Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

The Bad Man With the Nice Smile, a guest post by Victoria Lee

Content warning: discussion of sexual assault, rape, child abuse, and gaslighting.

In September 2019, Netflix released a new miniseries, Unbelievable. The show followed the true story of a young girl who claimed a stranger broke into her house at night and raped her. But when she reports what happened to the police, parts of her story don’t seem to match up. As the series unfolds, we become aware of all the ways the system—but also the girl’s friends and family—have become biased against her. She’s a resident in a group home, a former delinquent, a foster child with a history of acting out, who had made accusations of abuse before. Everyone seems to assume that she is lying for attention.

As you might have predicted by now, she wasn’t lying. But by the time her attacker was caught and brought to justice, the damage was done; the girl had already been abandoned by everyone she should have been able to trust, just because she didn’t match the vision of what a “real” victim looked like in their heads.

The idea of real victims is a pervasive and pernicious one. Turn on the news and you’ll hear a litany of all the things that real victims do: they wear the right clothes, they don’t go out at night, they report the crime to the police and they don’t wait to do it, they have never made these kinds of allegations before. We are told these things even though victims cannot control the behavior of their aggressors, even though being in foster care or having mental illness or having been previously victimized all substantially increase your likelihood of experiencing future violence. Even though externalizing behaviors like drug use and acting out are often symptoms of having survived abuse.

As a child, I was sexually abused for four years, from ages twelve to sixteen. The perpetrator—although maybe I should say the molester or the rapist or the abuser, all of which are less sanitized and therefore strike me as more accurate—was a close friend of the family. He was my neighbor, my triathlon coach, a man so enmeshed in our lives that I described him to other people as my uncle because any lesser word seemed inadequate to describe the relationship he had with my family. He was in his early thirties and looked like Orlando Bloom and every single one of my friends who came over to the house commented on how ungodly hot he was.

When I was thirteen, I even wrote a character in one of my stories to look just like Brian. (We will call him Brian, because that is, in fact, his actual name. F you, Brian.) The character was the love interest, and was also the protagonist’s teacher. As you can see, already I knew that my job as victim was to romanticize such things. That was the only way to survive.

Brian was not a man in the bushes, was not unshaven in a stained wifebeater; he had no substance abuse problems that I was aware of; he was just a guy. A tall, athletic, well-educated, charismatic, attractive guy. Kids loved him, and he loved kids. Me, on the other hand…I couldn’t be a victim.

I was not what a victim looked like. I was a problem child. I spent too much time on the internet, and listened to angry music, and skipped class and stole my parents’ credit card and shoplifted and screamed at teachers and once threatened to kill a boy who touched me wrong. I was the girl that other girls weren’t allowed to be friends with. I was the girl they prayed for at night. I was the girl who wore boys’ clothes, all black, and kissed other girls and insisted it wasn’t a phase.

Therefore, I was not believed. Not by my family, not by my therapist. I was believed by the crisis team that was called in to evaluate me when the staff at the psychiatric hospital I was later admitted to following a suicide attempt suspected abuse. But at that point the damage was done—I swore to the crisis team that nothing had happened, their suspicions were unfounded, anything I had to say to keep the past buried. I couldn’t deal with being told, once again, that I wasn’t a victim.

Eventually, other girls came forward about my abuser, and he was charged by the state, and ultimately convicted. But this isn’t the kind of trauma you move past. Not just the trauma of the abuse, but the trauma of being told you’re too villainous to ever be victim.

This is why I wrote The Fever King and The Electric Heir. In the series, Dara and Noam both experience abuse in different ways. Dara was physically and sexually abused by a father figure, whereas Noam became enmeshed in an unhealthy, manipulative, exploitative relationship with a much older and much more powerful mentor figure. Both characters are, ultimately, abused by the same man, but their experiences of that abuse are different. The books follow how each character comes to terms with what happened to him, and begins the process of healing. Their abuser, like mine, was charismatic and respected and good-looking—he wasn’t the rapist hiding in the bushes or the drunk frat bro, he was a pillar of the community. When people look for the bad guy, they aren’t looking for Brian. They aren’t looking for Calix Lehrer.

That’s why it was so important to me to write about abusers who don’t fit our vivid stereotype of what an abuser ought to look like—that makes it more difficult to recognize abusers in the real world. And equally so, not all victim/survivors fit the same mold. Some survivors withdraw from the world and become quiet and nervous and fear sex. Other survivors lash out, angry, furious, willing to burn down anything that tries to hurt them again. And still others seem oddly unbothered by what happened to them, numb to the pain or burying it so deep they no longer feel it anymore.

All of these reactions—and others—are okay. The only “right” way to respond to trauma is the way that helps you survive.

I don’t think that good and varied representation of victim/survivors and abusers in literature is a panacea. Abusers are very skilled, after all, at gaslighting their victims (and everyone else). But wide representation of survivors and perpetrators is one step toward chipping away their power and undermining the stories they try to tell about villains and victims and heroes.

