New York Times  Bestselling Author

Rape, Race and Writing Historical Fiction

As I read the early reader reviews of The Stolen Marriage, I’m heartened by how lovely they are. At this moment, the story averages 4.43 out of 5 stars and my gratitude to readers who take the time to write a review knows no bounds. But there are a few very angry reviews and they have to do with a scene that occurs early in the book. The setting of that scene is Washington, D.C. in 1943. I’m not giving much away when I tell you that my protagonist,Tess, a twenty-three-year-old Catholic woman who is saving herself for marriage to her fiancé, has far too much to drink one night and ends up having relations against her will with a man she’s just met. Some readers are incensed by what they (and incidentally, what I) view as rape, as well as by the fact that Tess blames herself for what happens.

How I struggled over this scene as I wrote it!

In 1968 when I was eighteen, I spent the summer working as a waitress at the Jersey shore. I lived with my best friend Zan in a small rooming “house” above a garage. Life was very casual in that setting, and it was a different era. We hitchhiked everyplace we wanted to go and the thought of danger was far from our minds.

There were four rooms above the garage and we quickly befriended our neighbors. We all left our doors open for the un-airconditioned breeze, chatted daily with one another, and hung out on the shared porch. One night when I was the only person in the house, I was reading in bed, my door open as I waited for Zan to return from her job. A guy I recognized as a friend of one of our housemates knocked on my door jamb, asking if I knew where his friend was. I told him I didn’t, and we started talking. He was gorgeous. Insanely sexy. He reminded me of Mark Lindsey from the musical group Paul Revere and the Raiders.

When I hear about rape victims who can’t remember the details of what happened to them, I completely understand. I can tell you–in great detail–many insignificant things that happened that summer, but I can’t remember much about the next few minutes. Here is what I do recall:

I was wearing a blue cotton nightshirt that was decidedly unsexy. It had short sleeves and fell nearly to my knees. A cartoon character, the identity of which I don’t remember, was emblazoned on the front. I had not been drinking. As a matter of fact, I was a teetotaler then and still am today. He told me he was a medical student. That’s the only thing I recall him saying to me, although I have the feeling we chatted in a friendly fashion for several minutes. I was a virgin. My boyfriend and I had talked about “going all the way,” but I still fantasized about being a virgin on my wedding night. That’s how young I was.

What else do I remember? This:

He was suddenly on top of me and for the first time in my life I felt the alien sensation of a penis pushing into my body. I pressed down on his shoulders with all my might, trying to get him off me. Out of me. I remember the sickening realization that my strength was no match for his. It was like pressing against concrete. I’m sure I pleaded with him to stop, but I don’t remember what words I used. It was over quickly and I remember perfectly the smug smile he gave me as he zipped his pants and left my room. I remember, too, getting up to use the bathroom and feeling his semen drip down my thigh. I remember feeling nauseous as I realized that, while we’d been talking, he’d been planning how to strike. How to unzip his pants and push my panties aside, all in a few seconds time. More than anything, I remember feeling ashamed.

Yes, ashamed. Because it had been my fault, hadn’t it? I’d left my door open. I’d talked to a man I didn’t really know. I must have somehow given him the impression I was willing, right? It took me forty years to attach the word ‘rape’ to what happened. This was before the terms “date rape” or “campus rape” had been coined. It was before ignoring the simple word “no” meant rape. Back then, rape was something that happened on the sidewalk when a stranger accosted you. It wasn’t what happened in your own bed with a man with whom you’d been friendly. That wasn’t rape, I thought back then. That was my own stupidity.

The shame was so great that by the time Zan came home and crawled into our double bed next to me, I didn’t tell her what had happened. I never told a soul, and when, in later years, I’d have conversations with friends and the question “who was your first?” came up, it never occurred to me to mention that nameless guy. I’d wiped him from my memory. It wasn’t until a few years ago when our rape culture began to change that I realized that was what I’d endured.

So, as I wrote the scene in which Tess wakes up after having unwanted sex with Henry, I had to be a realist. It’s 1944. Tess is no feminist ahead of her time in her thinking. She’s a young woman who’s never traveled outside her Little Italy neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland. I doubt the word “rape” ever crosses her mind with regard to what happened with Henry. She is completely, utterly wracked with guilt over betraying her fiancé. If I blamed myself for what happened to me in 1968, I am more than certain Tess would blame herself in 1944.

I ran into similar problems as I wrote about race in The Stolen Marriage. For example, in the story, the 1944 newspaper carries the story of a white man and Negro woman who get married in a state where interracial marriage is legal, and then return to live in North Carolina, where it isn’t. Would Tess think their marriage is fine? In my heart, I wanted her to feel supportive of that union, but I had to face reality. Tess expresses her negative opinion of interracial marriage, not out of disgust, but because of the problems it can cause for everyone, primarily for the offspring. Tess is a product of her time and upbringing, and I had to keep that in mind at every turn.

But the wonderful thing about writing fiction is that Tess can grow and change. That, to me, will always be the point of a good story. The protagonist starts at point A, and travels an arduous journey until she reaches point Z. And she’s a better person for the journey.

My hope is that The Stolen Marriage will lend itself to some rich, intense discussions among readers. I can already tell from the reviews that this will be the case. Hide the weapons, book clubs! And perhaps set out some 1944-style appetizers to remind everyone that enlightenment is yet to come.

25 Comments

  1. Cassie Snedecor on September 5, 2017 at 4:11 pm

    I’m so sorry Diane that you went through a rape. I am sure there will be many women that will be able to relate to this. And writing this story will help women deal with this & the times back then & how far ( not as far as it should) come with rape & also interracial relations. I love your books. They offer so much insight to many social & interpersonal relationships! can’t wait to read Stolen Marriage!

