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Guest Post: Katelyn Wonderlin of Bolton Refuge House

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Katelyn Wonderlin from Bolton Refuge House has put together a list of books touching on various facets of sexual assault, designed to help survivors understand their experiences, to help individuals support those they know who might be survivors of sexual assault, and to help anyone interested in creating change. If you, or someone you know has been impacted by sexual violence, give us a call at:

(715)834-9578

Or send us a message at our website:
https://www.boltonrefuge.org/

You deserve healing free from judgement or pressure, we are here to provide that. All services are free and confidential.

 

When I told my friends and family that I was reading books in order to write this list, they nervously asked me how it was going. As many people might, they assumed that reading a list of books where the topic of sexual assault arises would be a sad endeavor. However, while reading these books and the many personal experiences of sexual violence, the feeling I was left with was not a negative one. By the end of my time reading these books, I felt incredibly
hopeful and empowered.

Let me explain. The authors included on this list have come to such a place of awareness and understanding of their own trauma, that reading their work is like talking with a supportive and well-informed friend. So often I found myself snapping and clapping at the points the characters/authors were making. I found myself feeling hopeful for the coming years, when we
as a community can come to an understanding about the effects of trauma and how to support survivors. I hope that we can come together to focus on the experiences of individuals from BIPOC, LGBTQ+, disabled, elderly, and youth communities for a better future.

So, here are 24 books for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but I hope the messages will stay with you throughout the year and beyond.

 

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott

I listened to the audiobook for A Mind Spread Out on the Ground and all I could think over and over was "How is it was possible they could record this book with so many 'mic drop moments.'" Alicia Elliott writes on what it’s like to be a Haudenosaunee woman, the treatment of Native people in the past until today in North America, mental illness, poverty, systematic racism, gentrification, representation in writing and in authors, motherhood, violence, and so much more through story. She weaves societal norms and systematic oppression into narratives from her live and metaphors to create a truly moving tapestry.

After a traumatic situation, our brain will try to rationalize the trauma. It will try to explain what has happened. The brain loves answers. Unfortunately, some things, like the trauma following an instance of sexual violence, don’t have answers. This can result in the survivor asking “why?” of themselves. Then come the “reasons.” For example a survivor might think it was something they did or something they could have done. Or in the case of Elliott, she makes the comparison between her thoughts and the defense lawyer who would question her in court, asking things like “what was I wearing?”, “what did I say to my rapist?” It is completely natural to have these questions, but it is also important to know that there is no “could have,” “would have,” “should have.” What your body did is what it had to do to survive. We have to support survivors so they might come to understand this.

 

How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon

I have yet to see a bad review for this book, and there’s good reason for that. Kiese Laymon’s writing style is a beautiful blend of incredible honesty lyrical compositions, almost resembling poetry at times. His writing is simultaneously so unique and built to be read by everyone. I can’t imagine anyone who can’t connect with Laymon’s writing, especially since he writes on such a wide range of topics, like race, family, coming of age in the deep south, violence, and writing itself.

 

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

You’ll want to enjoy this book when you can pause or put down the book to just sit and take in Roxane Gay’s beautiful prose. Gay writes in an honest and understandable way. In these essays, she explores weight, relationships with food, health, violence, relationships, and so much more with a vulnerability that is relatable and honorable.

Gay describes the phenomenon of separation between body and mind that is common after an instance of sexual violence. Her experiences with protecting her body and feeling like creating a barrier with her own body will keep her safe from sexual violence in the future, are things many people grapple with after a sexual assault. Often an instance of sexual violence will result in changes in self-esteem and self-image. If you or someone you know are feeling this way, it is important to know that your body is your own and however you feel safest is the healthiest thing for you.

As a total sidenote, if I see a book has a blurb from Roxane Gay or that she has left a good review for a book, I add it to my To-Read list, because I trust her taste so much.

 

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

I want to highlight every line in this book. The prose is absolutely gorgeous. Kiese Laymon is a brilliant writer and it is clear by this book. He describes what it’s like to go through puberty and how the experiences we have in adolescence follow us into adulthood. Laymon writes about his relationship with his body and how he saw himself then, and later as an adult. He writes on the awkward, the moral, the ugly, the confusing, and the glorious with objectivity and distance that leaves space for the reader’s feelings.

