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#SVYALit Project: Bone Gap and Survivor Stories, a guest post by author Laura Ruby

One of the best books I have read in 2015 is the upcoming Bone Gap by Laura Ruby. It is a stunning and haunting look at a world where you can easily fall between the gaps. If hard pressed to come up with a if you like, I would say that this is reminiscent of the very best of Ray Bradbury, think Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Today I am honored to have Laura Ruby here guest posting for The #SVYALit Project about Survivor Stories.

I had numerous beta readers for my YA novel BONE GAP—some for their expertise on horses and farms, some for their expertise on myth and language, others simply because they know a good story when they read one and they’d tell me where mine needed work. Out of the dozen-plus people who read this book pre-pub, only one person asked a question that I still can’t get out of my head. Clearly my character Roza is a victim of some sort of sexual violence, he said, but the details are somewhat mysterious. What exactly happened to her?

Well, I told him, Roza didn’t exactly share the specifics with me.

Yeah, okay, maybe this is snotty answer to a perfectly reasonable question from a thoughtful person. And maybe my answer is also a little bit bananas; I wrote Roza’s story, how could she—a figment of my imagination!—choose to keep the gory details of something so terrible entirely to herself?  And wouldn’t it be better for readers to get the whole story in all its humiliating, awful detail?  Don’t we need it to understand her?

What exactly happened?

What exactly?

The idea we are somehow owed the stories of victims of sexual violence is pervasive, and to my mind, rather astonishing, considering our burning hostility toward such victims, our collective tendency toward creepy voyeurism. In one of the more bizarre book reviews I’ve ever read, a reviewer claimed she threw Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist across the room because Gay summed up her own gang rape at the age of twelve like this:

“They kept me there for hours. It was as bad as you might expect.”

The reviewer argues that the details of Gay’s rape are necessary, “Not because I think we need another graphic, sensational account of violence, we need a graphic, realistic account of violence that proves it needs to be taken seriously and stopped.”

And yet, graphic, realistic accounts of sexual violence are everywhere and we still don’t take them seriously. Even photographs and videos don’t stand as proof; we use the evidence to pick apart the stories, to explain away the violence, to discount and dismiss. To blame the victim who got in the car went to the dorm room went to the frat house went to the party went on the date went to the woods with someone she loved.

Even love is used against victims. Even that.

Underneath the belief that we’re owed victims’ stories is the more insidious belief that what the victim really owes us is her/his/their pain. That because you’ve been violated, you must put words to that violation, and through the telling suffer again and again for some greater societal good, or simply to satisfy our morbid curiosity — “OMG, did you hear about…?!”

After the Bad Feminist review appeared, Ms. Gay was moved to write her story in the graphic detail the reviewer had demanded.

I read the whole account with my hand over my mouth.

It was exactly as bad as I expected.

I support rape victims who come forward and bravely recount their stories, as Gay did.  And I support rape victims who choose not to. I’m not a cop or a lawyer, I will not be investigating or prosecuting any cases. I am not owed this kind of confidence. And we, as a culture, haven’t earned this kind of trust. Too often we prove ourselves entirely unworthy of it.

Gay says: “We don’t know how to hear stories about any kind of violence, because it is hard to accept that these things are complicated, that you can love someone who hurts you, that you can stay with someone who hurts you, that you can be hurt by someone who loves you, that you can be hurt by a complete stranger, that you can be hurt.”

In BONE GAP, I didn’t write about the specifics of Roza’s sexual violation because I was more interested in the toll that violation took on her: the all-encompassing shame that sapped her strength and her will, the horror at the string of sociopaths who somehow sensed the nature of her wound and reveled in it, the sheer terror she felt when she finally stumbled into a person she might be able to trust.  Mostly, though, I wanted to write about her refusal to be defined by what was done to her.

If it’s remotely appropriate to ask victims of sexual violence anything, let’s instead ask how the violence affected them, how they have coped since, how we can help.

What exactly happened is that they survived.

Meet our Guest Blogger

Raised in the wilds of suburban New Jersey, Laura Ruby now lives in Chicago with her family. Ruby is also the author of the Edgar-nominated children’s mystery LILY’S GHOSTS (8/03), the children’s fantasy THE WALL AND THE WING (3/06) and a sequel, THE CHAOS KING (5/07) all from Harpercollins. She writes for older teens as well, and her debut young adult novel, GOOD GIRLS (9/06), also from Harpercollins, was a Book Sense Pick for fall 2006 and an ALA Quick Pick for 2007.

