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Misrepresentations of Violence in Julie Anne Peters’ Rage: A Love Story, a guest post by Megan Honig

by Megan Honig (@vongmeggz)

rage coverRelationship violence—sexual, physical, and/or emotional—among LGBTQ young people is underdiscussed and, unsurprisingly, underrepresented in teen literature. Because there are so few books depicting LGBTQ relationship violence, Julie Anne Peters’ Rage: A Love Story, a book about two teen girls who enter into a violent, unhealthy relationship, is still notable six years after its publication.

Unfortunately, the picture Rage paints of a lesbian abusive relationship is distorted and incoherent. Characters are built around two recognizable tropes—abusers hit; survivors stay—but these tropes are divorced from a broader understanding of how abuse functions in intimate relationships. The result is that a book that aims to depict domestic violence in a lesbian relationship actually mischaracterizes and conceals violent behaviors.

The central relationship in Rage is between Reeve and Johanna. Judging by reviews, it is most often read as a story where Reeve is an abuser and Johanna her target. It is easy to read the book this way because tropes about domestic violence point uncomplicatedly to Reeve as a perpetrator and Johanna as a survivor. “What’s wrong with me,” Johanna asks early on, talking about her stressful workplace, “that I stay and no one else does?” Later, bearing a visible mark from having been hit, Johanna covers up the truth with a classic lie: “I fell down the stairs.” These sound like popular understandings of what intimate partner violence looks like. But when read carefully, the story becomes much murkier.

When Rage opens, Johanna knows Reeve only from a distance. She fantasizes about Reeve in segments called “Joyland,” imagining the two of them together in a variety of passionate sexual and romantic scenarios. The two finally meet when Johanna is assigned to tutor Reeve’s brother Robbie.

Reeve initially wants nothing to do with Johanna, but Johanna persists in trying to get closer. Johanna follows Reeve home one day and witnesses intense family violence. Later, after Reeve has explicitly told her “Don’t follow me!” and “I don’t want you coming to my house. Ever. Again,” Johanna goes back to her house.

Reeve, meanwhile, hits, bites, and shoves people at the slightest provocation. If Johanna has any reaction to seeing Reeve hurt others, it isn’t conveyed. There is, in fact, jarringly little reflection or contexualization overall. Johanna does react to Reeve’s family situation, but only by vowing to help her out of it—in direct contradiction to Reeve’s stated wishes.

Johanna slowly insinuates her way further into Reeve’s life until, midway through the book, we reach the pivotal scene that leaves Johanna with a black eye. For a date, Reeve goes to Johanna’s house and Johanna cooks dinner. Early in the evening, Reeve gets frustrated and decides to leave. Johanna grabs Reeve’s wrist to stop her. To get away, Reeve punches Johanna in the face.

This is the scene that is meant to position Johanna as the survivor. Afterwards, we see her bearing the mark of having been hit—a classic symbol of physical abuse. But in fact, Johanna is the one who has engaged in violent and threatening behaviors: stalking, violating explicitly stated boundaries, and finally, attempting to physically control Reeve by grabbing her. Reeve’s hitting, in this moment, is not an act of abuse but an act of self-defense.

Later, Reeve’s behavior aligns more with typical acts of relationship violence. She comes to Johanna’s workplace and sabotages Johanna’s job. She manipulates Johanna into spending her already limited funds on Reeve. And, yes, she hits and bites and hits again. But the story remains, at its core, troubling. A book that claims to depict relationship violence between two lesbian teens encourages Reeve’s act of physical self-defense to be read as violence while letting Johanna’s acts of stalking and physical aggression pass without comment.

Two popular misconceptions about abusive relationships are at play here. One is the myth that leaving an abusive relationship is easy, a sentiment often expressed with the handwringing lament, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” To stay, according to the logic of this myth, is to choose—freely, deliberately, and perversely—to be abused. But abusive relationships are often very difficult to leave. Survivors stay not because they want to be abused but because they are being manipulated.

This dynamic is well illustrated through a different relationship of Johanna’s. Johanna’s friend Novak, who has a boyfriend, nevertheless flirts with Johanna and deliberately uses Johanna’s attraction to Novak to manipulate Johanna into giving her time, energy, and living space against her better judgment. Every time we see Johanna on the brink of saying no to Novak, Novak touches Johanna deliberately, playing on Johanna’s romantic and sexual desires with the intention—and effect—of making it hard for Johanna to deny her requests.

