This is the first in a series of posts about Jodi Picoult’s use of false rape allegations as a plot device. There will be three more, and they will be posted daily. You will find the second here tomorrow, the third here the day after and the fourth here the day after that. In this post, I introduce the topic, Jodi Picoult, the books I’m talking about and a few of the issues.
The post title might seem like a bit of an oxymoron. After all, one may ask: isn’t the point of fiction that it’s not true?
Actually, I’d argue the opposite. I’d argue that one of the purposes of literature is to tell the truth about life, without necessarily telling the reality of life.
Where this duty really comes into play is where an author uses assumptions and stereotypes as if they are real.
Much fiction does this, and sometimes it is reasonably unobjectionable as a plot device or tool.
Where I really start to get angry is when someone does something like what Jodi Picoult has done in at least two of her books (and I’ve only read four!) and premises the entire plot on a false rape allegation.
For those of you unaware of Jodi Picoult: she’s a reasonably well-known author who writes books which focus on thorny ethical issues. The first time I picked up one of her books, I did so based on a general recommendation that this might be the kind of thing I’m interested in, and that’s definitely true. She often writes about the intersection of ethics and the law (two of the four books I’ve read centre around criminal trials, and the other two books involve a consideration of the law in a different way). I think she writes reasonably well, which is always a bonus as far as I’m concerned (she’s not the best writer I’ve ever read, but she’s compelling in that you want to know what happens). Her characterisation is pretty believable and her books consider the story from several different angles, so you end up with a good number of characters being reasonably well-rounded.
All of these aspects of Picoult’s books are positives for me, and while she’s not my favourite author, she’s one that I’m quite happy to come across in a second-hand bookshop.
Well, maybe make that: I was.
As I mentioned, two of her books (The Tenth Circle and Salem Falls) have plots premised on false rape allegations.
Which she uses as plot devices.
It’s not quite as unforgiveable as the movies which use rape in the ways described by Sady, but it leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth all the same.
The obvious problem with it is that it suggests that false rape allegations are common. Now, Picoult may well have written a book (or several) which includes a real rape allegation – but I haven’t read it (or them), and for some reason, I doubt it would be so central to the plot as the false allegations in these two books. This implies that false rape allegations are more common than real rape allegations – or, at the very least, it implies that false rape allegations are common and are a real problem.
The second main problem I have with it is the treatment of the characters involved in the rape allegations: in both books, the allegations are made by teenage girls, and in both books, the girls are immediately believed, sympathised with, not victim-blamed in the slightest – and action is taken as quickly as possible.
That’s great for those characters – I’m glad they’re treated well – but hey, they’re not real anyway.
My problem is: it’s not at all like real life.
An argument that could be raised in Picoult’s defence is that she deals with ethico-legal issues, and that because everyone condemns the act of rape but it’s so difficult to prove one way or another, it’s an area ripe with ethico-legal issues. Especially when you throw in teenagers.
But here’s the thing: there are real-life ethical problems which surround the occurrence and reporting of rape and the legal process which surrounds it.
People who hypothesise ethical and ethico-legal situations often use the rare and downright unlikely in order to attempt to illustrate where the boundary is. Generally, I’ve got nothing against this, and I think that Picoult did it reasonably well in the other two books of hers that I’ve read: Plain Truth and My Sister’s Keeper.
However, I think there’s a difference between writing about a situation which is obviously rare or unlikely (for example, in My Sister’s Keeper, the main character’s older sister had leukaemia, and the main character was conceived on the basis that her cord blood could be used to help her sister – the central ethico-legal issue was how much should parents be allowed to impose on one child’s life in order to save another?) and writing about a situation which we know from statistics is rare or unlikely, but which many people believe to be commonplace. I think that false rape allegations fall into the latter category.
As I’ve said in the note up the top, this is the first in a series of four posts which explores these issues. They’re all written and scheduled to go up over the next three days (I did in fact consider writing a single mega-post, but wasn’t sure of my audience’s attention spans ;) ), although if anyone raises anything in comments that I haven’t considered, I will alter as appropriate.
The second post and the third one outline the two books I’m talking about and the messages which I think come out of those books, since I think it’s worth taking this discussion out of the abstract a bit. The fourth post is an attempt to draw everything into some kind of conclusion.