On May 30, 2014, at the venerable St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, eighteen-year-old athlete Owen Labrie went with fifteen year old Chessy Prout - who had been previously warned by her older sister about this very same boy and advised to steer clear of him - to the mechanical room in the attic of the math and science building on campus. The consequence of this excursion was three misdemeanor convictions: statutory rape penetration of his under-age victim with hands, tongue, and penis, and also of a felony: using a computer to lure a minor for sex. He was was acquitted on three counts of felony sexual assault, apparently because their age difference was less than four years, but on his conviction on the other offenses, he was sentenced to a year in jail, five years of probation, and he was required to register as a sex offender for life.
These are the legally established facts since that night. The accounts of each party in the events naturally differ, but that night and its aftermath is the subject of this book. Note that my review here is not of that night or of what happened, or of either party, although I do believe the author's account, not the defendant's except in where it coincides with the author's.There are a paltry and pitiful handful of women who have concocted stories of assault, but they are negligible, especially when compared with the massive number of women who are assaulted in one way or another, but who fail to step forward for whatever reasons of their own. So this review is only of the book which describes these events. Not the events themselves.
The Goodreads blurb of the book begins, unsurprisingly, by saying, "A young survivor tells her searing, visceral story of sexual assault, justice, and healing in this gutwrenching [sic] memoir." but I beg to disagree. There is no searing. There is no gut hyphen wrenching. There are over 360 pages of which the first eighty-some is pure fluff and irrelevant to what happened except in that it reveals what a sheltered and privileged existence the author led prior to returning to the US from Japan where she grew up.
In those 360+ pages I am not counting the prologue or the introduction; I never read those things. I assume the fluff is due to the publisher-assigned co-writer, Jenn Abelson of whom I've never heard. She's a newspaper reporter. From my reading of this, I was forced to conclude that those who can, write, while those who can't, co-write, and by co-writing, I mean add upholstery wherever they can. In my opinion, this was a serious mistake in this book.
The blurb repeatedly mentions sexual assault, but from the description given post page ninety, this was not assault; it was out-and-out rape. Why did the publisher's blurb writer not have the guts to describe it as it is? Perhaps because there was no conviction on the charge of rape? The victim (or survivor, but I do not play with words when it comes to something as serious as this) uses the word rape and that's what I will use. The problem is that the book itself is larded with so much fluff and stuffing that it diminishes what was a horrible attack on a naïve and culturally defenseless girl who quite simply did not know how to handle what happened to her and got precious little help.
I get that this was a series of confusing events and that she had nothing by which to get a handle on them, but in hindsight which was how this book was written, I think a little more hard-writing and a lot less "purdying-up" would have served the author - the real author - far better than what we got. She should not have been playing second-violin in her own story, and I find it as surprising as it is inexcusable that a professional journalist pussy-footed around so much.
The victim's worst enemy after the rape was herself, because she maintained a pleasant, jokey, even flirtatious relationship with her rapist for several days, exchanging humorous and polite texts before wising-up and ceasing contact with him. This is how thoroughly confused she was. An assault like this will do that and worse to a person, and sometimes juries simply don't get that, especially if they've never had anything like this happen to them - and the defense team, rest assured, will try to have dismissed any potential juror who has.
The author's sister was about the only one who seemed to treat the rape as what it was, and literally punched the guy. I'd like to read her story! As far as the author was concerned, her writing (or Jenn not-so-Abelson's writing) made it feel like this whole thing was just one more relatively minor event between finals and a pep rally.
Contrary to what the blurb implied, it was virtually robbed of any real impact because of the way it was written. And contradictory elements in it did not help. At one point, in the same paragraph, the author (one of them) bemoans being an anonymous victim (which given that she's a minor is required by law) and then a sentence or two later, rails at being outed on an Internet message board! She cannot have it both ways. As it was, she outed herself later to commendably speak up about sexual assault.
In another similar contradiction, she makes a big deal about praying to her god at one point, something which is a proven waste of time since this god did nothing whatsoever to help her, and then later rails at a rabbi for forgiving her attacker! Excuse me, isn't the author purportedly a Christian: an adherent of a teaching that explicitly instructs that we turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and give our shirt? No Christians actually do that in reality because they're hypocrites, but this means that strictly speaking, according to her religion she should have forgiven her attacker too, and let this go. Let me make it clear that I do NOT advocate that at all. She did the right thing - eventually - by pursuing it through legal channels, but she cannot then rail at the rabbi or claim to be a true Christian.
The decision to let her go back to the school after these events was in my opinion ill-advised, and although I did not read on (I quit this book after chapter fourteen, around page 155), I do know it was doomed to failure because in that kind of culture, all that happens is that she becomes victimized even more. People were already dissing her, calling her foul names, and trying to trivialize what had happened. People whine about an athlete's life being ruined without stopping to think for a minute how much more the girl's life has been taken apart at the seams and more.
In this age of #MeToo, I live in hopes that this cluelessness about rape and sexual assault is changing, but the tendency in the past has been to favor the male version of the story rather than the female. This is par for the course in these situations, especially if the male in question has some sort of celebratory status, such as in the case where he is on a sports team, and especially if it's a successful sports team. And it's not just guys. I've seen cases where women have come down in support of the guy rather than the victim of an assault. More young girls need to be educated on this topic - seriously educated and quickly educated, and they need to be encouraged to come forward, because every time a guy gets away with this behavior, he's thereby encouraged to repeat it.
But the end of this attitude is the hope. The reality in this case is that I cannot recommend this book not because of the story it tells, but because of the ill-advised way in which it's told. It's so poorly-written and it constantly highlights what a privileged existence Chessy Prout led, which contrasts sharply with her convicted attacker who was far less privileged so I understand. Instead, it should have focused tightly on what happened, and investigated a real possibility, if this is to be judged by other such tragedies, that there might be a sorry litany of similar assaults when the truth comes out.
The book should have begun with the assault and then went on to discussing how often these thing happen on campuses like this one, and what could be done to prevent them. The New York Times has an article (or did at the time I posted this) about serious sexual misconduct at this same school. Maybe the second half of the book did investigate, but I lost all faith in it. After plowing gamely through the rich upholstery of the first half, I had zero interest in reading on and for that I apologize to the author. None of this was her fault.