Laymon also describes how sexual assault, most especially if it happens when a survivor is young, can create a complicated relationship with sex. He honestly reflects on his thoughts as a young man after surviving his sexual assault. Within this already incredibly complex trauma, Laymon also goes into the questions and vulnerabilities of being a male survivor of sexual assault. I am so grateful this book exists and I recommend it to everyone in my life.

 

Is Rape a Crime?: A Memoir, An Investigation, and a Manifesto by Michelle Bowdler

I have always been a true crime fan. I don’t know if it's a manner of self-preservation or a morbid fascination, but I’ve just always found crime stories interesting. More than that, I find stories about crimes enraging. This book will do that. When you see the statistics of rape and rape cases, and how few of those are investigated, much less end with a conviction, you will want to punch something. Michele Bowdler seamlessly blends together her own real experiences with investigations into our society and the culture it creates. At the end of this, you will feel like thrusting your fist in the air and advocating for change.

 

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

This well-renowned classic has been receiving a lot of attention lately with the inception of the TV show. It is still a classic for a reason; it is gut-wrenching in its descriptions. The commonplace attitude toward the atrocities is spine-chilling. This book follows Offred (literally Of Fred) who is a Handmaid in Gilead. In order to combat the declining birth rate, Handmaid’s are used for their birthing abilities. And that is just the set-up for this dive into what happens when reproduction is institutionalized.

 

The Girls by Emma Cline

“...I was confusing familiarity with happiness. Because that was there even when love wasn't...”

When I started reading The Girls, I knew nothing about it. Typically, I like to go into books knowing as little as possible. Once I started, I realized how much the novel reminded me of another story I had heard before. The Girls is inspired by the real-life Manson family and the murders they committed. The case is a recognizable outline, but the way Emma Cline changes and adapts the story to tell a new narrative is astounding. Cline writes in such an in-depth way about every character in this book that it fed my childhood aptitude for nosiness.

Something else this book gets right is the manipulation by a person in a position of power onto their subjects. Sexual violence isn’t about sex, it is about control. Perpetrators of sexual violence will use their power, whether that is their physical size, their employment, their social standing, or anything else, to coerce survivors. If you are being coerced or being threatened, please call
us at (715)834-9578. Our services are entirely confidential, and you have the right to feel safe.

 

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevado

Elizabeth Acevado is verse royalty. I always have a hard time deciding between listening to her books on audiobook or reading them; both allow the reader to not just read the book, but experience it, and feel the atmosphere that Acevado creates. (I think the answer is to listen to an audiobook while reading the book).

This novel follows Camino Rios and Yahairo Rios, who find out they are half sisters after the tragic death of their father in a plane crash. As they navigate their understandably complicated feelings of loss, grief, forgiveness, and love, we see into their very different lives.

In this book, Acevado acknowledges the role sexual harassment plays in the culture of sexual violence. For too long, sexual harassment has been seen as “annoying, but harmless”, when it is the opposite. Sexual harassment contributes to the societal norms that cultivate sexual assault. We can all take part to stop sexual harassment and the attitudes that allow it to happen
in the first place. Everyone can be an advocate in their own lives by simply stopping anyone from participating in activities that perpetuate sexual violence.

 

Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

“Love is complicated, he would say. But love shouldn’t hurt.”

This book is so incredibly accurate. Tiffany D. Jackson has given the reader the chance to see what grooming and manipulation look like. I could not put this book down. The easy-to-read style made the characters jump off the page and made the difficult subject matter very clear to see.

Jackson creates a world where you can see all the elements happening in dual timelines. She bravely demonstrates that hallucinations are common as a trauma-response. It is very common for an individual who has experienced trauma to have hallucinations, as they might experience flashbacks or triggers (for an explanation of how triggers develop, see below). The brain is an amazing thing and sometimes it creates amazing things. Jackson manages to base her characters in fact while creating a story that will have you gripped from the start.

 

The Big Questions Book of Sexual Consent by Donna Freitas

Read this book. Read this book. Read this book.

This book is exactly what it says it is. It speaks in a tone that is funny, real and accessible. I found myself actually laughing out loud while reading the chapter openings. This books is for parents, looking for help teaching their children about sex and consent; this book is for youth who want answers from a source that isn’t their guardian or teachers; this book is for anyone who works with youth (especially youth with questions); this book is for anyone who wants their big questions about sex and consent to be answered in a clear and engaging way.

