The Dangerous Myth of the “Perfect Victim”: A Conversation with Jonathan Parks-Ramage
Do you know which book was first described as “gripping”? Neither do I. But if someone were to ask me for a gripping book recommendation right now, without missing a beat I would reply: Yes, Daddy by Jonathan Parks-Ramage. While we’re here, let’s also throw in “compulsively readable.”
Jonah Keller is an aspiring playwright who moves to New York City in pursuit of fame. Between living in a rundown sublet in Bushwick and picking up extra hours at work—a restaurant with an abusive boss—he comes across a picture of Richard Shriver, an illustrious, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, and devises a meticulous plan for their paths to cross. What results is a passionate affair that leads Jonah to accept an invitation to spend a few days with Richard and his A-list friends at their glamorous, gated estate in the Hamptons.
The luster of lavish dinners, esteemed company, and richly bucolic surroundings wears off quickly as Jonah detects a sinister underlay, starting with the waitstaff comprised entirely of young, attractive gay men with visible bruises. Soon, Richard dismisses Jonah, but not from the compound. A nightmare begins to unfold, culminating in a violent climax that irrevocably alters the course of Jonah’s life.
Truly, I don’t think I have ever read a book as unpredictable as this one. Every chapter zigs when you think it’s going to zag, and vice versa. Its exploration of power dynamics, exploitation, abuse, spiritual trauma—and the complexity of it all, while filtered through fiction, isn’t timely as much as it’s evergreen—especially for folks in the queer community.
Parks-Ramage was generous with his time and shared thoughts on the “perfect victim,” the seduction of rags-to-riches, and adapting Yes, Daddy for television.
The Rumpus: Jonathan, listen, I don’t smoke anymore, but I needed a cigarette after almost every chapter. But, at the same time, I couldn’t put this book down. What was it like writing it?
Jonathan Parks-Ramage: I’m glad I didn’t inspire you to actually start smoking again! But it means a lot to me that you found the narrative gripping. Writing this book was a many-year journey that started in 2016. I like to say that the book is personal but not autobiographical. There are many issues that I explore in Yes, Daddy that have a deep resonance for me, namely the power dynamics at play within queer “daddy” relationships, sexual assault within the LGBTQ+ community, and the trauma that so many queer people experience at the hands of the Evangelical Church. Writing this book was therapeutic for me, and caused me to reflect on my own past in ways which felt healing.
Rumpus: What was it like to filter those aspects of your personal life through fiction?
Parks-Ramage: There was a chapter of my life, during the wild and reckless years of my early twenties, when I was drawn to dating “daddies.” These men were significantly older and possessed a great deal of power, whether it was through fame, cultural influence, money, or some combination of the three. Meanwhile, I was an aspiring artist; I was broke, I was new to the city, and I felt lost. In all of these relationships, I was drawn to these older men because I felt that, in a way, I would be taken care of, that a primal need for protection would somehow be satisfied in their embrace. Also at play: the irresistible pull of wealth and privilege and vacation homes and presents. But the ultimate irony was that none of these “daddies” provided the paternal protection I expected from them; the opposite was true—the power imbalance left me uniquely vulnerable and in the toxic control of men twice my age. Instead of setting myself up to be protected, I had left myself vulnerable to exploitation.
During this time, I was also working in a gay restaurant where I was regularly sexually assaulted by the owner and the clientele. I was thrust into gay nightlife, which was very unhealthy for me. So, there are many areas of this book that overlap with my life. I also grew up with a minister for a father; the religious questions that are explored for the main character are also ones that I’ve explored personally. Again, this is not autobiographical. But there are definitely areas where fiction and reality overlap.
Rumpus: What made you want to explore the dynamic of a queer “daddy” relationship in relation to abuse, exploitation, and sexual assault?
Parks-Ramage: I want to start off by saying that I love “daddies”! I don’t think there is anything inherently toxic about a queer “daddy” relationship, if both partners are consenting, respectful, and loving toward one another. I think the same thing holds true with daddies in a kink context; I’ve seen kink communities that have some of the healthiest boundaries when it comes to consent. I just want to make it clear that I’m all for healthy “daddy” moments!
