In a couple of recent online discussions of crime fiction that doesn’t pull its punches in describing violence, including sexual violence, I discovered that individual readers have widely varying ideas of where to draw the line with respect to acceptable reading. Or maybe more accurately, they react viscerally to different material and therefore interpret the writer’s intent in including that material in differing ways.
One of the discussions started with someone posting an extremely graphic description of a scene in a novel and someone else responding, “I wish I hadn’t read that,” blaming the original poster for thrusting a disturbing visual image on anyone who read the post. Soon everyone else was pitching in with books they wished they hadn’t read. My own candidate was Silence of the Lambs, and I wasn’t the only reader who said of one or another of the Hannibal Lecter series, “Eww, gross.” Yet millions of readers happily devoured (no pun intended) the Lecter saga in all its gruesomeness.
A lot of readers also love the Dexter series, both the book and the TV series. I wish the Dexter folks hadn’t chosen to plaster the New York subways with posters showing this handsome young fellow with his engaging grin ecstatically lifting his face to bathe in a splatter of blood. I found the image disturbing, and I’m concerned about the message it sent. But serial killers are immensely popular with crime fiction writers and readers, as well as the movies and TV shows they spawn.
I’d like to think the viewers know that they’re suspending disbelief. I recently heard a forensic psychologist who has interviewed and assessed many murderers state in no uncertain terms that Dexter—ie a killer with empathy, loved ones, and a conscience—does not and cannot exist. But maybe the charm of fictional psychopaths fools and seduces people in much the way that the charm of real psychopaths and con artists does. We want to think that charm is a lovable quality. It’s not. But it’s a powerful tool for the manipulation of dupes and victims.
I had a different take on Nevada Barr’s Burn, which is set in New Orleans and includes descriptions of a sex club in which young children are abused. I didn’t find the descriptions at all prurient, and I had no trouble understanding that Barr was trying to paint a realistic picture in order to arouse the reader’s outrage along with her protagonist Anna Pigeon’s. She left out what I think would have made the scenes unbearable: the children’s pain and suffering. These young children had been trained to compliance and, at least as depicted on the page, were not aware that they were being sexually abused, in effect, tortured. Barr trusted the reader to find this realism morally repugnant and the compliance itself horrifying. I had no trouble with that. Yet some other readers were outraged that the scenes were included at all and might even stop reading Barr’s novels as a result.
I find it disturbing that there is a lot more tolerance of violence and even torture on the page among crime fiction writers and readers than there is of sexual abuse. I’ve heard readers say they won’t read anything that refers to it, no matter how it’s depicted. Some literary agents won’t handle it. I don’t find any kind of sexual abuse entertaining, funny, or sexy. It’s a social issue that I don’t want to see swept under the rug.
The theme of my mystery series is recovery from alcoholism and codependency. It’s “writing what I know” based on many years of professional experience, and there’s no way I can leave sexual abuse out. Up to 77 percent of alcoholic women have a history of sexual abuse either in childhood or as adults. As a therapist, I’ve had so many clients either from alcoholic families or with eating disorders who also have experienced sexual abuse or trauma that when a new client presents with one of these issues, I routinely ask about the other two. As a novelist, I don’t belabor it, but I have to write about it.
Recently, I’ve been writing about the voyages of Columbus from the perspective of a Jewish protagonist. That means I’m writing about anti-Semitism, rape, and genocide. I doubt that any instance of genocide has not included sexual violence. Is this material too strong for readers to stomach, although they take beatings, murders, and even torture in stride (except if the victim is an animal)? Am I including it from prurience? I don’t think so.
In researching my period, I found a real-life character, a childhood friend of Columbus, who not only went on the second voyage, but wrote a book about it when he got back. Several modern historians (including Morison, the 1942 Pulitzer Prize winner who’s considered the foremost authority) repeat this fellow’s anecdote about how he was “given” a Taino girl who fought, screamed, and scratched when he tried to have sex with her. But then he “thrashed her well,” and after that, she did what he wanted. Morison found this incident comic. I hate the guy, even though he’s been dead 500 years. Did I use the incident in my manuscript? You bet I did. I feel impelled to set the record straight: this was assault and rape. And any reader who says, “Eww, rape”—as is their right—is missing the point.