Getting Behind the Violence (in my book)
I've often thought about doing a post explaining why I chose to include so much violence in my novel, Finding Claire Fletcher. I haven't done this post because I'm not in the habit of defending my own work. As I've said many times in the past, not everything is for everyone. But now I feel this post is necessary--not in defense of my book, but in defense of people like the three Cleveland women who were recently rescued from captivity after ten long years, because Claire's story is my fictional exploration of what people like these women may have been through. It was meant to ask and possibly answer the questions that so many people have when they hear about stories like this: why didn't they just leave? Why did they stay so long? Why didn't they ever try to escape? How could another person possibly keep someone enslaved for so long?
Before I begin, let me say this: I abhor violence. I really do. I don't understand it, and I don't condone it except in exceptional circumstances like when it is necessary to defend your country, your child or your life. This may seem strange since I'm a crime writer. I write about crime because I am trying to understand it and how victims recover from it. I know, that doesn't seem right either. What I can tell you is that a decade ago, my family was shattered by violence--the worst possible kind, if you ask me--and I spent years trying to understand how it could have happened. How a person could do what this person did to other human beings and why. From this side of a quadruple murder trial, all these years later, I can tell you that you will never fully understand it, or even accept it, but some things will make it easier to deal with. For me, it was reading true crime books and crime fiction. I devoured every true crime book and crime novel I could get my hands on. Knowing that other people had gone through what we went through--understood what it was like and survived it--made me feel less alone. The problem was that after awhile, reading true crime became far too upsetting. These were real people I was reading about and my heart ached for them. So I turned to crime fiction. It was easier to read and a really good crime writer will be able to get across all the difficult and conflicting emotions that everyone involved have to deal with from the victim to the families to the law enforcement trying to make it right. For many people who have been victims of violent crime, they have the exact opposite reaction--they can never again read those types of books. But I'm not one of those people. So yes, even though I abhor violence, I write books in which violence plays a very large part.
Part of the problem I had in selling Finding Claire Fletcher was my portrayal of the extreme amount of abuse that Claire endures during her captivity. And let me tell you--feel free to cringe--the final product that you can hold in your hands today was actually toned down. If you've read the book, you'll find that really hard to believe. Whenever a reader tells me that I spent too much time on the abuse, or it was too graphic or gruesome, or they couldn't finish because it was too disturbing, then I know for sure I've done my job. Because for children or even adults in these situations, believe me, the abuse takes place far too much, it is far too gruesome and they wish it would be finished.
My feeling was that as a society we've become so desensitized to these types of stories that the only way to really make people cringe when they read the book--and for it to have real impact--was to show this type of violence for exactly what it was. Think about it. I don't know about you, but every night when I watch our local news there are a dozen or more stories of people being raped, beaten, maimed or killed. Violence--even against children--has become so commonplace that we, as a society, don't even flinch when we hear these stories. A news story about extreme, horrifying violence--even against children--has no impact on us anymore. None.
People have become so desensitized that when they hear stories like Claire's or like that of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, many of them--not all, I'm not saying all, but many--react with little more than puzzlement and exasperation. There is a pervasive attitude toward these stories that goes a little something like this: "She was beaten, starved and raped? So what? Why didn't she just escape?" In the case of grown women this attitude is even more prevalent, "They were grown women and they couldn't escape from one guy? Puh."
Do people not understand what the words beat, rape and starve mean?
Obviously they do. I just don't think these words have any impact anymore. What I wanted to do was make readers have a visceral response to Claire's story. Why? Because maybe if the story gets to you on a visceral level, then in real life you'll be more sympathetic, more empathetic and more sensitive to real crime victims--especially those in the types of situation portrayed in my book.
This week, I did an interview on Kellie Larsen Murphy's blog which you can find here. I'm going to reproduce a paragraph from that interview because it goes to the heart of why I chose to include so much violence in my book.
When I started writing this book, I kept asking myself: what would make a person who was forcibly torn away from everything they knew and loved and systematically tortured on a daily basis stay in that situation? What would make that same person unable to reach out for help when all they had to do was walk up to the nearest person and say ‘my name is so and so, I was kidnapped, I need the police’? I think people find this phenomenon so hard to wrap their minds around, and yet it happens to varying degrees all around us every day. Women stay with men who are physically and emotionally abusive. Children don’t breathe a word when a trusted adult is abusing them. Rapes go unreported every single day. I did a lot of research on these three issues–domestic violence, molestation and sexual assault. I think the key for me was the idea that if you torture someone on a daily basis–and I do consider repeated sexual assaults to be a form of torture–every moment of their lives becomes only about survival and nothing more. They are unable to think past that. I’ve always likened these children to prisoners of war, and I think that is a good comparison. Also, if you strip away every single thing down to the most basic dignities like using a toilet, the person becomes completely dependent on their captor. Where freedom should be their dream in life, something as simple as having a blanket instead becomes all that they strive for. When Shawn Hornbeck was recovered, I read an article that talked about how children in his situation are infantilized. That was exactly what I had written about without ever knowing there was a word for it. Finally this idea that their terror is so great that they cannot reach out for help even given the opportunity–first, what people forget is that usually captors will threaten the person’s family. From the outside it is easy to say, oh but if you just go to the police then he can’t hurt anyone else. But if you’re the person he is torturing, I think your thought process is more along the lines of, “He got me, didn’t he? He’s hurting me, isn’t he? If he can do this to me, he can do it to anyone.” The captor becomes all-powerful, and the captive is so beaten down in every sense that their fear is paralyzing. I think if you’re in it and you’re living it, your perspective is vastly different.
No one looks at Prisoners of War and says indignantly, "Why didn't he just go all Rambo on those guys and escape?" I don't think it is fair to look at children like Jaycee Dugard and Elizabeth Smart or even adults like the three Cleveland women and ask, "Why didn't they just leave?" without some long, hard consideration of what it means to be tortured on a daily basis. If you don't believe that being starved, chained, deprived, beaten and repeatedly raped (i.e. tortured) can break a person down then I invite you to revisit the definitions of these words. I can assure you that when someone is merely trying to force themselves on you or when someone merely has a knife to your throat, the last thing you are is calm, cool and collected. (Yes, you should read the merelys as sarcastic). You'll be lucky if you can see straight or even hear anything. When these things and worse happen to you over and over and over and over and over and over again--it changes who you are and it severely cripples your ability to "go all Rambo". (Until you've known true terror, I would ask that you not judge these women and children.)
My hope was that for some people, reading Finding Claire Fletcher would give them a more sensitive view of people in Claire's situation. I did not believe I could achieve that by glossing over the violence. As I've said before, you wouldn't write a book about a Prisoner of War and never touch on the torture they endured.