At the same time, I think there can also be severe power inequities that can lead to exploitation within a “daddy” relationship, when one partner in the relationship is older, wealthier, and/or famous. We’ve seen men like Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer abuse their power to sexually assault and even traffic vulnerable young men. This type of behavior is so horrific and unconscionable. Part of the reason I wrote this book is to create a larger dialogue around stories of abuse among gay men.
Rumpus: Jonah behaves in baneful ways from the beginning, throwing the case against his abuser and devastating his friend—another survivor—in the process. Why did you introduce Jonah to us this way?
Parks-Ramage: I wanted to paint a picture of someone who wasn’t a “perfect victim.” I also wanted to show the ways in which trauma can warp someone’s soul if it is not dealt with in some sort of therapeutic context. Jonah is moving through the world with so much unexamined trauma. His unwillingness to confront his past also causes him to hurt people he loves in the present. And yet, I also think it is understandable why he represses the horrific trauma he’s been through. I think so many of us who’ve been through trauma have this impulse to repress, to compartmentalize horrific events and pretend they never happened. But when we do this, our trauma still lives on in our bodies and can manifest in unhealthy ways in other areas of our lives. I wanted to paint a complex portrait of someone struggling to deal with trauma and the incredible effort it takes to move through all that pain.
Rumpus: Let’s talk more about the “perfect victim.” In the prologue, during Jonah’s preparation to testify for the defense, his friend’s lawyer stresses the importance of self-presentation: “Nothing too tight, nothing too baggy, nothing too ratty, nothing too expensive… nothing too gay.” So many survivors are failed by the justice system this way. They don’t meet the criteria of a “perfect victim” because they don’t meet at the right intersection of class, race, and sexuality.
Parks-Ramage: Even in our allegedly more enlightened #MeToo era, victims are still held to an impossibly high standard. It is still a commonplace tactic for defense lawyers in assault and rape cases to attempt to assassinate the character of a victim in order to discredit their testimony. The hope is that jurors will dismiss an “unsympathetic character,” i.e., a person who drinks too much, or is promiscuous, or has a criminal record, or possesses any other “character flaw” that may be exploited to undermine the credibility of a victim. Thus, in addition to the re-traumatizing effects of being forced to repeatedly recount the story of their assault throughout the legal process, victims can also be subjected to the new trauma of having their story disbelieved, attacked, and picked apart.
Rumpus: Which makes the character of Jonah even more important.
Parks-Ramage: Many early readers of the book have found Jonah to behave in “unsympathetic” ways, which was very much intentional. I hoped to challenge the archetype of the “perfect victim” by creating a character who has lied, acted selfishly, and even manipulated others. But my point is that one can still be an “unsympathetic character” and be raped or abused. Oftentimes, both things are true. Because no one is perfect. And yet, that doesn’t prevent “character flaws” from being weaponized by abusers and their lawyers. Of course, this is not just a flaw of our justice system, but of society in general. Ultimately, lawyers do not convict criminals—juries do. It is imperative that we as a society interrogate our ideas of how victims of sexual assault “should” behave and examine our own internal biases about who gets to be a “believable” victim.
Of course, factors of identity also play a part in who is believed. Race, class, ability, gender, and sexuality are all factors in how a victim is perceived by the justice system, the media, and larger culture. People who are on the margins of society are less likely to be believed and therefore even more vulnerable to assault.
Rumpus: There are so many moments in the book that shocked me, but at the same time, I was hit with the grave reminder that similar things can happen—have happened. The rag-to-riches trope delivers us to sprawling Hamptons compound Richard takes Jonah to and all the horrors that unfold thereafter. Why did you want to lead the reader down this particular path?
Parks-Ramage: At the start of this narrative, Jonah has no friends, no family, no supportive community, and no real prospects for professional success. And so when Jonah meets Richard, he thinks that all his prayers have been answered. So, in terms of this “rags-to-riches” trope, I wanted to seduce readers much in the same way that the narrator is seduced by his older wealthy lover at the start of their relationship. I wanted people to understand the reasons that Jonah would be glamoured by this world, why he would choose to stay even when there were significant red flags regarding Richard’s behavior. Far too frequently, victims who choose to stay in a relationship with their abuser are still disbelieved because of that decision to stay. I wanted to show the ways in which patterns of learned helplessness can lead to someone staying trapped in an abusive relationship. I hope by subverting the “rags-to-riches” trope, I can also subvert the larger cultural prejudice against victims who do not leave their abuser. I wanted to show, in a very specific, very deep way, the ways in which abusive partners can gaslight and trap their partners into toxic codependency.
