April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and one of the books we’re using to start a conversation is Pointe, which follows high school ballerina Theo’s struggle to reconcile secrets of her past with her dreams for the future when her best friend comes home four years after his kidnapping. Today, author Brandy Colbert shares another story – this one her own – and an important message about empathy.
When I first started writing Pointe, I thought the book would primarily explore male sexual abuse, since the kidnapping aspect was inspired by the real life of Steven Stayner, who was abducted and abused for seven years in the 1970s. At the time I was writing, there weren’t a lot of books focused on that topic, although one in six men have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18.
As I delved further into editing, I realized I’d have to write about the sexual abuse and exploitation of the main character, a girl named Theo. And that made me anxious. I didn’t know if I could do the topic justice from a first person point of view.
I’ve read and listened to a lot of survivor stories in my life, and I’ve felt empathy toward these survivors since I was a kid, in part because of Steven Stayner’s story that became a television movie. I don’t have personal experience with sexual abuse or assault, but while I was working on Pointe, I started thinking of times in my life that I’ve fended off unwelcome attention from men, most of them older and in more powerful positions than me. I thought about how helpless I felt, how angry that I was supposed to endure or even entertain those advances because I’m a woman (or many times still just a girl).
When I was a teenager, working part-time at a retail job, a new guy started at the store, and because we were both black in a predominantly white town and workplace, everyone assumed that when he expressed interest, I should immediately want to date him. He wasn’t my type physically, and I knew deep down that I didn’t want to go out with him, but I gave him my number anyway. He called and, unsurprisingly, there was no chemistry. Later, I found out he was older. As in, he was in his thirties.
“But he’s so nice!” everyone said.
“But you’ve been wanting a boyfriend, and he likes you!”
“But you hang out with a lot of older people who work here—what’s the difference?”
I was tired of the questions and tired of feeling bad for following my gut instinct, and finally, when someone asked why I wouldn’t just give him a chance, I practically shouted, “He’s thirty-four and I’m nineteen!” I didn’t get any more pressure, though it was upsetting that nobody would listen to what I wanted until I brought the age difference into it.
I’ve been fortunate to choose who I have sex with, but lots of people—both male and female—don’t get that opportunity, and that’s why Theo’s story was so important to me. I was old enough to consent to a relationship with an older man if I’d chosen to. She was not. But I didn’t owe that man or any of our co-workers anything, and Theo didn’t owe anyone anything just because she trusted the wrong person.
Some reviews criticize the way Theo behaved throughout the book, as if she deserved what happened to her because of a poor choice she made as a thirteen-year-old. I have to assume those people just aren’t at a place in their lives where they’ve developed empathy. Sexual abuse takes many different forms, but the most important thing we can do is have empathy for survivors—even if they don’t look like the people we’ve been conditioned to believe are the victims. Even if their situations are difficult to understand.
We should have empathy, always.