Meet Victoria Lee

Victoria Lee grew up in Durham, North Carolina, where she spent twelve ascetic years as a vegetarian before discovering that spicy chicken wings are, in fact, a delicacy. She’s been a state finalist competitive pianist, a hitchhiker, a pizza connoisseur, an EMT, an expat in China and Sweden, and a science doctoral student. She’s also a bit of a snob about fancy whiskey. Lee writes early in the morning and then spends the rest of the day trying to impress her border collie puppy and make her experiments work. She currently lives in Pennsylvania with her partner.

www.victorialeewrites.com Facebook: @victorialeewrites, @amazonpublishing Instagram: @sosaidvictoria, @amazonpublishing, Twitter: @sosaidvictoria, @amazonpub

About The Electric Heir by Victoria Lee

In the sequel to The Fever King, Noam Álvaro seeks to end tyranny before he becomes a tyrant himself.

Six months after Noam Álvaro helped overthrow the despotic government of Carolinia, the Atlantians have gained citizenship, and Lehrer is chancellor. But despite Lehrer’s image as a progressive humanitarian leader, Noam has finally remembered the truth that Lehrer forced him to forget—that Lehrer is responsible for the deadly magic infection that ravaged Carolinia.

Now that Noam remembers the full extent of Lehrer’s crimes, he’s determined to use his influence with Lehrer to bring him down for good. If Lehrer realizes Noam has evaded his control—and that Noam is plotting against him—Noam’s dead. So he must keep playing the role of Lehrer’s protégé until he can steal enough vaccine to stop the virus.

Meanwhile Dara Shirazi returns to Carolinia, his magic stripped by the same vaccine that saved his life. But Dara’s attempts to ally himself with Noam prove that their methods for defeating Lehrer are violently misaligned. Dara fears Noam has only gotten himself more deeply entangled in Lehrer’s web. Sooner or later, playing double agent might cost Noam his life.

ISBN-13: 9781542005074
Publisher: Amazon Publishing
Publication date: 03/17/2020
Series: Feverwake Series #2

Ages 14-17

YA A to Z: Gaslighting, a guest post by author Anna Hecker

Today as part of the YA A to Z series, TLT is honored to have author Anna Hecker here discussing with us the topic of gaslighting.

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TRIGGER WARNING: This article discusses emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, including rape.

In the 1944 classic film Gaslight, a handsome pianist convinces his young wife to move back to the London townhouse she abandoned after her aunt was murdered there. There, he embarks on a systematic campaign to drive her insane.

Although she seems perfectly healthy he rarely lets her leave the house or have visitors, claiming her fragile health can’t handle it. When he calls her forgetful she protests, but then she begins “losing” small objects—and starts to feel like she’s losing her mind.

Slowly, her husband’s tactics begin to work. She questions her own judgment. She thinks she’s seeing and hearing things. In her isolated state, believing she can’t trust her own instincts, she increasingly comes to see her husband as the one pillar of sanity in her crumbling world.

It’s from this famous film that we derive the term “gaslighting.” In its simplest form, it means manipulating the truth to make someone feel like they’re going crazy. It’s a favorite tactic of sociopaths, cult leaders, and politicians; in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” who doesn’t feel like they’re being systematically driven crazy sometimes?

How to Know If You’re a Victim of Gaslighting | Psychology Today

Popular gaslighting tactics include:

  • Blatant lying, even in the face of evidence. (“I didn’t have my arm around that girl. That Instagram must have been Photoshopped.”)
  • Denying or contradicting things they’ve said or done. (“I never said I’d take you out for your birthday.”)
  • Twisting their victim’s words to have unintended meanings. (“You said you’d support me no matter what, but now you won’t even loan me twenty bucks?”)
  • Claiming their victim is unstable, over-sensitive, or mentally ill. (“You don’t believe me? You have serious trust issues.”)
  • Blaming their victim for their own behavior (“If you weren’t so controlling I wouldn’t have to sneak around.”)
  • Withholding information. (“I can’t even talk about this when you’re being so irrational.”)
  • Enlisting others to help destabilize their victim. (“My friends all think you’re crazy, too.”)

Of particular relevance to teen readers, gaslighting is common within abusive relationships. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1 in 3 college women have been in an abusive dating relationship, and 1 in 10 high school students has experienced physical violence from a dating partner in the past year. While gaslighting and physical or emotional abuse don’t always go hand-in-hand, they can be a key part of why teens choose to stay in abusive relationships. When they’re told often enough that they’re over-reacting, that they deserve to be mistreated, or simply that what happened didn’t really happen, they begin to question their sanity. In a world where facts aren’t facts and reality isn’t reality, they turn to their abusive partner for stability—just like Ingrid Bergman’s character in Gaslight.

