So let’s take a quick journey through my life, shall we . . .

As a Middle School and High School student, I can vividly recall three separate instances when a fellow male student – whom I did not even know – purposely reached out and grabbed my breast while walking the hallway and changing classes.  I can also recall my best friend’s father once doing the same (and now you know why we were no longer friends – it wasn’t you, it was your dad.)

Twice in high school I went out with friends, with the clear knowledge that we were indeed nothing but friends, and at some point in the evening the drove me to the place called “lover’s lane” where people went to make out.  Nothing happened, but I had found myself in a very unsafe position with someone who was supposed to be my friend.  Because we were alone in the car, I realized that they were in fact in a position of power.

In another scene, Hester goes onto the beach and when it starts raining she runs into a cave for cover and is followed by a fellow student named Joey.
“Stop it, Joey,” she interrupted.  She pushed his upper body away, but he wrapped both arms around her waist and pressed his hips against her. – Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

In college, I went with a group of students to a local cafe to study.  A male friend from the group was driving me when he went past the cafe and drove me down an empty street in the middle of the desert.  This was definitely one of the most terrifying times of my life.  In the end nothing happened, but he had all the power and control in this moment and I had never been so unsafe.  The conversation clearly indicated what his intentions were and I was just lucky that he didn’t have a weapon or chose not to use it.

Then there are all the times when you are simply walking from point A to point B, often in broad daylight, and men say filthy, lecherous things to you.  A couple of months ago a car of men drove by and screamed what they wanted to do to me as I played outside WITH MY CHILDREN.

Just last month I was visiting my dad when I went for a walk.  As I walked I passed a young man waiting at the bus stop, he got up and started to follow me.  At this point in my life I have learned what this life is like for a girl and I had my phone so I called and my people came out of the house to make sure I was safe.  As my family called me back to the house, the man waited a beat and then went back and waited for the bus.  Thankfully, my family was there to keep me safe.  And it was obvious that he was willing to forgo his bus ride for whatever nefarious plans he had upon seeing me.  This is another instance that could have gone much differently then it did, and I was terrified.

I have shared before, but there was even a time when I was continually sexually harassed by a teenage boy that was coming to my programs.  When we met with the boy and his father, the father said I should take it as a compliment.  There was never any acknowldgement of the innapropriateness of his behavior or how he failed to stop after having been told several times to stop.  These are the types of messages that our boys are being given – women should learn to take a compliment and they are ungrateful bitches when they don’t.

Statistics indicate that 1 out of 3 girls/women will be the subject of some type of sexual abuse/victimization – often before they even reach the age of 18.  If you include catcalls, unwanted sexual advances and off color remarks – all girls will.  Unfortunately, I fear that for a lot of teenage girls, Hester’s experience is in fact way too common.

Question: What is rape culture?
When we teach girls how to protect themselves from being raped and don’t spend our time teaching boys a plain and simple truth: It is not okay to rape.  As if the responsibility somehow rests on the victim and not the assailant.

Earlier this week, a Fox News correspondent made the comment on air that women who find themselves the victims of violence “should make better decisions.”  We continue to shift the blame onto women instead of shouting from the rooftops, Hey guys – it’s not okay to 1) touch a woman (another person really) without their explicit consent, 2) there are in fact situations in which a person can not realistically give consent and they include being under the influence and when there is an imbalance of power, to name just a few and 3) you – the aggressor – are ultimately responsible for your actions.  I can’t make you rape me.  Not by wearing the wrong clothes.  Not by walking in the wrong place. Not by saying the wrong things. Not by being in a night club. Not by being your friend, or your girlfriend, or even your wife.  You and you alone make those choices and they are your responsibility to bear.

On Twitter, I follow several people who are very active in a campaign to stop Street Harassment.  Street Harassment occurs when men yell out or whistle to women who are simply walking by.  Often, it is a group of men and these are terrifying situations that can easily escalate.  Again, there is an imbalance of power.  More importantly, women ARE in fact people and they deserve the courtesy and respect of being able to walk down the street without being harrassed, objectified, and intimidated.  (Side note: the objectification of women would constitute a whole other group of posts.)

Questions: What’s the cultural message we send to girls?
You must be thin, beautiful and sexy – but not too sexy or else I will rape you and it will be ALL YOUR FAULT.

As I continued reading Monstrous Beauty, I came to appreciate it for the rich story that it presented, the quality of the writing, and the way that Fama was able to juggle two story lines and weave them together in a way that followed through.  But I also thought, I want people to be reading and discussing this book because we should be talking about the sexual politics of our world and what it is like for a girl.  What happens in the book is unnerving and off putting – and it should be.  That is the power of story, sometimes it holds a mirror up to truth and makes us think about things we prefer to sweep under the rug.  I don’t know of a single female in my life who hasn’t in some way been the victim – multiple times – of some type of sexual harassment, intimidation or abuse.  We can’t still be thinking that is okay in the 21st century.  Thank you Elizabeth Fama for highlighting how little some of the politics of sex have changed since the time when Syrenka lived.

One final note: In the scene I opened this post with Hester is working her job at a Colonial America tourist resort.  Her job is to play a very specific role and remain in character at all times.  When approached by the group of boys in threatening ways, Hester stays in character and takes the opportunity to leave the cottage immediately under the pretense that a neighbor is expecting her to bring eggs.  She gets herself out of Dodge.  I thought this was an incredibly smart way for Hester to handle the situation because had she responded by verbally attacking the group, they more often than not will respond in anger and use it as an excuse to follow through on their threats – and then they will claim that bitch deserved it because she was disrespecting them.  Because somehow they can disrespect and threaten her, but she doesn’t have the right to defend herself.  I believe that this was a very realistic way for Hester to handle the situation and I applaud her intelligence.

Last night on Twitter I asked for help putting together a reading list of YA Titles that discuss sexual intimidation, violence and abuse.  These are some of the titles that were recommended:
What Happens Next by Colleen Clayton
Live Through This by Mindi Scott
Identical by Ellen Hopkins
Pieces of Us by Margie Gelbwasser
The Mockinbirds by Daisy Whitney
Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Schedit
Flawed by Kate Avelynn
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
But I Love Hime by Amanda Grace
Stay by Deb Caletti
Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers
Boy Toy by Barry Lyga
Something Happened by Joseph Heller
Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen
Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
Such a Pretty Girl by Laura Weiss
Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian
The List by Siobhan Vivian
Bitter End by Jennifer Brown
Empty by K M Walton
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott
Exposed by Susan Vaught

I also asked for titles where a girl was put in a compromising sexual position, stood up for herself and the situation was resolved without harm coming to the girl.  The Twitterverse could not come up with very many titles.  This is what they came up with:
Knee Deep by Jolene Perry
Easy by Tammar Webber
Raw Blue by Kristy Eager
13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson

A note about boys: obviously sexual violence can and does happen to boys and it is just as horrific of a crime.

More discussion:
Force: Upsetting the Culture of Rape
Teach “don’t rape” instead of “don’t get raped”
Stop Street Harassment