Publisher’s Book Description

Everyone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps—gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young, beautiful Roza went missing, the people of Bone Gap weren’t surprised. After all, it wasn’t the first time that someone had slipped away and left Finn and Sean O’Sullivan on their own. Just a few years before, their mother had high-tailed it to Oregon for a brand new guy, a brand new life. That’s just how things go, the people said. Who are you going to blame?

Finn knows that’s not what happened with Roza. He knows she was kidnapped, ripped from the cornfields by a dangerous man whose face he cannot remember. But the searches turned up nothing, and no one believes him anymore. Not even Sean, who has more reason to find Roza than anyone, and every reason to blame Finn for letting her go.

As we follow the stories of Finn, Roza, and the people of Bone Gap—their melancholy pasts, their terrifying presents, their uncertain futures—acclaimed author Laura Ruby weaves a heartbreaking tale of love and loss, magic and mystery, regret and forgiveness—a story about how the face the world sees is never the sum of who we are.

Publishes March 3rd, 2015 from Balzer & Bray/HarperTeen. ISBN: 9780062317605

Book Review: Live Through This by Mindi Scott

An interesting thing happened when I started the #SVYALit Project, people started asking me if I had read such and such a book yet because I really needed to. And honestly, I am glad each and every time because I want to make sure we are reading and discussing as many relevant titles as possible. And that is how I came to read Live Through This by Mindi Scott recently, it was highly recommended by a friend.

Trigger Warning: This review will involve triggers

Live Through This is the story of Coley Sterling, a girl who seems to be living the perfect life on the outside. But it starts to unravel as she is forced to find ways to deal with the truth about what is happening to her. With the chance of having her first real boyfriend, a decade’s worth of lies and abuse are on the verge of unraveling and Coley isn’t sure how to deal with the reality of what happens to her in the dark of night.

Scott does not pull any punches. On the very first page we are introduced to Coley in a night time scene where you think there is a hot and heavy make-out scene happening between her and a boyfriend you haven’t met. But very quickly, you realize that things are very wrong in the world of Coley as she opens her eyes and realizes that no, this is real and is happening again. This was hands down the most realistic and heartbreaking scene of abuse I have read. So in the very first chapter we learn that someone in Coley’s house is sexually abusing her.

We also learn that Coley uses a very common coping mechanism: disassociation. For Coley, she just shuts down while everything happens to her. Sometimes she can pretend in her mind that something else is happening, which is very well depicted in this first chapter.

“Dissociation is a psychological process that often occurs in response to extreme trauma or pain. It is an automatic response determined by severity of the trauma and the individual’s ability to endure psychological pain and emotional distress. Dissociation is a disruption in normal information processing and allows the person to block negative emotions and experiences from consciousness and compartmentalize traumatic memories.” – Mothers of Sexually Abused Children 

It is partly because of this tendency to dissociate that Coley is able to pretend during the normal course of her day that all is well on Planet Coley. But there are three major events that happen that force Coley to lift the veil:

1. Coley starts to date a boy named Reece. This developing relationship causes a crisis of sorts for Coley as she wrestles with guilt and shame and worries about having to be intimate with him.

2. As the abuse against Coley escalates, her abuser forces her during one incident to look at him, making it impossible for her to dissociate. He even asks her a question, forcing her to actually speak and engage with him. This makes everything very real for Coley.

3. One day Coley comes home and sees her abuser on the couch with her younger sister who is about the age Coley was when her abuse started – which is age 7 – and she begins to stay up at night fearfully protecting her little sister. This anxiety and lack of sleep make functioning during the day nearly impossible and it begins to be hard for Coley to hide her crisis from others.

These three events combine to create a crisis in which Coley begins first to unravel and then she is forced to finally be honest with herself and others about what has been happening to her.

Scott does a really good job of presenting Coley’s story. In particular I though that Scott did a profound job of depicting dissociation and the slow then quickly accelerating unraveling of Coley through some very realistic crisis points. A lot of times non-abuse victims wonder how abuse can happen in families for so long and Scott does a really good job of depicting the complex and messy feelings that come into play, including trying to protect the only home and family you have ever known; that tendency to want to pretend that the evil that happens in the dark of night can somehow seem unreal when the sun comes up. And yet there is that anxiety that comes every night and Coley wonders, will she be safe this night? Scott also does a really good job of both humanizing the abuser, who both is a loving family member at times and a very manipulative abuser at others. He is particularly good at subtly suggesting that Coley is somehow complicit in and even enjoys the abuse; that it is somehow a mutual relationship when it is not, it is an abusive situation that Coley has been conditioned and manipulated to participate in since the age of 7.

