All the Dragons in the World – The Depiction of Sexual Abuse Exposure and Escape in YA Literature (a guest post by author Ash Parsons)
Today as part of the #SVYALit Project (Sexual Violence in Young Adult Literature), we are honored to host author Ash Parsons. You can find all the #SVYALit Project posts here.
There are many beloved, necessary novels in YA literature which deal with characters experiencing and exposing or otherwise escaping abuse (sexual and other). These books are valuable. These books are beloved for a reason. My issue is not with these books, but with the sense that they are often perceived as depicting the proper “way” which survivors of abuse should act to “save themselves.” The exposure-and-escape narrative is so prevalent that it can sometimes feel like other stories about abuse, stories which depict the consequences of action or inaction, or the manifold ways which abuse is experienced or endured, are somehow less valid or are “wrong.” This is a subtle, poisonous pressure which the heroic narrative (and by extension, our society) places on survivors. Our culture’s emphasis on competition, on winners and losers, on victory, places every encounter in a win/lose, triumph-over-adversity binary. In other words, if you don’t fight, you can’t win. Or worse, if you don’t fight, you somehow are to blame.
It’s understandable that readers and writers often want and need to tell stories of escape and triumph over abusers, but there are many other stories that need to be told. When you study national statistics and spend even a little time with survivors of abuse, hidden stories emerge over and over. While it is impossible to tell with absolute certainty, statistics indicate that far more abuse remains hidden than ever gets exposed.*
When I wrote Still Waters I wanted to show that exposure is sometimes the wrong course of action. Or at least I wanted to show how a character could perceive that speaking out could be the wrong course. I wanted to write characters that felt trapped not because they lacked courage, insight, or resources, but because – actually – they had made an informed decision using the knowledge at hand and had determined their best course was to outlast the abuse, instead of speaking out about it.
I hate the implication, even the language, which we use to speak of abuse – “fight” “speak out” “take action” “come forward” – the language itself is oppressive to survivors who through whatever circumstance or choice– do not speak out. In the hero’s narrative, we like to think in oppositional terms – the hero faces the dragon, and the dragon is slain.
But the dragon can devour. Or there might be more than one dragon, all breathing fire. Or the hero may spend a season in the dragon’s grasp and then escape. There are countless different narratives which may happen, all different stories beyond slaying the dragon.
In no way do I mean to imply that fighting isn’t a good thing, just that there is a skewed emphasis on fighting in our stories. That it is cast as the “right” action because of cathartic release -we want our characters to fight and to win.
But that’s not always the way it works out in life. One of the reasons I wrote this book is because I wanted to have both the physical abuse of Jason and sexual abuse of Cyndra to be part of the tapestry of another story. A different story- what I mean is, the story isn’t “how I escaped abuse.” While their home situation absolutely helps form the pixelated picture of where they are and why they are there, it’s not the primary focus of the plot.
I used to teach in a rural 7th-12th grade school. After that, I became a foster parent. Through both of these experiences I was reminded how much young people can hide, and how frequently they are highly motivated to do so. Often young people’s decisions to hide awful injustices is due to a clear-eyed understanding of “what would happen next.”
In foster parent classes we learned that the number one reason for case referrals was parental abandonment. The second was neglect. Sexual abuse was near the bottom of the list because it is so often hidden successfully by the abused. Not in collusion with their abuser, but in desperation – because the devil you know is better than the fire of the unknown, or worse, all the horrible stories that you also know. Normalization of abuse is both a misapprehension and a coping mechanism. Survivors often do not realize the true extent of their abuse (in other words, that it isn’t “normal”). This is because telling themselves that it “isn’t that bad” is a coping mechanism as well as a lesson which may have been ingrained through their family culture or their community at large.
I wanted to write a story where a character, Cyndra, experienced sexual abuse and didn’t “do anything” about it. I didn’t want to make it the purpose of the story for either character (Cyndra or Jason) to “triumph” over their abuser, or for them to even try. I wanted to write Cyndra not to accept, but to endure, and to triumph (if we simply must bow to the heroic language) through her resilience. Through writing this character, I also wanted to reflect the reality for all too many young people. Statistical analysis indicates that sexual violence and abuse go unreported the vast majority of the time, often because the survivor has compelling reasons to keep the abuse hidden. This is a truth lived daily by many adolescents, which I wanted to reflect in my work.
