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The Need For Realistic, Compassionate Portrayals of Sexual Violence In LGBTQIA+ (and all YA) Lit, a guest post by Cheryl Rainfield

By Cheryl Rainfield, author of YA novels SCARS, STAINED, HUNTED, and PARALLEL VISIONS (@CherylRainfield)

 

cheryl-books-prideWhen I was a child and teen, I lived through daily/nightly rape, torture, and mind control at the hands of my parents and other abusers; my parents belonged to intergenerational, interconnected cults. I was also queer. When people hear that, they often ask me if I’m lesbian because I was raped. My answer—and that of my queer survivor characters—is a resounding no. I was raped by both men and women in the cult, and by both of my parents, grandparents, and other relatives. Each rape traumatized, disgusted, and terrified me, no matter which gender raped me. And if rape could make survivors queer, then there’d be a heck of a lot more queer people in the world since at least 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys have experienced sexual abuse by the time they reach age 18Queer teens experience more rape than heterosexuals and have to face homophobia on top of it—sometimes in the form of rape, being beaten, being turned out of our families and homes, or other forms of hatred and  fear turned on us. I think we need books that talk about these experiences in an honest and real way. LGB teens are four times as likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual teens and half of transgender teens have seriously thought of suicide and 1 in 4 attempt it.

LGBTQIA+ teens (and adults) need to know they’re not alone and it can get better, and LGBTQIA+ survivors of rape, abuse, sexual violence, and torture need to know it even more.

 

#WeNeedDiverseBooks-lgbtq-rainfieldI felt so alone and in so much pain as a child and teen; I wanted to die most of the time and did actually try a few times to kill myself. I desperately wanted to know that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t the only one going through these horrific experiences or the only one was queer, and I tried to find that in books. I found small bits of validation, such as a character who was bullied or survived incest or a lesbian character, but I didn’t find enough—which is part of why I write the books I do. I write the books I needed to read as a teen and couldn’t find. I want others to know they’re not alone.

When we feel alone in traumatic or painful experiences—including abuse and homophobia—it makes the pain so much worse. I think when we see reflections of ourselves and our experiences, it helps lessen our pain, reassure us that we are not alone, help us feel healthier and happier, learn new ways of coping and surviving, and feel that we, too, can survive since characters with similar issues did.

Reading about characters who’ve experienced similar trauma or painful experiences can also help us decrease our shame, self-blame, and self-hatred; increase our compassion and acceptance for ourselves and others; and give us a tool to talk about the issue with others. And we all deserve to have that.

 

Readers have told me many times that because of my books, they were able to talk to someone for the first time about being queer, their abuse, or their self-harm; get help; stop self-harming; have more compassion for themselves or for someone who is a sexual abuse survivor, queer, or uses self-harm; feel less alone; survive the pain they’re living through; feel stronger in their own lives; and even keep from killing themselves. Books help heal.

 

#WeNeedDiverseBooks-everyone-reflections-rainfieldI don’t think there are enough YA novels with survivors of sexual violence written in a sensitive, realistic way, especially from someone who’s been there and knows what it’s like from the inside out; not enough YA books with queer characters; and definitely not enough books with both. And yet there is a need—not only for the queer community, but also for the world to help lessen homophobia and help increase awareness of sexual violence and its effects. An emotionally honest book about painful experiences can help readers whether they are queer or heterosexual, whether they have experienced sexual violence or some other form of abuse, or even if they haven’t experienced any of that at all but know someone who has. Books help us increase compassion and understanding by temporarily slipping into the soul of the character.

 

 

“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” –Joyce Carol Oates

 

cheryl-sometimes-be-own-heroI write about many of the traumatic experiences I’ve been through—rape and incest, self-harm, being queer and experiencing homophobia from a parent in SCARS; rape, being held captive, being withheld food and water in STAINED; oppression, betrayal, and being hunted in HUNTED; homophobic-based rape and gang rape, suicidal thoughts, and depression in PARALLEL VISIONS. I write strong-girl characters, emotionally-strong boy characters, and both queer and heterosexual characters who help each other. I try to write queer characters, characters of color, and characters with mental- or physical-health issues into my books, reflecting our real world. And I also write about many of the techniques I’ve used to heal and cope—creating art, seeing a therapist, talking to friends, reading comics and collecting superhero items, creating my own superhero from myself.