Rumpus: There aren’t a lot of spaces for LGBTQ+ survivors of sexual assault in the overall conversation on sexual misconduct. What do you want this book to bring to the conversation in that regard?
Parks-Ramage: I hope that my book can be a part of a larger movement to make room for more LGBTQ+ survivors in our national discourse around the #MeToo movement. Representation is so important in this arena, because if you don’t see someone, you won’t be able to see them as a victim. I hope that Yes, Daddy pushes readers to understand and empathize with a queer story of sexual assault. I also hope that the media begins to pay more attention to these narratives from within my own community.
Rumpus: The internet also plays a pivotal role here—as both a public forum that has resulted in legal action but also a harmful diluter of stories that often pries agency from survivors and feeds it into the media machine. What do you think is important to consider as the internet continues to play a key role in an era when we continue to demand accountability?
Parks-Ramage: Because victims of sexual assault rarely receive any sort of justice through our country’s legal system. It is truly incredible that the internet has emerged as a public forum where abusers can be held accountable for their horrific actions. Survivors, activists, journalists, and organizers have all joined forces in the digital realm to make a real impact in the ways we handle stories of sexual assault. For this reason, the internet can be an incredible tool for justice.
But, despite the positive and justice-seeking power of the internet collective, #MeToo stories can also be reduced to shocking headlines. In these cases, the humanity of the victims can get lost in the social media blitz. It takes a great deal of courage to enter the public forum with a story of trauma, especially if it is trauma you are still working to heal. Wires can get crossed, stories can get misrepresented, and the intensity of public debate can be personally traumatic. Part of my goal with the book was to embody the experience of someone locked in the crosshairs of internet vigilantism and all the complexity that comes along with that.
Rumpus: Faith remains a large part of Jonah’s identity—even after fleeing the trauma following conversion therapy and his growing turbulent relationship with his father that ultimately result in his estrangement from him. Has your own faith influenced how you wrote about it in this book?
Parks-Ramage: I am a member of New Abbey, a progressive faith community located in Pasadena, California that focuses on intersectional social justice and spirituality. Many of the members of this congregation have fled the Evangelical Church, seeking healing from spiritual trauma (similar to the narrator of my book). New Abbey embraces the LGBTQ+ community and allows them to reclaim their spirituality, a fact that I have found personally moving and healing. As a journalist, I’ve also explored the intersection of queerness and Christianity, interviewing queer activists, academics, preachers, and parishioners. It is my hope that my work can bring hope and healing for people who have suffered from spiritual trauma.
Rumpus: That is so important, especially for queer folks.
Parks-Ramage: There is so much spiritual trauma within queer and trans communities. The evangelical church in particular has been the source of so much oppression for LGBTQ+ individuals, and the horrific practice of conversion therapy has scarred so many. The echoes of this trauma can last a lifetime.
Rumpus: That’s evident in Jonah.
Parks-Ramage: Jonah struggles with issues facing so many LGBTQ+ individuals from Christian backgrounds. Still, despite his trauma, Jonah doesn’t want to abandon his faith. Because he grew up in a religious household with a preacher father, his faith is deeply embedded in his identity. And so one of the central questions for Jonah is: how do I rectify my spirituality with my sexuality? How can I live my life freely as a gay man, while also maintaining a healthy spiritual practice? Is it even possible?
Of course, the answer is “yes.” It is possible to be both queer and Christian, to have a healthy relationship with both your sexuality and your idea of God. Through the character of Jonah, I hope to embody the experience of a queer person who goes on the difficult journey toward healing and hope.
Rumpus: Yes, Daddy is in development at Amazon Studios. What role will you have in its adaption on screen?
Parks-Ramage: I’m so thrilled to be working with Amazon Studios on the television adaptation of my book. The series is being produced by Patrick Moran and adapted/directed by filmmaker Stephen Dunn. I will be a producer on the series. It was very important to me to have queer collaborators that truly understood the sensitive nature of this material and were approaching it with the proper level of respect and reverence. I feel like I am in such good hands with this team and I’m excited to see how things develop.
Photograph of Jonathan Parks-Ramage by Luke Fontana.