Book Review: What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler
Critically acclaimed memoirist Aaron Hartzler, author of Rapture Practice, takes an unflinching look at what happens to a small town when some of its residents commit a terrible crime. This honest, authentic debut novel—inspired by the events in the Steubenville rape case—will resonate with readers who’ve ever walked that razor-thin line between guilt and innocence that so often gets blurred, one hundred and forty characters at a time.
The party at John Doone’s last Saturday night is a bit of a blur. Kate Weston can piece together most of the details: Stacey Stallard handing her shots, Ben Cody taking her keys and getting her home early. . . . But when a picture of Stacey passed out over Deacon Mills’s shoulder appears online the next morning, Kate suspects she doesn’t have all the details. When Stacey levels charges against four of Kate’s classmates, the whole town erupts into controversy. Facts that can’t be ignored begin to surface, and every answer Kate finds leads back to the same questions: Who witnessed what happened to Stacey? And what responsibility do they have to speak up about what they saw?
The relative calm of Kate’s Iowa high school is broken when the police show up and arrest four basketball players on charges of sexual assault, rape, and distribution of child pornography. What follows is an utterly sickening look at the pervasiveness of rape culture. When Stacey Stallard doesn’t show up to school the Monday after Dooney’s big party, rumors go around about how blackout drunk she was. The above mentioned picture circulates widely. When Mr. Johnston calls her name for attendance (she’s absent), Randy fake coughs the word “whore.” And that’s the general consensus about Stacey–she’s a whore, a slut. Kate notes, “[Stacey] has no problem attracting guys—any guys. All the guys. Jocks, preps, burnouts. Sometimes, it seems as though she’s dated half the junior class.” Even before we get very far into the story, it seems like a safe bet to think that Stacey will be blamed for getting raped. After all, she’s a slut, right? When Kate looks at Twitter, she sees messages like these:
Wait, the police can take my phone cause U R A SLUT?
Gonna rape her good for SURE now.
White trash ho was so drunk she couldn’t tell a dick from a donut.
What u get for inviting a TRAMP to the party.
If we lose state cause of this whore she’s gonna get more than raped.
The messages make Kate feel sick. They make me feel sick. Kate is initially shocked at the vehement outrage everyone seems to instantly have for STACEY, not for any of the star basketball players. I only wish I could feel shocked. Anyone who has paid any attention to the world at all is familiar with rape culture. Hartzler spends 336 pages making us take a long, hard look at exactly how rape culture plays out in this story. A reporter shares that allegedly there is a video of Stacey being raped—though authorities haven’t been able to find it. The principal’s statement is sickening and just the first of many times he defends these “fine” boys:
“These young men are innocent until proven guilty. It is important to understand that we are dealing with allegations against four students who have been examples of fine sportsmanship….”
The news report is also sickening, talking about “troubling” reports of Stacey’s behavior—the same tired old garbage that is always trotted out: she was drunk, she was dressed provocatively, she was maybe dating one of the boys. In other words, she was asking for it. I could quote passage after passage supporting these points (these “fine” boys, this “slutty” girl).
Kate and a friend are the only ones who seem to spend any time at all thinking about Stacey and how this is affecting her. At times I felt this overwhelming awe that a whole entire town could so easily champion these “good boys” and vilify the victim. Not awe because it seemed impossible, just awe that it is so completely possible. When I was a teenager, a friend of mine was raped. A few weeks after it happened, her mom called me. She wasn’t calling to see if I thought her daughter was doing okay; she was calling to ask me if I thought her daughter was lying. This was well over 20 years ago now, but I still remember everything: where I stood in my room, what my phone looked like, how I instantly felt sick that her own mother didn’t believe her. That was the first time I remember really seriously thinking god help you if you’re raped–even your own mother might not believe the truth. Of course, in this case, the truth might just be on film, if anyone can track down the alleged recording.
There is a lot to talk about here. I have pages and pages of notes. Hartzler’s novel addresses the role social media plays in rumors and bullying, rape culture, slut-shaming, speaking up, and consent. He pushes Kate to think about what consent looks like and models both what it does and does not look like in her relationship with Ben. There is a wonderful scene where Mr. Johnston takes Reggie to task for making it seem like he couldn’t help himself if he were to rape a drunk girl. “You’re saying that our natural state as men is ‘rapist,'” Mr. Johnston says to Reggie. He asks the boys in class to brainstorm what you could do with a drunk girl instead of rape her. Bring her water, drive her home, find her friends, just walk away. THIS is the conversation that we all need to be having—not girls, here’s how you don’t get raped, but boys, here’s how you don’t rape.
Hartzler’s novel is not just phenomenal, it is important. It is an unflinching examination of just how exactly rape culture comes to exist. If you’ve somehow made it this far in life without really thinking about what rape culture looks like, Hartzler’s book will make it clear to you. And if you read this and think, but that’s not really what is happening, you need to look around you. Look at the news. Look at Steubenville. Look at Owen Labrie‘s case, where the girl said no at least 3 times, but “the defense maintained that she did not resist actively enough.” Look anywhere, really. Powerful and terrifying, this is another title that definitely makes my top books of 2015 list.
And, hey, parents reading this: go talk with your kids about consent. NOW. Think they’re too young? They’re never too young for that conversation. Here are some places to start if you need some food for thought for starting this VITAL ongoing conversation.
How to Teach Consent to Kids in Five Simple Steps
It’s Never Too Early to Teach Children About Consent and Boundaries
How Parents Talk to Children About Consent
How to Have the Consent Talk with Your Kids
Off to College is Too Late for the Consent Talk
Check in First: How to Talk About Sexual Consent
Planned Parenthood’s Consent and Rape section
For further reading also see:
The Steubenville High School Rape Case
Teen Librarian Toolbox’s Sexual Violence in Young Adult Literature hub
Buzzfeed: What Is Rape Culture?
#NoMoreShittySons, a Storify by Carrie Mesrobian
Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss
Publication date: 09/22/2015
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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