Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.
– Edgar Degas
TW: sexual assault, incest, and abuse.
I believe in the power of art. Just as art holds the power to heal us, connect us to one another, and restore our beliefs I also believe in its ability to harm.
Recently the book world has been in a state of chaos over a controversial book that Amazon, as well as other popular publishing platforms, has decided to not sell. According to other authors who have spoken out, Amazon removed the right to this author to publish and sell this work, because Amazon’s publishing terms and conditions, rules that have been in place for years, were not followed by this author.
I will not call out the book title or author by name. My intent is to express how this book made me feel, as an individual, not to send anyone after the author of this work. I will say that I read the book I am about to discuss because I felt it was important that I do so before speaking about it.
The plot of the book in question puts two unlikely people into what is supposed to be a star-crossed romance. We are introduced to a father, mother, and their daughter. Prior to the start of this book, we learn the daughter lost her twin brother in a terrible accident when they were 10. The mother, unable to move on from the loss of her child, falls into a state of depression. When the book begins, it is six years later and the family moves to the wilderness to escape tragedy and as a last ditch effort to save their family. By the time the book begins, the daughter is 16 years old.
The person whom the author makes to be the “hero,” or “romantic lead,” is the father who rapes the mother, his wife, shortly after the family moves to the wilderness. Disgusted with his wife for her inability to move on from the death of their child, he proceeds to angrily have sex with her while she lies motionless. There is no consent. In fact, the author chose to include the fact the mother says “no” to him in the dialogue.
During this rape, the daughter, in the next room, begins to masturbate to the sound of her father raping the mother. Whether or not the daughter heard the “no” is never addressed. But this moment is used to create arousal in the reader. It is a hint of things to come.
I am very aware things like this happen in real life. We all are. There is darkness in this world and I write about that darknesses and encourage others to do the same. But, intention is important. The intention of this book was clearly to create arousal in the reader by describing rape and incest. The cover depicts a shirtless man, easily helping this book blend in with other titles listed on online retailers marketed as romance/erotica.
It isn’t much later in this book that the character of the mother is taken out of the book during a sudden storm. When the daughter is watching her father cut her mother’s lifeless body down from a tree, she remarks lustfully on his body, admiring his muscles. This is just one other way the author is driving us to believe that even though they are father and daughter, they want each other, sexually.
The father is 40 years old. The daughter is 16 years old. The age of consent does vary legally across the U.S. In Alaska, the setting of this book, the age of consent is 16 BUT the acceptable age gap by law in this state is only three years. It is important to note the large age difference between these characters and the position of authority the abuser has over the victim. He is 24 years her senior, and her biological parent, as far as the reader knows, at the first point of contact.
In flashbacks, we learn inappropriate behavior between father and daughter happened numerous times over the years. As the daughter is just 16 years old at the start of the book, it is clear that their affair began long before she was the legal age of consent. It is clearly the sexual manipulation of a troubled child.
Over the course of the rest of this book, the father and daughter engage in, and enjoy, a large amount of explicitly detailed sexual encounters. The 16-year-old girl is impregnated by the father twice in the book before the epilogue. Rape is introduced again, as a stranger rapes the young woman while she is pregnant. The author uses the possibility of giving birth to a child with birth defects as a result of their incestuous relationship as a plot point. This is where the readers are hit with a plot “twist.”
Turns out, the daughter learns she and her twin brother were adopted by their parents at the age of two. To some, this twist means the author is free and clear to have her two characters, who readers believed up until the last quarter of the book were father and daughter, continue their relationship and have their children in peace.
I have seen many online posts defending this book because of this twist. Some argue that since the two main characters turned out to not be related by blood, this pairing was okay, ignoring the fact that is a toxic relationship, beginning in her childhood, based on manipulation and assault.
For the past three years, I have been writing about my experience as a sexual abuse survivor. As a young girl, I was abused by the man I called daddy, dad, and father. He came into my life when I was around 18 months old, close to the same age as the character in the book. I did not know, for years, that he was not my biological father. I found out by accident, in a way similar to the character in the book. This man was in a position of authority over me. In a position of care. It was his duty to protect me, to nurture me, to love me the way a father should, despite our lack of blood relationship. When I see the argument that the book relationship is okay because they do not share blood, it feels like a slap in the face. My father broke my trust, spirit, and some of my mind. For years, I loved him still. He was my father and the love a daughter has for her father is a precious thing, one that can be used against you. The young girl in the book was groomed, sexualized against her will, at a young age, just as I was. Just as many are.
I myself do not take issue with incest or taboo relationships in novels. Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma is one of my favorite novels, and I have seen Forbidden being compared often to this book by its defenders. I have also seen arguments stating that millions of people love Stephen King, who writes many truly horrific and disturbing things.
But, as I said before, intention is important. The novel in question, in paperback form, was listed in the erotica/romance section on Amazon. This is where many of those outraged by this novel take issue. The categorization of this book was irresponsible and harmful. In our digital world, access to harmful material is easy to attain. When I was a young girl, e-books did not exist. I bought paperbacks from the supermarket while my mother shopped for our groceries. She was able to approve of or disapprove of any book I wanted to read.
I am a 34-year-old woman now, with a firm grasp of what is reality and what is fiction. When I read a book, I am able to separate myself and the real world from the world of fantasy. But, I have to wonder what I would have taken from this book if I had read it as a teenager. I have to wonder how a young girl who was being abused by her father would process this book. As an artist, I will always believe in the right to express oneself, but I do believe in laws that protect children first. One could argue this book is about a man abusing a young girl and men aren’t going to read this, but it would be foolish to believe the genders of the main characters would be discouraging to a woman/mother who was abusing/thinking about abusing her son/daughter, or that the husband/partner of anyone discussing this book could not gain access to it.
This book is dangerous, hurtful, and triggering. The warning the author gives the reader is vague, and almost a dare. XXX is an extremely taboo story. Most will find that the themes in this book will make you incredibly uncomfortable or maybe even offend you. This book is only for the brave, the open-minded, and the ones who crave love in even the most dismal of situations. Extreme sexual themes and violence in certain scenes, which could trigger emotional distress, are found in this story. If you are sensitive to heavy taboo themes, then this story is not for you. Seriously, you’ve been warned. Don’t say I didn’t try. You’re probably going to cringe many, many, many times. Even if you’re on the fence, it’s probably not a good idea to proceed. However, if you’re intrigued and fearless and kind of sort of trust me, then carry on. This book is for you.
The implication that only readers who are brave, open-minded, and fearless should read the work was reckless and has turned reader against reader, author against author. Many feel they bought a product that the author was dishonest about. As an author, I can see both sides of the trigger warning debate. No one wants to give away the twist/lose the shock value. But, I believe, given the very controversial material in this work, the author should have taken greater care to make sure this work did not get into the wrong hands.
I have spent the past few days reading both sides of many arguments over this book. I have respect for authors/readers on each end. When our voices are the loudest our ears fall deaf. I could not, as a sexual abuse survivor, stay silent.
I encourage those of us on each side to practice empathy.
To open not only your ears, but your heart.
I do not know how many people will view a blog post from a relatively unknown poet like me. If you are a fan and reader of my work, you understand why I am upset by this book. If you have followed my journey, you understand why it has been on my mind for days.