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In Which I Wrestle with THE WOODS ARE ALWAYS WATCHING by Stephanie Perkins

I am trying to figure out how I felt about The Woods are Always Watching by Stephanie Perkins and I have decided to write about it. Please note, I can’t talk about this book without talking about all of it. So spoilers will abound.

SPOILER ALERTS

TRIGGER WARNING: SEXUAL VIOLENCE WILL BE DISCUSSED

As is often the case for me, fall has become my spooky season. So I went looking for horror to read and, knowing that it’s about to be a Netflix movie, I started with There’s Someone Inside Your House. It was entertaining enough, so I went ahead and read Perkins newest YA thriller, The Woods are Always Watching. And I had a very strong negative emotional reaction to it, which I have been trying to process ever since. As someone who has reviewed books professionally for more than 20 years, I have had a hard time articulating my thoughts on this book. Today, however, I am going to try.

The premise is this: two friends have just graduated and are going on a camping trip in the mountains before separating for college. While in the woods they are pursued by madmen.

The book begins with these two girls who are supposed to have been best friends bitching at one another in the ways that toxic friends do. They have a list of unspoken grievances that come up and they use their words and the past to sling arrows at one another in the ways that far too many of us do. From the get go, this trip seems like a bad idea, but they persist and into the Appalachian mountains they go with a map, an inhaler, and very little experience among them to take a trip of this nature.

Then, one of the girls falls into a hole that is clearly meant to be a trap – but for what – or who? So they separate and the other one must try and make her way back to get help. She runs into a man who she at first thinks is going to help her and slowly she realizes that he is not, in fact, going to help her. There are things about this moment that I like: She has an instinct and trusts it, and her instinct is proven right. This part is a powerful moment.

Meanwhile, back at the hole, a man appears and at first the girl in the hole thinks he is going to rescue her, but he is not. This is where our first instance of sexual violence occurs as the man masturbates while the girl is stranded in the hole, clearly aroused by the peril he has put her in. And the girl, rightly, has a very negative and visceral reaction to this and talks about consent. She spends quite a lot of time in this hole, though she will eventually make her way out of it and attack this man.

Over time it becomes clear that the two men are working together and have a history of finding people in the woods and, of course, they kill the guys and rape the girls. Is this a thing that happens in real life? Yes, though not as often as you might think. You are far more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone you know and trust than you are by a stranger. But also, is it necessary to this story that we include sexual violence? I would argue no, it is not. Outside of the scene with the masturbation, there is no other sexual assault on the page, but there are some very real moments where sexual violence becomes a plot device. These girls are not just in peril, they are in peril from people who they know have a history of sexual violence who are going to do sexual violence against them. I would argue that it wasn’t necessary to this story and it falls into the realm of including sexual violence for plot or character development for the sake of plot or character development, but not adding anything meaningful to the discourse on this topic. It uses sexual violence to motivate in a story in which is wasn’t necessary to drive the plot forward, which happens a lot.

As a person who like to read mystery thrillers, I have thought about the above point a lot. I do not like the inclusions of sexual violence for entertainment, and yet I enjoy reading murder mysteries and thrillers. One of the things that I like about mystery and thrillers is that in the end, you get a sense of justice that you don’t often get in the real world. So I like the process of following the clues and solving the murder, but I also like the sense of justice you get at the end. But I wondered as I read this, why is it okay to use any type of violence or murder as a plot point and yet we push back when the same is done with sexual violence? It’s an interesting question to ponder, but I have drawn for myself a line in the sand that I am done with narratives that use sexual violence as plot or character backstory in ways that are necessary, titillating, or don’t help move the needle in our global conversations about sexual violence. Rape culture is real and the victims of sexual violence almost never get the justice that they deserve and I believe that this point makes a profound difference in how we evaluate narratives that include sexual violence.

At times, I feel like Stephanie Perkins is trying to write a feminist novel that talks about sexual violence in the lives of women. It can and has been done. I feel, however, that ultimately Perkins fails on her delivery here for a couple of reasons. One, the story did not need for the topic to be sexual violence for this story to work. Madmen in the woods pursuing these women could have just been madmen, the sexual violence part was not necessary or handled in a way that made it meaningful in my opinion.

The other way in which I think Perkins fails is this: the girls are ultimately saved by a bear. At one point, the girls rally and they determine they are going to save themselves. Yes, you think! Some female empowerment is happening here. This is a moment I can get behind. And yet, right as they are about to rescue themselves, they are saved by a bear. Is the bear somehow the spirit of the forest or the spirit of justice or the spirit of all the women that have been victims before to come save these two girls? Why does the bear attack the men and not the girls? In the end, I don’t think that I care because the girls, on the verge of saving themselves, have that moment stolen from them by a deus ex machina. As a reader, you want to cheer for these women who have saved themselves from this impending sexual violence that has chased them throughout this story and then you are robbed of that moment of victory.

As the two girls walk away, they talk about how they are forever scarred – both emotionally and literally, as one girl has lost a hand in the course of our story – and how they are forever bonded by their trauma. So these two girls who began are story fighting in stereotypical female ways and were set to go their own way because they felt that their friendship had run its course are now permanently scarred and bonded in trauma caused by two men. Would they have resolved their relationship on their own in fairly normal ways? Perhaps, but we’ll never know. Because now they are forever and always bonded by their trauma.

Another point that really bothered me was the depiction of the two men themselves. The men are stereotypical ignorant, meth head hillbillies from Appalachia who rape and kill. There are not a lot of depictions of people from Appalachia in YA, so it’s unfortunate that one of the few we have gotten recently includes this stereotype. I’m from Ohio and don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of these types of men to go around, but we get so little discussion and depiction of Appalachians in YA that this is not the representation the region needs. Thankfully, the new book In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner has some recent representation of Appalachia as well and he manages to balance some hard truths of the region with great characters and hope.

I have had some behind the scenes discussions with people about this book as I wrestled with what I thought and felt about reading it. I think I understand the attempt, but would argue that in many ways, the author fails to fully reach that intent. At points I felt that the sexual violence was included in a way similar to how men often use sexual violence in their thrillers; it seemed irrelevant and unnecessary. And in the moments when I thought oh I got it, this is a feminist take on this topic, those moments were deflated by some later story developments, including a bear and an ending discussion about trauma bonding. And I just felt the mention that the perpetrators were Appalachian men was unfortunate, because they just could have been any man from anywhere because there are far too many men like this out there in the world and the people of Appalachia get so little healthy representation in YA literature. I’m sorry to say that there was nothing new or meaningful that made this story much different from any other story about women being pursued by men who want to commit sexual violence against them. The fictions shelves, our tv screens and the big screen are littered with stories like these; women are always being pursued by those who want to commit sexual violence against them for the sake of a “thrill”. There was nothing in this narrative that made me think yes, we need another story like this because this one moves the needle or changes the discussion in any meaningful way.

Am I right about my thoughts on this book? I honestly don’t know. I do know that at the end of the day, this isn’t a book I would personally recommend to my teens wanting thrillers and I wouldn’t want to recommend it to my teens asking for books that handle the topic of sexual violence, because there are books that are better both out there for teens. As a survivor of sexual violence, I personally struggled with this book not because I believe books should never talk about sexual violence, because they should and they can do it well, but because I just didn’t think that this book contributed to those discussions in any meaningful way and at times it was, perhaps, harmful to those discussions.

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