The Bookshelf: In 'Things We Haven't Said,' Survivors Reclaim Their Stories of Sexual Assault

Mar 16, 2018

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week on The Bookshelf from NHPR, author and librarian Erin Moulton. As the #metoo movement gains momentum, we're hearing more and more stories by survivors of sexual assault. Earlier today on Morning Edition, we heard from Chessy Prout, whose new memoir details her experience at St. Paul's School in Concord. And now we'll turn to author and librarian Erin Moulton. She's assembled a collection of essays, poems, and interviews by and with survivors of sexual assault. It's called Things We Haven't Said. Listen to the interview and or read a transcript as well as Erin's top five reading recommendations.
 

Erin Moulton's Top Five Reading Recommendations:

1.   I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor's Story of Sexual Assault, Justice and Hope by Chessy Prout. "This true story is told with clarity and honesty and is a first hand account of sexual assault that unveils a toxic culture at a NH prep school."

2.   Paper Girls (Vol 1-4) by Brian Vaughn. "This graphic novel is one of my top recommended reads ever. Think Stranger Things meets girl Newsies of the 80's."

3.   Mary's Monster by Lita Judge. "This gorgeous illustrated novel in verse tells the tale of Mary Shelly and the birth of Frankenstein. There are so many layers of beautiful text and art. I'll be revisiting this again and again."

4.   I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina, John Jennings and Stacy Robinson. "This is the first graphic novel to focus on the Black Lives Matter movement. A heavy read. A must read. Bring the tissues."

5.   Echo After Echo by Amy Rose Capetta. "An old theater, a Greek Tragedy, a series of mysterious deaths and a sweet gay love story. What's fall for?"

Tell me about the origins of this book. What made you want to do this?

This one of the only books that I’ve ever written that comes straight out of public library work. I was working with a group of kids and we were doing a program on movie-making. I was going around the room helping brainstorm some ideas and one little word rose above the clatter, and it was the word “rape.” A couple kids laughed, and I was like, “Maybe that was a rape joke. I’m not really sure.” I started to navigate my way over and the girl in the group basically took charge and said, “Hey, some of us have bed memories.” And that was the spark for the book because basically I fumbled, I got over to them, I didn’t really know what to say to support them, I redirected them to a different task and then we moved on.

Later that year, I was working on weeding, which is where you pull all the books that haven’t gone out often and you check all your stats, and I noticed there weren’t as many books for adolescence that were targeted for this subject and were targeted for the audience. I then thought, “Well, what would that book look like?”

This book, Things We Haven’t Said, is the stories in the first person, or poems, by people who have experienced sexual assault or rape, as well as interviews conducted by you, and then a segment about where they are now. What were you hoping to convey just by this structure?

The structure was really important to me. I wanted there to be a creative component because that engages the brain more than straight information. So I asked the anthologists to all write their experience the way wanted to, whether it was a letter or a poem or a vignette or an essay. I was worried about just leaving it there because a lot of people were in a lot of pain, you know, the letters, it’s angry, it’s painful.

We wanted to know where they are now, so it’s kind of that this gets better theme—here’s coping mechanisms, recovery, there’s a lot you can do and you see that in the question and answer component. We also talk about different social issues and different buzz words you hear like “trigger warnings,” that kind of thing, and get a survivor’s take on that.

There are lots of different perspectives. Their bio is just them telling you about themselves in their own words, which is what I wanted it to be, just so we can see here is all this pain, suffering and trauma, and then here we are seeing it through to adulthood.

Are there any stories in here that still resonate with you? I’m sure they all resonate in one way, but are there any that when your mind drifts off to all of them, one keeps coming back?

There’s a couple. “Reclamation” is one that I always go back to you. It’s not about the trauma—she briefly talks about it, she says “a girl raped at six,” we only see that in one line—but this about an experience of sex that is an empowered experience later on, and it just makes me cry every time. It’s just this beautiful, powerful piece.

How did you find the people who wanted to participate in this project?

I started by asking people. So when you write a book proposal, you have to say we’re going to do this and this is what it will like, so I started with authors who talked about it on their author platform or social media platform.

“It” meaning “sexual assault or rape?”

Yes, or being a survivor. But then, that didn’t work great because asking people to bring up that kind of story and it totally just coming from nowhere, and maybe from a stranger, I didn’t know all these authors.

So you were approaching people physically or by e-mail?

Yeah, or by emailing them to make the proposal. A lot of people were really gracious and kind and wonderful, but I felt like that wasn’t the best approach. So what I ended up doing was reaching out to advocacy organizations like RAINN, the Rape and Incest National Network, and the Voices and Faces Project. Those guys basically sent out to their speaker’s bureau, and I got a bunch of submissions based on that.

What do you hope take away from this book?

People keeping telling me, “I can’t wait to hand this to a survivor I know,” which is great. I think survivors will get a ton out of it because survivors are talking about their survival experience and also, I specifically asked them in many cases, “What would you say to a teen who is going through this, from what you know?” So I think they would get a lot out of it.

However, I think everyone needs to read it because I, as a non-survivor, I got a lot out of it and I learned a ton. I’m hoping that everyone will read it and get something out of it. I’m hoping that police officers and second-responders will read it so they can get the viewpoint of a survivor. I hope that the question and answer component helps people to carry those same questions into reality and have conversations in their classrooms, maybe. I’m hoping that people who haven’t found their voice yet—and they find their experience in this book—and they haven’t talked about it yet, I hope this gives them the courage to do so.