A teen girl is raped at a party. In the aftermath of the crime, her ordeal drags on, the trauma of sexual violence compounded by the community’s cruel response. As the rumors swirl, people seem to be blaming not the rapists, but the victim: What was she doing with those boys in the first place? How much did she have to drink? Why was she dressed like that?
It’s become a depressingly familiar story—but I’m not talking about recent rape cases in Steubenville or Maryville. I’m talking about Fault Line, a new young adult novel that engages teens directly in the discussion about rape, consent, and victim-blaming. The book tells the story of Ben, a teenage boy who falls hard for Ani, the new girl in school. Everything seems perfect, until the party—the one Ani goes to alone. Afterward, nothing is the same, as Ben struggles to figure out what happened, who’s to blame, and what he can do to help the girl he loves.
It’s a searing, essential read, made all the more important by the authority of its author, Christa Desir. She’s a former rape victim advocate and a founding member of the Voices and Faces Project, a documentary initiative that seeks to bring attention to the stories of survivors of sexual violence. Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with Christa about Fault Line, rape victim advocacy, and the importance of educating teens and people of all ages about rape and consent.
Christa Desir: Launch day was spectacular. Everything I could’ve hoped for. And every time someone mentions reading my book or seeing my book at Barnes & Noble, my heart squeezes a little. But honestly, it’s pretty much the same. I still pick up dog poop and burn dinner and yell at my kids to move faster in the morning and write from 5-7am and try to figure out how to balance my life.
AD: Where did this book, Fault Line, come from? What inspired you to write it?
CD: I participated in a rape survivor writing workshop called “The Stories We Tell” and one of the exercises was to write a scene from the POV of a person of a different gender or sexual orientation. Ben crawled into my head in that moment and wouldn’t really leave until I had his whole story out.
AD: Tell me a bit about your involvement in the anti-sexual violence movement.
CD: I was a rape victim advocate in hospital ERs for almost ten years before I transitioned to a founding member of the Voices and Faces Project. During my time as an advocate, I saw hundreds of survivors. When people ask me about Ben and Ani, I honestly say it’s about no one in particular, but about all of us in general. I’ve worked in the anti-sexual violence movement since I was 19. I still am involved with it, doing speaking engagements, guest lecturing at a few colleges, etc. Now my work is more about what we (The Voices & Faces Project) have learned from the stories that rape survivors have told us and how we can put that into action to change culture. It’s not direct service counseling-type work any longer, but more trying to make things better on a more systematic level.
AD: I’m curious about the process of going from these real life interactions with victims of rape to writing a YA book about rape. Did you always know, “I have to write a book about this someday”? Or was the process more gradual than that?
CD: I actually never wanted to write a book about rape. It felt too personal to me. Too close in. But when I started writing from Ben’s POV, I couldn’t stop. And it was a perspective I thought was interesting, that I understood, that I thought was important to explore because rape never just affects the survivor.
AD: The experience of reading Fault Line is emotional and at times devastating. What was it like to write?
CD: Painful. Well, at least some of it. There were parts that went really fast because I knew in my gut that would be how it went, but really living in Ben’s head after the rape was very hard. I had to take days off just to recharge. Also, during that time, I shut myself off from a lot of rape stories in the media. I’m usually always aware of them, particularly as I’m involved with a group called CounterQuo that works to enhance media sensitivity to the issue. But it was too much when I was writing, so I unplugged for a while.
AD: It takes a lot of courage to write anything—I imagine it takes even more to tackle such difficult subject matter. Did you struggle with this at all? As a writer, how do you get to that place where you’re confident enough to keep going with a project, even when it’s hard?
CD: Well, I wrote it a little bit in a vacuum. I had no agent at the time, it was my first book, I really didn’t know much at all. I never thought it would be published. So part of the writing was just being able to say what I wanted to say without thoughts of what could happen. I’ll never have that purity of experience anymore. Especially after it’s come out and there’s been so much divisiveness around this book. I’m really lucky I didn’t know then what I know now, because that would’ve paralyzed me. What mostly kept me going on this one was the knowledge that if anything did happen with this book, if it was ever published, I would filter proceeds back into more rape survivor writing workshops. Fundraising for survivors by doing something I loved, writing, helped me push forward when I thought I’d give up. Because there was always in the back of my mind this little voice saying, “What if this could be published? What if this book could fund another workshop? What if that workshop could change a survivor’s life in the way that it has yours?”
AD: Let’s talk about your narrator, Ben. Why did you choose to write about rape from his perspective, and not Ani’s?
CD: Well, part of it, of course, was wanting to look at the story of rape from another person who was also affected by it. But more, I wanted to tell it from the boyfriend’s POV because I want to engage teen boys in this issue. I believe they’re part of the solution in dismantling rape culture in high schools and yet most YA books about rape are from a female survivor’s perspective and therefore the boys reading them don’t have males to identify with. Because the males in those books are the perpetrators. I don’t want to vilify boys. I think most of them are good guys with good intentions and most of them want to help. But they don’t know how to engage in the conversation because there’s no one they can relate to. This book was written for boys and girls, but my intention for sure was to have a narrator that dudes could read and say, “Yeah, I get that. He does some knucklehead things, but I get this guy. I’d have these good intentions. I’d be this guy.”
AD: What do you want readers to take away from Fault Line—particularly teens?
CD: I hope I start a discussion about the role people play with survivors. The role they play in victim-blaming, in silencing survivors, in retraumatizing them in a way. I hope to start a discussion about what is the definition of rape, what enthusiastic consent looks like, and how to take care of someone in a situation like Ani is in. I also hope that if boys see girls like this at a party, in school, wherever, they will pause and reframe their perceptions of what is really going on. I want the “messiness” of this book to start a discussion about culpability, about what we can all do to make this look different.
