The Color Purple, Bastard out of Carolina, and Speak: three nationally acclaimed novels depicting sexual abuse that have repeatedly been banned throughout the years as “obscene.” For as long as any of us can remember, the subject of sexual abuse has been taboo in our society, mentioned only behind closed doors if at all, while victims of sexual abuse have carried a toxic shame steeped in silence that has ruined countless lives. But with the rise of the #MeToo Movement in 2017, a cultural shift in the way the media and society views sexual abuse has finally brought real change. Or has it?
When Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement went viral in October of 2017, thanks to dozens of Hollywood actresses coming forward to accuse movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and rape, I’d been working on an autobiographical novel dealing with childhood sexual abuse for over a year. As I watched women around the world, including many of my friends, share their personal stories on social media, I felt excited and also stressed. Reading other people’s stories filled me with an urgency to tell my own, to be part of the conversation, but I also felt afraid. Because to talk about my life in such a public forum would make me vulnerable to other people’s judgments in a way I didn’t feel quite ready for. Friends, acquaintances, even coworkers, would scroll through my harrowing experience on their phones like it was entertainment. What would they feel when they read my words? Shock? Pity? I’d spent the better part of my adult life running from the things I felt and did as a young person, and the idea of exposing those early experiences on social media threatened to unleash a torrent of icky feelings, long buried.
The truth is, the sexual and psychological abuse I endured as a thirteen year old came at a time when I was the most impressionable and vulnerable of my whole life—I had no desire to go back there. And yet, every time I sat down to write, the story of that young person seemed to flow out onto the page. It’s what I needed to say, before I could say anything else.
I didn’t end up sharing my #MeToo moments on social media, but kept working on my novel instead, realizing what I wanted to do most was to show the world the essence of the feelings involved with what happened—not just the event itself. I wanted people to know what it might feel like for a young girl to be in a life-changing developmental stage—adolescence—having experienced losses in her family life; to feel hopeless, powerless even, and then to be confronted at that very same time with something disguised as love and protection. I wanted to show how the sexual exploitation of children often involves psychological abuse as well, insidious by nature, so that it could cause a young person to run toward something that would be very bad for them in the end. And finally, I wanted to show that the human spirit is stronger than the physical and psychological scars inflicted by childhood sexual abuse. Most of the time.
I still don’t know if I’ve accomplished any of this in my book, but I do know that in autumn of 2017, the #MeToo Movement gave me new hope that a novel like mine could see a clearer path toward publication, that there may be more of a market out there for voices addressing the rampant problem of childhood sexual abuse through fiction.
In 2018, my novel was accepted into the prestigious Novel Incubator creative writing program at GrubStreet and my confidence soared. I soon got a dose of humbling reality, however, when I realized I still had a lot to learn craft-wise. I ended up scrapping about seventy-five percent of the book to start over, focusing on one character—the young protagonist who, as an older woman, would have to face her past in order to save herself from alcohol addiction. At the end of the year-long program, I once again found myself re-envisioning my manuscript, getting rid of plot points that did not support the main themes, and trying to narrow and further discover the essence of my message. In our final Incubator classes, we got to pitch our books to real live literary agents, and at the annual Muse and Marketplace Writer’s Conference in April, we each met individually with prospective agents who had read part of our manuscript. That’s when I got the bad news.
The same new social climate that had inspired countless survivors around the world to break their silence about rape and sexual abuse was simply overwhelming literary agents. Their desks were piled high with endless manuscripts on the topic. Meanwhile, the negative political climate we currently live in, thanks in good part to the Trump Administration, was causing readers to crave more light hearted, uplifting fare when it came to buying books. One agent said, everyone is just burnt out on hearing and reading about bad stuff (in the news and otherwise). “Maybe the market will change when Trump is no longer president,” she said. She also told me publishers were staying away from sexual abuse stories that involve children. “No agent wants to sit with something that dark.” At the “Meet & Greet” at the Muse conference, I watched many agents’ and editors’ eyes glaze over at the point in my pitch where I mentioned sexual abuse. They said a novel like mine would have to have a very special something to be considered—a joyful message about the heart, multiple focuses, or an ultra-creative approach. Bottom line? It was going to be a tough sell. Tougher than before the #MeToo Era? I couldn’t help but wonder.
The truth is, every manuscript has to have a special something to make it stand out on an agent’s desk, not just those with touchy subject matters. And it isn’t wholly true that publishing companies are simply staying away from novels depicting childhood sexual abuse. Recent examples include: His Favorites by Kate Walbert; Milkman by Anna Burns; and My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent, all of which deal with the sexual abuse of young people. The New York Times bestseller The Girls by Emma Cline featured the rape and molestation of adolescent girls in its fictional depiction of the Charles Manson story, creating public allure. His Favorites contained a murder; Milkman, a detailed and striking account of the political violence in Northern Ireland from 1966-1988. My Absolute Darling (which I have not read) is based on the repeated rape of a young girl by her father in the Mendocino hills of California. The book has drawn literary praise but also condemnation for being a fictionalized account by a man. There is an ongoing controversy over who gets to tell stories of sexual abuse and whether a novel or memoir can go too far in describing sexual violence. But the claim that the public is simply tired of hearing about “bad things” seems over generalized. Well-written books will continue to garner attention no matter what they’re written about—if they can make it off the agent’s desk into a publishing house.
Novels that artfully describe universal feelings and experiences do more than simply capture a cultural moment; they are timeless, and they are valuable in part because they help other people who may have experienced similar things as the characters in the novel. In a society still obsessed with true crime shows like Special Victims Unit that depict a new rape story each week, the public needs to have access to the real voices of sexual abuse survivors in order to see them as real people—not just anonymous plot points in thrillers and crime stories. Why? Because more of us than anyone could imagine have sat in silence with these experiences. I’ll keep working on my novel, checking in with my writing group, and holding onto the hope that there will be a place for it out there in the world someday, regardless of who happens to sit in the Oval Office.