THE OTHER CAMINO
A BLOG ABOUT POSSIBILITIES
Special thanks to BookClubbish, which posted this essay on their website.
In the opening scene of my novel Here We Lie, a woman stands behind a podium, addressing a crowd of reporters. She takes a shaky breath and tells the story of a horrific assault that happened fourteen years earlier, at the hands of a man now running for US Senate.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
This scene was a regular occurrence in 2017— yeah, I’m looking at you, Moore, and Franken and Franks and Conyers and Fahrenhold, not to mention the disgraced men from movie and recording studios and news anchor desks. And there’s no reason to suspect that 2018 won’t bring fresh horrors, as the #MeToo movement gains momentum, and more people come forward, liberating themselves from decades-long shame and fear.
Advance reviews of Here We Lie have talked about its timeliness, its pertinence to a world that, ready or not, is finally listening to the stories of women.
As one reviewer on Goodreads asked, “Ms. DeBoard, do you have a crystal ball?”
But if you have any insight into the publishing world, you probably know that the finished (copyedited, proofread, etc.) manuscript was in the hands of my editor at Park Row Books in February 2017, and the bulk of the story was written during the summer of 2016. Maybe the world was listing in this direction as more and more of us said, “This is simply not okay.” But at the time I was digging into the narrative, I didn’t see what was on the horizon.
In 2016, when I was watching news clips about the election with an interest bordering on obsession, I wasn’t thinking of my latest work in progress as a book about sexual assault, although that’s certainly an aspect of Here We Lie that resonates now. I was more focused on female friendships, in the ways that women treat women, and the broader perception of what it means to be a woman in the public arena.
Yet real life—and a world where everyone was suddenly taking political sides—began encroaching on art. The more I wrote, the more it seemed that certain things were begging to be said, things I wasn’t even sure I wanted to say. Like anyone else, I hold political opinions, but I typically think of my fiction writing as an escape from current realities, rather than a dive into the deep end. But the outside world, with all its noise, was simply unavoidable. In my once-a-month writing group, we all had the same lament, regardless of political persuasion: It’s hard to create right now. It was hard not to let the world, a giant ball of tension, bump up against our creative instincts.
In the midst of imminent election craziness, a person I’d known for my entire adult life posted something on Facebook calling Hillary Clinton the c-word. Now, I hadn’t expected this person to be a Clinton supporter, mind you, but the level of vitriol was beyond rational—it was frightening. Clinton had dared to be a female with political aspirations in a public place, and for this she was attacked in crude terms that related to her own femininity. Suddenly, these kinds of slurs were everywhere, it seemed—in the comments sections, of course, but also, increasingly, in everyday life. One Saturday morning, as I rushed through the Walmart parking lot with a shopping list in hand, a man used the same epithet toward me in a profanity-laced rage. For not complying with his request for money, I was insulted. My own femininity was a weapon that could be used against me.
Around this time, in the revision phase with a deadline looming, I had been writing and rewriting one particular scene in Here We Lie. Megan and Lauren, the book’s main characters, are riding their bikes back to their college campus when a truck with three men pulls up beside them—the same men whose advances they have turned down earlier. I kept edging toward and pulling back from the vulnerability of these young women on the side of the road, with no witnesses in sight, the same way I might watch a Law & Order: SVU episode—wanting the story, not wanting the story. The scene was fictional, but it kept bringing back moments from my own life, and therefore moments I assume are universal, too—moments where you feel particularly defenseless and exposed, where you suddenly realize that things can go very, very badly, through no fault of your own.
Here We Lie isn’t my story; I’ve survived the casual, offhanded sort of misogyny that is linked with being a woman—things that shame and sting and quietly become part of the people that we are. But I found myself more and more wanting to write this particular story, to go to that dark place, to think about the challenges a woman might face when coming forward to publicly name an attacker.
I’m not sure when I made the decision to set the story during a senate campaign, and to make one of the characters a man of immense political power. But it’s fair to say that with the noise of the 2016 election season in the background, maybe I couldn’t separate my art from life. There’s a particular kind of power that comes with government—also, with movie moguls and entertainers—that makes them seem untouchable and beyond reproach. Like Goldman Sachs--too big to fail.
The #MeToo movement was everywhere, the hashtag popping up on my Facebook feed, mentioned in my students’ writing samples. Though I knew those stories were out there, this time, the issue wasn’t going away. This time, powerful men were proving they weren’t too big to fail. Looking back, #MeToo feels inevitable, like trying to keep a lid on a boiling pot.
Enough was finally enough.
In November, when Roy Moore’s accusers came forward, friends who had read advanced copies of Here We Lie began to reach out to me. Can you believe what’s in the news? and For a second there, I thought I was reading your book.
“I know,” I said, sick to my stomach in the way of déjà vu experiences and dreams where I felt trapped, feet too slow and cumbersome to move the body out of danger. ARCs of my novel had been shipped, and reviews were beginning to come in, and I sat in front of the television, paralyzed. I ached for the women as they told their stories, and then again as they faced skepticism and criticism. Over and over, it seemed, otherwise compassionate, decent people (including yes, women) asked: But why would they wait so long to come forward?
I submit one possible answer with my character in Here We Lie, but even though I was describing a fictional situation, that answer was still complex. Megan faces the shame of being a victim, the fear of not being believed in a world stacked in favor of her attacker, the misplaced self-doubt (did I somehow bring this on myself?), the loss of confidence and purpose. Every assault must result in some variation of these feelings, with the added complications of time, place, and people, not to mention the factors that can’t be fathomed peeking from the outside in.
From that outside vantage point, it seems there are always two choices: come forward or stay silent. From the comfortable position of “not me too,” it seems simple enough. But when I was writing these scenes for Megan, I knew it wasn’t an easy choice. And for far too many real women, there is no choice at all.
In Here We Lie, the women are complicated—not virginal or perfect, not the sort of victim we seem to demand in headlines, to propel our collective righteous sense of anger. It’s easy to use 1950s standards of decorum against the women of today--Look at that tight skirt. Why did she go to the party in the first place?—and for some reason more difficult to place the blame properly. Maybe we want an easy answer—a solution that seems within our grasp. But if women would only dress more modestly, or be careful not to put themselves into certain situations… if we didn’t have a drink and we kept away from traditionally male fields… if we didn’t smile so much (or smiled more), if we didn’t walk down the street alone… The temptation has been there, for generations, to blame the victims and shame the accusers, because we haven’t wanted to go to that other dark place. What causes some men to attack and violate women, strangers or acquaintances, subordinates or even spouses? How have we as a society allowed this, and now that we are staring it head-on, how can we affect real change?
Despite Here We Lie being set in the world of political players, I wasn’t intending to make a political statement. I’m sure there will be readers who encounter Here We Lie down the road, who believe that I was referencing a specific senator or trying to push an agenda. That’s probably inevitable, and in some ways, natural—doesn’t all of life right now seem to circle back to political views? But I’m hoping instead it can start a few discussions, and maybe elicit a bit of empathy. The characters in Here We Lie are the product of my own imagination, but far too many women—those who have come forward, and those who haven’t—live with this reality every day.
As I wrote in the afterward of the novel, this story is part of a much larger issue, and I’m humbled to submit one small piece.
Paula Treick DeBoard