April 9, 2013

The Mockingbirds and Sexual Assault Awareness

As many of you probably know, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I've been wanting to review Daisy Whitney's The Mockingbirds since I finished reading it in March, so this seems like the appropriate time. Also, with the recent Steubenville sentencing this past month, it is something that has never been far from my mind.

From Goodreads:
Some schools have honor codes.
Others have handbooks.
Themis Academy has the Mockingbirds.

Themis Academy is a quiet boarding school with an exceptional student body that the administration trusts to always behave the honorable way—the Themis Way. So when Alex is date raped during her junior year, she has two options: stay silent and hope someone helps her, or enlist the Mockingbirds—a secret society of students dedicated to righting the wrongs of their fellow peers.

In this honest, page-turning account of a teen girl's struggle to stand up for herself, debut author Daisy Whitney reminds readers that if you love something or someone—especially yourself—you fight for it.


As the description explains, Alex is raped by another student during an evening hanging out with friends. For a time, she recollects little of what happened, but one thing she does know—he took her virginity against her will. Alex struggles with this not knowing and with trying to figure out if what transpired that night was rape. Thankfully, she has people close to her who make it abundantly clear: it was rape. I felt Whitney created a very real portrayal of someone trying to cope in the aftermath of such a horrific act—the denial, the fear, the shame, the feelings of powerlessness. She also surrounded Alex with a great group of friends and advocates which, sadly, is not something that all victims of sexual assault are fortunate enough to have.

I've rewritten this paragraph a number of times, because I really don't want to say the wrong thing. I'm not going to lie, I didn't find the rapist's sentence to be enough, and at times the proceedings felt a bit like a mock trial. And I couldn't help wishing this was brought before the authorities, whether those at Themis Academy or those of the legal variety. It was proposed, but Alex quashed the idea and it really didn't come up again. Since Themis' administration was hell-bent on maintaining a certain reputation, Alex and the Mockingbirds felt this was something they would just sweep under the carpet. (Unfortunately, turning a blind eye happens all the time in reality. Case in point: Penn State.) So I guess my frustration is more with a system that time and time again fails victims of sexual assault, to the extent that these students resorted to taking matters into their own hands. While I wasn't 100% satisfied with the rapist's sentence I suppose this is reflective of real life. Just look at the Steubenville verdict and its insufficiency when you consider what that young girl lost. I do think it's important to point out that this trial was Alex's choice and that's a pretty crucial thing to give back to her when choice is what was taken from her in the first place.

I really appreciated how clearly Whitney laid out what does and does not constitute consent:
"Sexual assault is sexual contact (not just intercourse) where one of the the parties has not given or cannot give active verbal consent, i.e., uttered a clear "yes" to the action. If a person does not say "no," that does not mean he or she said "yes." Silence does not equal consent. Silence could mean fear, confusion, inebriation. The only thing that means yes is a yes. A lack of yes is a no." (p. 268)
I will definitely be using this when I talk with my (as yet, non-existent) kids one day. All in all, I think The Mockingbirds is an important read. Whitney's examination of consent, sexual assault, and the struggles of those forced to cope in its aftermath is both thought-provoking and honest.

In light of everything that happened in Steubenville and even in this stunning case out of Ottawa, our nation's capital, it is imperative that this discussion continues to happen. When I hear about these kinds of cases, I start to lose faith in humanity, but then I see something like this video below, and it's restored even just a little bit:



Other books that deal with sexual assault*:
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Canary by Rachele Alpine (due out August 1, 2013)
Rape Girl by Alina Klein
Fault Line by Christa Desir (due out November 12, 2013)
What Happens Next by Colleen Clayton

I'm sure there are others, so feel free to mention them in your comments.


* N.B. I haven't yet read these books, but I thought I would compile a list nonetheless.

18 comments:

  1. From what I gather, it's all-too common for rape victims to avoid the authorities, perhaps out of shame, or confusion--was she coerced, or did she consent? Perhaps the author is dealing with a sad reality. But this is not always the case. I suppose it depends on the message the author wants to send--either, "this is the sad reality in many cases," or "this is how it should be."

    A difficult topic to address, especially in fiction.

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    1. I think you're right, Colin. It's probably common for rape victims to avoid the authorities for a variety of reasons. I really think her message was "this is a sad reality in many cases", and the sad fact is, she's right.

