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If you’ve read the dedication for Luckiest Girl Alive, author Jessica Knoll’s recent essay about her real-life gang rape, horrifying in the act but uplifting in its honesty, bravery, and strength, is not surprising. She dedicates her book to the real life girls who share the experiences of her protagonist. She writes her main character TifAni FaNelli as a woman and a girl constantly watching her own six. Her life is clearly segmented into two parts: the girl who sticks out like a sore thumb in her blue blooded prep school and is desperate to fit in with her wealthy peers, and the woman who uses her education, money, job, connections, and any other such material displays of success as a shield around herself.
Knoll is smart enough, as both a writer and a survivor, to never make TifAni sweet, sympathetic, or virginal. She’s a Mean Girl, in aspiration if not quite execution, even if the first person narrative allows us to glimpse the insecurity that drives her barbs and bitchiness. She also writes TifAni’s rapists as affable if not nice, the kind of teenage boys whose every move is excused before they’ve even made it.
Rape is black and white: Anything other than a rousing, resounding “yes” is a “no”. Consent is not consent when it’s inebriation or coercion. There’s no such thing as consensual sex: Sex is sex, rape is rape, and the delineation is clear cut. But sometimes rape survivors aren’t nice people. Sometimes they are bitchy and bratty. Sometimes they don’t recognize what happens to them as rape. Sometimes they continue to associate and befriend their abusers. Rarely, if ever, do rapists look like what we think rapists should look like. They’re “nice boys”. They serve their community and come from good families. They’re handsome and can “get” any girl they want.
It’s. Still. Rape.
We have long held a culturally convoluted perspective on rape. Fourteen states still consider marital rape a different crime than non-marital rape. Bill Cosby has a new accuser seemingly every week, but still has supporters who believe he’s innocent, or even worse, believe that his crimes were so long ago that it’s effectively water under the bridge. Yet somehow we see rape as a special kind of evil–I was deemed old enough to understand the concept of murder before I was considered old enough to have rape defined for me when I overheard the word on the evening news as a child.
This dissonant dichotomy is part of our rape culture. We hate rape, and so must hate rapists. But since most rapists are likable, we have to define, redefine, and outright lie about what rape is in order to justify a fondness for those who commit this atrocity.
Luckiest Girl Alive is clearly a way for Knoll to work out her own complicated feelings associated with what happened to her, shrouding it in fiction so she can distance herself. It’s art therapy at it’s finest. But since books belong to their readers as much as their writers (if not moreso) ultimately she has written a work that could, with exposure, rewrite our perspective on rape. In a culture that understands rape, rape culture disintegrates.