When I interview writers for my blog I often read reviews of their books: a little bit research, a little bit procrastination. Even the work I like to do I like to put off. I am, in fact, putting off work right now. But it’s nice to see, often, the kinds of questions other people are thinking about. Erica Lorraine Scheidt’s book Uses for Boys is painful to read in places. Its teenage narrator, Anna, has sex in order to find out who she is and what her value is in relation to other people. The adults in her world do not take care of her or look out for her. She is sexually assaulted on a school bus; she is raped at a party; she has sex that is loving and not loving with people she does and does not care about. She is, you know, human. When I looked up the book before I interviewed Erica, I was not surprised to see that a large number of reviews took issue not with the writing or the plot or the structure, but with the main character’s sexuality; but even I was startled by the vitriol of many of them, the insistence that a story about a girl who fucks cannot be a story with any value at all. That a girl who fucks cannot have any value at all. I read them all, one after the other, and I could feel them in my stomach, gathering weight.
“Anna is probably not a likable character. This is because of her choices and because they don’t make a lot of sense.” “Bad things happen to Anna and Anna does bad things in turn. Do you think Anna feels bad for any of it? No, she doesn’t.” “Anna sort of made these decisions herself spur of the moment not taking into consideration, the repercussions after, so you can see why I had no sympathy for her.”
Today is grey and cold and, unseasonably, snowing, and I am sadder than I ought to be about various things of no consequence. I have had some version of this piece sitting on my desktop for months. I hover the mouse over the “publish” button and then I move it away again. I wanted to tell you about something else instead, like how last night I told my friend over the phone you can never admit in public that you find Infinite Jest boring, because people just think you are too stupid to get it, and then this afternoon on the train I saw a man who looked exactly like David Foster Wallace, and it seemed like a sign, but of what I don’t know. I don’t want to write about rape anymore. But here we are.
“My biggest misunderstanding was in that the blame seemed to be placed more on the boys and less on Anna making poor decisions and her mother’s inability to lovingly care for her daughter.” “I kept expecting her to eventually make better choices or at least learn from her mistakes. But hello, who gets raped and doesn’t even realize I mean not fully.”
I was unaware of what had happened in Steubenville until relatively recently, when, in a tire store in Park City of all places, the story came on the news while I was waiting with a friend for his car tires to be changed. Without warning, the YouTube video was on the television screen. I went into the bathroom and threw up. When I came out of the bathroom the story was still on and so I went into the bathroom again and locked myself in the stall and cried—this is what I do, I guess, go into bathroom stalls and cry—and the image of that girl’s body, swinging between two boys, their faces blurred, is one that I can still see, even now, three months later. The knowledge of not just what was done, but of how many people watched. Somewhere else, that is happening again now. My friend got his car and we drove away. “Are you all right?” he said. “Sure,” I said. “Fine.” Park City is lovely in the winter.
“I also wasn’t a fan of how Anna’s promiscuity started. Anna had a choice from the moment she was on the bus to make very different decisions than she did.”
Slutty, unlikable, passive, drunk, poor decisions, doesn’t make a lot of sense, dirty, has too much sex, has sex, is probably thinking about sex, poor, brown, wrong body, wrong gender, at the wrong party, didn’t say the right kind of no, couldn’t say no, didn’t know how to try. What are we talking about, here? A book? A girl? A human body? One another? Me? It gets harder and harder to tell.
“Here’s the part that really made me wanna smack the girl. Anna goes out to a party, gets drunk, and this post-high school guy spends the night pinching and twisting at her nipples. She doesn’t want him to, but hey, it seems to be a normal occurrence for her, so the most she does is flick him off for doing it. So it’s no wonder the guy finds her drunk @ss later to rape her. He pins her down and covers her mouth, and when he’s done, casually asks her not to say anything to anyone. ‘Okay,’ is her reaction.”
There is more than one way to survive.
“I didn’t like her at ALL. I kinda want to punch her in the face. I don’t really want to go slut-shaming and all that. But seriously.”
If language wounds so well there is hope in the thought that it can also bring us together, mark us out as warriors, as kin. That we can build bridges out of our scars.
“I’m sorry, but this girl truly is a slut with major mental issues, with no one to blame but herself.”
I want to write the thing that will make it all make sense because I don’t want to write about this anymore. I don’t want to think about it anymore. Do you understand? Walking through the park a few nights ago, not that late. I have an old, bad back injury; every now and then, the muscles seize up, and I walk with a noticeable limp. Past a group of men. The algebra you do: how many of them there are factored by do they mean me harm times how fast can I run. “Why’s she walking like that?” one of them said to the others. “Sweetheart, you hurt? You want me to help you?” My heart stopped. I’m sure he meant well. In the wild, a wounded animal is often left to die. Last night watching an old episode of Buffy. Some cheesy biker demons rampage across the town. They corner all of Buffy’s most annoying friends. “Some of us have anatomical peculiarities,” sneers a demon to Buffy’s witchy bestie. “They tend to tear up little girls.” Well, I tell you what. Picturing that really fucked me up for a while.
“I honestly and truly believe that Anna had something wrong with her.”
I chose not to link directly to any of the reviews; I have no interest in summoning the short-lived Internet vengeance machine. They’re real. You can find them for yourself, if citations are important to you. I will tell you that every single one of them quoted here, except for one, was written by a woman.
“Had the author just given me that last scene where she proved that Anna was going to become something better than she was, I could’ve give this novel at least three stars. Now… I hate even giving it one. It disturbs me that much that this girl slutted around, got high, got drunk, and didn’t change anything about herself moving forward.”
I didn’t change anything about myself, moving forward. “Okay” was my reaction, too. This body, this heart, the same old fucking stories. I still drink too much sometimes and sometimes I don’t. I went to a lot of the wrong parties. I tattoo my own history on my skin but I’m starting to forget it anyway. Am I becoming something better than what I was? Should I be?
I don’t know. You tell me.