Trigger Warning: Some description of sexual assault.
Note: If pursuing any of these books, we encourage readers to take care of themselves and honor their limits while reviewing this sensitive subject matter.
Stories have an innate power to them. When we hear stories, it gives us a view into another’s mind. How others process emotion, the values they hold, and the very nature of what it means to be human are all things that can be revealed when we take the time to listen to other’s stories.
Sexual abuse is often a difficult subject matter to speak about publicly, particularly if the person speaking on it is a survivor themselves. However, for those who have made the courageous decision to tell their story of sexual violence publicly, they may find their stories have a real impact. Other survivors who have been silenced by their perpetrators or their internalized fear and shame feel seen when these stories come to light, which can influence them to come forward or seek help. For example, RAINN saw a dramatic increase in calls to their hotline after a Grey’s Anatomy episode aired that covered this subject matter. Within the real world, news coverage of Christine Blasey Ford’s story during the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings resulted in an “unprecedented” amount of outreach to that same hotline. Regardless if these stories are told within fictional or nonfictional formats, it’s clear that these stories hold deep resonance in our culture, speak to some very real problems, and can be absolutely vital to our understanding of and treatment for sexual violence.
In this blog, we’d like to highlight some incredible memoirs and novels covering themes of sexual abuse and consent.
BULLY MARKET: My Story of Money and Misogyny at Goldman Sachs (Jamie Fiore Higgins)
Jamie Fiore Higgins worked at investment giant Goldman Sachs for over 15 years, and in this 2022 memoir she paints a disturbing portrait of the company. The toxic masculinity normalized throughout Goldman Sachs’ workplace culture led to Higgins experiencing harassment when she wanted to use their pumping facilities, witnessing firsthand her colleagues ranking female employees based on appearance (and making appearance a qualification for future employees), seeing coworkers engage in oral sex in the office, and facing outright physical assault after she removed an employee off an account upon discovering he had sex with a client. This kind of rampant sexist environment speaks to experiences that are all too common in the workplace, and reviewing this book may help survivors of workplace sexual misconduct feel less alone.
Note: Goldman Sachs denies Higgin’s allegations and characterization of them.
Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands (Kate Beaton)
New York Times bestselling cartoonist Kate Beaton used her visual talents to create her 2022 autobiographical comic book about her time in the male-dominated environment (men outnumber women 50-1) working in the Canadian oil sands. During her employment, she encountered sexual harassment, discrimination, and rape. When she brings her concerns and complaints to management, she is met with a male supervisor who tells her, “Listen, you knew this was a man’s world when you came, it’s not always nice…You’re going to have to get a thicker skin. I can’t be giving anyone special treatment.” Sometimes pictures can be more powerful than words. If you’re looking for images that can capture what words can’t, this book may be for you.
I’m Glad My Mom Died (Jennette McCurdy)
Though not the primary focus of the book, sexual abuse was just one of the many tactics child star Jennette McCurdy’s mother employed to keep her daughter codependent, enmeshed in her identity, and trapped in her cycle of abuse. McCurdy’s mother instilled in her daughter the idea that the needs of her mind and body, and her voice, were unimportant by working her to exhaustion, teaching her disordered eating habits, and molesting her in the shower-McCurdy was not permitted to shower alone until her late teens. McCurdy remarked, “She gave me breast and vaginal exams until I was seventeen years old…I felt violated, yet I had no voice, no ability to express that. I was conditioned to believe any boundary I wanted was a betrayal of her, so I stayed silent. Cooperative.” This memoir is the direct result of the hard work in and out of therapy McCurdy has done to establish her sense of self and right to be treated with the dignity she deserves. Told with humor and heartbreak, this tale of triumph is most assuredly something deserving of your reading list this year.
Know My Name (Chanel Miller)
Prior to her 2019 book, Chanel Miller’s writing caught worldwide attention when her victim impact statement in the trial against rapist Brock Turner went viral. At the time, Buzzfeed distributed her statement under the name “Emily Doe”. After some time passed, she felt prepared to let that anonymity go and let the world know that, despite her trials and tribulations, she emerged stronger with a story to share. In a rare sort of feedback, her story through the impact statement led readers to share theirs, which in turn resulted in Miller feeling further emboldened to share her story. Miller shared the following in her book:
I wrote this book because the world can be harsh and terrible and often unforgiving. I wrote because there were times I did not feel like living. I wrote because the court system is slow as a snail, and victims are forced to spend so much time fighting, rather than spending their days creating, drawing, cooking. I wrote to expose the brutality of entitlement, gender violence, and class privilege in our society. But I would be failing you if you walked away from this book untouched by humanity, without seeing what I saw: thousands of handwritten letters, the green-lipped fish at the bottom of the ocean, the winking court reporter. All the small miracles that sustained me. We may spend half our time wandering around, wondering what we’re even doing here, why it’s worth the effort. But living is an incredible thing, just to have been here, to have felt, if only briefly, the volume and depth of others’ empathy. I wrote, most of all, to tell you I have seen how good the world could be. (Miller 324-325)
This book is a landmark piece of #MeToo literature, and is well-worth the read to everyone, particularly those who have experienced campus sexual violence.
Set against the backdrop of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, this 2023 fictional novel tells the story of Isabel. Isabel is a college student who deals with the aftermath of a sexual encounter she is disturbed by yet too uncomfortable to define and a sexual relationship with her professor. A unique element of this novel is its resistance against the notion that sexual assault and sexual misconduct, as well as the responses to it, must look a certain way. The protagonist goes on a journey to assess what happened and how she feels, and encourages the reader to sit back and consider the nuances of abuse and consent. It also takes the time to use the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal to demonstrate how broader culture’s perception and treatment of sexual misconduct in turn influences our own. As the only fictional entry on this list, it offers a great opportunity for readers to get lost in the story and find what resonates as “real” to them.
If you are a survivor of sexual assault and need someone to talk to, please reach out to the National Sexual Assault Hotline for confidential, 24/7 support.
RALIANCE is a trusted adviser for organizations committed to building cultures that are safe, equitable, and respectful. RALIANCE offers unparalleled expertise in serving survivors of sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse which drives our mission to help organizations across sectors create inclusive environments for all. For more information, please visit www.RALIANCE.org.