I always write strong-girl characters who have to save themselves. That is what I had to do—rescue myself—over and over again until I was finally safe.

I write honestly from my own trauma and healing experiences, opening up to my intense emotions, bleeding them out onto the page so the reader can feel. So that they understand—whether they’ve been through something similar or not. So that if they’ve been through it, they know they’re not alone.

 

And I show some of the possible side effects from rape, sexual abuse, trauma, and abuse—PTSD, dissociation, cheryl-superman-tanxiety, panic attacks, depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, isolation—all things I’ve experienced and know well. It’s important to me to show what the effects of rape and sexual violence are really like. They leave deep emotional scars. It’s not something we walk away from and shrug off like a second skin—the way some movies, TV shows, and comics suggest. And it’s not something that I think should ever be used just for dramatic effect or to make another (usually male) character become a hero. If we don’t show the intense pain, despair, depression, and other resulting effects from  rape and trauma, I think we are doing us all a great disservice by telling survivors, perpetrators, and everyone else that sexual violence leaves no trauma or side effects aside from the physical. I believe that the worst and deepest wounds aren’t physical, but are emotional and psychological. So it’s important to me to write realistic stories of sexual violence and trauma that teens can relate to, and yet are also full of hope and healing.

 

cheryl-rainfield-nobody-knows-im-lesbianIt’s also important to me to write books where the queer characters are happy with their sexuality—not just books where the character is coming out, but books where the story is about something else and the character just happens to be queer—and books where the queer characters are in relatively happy, healthy, consensual relationships, where the tension and strife is coming most from the outside, and a queer character doesn’t get penalized or killed off because they’re queer. I think books with queer characters can help normalize being queer, fight homophobia and hatred, and increase compassion.

Queer readers need books we can enjoy and experience the way heterosexuals can most any time they pick up a book—and heterosexual readers need to be exposed to queer characters as just a reflection of the world we live in.

 

I think there is a great need for LGBTQIA+ YA books that have positive queer characters, that explore rape, abuse, homophobia, and trauma in realistic, sensitive, and hopeful ways, and that include both. I hope to see many more such books in the future. I will keep writing the books I need to. And I hope that you will read, write, or share the books you need to, the books that help you feel alive or the books that moved you. Read on!

 

Meet Cheryl Rainfield

CHERYLCheryl Rainfield is the author of the award-winning SCARS, a novel about a queer teen sexual abuse survivor who uses self-harm to cope; the award-winning HUNTED, a novel about a teen telepath in a world where any paranormal power is illegal; STAINED, about a teen who is abducted and must rescue herself; and PARALLEL VISIONS, about a teen who sees visions and must save a friend. Cheryl Rainfield is a lesbian feminist, incest and ritual abuse torture survivor, and an avid reader and writer. She lives in Toronto with her little dog Petal.

Cheryl Rainfield has been said to write with “great empathy and compassion” (VOYA) and to write stories that “can, perhaps, save a life.” (CM Magazine)  SLJ said of her work: “[readers] will be on the edge of their seats.”

You can find Cheryl on her website CherylRainfield.com or her blog http://www.CherylRainfield.com/blog, on Twitter: http://www.Twitter.com/CherylRainfield, Instagram: http://www.Instagram.com/CherylRainfield, and FaceBook http://www.facebook.com/CherylRainfield.

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

Book review: Cut Me Free by J.R. Johansson

One of these days, I’m going to post the list of “things in YA books that are pet peeves/we’re so over/we flat-out hate” that I started with my YA book club. I referenced it in my review of The Prey (things from our list that that book hits: dystopia-fatigue and love triangles). I bring it up here because one of my reading pet peeves is when the entire plot of a book could be resolved or diverted by a character having one conversation or taking one step.

