In which I think too hard about trash

So, I want to talk about a book I finished recently. (1)  Like all right-thinking people, I sometimes have a need to purge my brain of serious thinking by ingesting large amounts of trash.  Oftentimes, that trash takes the form of Jodi Picoult novels, which I find sometimes amusing despite her hilariously overworked mother-characters and her obvious, massive, throbbing boner for prosecutors. (2)  But this one gave me some pause.  Walk with me through my concerns.

And by “my concerns” I don’t mean the fact that the book is obviously structured to be an “update” of The Crucible, and thus that all the “twists” she loves to throw in her plots are telegraphed almost literally on the first page.  Crimes against literature, to be sure, but it’s hard to expect Tolstoy in exchange for $3 and a couple hours on a Saturday afternoon.  No, what I’m concerned about is this:

There’s a scenario in the early-middle part of the book, in which the main character, Jack “Proctor” St. Bride, recalls speaking to his mother after first being accused of statutory rape of his fifteen-year-old student.  He expects his mother automatically to take his side.  She does not.  His whole world is shattered; it is not enough that everyone in the world believes this lying liar, including his attorney, but now his mother does as well.  And she gives her reason: “Why on earth would a woman lie about that?” (3)  Whereupon Picoult promptly shows us a flashback of Jack getting lost at the zoo and his mother not noticing until he found her.  “Oh,” says mom in this memory, “blithely,” “are we finished here?”  And then, back in the present, she disowns him.

That is an example of what feminists refer to as the rape culture.

What the crap is “rape culture” supposed to mean? Well, I could point you to a good old-fashioned book on the subject, which is how I learned the answer to that question, or I could direct you to a good (fairly) recent post on the issue, which really does sum it up quite well, but in a nutshell “rape culture” is this: it is a culture that normalizes or minimizes rape.  Simple, yeah?  Yeah, pretty much.

How does this book reflect “rape culture”? Well, first of all, Mom’s answer refers to a fifteen-year-old girl as a  (presumably fully-fledged) “woman,” clearly an untruth, which is a preliminary flag indicating how much credence we should lend this character’s assertions.  Second, Picoult puts the reaction we all should be having into the mouth of a character she then immediately discredits, so the effect is to make the eminently sensible response come off as radical and unreasonable because the mouthpiece for it is so repulsive.

Why is this the “eminently sensible” response?  Women lie about rape all the time, without any consequences! – That is an example of what feminists refer to as the rape culture. (4)

Let’s tackle this piece by piece.  First (read: simplest) things first: aren’t I being unfair to Picoult herself?   She says in the reader’s guide at the end that she wanted to give a sensitive portrayal of rape, and that she doesn’t want to hold up convicted rapists as role models because only a “very small fraction of them are innocent.”  Clearly she’s not trying to suggest that we should never believe rape victims, or that everyone accused of rape (twice…) is innocent.  But what she IS saying is that “for every [John Proctor], there’s an [actual rapist]; for every [rape victim], there’s a[n Abigail Williams].” But that’s just not true.  By even the most (how to describe this number? “liberal”? “conservative”? “MRA-friendly”?)…women-are-lying-whores estimate, to which I mean to give no credence by citing it here, false rape reports number only 41% of all reports.  And even non-feminist-friendly blogger Eugene Volokh—who, bless his heart, is willing to give poor benighted women the benefit of the doubt because they sometimes need men to tell them what’s rape and what isn’t—is willing to concede that rape is a radically underreported crime, with perhaps as many as half of all actual rapes going unreported.  So no, it isn’t the case that for every “real” rape victim, there’s a falsely accused man.  And by playing up that false equivalency, Picoult herself plays right into the hands of the larger narrative on rape.  Women lie.  Women who claim to have been raped are liars (or they don’t know as well as men do what rape is, thanks for that one!).  You should give men the benefit of the doubt in rape cases, because it’s just her word against his, and after all…she’s a liar.

That’s normalizing rape.

Wait, but what about the flashback/anecdote?  If she’s saying that women have no reason to lie about being raped, how does the flashback minimize rape?

Isn’t it obvious?  Because she’s not making that statement.  She’s DISCREDITING that statement in service to her larger point about Men Victimized By False Rape Reports (Which Makes A Good Book Plot Because Dude, Edgy).  Come on, we’re supposed to take the side of a thoughtless, careless mother, who has no use for her poor son, over the side of a man we already know to be righteous, despite being “not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang”?  No.  The rational thing to do, in the context of the world Picoult has created for us to this point, is to realize that we’re not supposed to side with women as a class here.  The radical feminist viewpoint is clearly wrong.  We’re supposed to side with the man.

That’s normalizing rape.

But doesn’t that ignore the dimensions she later imparts to these two characters?  She spends all that time humanizing mom, making her into a savior of prostitutes and whatnot, and she shows the son doing some incredibly dodgy things with women, passing them around the college soccer team and all that.  Doesn’t that show that she understands it’s not as simple as you’re making it out to be?

Now here’s where the book gets really interesting.  As it progresses, you start to learn that Mom does in fact take in prostitutes and abuse victims, sometimes by force, and keeps them in her penthouse until they dress right, at which point she releases them back into the wild.  Her son, by contrast, ends up turning into someone who abuses women until he learns the error of his ways after the death of his father (and after seeing his mother adopt the prostitute his father was screwing at the time of dad’s death; it’s a Picoult novel, people).  All this, I gather, is meant to ameliorate, or at least complicate, the effects of the scene in which Mom disowns son after learning he was accused of rape.  But here’s the interesting part, to me: Does Picoult know that her hero is a rapist?  Because he is.  He’s not just ACCUSED of having committed rape (twice).  He’s a rapist.  Full stop.  And I know this because of this line:

“Once a girl had passed out cold and all eleven players had gotten to fuck her.”

Knock knock.  Who’s there? (5)

And I don’t know whether Picoult actually realizes—or intends her audience to realize—that this means her protagonist has in fact committed full-on felonious sexual assault; her resolution of the Jack-abuses-women subplot involves Jack rescuing a girl from the rest of the soccer team, but not him understanding that he, too, has raped women.  Certainly no one who reviewed the book on Amazon seems to realize that this is the case.  I have to assume a lot of readers wouldn’t, without it being flagged for them

That’s fascinating.  And it’s normalizing rape.


(1) That’s book #123 of 140 in the last year, but who’s counting?

(2) The woman’s clearly done a lot of research when it comes to court proceedings, but she’s just as clearly never done it by speaking to a defense attorney—viz. her bizarre need, in every single book she’s ever written, to have her defense attorneys tell their clients something along the lines of “I don’t need to know the truth in order to handle this case.”  Even if I didn’t have hundreds of hours of Trial Lawyers’ College training telling me otherwise, I could tell you that view of a defense attorney’s job is laughably ridiculous, ludicrously silly, and like 5,700 other adverb redundant adjective phrases.  Two words: defendant testimony.  All right?  Come on now.  Thinking that defense attorneys don’t care about the truth—worse, that they’ll actively HIDE from it, like most of hers do—is an absurd, facile view of criminal defense that’s held only by people who haven’t progressed past the Law & Order way of viewing the world—and prosecutors.

(3) Happily, you may be assured that this is a verbatim quote, because I research my Picoult-related blog posts, god save us all.

(4) When I was an articles editor for law journal, a colleague and I reviewed an article submitted for publication in which the authors (who were not of the same gender) proposed jail terms for girls who made statutory rape allegations that they later recanted.  We declined to publish the piece.

(5) It’s rape, lol!


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