Jessica Knoll recently returned from a book tour promoting the paperback release of her best-selling thriller,Luckiest Girl Alive. Before this excursion, no one knew just how much she has in common with the protagonist of this harrowing tale--a girl with a secret that, if kept, threatens to destroy her. It's a story that has resonated, and terrified, more than a few mothers--many of whom approached Knoll during the book tour and asked for her advice. With Mother's Day around the corner, it's especially fitting--and important--to know what she had to say.
I've been writing professionally for nearly a decade now, my words almost entirely in service of women my own age. As a former editor at Cosmo and SELF, my byline has appeared alongside headlines like Roommates from Hell, What You Must Know by the Fourth Date, and The Fifteen-Minute Orgasm (plain excessive, if you ask me). When I sat down to write my first novel, Luckiest Girl Alive, it only made sense to fashion Ani, my protagonist, as a millennial woman weathering the same late twenties' vicissitude that I was: engaged but unsure if she was ready to marry, ambivalent about children, loathsome of her looks, and the trustee of a trauma she'd learned to tuck away like the hem of a shirt. Life was neater, more polished that way.
I assumed my book would land with my fellow millennial women experiencing those particular growing pains, maybe with histories similar to Ani's"”and my own. Before heading out on my paperback tour last month, I published an essay on Lenny Letters revealing that my protagonist's trauma is also my own, that the reason I was able to depict a teenage rape victim so accurately is because I was one myself. Imagine my surprise when, at signings across the country, I met women who wanted their books inscribed to the daughters they'd dragged along to the reading. These girls were all typical teenage identikit in lacrosse team windbreakers and distressed jeans, unsure whether to smile, blush, or roll their eyes while standing next to their excitable mothers. So I dedicated the title pages to Riley and Kelsey and Jennifer, while their mothers stood over me and told me my book is essentially required reading in their family. These girls looked so young, and yet I know better than anyone that they're old enough to discover what other kids are capable of doing to them.
"My daughter's twelve," a woman in Austin told me, wanly, "how do I protect her? I'm terrified. What do I do?"
As a thirty-two year old currently in therapy trying to parse her own maternal leeriness, I'm probably not the obvious candidate to dispense child-rearing advice. But I actually have some, and it hinges on the sobering reality that no matter how hard you try to protect your children, you can't.
You can't wash the world of malevolence. The persons responsible for my rape are my rapists, not my parents for failing to lock me in my bedroom until I could legally drink, not myself for being fifteen years old, curious and reckless, for going to a party and playing one too many rounds of beer pong. My rape is no one's fault but that of the three boys who took my bloodied incoherence as invitation, who later laughed recalling the way I moaned in pain.
But here's something you can do. You can make sure you daughter knows that she doesn't need to protect you from the ugliness of adolescence. That she can come to you if something bad happens, something indelicate, unimaginable even. That if it ever comes down to it, you will split her suffering like a pie chart, a slice for you and a slice for her, so that it's more manageable for her to bear.
These are things my mother and I are doing now because I couldn't go to her back when I appeared too young to read the book I would someday write. It has been revelatory to realize that my pain is not fixed, that I don't have to accept it. I have carried this burden alone for seventeen years, but today I have someone else who is willing to hoist some of it onto her back, to lighten the load for me. It's a relief only a mother can provide.
So I say to that mother in Austin, and the mothers in Nashville and Seattle and Phoenix and Newport, California and the twelve other cities I saw along the way, it is terrifying but you're doing something about it. By giving your daughters my book, you're opening a dialogue with them. You're inviting them to talk to you, to confide in you, and yes, to possibly hurt you with what they reveal. You can't protect them, not when it comes to something like this, but you can make sure they're never tasked with the lonely burden of protecting you. I hope the unimaginable never happens, but if it does, at least it won't be unspeakable.
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