“This was different. This felt like real life. It can happen to a girl. She can be entirely alone on a Sunday morning and then a teacher can say her name.”
Jo Hadley, p. 59
In an interview with Just the Right Book Podcast, Kate Walbert said that she liked to, “write into silences.” She offered that most of her stories, short or long form, usually start with something that the main character is hesitant to tell the reader; creating a mystery and an opportunity for the author to write into that discomforting silence. TRIGGER WARNING: this article is about sexual assault.
I tried to write about my own sexual assault once or twice, or five times… or every single day since the year that it happened, now some four years, five months, ten days and so many hours ago… the words always came out wrong, or malformed, or it ends up being a shopping list organized by price down one column and by product name alphabetically down the other. There are many reasons why trauma is so goddamned hard to tell others about. And it probably has nothing to do with public perception, slut shaming, or if others will doubt your claim. Those are the nightmares you step into immediately after you disclose. No… the one hundred thousand things that stop you are the verbiage and the execution. How do I say this… who even wants to hear this… am I leaving things out that would help make me feel less crazy… if I say it aloud, will I die? Something like that, I think.
Kate Walbert’s book, His Favorites, is a reflection about a high school girl like too many others. Jo Hadley is a character that reminds me of the faces I see in class every day; these amazingly strong creatures called young women, who are so ironically burdened with a forced reality of male dominance and the threat of toxic masculinity. Social constructs… land mines. The modern “girl” is very much in the same danger she was hundreds of years ago of being the object of a male gaze, and books like this one should probably come with a sticker label that reads “Trigger Warning.” Because for a lot of us the pages inside are like looking into a cold mirror.
Predators like Master are given great dimension in this highly emotional novel, and there is offered a very prominent stance that the dynamic of pupil/mentor is a prime space for abuse to occur. The edifice of a professor’s responsibility to their pupils is no exception, and Walbert is able to weave complicated moments together with real-life precision. In the charismatic leader paradigm, Master involves Jo by preying on her desire for a male father figure, and offering her the shadow and guise of protection and affirmation she craves so profoundly after a life of loss (indifferent and absent parents, the loss of her best friend Stephanie to an accident Jo herself had brought upon the year before). Master creates seemingly consensual relationships with the girls at school which are of course the opposite; this sick, inverse thinking that our society perpetuates, that men are simply being men, and that girls have more to do with their mistreatment than their trespassers do. This is evident in Master’s office hours; held in his apartment on campus, in the back, past open bedroom doorways and mattresses on the floor. This semester we have discussed passing in a couple of varying instances. I would like to offer that sometimes men also have to pass as good men. That they are often conflated, but both are dissimilar and in need of constant clarification. “M” passes as the brilliant scholar, the white hero, the father figure, the powerful shaper of minds, and Jo is left to walk into this welcoming embrace only to feel shame, guilt, self-doubt, and the inappropriate pangs of his facade. In this trap lies the framework of a young woman’s isolation. She is now left with the burden of telling others how this trusted, respected man, who’s never done more than simply “be a man,” is the villain in some unimaginable fantasy world that seems in direct conflict with what others seem to “know” about him. Like Christine Blasey Ford, stuck with the burden of proof regarding her sexual assault at the hands of now Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Jo is given the weight of all womanhood to carry on her shoulders. And much like Ford, Jo is left to see that men aren’t always truly punished for their evil works. Sometimes, like Kavanaugh, there is a public discourse and discomfort followed sharply by a slap on the wrist as it were, and life goes on.
“Truth is relative, they might have said. Yes and no, they might have said. You know girls and their imaginations, they might have said.”
Jo Hadley, p. 144
Life does indeed go on. After my assault I went on to be a very active face in the transgender community. I went back to college where I work with my friends at the Women’s Center to reach out and inspire self-identifying girls and women in our college community, and to show them that there is a place on campus they can come to be safe and valued. I came out and I never looked back. I took my story to cis-girls and other trans-girls and warned them of the dangers of Craigslist (a now defunct internet backdoor to hooking up as a queer individual, and also the place I met Andrew, the man who raped me in my own apartment). I show women of all walks of life that we are all worth so much more than private hookups, and that safety and love exist well in the day light, where all can see, where there is no hidden shame or pathways for them to be abused. Walbert was able to show me that there are books out there that just might have my life scribbled in the margins, between the lines of dark print. And that being united is the place we find strength; the place feminism happens, in the interlocked hands of all women, the weight of us all making the ground shake beneath the world’s feet.