Books · Emotional Health

Two Books About Brave Heroines Finding Their Way Out of Abuse

Though The Great Alone stands up well as a thriller of sorts, its exploration of the underpinnings of abusive relationships is its greatest strength. Last week, as headlines broke revealing that several women accused yet another successful man, New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, of physical abuse, the novel seems even more timely. Many have raised the question: Why do women  stay? One of Schneiderman’s victims echoed Cora’s experience in an abusive relationship in an interview with The New Yorker:

“ [N]ow I see how independent women get stuck in one.” The physical abuse, she notes, “Happens quickly: He’s drunk, and you’re naked and at your most vulnerable. It’s so disorienting. You lose a little of who you are.”

In developed countries, almost a third of women report  an experience that “causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviors,” according to the World Health Organization. When a woman does leave, she often returns several times, succumbing to her partner’s pleas and abject apologies. The New York Times writes:

“Even as smaller confinements begin to lead to larger infringements, enough self-doubt has accumulated to feed the temptation to downplay the offense. It becomes increasingly difficult to see abuse for what it is. . .Some guys are very slick, they know how to groom women, know how to manipulate them, they promise to help their career. . .And no matter how bright she is — she freezes, and takes on all the shame, the responsibility for what’s happening.”

The “freezing” referred to here is something we have heard over and over from #MeToo victims when describing their reaction to sexual abuse. When someone acts “upon” your body against your will, they rob you of your sense of agency—you lose your sense of owning your own body.

Women are likely to harm themselves or their bodies when they are distressed. Eating disorders are a prime example of this. Men are often the opposite, acting upon others. To paraphrase what someone said about the common role of alcohol in abusive relationships, “When women get drunk, they miss Pilates; when men get drunk they hit their wives.”

A second bestseller, The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer, shares several important details with Hannah’s book. It is also set mostly in the last century, and its protagonist, Greer Kadetsky, falls in love with a neighborhood boy in her early teens. In this book it is Greer, and not her mother, who is the victim of abuse, when a frat boy assaults her early in her freshman year in college. She says, poignantly, about how abuse changes her relationship to her body:

“The idea that something had been done to you seemed to implicate you, even though no one said it did, making your body — which usually lived in darkness beneath your clothing — suddenly live in light.”

Unlike Leni, however, Greer is “rescued” by the example of a strong female mentor. She is instantly transported when Faith Frank, a prominent feminist with  “glamour and importance and gravitas” comes to speak on campus. As Faith speaks about how women can support each other, Greer feels something “closely related to falling in love. . .the word love still seemed relevant here; love, which pollinated the air around Faith Frank.”

Faith responds to the bookish Greer’s interest in her work by giving her a card and telling her to stay in touch. After graduating, she does, and Greer signs on to work on a new foundation Faith has created to support women.

Much of the book concerns Greer’s devotion and idealization of her mentor and her cause, but it gradually becomes clear that surrendering yourself to another, even a mostly positive role model, is not the path to selfhood.  The opposite of dependence on a man is not dependence on a strong woman but becoming one yourself, Greer concludes.

While much more polemical than The Great Alone, The Female Persuasion has a believable cast of characters and a fast pace, as well as a tender love story involving Greer and her ever-loyal boyfriend. Both books delve deeply and believably into the female experience, the complex world of gender differences, while enriching our understanding about how women are lost, and how they are found. . . in the realm of the great alone.

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  • Andrea March 26, 2020 at 11:12 am

    2 great books. Thanks for the reviews also read American Dirt (not sure what all the hoopla was about) and Dear Edward. Both good reads