I’m not going to write much about the Wall Street Journal‘s ignorant article on young adult literature that was published this weekend. Plenty of people have done an amazing job of writing about it, including YA authors and book bloggers who are far more knowledgeable about the genre in their rebuttals than I would be.
My reading has gotten more eclectic over the years, and while I don’t typically read much YA lit, I’ve read more YA than usual this year: some (like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) I read in order to catch up on classics that I missed out on, while others I read when my curiosity was piqued after online controversies. Living Dead Girl falls into the latter category; back in January, it was originally placed on Bitch magazines’s list of 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader only to be removed after complaints of it’s “triggering nature.” Some commenters there and at Goodreads called the book “torture porn” that had no redeeming value, but many more were outraged that Bitch chose to remove the book from the list.
Indeed, it’s a book with difficult subject matter. It’s controversial and disturbing. It most definitely contains material that many may find triggering. And though it’s a young adult book, it’s not a book that every teenager would feel comfortable reading. That said? The original decision to include the book on the list of feminist YA reads was a brave and admirable one, and having now read the book, I find it extremely unfortunate that Bitch took it off the list. The reason for that is simple, especially after the WSJ article: YA–especially YA dealing with difficult themes–saves.
I devoured Elizabeth Scott’s Living Dead Girl from start to finish in a couple of hours, and when it was over, all I could say was “wow.” The book is told from the first person perspective of “Alice,” who was abducted at the age of ten by a man named Ray. For the past five years, Ray has been physically, sexually, and psychologically abusing her. From the beginning, he changed her name to Alice, punishing her in various ways until her will was broken and she accepted the new identity. As she nears the age of fifteen, she is aware that he will probably kill her; there was another girl before her whom he killed when she grew up and was no longer able to fulfill his little girl fantasies.
This was a pretty devastating book to read, and as I said before, not every teen is cut out for it. Thinking back to my teen years, I can think of several friends who would probably have had nightmares for weeks if they’d read this book. But I can also think of friends and relatives who might have been able to relate to Alice, especially to the emotional detachment she feels as a result from the constant abuse she is subjected to:
There is a plastic decoration on the wall across from me; clear rippled plastic resting against a blue wall. A reverse ocean, with no water for anyone to drown in.
I can see myself in the plastic and it waves me into a strange, distorted creature, the shadow of something or someone.
I look wrong.
I look dead.
I’m not, though. I’m only partway there, a living dead girl.
I have been for five years.
Another strong point of the book is its ability to show how important it is to speak up if you see encounter a situation that looks/sounds questionable. There were many adult characters in the book who knew that something wasn’t right with Alice, but were constantly willing to look the other way. Alice always inwardly dared them to question her. She would have denied everything because doing otherwise would have had dire consequences for her, but she always knew when an adult suspected something was wrong. Sadly, they always proved her right: no one was willing to get involved.
This book is not torture porn. Far from it. Though the likelihood of being abducted off the street and forced into a situation like Alice’s is relatively low in the United States, the likelihood of a teenager experiencing rape and/or sexual assault is staggering: 1 in 6 American women (44% of these victims are under the age of 18), and 1 in 33 American men have experienced rape in her or his lifetime. Living Dead Girl is absolutely relevant to contemporary teen experiences. To claim that books like this serve no purpose is just plain wrong.