This is an essay related to yesterday’s post, and I will finish up with the theme tomorrow.
As a girl, I was kicked in the chest by a horse. He wasn’t very big, but neither was I, and the next thing I remember is looking up at the blue sky wondering how the world had tilted. I tell you that to illustrate the reaction I had just now to a google search result. I typed “victims in young adult fiction” in, and the first result on the page was “Rape Book Lists – Goodread Lists about: YA Violence & Abuse Novels, Best Traumatized Heroines, Male Characters You Would Run From If They Tried To Date You.”
Someone made a list of the Best Traumatized Heroines? and a list of rape books, like this is a huge thing that we all want to read about? I had a moment where I literally could not catch my breath.
I am a survivor of abuse as a child, and again as an adult. It’s not something I talk about often. I’m not bringing it up here for any reason other than this: as a young adult victim, the last thing in the world I would have willingly read were books that discussed in detail actions/feelings, heck, ANYTHING that would have reminded me of what happened. They would have triggered my flashbacks that took me years to come to grip with. I realize this is one experience, and perhaps there are idiosyncratic responses, but I am inclined to think that most true victims don’t want to read about scenarios that resemble their traumas.
So who is reading these books? There are 290 books, voted on by 240 people, on the Goodreads Best Traumatized Heroine page. A few rows below it is a list called The Real Bodice Rippers. Despite the search string that brought me here, these are not YA books. But there is a list called YA Violence and Abuse novels. It contains 341 books voted on by 436 users. The subtitle is “Teen books dealing with physical/emotional/psychological/verbal/sexual abuse, bullying, guns, gangs, dating violence, rape, etc.” Do we really think kids who are in these situations are reading about this? No…
I think what is happening, and I’m not sure how I’d confirm this, is that teachers, publishers, whoever drives the impetus, has decided that children OUGHT to read about these topics. Because, it happens to someone, somewhere, right? Girls should know all about rape, because it’s an issue. And that is where my problem lies. Yes, rape is an issue. And many other forms of assault and abuse. But reading a fiction novel glorifying that is not the appropriate response, a doctor, parental support, and a therapist is. Teens, especially, seem to be drawn to the dark, the abyss, to look into it and some of them just let go and fall into that darkness. Do we really want a rape victim to become our daughter’s heroine? Why not a book about a girl who had been taught to defend herself, and thus never became that victim?
If we want to teach our children that rape and abuse are terrible, and why I am not sure when it is so self-evident, then perhaps rather than emphasizing a passive protagonist who is suffering afterwards, we give them examples of what they could have done to escape harm. I took my daughter at the age of 12 through a hunter safety course, and taught her how to shoot. I taught her how to deflect and deflate bullies with words and humor, a tack that will work well on drunks and overly aggressive but not insane males. Yes, there are horrible things that happen to children who are too young to defend themselves, through no fault but that of an evil human being. No, we do not need to make lists of books with the Best Traumatized Heroine.
We do not need to explain, at length and in detail, what happened to those fictional victims. One book on the list, Living Dead Girl, got this review “The author draws you in with her unique and just plain strange writing style, despite being weird it’s also very effective. It takes us deep inside the mind of a person who has not only suffered extreme physical and sexual abuse (though there’s been plenty of that) but has also been so psychologically damaged that her hope is only for death to come swiftly, she is so desperate that she is even willing to sacrifice a young girl to make her suffering end.” Another reviewer points out that there is no redemption in this book, that it only exists as torture porn.
The vast majority of teens will never experience something that terrible. But we hold up all these examples and say “here, this could happen to you!” Is this a healthy thing to do to teen girls? And most especially if they are given no choice, and required to read them, for a true victim it could cause them to have to relive horrors. For an innocent bystander, it gives them a thrill at the expense of those who are not in need of fiction to help them cope. It does not teach them to avoid those behaviours, they are teenagers, they need parental guidance, strong, mature role models, and the education to defend themselves. Teen boys don’t need to think that all boys do is harm girls. They need to know that gallantry and chivalry need not die out.
I grew up reading adventure books. I started out with Westerns, and moved on to ER Burroughs, and then read pretty much anything that would stand still long enough for me to see. I read a lot… and very little of it YA. There was some that was age-inappropriate. I was allowed to read ERB’s Mars series by a librarian who wouldn’t let me even go into the Adult collection at the age of ten. I can remember being thoroughly grossed out by VC Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic, and that, for all the disgusting themes in it, is tame compared to some of the so-called “Young Adult” books I found today.
It’s time we took back those shelves. I urge you, whoever you are, to consider writing something that isn’t about glorifying evil, abuse, and the terrors no child should ever face. I am not naive enough to think that none do – I have been there, literally – but I do not think that novels about those experiences are kind, necessary, and by all that is good, ought never to be assigned reading for a class of impressionable minds. What has happened to books full of adventure, plots that edify and amuse, characters that children will want to emulate in their honor, duty, and sense of resolve? Have they been buried under a wave of books that shallowly address “the issues?” Who decides what is an issue? Give children choices. Good books, decent books, where pain is real, but not so abysmal they cannot see hope for recovery, dreams, and a real life.
I say to you who have lived through the valley of shadows: do not embrace victimhood, I implore you, be a survivor. Instead of looking back at what happened, dauntlessly face forward and say “what can I do?” Where will my dreams take me? I can tell you my dreams have brought me places I never expected, and I have happiness. I’ve written stories about some of my pain, but mostly I write about hope, and strength, and honor. I wrote a story for my daughter, about a girl who is given a great responsibility, and even though gods pursue her, she protects the little ones in her care. She doesn’t give up, she just presses onward. This is what we need to give our young ones – the strength to keep going, not the filth to wallow in.
I’ll leave you with a poem created by an anonymous man who fears for his grandchildren’s future:
Keep an open mind they said.
Don’t shut your ears , don’t close your head…
And then the open mind collapses,
shedding sense and nerve synapses
Fact and fiction soon enmeshed,
that tenuous attachment to reality unfleshed
And then we sit and wonder why,
all we knew as good has died.