Rookie » Let’s Talk About Gaslighting

It’s important for teens experiencing gaslighting to know they aren’t alone…and they aren’t crazy. Fortunately, a new crop of teen and middle-grade books is confronting gaslighting in unique and brave new ways=. Here are a few to add to your shelves:

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ALWAYS FOREVER MAYBE  by Anica Mrose Rissi

What it is: A YA contemporary about a storybook romance gone wrong

Who it can help: Young people in manipulative, abusive relationships

This chilling tale of a storybook romance gone wrong rings all too true because of the slow, insidious way in which the gaslighting takes place. When Betts meets older, alluring Aiden, it’s love at first sight. But things quickly go south. He makes her question her own perceptions and memories and worries out loud that she’ll hurt him…even as he’s hurting her more every day.

This story will ring true for anyone who’s been in an abusive relationship. It’s a perfect way to start a conversation, and the list of resources at the end will hopefully help those in dangerous situations take steps toward finding a way out.

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WHEN THE BEAT DROPS By Anna Hecker

What it is: A YA contemporary about love, music, friendship, and finding your beat

Who it can help: People who rely on their romantic relationship for more than love

In my debut novel, WHEN THE BEAT DROPS, 17-year-old Mira’s seemingly wonderful new boyfriend gaslights her into ignoring some of his less-than-savory activities. Because he’s also her manager, her career as a DJ is tied up their relationship—an advantage he deliberately presses.

All too frequently, victims of domestic abuse have more at stake than just their relationship. They may depend on their partner for social status, transportation, tutoring, financial help, or even (ironically) as a way to escape an abusive home life. Realistically, those relying on their relationship for outside needs may need help finding a new way to meet those needs before they can be persuaded to leave.

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BLOOD WATER PAINT By Joy McCullough

What it is: Historical YA fiction based on the true story of the iconic painter, Artemisia Gentileschi

Who it can help: Teens experiencing gaslighting or abuse from an authority figure

At seventeen, Artemisia is one of Rome’s most talented painters. But when her painting teacher rapes her, everything turns upside down. As he tries to convince her it was consensual, she finds herself questioning everything about her world—and a woman’s place in it. Told primarily in verse, this powerful tale of rape and redemption is the perfect jumping-off point for discussions about sexual and emotional abuse by authority figures. The verse format may also appeal to reluctant readers.

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BURRO HILLS By Julia Lynn Rubin

What it is: Gritty LGBTQ YA contemporary about a teen discovering his homosexuality in a dead-end town

Who it can help: Teens experiencing gaslighting and bullying by friends

Jack Burns is a resident—though oftentimes he feels like an inmate—of desert town of Burro Hills. Growing up surrounded by the broken dreams of his parents, Jack wonders if he will ever just get out. Get out of dealing drugs. Get out of poverty. Get away from the suffocating masculinity in high school boys. And get out of his own head.

All that changes when Connor comes along, captivating Jack and challenging him to find escape in new ways. But Jack’s old friends don’t want to let him go so easily: and they’re willing to lie, threaten, and manipulate to keep the status quo. A double-whammy for teens exploring their sexuality or feeling gaslit by friends, this is a stark look at toxic masculinity and the damage it can cause.

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THE LAND OF YESTERDAY By K.A. Reynolds

What it is: A MG fantasy in which a young girl travels to a magical land to save her family

Who it can help: Middle-grade readers who may be experiencing gaslighting but are unable to articulate it

The gaslighting in this middle-grade fantasy is unique because it’s being perpetrated by… a house?! When Cecelia Dahl’s little brother, Celadon, dies tragically, his soul goes where all souls go: The Land of Yesterday. When Cecelia’s mother leaves to go after her ghost-brother, Cecelia’s house, which has a soul, uses guilt, manipulation, and fear to force Cecelia into an ultimatum: embark on a journey to the deadly Land of Yesterday to bring back her mother, or have the house hurt Cecelia and her family even more than she could imagine.

While it’s painful to think of middle schoolers as victims of gaslighting and emotional abuse, it’s also an unfortunate reality. This whimsical novel can help articulate the meaning of gaslighting to young readers.

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THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS By Ann Braden

What it is: A MG contemporary exploring issues of class, gun control, and emotional abuse

Who it can help: Middle-grade readers who may be experiencing gaslighting or abuse by an authority figure

Seventh-grader Zoey doesn’t want to join the debate club. She just wants to stay under the radar: taking care of her younger siblings while her mom works, hanging out with her friend Fuschia, avoiding the rich kids in her school, and doing what it takes to stay in her mother’s boyfriend’s good graces so they can keep living in his nice, clean trailer.

But joining the debate club forces her to confront the truth about Fuschia’s situation, her mom’s relationship, and her own place in the world. A poignant and relatable read for middle graders who are afraid of speaking out for fear of not fitting in, it explores gaslighting by authority figures in a fresh (and, frankly, heartbreaking) way.

About Anna Hecker

Anna_Hecker_HeadshotΓÇöSmall copy

Anna Hecker grew up at the dead end of a dirt road in Vermont. She holds an MFA from The New School and spent a decade writing ad copy and chasing beats before returning to fiction, her first love. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, son, and fluffy bundle of glamour, Cat Benatar.

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Website: annahecker.com

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