Johanna’s persistence with Reeve is also informed by her romantic and sexual desires. Johanna’s role with Reeve, however, is very different and much more sinister. Unlike Novak, Reeve isn’t manipulating Johanna—she’s telling Johanna very clearly to leave her alone. We are told early on that Johanna is “the one who stays” but when she follows Reeve home repeatedly, against Reeve’s wishes, Johanna isn’t staying—she’s stalking.

The second myth at play here is that abusers are easy to identify. According to this myth, the only abusive relationships that exist are ones where the abuse is immediately obvious to onlookers. Abusers, by this logic, are monsters; anyone who appears kind, well-intentioned, or in any way sympathetic could not commit abuse.

The reality, however, is that abusers are often outwardly charismatic and commit violence only in secret. Abusers leverage the myth that abusers are monsters by insisting that a committed activist, or a valuable community member, or a compelling artist couldn’t be capable of abuse. One look at current events tells us that this is a chillingly effective strategy.

In Rage, Reeve reads as an abuser because her violence is exaggeratedly apparent. She hurts people constantly and blatantly, in scenes that are, when read carefully, difficult to make sense of. Consider the passage in which Johanna sees Reeve kissing another girl:

Britt was moaning and breathing hard, and then she went, “Ow!

“You bit me!” Britt said.

“Did I?”

“I’m bleeding. You did that on purpose,” Britt whimpered. “Why’d you do that? I never did anything to you.”

Reeve said, “You asked for it.”

Britt crumpled to the ground and started to cry.

Why does Reeve bite Britt? Is it an act of sexual aggression, as Reeve’s “you asked for it” seems to imply? Of anger or revenge, as Britt’s “I never did anything to you” seems to indicate? The text offers no explanation. The scene feels, more than anything, like an incoherent collection of tropes about relationship violence, and one can only draw the circular conclusion that Reeve hurts people because she is an abuser, and an abuser is a kind of person who hurts people.

The assumptions around which the central characters are created are rooted in these two myths: that abusers irrationally hurt people and that survivors irrationally stay in abusive situations. The result is both incoherence—Reeve’s strange and chaotic hitting—and masking of violence—Johanna’s stalking, portrayed as victimhood.

From her author bio, it seems as if Peters may not have intended to depict a relationship where one partner abused the other. The jacket flap tells us,

The spark for Rage was ignited via a “why don’t you write a story about…” request from a devoted teen reader in an abusive relationship. After firmly and repeatedly turning down the inquiry, Ms. Peters began to feel drawn to the challenge of portraying a relationship in which neither party was wholly victim or villain…”

Maybe Peters recognizes that Johanna too behaves violently, and maybe her intention as an author is to create a situation where both parties are equally at fault. The problem with that approach, however, is that the idea of “mutual abuse” in LGBTQ relationships is another dangerous myth. A partner who acts out physically in response to another party’s violent behavior is not equally at fault. But it is common for an abusive partner to convince a survivor she is at fault, or to convince authority figures or service providers that she—the abuser—is “the real victim.” This is particularly a problem in same-gender relationships because of prevailing myths about gender. If you believe that men can’t really be targets of abuse, or that women can’t really perpetrate abuse, than “mutual abuse” becomes an easy—but false—explanation for whatever violence has occurred.

There are a few things Rage does well. One is to illustrate the challenge of being a young lesbian in a town where possible partners seem scarce, a situation that surely has an impact on Johanna’s persistent attitude toward Reeve. Another is to depict a teen character for whom finances are a consistent stressor and concern—another situation that is chronically underrepresented in teen fiction. But overall, Rage fails more than supports its teen audience. Many people enter into their first romantic or sexual relationships in adolescence, and teens—especially LGBTQ teens—need tools to help them navigate these often complicated and emotionally intense waters. Rage does not provide such tools; in fact, it makes some kinds of relationship violence harder to perceive.

Rage stands out not because it is a book that addresses violence in lesbian relationships well but because it is one of the few teen books to address this subject at all. As representation of LGBTQ characters grows in teen publishing, I hope that this subject too will receive broader and more thoughtful treatment. Teen readers need it.


Meet Megan Honig

WIN_20150504_134259Megan Honig is a writer and editor and the former Young Adult Collections Specialist for the New York Public Library. She is the author of Urban Grit: A Guide to Street Lit, published by Libraries Unlimited, as well as the popular 30 Days of Street Lit blog series. Find her on Twitter at @vonmeggz

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