Kristin Halbrook and Courtney Summers are two gifted Young Adult novelists whose new books confront the realities of sexual assault. Because their previous books handled topics like abuse and bullying with insight and nuance, I trusted that neither author would be writing rape for shock value, instead exploring the far-reaching effects of it on teenage girls and the worlds they inhabit.
I was right; these books create a dialogue around how rape culture affects teens that is real, frank, and sorely needed. Halbrook’s Every Last Promise starts out with two sentences: “This is a story about heroes. I am not one of them.” It is the story of Kayla, who loves her friends and her small Missouri town so much that she doesn’t even dream of going away to college—at least not in the spring of her junior year. But then there’s a party and Kayla is behind the wheel in an accident that kills one of the town’s golden boys.
The narrative alternates back and forth between that spring and the fall of senior year, when Kayla, now a social outcast, struggles to piece together what happened during that party and trying to decide what she should do about it. If she remains silent, she gets her old life back. If she doesn’t, she faces the wrath of an entire town that will not abide their boys being knocked off the pedestals they’ve put them on.
Summers’ All the Rage begins with a memory of a date told in third person—the night one year ago that Romy went out with Kellan, the sheriff’s son. No one in her small town believed that Kellan raped Romy that night. She’s been ostracized and taunted by her old group of friends ever since and done her best to disassociate, viewing that girl she was before as a different person.
In a passage that made me bawl, Romy reflects on seeing a dead calf being dragged off a field and how its mother continued to call for it: “Sometimes I feel something like that, between my mom and me. That I’m the daughter she keeps calling for so long after she’s gone.” However, Romy’s memory is stirred when she wakes up on the roadside after another party. She can’t recall what happened and her ex-best friend, a girl who also has ties to Romy’s rapist, is missing.
Both of these books examine the nature of silence and secrets, of rumors and power and shame, of rape culture. A YA author myself, I reached out to Kristin and Courtney to expand on that dialogue even further, in relation to books and feminist Young Adult literature overall.
Jezebel: The premises for both of your books could have been ripped right out of the headlines. How did these stories and characters come to you, and what drove you to write them?
Courtney Summers: I’ve been working on All the Rage since around 2009. Over the years, I went through a lot of push-and-pull with Romy’s story. It was always supposed to be a book that explored rape culture and sexual violence and each year I put into it. Each draft, I would strip the story down more and more until there was only Romy and her pain, and a narrative she was trying desperately to reclaim. I often tackle tough subjects in my novels—depression, girl-bullying, suicide, domestic violence—and I do that because these are the things I get angry about, these are the things I have questions about; it’s my way of processing what’s going on in the world around me. I also write about these things because I’m hoping someone who doesn’t think or care or get angry about them will read my books and start thinking about them, start caring, start getting angry. But most importantly, I write about these things because I want the girls going through them to feel less alone.
Kristin Halbrook: “…it’s my way of processing what’s going on in the world around me.” Yes, so much this. Every Last Promise started out as a story about an angry girl in a small, Midwest town. I love writing about angry girls—I am an angry girl—and, honestly, I don’t always wonder how my characters got angry (plot, what?) because there are a million reasons. But that lack of direct focus doesn’t make for a good book. So I had to figure out why Kayla was angry. And yes, the headlines as I was drafting and revising screamed with small towns and sexual assaults and sports heroes.
But what really spurred this examination of rape culture was the first time my eldest daughter came home from school, visibly ruffled, to tell me she thought this guy was following her from the bus stop. She’d broken into a run to get away from him. As a mother, it’s hard to say exactly how this affected me. There was heartbreak and fear, sorrow and memory stroking my skin like a withered hand. A great, potent rekindling of rage. As a mother of daughters, I’ve always prepared them, and myself, for the world we live in. I’ve always known what was out there waiting for them. Writing Every Last Promise was a way to exorcise some personal demons, but it was also a way to try to make sense of what was happening in small towns across America.
Courtney, you also deal with the small-town mentality in All The Rage—which I think can easily translate to a high school mentality or a college campus mentality—and the way people step up to defend the golden boy. Do you have anything to add about that?