 

In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado

When I read Carmen Maria Machado’s short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, I knew it would become one of my favorite books of all time. Now, In the Dream House will join its sister on that list. This book, in Machado’s signature style, outlines what it’s like to be in a queer partnership with violence and sexual assault. She balances references to other works, opinions, and stunning language into a narrative that will make you feel like you’re listening to music.

Machado shows the progression of an abusive relationship in a clear way that both reflects with objective understanding, and includes the feelings she had -  both red flags and green lights alike. Many perpetrators of violence put up a charming front. This creates a strong foundation with their partner - who they go on to abuse - while isolating their partner from their support system. Others say “Oh, X? They would never do that? They’re so charming!” It is a tactic that works on humans, and it endures. You are never wrong for believing or “falling for” their charms. People who use this tactic are often experts in how to use it, and it is never the survivor's fault. Also, it speaks to how we can all work on believing survivors when they choose to disclose.

 

Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference, and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls by Jessica McDiarmid

Mary Teegee, Maaxsw Gibuu (White Wolf) writes in the forward of this book, “Because I am an Indigenous woman, I am six times more likely to be murdered than my non-Indigenous sisters. I am considered high risk just by virtue of being Indigenous and female. This is my reality. I am a statistic.”

This statement encapsulates the tragedy told in this book. Jessica McDiarmid tells the stories of the missing and murdered Indigenous women of Highway 16, a highway in northwestern British Columbia. She tells of deep and tragic losses through interviews with families, friends, and loved ones of the women taken, and a society that failed to protect them. Through focusing on Highway 16, she tells the much wider story of systemic racism, over-policing, and under-protection that plagues First Nations communities everyday.

In looking at reviews of this book, I am optimistic that more and more people will learn about the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. With more education will come more demands that Indigenous women and Indigenous communities are protected from this ever happening again.

 

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

Cynthia Bond is the master of “show, not tell." She shows you everything, whether you want to see it or not. She does not shy away from telling a story in its entirety, and she does so in such a vivid way that I fully feet this book as I read. I could smell, touch, taste, and feel this book. This story spans the lives, loves, and losses of Ephram Jennings and a young beautiful girl named Ruby Bell. The book follows the two throughout their lives and the lives of those who shaped them.

Also it’s recommended by Oprah; who could resist?!

Bond drew upon her own experiences and those of her family in order to write a book that is both magical realism and completely grounded in reality. Bond writes on this connection in an interview with Read it Forward, where she says this: “My own history of abuse informed this novel, as well. As a victim of human trafficking as a child, these stories and images filled my chest with horror, rage, and fear until I picked up a pen and placed it upon the blank page. Writing Ruby became my salvation.”

Healing can come in so many different forms. Often, journaling can be a great outlet to survivors. It can give them an outlet for their feelings and help to recognize patterns or triggers (for an explanation on the development of triggers, see below).

 

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

As an avid watcher of BookTube, I have seen many, many content creators singing Akwaeke Emezi’s praises, and I understand why. This book will tear and tug at your emotions in the most beautiful way. The thing with books like this is that you already know the ending. Emezi has not hidden it from you, in fact they put it right on the cover: Vivek Oji will die. His death will still surprise and destroy you. It’s as though knowing that he will die, I was more attached to him, hoping to preserve his safety. I hope that our world can become a more and more open and understanding place, that those historically marginalized can have their stories told and their voices heard. As we all work towards that future, it is important to acknowledge our brothers, sisters, and siblings who are different from us. With this attitude, I hope that someday the world will be an accepting place for everyone to live as the truest versions of themselves.

 

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

This book is famous, and for good reason. N.K. Jemisin wrote this epic tale that blends both fantasy and science fiction while staying grounded in emotions that are universally human. The story follows Essun, a resilient and courageous young woman who must traverse a post-apocalyptic world in order to save her own daughter. Jemisin creates a universe with depth and intrigue in the most real way.

Jemisin, when not writing genre-defining novels, is a career counselor. She went to graduate school to become a personal/social counselor. She has an informed approach to sexual violence and how it affects our society. This is very clear in her writing. She writes about sexual violence in her novel, The Shadowed Sun, on her website and says sums up her approach in a succinct and accurate way: “There’s only one way to get rid of rape culture: acknowledge it. Discuss it. Subvert it. Don’t stop talking about or even depicting sexual violence — just try to do these things in a way that does not at the same time perpetuate it.”

