Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

Okay, so normally, under my revamped version of this blog, I’ll write about children’s books (or at least juvenile/YA books). Or, I’ll write a piece about important news (and, in fact, the desire to write about Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman (2012) is inspired by the outcome of the Stubenville Trial).

One thing I want to make clear immediately (though not directly related to Girlchild is that the word “rape” is not graphic language — though the article I linked to by CNN warns of graphic language, and I can only imagine that this is the word the article references, since the article contains none of the other words you can’t say on television, or a description of what happened to the 16-year-old victim/survivor/accuser/all language to relate to this girl seems problematic).

Girlchild is the first person story of Rory Dawn (RD) growing up in a trailer park on the outskirts of Reno, NV, in the ’80s — her story of coping and survival, her story of getting out, her story of growing up fast, her story of how to preserve childhood through small tricks of the imagination. Hassman plays with style (entire chapters censored, word problems, “guidelines” from an old Girl Scout Manual) and most of the chapters are very short, which makes this a fast read. I had trouble putting it down.

Why, you might wonder, does the outcome of the trial make me want to write about Girlchild? Here come some minor spoilers.

Because RD is molested and/or raped by an “uncle,” the Hardware Man, who uses her young age (it seems this starts when she’s about six, and continues until she’s ten or so) and threats of physical violence to keep her silent. Because instead of actually being accused of sexually assaulting not only RD, but his own daughter, the Hardware Man is run out of town. Because it’s exactly this type of protection that allows rape culture to continue and which normalizes instances of rape and sexual assault.

And because there’s something incredibly heart-breaking to me about the way that we silence women (or in the case of RD, she chgirlchild-cover-fullooses silence as her coping mechanism) who are victims of sexual assault, the way we slut-shame (as we saw repeatedly in the testimonies coming out in Stubenville, and as RD’s mom is treated), the way we again and again give men light sentences, or let them get away with sexual assault completely (BIGGER SPOILER ALERT: The Hardware Man is finally “punished” but only pages before RD’s mother is also “punished” for her ways).

The cadence of the writing reminds me of growing up in the south, by which I guess I mean, the language reminds me of growing up in a historically poor, historically rural area. RD’s story is made compelling by the specifics Hassman adds, but this could be the story of so many young women, of all classes. It’s a story that felt real to me, and which made me want to wrap RD in a hug (though I don’t think she’s like that — maybe we’d just become pen pals). This was especially true while RD was being assaulted, and later when she didn’t feel like she could ever speak to her mother about what had happened, and especially because there are clear indications that RD’s mother was also assaulted, on multiple occasions.

It reminds me how angry it makes me that sexual assault is so normalized. It reminds me how much courage (and agency) it takes to step forward, and that a woman’s decision not to step forward and report an assault — much less press charges — doesn’t make her experience any less real, despite the rhetoric I heard growing up. It reminds me that the silence of the 16-year-old girl who was raped in Stubenville is the silence of so many women, is the silence of mainstream American culture that still wants sexual assault to be the woman’s fault.


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