    • Pat on September 5, 2017 at 5:20 pm

      That makes me want yo read The Stolen Marriage even more!
      What a genuine, heartfelt article

      • Diane Chamberlain on September 7, 2017 at 7:20 pm

        Thank you, Pat.

    • Diane Chamberlain on September 5, 2017 at 8:26 pm

      Thanks, Cassie.

  2. Susan Rivers on September 5, 2017 at 4:37 pm

    What a courageous and coherent post, Diane.

    I agree completely with your point that an author’s characters are products of the times in which they live, and to the extent that we readers can learn from their experiences and understand our own times, perceptions and values with more insight, it is essential to present the characters’ stories honestly. I can see that I while have to read The Stolen Marriage. Finished Necessary Lies not long ago, and loved it. Don’t back down!

    • Diane Chamberlain on September 5, 2017 at 6:08 pm

      I bet you had to make many of the same decisions as you wrote The Second Mrs. Hockaday, Susan. (One of my all time favorite books!)

  3. Gina W. on September 5, 2017 at 4:45 pm

    Oh Diane, my stomach is hurting reading about what happened to you. I’m so sorry you had to live with this, and that you weren’t able to report it to get that animal thrown in jail. My heart just breaks, I don’t know what to say. I want to thank you for sharing this as I know it will help others.

    • Diane Chamberlain on September 5, 2017 at 8:25 pm

      Thanks, Gina.

  4. Julia Kerr on September 5, 2017 at 6:08 pm

    How strong (although you may not feel it) you are to be able to write that situation for Tess, and even more so to write this about the truth behind it. I hope that it helped you and didn’t set you back.

    Those who forget history, are doomed to repeat it (sorry, not quite accurate but it’s late!) I think it’s important that these subjects are raised and that stories are accurate to the time they are set in. If we brush over things like this then who knows if we will continue to move forward or not realise what we have achieved until we go backwards again.

    Rape, mental health and racism are 3 examples of things that have moved on a lot in my lifetime, but there are still a lot of people who are very vocal about old ways of thinking (rape – they were asking for it, mental health – you are crazy/to be avoided/to be made fun of, race – that person is inferior because of the colour of their skin) and we can’t let their noise drown out the quiet opinions of everyone else

    We can’t let them win, and your fiction and nonfiction story will help push back at them that little bit by giving everyone the reminder of why things need to change

    • Diane Chamberlain on September 5, 2017 at 6:10 pm

      Thank you, Julia.

  5. Donna Artis on September 5, 2017 at 7:50 pm

    A reader always has to take into account the time and place that the story occurs. I’m so sorry this happened to you, but you were able to write what a young girl would feel in that situation in that time period. I am looking forward to reading your book. All of your books, and I’ve read them all, are thought provoking and stir emotions. I can already tell that this one will not disappoint.

    • Diane Chamberlain on September 5, 2017 at 8:26 pm

      Thanks, Donna.

  6. Lyn B. on September 5, 2017 at 8:21 pm

    I can relate as I’ve been through a similar incident. I told no one for many years & blamed myself. It took a long time to realise it wasn’t my fault. Thank you for your post. I’m sorry for what you went through. I look forward to reading your book.

    • Diane Chamberlain on September 7, 2017 at 7:20 pm

      Thank you, Lyn.

  7. Rae on September 7, 2017 at 6:05 pm

    Oh Diane, I’m so, so sorry to read you were abused in such a vile way and applaud your strength at being open and sharing your experience now. I believe one of the signs of great fiction is when a novel is the catalyst for meaningful discussion, and it sounds as though this is the case with The Stolen Marriage. (I’m very much looking forward to reading it). I agree that it’s better for a scene to make for uncomfortable reading but stay true to the character, than to soften the plot line for how we like to think women and men might act today. Sadly, I suspect many young woman still feel the ‘shame’ of rape – making discussion not only relevant but necessary.

    • Diane Chamberlain on September 7, 2017 at 7:17 pm

      Thanks, Rae. As a writer yourself, I know you understand the challenges.

  8. Gina Evans on September 16, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    I am so sorry for what you went through. Things weren’t that different in 1974, when my own “incident” happened. I blamed myself for years. I know now it wasn’t, but it leaves its mark.

    • Diane Chamberlain on September 24, 2017 at 5:13 pm

      Sorry you went through something like that, Gina.

  9. Rebecca Kingston on October 5, 2017 at 4:37 pm

    What a terrible thing to go through. And how brave of you to use your own experience of something so awful in your writing.

    • Diane Chamberlain on October 15, 2017 at 7:48 pm

      Thanks, Rebecca.

  10. Evelyn Morgenstern on October 15, 2017 at 4:25 pm

    I just finished The Stolen Marriage. OUTSTANDiNG is hardly enough to describe this amazing novel. I hated to say goodbye to these characters who had become so real to me…Maybe a sequel?
    Thank you for this not to be forgotten story
    .

    • Diane Chamberlain on October 15, 2017 at 7:48 pm

      Thank you, Evelyn. I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  11. Karen Patrick on October 26, 2017 at 6:17 pm

    Oh Diane, For some reason, I am just reading your blog. I finished reading your book a week ago and absolutely loved it for so many reasons. I am so sorry that you had this experience when you were young. My heart ached for Tess, and it really aches for you having to have had that experience. I am sure your book will be a healing experience for many women who have experienced this trauma.

    • Diane Chamberlain on November 22, 2017 at 10:35 pm

      Thank you for your kind comments, Karen.

  12. Trisha Gensic on January 17, 2018 at 11:50 pm

    Diane,

    Soul sisters in so many ways.

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