Sexual Assault is Not a Vehicle for Character Growth: Suicide Notes by Michael Thomas Ford
For the first time ever, I’m doing a book review as a feature, because I feel strongly that this book has issues that should be addressed. I got so angry after reading this that I decided to sleep on it and see how I felt in the morning. My anger has not abated. If you check out this title on Amazon or Goodreads, you’ll see a bunch of good reviews for it. You’ll also see some passionate one-star reviews, and they all focus on much the same thing: this novel uses sexual assault to promote character growth. In my opinion, this is a dangerous trope that needs to be dealt with. Worse, the author himself has no understanding of what he has done and actively refuses to consider that what he wrote was non-consensual. We’ll get to that later, but first, let’s start from the beginning. And, by necessity, this review contains major spoilers.
“Fifteen-year-old Jeff wakes up on New Year’s Day to find himself in the hospital—specifically, in the psychiatric ward. Despite the bandages on his wrists, he’s positive this is all some huge mistake. Jeff is perfectly fine, perfectly normal; not like the other kids in the hospital with him. But over the course of the next forty-five days, Jeff begins to understand why he ended up here—and realizes he has more in common with the other kids than he thought.”
Okay. I’m not sure where to begin with all the things that bothered me about this book, but I’ll try to do this in some kind of logical order. Let’s start with Jeff. If you’ve read past reviews of mine, you know that I’m not averse to unlikable main characters. You don’t always have to like the person you’re reading about, as long as their story is well told. In this case, I deeply disliked Jeff, and there really wasn’t anything in the story that–for lack of a better word–redeemed him in my eyes. He comes across as an unrepentant jerk for much of the book. He backs that off a little towards the end of the novel, but for me, it was too little, too late. There are scenes of him making fun of other teens in his ward, and although the author tries to counterbalance those with his kindness towards a young patient named Martha, it didn’t work very well. Basically, I didn’t believe Jeff’s change of heart, as he isn’t show experiencing any real growth–he just gets tired of fighting the people who want to help him and gives in. To me, there’s a big difference.
My next complaint concerns the depiction of the hospital. There are several things about it that are not true to real life. I have had occasion to visit someone in a psychiatric ward, and I can tell you for a fact that, in a facility with teen suicide risks, other patients would not be allowed to possess or use a razor unsupervised. The teens would not have had such lax supervision as to allow them to sneak into each others’ beds. And when you’re given medication, you have to swallow it in the presence of a nurse, so building up a stash of pills with which to commit suicide wouldn’t happen. If by some extreme event that did occur, the aforementioned supervision would have that patient down in the ER and their stomach pumped within a short period of time. Staff would not leave patient files in a patient’s room, nor would it be tolerated for security guards to gossip about patients with other patients.
In this story, Jeff forms a friendship with another patient named Sadie. He sneaks into her bed one night and they fool around, but he realizes that he’s not sexually attracted to her and leaves the room. Later, after some other events happen (which we’ll get into later), Jeff’s psychiatrist blurts out in the middle of a session that Sadie killed herself. The manner in which he broke the news was just… no. Doctor finds out that patient fooled around with another patient, and then feels that it’s imperative to immediately tell him that said other patient offed herself? What the hell?
And now we get to the big thing that made me scream “Oh hell no!” at this book, and the thing that forms the title of this post. A patient arrives named Rankin. One night, Jeff catches Rankin masturbating in the shower. (Showering without supervision? Nope.) Rankin notices Jeff watching and isn’t fazed. He sneaks into Jeff’s room, gets into bed with him, and start masturbating Jeff. Jeff says “Don’t,” but Rankin continues. They eventually pleasure each other, although Jeff is disgusted by the whole thing. The next time they meet in the bathroom, Rankin has obviously twigged into the fact that Jeff may be gay and disrobes in front of him and beckons Jeff into the shower with him. Jeff, rather confused by everything, goes. Rankin pushes Jeff to his knees and orders him to perform oral sex on him. He doesn’t ask Jeff what he wants, he just does it, and again he’s disgusted. And then, one night, Rankin sneaks into Jeff’s room, and Jeff wakes up with Rankin trying to penetrate him from behind, and when Jeff seems about to say something, Rankin covers Jeff’s mouth with his hand. Jeff is portrayed as struggling to get away when they are interrupted by the staff. Later, the encounter makes Jeff come to terms with the fact that he is gay.
