The Heartbreaking Dynamics of Sexual Abuse, Explored Through Literature

06/18/2015 09:52 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

There have always been certain subjects in our society that are generally considered too unpleasant to discuss. Sexual abuse is a charged subject: ugly to contemplate, difficult to prove, and often loaded with ancillary gender dynamics. Victims are routinely blamed and shamed into silence because no one wants to drag this particular piece of societal dirt into the light and see what's crawling there. No one knows how to fix the problem of sexual assault, and since they don't, who wants to spend their day examining it when they could simply move on to something easier?

Unfortunately, this social reluctance to engage with the difficult topic extends into literature, which seems to me the safest of all environments in which to explore and examine social problems. Relatively few works of fiction take an unvarnished, head-on look at how the phenomenon of sexual abuse and its consequences really operate in our society. The aesthetic distaste for this subject is understandable, but as long as the problem exists in our world, I believe it's an enormous mistake to sidestep it in art. Literature has always functioned as a singular means of finding empathy for others in situations one might otherwise be unable to imagine. When we take an approach of soft-focus or omission to the terrible experience and consequences of sexual abuse, it becomes harder to empathize. Turning away won't help to solve these problems, and certainly won't keep them from turning up at one's own door. Solutions will require an open and honest discussion, and it will absolutely be an uncomfortable one, and literature will have a role to play.

The stories I've chosen below (universal spoiler warning) are works I love dearly that take a close look at sexually abusive relationships. I regret that all eight have male perpetrators and female victims; that's my fault, as my reading choices have not been broad enough. Abusers and victims come in all genders and persuasions, and I truly wish I had a more diverse list here. But at the same time, I believe that many of these stories look at the pattern of abuse as well as underlying gender dynamics, and that these authors' lessons can be applied universally.

The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison This remains one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking books I've ever read. Pecola Breedlove is black, poor and female, and when she gets raped, her community can barely even bring itself to notice. Race, socioeconomic status, gender and gender identification, sexual orientation and other factors still make some people not only more likely, statistically speaking, to be sexually assaulted in the first place, but also less likely to be believed afterward. The Bluest Eye always reminds me that any fruitful discussion of sexual assault must include an honest examination of our institutionalized prejudices.

Dolores Claiborne - Stephen King Dolores is a tough island woman stuck in a marriage to an abusive husband. She can take care of herself, but the situation becomes more complicated when she realizes that her husband has turned his abusive behavior on their teenage daughter. Like so many people, Dolores finds her options severely limited by poverty and circumstance, and King does an excellent job of showing just how trapped she really is. I like to recommend this book to people whenever I hear the phrase, "Why didn't she just leave?"

River of Names - Dorothy Allison In this short story, a woman has learned to keep quiet about the horrifying culture of violent abuse in which she grew up. She cannot discuss her childhood even with the woman she loves, for fear that a single word may tear their pleasant life apart. Many abused individuals find themselves in a prison of silence, but the damage has rarely been so well-chronicled as it is here.

The Color Purple - Alice Walker I find this book unique for the close look it takes at the healing process. Celie has spent most of her life in the power of abusive men, and what she has endured is terrible. But whenever I think of The Color Purple, I always see, first and foremost, Celie and Albert sitting on the porch, sewing together and discussing old wounds. It's a good reminder that people can grow and change, and that with effort, we can learn to be better than our past selves.
Lawns - Mona Simpson Lawns is a rough read: an honest examination of ongoing parental abuse and a pattern of emotionally coercive behavior and guilt that is ruining a woman's life. I tend to urge this story on anyone who still believes that rape demands an element of physical force; there are many forms of coercion out there, and physical violence is not always the most powerful.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson This book, and its sequels, are worth reading for Lisbeth Salander alone; she's an amazing character. But on a re-read, I'm also struck by the fact that even this incredibly resourceful young woman is placed in a vulnerable position by being under state guardianship, by being one of "society's dregs". Runaways, orphans, foster kids, the mentally ill... such populations are often forgotten in this discussion, but they are certainly at great risk because they may lack a firm support structure. Even the extraordinary Lisbeth is vulnerable...though not for long. Her revenge is unique.

Tunnel Vision - Sara Paretsky Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski is my all-time favorite character: a private investigator whose sense of social justice invariably makes her fight for the underdog. In Tunnel Vision, fourteen year-old Emily Messenger accuses her well-respected father of rape, and is consequently put through the wringer: hushed, disbelieved, gaslighted and terrorized. This book is now more than twenty years old, but rape culture hasn't changed much in the interim, and Emily's story still resonates for me in its accurate depiction of the ugly treatment rape victims often receive at the hands of authority.

Erika Johansen is the author of The Invasion of the Tearling.