In the opening pages of Bernice McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies, Abeo, the novel’s central character, wets herself on the corner of Lenox Avenue and 125th Street in Harlem, New York City. “Her heart jumped into her throat and her bladder let go, streaming urine down her legs,” McFadden writes, as Abeo sees a man named Duma, whom she had known “as intimately as a man of the cloth knew his god — or more appropriately, the way a sinner knows The Evil One.” You likely don’t need personal experience or even much more context to understand her fear of a man who physically and sexually abused her for the majority of her childhood — brutal, physical, and immediate. The particular narrative it stems from — the physical, often sexual, abuse of women — is everywhere, our culture steeped in it.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, one in every six American women and girls has been a victim of sexual violence. But even if you haven't experienced sexual violence yourself, you’ve almost certainly viewed a fictionalized version of a brutal rape scene in film or TV shows, like Law & Order: SVU, Game of Thrones, or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I doubt that’s going to change anytime soon, and I suppose we can be grateful that there have, at least, been some strides in how that kind of violence is treated onscreen. Sexual violence is a part of women’s lives — cis women, trans women, straight women, and queer women, though the statistics vary among these demographics and intersect with race and ability as well as gender and sexual orientation. It’s also why we should be having nuanced conversations about the ways in which it’s portrayed.
Stories of trauma are important ... but when they feel exploitative, thoughtless, or gratuitous, they can lead to trauma fatigue.
Stories of trauma are important, and for many of us, they can echo and validate our own experiences. They can help us get past denial or an internalized desire to downplay those experiences as a way of coping with them. But when these stories feel exploitative, thoughtless, or gratuitous, they can lead to trauma fatigue. Take, for instance, Season 2 of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which is based on the classic Margaret Atwood dystopian novel. The first season of the show — which premiered in April 2017, just months after the election — was widely lauded, felt eerily well-timed to current events, and won a number of Emmys, including Best Drama. Yet when Season 2 returned in April this year, there was more than a little backlash against the relentless, often gory violence against women. I haven’t been able to make myself get past the first episode yet — I almost passed out during the scene where June (Elisabeth Moss) begins to cut through her own ear with a pair of scissors — and I don’t scare easily.
Yet even before the second season premiered, there was something off about the over-the-top merchandising, and some critics called it “torture porn” and said they simply couldn’t keep watching, especially in today’s political climate. After the controversy around the recent confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which harkened back to the Clarence Thomas hearings, many of us feel like we’re already living in a feminist dystopia. So finding art that reflects what women are already feeling can be somewhat comforting, or at the very least contextualizes their experiences rather than erasing them.
So where can we turn for complex stories that dig deeper into the actual emotional and long-term effects of trauma rather than just exploiting experiences of pain for entertainment? The answer, as I see it, is in books — and more specifically, in recent novels that attempt to broaden the scope of how these stories are told while also shining a light on the systemic issues often invisible to those with privilege. When it comes to discussing trauma, especially the shallow portrayals of women’s trauma, these books are doing truly empathic work, using the space on the page to explore interiority rather than describe, in vivid detail, every cut and bruise, every gasp of pain. McFadden’s novel deals with horrific sexual violence, which it often elides, focusing instead on the small moments of resistance in the face of pain, and the agency, along with the necessary support, involved in healing from terrible trauma. Vox by Christina Dalcher handles the trauma of the body differently, navigating what it means to be literally silenced and the lengths those in power go to do so. Red Clocks by Leni Zumas, meanwhile, focuses closely on reproductive organs and the decisions women make in spite of laws that attempt to strip them of their reproductive rights. Each of these books also addresses the structures and systems in place that subject women to violence and the circumstances in which women are forced to undergo such violence — without subjecting readers to gratuitous violence themselves.
In 2018, there is no doubt that Christina Dalcher’s Vox is one of many books whose marketing campaign includes comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale. Its cover is startling, black and white except for a partial profile of a woman’s face, with the title’s big red X covering her mouth. Vox is set in a world very much like ours, with a president who appeals to the extreme right and to certain fanatical, fundamentalist Christian ideals, and where abortion has finally been made illegal. In this world, women have been virtually silenced — and are forced to wear monitoring bracelets that pick up how many words they speak a day. If they speak more than 100, they receive electric shocks from the device, which, at its most severe can burn their hands off and possibly even kill them. In one crucial scene, when a woman’s hand is burned down to a stump, it becomes clear that the price of speech is the loss of other body parts that can demonstrate agency. In the world of Vox, “women’s work” has become a reality; they are meant to stay home and cook, clean, and darn socks. But if they dare try to use their voices, the possibility of even that kind of work — as well as the ability to defend themselves against attackers — is taken away.