Now, I can understand sexual confusion. I imagine many gay teens go through a period of confusion and possibly even disgust as they come to grips with their sexuality. But there are two major issues here: one, that last scene is definitely rape and is never characterized as such, nor does Jeff ever come to that realization; two, it is dangerous to portray a sexual assault as a way for a teen coming to grips with their sexuality to make that leap and admit who they are. This is a damaging trope that shows up in far too many books. An author that I read, Seanan McGuire, has received e-mails from fans asking when her female main character is going to be raped, because too much fiction portrays this act as crucial for someone to grow in strength and understanding. In this book, Rankin is transferred to a different facility, presumably with no warning that he’s a rapist. Jeff doesn’t deal with the trauma at all. It’s glossed over as just an unfortunate sexual encounter or something.
And somehow, this manages to get worse.
After reading this book–and wanting to throw it against the wall–I hopped onto Amazon to look at the reviews. I didn’t think I could be the only one to feel this way. Sure enough, there were other reviews pointing out what I’ve talked about above. One of those reviews was graced by comments from… the author himself! And may I just say, it would have been much better for him to do the traditional author trick of ignoring the comments. He accuses “I am going to go out on a limb here and guess that you haven’t actually read the novel and the so-called ‘rape scene’.” He continues, “It might interest you to know that the industry review journal including PUBLISHERS WEEKLY and BOOKLIST–both of which have a deep understanding of young adult literature and its readers–have given the novel rave reviews.” He doesn’t stop there, and goes on to address the scene in question: “[s]omething happens to Jeff that he wants to happen (in the sense that he longs to experience sex with another boy) but that he’s afraid of because it means accepting who he is. He can’t express what he wants. He’s not violated. He’s not raped.” As evidence to the contrary, I offer the following excerpt:
“I was sleeping, and then I felt something pressing against my back. Rankin had pulled my shorts down, and he was pushing himself against me. I was still only half awake, so I didn’t realize what he was doing at first. He put his arms around me and pulled me closer. I could hear him breathing in my ear.
Believe it or not, that’s not even the bad thing. If that was all, I could probably handle it. Probably. But that was just the beginning.
Like I said, Rankin was holding on to me and trying to… I don’t think I can even say it right now. But he was getting close. As soon as I realized what he was doing, I woke up fast. I even opened my mouth to tell him to stop.
And that’s when the screaming started.
At first I thought it was me screaming. Then I realized it was a girl’s voice. I don’t know what Rankin thought was going on, but he pulled me closer to him and put his hand on my mouth. Maybe he thought I was the one screaming too.”
That right there? That’s sexual assault. It doesn’t matter if Jeff is scared of admitting that he’s gay, it doesn’t matter if can’t accept that part of himself. The simple facts of this scene are as follows: Rankin initiated sex with Jeff while he was asleep, and therefore, unable to consent. When Jeff woke up, he didn’t want the encounter to be happening and he tried to say no, but he’s prevented from doing so by Rankin physically muffling him. None of those facts are overshadowed by what Jeff does or does not think about his sexuality. What matters is Rankin’s actions. What also matters, in this case, is the author’s attitude towards this scene. He implies that, because Jeff is curious about having sex with a boy, he must necessarily be ready for sex with any convenient boy, regardless of circumstance. No, he doesn’t say that, but that’s the implication of his statement that Jeff “wants to happen”. Also, implying that teenagers can’t “express what they want” strips them of a lot of agency. None of this is in the book itself, of course, but it does provide some backdrop to how the author was thinking about this situation while writing it. And I firmly believe that thoughts like that will inform an author’s writing. Mr. Ford is conveying a skewed and dangerous view of consent.
Then, to make matters worse, it’s that encounter that appears to be the catalyst for Jeff accepting that he’s attracted to men and beginning to accept himself. Jeff even states that he realizes that he wants to have sex with men, just not with Rankin. That scene I quoted is not just a case of deciding that you aren’t attracted to a particular person. That scene is assault. Jeff never realizes that and never deals with it. His psychiatrist is never shown giving Jeff any assurance that he believes Jeff when he says that he didn’t invite what happened to him. Nor does the doctor do anything to help Jeff deal with the event. It just… gets glossed over in Jeff’s acceptance of his sexuality. I’m sorry, but that’s just not something that teens need to be integrating into their worldview.
I freely admit that after reading this novel, I was angry. After reading the author’s views on what he wrote, I was incandescently angry and disgusted. I laid in bed for two hours fuming over the whole thing and woke up not much cooled down. Mr. Ford, if you ever read this, I sincerely hope that you have educated yourself on rape, sexual assault, and consent and can better convey any such scenes you may write in future books. I don’t fault you for defending your work, but please, please, listen to people who come away with different views of what you think you wrote. You can learn something.
This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library, Davis branch.
(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)