 

In J. R. Johansson’s Cut Me Free, Piper, the main character, has a ton of really compelling reasons to go to the police. Now, ostensibly she doesn’t do this because (as you’ll learn when you read the book), she doesn’t trust them. She’s worried about the consequences because of past incidents. But the reasons to go to the police multiply and at a certain point I shoved this book aside and shouted, WHY?! Let’s see: Piper has been kept captive and tortured for YEARS by the Parents (her Mother and Father, whom she always capitalizes and never refers to as “my,” always “the”). They killed her little brother. Piper managed to escape. She then, while living under the radar, stumbles across a little girl whom she thinks is being abused. She saves her, but they’re now being hunted and played with by some sicko who knows her real name (she now goes by Charlotte), repeatedly breaks into her apartment, and threatens her life. GO TO THE POLICE. Or get someone to go to the police on your behalf. But who could she ask? Probably not Cam, the boy who sets her up with new forged documents and has connections to the mob. Probably not Janice, her neighbor who is also apparently living under an assumed name/on the run from something/one. I know it’s not that simple—something bad is happening, just go to the police. In books or real life. But because of how the plot unfolds and how much is at stake, I was desperately irritated that she was not trying to ensure her safety or the safety of Sanda (the young girl she rescues). Sure, go take on this complete psychopath on your own, Piper. Sounds great. If it’s the Father come looking, you know he’s VICIOUS and crazy. If it’s Sanda’s captor, you know he’s VICIOUS and crazy. (Yes, that sound was me screaming at my computer.)

 

Here’s the thing: based on the blurb, I wanted to read this. I thought it might be a really interesting look at abuse. When she rescues Sanda and learns she lived in an orphanage in Myanmar, was taken, worked cleaning for a rich family, and then was sold to her captor, I thought, ugh, but also, tell me more. Too bad, me! You don’t get more! I thought maybe there would be more about child trafficking, some greater plot or information or something, but no. Here’s what we do get a lot of: really horrific scenes of brutality. REALLY HORRIFIC. Like, to the point that I eventually almost couldn’t read them because they felt less necessary to the story and more gratuitous. I felt like a voyeur. There are some flashbacks to the nightmarish 10 years Piper spent living in an attic and being abused (though, again, I wanted more of her story filled in). There’s what Piper sees when she begins to observe Sanda’s situation and what she discovers when she eventually rescues her. But it’s everything that happens once Piper comes face to face with her stalker that is just shocking. I know some people like books that are like this—graphic, violent, bloody, disturbing—and I’m usually okay with them. But this one was rough.

 

Fans of thrillers who like mind games will tear through this. I found it overwritten, sensational, lacking in meaningful world-building, and outside the bounds of believability. Much like The Prey, it features a completely unnecessary romance storyline. Cam could still have been a large part of the story and a significant person in Piper’s life without having to be the forced-feeling love interest that shows Piper she can trust and love someone (and really, a lot of their relationship made me uncomfortable, from his savior complex to their physical interactions in Krav Maga). Honestly, a more compelling story (to me) would have been more of a focus on the 10 LONG YEARS Piper spent locked up and tortured, more about what she did to escape the Parents, and how exactly she managed to travel from Wyoming to Philadelphia (especially after having spent nearly all of her life completely removed from all society and having, in theory, only a very rudimentary understanding of how real life works. I mean, we’re supposed to believe that she can’t figure out how to remember how much coins are worth, but she can escape, flee, and take on a crazed lunatic all on her own? Oooookay). At the end, an author’s note says she is “passionate about advocating for victims of human trafficking.” I believe that, and of course admire that and any attempt to bring more attention to this issue. Human trafficking is but one small piece of this psychological thriller. Read this one if you like suspense and don’t mind suspending your disbelief long enough to go along with what most of this story asks of you.   

 

REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF NETGALLEY
ISBN-13: 9780374300234
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 1/27/2015