Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Gas Light

You would never know when you met me how angry I am.

When I read that statement from the author, Jessica Knoll, in the essay about her own story behind her novel, I knew that I believed that too.
Anger is like the gas in your stove, until you light it you don't need it, notice it and then again so is the leak that permeates your home and puts you in danger.  And if you are lucky the gas company comes and shuts it off before it is too late.   That is what anger is like.  Anger is always there and it can take one switch to turn it on and that can be anything that makes you feel unsafe, afraid, alone and vulnerable.  That s was fear and anger do, they work in tandem and can be life saving and in turn life taking.

I recall when Anna, the maid on Downton Abby  was raped,  the actress who played her received numerous letters from women sharing their stories of their own sexual assault(s)  and the actress felt compelled to respond to them all.  That is life and art intersecting in ways that at time can offer the healing, the support or just the relief that in everyday living is non-existent.  

There is not a day I don't feel angry, alone and (rarely) afraid but it only takes a drop in a full glass to make that overflow.  For me recently it was the sub teaching job at the World School when I came in one day to the Vice Principal informing me that on the day I was not there and another sub was in my place, three or four boys shared condoms, a discussion and exchange about their purpose and use.   There was something about this story that rang false and the lack of English speaking witnesses and no adults to corroborate the event as wells as the delay in telling me (2 days later) worried me immensely.  

Three of the boys are Spanish speaking, one reminded me of a Spanish version of Damien in the Omen, a sinister looking child devil spawn that outwardly he seemed adorable, but in the month I was there I observed the most sinister and bizarre behavior that truly disturbed me.  So when I heard about this incident I became overtly concerned, almost obsessively over protective and stressed, not for the other students, as the majority of that class was the 4 males, but that they would in turn say I did something to them,  and in turn the blame laying and odd need to deflect when caught is often what children do.  I, again, was not there but I did not trust them, I had seen too many outbursts and finally was now recording some of them to translate them at home later; they only confirmed and validated my increasing suspicion and loathing of these clearly damaged and disturbed boys.

What made the situation worse is that these are non English speaking boys, ages 11-14 and already in a situation that places them as "in need".   When you are a boy, be you American, not, English speaking or not, and you are highly charged, feeling needy and of course confused about your sexuality with raging hormones this places you and those around you in the equivalent of a tornado.  Frankly the only tornado I ever want to be a part of is the one in the Wizard of Oz, but one in a school where I have no allies, no support system, I wanted out. 

I have seen boys in many schools this past few years act utterly insane, I have heard more and more stories of rape, assault and sexting tales of children to the point I have no faith in our schools to provide safety and security for anyone - be it children or adults.  The story of the Teacher raped and murdered by a 14 year old is enough for me.   So I was relieved that day when they school said they heard I was "yelling" at the students and they wanted me to leave; yes I was yelling and every day hoping someone would come to witness the bizarre antics and relieve me of this...and no one did.  No one wanted to know as then they would have to do something so it is easier to get rid of me and  I left happily. I have never felt better knowing that I would never set foot in that school again.   Those boys are a danger.  How many others are?

For many women we are not always going to be lucky to be alive frankly.  I am and not one person helped me then when I needed it and I get it, I really do (and no that is not about the school this was about what happened to me on 2/8/12).  To actually do something takes effort, and few want to do the heavy lifting until the gas explodes and by then it is too late.
By every conventional measure, Jessica Knoll’s thriller, “Luckiest Girl Alive,” was a wildly successful literary debut. It sold more than 450,000 copies and spent four months on the best-seller lists. Foreign rights sold in more than 30 countries. The actress Reese Witherspoon optioned the film rights, and Ms. Knoll wrote the screenplay.

Still, Ms. Knoll couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that she had let her readers down. Even though her book was fiction, she felt she hadn’t fully told the truth.

The white lie she told over and over, at readings and book signings and in interviews, was complicated and hard to untangle. She assured fans that some of the darker elements of her novel, which centers on a successful young woman who struggles with the lingering trauma of a sexual assault, were purely fiction. She deflected questions from readers who wanted to know how she had managed to portray a rape and its aftermath so vividly and realistically, saying she had heard stories from friends and classmates.

She is no longer dodging those questions. On Tuesday, Ms. Knoll published a raw and chilling essay describing how the gang rape depicted in her novel was drawn from her own experience in high school, when she was sexually assaulted by three boys at a party, and then tormented by classmates who labeled her a slut.

“I was so conditioned to not talk about it that it didn’t even occur to me to be forthcoming,” Ms. Knoll said during a recent interview at her publisher’s office in Midtown Manhattan. “I want to make people feel like they can talk about it, like they don’t have to be ashamed of it.”

In the essay, published on Lenny, a newsletter and website for young women, Ms. Knoll described how some of the most harrowing and horrific scenes in her novel came from her fragmented memories of a party that went devastatingly wrong: blacking out and then regaining consciousness when a boy was assaulting her; waking up later in a bathroom, seeing a toilet bowl of blood-tinged water, and not understanding where it came from; finding herself in a strange bed the next morning beside a different boy, who laughed it off as a wild night; going to a clinic for emergency contraception and asking the doctor if what happened to her counted as rape, and feeling stunned when the doctor said she wasn’t qualified to answer the question.

The essay sparked a flood of supportive messages on social media from readers who thanked Ms. Knoll for coming forward.

It wasn’t until she was in her early 20s and in counseling that her therapist helped define what had happened. “I was so young that it was very hard to make sense of it,’’ she said, adding: “I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to deal with it.’’

Ms. Knoll, 32, grew up in a Roman Catholic family in the Philadelphia suburbs, and attended the Shipley School, a prestigious prep institution. She read Sylvia Plath and Flannery O’Connor and dreamed of becoming a writer.

Before she was assaulted, Ms. Knoll was a happy, social 15-year-old who played sports and was on the dance team. Afterward, she said, she shut down and felt crushingly isolated, unable to connect even with friends. Some classmates taunted her and scrawled “trash slut” inside her locker.

“No one was treating me like a victim; they were treating me like I was a perpetrator, like I was getting what I deserved,” she said.

She added: “The message I internalized was that nothing bad happened; you did something wrong.”
Ms. Knoll said that she took no action against her attackers, who never suffered any consequences. She does not name them in the essay. Shaming them is not the point, she said.

“It’s not directed at them,” she said. “It’s more like, ‘I’m going to tell the story this time.’ This is a very empowering thing for me to be able to say, actually, this is what happened to me, and to take ownership of my own narrative.”

In college, as an English major at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., she tried to reinvent herself. Still, she could never bring herself to let loose at parties the way her friends and classmates did. She was too scared.

After graduating, she moved to New York City and took an internship at Parenting magazine, then worked as an editorial assistant at Popular Science. From there, she moved to Cosmopolitan, where she rose through the ranks to become a senior editor.

While at Cosmo, Ms. Knoll began writing “Luckiest Girl Alive.” She decided to use fiction to address her high school trauma.

“I knew I wanted to write about that in some way, because it was such a visceral experience that stayed with me my whole life,” she said.

“Luckiest Girl Alive” is narrated by TifAni FaNelli, an ambitious 28-year-old editor at a women’s magazine who writes sex columns and is obsessed with projecting a perfect image. Her life is derailed when she participates in a documentary about her high school, and is forced to confront the rage she has carried with her since she was raped as a teenager. The novel toggles between past and present, and takes a shocking, violent turn in the middle when a second crime devastates the school.

After Simon & Schuster published “Luckiest Girl Alive” last May, Ms. Knoll was flooded with messages from women who said they had endured traumas similar to TifAni’s. Many said they were comforted by the dedication page of the book, which reads: “To all the TifAni FaNellis of the world. I know.”

Those messages prompted Ms. Knoll to wonder why she had kept silent.

With another big book tour on the horizon — she is traveling to 16 cities to promote the paperback this spring — she decided to stop hiding behind her fictional creation. In January, she contacted Jessica Grose, editor of Lenny, the email newsletter and website started by the actress and writer Lena Dunham and “Girls” showrunner Jenni Konner, and pitched an essay about how she drew on her experience for her novel.

In an email, Ms. Dunham said that she was “honored” to publish the essay. “This word is overused but the piece is the definition of brave,” she said.

There have been hard moments for Ms. Knoll, both in reliving that awful night and in the painful conversations with friends and family that have followed. Her younger brother never knew what happened to her until he read about it in her novel, she said.

In her professional life, Ms. Knoll had been discreet about the autobiographical threads of her novel.
“We were all shocked and moved by what we read,” Jonathan Karp, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster, said in response to the essay. “It’s a little bit like finding out something about a friend that you never knew, and it makes you respect them even more for their strength and their character.”

There is also relief. A few months ago, Ms. Knoll attended a book event in New Jersey, where a woman asked her if she had interviewed rape victims while researching the novel. For the first time, Ms. Knoll answered honestly.

“I said, ‘Yeah, that happened to me,’” Ms. Knoll said. “It was kind of like, ‘Why have I waited so long to say that? What was so hard about that?’”

No comments:

Post a Comment