Happy Lives: how the literary Canon doesn’t handle sexual assault TW

Well Hi There!

I haven’t scared you away yet? Hmmm. Must be doing something wrong.

Last week I talked about the myth of the tortured creative and why I personally think we need to completely re-work that social narrative. If you’re curious and haven’t see that post,  check it out!

Today I want to talk about a similar, but unrelated topic, specifically the way we deal with survivors of sexual assault in our books, our movies, our TV shows. For obvious reasons this post gets a trigger warning.

*** TRIGGER WARNING*** Discussion of sexual assault, real and fictional. If you or someone you know has been hurt by sexual assault the national sexual assault help line is 1-800-656-4673, or go to www.rainn.org and open their live chat 24-7, whenever you need it.

I’m going to be focusing on literature today, mostly because that is the medium I interact with most as a human. But, the principles I’m discussing largely cross apply to the big and small screens and all other forms of media.Where are the survivors? The plucky heroes and heroines that live and laugh and love despite the horrors of life. Those lucky characters who dance in and out of the rain?

It’s a consistent problem I have noticed in literature. Particularly in the literature I have been assigned in school. Starting as early as my freshman year of High School the people I read about in books weren’t allowed to be happy or plucky or even particularly successful unless it was an empty and unfulfilled sort of success. This is a problem regardless of what type of survivor hood we’re discussing. The canon of literature is riddled with the dregs of humanity. People without a scrap of human decency combined in with society’s downtrodden and the tragically misunderstood elite (I’m looking at you Mr. Gatsby).

This is all well and good, until you realize that canon literature is by and large shaping the way students think. It’s shaping how students think about the world (Well taught English classes being one part grammar, one part critical thinking skills, and about three parts self-exploration), how they think about themselves, and how they think about others. With this in mind, it no longer makes sense to use this material when teaching our youth… especially when we do not balance this material with the other side of the story. Balance it with people who are happy, lives that work out well, and people who have some troubles but are by and large fulfilled and contented by the end of the story. We need narratives that prove that this is possible, and we need them included not only in feel-good reading that people can do in their personal time, but also included in the great canon of literature that we are taught to revere and study throughout our academic lives. Why? Because without that balance we are teaching that, in some way, suffering is a part of greatness.

While I think that this imbalance in something that we need to address in our curriculum as a whole, there is one particular place in which I think we have missed the mark in a dangerous and damaging way. Sexual assault. Particularly, I think, in the literature through which we study sexual assault in High School.

For some context here. By the time I was in High School I was already a sexual assault survivor, a fact which I was dealing with in nightmares and panic attacks and memories I fought desperately to convince myself weren’t real. I had PTSD (albeit it would take several years before this would be accurately diagnosed), and my world was in dire need of examples of sexual assault happening and life going happily on. Instead, during my Freshman and Sophomore years (9th and 10th grade) the two books I was given to study that addressed the subject were Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. To give credit where credit is due Laurie Halse Anderson, in an interview at the back of the book, has since stated that her novel is less about the aftermath of sexual assault than it is the realities of teenage depression. That said, I came away from both books still desperately searching for a fully realized recovery in my paper and ink worlds. While Speak does end on a somewhat hopeful note in that the book’s conclusion starts what may be a successful recovery process, the majority of both texts detail young women who, after experiencing an assault, must look to piece the world back together with varying, and often non-existent levels of community support. At least, at the time, I wasn’t very hopeful about either book.

Spoiler alert, a brief synopsis of each: Speak follows a young teenager through a year of High School as she is dealing with trauma and depression, while also being isolated from her peers because she called the cops at a party the summer prior, an instinctive response to having been sexually assaulted at the same party, and not knowing what else to do.

The Bluest Eye is largely a story of community failure, told predominantly through the perspective of a young girl within the community, while another girl is systematically rejected, and eventually made the victim of incest, resulting in a pregnancy which miscarries and leaves the girl, apparently, insane.

