I've known Kate Laurens for three years now. She's my roommate and my sister--by choice, not by blood. We participated in The Vagina Monologues together. She's one of the strongest women I know. When I started writing Reflections, I knew I wanted to dedicate it to her. And when I told her about it, she suggested that I interview her. I loved the idea, so here we are.
What was your reaction to finding out that I was writing a book for you?
It's just weird. I know bits and pieces of people make their way into books, but for me... I think it would be less weird if you based a character on me or something. It's just so different when it's like “this book is for you and it's for what you've experienced.” It's a good strange, but it's strange at the same time. And it's an honor because I know it's not something done lightly.
Why do you think this book is important?
I'm really tired of people saying things like “We need start the conversation about whatever” because to me it just gets redundant after a while. A lot of people don't know how to start the conversation or what to say about sexual assault. More than starting it, we need to change the conversation that we have. We need to stop saying, “What was she wearing?” and pointing fingers at the survivor and focus on preventing it, like where did we fail as a society? I think this book will make people think differently.
And besides victim-blaming there are people who coddle the victims and don't see them as real people anymore, only as delicate, fragile things, and that's not good, either. You should just treat them like a person. It's important for Rama to be the hero after going through trauma without having to be “fixed” or “come to terms” with it. Like, it's just a part of her somehow, but it doesn't fully define her.
What do you have to say about the controversial nature of some of the material e.g. Rama's sexual assault?
I get why it's controversial but I really think it's just something people don't want to talk about, maybe because they're wrong. With sexual assault, people don't want to admit that they're using sexual assault as a plot device. That's what drives me insane about a lot of TV shows and movies—trauma or assault happens to a woman and explains why she's so emotionally attached or damaged. It's never like, “oh, it's good that she's detached,” and like a man has to heal her or fix her. You don't need to fix them. If they're detached, that's what they are. That's how they deal with it. And it's used to further the character of men, like “oh, I changed this damaged woman. I fixed it.” Just no.
With Rama, yeah, it affects her, but it doesn't define everything that happens with her.
In a Jodi Picoult book I read that you can't come back from a rape, and it's not like you don't carry it around with you, but it doesn't become your identity. It doesn't change the entire physical makeup of who you are. People want victims to be demure, traumatized beings and that's not always what a victim is. It's important for people to be confronted with a different picture of a victim, even if it makes them uncomfortable. One of my favorite quotes is “Art should disturb the comforted and comfort the disturbed.” If it makes people uncomfortable, that's probably a good sign. We need to see that there are a thousand different ways to look at any given thing, even sexual assault, and there's no right or wrong way to deal with it.
What's your experience with sexual assault?
When I was 18, I was a new adult ready to take on the world. I had just overcome an eating disorder and was madly in love with this guy. We'll call him Ary because he was basically the perfect Aryan man. We dated briefly in high school and I ended it because he was really physically pushy when we were together and I wasn't comfortable. I also just think that a lot of the guys I dated I high school wanted to “save” me [ from my depression and anorexia]—and it was disappointing when they couldn't.
The summer after I graduated, Ary and I just picked up where we left off. And the first night we were together, he gave me a hickey without my permission, without even thinking about me having to cover it up, and it was like he was trying as hard as he could to mark me. I should have known then... time went on and it was like a whole year that I was with him. I was in a fantasy world. He wasn't a good guy and everyone knew that but I always imagined that we would join the Peace Corps and go far away and no one would know who he was and we could start a new life and be happy. I never wanted to admit that it was what it was because I loved him. I really loved him. And in my twisted brain, he loved me, too, so he would never hurt me.
The hickey thing never stopped. They weren't hickies, they became bruises. They were painful, they hurt on my neck and my chest. One time, I had a whole bunch of them and I meant to confront him and I showed him the hickies and he held me down and forcibly took my clothes off and took a picture of me. Topless. I don't know where that picture is. I don't know what happened to it. I tried to take the phone and delete it and he hit me, and that was the first time he hit me. That was the first really bad thing he did, but I took it as him like messing around. Not anything serious.
We'd get into romantic situations and I'd start off saying no, I didn't want to go that far—we had had sex consensually before then—but he wouldn't listen. He'd take off my clothes, I'd try to resist, he'd hold me down. “Your shirt's already off,” “we might as well.” Especially since we'd been intimate before. I didn't have a choice.
Sex with him was the most painful thing I'd ever felt in my life, and he had me convinced it was supposed to be that way, so I never said anything about it. Afterwards, there was never any aftercare or niceness. He just treated it like it was no big deal. And I just thought that was the way sex worked, that was how it was supposed to be. I didn't think anything of it.
It wasn't until I got to college and got my first college boyfriend—who took care of me—that I learned that sex was supposed to be enjoyable and I talked to him about Ary and he'd be like, “That's not normal” and he never said “He raped you” or anything, because he could tell I still loved Ary. He listened to me and told me that that wasn't how it was supposed to be. He never outright said, “He assaulted you” because he knew that it would hurt me.
He was the only person I had after I ended it with Ary, and he kept me from going back. He proved that there are guys out there who will be nice to you. It wasn't until a couple of years ago that I was willing to admit that what happened between me and Ary was rape and assault. I took pictures, and now I wish that I had kept them. That would've been proof I could've used in a case against him. I always imagine that he's going to go to court someday—he does this to other girls—and I'm either going to have to testify or be a witness or something. If I had those pictures, I could nail him to the wall. I have nothing but my word. I wish I could warn other girls, but at the same time, I knew something like that would not have stopped me.
As a survivor, what does this book mean to you?
A big part of my recovery isn't getting back to who I used to be, but it's like you get cut and you have a scar. You keep going. You're not a different person because you have a scar. It doesn't change you—it's a part of who you are, but it's not all that you are. So many times it's like, “she was a normal girl and then she was raped and her life is over” and then it's about trying to get back to the person she was before, but she can't get back there and like—that's not it. No. This book offers a different perspective.
What would you say to anyone who's afraid that this novel will be triggering?
I understand that some survivors won't want to read it, but for me... every day is triggering. Sometimes I see someone with Ary's hair color and freak out. My heart rate goes up, I can't catch my breath—and then I turn around and it's not him. I heard two of my students making rape jokes and I was probably harder on them than I should have been, but I don't tolerate that. I walked over and said, “If I hear you say anything about rape or sexual assault again, I will report them.” If it changes their minds a little bit though, good. Little things like that happen every day, and you can't really prepare for that. There's always going to be something. There are triggers everywhere, and it's important to see a character overcome something like that, especially when the scene is not explicit. It's not focusing on the crime but on the person and how they overcome it... it's worth reading.
What are you hoping happens to Rama by the end of the book?
I don't know. I just hope she's happy. Like me, I mean. I just want to be happy. I hope she finds calm in like the little moments. You know, the things you don't really think about. And that she can hold onto them because in the end, that's all that really matters.