Women’s fiction is often about choosing who to trust as much as it is about finding someone to love and be loved by in return. My new novel After I Left You is no exception, but my heroine Anna’s revelations about what happened to her in the past also touch on issues that are perhaps less often explored in the genre, and which I was determined to attempt to tackle… though also thoroughly intimidated by.
At this point I have to issue an all-caps *SPOILER ALERT* to anyone reading this who hasn’t read the book. I’m not going to unpick the fine detail of the story here, but the quotes and articles that follow will give you a pretty good idea of where it is heading – and also, perhaps, why it is such a difficult story for Anna to tell.
The newspaper and magazine articles that I’ve compiled here caught my eye not so much because I went looking for them as part of focused research, but because they helped me to understand the context in which I was working, whether I came across them during or after the process of writing the book. Yesterday I went along to talk to the first meeting of the Fe-line Book Club in Oxford and took these cuttings along with me, but in the end I didn’t share them. So, inspired by the points that came up during the book club, I thought I’d list the cuttings in a blog post, and hope they’ll be thought-provoking for readers who are looking to open the novel up for discussion.
I described the novel to the readers I met yesterday as a coming-of-age novel with a 17-year time lag, and I suggested that Anna was like a Snow White figure, a woman who has been effectively frozen ever since the trauma she went through when she was 21, at the end of her time at university. She is only now beginning to come back to life, acknowledge her past and lay claim to her future.
Anna has never spoken to anybody about what has happened to her, and as she tells her story she is moving towards the point when it will finally become possible for her to break her silence. It’s a novel about what is not said and about finally finding the courage to speak out. So why is it so difficult for Anna to speak freely? Why has she chosen to cope with what has been done to her by ignoring it, avoiding it, and behaving, more or less, as if it never happened?
Breaking the silence
I read Rebecca Mead’s excellent profile of Mary Beard in The New Yorker because of the light it promised to cast on how Mary Beard has dealt with online abuse. I encourage you to read the whole article, but here are some quotes by way of introduction.
The article opens with an account of a talk Mary Beard gave earlier this year about ‘the many ways that men have silenced outspoken women since the days of the ancients’. It goes on to describe how, in 2000, Beard wrote an essay for the LRB which included an account of being raped in 1978 while travelling in Italy as a graduate student.
‘“To all intents and purposes, this was rape,” she wrote. “I did not want to have sex with the man and had certainly not given consent. If I appeared compliant, it was because I had no option: I was in a foreign city, with enough of the local language to ask directions to the cathedral maybe, but not to search out a reliable protector and explain convincingly what was happening.”‘
Beard did not report the assault, and over the years that followed her own private understanding of what had happened to her shifted: ‘She had even found herself “making sense of the incident as a much more emphatically willed part of my sexual history…”’
‘The difficulty of knowing how to talk about rape is not limited to those who have experienced it, she wrote. It is an enduring cultural problem… “Rape is always a (contested) story, as well as an event,” Beard wrote. “It is in the telling of rape-as-story, in its different versions, its shifting nuances, that cultures have always debated most intensely some of the most unfathomable conflicts of sexual relations and sexual identity.”‘
False allegations and a question about fiction
This column by Eva Wiseman, which appeared in The Observer in March 2013, quotes a Crown Prosecution Service report which found that over a 17-month period there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape, and 35 for false allegations of rape. False allegations of rape, it would seem, are relatively rare: but not so in fiction. The column cites Atonement, Gone Girl and numerous other novels and films as examples:
‘It’s a trope that exists because it’s powerful – it moves on stories and confuses the reader, and builds sympathy in a raw and painful way. It’s a plot device that works, but one that should be questioned… When real occasions of false allegations are published, they’re news for the same reasons – they’re lurid and exciting, and they make you feel something. But they’re news because they are so rare… the idea that it is a widespread problem, a weapon women use, is fiction.’
The truth and the ‘cultural script’
‘It should be a given: not a lot of us endorse the idea that a drunk woman is at least partly responsible for her own rape – but in Australia, one in five do.’
So begins a recent article in The Guardian by Jessica Reed. It goes on to say this:
‘Researchers have long pointed to a widely believed cultural script of what constitutes a “real” rape – the trope of the lone lady being attacked at night as she made her way home through dark alleys. Such a fantasy makes, one suspects, the idea of rape slightly easier to digest than the truth. But these are the facts:
- The great majority of rapists were known to their victims.
- Approximately half of reported sexual assaults involve alcohol consumption (on the victim’s part, the perpetrator’s part, or both)
- Gendered violence is a learned behaviour upheld and reinforced by a broader social context (our family, community, a country’s cultural expectations and popular culture)
- Men are less likely to intervene and try to stop gendered violence when they perceive their peers to find such abuse acceptable
- Social censure (that is, public repudiation of violent behaviours and/or perpetrators) is among the most effective means of preventing violence’
‘A learned behaviour upheld and reinforced by a broader social context’… For more about how such learned behaviours can be changed, see the TED talk by Jackson Katz about preventing sexual violence and domestic abuse.
According to this report in The Guardian, some Oxford and Cambridge colleges are now introducing consent workshops. The article includes a comment from Mary Beard: ‘”Consciousness raising about sexual consent has to be a good idea,” she said. “Whether consciousness is most effectively raised by a compulsory workshop remains to be seen.”‘ Anna Bradshaw, Oxford University Student Union vice president (women), is also quoted: ‘No matter the progress we are making there’s still this massive cultural problem. Rape myths are believed and a victim blaming culture persists.’
Fiction. Cultural script. Popular culture. Myths.
The stories that we tell each other matter. What do we find truthful? What are we willing to believe? And who are we willing to listen to?
More blog posts about After I Left You
- Book group questions for After I Left You
- The After I Left You tour of places in Oxford I love
- Five rules for writing an Oxford novel