Both of those are gross oversimplifications of books I love. Please don’t mistake my intentions. These types of narratives must be included in our literature courses. Literature is a haven wherein we can explore topics that are often otherwise too difficult to speak on, until they become topics we can address safely within our own minds, and eventually our communities. The aftermath of rape and sexual assault, even at its most extreme, is a necessary part of our cultural discourse as we begin to come to grips with the reality that our culture does not, and has not ever, done enough to address an epidemic of violence and abuse. It is important to have narratives that explain how devastating sexual assault can be. Equally, however, it is important to give survivors examples of characters who overcame their sexual assault and became healthy and productive members of society. We have enough tear-streaked heroines, we need more smiling exuberant survivors, men and women both.

It is this second half of the story which I have found largely missing. We don’t talk about people who recover from the trauma of their sexual assault very much. Or when we do it is because we have a particularly strong or particularly badass female character and must give her some traumatic background to explain how she became a badass. In a way her badassery becomes a symptom of her assault as much or more than it is an example of strength of character and purpose. And male badass survivors? Male sexual assault survivors at all? We don’t really portray them. (With a notable and particularly amazing exception being The Perks of Being a Wallflower novel by Stephen Chbosky, movie directed by the same, and a few, like Criminal Minds’ Derek Morgan whose sexual assault exists to give the character a personal revenge stake in a later crime.) I crave female characters who, while acknowledging the trauma of their experiences, are able to live without experiencing life and personality changing consequences for year afterward. Or rather, I want female characters who are defined by something other than their assault, even if it haunts them. And I want those characters to acknowledge their strength of character, to defend themselves as more than just sexual assault survivors. To attach sexual assault survivor as an addendum to all the other awesome things they are and do rather than as the focus.

I want male sexual assault survivors too. On the whole spectrum, the ones who struggle with it, who need support and who crack a little around the edges as they try to figure out what it means to move forward. Male sexual assault survivors who do something other than become law enforcement officers who later take down the sports coach or pastor who hurt them. Just like with women, I want men who take surviving sexual assault and make it into something new, something more than a briefly mentioned and quickly forgotten plot point. And I want men who admit to their sexual assault, and also refuse to allow it to define them.

Would I have faced the realities of my assault and attempted to deal with the aftermath sooner had I had healthy examples of recovery? Who knows. There are a lot of reasons why I didn’t seek help sooner, not least of which that I was afraid of my pain being a critical feature of the few things I actually liked about myself.

But, I’m almost certain that I would not have spent years of my life convinced that being a sexual assault survivor both stole all other value I might have had, and somehow at the same time gave me the creativity that I and those around me valued so highly. Would my friends who came to me, suffering under the burden of a narrative that said that what someone else did to them had ruined them, have felt the same guilt and self-hatred given more examples of men and women who had overcome those emotions? Who knows. What I do know is this, the canon, as it stands currently, and the curriculum, as it was taught to me, doesn’t give us the chance to find out.

We’ve spent a lot of time and energy depicting the harshest realities of life. It is time to dedicate some of our efforts to telling the other story as well. Even more importantly, it’s time to tell the story of real and honest recovery, of people who’ve faced the cruelty of the world and come out the other side still whole.

One of the things I have always loved in literature is that it is a light through the darkness. It is an example and a warning and a vision. Literature can show us paths where we thought there were none, and it is time for this new path to be forged.

What do you think?


P.S. If you are someone, like me, who wants to change our culture surrounding sexual assault and rape, here are some things to check out.

This is an amazing Time interview with Laurie Halse Anderson, the Author of Speak (told you I loved that book), discussing her experiencing travelling as a school guest speaker. She specifically discussed the need to have open and honest conversations with our young men and boys, not just our young women and girls.

R.A.I.N.N. is our national foundation for the prevention of sexual assault (at least in the U.S.) and has awesome resources from an educational standpoint to become more acquainted with rates of sexual assault, the aftermath, as well as resources for survivors and the people surrounding them to help with the recovery process. 

Additionally, R.A.I.N.N. also operates a crisis line for survivors – 1-800-656-4673 as well as a live chat online.


I wanted to include an interview with Toni Morrison because she really is an amazing author and her work, while among the most emotionally taxing I’ve ever read, is also some of the most hauntingly beautiful. She’s also one of the few voices of color commonly included in our study of literature, and still isn’t as well known or regarded as she should be. Check her out!

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