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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.

#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

Sexual Violence in YA Lit, the project

It began with Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson many years ago. This book really touched me, as it has readers around the world.  And it made me start thinking a lot about how we can use literature to talk with teens about really tough topics; about things like recognizing the signs so that you can ask for help, about the need for empathy, about the ways in which our society tends to blame victims instead of rapists . . . Books can open eyes, bring healing, and start conversations.

Throughout my years working with teens, I have met many tweens and teens that have been the victims of sexual violence.  In fact, current statistics indicate that by the time they are 18 years old 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys will be the victim of some type of sexual violence.

So I knew I wanted to do more.  For the last 3 years I have been working behind the scenes trying to find a way to get this project off of the ground.  Then I had a brainstorm and invited authors Christa Desir, Carrie Mesrobian and Trish Doller to have a virtual panel on the topic and they graciously agreed.  We had an awesome conversation and got such a positive response that we decided to continue the project. Here are the details. Keep this page bookmarked.

Goals: To discuss sexual violence in the lives of teens and in ya literature on a bimonthly basis; raise awareness of the issues and titles that can be used to discuss the topics with teens; give librarians, educators and parents the tools to evaluate and discuss these topics in the lives of teens; promote teen reading and literature

Schedule:

All virtual panels will be Google Hangouts on Air at Noon Eastern time.  We will post URLs to watch as we get closer to each date.  Afterwards we will post the video recordings and write recaps.  Everything will be linked back to here for your convenience.  We recommend that you read the books each month if you can, but we will be discussing the issues and additional titles as well.  Here’s a more detailed look at the titles.

Contemporary Debuts, dealing with sexual violence

Date: March 26th
Moderator: Carrie Mesrobian
Confirmed Guests: Stephanie Kuehn (CHARM AND STRANGE), Rachele Alpine (CANARY), and Brendan Kiely (THE GOSPEL OF WINTER)
Recap and Video of the second panel discussing Charm & Strange, Canary, and The Gospel of Winter

Consent Positive YA Lit: Looking at positive depictions of healthy relationships and consent in YA literature
Date: May 21st
Moderator(s): Christa Desir, Carrie Mesrobian, Karen Jensen
Confirmed: Courtney Stevens (FAKING NORMAL), Brandy Colbert (POINTE)
Recap and Video of the third panel discussing Pointe and Faking Normal  

When Past Meets Present, a look at the issues in terms of historical fiction and what we can learn from the past

Date: July 30th
Moderator: Christa Desir
Confirmed: Jenn McGowan (MAID OF SECRETS/MAID OF DECEPTION, Katherine Longshore (GILT), Sharon Biggs Waller (A MAD, WICKED FOLLY)

 
It’s the End of the World as We Know It, what we can learn about current issues surrounding sexual violence through dystopian/post apocalyptic fiction

Date:September 24th
Confirmed: Mindy McGinnis (NOT A DROP TO DRINK), Ilsa J. Bick (ASHES), and Elizabeth Fama (PLUS ONE)

Bringing it Back to Contemporary Fiction: An overview of 2014 titles and a look ahead at 2015
Date: November 19th

Confirmed Guests: A. S. King (forthcoming 2014 and 2015 title), Christa Desir, Carrie Mesrobian

Hashtag: #SVYALit

SVYALit Tumblr

More on Sexual Violence and YA Lit at 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) 
  
The Curios Case of the Kissing Doctor and Consent 

Book Review: The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely

Take 5: Sexual Violence in the Life of Boys

A BIG list of titles on the TLT Tumblr