Beautiful Monster, the novel I co-authored with my friend and writing partner Jared, has some very graphic moments in it. Sterling Bronson, one of the main characters, is a serial killer and serial rapist. There is no other way to describe him and what he does. He stalks women, seduces them, and then does them serious harm, even murdering them. It is not a subject that Jared and I took lightly, nor did we treat the subject disrespectfully – or at least we worked very hard not to. However . . .
Earlier this evening, a woman commented to me privately that having started the book, she would not be finishing it as we had so thoughtlessly treated the subject of sexual assault so light-heartedly. She said – and this is a direct quote – “You act as if rape is a sexual fantasy that all women want. You fit right in with that guy from Missouri who said that legitimate rape is different from other kinds of rape.”
A jaw dropping moment, to be certain.
I didn’t ask this woman to read the book. In fact, I didn’t even know she had picked up/downloaded a copy. In my opinion, she completely missed the point of what we tried to do in the book, and she absolutely missed the point of my character, Brenna Carlson. So, let me set some things straight for this woman, and for anyone else who thinks we mishandled the subject:
First – at the age of 22 I had the unfortunate experience of being sexually assaulted. That’s all I’m going to say about it as it pertains to me. What I will say is that this horrific experience informed my writing, but more than that, the writing opened an honest discussion between people important to my life and me. As Jared and I wrote, we worked diligently to ensure that we did not make Sterling into a romantic character. He is a sympathetic character, a believable human being. A severely fractured and damaged human being, there is no doubt, but realistic and true to the pathology of those who behave this way in the “real world.” Jared conveyed this character in such a way that he is both sympathetic and detestable, and that is how many of these men are in our society. They are charming, but vain. They are caring, but manipulative. They exude love, but they have no idea what it means to love. In short, they are beautiful monsters – hollow shells like cicadas leave behind in the summer.
Second – for my part, I made certain that my character neither wanted nor enjoyed the experiences that Sterling put her through. There is no fantasy in real rape. It is vicious, it is ugly, and there is nothing sexual about it. To the perpetrator, it is about the violence, not the sex.While what happens to my character is not the same experience that I endured, the emotional truth is still there, and I believe this is where some readers are getting hung up. I don’t know that the woman I spoke with even got far enough into the story to discover this aspect, but it is there – the terror, the degradation, and the evil that accompanies this crime. There were times that going back to this mind-set nearly caused me to stop writing. Digging into those dark memories to dredge up feelings I thought I’d long since dealt with was an exercise in “dancing with crazy” that I wasn’t sure I could survive. But I was blessed to have a co-author who is also one of my best friends, and his support was vital.
I was also blessed to have supportive family who – though they didn’t really know what was going on – encouraged me to remain true to myself and my sincere belief in this story.
SPOILER ALERT – TURN BACK NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW CRUCIAL INFORMATION IN THE BOOK!
Okay – you’ve been warned.
In the end, Brenna survives her ordeal. She tries to get back to normal, but there is no normal anymore. From experience, I know that survivors have to find a new definition of normal, and they learn over time that normal has a way of shifting like sand in the desert; with one step, you put your foot down on firm ground, but with the next, you begin sliding downward without warning. But many women survive this – not unscarred, mind you – but they recover and begin to rebuild a new understanding of themselves and the world around them. Each one handles it differently, and I’ve come to believe there is no such thing as a right way to do this. There are definitely some wrong ways, but we won’t go into that here.
Beautiful Monster is not an easy book to read. It wasn’t an easy book to write for either Jared or me. But I am proud of this book for so many reasons, and I know that Jared is as well (sorry, J, don’t mean to speak for you). It is horrifying in places, suspenseful in others, and even humorous at times. It is a very narrow slice of life, but it is a reality for some unfortunate women, and I will say very honestly that with this book, I finally feel I have vindication and compensation for my pain.