The 'R' Word
Christa Desir's gritty novel Fault Line tackles rape culture head on, and leaves us with urgent questions about ourselves and the people we love.
Christa Desir introduced herself to my class as a writer, an editor of adult erotic romance novels, an experienced rape counselor, and a survivor of rape. The students had just finished reading Fault Line, Christa's young adult debut novel about underage drinking, gang-rape, and dysfunctional teen relationships. Fault Line tells the story of a teenage boy, Ben, whose girlfriend, Ani, is gang-raped at a party he didn’t attend.
The students found Fault Line to be “powerful” and “eye-opening” but they also found its ending “unsatisfying.” Christa asked them to think about how high-schoolers might respond to the book. While the undergrads found Fault Line to be "powerful and "eye-opening," they thought high-schoolers would find the book “scary." One undergrad predicted that teenagers would respond to the book believing, “That wouldn’t happen to me.”
Writing About Rape
Christa explained why she chose to write a “rape book” from a teenage boy’s point of view. Teenage boys are the novel’s primary audience, because rape is too often framed as a women’s issue. “I wanted readers to identify with a boy. A boy who wasn’t a perpetrator. We need boys to engage with questions about rape.”
Through her true-to-life writing style, Christa manages to confront young readers with questions they might not usually consider.
The story of Ben and Ani is messy. The rape breaks their high-school romance, in part because Ani can’t remember what happened at the party. The rumor-mill at their school catches fire and, because she was drunk that night and dancing with strangers provocatively, Ani is blamed for the sexual violence committed against her.
“That’s what happens in the real world,” Christa told us. Teachers and the media and parents have become fixated on warning girls to wear the right clothes and say the right things and act a certain way. And what’s the hidden message? Girls, if you break the rules, if you wear the wrong outfit, flirt with boys, and talk about sex, then getting raped is your fault.
Reading About Rape
Christa explained, “It’s not enough just to teach our boys not to be rapists. Kids need to be responsible for every person at a party.” We need to teach young people to look out for each other. To speak up if they see something that’s getting out of hand and, if necessary, call the police. “For some reason, teenagers are not stopping this,” Christa said.
With a well-meaning young man as its protagonist, Fault Line explores male perspectives of rape culture. Ben wants to help the girl he loves, but he doesn’t know how and, despite his good intentions, he makes some mistakes. Ani is broken and there’s nothing Ben can do. In this way, Fault Line leads readers to “think about how we can help or harm survivors after rape.”
“We lose survivors sometimes.” Christa shared with us the true story of a rape survivor—a friend of a friend—who disappeared. “Nobody knows what happened to her.” In Fault Line, “the ending is left open, so we have the possibility that we lose Ani.”
But real life isn’t always what people want to read, Christa told us. The hard-hitting truths at the heart of Fault Line make the novel unattractive to high-school teachers who worry about introducing their students to taboo topics like rape and sexual violence and consensual sex. As if teenagers aren’t already exposed to all that. As if teenagers don’t need guidance and trusted adults to talk to.
Talking About Rape
Fault Line represents a gap in social programming for teenagers. The book reminds us that we need to design and promote programs that help young people stand up against a culture of “victim-blaming” and “slut-shaming.” Programs that help survivors of sexual violence to speak out about their experiences and break the taboos that allow a culture of rape to continue. Programs like The Voices and Faces Project, which led Christa to write Fault Line. (Christa donates 50% of her royalties from Fault Line to support Voices and Faces Writing Workshops for survivors of rape and sexual assault.)
Fault Line has some solid, steady sales, but the very taboos that the novel confronts may be preventing it from becoming the massive hit it needs to be. Fault Line doesn’t deliver a tidy moral message of right and wrong all neatly tied up in a positive, hopeful ending. But that’s what makes the book so important.
As the novel gets passed from reader to reader—perhaps often discreetly with a quiet “you need to read this”—people are starting to see this extraordinary book for what it is: Fault Line is a necessary story about the realities of rape with the potential to spark vital conversations, confront taboos, and affect real change within our culture of victim-blaming, shame, and silence.
If you read Fault Line—and I hope you do—keep Christa’s warning in mind: “There’s no happy ending.” She said it adamantly and she wasn’t only talking about the book.