CS: That’s just the thing about small towns—in a lot of ways, it’s like never leaving high school. The politics of it all are extremely personal and the lines are so clearly defined. People do not want to step outside of them and a lot of the time that’s out of fear and a lot of the time it’s also strategic; if you align with someone powerful you will, in turn, benefit from that power. Because it’s so easy for a small town environment to become corrupted, situations like the ones we write about quickly become less and less about what is right and what is wrong and more and more about power dynamics and maintaining a status quo. But you can also see this happening on a larger scale too.
When I read your books, I was like, “Fuck YES”—you both actually created a conversation about assault and about rape culture, rather than just using rape as a plot point, something that will show us how evil a villain is or allow a man to play hero around. This is a rhetorical question, probably, but I am guessing you were both fed up with that type of plot device too?
CS: I think it’s so critical, when exploring topics like sexual violence and rape culture, to ask yourself what your work is adding to the larger conversation about sexual violence and rape culture. Are you undermining it? Are you doing more harm than good? I believe those questions should put a very necessary pressure on a creator to treat the materially thoughtfully, carefully, respectfully, and to do the best by it that they can. If you’re not asking yourself these questions or feeling that pressure when you write about these things, that’s a huge problem and it’s going to show in the work. It’s offensive. It’s lazy writing.
KH: I’m so glad you supplied an eloquent answer, Courtney. This whole topic makes me livid. I decided several years ago that I Am Done With That Shit. Sexual violence on Game of Thrones just because PUSHING THE ENVELOPE! Nope. Done with that. Rape scene on Downton Abbey because DRAMA! Nope. Never watched another episode. Media is inundated with sexual violence as a plot point and it is disgusting and lazy (and usually written by a man, naturally).
But the thing is, I get to choose what to consume. I get to turn off my TV, close a book, not buy a product that is lazily marketed. My one opinion isn’t going to matter to the creators of those products. They don’t care about my disapproval. But that’s not my point. My point is that it matters to me. It matters that I don’t let the normalization of rape as a plot point—a way of making men, usually, a villain or a hero on the literal backs of women’s bodies—enter my own life. And that makes for more internal peace, which is something I need when there is so much rape culture surrounding me that I can’t turn off. Which means, as I wrote Kayla’s story, I wanted to be thorough. I wanted to create something real, human, complex and meaningful. There is no shock value in this story.
CS: Kristin, you really drive home how pervasive this is in the media we consume and how much and how often it goes unchecked, not only on a large scale—but on a personal level, too. I wasn’t always at a point in my life where I could recognize it, but once you start opening your eyes to something like rape culture, you realize how insidious it really is. You start thinking about what your time and money is going to. Becoming a more conscious consumer, finding and supporting content that has been thoughtfully and respectfully developed, is very important.
KH: Definitely. And also time consuming. I have—honestly—zero judgment for how others want to consume media, assuming it’s not directly harming others (which can be debatable, but that’s a whole nother discussion), but I’ve found that I’m in a better place when I limit it as much as possible. I mean, I still have to drive down the road and see a billboard for San Diego Tourism that features a back view of a woman with her rear end hanging out, which is not a bad thing on certain levels and I’m certainly no prude, but it’s just this in-your-face reminder that women are objects and hey, here’s an ass to ogle. I joked with my husband about the possibility that it would be a man up there in the same outfit and nope. Would never happen. So there’s no way to shut it all out. Which means it becomes normalized. Rape culture is normalized and I’m trying to be more sensitive to the nuances of that, which includes pointing them out to readers, sure, but mostly people who are closer to me and interact with me on a day-to-day basis.
I’ve seen both of your books compared to Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, which came out in 1999 and is a staple of a lot of high school reading lists now. I graduated high school in 1997. I was in a sexually abusive relationship as a teenager and I had friends who were assaulted in high school. I talked about that outside of school, with my friends in the riot grrrl and punk scenes, but reading Speak was a revelation to me because it validated my experience in the mainstream. I knew a lot of girls who were like Melinda and really just did not talk about what happened.
Your books are both being called Speak for the next generation. What’s different now? What is this generation of teenagers, more than 15 years post-Speak, dealing with?
