A question I’ve been hearing a lot lately, when it comes to my new book. is why do you question whether you are the right person to tell this story?
It may entirely be a side effect of the long psychological disorder (one of many!) I possess that is more commonly known as Imposter Syndrome; but over the last decade or so there have been so many questions about who can tell what story that I don’t really think it’s so surprising that I would be concerned about my right to the tell the story of #shedeservedit that I chose to tell. It’s a book about toxic masculinity in a small town that manifests itself in a rape culture that devalues women, especially the girls, at the local high school; that toxic masculinity culture was created by the town’s worshipful devotion of the high school football team. Fans derives from fanatics, after all, and living in the South (and being Southern) has exposed me to the ‘football fan mob mentality’ that I was trying to recreate in my story. I’ve seen, for example, LSU fans rise up in righteous fury and indignation at the questioning of whether it’s animal cruelty for them to have a live tiger mascot with an amazing habitat on the campus; I’ve seen them rise up in defense of the administration and the players when players have been credibly accused of any number of crimes (not the least of which sexual harassment/assault of female students); and there are any other number of examples here I could cite–and that’s just LSU.
But in a story about toxic masculinity in a small town, I also centered a teenaged boy in the story; we see it all through his eyes, not that of any of the girls. That’s really the primary concern I had about how this book would be received: how could you put a boy at the center of a story about rape culture?
And I guess my response should be why wouldn’t I?
Because, as I read the articles and books that served as background research (there’s a chilling amount of research out there for anyone who is interested), all I could keep thinking was what is wrong with these boys? And from there I began to extrapolate further in my never-ending mental gymnastics. What do the kids who are not football players think about the privilege the players enjoy? High school is, after all, wanting/trying to fit in, not wanting to attract bad attention from people, not standing out from the crowd with an unpopular view or opinion. As I continued to read and research–and in the beginning, you have to remember, I started looking into all of this to begin with not because I wanted to write about it, but because the Steubenville/Marysville cases stoked my curiosity.
It was actually during the reading on Marysville that it hit me right between the eyes: the Marysville victim, Daisy Coleman, had not only been a cheerleader but her older brother was on the football team; the guys that got her drunk and assaulted her were not only guys she knew but felt safe with but were her brother’s teammates and friends.
And that was when I realized, you need to change the Kansas book to be about this, and write about the brother of a past victim when there is a new victim.
And then the other day, in an irony of ironies, I got my copy of Laura Lippman’s new collection, Seasonal Work, in the mail–and there it was, in the table of contents; her own story inspired by the Marysville incident, “Five Fires”; which I read when it was initially published; a story Laura and I had, in one of our infrequent but marvelous alcohol-fueled conversations, talked about (I’d forgotten what an integral part of shaping my own story that conversation with Laura all those years ago played).
“Five Fires” is quite marvelous.
“There was another fire last night.” That’s the first woman. Tennis skirt, Lacoste polo, gold chain with a diamond on it, like a drop of water.
The other woman–I don’t know either of them, you can’t, even in a town as small as ours, know everybody–says: “That makes three this month, doesn’t it?”
“Two. The one at the vacant–you know that place. And now behind Langley’s.”
And the playhouse, I want to say. The first one was that playhouse. But I don’t say it, because, again, I don’t know them. But three is right. There have been three since August 1, and it’s only August 10.
Whereas my story is told from the point of view of a victim’s brother–who is also on the football team–Laura’s story was inspired (if I remember correctly) by a newspaper article on Marysville, when the victim’s house was burned to the ground in a nasty work of arson–as if the family hadn’t been through enough already–and I don’t remember whether it was a photograph or a video she’d seen, of a vigil supporting the accused; there was a young woman in the picture that caught her attention and made her think, now why would that girl not support another young woman in a horrible situation? Why is it so easy for her to not believe the victim? And she thus wrote the story, to try to get into the mindset of a young teenaged girl who found it easy to believe an accused rapist and blame the victim.
It’s really quite an extraordinary story, and rereading it now, after all these years, I am even more impressed with how well done–touching, sad, and poignant–it is. It would be easy to make a villain of this girl, but Lippman approaches her with a strong sense of empathy, and while the character’s views and behavior can be quite repellant, the fact that Lippman gets so deep into her head and point of view makes character all the more compelling, and heartbreakingly sad at the same time–all the while never ever losing sight of who the real victim in the story is. It’s a terrific story, incredibly well done, and I strongly recommend getting this collection of stories; it’s worth it for “Five Fires” alone.
And on that note, I am heading back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Thursday, Constant Reader!