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.)

They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

“On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today. Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure and to live a lifetime in a single day.”

Let’s not mince words: this book is going to rip your heart out.  Don’t expect last-minute reprieves for the characters you will come to love.  Death comes for everyone, and the message of this book is that since you never know when it’s going to happen, you shouldn’t waste your life.  In the case of this story, yes, Mateo and Rufus get an extra day to accomplish some of that living, but the endgame is still the same.  Rufus wanted to travel and take photos, and Mateo wanted to be an architect.  Neither will get to live their dreams, and no amount of living in the course of less than 24 hours can make up for that.

One of the things that this book does extremely well is in highlighting the relationships in our lives and what they can mean to us.  Each boy has people in their lives whom they love, but not in the sense of romantic love, and when they finally get to express that love, the sense of freedom is palpable.  I especially liked Mateo’s deep connection with his friend Lidia, seeing how the two loved each other in a way that transcended any attempts to pigeonhole it.  I have just such an opposite-sex friend myself, one who means the world to me, and seeing something similar in a story was so heartwarming.

I felt connected to this book on a really personal level, because in many ways, I identified with Mateo.  He was someone who holed up in his room a lot, watching movies and playing online, and he wasn’t one to get out and experience the world.  I was like that myself for a long time, but I’ve been able to change that in recent years.  In fact, I’m in the middle of planning a trip to Ireland; as a result Mateo’s journey towards life, and his realization that it’s okay to have a place to feel safe, is one that I can vouch for as accurate.

I haven’t said as much about Rufus, but not because I didn’t like him.  I just identified more with Mateo.  But Rufus is a portrait of someone who is heading down a darker path and is lucky enough to be able to turn his life back around.  The fact that it takes place in less than 24 hours doesn’t make it any less true.

That’s another message from this book: the amount of time that something takes is less important than the fact that it happens.  Mateo and Rufus find each other when each has less than a day to live.  That in no way invalidates what they do for each other, and what they become for each other.  The experience is what counts, in whatever form you want that experience to take.

I hope that this book gets widespread attention, because with all the fears and uncertainties of life lately, a story with a message to get out and live is so incredibly vital.  They Both Die at the End reminds of us where we’re all going, but also what we can accomplish along the way if we truly want to.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

I Was Here by Gayle Forman

i-was-here“When her best friend, Meg, drinks a bottle of industrial-strength cleaner alone in a motel room, Cody is understandably shocked and devastated. She and Meg shared everything—so how was there no warning? But when Cody travels to Meg’s college town to pack up the belongings left behind, she discovers that there’s a lot that Meg never told her. About her old roommates, the sort of people Cody never would have met in her dead-end small town in Washington. About Ben McAllister, the boy with a guitar and a sneer, and some secrets of his own. And about an encrypted computer file that Cody can’t open—until she does, and suddenly everything Cody thought she knew about her best friend’s death gets thrown into question.”

I seem to be on a kick of reading books about dying teens… well, presuming two books constitutes a “kick”.  This is actually the second one that I read, and it, like Maybe One Day by Melissa Kantor, made me cry.  That’s unusual, because most books don’t get that kind of emotion from me, no matter how invested I am in the story and characters.  It’s the mark of an excellent writer if I get choked up by something I’m reading.

The other emotions churned up by this novel were disquiet, horror, and outright anger.  This is also the mark of a skilled writer, as is the fact that this novel is immensely unsatisfying.  By this I mean that there is no real closure for those whom Meg leaves behind, no massive epiphany that allows Cody and Meg’s family to move on.  And in this, the novel is at its most realistic.  So when I say the novel is unsatisfying, please realize that I mean it as a compliment.

Forman incorporates suicide support groups into the tale–and not the support groups that help you get rid of suicidal thoughts, but the ones that encourage you to give in to them.  I was impressed to see that the author showed not only how damaging such websites can be, but also acknowledges the kind of comfort to be gained from anonymously admitting to feelings and urges that are so difficult to confront (although at no time does she defend them).  For me, that’s where the majority of the disgust/disquiet/etc. came from: the idea that there are people dedicated to helping people end their own lives.

The forums are also used as a method for letting Cody talk without restraint about her feelings concerning Meg’s death.  There are no scenes of her sitting with a counselor or a trusted friend.  Her attempts to uncover the mysteries behind Meg’s suicide become as much about uncovering and dealing with her own darkness as that of her friend.  It’s uncomfortable to read, and it’s meant to be so.

I feel like this novel was less a portrait of grief as one of anger.  It’s not considered acceptable to be angry at someone who takes their own life, and yet it’s nearly impossible not to feel that anger.  Instead of a weepy, maudlin story, Forman gives us a challenging one, and one that is meant to push some buttons.

The only thing I wish is that we had seen something of Meg and Cody–and of Cody by herself–before Meg’s suicide.  With nothing to compare her behavior to, it’s not as easy to see the emotional roller coaster as the all-encompassing trauma that it is.  There’s plenty of emotion to go around, though, and the author in general does a fine job with an extremely difficult topic.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)