Sometimes dragons are endured.
*Hidden Fires -Looking at Statistics on Incident Reporting:
The Children’s Bureau (an Office of Administration for Children and Families – which is part of the larger US Department of Health and Human Services) – puts out an annual report, Child Maltreatment: National Data About Child Abuse and Neglect Known to CPS Agencies. 2013 is the most recent published year. According to this report, child protective service referrals nationally are statistically divided as follows:
“Four-fifths (79.5%) of victims were neglected, 18.0 percent were physically abused, and 9.0 percent were sexually abused. In addition, 10.0 percent of victims experienced such “other” types of maltreatment as “threatened abuse,” “parent’s drug/alcohol abuse,” or “safe relinquishment of a newborn.” States may code any maltreatment as “other” if it does not fit in one of the NCANDS categories.” (http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/cm2013.pdf#page=20 )
The aggregated national data largely reflects what I learned in foster parent classes – abandonment/neglect is the number one reason for CPS referral, by a staggeringly large margin. Sexual abuse is way, way down the list, actually below “other” as a category of referral.
Now let’s take that knowledge, that data, and hold it in mind next to some other data. According to statistics reported by RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) “Sexual assault is one of the most under reported crimes, with 68% still being left unreported.1” (https://www.rainn.org/get-information/statistics/reporting-rates )
And according to the FBI, “child sex abuse is at epidemic levels where tens of thousands of children are believed to be sexually exploited in the country each year. “The level of paedophilia is unprecedented right now,” Joseph Campbell of the FBI told the BBC.” (Time Magazine – linkhttp://time.com/3978236/american-children-sold-sex/)
Last but not least, the findings of a study published in the British Medical Journal Lancet, “Children in highly developed countries suffer abuse and neglect much more often than is reported by official child-protective agencies, according to the findings of the first in a comprehensive series of reports on child maltreatment”
“The official statistics agencies produce are conservative estimates of probably the lowest level of child maltreatment,” says Dr. Cathy Spatz Widom, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who specializes in the long-term effects of child abuse and is a lead author on one of the Lancet studies.” (– Time Magazine -http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1863650,00.html)
You can see what I’m getting at here. The first statistic, the percentage of cases which are referred to DHR, coupled with the last one, shows you the hidden story. By and large, sexual abuse is not reported, neither by the survivor, nor by anyone who may come into contact with the survivor.
Furthermore, as regards sexual abuse, “a 2000 study found that family members account for 34 percent of people who abuse juveniles, and acquaintances account for another 59 percent. Only 7 percent were strangers.” ( http://www.newsweek.com/2015/07/03/hunt-child-sex-abusers-happening-wrong-places-345926.html )
There is sadly ample reason to believe that the sexual abuse of children and youth is hidden epidemic. As much as we like to hear the heroic narrative of exposure and escape, it is simply not the case for the majority of survivors.
About STILL WATERS by Ash Parsons
A gritty, powerful debut that evokes The Outsiders. You won’t be able to look away.
High school senior Jason knows how to take a punch. Living with an abusive father will teach a kid that. But he’s also learned how to hit back, earning a reputation at school that ensures no one will mess with him. Even so, all Jason truly wants is to survive his father long enough to turn eighteen, take his younger sister, Janie, and run away.
Then one day, the leader of the in crowd at school, Michael, offers to pay Jason to hang out with him. Jason figures Michael simply wants to be seen with someone with a tough rep and that the money will add up fast, making Jason’s escape plan a reality. Plus, there’s Michael’s girl, Cyndra, who looks at Jason as if she sees something behind his false smile. As Jason gets drawn deeper into Michael’s game, the money keeps flowing, but the stakes grow ever more dangerous. Soon, even Jason’s fists and his ability to think on his feet aren’t enough to keep his head above water.
Still Waters is an intense, gritty thriller that pulls no punches—yet leaves you rooting for the tough guy. A powerful, dynamic debut. (Publisher’s Book Description)
Published April 2015 by Philomel Book. ISBN: 9780399168475
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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