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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On writing about child abuse
by Gary A. Braunbeck

Everything is bigger to a child; not only physically, but perceptually and emotionally, as well. A dollar found becomes a discovered treasure. A harsh word becomes a deafening declaration of war. A heap of dirty clothes in the corner becomes a nasty, fanged monster after the lights are out. A paper cut is a knife in the stomach. And a hug from a parent in times of fear becomes Perseus's shield, protecting them from Medusa's deadly power. Everything is amplified in ways adults find hard to remember.

So can you begin to imagine, just for a moment, the terror, the pain, the agony and confusion experienced by a child whose every waking moment is marked by fear and nothing but?

Childhood is over too soon under the best of circumstances; to strip a child of their trust, to despoil them of the belief that those who love you will always protect and never harm you, to commit the obscenity of taking a child and simply, totally ruining their world, to destroy the joy in their hearts ....

It is, in my opinion, the most unpardonable and irredeemable of human crimes. Period.

If you're a fiction writer, you'll see that a lot of editors shy away from stories that involve any harm coming to a child. In some genres, portraying child abuse or child murder is seen as an unbreakable taboo, and to deal with these subjects is to risk your readership if you can even get the work published.

And it often does seem like the lowest of low pandering tactics: you want suspense? To engage a reader's emotions? Then put a child in jeopardy!

And too often it is used as a cheap effect, especially in horror and suspense. Some authors do seem to sit down to write a piece and say, "Oh, I'll throw in a dash of child abuse for added depth." To do that is not only insulting to the reader and a slap in the face to those who dedicate their lives to bettering the existence of children who are in an abusive situation, but it serves to numb people to the plight of these children.

But I believe there's room for honest portrait of it in good fiction. Not to use a tale as bully pulpit or soapbox decrying child abuse, but to genuinely explore how abuse affects the human condition through the eyes of a story's characters.

If you write fiction about child abuse, probably the most important thing to remember is to keep your work from becoming what Ray Garton once called "whacking material for pedophiles." It's a hard thing to keep a graphic scene from becoming inadvertently titillating -- and sometime a story genuinely needs a graphic depiction.

To use what is probably my most uncomfortable example, take "Some Touch of Pity," a novella that appeared in Marty Greenberg's Werewolves. Anyone who's ever read that story remembers the rape scene. I agonized over that thing for weeks, not the least of which because I didn't want any element of that scene to seem even remotely titillating. Marty, God bless him, understood that a graphic presentation of the rape was integral to the story -- the central character relives this moment from his childhood on an almost hourly basis, it's what defined his view of himself, and it's what keeps him standing at arm's length from his own true heart. But Marty said that as the scene stood, it would be just too much for DAW. Understood.

I rewrote the scene so that the reader experienced it only through the sensations and impressions that the child could identify. That's the version that was published in the anthology. It was still effective, but it didn't pull the reader nose-first into the painful, filthy, bottomless pit of the character's suffering. So, when it came time to include the story in my first collection, I restored the rape scene to its original form, which is much more direct, unflinching, and brutal.

God, how I lost sleep over that. I worried that people would read it and think I was simply trying to shock them in the most depraved manner. I worried that readers would find the story offensive and unreadable. Then I realized that, with all the worries I was dredging up, the one which never crossed my mind was: is it necessary to be this graphic?

The story informed me that, yes, it was necessary to present it in this way. I'm relieved to say that, in the years since I published the uncut version, not one person has accused me of being irresponsible in telling the story in the manner that it required. Writing that story was a gut-wrenching experience, but ultimately I think it was worth it.

 

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