Rigorously watched over by men and unable to fight back with speech, these women retreat into their memories, where they recall the era when they still had agency and failed to take its erosion seriously until it was too late. “I envy my only daughter,” Dr. Jean McClellan, the narrator, tells us. “She has no recall of life before quotas or school days before the Pure Movement took off … For the rest of us … memory is all we have.” The novel uses hints of women’s physical and sexual trauma — rarely explicitly stated — as catalysts for outrage and action in Jean and the other women who populate the book. When Jean’s son sleeps with the girl next door, he regrets succumbing to his own desires and reports their indiscretion to the authorities. It is the girl who ends up publicly shamed for her lack of morals on the news, her hair shorn as a symbol of removed femininity.
The novel’s primary focus on keeping women quiet shows just how afraid those in power are of those very voices.
What happens to her in the aftermath is left to our imagination, and while it’s clear she is undoubtedly facing severe punishment for practicing bodily autonomy, the absence of descriptions of further violence against her make Dalcher’s treatment of sexual violence feel anything but gratuitous. Vox argues that it is women’s mere existence as thinking, moving, and speaking individuals that is a threat to be curbed. The novel’s primary focus on keeping women quiet shows just how afraid those in power are of those very voices. And it’s hard not to notice how that fear has real-world parallels, when women like Serena Williams are framed as losing their cool in the face of sexism, and on a large scale, with how women’s protests are being framed as out-of-control mobs in the wake of the vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Yet for how timely and provocative the novel is, what weakens Vox is its near-singular focus on a subset of previously disinterested white women, women whose privilege had always allowed them to step back from politics, secure in perceived safety. And while this will undoubtedly call to mind the 53% of white women who voted for Trump in the 2016 election, there are characters in the novel who warrant even more attention. Those sent to labor camps for LGBTQ people — those we see, at least — are women of color: Jean’s old boss Lin Kwan, and Jean’s college roommate, Jackie Juarez. Brown and black bodies are often portrayed in American media as victims (and, indeed, they are victimized in contemporary American reality) but there is no discussion or scrutiny of this in the book. That may be because it’s meant to speak to readers like Jean — presumably women who felt very comfortable before the 2016 election — hoping to spark them awake much like its electrifying word-counters.
McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies, like Vox, remains mostly silent on the page when it comes to the painful details of sexual violence and instead focuses on the lingering, cumulative effects of trauma. After the scene in contemporary NYC in which Abeo sees the man whose presence makes her bladder let go — a bodily reaction unrelated to reproduction and which is, in a way, desexualizing because of its ties to childhood — the narrative spools back in time and introduces Abeo the happy child, living with two loving parents in the invented West African country of Ukemby. But her serene childhood isn’t to last. After her father is blamed in a financial scandal, he’s convinced his daughter is cursed. To atone for the sins of his wife’s ancestors, he takes Abeo to a shrine where she is entered into ritual servitude, which is merely slavery by another name. Abeo remains there for years and is forced to work in the fields and is raped by the shrine’s priest; eventually the place falls into disarray and becomes a brothel where she is repeatedly raped. If this sounds extreme, it is. However, McFadden explores the topic with delicacy and care, maintaining Abeo’s dignity throughout.
McFadden compares the immediate trauma Abeo suffers to the intergenerational trauma that marks the bodies and minds of African Americans and others in the black diaspora who were sold into slavery. A light-skinned biracial American woman named Taylor, who for years had clung with love to her African roots, has a temporary identity crisis when she learns about this contemporary slavery. Rather than finding easy answers, McFadden treats this issue with nuance: Taylor wrestles with this information as it relates to her identity, but instead of getting bogged down by the internal conflict, Taylor takes action. She founds a rehabilitation center for victims of this ritual servitude, which is where Abeo ends up.
There is a telling moment when Abeo’s bare flesh — covered in scars — is seen for the first time by a family member, a moment that echoes Sethe’s scars being revealed in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. But just as in Morrison’s harrowing classic, there are no rape scenes in McFadden’s novel — the sexual violence that occurs, and it certainly does, is handled off the page. It feels as if Abeo has chosen to keep the details of her trauma to herself, and McFadden is simply respecting her privacy as a character — echoing the survivor’s prerogative to share her pain or not. Readers also have a choice — to imagine these horrors or not.
It feels as if Abeo has chosen to keep the details of her trauma to herself, and McFadden is simply respecting her privacy as a character — echoing the survivor’s prerogative to share her pain or not.
What is instead given space is Abeo’s descent into a catatonic despair. While Abeo clearly experiences trauma at the hands of men who rape and beat her, McFadden privileges a different kind of pain in her narrative. The heartbreak and fear Abeo suffers in the early days of her enslavement are particularly terrible, as she learns from the other girls the reason they were all sent there: because they are told they are evil and must make up for it so that their families may live happily once again. Abeo comes to believe that her enslavement is her own fault, remembering that she stole a ring belonging to her beloved American aunt. But this painful belief in her own culpability isn’t what makes Abeo finally collapse into herself; nor is it the physical and sexual violence done against her. It is a different kind of grief that finally weakens Abeo — that of lost love.