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  2. I could not get into MOCKINGBIRDS but I find the topic important.. I do however love Whitney's upcoming June book (I got an advanced copy) WHEN YOU WERE HERE, about a teen boy dealing with going to college next year and his mom's death and his journey (literally) to Japan... I also loved of your other list SPEAK, CANARY (I could not get past 30pgs but think its an important read anyway), WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. What I loved about WHAT HAPPENS NEXT is that the main character is strong, unlike Melinda in SPEAK she has a loud clear voice - she falls in love, she struggles with her friends, she struggles with what happens. Highly rec'd. :)

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    1. I have CANARY and WHAT HAPPENS NEXT on my TBR list. They sound like really important reads. I found writing a blog post about sexual assault to be difficult, so I can't imagine how much thought would have to go into writing a novel like these. It's definitely important to continue raising awareness like this.

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  3. Excellent post, Jaime. SPEAK is one of my favourite books ever and such an important read. I hate how it seems like every day there's a new Steubenville or Penn State, but I'm glad people write about this topic, too. It's so important to bring attention to these issues (and this book is definitely going on my TBR list), so thank you.

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    1. Thanks, Rebecca. :) It's such a difficult topic to discuss, but so important.

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  4. I haven't read this one but I will check it out. It's certainly an important topic and I'm glad this story - and others like it - exist so there's raised awareness and so victims don't feel alone.

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    1. It's definitely an interesting take on the topic of sexual assault, and I think it's so important to continue raising awareness through whatever means possible. It got me thinking about it, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since.

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  5. I didn't know about the case in Ottawa. Just when you think you've heard it all, something like this happens, and you realize it's still possible to be shocked. I know you put a lot of thought into this post and it shows. Your review was very fair. And you already know I think that video is great. :)

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    1. Is that awful? I heard about it for the first time on CBC yesterday and I was horrified. Anything that raises awareness about sexual assault and the issue of consent is, in my mind, worth looking into. So while I may not have loved everything about this book, it was certainly a worthwhile read.

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  6. Talking about sexual assault, especially to teens, is an incredibly valuable thing for teachers, parents, and other figures they respect (like authors or filmmakers) to participate in. Sexual assault doesn't just happen to girls, or lushes, and the more aware teens are about the reality of it, the better. I remember reading an article about a boy who was sexually assaulted in the locker room of his school. It was an article posted on YA Highway, and I can't recall the author, but it was powerful. I have Speak on my TBR, but I read Deerskin a while back, by Robin McKinley. It is an emotionally draining read, but the way she deals with the assault, as well as the heroine's journey of healing, is beautifully crafted. Highly recommend that title as well.

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  7. I love your review of this book because I totally agree with you but wouldn't have said it so well. I was frustrated that the authorities weren't contacted. And yes, that's how it happens too much of the time.

    I've deleted like five sentences five times. Bottom line, I'm glad there are books out there that state clearly what rape is. Even if I don't like the way the books pan out.

    I really hope you get around to Speak soon. It's amazing. I'd also add Just Listen by Sarah Dessen to that list.

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  8. I had not heard of this book, and now I want to read it. Thanks for this write up and for being passionate about this month.

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  9. Something needs to be done. I've seen far too much of this getting pushed under the rug in the three years that I've been in university. What that is, I don't have the answer to, but the current strategies clearly aren't working.

    Thank you for sharing this. I read SPEAK back in high school and am very interested in this book.

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  10. I have a really hard time reading books about rape/sexual assault -- I either want to scream or cry as I'm reading. I'm glad there are authors out there who tackle the issue, and examine it from different angles. Great post, Jaime -- there are some many other issues intertwined with rape/sexual assault (shame, guilt, disbelief, lack of support, etc). It is very sad that we live in a world where this is still commonplace, and sadder still that the usual response is to educate people on how to avoid being a victim instead of people, you know, not assaulting each other.

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  11. I read Speak and I thought it was really well done. Thank you for this thoughtful post and review. I'm definitely going to read this book.

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  12. I just picked this up from the library and can't wait to read it. Thanks for the recommendation, Jaime!

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  13. Wow, that video. :') I'm really glad you included the restoring-one's-faith-in-humanity bit in this post...

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