AD: In the wake of Stuebenville and the Daisy Coleman case, the public conversation about rape culture has been robust lately—yet I was surprised to read on your blog that teens you interact with aren’t aware of these cases, and are sometimes undereducated about issues of rape and consent. What are you hearing from teens about this book, and about the topic of rape in general?
CD: Yes, very few have heard of Steubenville or Daisy Coleman. Very few have heard of the term “enthusiastic consent” or “affirmative consent”. (More headway is being made on college campuses on that front). I’ve gotten the most feedback from teen boys on this book. They feel glad to be included in the conversation. They feel understood about their perspective. The teen girls who have reached out to me are mostly survivors who have said they’re glad I wrote it. That it meant something to have this story in the world. I’m deeply honored that any teens are reaching out to me about this book. I wrote it for them, but you never know if what you write is going to resonate. I’ve also had teens say they learned something from the book, which means the most to me.
AD: What message do you have today for anyone who knows a rape victim, like Ben? For someone who’s been raped, like Ani?
CD: To me, the most important things I would tell anyone who a rape victim discloses to is to say, “I’m sorry that happened,” and “I believe you.” We’re so quick to judgment about survivors. Partly, I think, because we want to separate that from ever happening to us. That’s why I think “what were you doing out that late? how much had you been drinking?” and so on are the first questions many survivors are asked. Because we want to think that couldn’t happen to us. I hope that if a survivor ever tells their story, we all try to listen, be supportive, be non-judgmental, and ask them what we can do to help. Re-empowering survivors by asking them what they need from us as opposed to telling them what they should do goes a long way.
AD: Let’s talk a little more specifically about the book. I want to start with the title, Fault Line. It’s so evocative, with many possible meanings. On the one hand, Ben speaks about Ani as though she’s broken, as if being raped is itself a fault line that has shattered her. And at the same time, Ben and Ani always talk about whose fault it is what happened—they both blame themselves. What does this title mean to you?
CD: Yes, it wasn’t the first title of the book, but I’m so glad we ended up with it. Because part of it is about blame and culpability, but the other part of it is about the ripple effect of sexual violence, how it isn’t just about what happens to the survivor but everyone around her, like we’re all on a fault line.
[SPOILER ALERT! In the next two questions, we go on to discuss the plot and the ending of Fault Line in a general way, so if you want to read the book without knowing anything, skip to the bottom!]
AD: This story could have gone so many different ways. Personally, I really wanted to see Ani get some justice, for the guys who raped her to be found and prosecuted. But that’s not what you’re up to in this book. Why do you choose to focus the narrative specifically on the emotional aftermath of rape?
CD: As an advocate, I saw maybe a dozen cases the entire time get prosecuted. Justice and happy endings very rarely exist for survivors. Mostly, they learn to integrate it into their lives in one way or another, but often it takes a long time. There’s no neat tied-up bow at the end of the half hour. When I was doing that survivor writing workshop, I spoke to a woman who had this horrifying story about her and three of her best high school friends being gang raped thirty years ago for almost 24 hours on the Appalachian Trail. When I asked her what happened to her best friends, she said one doesn’t like to talk about it, one is still her best friend, and one they “lost.” And I was so tormented by this one they lost. What did she mean? She said, “No one knows where she is, maybe she’s homeless or dealing drugs somewhere or maybe she’s dead, we don’t know, we lost her.” And that’s what made me think I wanted to tell the story as I did. Because I wanted to ask the question of what happens when we lose a survivor and what can we do to hold on to her.
AD: All right, let’s talk about that ending. Fault Line ends without being fully resolved—though Ben has obviously decided that he can’t fix Ani on his own and needs help from others, it’s not at all clear whether Ani’s going to be OK. Why did you choose to end the book this way?
CD: I wrote seven endings for this book, but none of them felt quite right. They felt like we were cheating readers of a whole other story if I gave Ani resolution. This book is Ben’s and he’s really the character who needed the resolution, so I gave him the best one I could. I made him understand something about himself that we the readers knew all along. But I wanted to leave the ending open because there just isn’t an “ending” for survivors or the people that love them. Rape becomes part of our lens and we slowly heal, but it doesn’t ever go away. I should say I’m also a huge fan of open endings in YA books in general. Because to me, teens are works in progress and they should’t have tied up endings. I like to leave readers with more questions than answers because that’s how you start conversations.
AD: Is there any chance we’ll see Ben and Ani again and see how everything worked out?
CD: No. I actually wrote a whole blog on this. I don’t think I could go back in for many reasons, but mostly because I want to protect Ani. I don’t want people inside her head. I want to save her from that, which is a strange thing to say as she’s a fictional character. But because she represents so many survivors, I don’t want to have them experience judgment like that. Because in my mind, Ani is going to get worse before she gets better. Ben too. And that journey would be too gut-wrenching to recreate now.
AD: What’s next for Christa Desir? What are you working on now?
CD: I have a second book about a co-dependent destructive couple (a la Sid & Nancy) coming out in October 2014 called Bleed Like Me. I have a third book that is a collaboration with Jolene Perry coming out in fall 2015. And I have books that are in various states of completion that I’m sitting on to decide what I want to do next. It’s hard having a very dark, gritty book be your debut because there are expectations about the kind of writer you are. I’ve written an even more brutal book than Fault Line that I can’t seem to submit because I’m worried about it. That is the business part of publishing, the part where you start thinking about your career and your readers and all the other parts that take you out of the vacuum. It’s why I’m glad I started so many books before being published, at least I have some options!
HUGE thanks to Christa Desir for talking to The Stake. If you want to learn more about Fault Line, come back to The Stake tomorrow, when we’ll have a review of the book.