That loss leaves her in a catatonic state, nearing death. When Taylor’s colleague arrives at the shrine where Abeo lives, Duma, the priest’s son, tells him that Abeo “will probably die soon. She’s stopped eating and barely works her weight in gari,” before adding, “You buying her will save me the trouble of having to bury her.” When Abeo arrives at the rehabilitation center, she is still grief-stricken: “when she breathed, the air rattled around inside of her like gravel in an empty can.” But with the help of an evocative and cheerful memory from her past, Abeo makes her way up and out of Taylor’s refuge, and from there, on her path toward a new life.
Not that the new life leaves the old behind — Abeo will live with her trauma forever. But she isn’t broken, and she doesn’t seek some kind of righteous vengeance to even the score. In writing her, McFadden acknowledges that there is no punishment for those who have used Abeo’s body that could erase the harm the inflicted. Yet, she doesn’t privilege the perpetrators in the story; instead, she puts Abeo’s survival front and center. As a survivor, Abeo gets the opportunity to find friendship, family, love, and happiness alongside the painful memories. She gets to live in a world McFadden has created to issue a corrective to the narrative of trauma always breaking a victim.
Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, much like Vox, imagines a near future where abortion is illegal. But Zumas portrays a gradual change that is more realistically dystopic — and, thus, far too close for comfort, especially with another anti–abortion rights judge now confirmed in the Supreme Court. A teenager, Mattie, gets pregnant early in the book from an encounter with a boyfriend — the sex is bad, but it’s consensual — and her predicament becomes inextricably tied with her best friend, Yasmine, a young woman of color, who had become pregnant a few months prior. Yasmine attempted a home abortion and was arrested for it, and Mattie is keenly aware that because she is a white woman her own reality is much different from her friend’s. In other words, where Mattie may get a slap on the wrist, Yasmine will get jailed.
Red Clocks is, on the surface, obsessed with women’s reproductive systems, which inextricably ties it to a book like Atwood’s. The term “red clocks” references wombs; Mattie is pregnant with an unwanted child; her teacher, Ro, is desperately trying to conceive a child alone in her 40s with a glorified turkey baster medical treatment (IVF has been outlawed); and Gin, a witchy woman living alone in the woods, is providing illegal abortive tinctures before being arrested for doing so.
But the book also focuses on women’s inner, emotional, desirous lives and how they’re affected by systems stacked against them. Ro harbors a deep, painful desire to raise a child, but she happens to be single and isn’t particularly interested in finding a mate. As a single woman in her time, her right to have a child has been taken away from her twice: first by legislation that has made IVF illegal, and then by legislation that has outlawed single-parent adoption. Ro’s frenemy, Susan, is married to a man who cannot see the value of the work she does in raising their children. Her husband understands his roles — teacher and breadwinner — as superior, thanks to the centuries-long (if not millennia-long) values of patriarchal systems which make women financially dependent on their husbands and therefore less likely to leave them if something goes wrong. Gin, who lives alone and off the grid, has a deep connection to the earth and its herbal resources, but she is an outsider, reviled; she is working against a system of rigid, often masculine, scientific thought that labels her as a witch. And Mattie, whose knowledge is still accumulating, is growing up in a world where she has no say over whether she is pregnant, and must resort to breaking the law to regain control over her own body. In a way, Zumas equalizes these women’s pain, giving them all roughly the same amount space in the book, and explores the range of their inner turmoil, expanding our understanding of trauma and violence.
In McFadden’s novel, when Abeo sees Duma on the street corner in Harlem, she wets herself — but she doesn’t run from him. Instead, she charges at him, facing her pain head-on for the first time. The constant portrayal of violence against women both in fictional media and on national news means that we all, like Abeo, are forced to address our own trauma or that of loved ones over and over again. But like Abeo, one could hope that we also have the agency to choose how to engage with it. So many recent novels deal with women’s trauma in interesting, complex ways — R.O. Kwon’s debut The Incendiaries, Inappropriation by Lexi Freiman, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, and there are certainly more — and they, like the books highlighted here, are written by women who have needed, simply due to their gender, to wrestle with the patriarchal norms our society is steeped in. By going beyond the moments and spaces of physical trauma to look at the consequences and by addressing the broader systems that perpetuate violence against women, these and other stories reveal the complexity and nuance so many of us are already aware of. Seeing the layers of trauma peeled back and examined can help us believe in our own stories, learn how to cope, and deepen our understanding of how to help ourselves and one another heal. ●
Ilana Masad is an Israeli American writer whose fiction, nonfiction, and criticism have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, Catapult, Joyland Magazine, the LA Times, and many more. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, a podcast featuring new, emerging, and established fiction writers.