Literary Hub

Don’t Make Violence and Abuse Just Another Plot Device in Your Novel

The following essay contains depictions of child abuse.

They say to write what you know, and so I’ve written two novels based on my life experiences. I was the child of a violent childhood, with a registered predatory sex offender for a father figure. I survived abuse and homelessness to become an author. Like most writers I have a day job, only mine is unusual: I’m a licensed investigator, working hundreds of cases, from helping sex trafficking victims to death row. I’ve also been a foster-adoptive mother for 20 years, caring for traumatized children who arrive on my doorstep. My life has revolved around violence: how to survive it, how to understand it, how to heal from it and how to help others heal.

While that all might sound grim, it is a very happy life, filled with joy and redemption, magic and poetry. As a writer, I want to explore the reality of violence, and my adult understanding of what it takes to survive it, and even thrive. I want to push back against a culture of shame.

As the adult character in my book The Child Finder says of her own childhood abuse, she is just as innocent now as she ever was.

Growing up with pedophiles, the most terrifying part of the violence for me was not that it happened. It was knowing that it would happen again. It was the infinite helplessness of it. The way I survived was my imagination. A voracious reader, I escaped into books. But even there I was not safe, because in the books girls got raped with impunity. Even at a young age I grasped that their experience was not for my reflection. Rather than feeling seen and heard, I felt more alone than ever. What had happened to me seemed to exist outside of all representation.

Unfortunately, much writing about violence is itself a violation. Violence—especially rape—is often used as a trope. The character is only there, on the page, to be torn apart. It’s not an accident that most literary victims are women of color, prostitutes, and the poor. Such victims are splattered across the page without any regard to their suffering. The character is denied both dignity and the autonomy to interpret their experience outside an expected range of reactions that include: shattered forever, destroyed, defiled. Violations are presented in detail, and yet the point of view often reinforces the offender, so that even while being raped on the page the victim is denied voice.

Take this scene from John Grisham’s A Time to Kill:

She was ten, and small for her age. She lay on her elbows, which were stuck and bound together with yellow nylon rope. Her legs were spread grotesquely with the right foot tied tight to an oak sapling and the left to a rotting, leaning post of a long-neglected fence. The ski rope had cut into her ankles and the blood ran down her legs. Her face was bloody and swollen, with one eye bulging and closed and the other eye half open so she could see the other white man sitting on the truck. She did not look at the man on top of her. He was breathing hard and sweating and cursing. He was hurting her…

And that’s just the beginning. The scene goes on in clinical, impersonal detail.

I’m not picking on Grisham. He has a huge fan base for a reason, and I’m sure puts his heart and soul into his writing. You could pick up one of thousands of books and find similar scenes. Readers have been conditioned to feel more comfortable with graphic scenes of violence while rejecting books conveying true horror, even when they are not explicit. Books that lead to us to feeling violence have become more controversial than books exploiting it.

Contrast such writing to a real child being raped. I’ve worked with such victims. I’ve been a victim. The physical pain is catastrophic. The feelings are absolute terror, horror, sweeping shame, mind-altering, obliterating, reverberating fear. Those feelings are like a vast dark vortex pulling us under, and even long after the event that vortex and its implicit promise remains: we know what it is like to feel we might die. Such feelings cannot be described impersonally. There is absolutely nothing impersonal about being raped.

There are some writers who argue they’re merely reflecting the mind of the rapist (begging the question of just how they know). They pretend to offer an edification rather than rape by proxy. Interestingly, the common idea for being inside the mind of a rapist is to create a character outside all norms. Thus we have characters who make skin suits out of women, who are reprehensible in thought and deed, who are without any humanity: they are monsters, and most certainly not like the writer themselves. Or any of their friends, neighbors, fraternity brothers, or relatives.

Othering the rapist as a monster may feel comforting, but it’s a denial of truth: most rapists are those friends, neighbors and men we know. When such men are accused, the immediate reaction of many is that it can’t be true. They think: a rapist is supposed to be a Hannibal Lecter, not Woody Allen or Brock Turner. The woman or girl must be lying! they think. That man can’t be a rapist—he seems so nice! In this way such characters end up reinforcing disbelief of victims. We know we won’t be believed. All the offender has to do is paint on a smile.

Such tropes also avoid grappling with important questions: what makes so many men violent? Why don’t we do more about it? Over the course of my work, I’ve learned that the reason we have so many unsolved cases is not because police are constantly outsmarted by a handful of brilliant sociopaths. It’s because our society doesn’t care about crimes against women and children, especially those of color. It’s because that for families of color like mine, the police are often there to harass, arrest and assault, not to protect. It’s because violence occurs in a cultural and social context. It is because some men are allowed to hurt others.

So how can we can approach violence in a way that is authentic and real, that exists within the world of the victim? To start with, we must imagine our characters as real people. We must honor the victims by telling their truth with an effort at genuine understanding, not just of their experiences but of the world in which they live. We must focus less on the details, more on the feelings. A single humane sentence can tell a far deeper truth than any catalogue of depredation. We must give voice to the victims.

As writers, we cannot pretend that violence is a rare and solitary act committed by a singular monster. We have to grapple with it as endemic, socially created, and preventable.


Rene Denfeld’s The Child Finder is available now from Harper.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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