“I’ve had so many people say to me, ‘Oh, this book is timely,’ ” Ashley Herring Blake says of her new young adult novel, Girl Made of Stars. “And I always bristle a little bit at that, because I think, When was it ever not? Yes, we are talking about it more. We are taking some initiative, at least I hope, and there are some pretty big names who we will never trust again. But stories like Mara’s and Hannah’s have always been happening. Always.”
In the post-Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo era, we’re grappling with the culture of sexual assault in a way that is both new and profoundly necessary. It’s also disturbing, in that we are finally willing to acknowledge just how common such stories are. And yet, while we can agree on right and wrong in the abstract—any act without consent is wrong—reality complicates things. It’s something that Mara is forced to confront when her twin brother is accused of raping his girlfriend.
“The reality of a family member—of someone you deeply love—being accused of something monstrous both fascinated and horrified me,” Blake explains. “But one in four women have experienced some kind of sexual abuse or assault. That’s a staggering number. And with those kinds of numbers, the chances of someone you know also being a perpetrator are pretty high. What happens?” she posits. “What do we do? Who do we trust? I don’t have easy answers for this and neither did Mara. And then as a parent, I found Mara’s mother’s position really difficult.”
A survivor of sexual assault herself, Mara finds herself crushed under the weight of the messy aftermath as the he-said-she-said continues to play out around her, both at home and at school. She’s always adored her brother, and can’t imagine the boy she knew committing such a crime. But she’s also best friends with her brother’s accuser, and can’t imagine the girl she knows making it up. And then there’s her overriding belief that women need to be believed in these situations. Fear is what kept her silent after her own assault: fear of reprisal, fear of schoolyard taunts and mockery, fear of not being believed.
“It was hard for me,” Blake says, “approaching the idea that survivors owe their story to the world. I don’t believe they do. I believe they should do what’s right for them and what they need. I think putting that emotional labor on anyone as an expectation isn’t helpful. We see this a lot with marginalized people, particularly women of color, in which they are called upon to educate the masses about, essentially, how to treat them like human beings, which is incredibly unfair. Some people are happy to do this educating. I know I’ve learned a lot by simply shutting up and listening to those who are different from me and have different experiences talk, and I’m grateful for that.”
But those stories have an emotional cost. “They can be under-appreciated or devalued,” she adds. “Because of this, some choose not to talk about their experiences. And I think that’s important to respect. But I hope we can all view these stories, both told and untold, as worthy of hearing. I did want to leave readers with a sense that whatever their story may be, they are worth that story being told. I want people to feel hopeful about their own value, their own story.”
James McDonald is a British-trained historian and a New York–based writer.