Consent, power, and agency in a small town
Spoiler alert: Plot resolution of the novel Little Pretty Things revealed.
Recently I submitted a short story to a couple of contests, neither of which it “won,” but one of them allowed you to pay an extra submission fee for feedback from an editor, which I did. The price was low, and so were my expectations, but the critique that came back was thoughtful and practical. The editor summed up the plot as I saw it, too, and made several especially helpful suggestions for tightening up and delineating the action in the climactic scene.
Well, she almost summed up the plot as I see it. Here’s an excerpt from her comments:
“This short story follows the aftermath of a high school scandal where a teacher, Mr. Sarkhart, is presumed to have raped one of his students, Sarah, after he adopts her son and promptly leaves the school. Lindy and Sue, friends of Sarah’s, confront Mr. Sarkhart and his wife, Carol, and try to break up his marriage.”
The editor uses only the word “rape” to describe the implied relationship between Sarkhart and Sarah. That word never appears in the story, which is set in the mid eighties, but I think this would be the verdict of many, if not most, of today’s commentators (in America, anyway). What else do we call a sexual relationship between a grown man and a seventeen-year-old student whom he teaches and coaches?
For me, that’s one of the key question in this story. Sarah, the presumed victim, remains in the background, and the plot is driven by her friends’ assumptions. They’re outraged on her behalf based on what they think they know — which turns out to be half of the story at best.
When I read the previous sentence, it sounds like the story is a heavy-handed critique of today’s online show trials, but when I wrote the story my mind was very much in the mid-eighties of the upper midwest — a time capsule that is now remote from us in its local peculiarities and mores. I graduated in 1986 from a small Catholic high school in a small town in southern Minnesota. A lot of the kids in my class of forty-eight (me included) were making out and more on the weekends. Sex was everywhere in pop culture, and prominent in our social lives, yet an out-of-wedlock pregnancy was still treated as a scandal. So sex was still rebellion and a type of temporary freedom — that often ended in marriage and kids, anyway.
The teacher-student relationship in my short story is different from the overt predator-prey relationship portrayed in, e.g., Lori Rader Day’s Little Pretty Things. A couple of details in the two tales are similar enough to confirm the suspicion that there is always a pattern to these things: attractive student athlete, well-loved coach, abusive relationship, repeat. But in Little Pretty Things, the reader discovers along with the protagonist that the (significantly older) villain does have a history of using his power to take advantage of vulnerable young women under his care and leadership. What he’s been doing is rape, no question.
In this story, not so much. The reader never learns whether Sarkhart’s affair with Sarah is an isolated incident or his first transgression. Sarkhart is young and attractive (he’s probably twenty eight or so) and it’s implied by her friends that Sarah was a willing, maybe even enthusiastic, participant in their relationship. A question in my mind while I was writing it was, what do we take away from young women (any women, frankly) when we insist that they are only victims in their story, whatever the facts might be.
Today on Twitter I shared an essay by Melissa Febos posted to LitHub about the evolution of the word “slut.”
“It is a brilliant linguistic trajectory,” she writes, from bad housekeeper to bad woman (and it’s a brilliant essay, excerpted from Girlhood, which I plan to read). “This way you can punish her for anything. You can make her humanity monstrous. Now you can do anything you want to her.”
The word “victim” can be operated in a similar way. Once you take away her agency, she’s helpless without you — without your judgment, without your valor on her behalf, without your intervention in her story. And you can do anything you want with her story.
The young women in my story do not always win. Sometimes they are taken advantage of; they make terrible, stupid mistakes. They do things that make my fifty-something self cringe. But they are fully engaged in their lives, they are struggling to shape the narrative to their desired ends, and that to me makes them heroes.
Our (perhaps) divergent perspective aside, I’m really grateful for the professional feedback, and I’ll be incorporating many of the editor’s suggestions and submitting the story to a few journals. If it doesn’t make the cut I’ll post it here and, either way, you can have your say, too.