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.