Erin E. Moulton & Melissa Marr On Rape in YA, Nonfiction, & “Things We Haven’t Said”

Librarian, author, and editor Erin E. Moulton and best-selling author Melissa Marr, a contributor to Things We Haven’t Said, chat about the writing process, harmful tropes in media, and more.

Photo by Jason Robinson

In the wake of the #MeToo movement and a rising call to combat rape culture, author, librarian, and editor Erin E. Moulton was spurred to reach out to well-known YA authors to create an anthology of nonfiction about rape and trauma from the perspectives of survivors. Below, Moulton and best-selling author Melissa Marr, a contributor to Things We Haven’t Said: Sexual Violence Survivors Speak Out (Zest, Mar, 2018; Gr 9 Up), chat about the writing process, harmful tropes in media, and more.

Erin E. Moulton: Melissa, I remember when I first started to write the proposal for Things We Haven’t Said: Sexual Violence Survivors Speak Out. It was called Required Reading, and I was trying to figure out how to explain to the publishing world that a YA audience needed a nonfiction resource about sexual violence. I wanted to incorporate people from the YA book world who had already discussed sexual violence on their platforms or in their books, and I found you. I remember being extremely nervous about writing the email requesting a piece for the proposal. I was basically asking you to dig up bad memories, trust a complete stranger, and write a piece for a book that hadn’t sold yet. And yet, after a few emails back and forth, you got behind the project enthusiastically. What was it like writing that piece and handing it over to me for critique?

Melissa Marr: I hope it's not callous to say that I didn't think about you or critique at all! What matters to me is reaching young men and women who need to know they aren't alone. I used to care if people judged me, but I did nothing wrong by being raped or by surviving. I won't accept being judged for it, so it didn't worry me to turn my piece in at all.

EM: It doesn’t sound callous at all. It’s actually a relief to know that my intentions and yours were exactly lined up. You’ve explored tough subjects like this before through a fictional lens, for instance in Ink Exchange, a book from your internationally best-selling “Wicked Lovely” series. Do you think it’s important to explore it in nonfiction? How’s it different?

MM: I've spoken about it more in conversations and nonfiction than [in fiction]. I have spoken about it as a teacher, as a friend to a mom whose child was raped, to an ex-boyfriend who was gang-raped. What I think is essential—and difficult— in fiction is how necessary it is for the writer to represent rape and post-rape with realism. If a writer isn't a survivor, s/he needs to research and (if possible) get a reader who is a survivor. There is absolutely nothing that will make me stop reading as quickly as mishandling this topic. Further, I think that an author needs to ask herself/himself why the topic is in the text. Too often it's a shortcut for "really bad thing to show a character as strong."

EM: Let’s talk about rape culture for a minute—about undoing it. In the question and answer component of your piece, I ask a really uncomfortable question: “Do you think the perpetrator knows he’s a rapist?” I ask this question a couple of times in the book, and the answer is always, “No, I doubt he thinks he did anything wrong.” I remember watching the Brock Turner case in 2015 and wondering the same thing. Does this guy know he’s a rapist? How could he not know he’s a rapist? I wonder, often, if people can be taught to not rape. Can you envision a world without rape? And how would we get there?

MM: A world without rape? Honestly, no. I don't think we can get there. Too often the default solution to take a person's power is to take away their choices. Rape is about that, about an individual seeking to overpower or seeking self-satisfaction with no regard for the well-being of the individual being violated. Do I think there are those who realize they are guilty? Of course. I had a student come to me once who raped a girl at a party. He knew what he'd done, faced his guilt, but he stumbled over the "I said I was sorry, but she is still mad." Self-awareness was partially there, but there was still an entitled attitude. He had "fixed" it, but she was mean and refused to forgive him. It's hard to understand what being raped often does to a person unless you've been assaulted. As to rape culture, we live in a nation where quick fix, drive-through, get rich/get famous, have it all, is an ideal. Then we associate success with sexuality. (Look at ads, videos, song lyrics.) We still uphold stalkeresque acts as romance in adult and YA novels (and films). It was rampant in paranormal fiction. Then we ask, "Why is this rape culture here?" We use the phrase like being raped for things that are nothing like rape, and that decreases the horror of actual rape. There are a lot of factors at work here—ergo my belief that it's not realistic to think of a world without rape.

EM: I’ve been doing several events with this book. They’re always good. People attend and are moved, but every single time I bring up the subject of the book, I notice the cringe. The moment where I explain that we’re going to discuss kids and adolescents being raped. The faces change, eyes shift looking for the exit. Oftentimes, people tell me that they just can’t read the book. It’s difficult for me to hear, because I truly believe that the only way to stop this from happening all the time is to have every corner of our culture understand how acts like this occur and how silence is perpetuated. And if you haven’t experienced it, the best way to understand it is to listen to survivors. I often hear that this is a great resource for survivors, and I’m not denying that that’s true, but I worry that it gets thrown into an echo chamber. Who do you think should read this book? Who’s it for?

Photo by Sara Joy Tiberio

MM: The cringe. Yes, that's inevitable. People don't like thinking about rape. It's heavy, and dark, and sometimes they feel guilty. I've been blunt in confronting people over the cringe and glance down. More than a few people have guiltily admitted that they think about themselves, glad it wasn't them. It's a split-second reaction, but they feel awful for it. (If you're reading this and have felt that, I want you to know that I think that reaction is OK. I'm glad it wasn't you, too.) We need to get that conversation started, too. The guilt, the relief, the "please not me"—these are not reactions I judge harshly. I hope no one else is raped, but you know, I've had more than a couple of those people come to me when they were raped or their daughter/friend/sister. They remembered that I could talk about it, and they felt safe talking to me. That's who it's for. Them. All of them. Those who are trying to cope, or not break because a loved one was assaulted or those who want to know, just in case.

EM: Thanks for bringing that up. The reaction being OK. I think a myriad of emotions happen during these types of conversations, and I think it’s OK to sit with those. The anger, the discomfort, the sadness. Whatever it is, it’s OK to feel all of it. Last question: Do you think the book itself can gain any traction? This book is a compilation of pieces by a few renowned authors but nonwriters as well. We have real estate professionals, nomads, crisis workers, starving artists, car transporters. And that’s how I wanted it to be. I wanted it to show that this type of trauma can happen to anyone. Anywhere. Right now, the #MeToo movement has arrived. We are, as a culture, saying that this subject is important. But we’ve also tended to hear more privileged voices up to this point, while the underprivileged are left to story circles, ignored tweets, and….silence. Are people listening?

MM: I think you'd be surprised how many people listen, even peripherally. I used to be surprised, but I've been open about this for half a lifetime now. It's easy to feel frustrated, but in our lifetimes, we have made progress. In my mother's youth, rape was not discussed. In my grandmother's youth, it wasn't a legal right to say no to a husband. Progress isn't as fast as I want, but it happens with each voice.

EM: I agree that slow movement is better than no movement. And thank you for being one of those voices that make change.

Melissa Marr is the internationally best-selling author of the “Wicked Lovely” series and the Blackwell Pages. She is the editor of numerous fantasy anthologies and has recently penned her fist picture book, Bunny Roo, I Love You.

Erin E. Moulton is the editor of Things We Haven’t Said: Sexual Violence Survivors Speak Out, as well as the author of Flutter, Tracing Stars, Chasing the Milky Way, and Keepers of the Labyrinth. She lives in Windham, NH, and when she isn’t writing she works as a teen librarian.

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