This statement really gets at what, as a community, we have ignored. Too often I hear “sexual assault doesn’t happen here,” or “that’s something that only happens in X city”. The truth is, it happens here and it’s happening now. In order to stop sexual violence, we must first acknowledged that it has happened and we all have a responsibility to support survivors and to prevent it from ever happening again.

Here is the link to the full article:

"Sexual Violence in The Shadowed Sun" by N.K. Jemisin
 

Luster by Raven Leilani

If you like a character study, this book is for you. If you like a character study where you get to see the inner thoughts of the protagonist in a visceral, dreamy, and completely honest way, then this book is definitely for you. There are moments you will feel deeply with the character; joy, embarrassment, longing, annoyance, realization, or one of the many other things we can experience through Edie. Raven Leilani shows us the good, the bad, and the ugly. She brings us into Edie’s life and starts the grey, in-between, not-sure-how-to-feel conversations that we all need to have.

 

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Real Life is a deep and breathtaking dive into the world of Wallace. He is an introverted, Black, queer man from Alabama, pursuing a biochem degree in the Midwest. This book is a deep character study, where everything Wallace sees, you see; everything Wallace hears, you hear; every thought Wallace has and keeps inside, you are allowed to hear. All of this results in a closeness and intimacy to Wallace. Taylor also brings up how trauma will weave itself into the lives of survivors. Trauma is lasting and impactful. However, with support, help from professionals, and learning about trauma and the effects it can have, trauma can have less of an impact on your daily life. 

 

The Mountains Sing by Nguyên Quê Mai

“Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth.”

Words cannot express how much I loved this book! This a multi-generational dive into the Trần family. The characters are so real and the descriptions of Vietnam so vivid, I
felt like I could step inside the book and have tea with the characters. The story switches between Diệu Lan and her granddaughter, Hương. Both women have such beautiful perspectives and demonstrate the strength of family and personal conviction. Over and over, the reader is reminded of the impacts of conflict and the terrors of war. Still, this story is one that will stay with me as I marvel at the beauty of human kindness.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai writes about how, after a traumatic experience, there can be a myriad of difficult relationships. There can be a difficult relationship between a survivor and their partner, between a survivor and potential future partners, between a survivor and their own body. It is always important that survivors know that it is never, ever their fault. What can make a stressful
incident into a traumatizing incident is a lack of social support after the event. For example, after a sexual assault it is very important that the survivor understands that they did what they had to do to survive; their body reacted in order to protect them. Often, that means the body will have a freeze response. This is natural, and nothing the survivor did was wrong. Sexual assault is never “cheating;" it is sexual assault.

 

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

This book will enrage you and warm your heart within chapters of each other. Set in contemporary India, we follow Jivan, a Muslim girl who is accused of committing an act of terrorism after posting a comment on Facebook. As you can imagine from that sentence, her story will make you want to throw the book (but you won’t because you NEED to know what will happen next). Meanwhile, we also follow Lovely, an aspiring actress whose hope and vitality jump off the page. Finally, we follow Jivan’s gym teacher, PT Sir, on his scheming crawl to political fame. Within the well-spun narrative Megha Majumdar points to the Gendered Islamophobia that is rampant in our society.

Gendered Islamophobia is defined by Darakshan Raja at Justice For Muslims Collective. Raja says, “gendered forms of violence that are inflicted on Muslim bodies include the use of sexual violence, torture, harassment, murder, and state reproductive control, coercion and violence”.

Here is a link from HEART, Justice for Muslims Collective and Vigilant Love with a report about Gendered Islamophobia and what you can do:
Partnership to End Gendered Islamophobia: Community Report

 

Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot

This book is beautiful. You will want to read it over and over and over again. It is a lyrical memoir from Terese Marie Mailhot who writes about growing up on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest, about being hospitalized for her mental health, about being a mother and a daughter, about her family, about her pain, about her relationships, and about memory and trauma. I finished this book and turned it right back to the beginning with the intention of starting it again.

Mailhot also speaks about recovered memories. She perfectly encapsulates how your memory is a pliable and changing thing. She describes what it’s like to have a reaction to uncovered trauma. When our mind goes to a place of trauma, like when we have to tell our story to someone or we have to write it down for official reasons, our body will react as if the trauma is happening again. Our hearts race and breathing can become difficult. This is the natural fight, flight, or freeze response. It is a survival tactic for the body.

