Scrolling through reviews of the newly published novel The Way I Used to Be on Goodreads, one in particular stood out to me. This reviewer is “sick and tired of yet ANOTHER ‘damaged girl’ narrative after being raped.”
The extent of which author Amber Smith chronicles main character Eden’s downward spiral after being raped by a family friend is not for the faint of heart. Eden’s life becomes a mess, that’s for sure. She’s justifiably angry about her assault, and that no one would believe her if she told. So she lashes out. She hurts people. She sleeps with dozens of guys because she’s lost all sense of self-worth. Not surprisingly, she earns a reputation as the school slut.
True, this narrative is familiar. It’s been done before, but I really think Smith’s book is different. I’ve read many YA books about rape: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, All the Rage by Courtney Summers, What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler, and Fault Line by Christa Desir, to name a few. The last two are written from the perspective of an outsider responding to the aftermath of an assault on someone they know. The first two are written in the voice of the victims themselves, and yes, they are “damaged.” How can they not be? But despite having that in common, the stories they tell are still unique. The protagonists’ ways of processing what was done to them are still different, because all survivors’ responses to rape are different, and all of them are valid.
So how is Smith’s novel different? I have not read a novel that so accurately shows the ripple effect that rape can have on a person’s life, even years after it happened. This book is so raw, yet so painfully real. The story follows Eden from her freshman year up until senior year of high school (which has some flaws, since that’s a huge chunk of time for a novel to cover, so naturally there are gaps missing in time), and the “damage” is cumulative. Other rape novels fall into the cursed pattern of TELLING instead of SHOWING the reader what is happening. Smith is an expert at “showing” Eden’s downward spiral, and that is important. It’s important because, while not everyone who has dozens of sex partners is “acting out” from abuse, you never know if “that slut” is fighting a battle you know nothing about. And in a world that loves to slut-shame, humanizing those “sluts” is so, so necessary.
Personally, I resonated with Eden. I too have hurt people because I’d been hurt, and felt good doing it. Sometimes I lashed out because of a truly insensitive comment someone made. Other times, I made a conscious choice to hurt someone with words. While my grief was a motivator, I know it wasn’t an excuse. I think Eden realizes that about her own actions, and her behavior toward the people trying to help her really is infuriating at times, but what I see – and perhaps what other abuse survivors will pick up as well – is fear. Fear of being known, of having someone see the damage done and run away in horror.
It’s easier for Eden to let guys use her sexually than expose her heart, but she still hopes to find some semblance of worth in these encounters. And she never does. The loneliness and insecurity continue to worsen, but even after she realizes the effect these meaningless hookups have on her, she still concludes that intimacy is a far greater risk. Oh, do I get that.
Fear is the reason I told my husband on our first date that I’d been raped by my last boyfriend and still had a lot of processing to do; could he handle that? I wanted to get all that out on the table before getting my heart involved, which would hurt so much worse than losing him from the beginning, before falling in love with him. He said, “I’m still processing hurt from previous relationships, too. We can do that together.”
So while the “damaged girl” narrative isn’t original and may be considered a trope, I still think it’s important to dissect, if handled responsibly. Other Goodreads reviews came from self-identified rape survivors who went the complete opposite direction: they feared sex and shunned all kinds of physical touch, no matter how platonic. These reviews confessed not knowing about the connection between PTSD and “acting out” sexually. But this book helped them understand. For that reason, I highly recommend it, but at your own risk. Trigger warnings abound, and I had to take frequent breaks to finish this. Still, it’s worth it.