Courtney Summers’ All the Rage is a fictional account of one high school girl’s sexual assault trauma and the horrible aftermath. Yet, the story felt ripped from a news headline. What I wasn’t expecting were the simple, nonintrusive sentences that crept up, letter by letter, to punch me in the stomach.
Romy Grey is a girl from the wrong side of the tracks in her small town of Grebe. Once embraced by “the popular crowd,” she becomes a pariah when she unofficially accuses town golden boy, Kellan Turner, of raping her at a party while she was under the influence of alcohol. She never makes her accusation official, as Kellan just happens to be the town sheriff’s son.
Instead, Romy buries her pain deep, covering her fear and insecurity in red lipstick and carefully manicured red nails. She gets a job outside Grebe at a small diner where no one will know her history… and where she slowly develops feelings for the charming line cook, Leon.
Still, ghosts linger, especially when another high school girl from Grebe goes missing under party circumstances similar to Romy’s own rape scene. Fictional story? Yes. Romy’s inner dialogue? Far from it.
Amy, a rape survivor whose name we have changed for privacy reasons, says, “It sounds weird, but I didn’t know I had been raped until weeks after it happened. I was 19, naive, and I’d only had one previous sexual partner. I figured what happened to me had been the infamous one-night stand.”
She describes her experience: “A 27-year-old man illegally served a 19-year-old girl alcohol. That girl got so drunk she couldn’t stand without holding on to a wall, so saying yes or no to sex went right out the window. That girl only remembers pieces of that night, moments of consciousness, but she distinctly remembers his frustration when he couldn’t get inside her… and that she was suddenly scared of him. He showered immediately and pushed her away when she tried to hug or kiss him afterward. That’s not normal, even for a one-night stand. That’s sexual assault.”
What happens to a woman who has been raped? What happens to her mind, her body and her soul? How does she survive after her body has become a target?
1. “I wish I didn’t have a body, sometimes.”
A man used Romy’s own body against her. He made her feel like her body was no longer hers. Psychologically, she sees her female form as the enemy. If she wasn’t a woman, she would not have been raped, and what literally makes a woman a woman? Her physicality. As a rape victim, Romy no longer wants anything to do with physical sensation. She doesn’t want men to look at her body or her skin, which is why she chooses to distract by wearing bright red lipstick and nails. If she can focus people’s attention on two aspects of her, maybe they won’t notice the rest. Maybe her body will not be victimized again.
Amy says, “After being date raped in college at 19, I didn’t have sex with anyone for two years. I didn’t crave touch or emotions or skin, despite my hormones. The cost was seemingly too much.” This shame for being a woman is one of several emotions that rape victims experience, unfortunately.
2. “I hate him a little, for the feeling between my legs.”
When Romy meets Leon, she finds a man who is gentle, funny and understands that “no” means “no.” She is attracted to him, but due to her earlier attack, she can’t handle physical intimacy. She is a teenager, heavy with hormones. She is expected to feel sexual, but when she does, there is nothing but fear. In the case of Leon, there is hate. Romy literally hates Leon because he awakens a feeling in her she thought long dead… because that feeling was murdered by her rapist a year prior in the back of a pickup truck.
3. “If something happens, I don’t want to be wearing it.”
Romy’s mother awkwardly tries to help her daughter become more “feminine” by suggesting the purchase of a lacy push-up bra. Although Romy thinks the bra is pretty, a part of her revolts against the idea of any clothing that might paint her in a sexual light. She is in constant fear that she might be assaulted again, and if she’s wearing something lacy, it would make her look bad. Just like the town sheriff said, “they say you chased after him. That you wore an outfit, hoping that you would catch his attention. Short skirt, skimpy shirt.” Clothing, much like Romy’s own body, had become the enemy.
4. “People were deciding things about her, things she had no control over.”
When a high school girl goes missing in Grebe, rumors abound. Romy is still the target of constant taunting and disrespect, but for the first time, she sees her own situation from an outside perspective. The missing girl becomes an object to attack. She is no longer a daughter, a friend, a woman — she is now a rumor. It is impossible to stop a rumor, as Romy well knows. When a woman is raped, she becomes just that: speculation. What did she do to deserve it? Was she asking for it?
5. “I don’t want to be a dead girl.”
Romy does not mean this in a literal sense, but emotional. The rape split her into two people: the girl she was before and the girl she was after. After the rape, she became the “dead girl.” She hoped that working outside of Grebe and meeting Leon might bring the living Romy back to life, but it’s a lot to ask. Her identity had been split: before and after. How does an abused woman ever return to “before”? How does she come back to life after her sexual identity has been slaughtered?
6. “I hope it’s not a girl.”
Leon’s sister is pregnant, and as soon as Romy finds out, she immediately thinks (as if on reflex), “I hope it’s not a girl.” Romy has come to believe in the inherent vulnerability of being female. She has come to believe that bad things only happen to women. It’s not that she hates her entire gender — she merely hopes, for the baby’s sake, that it is not born a girl, not born into a world where women are so easily victimized and then stigmatized for that victimization.
7. “I don’t want you here if you know.”
For many women, rape is still an act of shame. As the gossip mill churns, Romy sometimes wonders if the rape was her fault. She takes the job at the diner outside of town because no one knows her secret there. She doesn’t want them to know her as the girl who “lied” or the girl who was sexually assaulted. Even though her attacker is the one to blame, she can’t help blaming herself. She wants to keep her rape a secret, as if she is a broken vase glued back together. If someone notices the glue, they’ll know she has been broken and not want her. She is now damaged goods.
“I was embarrassed and dreaded having the ‘I was a victim’ conversation with anyone I could potentially care about,” says Amy. “Would they blame me for what happened to me, claiming I should have been more careful? And would anyone really want a body that had been used and thrown away? What more did I have to give?”
Is there a happy ending to Courtney Summers’ All the Rage? I won’t tell you that. What I will tell you is that rape was not Romy’s fault — no matter how dirty or guilty or broken she feels. Rape is never a woman’s fault. It takes strength and bravery to survive such an ordeal, but it also takes work from the rest of us.
8. “Look at me. I want you to look at me.”
Amy explains, “Unfortunately, women’s bodies are viewed as commodities, something that can be taken by anyone. Until we eradicate that way of thinking in our culture, women will be victims. They will be marginalized and targeted sexually. Raising your voice is the most difficult thing to do, but it’s also the most important thing to do.”
We can’t hide rape. We can’t bury it in the ground. We need to talk about it. In talking, we can help the victims. We can save them from becoming social outcasts. See rape victims for what they are: victims. And love them… because sometimes they cannot love themselves.
If you or a loved one has been sexually assaulted, visit rainn.org or call their hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE.