The scene in the hotel room.Posted: June 10, 2014
*Trigger warning: Child abuse and rape*
*SPOILERS for The Girl in the Road, Open City by Teju Cole, and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie*
There’s a scene in The Girl in the Road that’s upsetting a lot of people. Understandably so. It’s a scene of child abuse. I was told several times, by prospective agents and editors, that I needed to “dial it back” or “tone it down.” One of the reasons I chose my agent was that he was the only one to confirm my instinct: that I was telling the truth, and needed to leave it be.
In the words of one Goodreads reviewer, “describing a child molestation event as some sort of religious event for a child automatically earns a zero score.” She, like others, confuse reportage with advocacy—that I’m somehow condoning the abuse by describing it as anything but the horrific act that it is, and in a stern authorial voice. But the event occurs within the first-person perspective of a fifty-year-old mentally ill woman whose emotional growth was stunted, in part, by things that happened to her at age seven. Like the scene in the hotel room. The rest of her life, as described in the novel, witness that what happened in the hotel room was incredibly damaging, no matter the story she tells herself about it.
Child abuse rarely occurs at the hands of strange men in dark alleys. It usually occurs with adults—including adult women—who are beloved figures in an intimate caretaking relationship with the child. That is how they get to abuse. Protectiveness of, and even reverence for, an abuser well into adulthood is part of the spectrum of abuse survivor behavior. That is an extremely painful truth of the human experience.
So. Kill the messenger?
I understand the feeling, actually. I remember two distinct instances where I got really, really mad at the author: Teju Cole for Open City and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for Half of a Yellow Sun. In the former, the first-person protagonist is confronted by a woman he raped in high school; his reaction is basically “meh,” and he continues with his long walks and pithy observations. I was furious at him, and at Teju Cole for writing him, thinking, “I liked this character; now I’ve completely checked out of his narrative and don’t care about anything that happens to him.”
But. Mr. Cole was telling the truth. Many rapists would have exactly that reaction; it’s consistent with someone who was emotionally disconnected enough to rape in the first place, to also have no emotional reaction when confronted about it. That is also an extremely painful truth of the human experience. Mr. Cole was not advocating for it, but he was reporting it. He wrote about it here.
Similarly, in Half of a Yellow Sun, the sympathetic “soul” of the novel, Ugwu, participates in a gang rape after conscription into the Nigerian civil war. Again, I completely checked out after that happened. I didn’t care what happened to Ugwu anymore. But that reaction was deeply instructive to me. As Ms. Adichie says in a talk with Zadie Smith (see here, at 24:35), “It would be false to pretend that we go into war and we somehow emerge as pristine beings.”
In other words, people we love commit evil acts. Sometimes we commit evil acts. Sometimes those acts go addressed in the lifetime of the story we’re reading. Sometimes they don’t.
As in life.