If this ever happens to you or anyone around you, the best thing you can do is breathe deeply. Simply breathing in for 3 and out for 6 can slow down a heart rate until the body recognizes that it is safe and no longer in a traumatic situation. Just breathe. In fact, try it now, you deserve some calm.

 

Fifty Words for Rain by Ahsa Lemmie

Fans of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara will love this book. Fifty Words for Rain is a sweeping story set in post-World War II Japan. From the beginning, you feel your stomach drop for Noriko “Nori” Kamiza. As her mother tells her things like “if a woman knows nothing else, she should know how to be silent,” and “promise me you will obey,” you feel so deeply for the little 8 year old Nori, as she tries to make the most of her surroundings. Asha Lemmie writes an epic tale that covers years and worlds of space. She writes in a way that will elicit a reaction from the reader, and will allow the reader to understand Nori and her life. Reading stories can help us empathize with experiences outside of our own. That is the magic of books. However, it is also important to remember to take care of yourself and your well-being while reading. Looking up content warnings and allowing yourself to put a book down are excellent strategies for readers.

The StoryGraph is a website with community reviews and thorough content warnings.

 

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Once you start this book you will want to read faster and faster. Afia Atakora creates an atmosphere with a perfect blend of figurative language and plot movement. I found myself almost scanning the page in order to find out what would come next as quickly as possible.

Conjure Women is about three women - May Belle, Rue, and Varina - and spans generations before and after the Civil War. The story is clearly very well-researched and written, while maintaining a hazy, magical style. Atakora mentioned in an interview for Library Journal: “Stories of slavery in America should be told and told and told. We haven’t learned enough from our history, we need to look deeply in the mirror.” This is echoed in her writing. She talks about the horrors of slavery in a way that gets at what still exists today.

Dr. Joy DeGruy developed the theory of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome after years of quantitative and qualitative research. This trauma is multi-generational and can have serious health implications on generations living today. Here is a link to Dr. Joy Degruy’s website that details her theory and the impacts it has today.

Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome

 

All Boys Aren't Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson

Wow, this should be required reading for everyone. George M. Johnson is incredibly knowledgeable both about himself and the society he lives in. In this series of essays, he reflects on what it’s like growing up a Black queer boy. He writes about his childhood, his loving grandmother, his college experiences, his first sexual relationships, friendships, and so, so much more. Johnson’s writing feels like teaching in the most understanding and entertaining way. He gives himself mercy for his past self, but owns up to his actions. In terms of describing his trauma, Johnson looks back on his experiences with time and understanding. He recognizes trauma as exactly that: trauma. The way that he talks about traumatic events is gentle and well-informed.

He also points out a vital fact for survivors: your body’s reaction is not consent. A biological reaction to a sexual violation is not an invitation to be violated. It is never your fault as the survivor. You did nothing wrong. Do yourself a favor and read this book. You will walk away understanding so much more about yourself and those around you.

 

home body by rupi kaur

I’m not usually a poetry person, but rupi kaur’s poetry has been a great entrance into poetry. She speaks about difficult topics in an empowering way. I remember when I read her first collection, milk and honey, I had to set the book down multiple times just to take in her poems. home body is an extension of the same accessible style while delivering messages of belonging, love, nature, family, relationships, and what it’s like to live in your body. kaur has a way of speaking on trauma and traumatic experiences that begs empathy from the reader. She strongly elicits feeling for the subjects of her poems. She demonstrates how trauma can stay with us for a long time, even after an event has occurred. Often the idea that healing is chronologically linear can be a dangerous one. Everyone heals at their own pace and with their own steps and strides, both forward and backward. These poems will allow you to feel the ups and downs alongside the author in the best way.



How Triggers are Formed
When something traumatic happens, the body will protect itself by a series of automatic responses. One of these can be suppression of the memory, until it resurfaces, often due to a trigger. Triggers are formed during fight, flight, or freeze mode in which the body begins to take in as much evidence as possible. Once survival mode has started the brain will begin “active recording.” Many survivors will have a photographic memory of parts of the traumatic event
because their brains are attempting to protect the body from ever experiencing the trauma again. For example, if a traumatic situation happens during a snowstorm, the brain might develop the sights and sensations of snow as being a signal that the body must protect itself. If this ever happens to you, or you think it might be happening to someone around you, the number one reaction should be deep breathing. If you can lower your heart rate, the body will
recognize that it is not in immediate danger and will reverse the fight, flight, or freeze response. Breathe in for 3 counts, and out for 6 counts. Repeat.