I will admit, I was stunned when I learned who the abuser actually was when it was revealed about halfway through the novel. It’s one of those things that make you go back and re-read. When sexual abuse is revealed, victims are usually not believed because everyone looks at the abuser and thinks but he (sometimes she) is such a nice guy. Scott took this sexual abuse issue and really pulled back that curtain, demonstrating to readers how even the nicest seeming people and most beloved family members can end up being someone’s abuser. The complexity of this issue and their relationships, even the abusers belief about himself, is really depicted in strong ways. I think that every outsider who wonders how these things happen will get a very good look at the complexity of the issues reading this book. I highly recommend this book with the warning for sexual abuse survivors that it does have some triggering sexual abuse scenes and that I think the psychology of the situation, which is where this book excels, could also be very triggering.

In 2012 Kirkus said, “Coley finds that her childhood strategy of quiet endurance, rather than preventing the abuse, enables it to escalate. What makes this more than another “problem” novel is the author’s steadfast refusal to deal in stereotypes and easy answers. Coley’s more than the victim of sexual abuse–just as her abuser is more than a collection of abusive behaviors. Who we are and what we do are different things. Oversimplifying character motivations would have made this a less harrowing read but also a less powerful one. Unraveling her thicket of tangled emotions is a confusing and painful journey for Coley, but the bedrock truth she uncovers sustains her: Freedom from molestation is a human right. Required reading for anyone who’s ever wondered “why didn’t they just tell someone?” (Kirkus Reviews, 10/01/2012)

Christa Desir says, “I loved this book for the complexity and nuance of the issue of culpability. It does it better than almost any book I’ve seen on the issue of incest. It has the same sort of fearlessness of Sapphire’s PUSH.”

Publisher’s Description: From the outside, Coley Sterling’s life seems pretty normal . . . whatever that means. It’s not perfect—her best friend is seriously mad at her and her dance team captains keep giving her a hard time—but Coley’s adorable, sweet crush Reece helps distract her. Plus, she has a great family to fall back on—with a mom and stepdad who would stop at nothing to keep her siblings and her happy.

But Coley has a lot of secrets. She won’t admit—not even to herself—that her almost-perfect life is her own carefully-crafted façade. That for years she’s been burying the shame and guilt over a relationship that crossed the line. Now that Coley has the chance at her first real boyfriend, a decade’s worth of lies are on the verge of unraveling.

In this unforgettable powerhouse of a novel, Mindi Scott offers an absorbing, layered glimpse into the life of an everygirl living a nightmare that no one would suspect.

Published by Simon Pulse in 2012. ISBN: 9781442440609.  

Book Review: The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely

In 2002, the media began reporting on various allegations that the Catholic church was involved in a large sexual abuse scandal.  Many young people, prominently boys, came forward and revealed that they had been sexually violated by priests in the church and the church had gone to great lengths to cover that abuse up.  According to some sources, the scandal may have involved around 3,000 priests and may go back 50 years or more.  It is one of the largest crimes against our children and teens in the contemporary era and that is the topic of The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely.

In The Gospel of Winter, we meet Aidan Donovan.  Aidan is the son of a rich and powerful man who has just left the family for his career and mistress.  He lives in a world with high expectations and doesn’t fit in.  His only solace has been the volunteer work at the Catholic church and he family housekeeper/nanny. And then there is Father Greg, who wants to make sure that Aidan understands the power of God’s restorative love for him.

Soon Aidan is forming a friendship with 3 peers from school – two girls and a guy – and he is overwhelmed by self doubt and feelings of confusion and violation.  The guy, Mark, also goes to the local Catholic church, and he one day tries to talk to Aidan about the things that Father Greg has done to them.  But Aidan is trying to wear denial as his armor and her refuses to acknowledge anything.  This results in some serious repercussions for Mark.

Soon the story break nationwide and Aidan must decide whether or not he will come forward and speak about what happened to him.

