Writing Sensitively About Trauma with Rebecca Kelly

When writing a novel whose central theme is sexual trauma, authors have a responsibility to their audience to represent the reality of that experience as authentically as possible. What we read and watch influences the way in which we view rape, and with survivors’ voices so often being ignored and disbelieved, not tackling the subject with this in mind can only compound the undermining of survivors and squander the opportunity to raise awareness.

When I chose the theme of child sexual exploitation for Monstrous Souls, I researched the trauma that I brought to bear on my characters in great depth, and when I finally wrote their stories, I had a sense of them not only as survivors but as people too, people with intelligence, love and courage.

According to a survey conducted by Rape Crisis England and Wales at the end of March 2017, 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16, and based on the UK Office for National Statistics, over 20% of children have or are currently suffering some type of abuse. Our novels are written and then they go out into the world, into readers’ hands and heads, so it’s important to keep in mind that some of those readers may have been victim to a similar experience.

Film and literature assert a powerful and influential role over the way that we define the world and human experience. It’s therefore crucial that depictions of sexual assault should never be played for thrills but should represent the trauma of rape, giving voice and affirmation to any person who has experienced, might be experiencing, or in fact may experience assault in real life. Film making is dominated by male directors and sex scenes – even those which depict rape – are too often delivered through the lens of the male gaze and with a male audience in mind. In these portrayals of sexual assault, the victim is eroticised and the scene used to introduce a salacious element for the enjoyment of a mainly male viewer through techniques such as stressing the appearance of the woman and her sexual attractiveness or muting the violence and pain of an accurate representation.

When the camera or pen lingers on a woman’s attractiveness and distorts a scene to incorporate maximum erotic value, it places the viewer in the position of voyeur – and in a false, one-sided narrative, where sexual assault is somehow titillating. A good example of this is in the rape of Daenerys Targaryen by Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones: the focus of the scene is directed at the beauty of Daenyrys’ body, which is enhanced by the lighting, making her seem almost unreal. This technique further distances the viewer from the reality of what is a brutal act.

The reality of rape is further warped when emphasis is placed on a woman’s appearance. Using scantily dressed, attractive women as victims forms an unrealistic and dangerous link between what women look like, how they dress, and assault. Beauty has no relevance within the scope of rape; rape is more about power than desire and, regardless of a woman’s appearance, it is neither consensual nor invited. This focus on appearance was shockingly supported by the comment made in the late 1980s by Judge James Pickles, who stated a rape victim had been ‘asking for it’ because she wore a mini-skirt. There is never a justification for sexual assault, and it is essential that our literature and film reflect that.

Through eroticising rape, the filmmaker or author creates an unrealistic perspective that perpetuates this skewed viewpoint on the realities of assault. It also constructs a dangerous illusion that sexual assault is exciting and sexually thrilling and reinforces stereotypes of both men and women – that masculinity is about power and that femininity is about passivity and that any sexual contact, even violent, is acceptable.

How, then, does the writer or filmmaker deal with sexual assault sensitively? This can only be accomplished by shifting the focus from the viewpoint of the rapist to the victim. In doing this, the scene becomes desexualised, and graphic content is there only to convey the devastation of assault. It is possible to write successfully about the impact of rape without using any gratuitous detail. For example:

She was underneath him, face pressed to the pillow, terror and shock leaking from every cell in her body. The clock at the bedside moved forward one more unbearable second and then it was over. The pain was a vice. She dared not move. Could barely breathe whilst the shock and the sense of something lost and changed forever swelled in the air about her.

Here, for instance, more emotional impact is brought when less is said in terms of detail: if we are watching every action during the assault on a character’s body, we are not paying attention to what is happening inside a character’s head, and it is in the human psyche that the assault will ultimately cause the most damage. When scenes of rape are considered from the viewpoint of the victim we are giving voice back to the victim, instead of to the predatory and salacious eye of the rapist, camera, or writer.

Another consideration when using rape as a subject matter in fiction is that the reality of such an experience is not over for a victim when the scene ends. Rape carries life-long consequences. A writer who achieved these balances beautifully is Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner. His stunning novel centres around the friendship between two boys, one of whom becomes the victim of a rape. Hosseini does not use any graphic language, but the scene is easily understood, as are its long-reaching consequences.

Hosseini shows us that the effects of violence, sexual or otherwise, are not short-lived, they infiltrate every area of a victim’s life from the point of assault onwards. Too many novels use throwaway victims to carry a story forward or to make a plot point without considering the authenticity of what the real experience might be like for an actual person. A responsible writer, if they have not gone through what their characters have, owe it their readers and themselves to research in depth so that they can understand what that world might truly feel like for their character. No major character in a novel should be left at the moment of trauma and be expected to continue throughout the rest of the pages as if nothing had occurred; from a purely literary point of view, it is entirely unrealistic.

Edward St Aubyn also writes poignantly about the impact of abuse in his semi-autobiographical novel, Nevermind and the succeeding works in his Patrick Melrose series. Nevermind describes his life as a young boy with a sociopathic and predatory father and a disinterested mother. Aubyn’s devastating childhood experiences caused profound psychological damage which he chronicles in this series, detailing drug abuse and suicidal thoughts.

As a writer who chose a challenging theme for their novel, I would like to believe that through the compassion I felt for my characters and their experiences, I have written their stories in a way that shows a sensitivity and respect for all survivors of abuse.

Books not only entertain but educate. They take us to places we may never go, but more importantly, they take us into a character’s experience. Recent years have seen a growing pressure from sexual assault survivors to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes. Too often, the law has failed to believe or to prosecute rape. It is therefore essential that in literature and film we avoid misrepresenting the reality of rape and return the victim’s voice to the centre stage, where it belongs.

Rebecca Kelly was brought up with books but denied the pleasure of a television. Although she hated this at the time, she now considers it to have contributed to a life-long passion for reading and writing. After a misspent education, Rebecca had a variety of jobs. She’s spent the last years raising her children but has lately returned to her first love – writing. Rebecca lives in the UK with her husband and youngest son and an over-enthusiastic black Labrador, who gives her writing tips.

Monstrous Souls, Rebecca Kelly’s debut novel, is now available in paperback HERE.