Since writing Death by the River, (Vesuvian) a YA thriller about a psychotic man and the depraved acts he commits on young women, I’m often asked how could I help pen such a violent and abusive storyline. It’s a good question, but in a culture saturated with the #MeToo movement and pro-women agendas, we have to realize that no matter how much we think we’re progressing, we haven’t accomplished a hell of a lot where violence against women is concerned.
In Louisiana, where Death by the River is set, 600 to 700 acts of sexual assault in high schools are reported annually (Bale, L. 2018). Many mental health counselors feel the actual amount is three to four times that number. In a small state like Louisiana, that is a huge problem. And archaic laws in the state make it impossible for the CDC to track sexual violence among minors (Bale, L. 2018). So we may never know the true extent of the horror.
Put those numbers on a national or international scale, and the image is horrendous. What does that say about how we regard women, not as a culture or nation but as a world? Women make up half the planet but are bullied and suppressed, beaten, and raped every minute across the globe. So why aren’t all these women reporting these crimes? For the same reason women have kept quiet for centuries—threats, intimidation, shame, and no one to listen to them.
In Death by the River, the victims of Beau Devereaux’s debauchery keep quiet for the same reasons many young women in high school do today—fear of reprisals, humiliation, peer pressure, and lack of trust in “the system.” When high school counselors and teachers don’t listen or believe a young woman’s reports, she will more than likely never seek help.
These girls will withdraw, change their appearance, live in dread of being discovered, and feel shame over what occurred. Before strides can be made to stop the abuse against women, we have to embrace a perspective of not assigning guilt to any victim and stop blaming women for being women. Their sex, personality, behavior, or clothes did not lead to the attack—the disturbed individual and his twisted disregard is the culprit. Sexual assault was the choice he made, not her.
What saddens me is how little things have changed since I was in high school. In the Eighties, there was less education, no counseling, and only whispers shared in the halls about sexual assault. Despite the millions of dollars schools pour into programs today, the numbers and experiences have not turned around. I remember watching firsthand a schoolmate suffer the aftermath of her sexual assault, but no one knew what was happening at the time. No one spoke about such atrocities.
Popular, beautiful, a cheerleader, and a kind person, Lady L was admired by the girls in my class and got noticed by all the boys. When she scored a hot date with a popular, wealthy boy from another school, rumors swirled in the halls. Especially about this guy’s penchant for date-rape. But no one told Lady L about it. Weeks after her date, everyone noticed the change in her. A young woman who had once dressed well and took pride in her burgeoning social calendar was seen in baggy clothes and withdrew from all activities. I remember noticing, having others mention it to me, but I never put the signs together because no one had taught us what it meant.
Thirty-five years later, this high school classmate finally told her family, husband, children, and friends what happened to her. She lost her virginity to a man who had drugged and raped her. He never paid for his crime. His wife and children do not know what he did. But I remember after reading her post on social media how sad I was I didn’t recognize the signs to reach out to help her. If I had, I often wonder what I would have done.
Part of me wanted to write Death by the River for her, my Lady L. To open the eyes of YA readers and young people about what can happen, even in the smallest of small towns. Books and movies can reach a large audience and educate individuals faster than word of mouth, social media, or the news. Perhaps more attention needs to be paid to this taboo subject by literary and motion picture companies. A truthful depiction can open the door for discussions, let victims know they are not alone, and spread the word that nothing justifies sexual assault—NOTHING! And like the girls victimized by Beau Devereaux, women can band together, fight back, and get justice. We have a voice.
Find your voice. Speak up and speak out against any form of sexual harassment, assault, or violence. If it happens to you, please seek help. Talk to officials, friends, family, and never keep quiet. If you know someone who has been a victim, stand beside them, support them, and believe what they tell you. Having someone listen is the first step to getting help. Talk to everyone you can, be an advocate for change. Get loud, get angry, and fight back against antiquated judicial systems and state and federal laws that protect the guilty and hurt the innocent. Individually, we may be regarded as just women, but together, we make up half the planet and are a force that no man can ignore.
So, to answer the question of why I helped write such a dark and sinister tale about sexual assault, let me say this: until we confront the ugliness we keep hidden beneath the surface, the suffering of women in our society will continue to be the impetus for novels like Death by the River. Change isn’t easy, but it is possible, even if we have to tackle it one book at a time.
Death by the River is now available to purchase.
Bale, L. (2018, 18 September). High school sexual assault a common problem across America. Retrieved from https://www.wwltv.com.
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