Following last week’s election results, the writing world has been full of voices reminding us of the power of words to protest, to heighten awareness, and to effect change. Whether through poetry, essay, memoir, fiction, or otherwise, words are an important vehicle for reaching those who need support, challenging those who need to be called out, bearing witness to injustice, and raising visibility of marginalized groups. One might wonder, however, in the fallout from last Tuesday, what the utility of making up stories could be in this new world order.
But fiction provides a window into the experience of people unlike ourselves and through that, germinates empathy and understanding and acceptance. It is therefore more important than ever to keep writing, to keep telling the stories of the groups of people who will find themselves so much more disenfranchised, othered, and scared in the coming months and years, who may find hard-won freedoms suddenly taken away. It can seem like not enough to write stories—and it’s not, not nearly enough; there’s so much more that can be done—but every window is a gap in the wall, and with enough windows, we can bring the wall down.
This week’s story, “You Know This Boy” by Amy Jo Burns at Vol. 1 Brooklyn, is one such window, offering a glimpse into a sadly familiar and revoltingly unjust story: a teenage girl’s rape by the quarterback, golden-boy, local hero—a rapist.
You know this boy, the one they call a cornfield cowboy. He’s the one who did horrible things to a girl while she lay unconscious in the alley behind the high school stadium. That’s only what the newspaper claims, and you know you can’t believe everything you read. You’ve been taught everyone wants to bring a good man down, the golden boys most of all. Folks like to ignite a hero, and they love to watch him burn.
Burns, author of the memoir Cinderland, writes the story in second person, though the “you” is a specific “you.” It is a woman who, like so many, was previously taken in by the floodlit allure of the football team, who has yelled the rapist’s name along with the rest of the cheering crowd, who in her youth was taken behind the stands by her own quarterback, cast just as quickly aside, and transformed, in the particular hypocritical and depressingly commonplace magic of sexism, into a whore while the male half of the equation remained a spotless local celebrity.
Even you had a quarterback or two lead you beneath the stadium bleachers after the crowd had fizzled, the grass imprinting on your back as your gripped his soiled jersey between your fingers. Sex was fine, sex was expected, sex was welcomed for those star boys to savor. But not for you, not for his mama, not for this girl he left in the alley after he’d raped her.
Burns portrays the local rape scandal through the eyes of this adult woman who can’t quite shake her desire for that glittering football-mom life with an aging former-quarterback husband—the life she almost had, had circumstances been different. The effect is a queasy push-and-pull as her awareness of the sexist and violent truths she sees in her town, in her own life, collides with that small-town, primetime vision of the American Dream. That struggle is one of the things that makes “You Know This Boy” so powerful, because it’s a simulacrum of the cognitive dissonance that happens in such towns as the undertow of ugly truths (a girl has been raped, your golden boy is a rapist, many more of your boys may be rapists, a girl has been raped and you care more about the rapist, how many of your boys are rapists?) is systematically denied and ignored for the sake of maintaining the status quo.
Burns forces the sightline back to the victim even as she reveals through her protagonist that not much is known about her other than the fact she was raped. While the rapist goes on to live his life and hold the identities of quarterback, college student, and probably one day husband and father (because “Why should he pay with his freedom just because he took hers?”), the victim is seen by the town as only one thing, and it’s not even as a victim.
No one beyond city limits knows her name, but nothing beyond them matters anyhow. Everyone knows her in ways she never wanted to be known. She still gets up and goes to school and opens a locker down the hall from the cornfield cowboy who raped her. He went to bed that night a god and woke up as one. She doesn’t remember falling asleep, but woke up feeling used. You know things that don’t kill you don’t always make you stronger.
Amy Jo Burns’ “You Know This Boy” unmasks the virulent sexism that still exists in huge swaths of America and disguises itself as traditional family values. It chips away at the pedestal from which these unjust gods reign. It’s a story that stands in protest and in solidarity, and it’s only one story out of a veritable march of others. Let us keep the march going. Let’s write and read and share our stories. Let’s continue to push the tide of progress forward with our actions and our donations and our pens. Let’s never stop. Let’s march.