The Gospel of Winter is an important book.  It is not an easy read, but it is a necessary one.  All of us, regardless of our age, need to understand what happened and see this glimpse into how it may have happened for some of these children.  Kiely does a profound job of showing the various and complex emotions involved.  Kiely also provides a realistic and deeply disturbing look at the ways that adults can manipulate the young people in their lives.  And the reaction of various adults is shocking, enlightening and heartbreaking.  Kiely manages to depict the intense nature of the abuse and the emotional consequences without being overly graphic on the actual details.  There is also a look at how teens will uses drugs and alcohol as a way to self-medicate their pain.

The Gospel of Winter is a light shining bright on a shamefully dark part of our psyche and history.  It is horrifically uncomfortable to read, emotionally draining and disconcerting, but it ends on a redemptive note as the teens involved make life changing decisions to help themselves and each other. Profound, revealing, and expertly told, The Gospel of Winter is a must read for all.

The Gospel of Winter has received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly – and me.  Publishes January 21, 2014 from Margaret K. McElderry Books.  ISBN:  9781442484894.  Please note, I received a copy of an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Sexual Violence in the Lives of Teens and YA Lit:
This year, we are dedicating TLT to focusing on several issues in the lives of teens, one of which is sexual abuse and violence. 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) 

For Those Who Watch American Horror Story, Don’t Call it Incest. It is abuse.

Please note: The following conversation will contain spoilers for American Horror Story.  Consider yourself warned.  Also, this is a very sensitive discussion so there may be trigger warnings.  Click to continue.

I broke up with American Horror Story in the first season.  It is, in fact, too much for me.  But I find the main actress, Taissa Farminga, to be incredibly compelling, as is her counterpart, Evan Peters.  So last season, I avoided watching it entirely and just read the recaps the next morning.  It felt safer.

This year I thought I would give it another try, partly because it always debuts at the right time of year and you know, it’s Halloween, of course there should be witches.

In the season premiere, there was a very disturbing scene in which one of the witches, played by Emma Roberts, is gang raped by a multitude of frat boys at a party.  She is drugged, and they each rape her, one after another.  It was so disturbing to watch, I changed the channel and once again swore of the show.  The thing is, they made it very clear that it was rape.  There was no question.  And this portrayal, deeply disturbing to watch, did what it was supposed to do – it showed the violence and horror that is rape.

Jump forward to last night.  Evan Peters character has been brought back to life in a version of Frankenstein with a resurrection spell.  And he returns home where he is sexually abused by his mother.  There were several things that seemed very clear in the way the scene was shot:

1.  This abuse had been going on for a while, probably since he was a younger child.  Perhaps when he was 4 as alluded to in the conversation with his mother.

2.  The incident was so damaging to him.  When Peters turns his head to the side and begins to cry, the affects of this abuse are so poignantly demonstrated.  Although it was horrific to watch, Peters did victims everywhere honor with his poignant portrayal; I really felt he helped those watching to understand how incredibly horrific abuse is.

And yet, a curious thing happened.  Last night on the message boards people were talking about the “incest scene” on AHS.  DO NOT CALL THIS INCEST.  This is straight up sexual abuse and it is a violence perpetrated by one individual against another.  This is not a boy in love with his mother,  this is a boy being abused by his mother.  Violated.  It is an act of violence against him.

Incest is what we read in Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews, where family members closely related fall in love with each other.  They both tend to be willing participants.  If either participant is unwilling, non consenting, it is straight up abuse.  It is a violence done to them.

So why were they calling it incest?  Perhaps it is because we often don’t believe that a woman can sexually abuse a man.  But they can and it happens.  1 in 5 boys are victims of some type of sexual violence by the time they reach the age 18.  Although a majority of these crimes are done by men, upwards of 90%, women can and do abuse (more stats here). This cultural denial we perpetuate is the reason why people like Chris Brown will boast about losing his virginity at the age of 8 instead of recognizing that he was raped by his 15 year old babysitter.  It is part of the reason why young boys who “fall in love” with their female teachers and have sexual relations are patted on the back while male teachers who do the same with teenage girls are sent to prison.  It is part of the reason why broken and violated young men don’t come forward and get the help that they need.

Boys can be and are sexually abused.  Sometimes by women.  We must call it what it is.  What happened last night in American Horror Story wasn’t incest, and we harm victims everywhere when we mislabel the violence they suffer.  By giving the right words to the crime, me dis-empower those who would commit these acts and we empower the victims to break their silence and come forward.  Words have meaning, and using the right words is powerful.  Don’t call it incest – it was abuse.

Another case where it is called Incest when it is not: Flawed by Kate Avelynn