Jessica Knoll, Luckiest Girl Alive: A Novel (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015), 368pp.
A review by Carrie LeRoy.
The recent case of Brock Turner, the former Stanford University student who was handed down what many people thought was an unusually light sentence — six-months for sexually assaulting an inebriated, unconscious young woman on campus, spurred outrage and, if nothing else, a robust national dialogue about consent, victim blaming, and judicial bias in the context of sexual assault charges. Turner's father wrote a letter to the judge presiding over his son's case pleading for leniency, dismissing the sexual assault as merely "twenty minutes of action" in his son's otherwise ordinary and apparently felony-free life. The victim in the case, whose identity has been kept confidential, wrote a courageous, powerful letter that she read to her attacker in court that went viral and even prompted Vice President Joe Biden to pen a response in support of the victim and ending rape culture on college campuses. (1)
Jessica Knoll’s debut novel Luckiest Girl Alive explores the insidious nature of rape culture and victim blaming. Although a work of fiction, the author eventually acknowledged that the perhaps hardest part of her novel (i.e., a rape scene) is based on her own experience of rape by student athletes when she was in high school. Knoll acknowledges that it took her many years to realize that what she experienced in high school was in fact rape. (2)
Luckiest Girl Alive is a courageous and important novel that forces its readers to abide in a place of extreme discomfort as its protagonist TifAni FaNelli, or “Ani,” survives not only rape, but the judgment of her peers and family who, not unlike the Brock Turner apologists, condemn the victim for her “poor” (alcohol-impaired) judgment. This novel has many surprisingly dark twists and turns that make it a page turner: it is certainly entertaining, well-written, and an overall good read. What sets it apart, however, is the exploration of how a victim of a horrific instance of sexual assault internalizes and accepts her place in a social order that has the capacity to produce an outcome like the Brock Turner slap-on-the-wrist sentence. Awareness that something was done to young Ani (as opposed to invited by Ani due to her alcohol consumption) only comes to her much later.
It is undoubtedly difficult for most people to think about rape and perhaps our own complicity in perpetuating rape culture in this country. Luckiest Girl Alive offers an important perspective, in particular for teenagers — boys and girls who are trying to figure out how and perhaps whether they should fit into the current social order, and accept or challenge its underlying values. No, star athletes do not matter more than rape victims, whether in Steubenville, Ohio or on campus at prestigious Stanford University. No, having sex with an unconscious person should never be justified or described as merely “twenty minutes of action.” And, a person who is incapacitated (regardless of how she became incapacitated) may deserve the physiological consequences of binge drinking, but not to be sexually assaulted by her fellow human.
As I’m sure Knoll would concur, if we are to stop rape, we need to teach people not to rape — take the focus off of the victim and ask the question: how did we arrive at a time and place in history in which the sexual exploitation of an incapacitated person could be described as “twenty minutes of action?" Ani’s story, perhaps not unlike Knoll’s, is unique, in that it breaks the code of silence and secrecy that is the foundation of rape culture. And just maybe Knoll’s further revelation of her own experience of rape will put another crack in that shaky foundation.