KH: That comparison, first of all, is a great honor. Speak is an important, revelatory work that isn’t going to stop being relevant to girls and women, ever. I wish a story like it had been available to girls much earlier; it is a responsibility I take seriously to further the discussion about rape and sexual assault in a way that helps everyone understand rape culture and the way it seeps into our lives. I think what we’re seeing more of now is a different kind of silence—and silencing. While rape survivors are still dealing with shame, blame and lack of resources, there is also this huge, terrifying movement to shut down the truth of rape culture through legal channels, blackmail, and further physical violence.
Something I researched a lot about as I wrote Every Last Promise was the array of reasons victims remain silent after sexual assault. For Kayla, in my story, her home, family, friendships and safety are on the line. For a student at the University of Oregon, her personal medical records were on the line. For numerous women, physical threats and public release of their personal information, in the form of doxxing, is on the line. It was recently announced that the rapist from Columbia University is suing the school. Universities are going to be even more wary to believe and support victims effectively if it means it’s going to cost them time and money with lawsuits. Women of color watch their whole lives as their communities are attacked by racist law enforcement agencies in violent, reactionary ways. Teenagers today see this. They’re seeing how the attack against rape victims isn’t only a subversive, shaming culture, but it’s head-on, active attacks against the time, safety, finances, education, and personal lives of those who speak up. That’s terrifying.
CS: I have great admiration and respect for Laurie Halse Anderson. Speak is a powerful and important novel and one of the first I read as a teenager that helped me really understand what consent is and isn’t. It’s a classic for a reason.
I agree with Kristin; the internet, the advent of social media, marks one of the biggest changes for this generation. There are positive things about it—online communities can offer victims and survivors of sexual violence support and people can call out rape culture and problematic media in large numbers on social media and affect change. Demands for accountability have grown, become louder.
But social media can also perpetuate rape culture. It has played a role in several high profile rape cases that we’ve seen in the last few years; as-it’s-happening updates—pictures and videos included—of sexual assault. It’s horrific to see victims aggressively attacked, in the numerous ways Kristin has mentioned, for wanting justice. And when victims can see, online, in real time, just how much of a risk it is to speak up, is it any wonder why many will choose silence? It’s heartbreaking. And it’s important to note we’re not only seeing attacks on victims, we’re seeing a lack of consequences for rapists and abusers. Consider the current and future repercussions of something like that. It’s frightening.
Silence is still something that figures into both of your books and is such a huge part of assault. Can you talk about how you explored that and why you chose to explore it the way you did?
CS: All the Rage focuses on the act of silencing a victim of sexual violence, of taking her truth and twisting it into a more palatable lie. Romy is in a position where everyone knows she was raped by the sheriff’s son, but because he is the sheriff’s son, they don’t want her to talk about it and actively discredit her whenever they can. We see this play out repeatedly in real life all the time. I wanted to explore how devastating that is to victims and survivors and how risky and complicated it can be to speak up.
KH: I mentioned in the last question just a few examples of reasons survivors might choose to remain silent. When your safety has already been compromised, it becomes difficult to want to expose yourself to assault, fear and rape culture, yet again. The reasons for silence are long and they are real. Courtney is so right when she says it can be risky and complicated to speak up. It takes courage, yes, but also a support network that can provide safety, to break silence. I think it’s important for girls to not only read stories where there is heroic speaking up, but also are able to connect with stories that show it’s common—and okay—to choose how and if they want to speak up, at all. Expecting victims to become a victim twice over isn’t our best use of empathy; we can, however, provide lots of resources and love to survivors. Writing Kayla’s story was an effective teaching tool for me. I’m a better resource and advocate for survivors.
Kristin, I’ve heard you refer to Kayla as an unlikeable character. I empathized with her because I think she had a really tough choice to make and that is a very important and realistic story to tell. Can you speak to why you wanted to tell her story?
KH: I think she’ll be thought of as an unlikeable character from those who want to see themselves reflected positively in the stories they read. We all want to do the “right” thing. We all want to be heroes. Young adult fiction is chock-full of “badass heroines” saving the day/world, and that’s how we want to think of ourselves. We all daydream about being in tough situations and being able to navigate them perfectly. But reality is messier than fantasy and it takes some amount of both honesty and empathy to admit that we are all Kaylas. It’s not because we’re terrible people; it’s because a culture of fear makes it safer to stay silent, oftentimes. We all have a sense of self-preservation. That’s natural. Kayla’s story forces the reader to come to terms with the silence in us all. I think it’s important to discuss and dissect that. Those who do might come away with a deeper understanding of themselves and the poisonous culture at large, as well as more empathy for others. Those who don’t might simply come away from Every Last Promise hating Kayla and wondering why she was such a “terrible” person who didn’t do the “right” thing immediately.
Yes! I think you are so right, Kristin. I do find myself cheering for/wanting to be the badass heroine, but real life is way messier and I think a book like yours that shows how to navigate the awful things in life realistically is so essential, especially for teen readers.
Our reactions to trauma come in so many shades, and speaking of that, Courtney, can we talk about how Romy copes after being shamed, bullied, and ignored? I really related to that. After my abusive relationship, I became someone who was acting mostly out of instinct and anger. It destroyed relationships and was really hard for people around me to understand.
CS: That’s exactly where Romy is at, acting mostly out of instinct and anger. She hasn’t dealt with her rape. She tries to separate herself from it as much as possible and when she thinks of it, she thinks of the girl it happened to as a “dead girl.” Every day for her is about maintaining that separation on the inside because she’s constantly confronted with the reality of it on the outside. But because she hasn’t dealt with it, these two sides constantly conflict with each other. This causes a lot of misunderstanding between Romy and the people she cares about and it’s really painful for everyone involved. But emotional survival is messy and it was important for me to portray that because I think we often place a certain burden of expectation on people who are dealing with trauma. We want them to deal with it in ways we can easily understand and ways that demand the least of our attention and assistance—and that’s not fair. I hope that’s something people consider when they’re reading All the Rage and Romy isn’t necessarily coping the way they want her to. Trauma and recovery is complicated.
Of course, we still live in a world where every six months or so there is an article about how YA is too dark and dangerous; meanwhile, schools still promote abstinence-only education. Why is important to write these kinds of books for teens? Do you feel like as YA writers we have any limitations or responsibilities to our audience?
CS: I mentioned earlier that I write about the topics I do because I want readers going through them to feel less alone. It’s an incredibly powerful feeling to see yourself in a book. And when you’re struggling, when you’re living a reality that involves depression, bullying, or any form of violence, it’s often very isolating. Seeing your secrets on a page can be validating and also make them less scary to say out loud to someone else.
That’s not the only reason it’s important to write realistic YA books for teens, no matter how close to the truth they might be for some. They offer a safe space for readers to process and discuss what is happening in the world around them, whether or not they ever directly experience what they’re reading about. Fiction helps us to think outside of ourselves and consider other people’s lives and experiences, which in turn, makes us more empathetic.
The idea we have to protect teenagers from all YA fiction that reflects any kind of gritty reality is ridiculous. It’s not anyone’s place to deny a reader the book they might need at a certain point in their lives just because that book might make us uncomfortable.. And what one reader needs might be very different from what another reader needs. Most teens are great self-censors. If they’re not, this is where parents or guardians or educators can come in and help figure out what kind of books are appropriate for them.
I believe YA authors, all authors, really, have a responsibility to be as honest as they possibly can be in their work.
KH: I completely agree that YA authors have a responsibility to be honest in their work. YA audiences are way too smart to let BS slide under their radar.
I feel lucky to live in and be raising my children in a relatively progressive corner of the US. I’m proud when my school district’s School Spirit Week includes a Pride Day. I’m grateful that sex ed in Seattle schools, while not perfect, is not teaching youth that sex leads to universal sorrow. But I also consider it a serious responsibility to teach my children science, statistics, anti-shame, and safety, at home. I know loads of teens don’t get that, so I suppose I do think about the importance of writing all the messy reality of teenagehood in my books. Books are a place, I think, a lot of us turned to as young people for information and truth we weren’t getting anywhere else. If I can add to that canon of truth, I feel like I’ve done a good thing with my life. Right now, with the thousands of YA books out there, there is nothing a reader can’t find, if they want or need it. Everything from squeaky clean romance to the most heart-rending of stories is available, and I think that’s a good thing.
Stephanie Kuehnert is the author of two young adult novels, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone and Ballads of Suburbia, and a YA memoir forthcoming from Dutton in 2016. She’s a staff writer at Rookie and lives in Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @writerstephanie.