Several of the more controversial and admittedly cringe-inducing elements from my novel SO SHELLY are those in which two of the main characters are sexually abused by adults: Gordon, as the historical Byron admitted to being, is abused by his live-in nanny. Another incident, ripped from the headlines of Byron’s life, is his sexual relationship with his half-sister, Augusta. As for Shelly, in the novel, she suffers an incestuous rape by her father. Although, as far as I know, neither Percy nor Mary Shelley was victimized as such, the scene is meant to be an extreme metaphorical representation (ala the great Flannery O’Connor) of the manner in which children and teens are often taken advantage of and victimized by the adults in their lives, the very ones in whom they should be able to place their most sacred trust.
During the writing and editing of those scenes, I was wracked with uncertainty as to their inclusion in a text targeted for young adults. After much internal debate and several conversations with my editor, the decision was made to keep those unseemly events in the story. It was a calculated risk, for it has certainly scared away and inspired the vitriol of some readers/critics and caused some book stores and libraries to reject the shelving of SHELLY. However, without those incidents those characters’ motivations and behaviors made little sense, but I think, more importantly, those scenes shine a much-needed light on the reality of the sexual abuse of children at the hands of adults and on the nearly unspoken of topic of incest, the most universal of taboos. It was actually the recent reading of an article written for The Daily Beast by Jace Lacob, “Game of Thrones’ ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and Others Break the Incest Taboo on TV,” that inspired me to pen this blog. Read Lacob’s article here: http://tinyurl.com/cwd7usm. The reality is that these behaviors occur whether we write or talk about them or not; in fact, they happen more frequently as a result of the shame and embarrassment which induce our silence and tacitly allows for them to continue to take place, as the Penn State case and others recently brought to light revealed.
I have long asserted the legitimate role of “adult” themes and scenes in YA literature and teenagers’ ability to handle such themes with intelligence and maturity. These themes and scenes provide them a safe place to experience vicariously the adult situations which await them in their very near future, and they expose them to and help prepare them for some of life’s darker realities, including sexual abuse and perversions. Writers and adults in general, do young people a grave disservice by failing to address these issues in families, schools, churches, etc. Ironically and sadly, it’s in these institutions that much of the abuse occurs. And, no matter how much we, as adults, don’t want to admit it, many teens have already been thrust or thrust themselves into any number of very “adult” experiences.
In light of recent news stories, I’m convinced that my instinct as a writer and social commentator was not only right on but even prescient. Against heavy odds and I’m sure for a short time only, these issues have nudged their way to the forefront of the American zeitgeist (the mood of a particular place and time; what were thinking/talking about as a society), and I’ll flatter myself by suggesting that SO SHELLY has played a minor role in sparking some reflection on and discussion of these issues.
Now, it’s vital that – while we have this rare opportunity to peel back the curtain, examine our sexual natures and deviancies, and dialogue about them in public – we do so. If not, we will once again look the other way, forget what we have seen and heard, and enable young people to continue to be victimized. It’s also vital that these same young people be exposed to works like SO SHELLY at a time when – whether we like it or not and for their own well being – they need to lose some of the naiveté that renders them gullible and ripe for exploitation.