Alice Hoffman’s The Story Sisters (Crown, 2009), a family saga, is a haunting examination of how the rape of a child affects not only the child herself, but also every single person in her life. No one is exempt from the evil effects of molestation in this book, and Hoffman demonstrates a raw and irrevocable example of one family’s struggle to overcome the festering effects of this one vile and life-changing corruption of a minor.
The Story Sisters include the oldest child, Elizabeth (Elv), followed by middle child Meg, and the youngest little warrior, Claire. The rape is revealed in snapshots—singular lines haunting the narrative and the childhood experiences of these three sisters.
Here’s how it happens: Elv and Claire are walking home from the lake in their bathing suits. A car drives alongside them and the man behind the wheel, a teacher from Claire’s school, tells her, “You know me; get in the car.” Claire is 8, and because she knows him and it’s about to rain, she gets in the back. He speeds away, leaving 11-year-old Elv behind. She runs after the car, places her hands on the window, and screams at him to let her sister go; he pulls her into the car. Elv tells her sister to run, and as Claire gets out, Elv is taken by the man, a teacher, to his home. She is tied, tortured, and raped for an entire day. Elv is forced to use her smarts to run away; and although she physically escapes this maniac, she never emotionally escapes the experience. It defines her, how she sees herself, and how she looks at the world and the people around her. That is how rape works.
What is most disturbing about this rape, other than the actual act, is how it tangles like a vine, suffocating and disfiguring not only Elv, but her sisters also. Even though only one girl is raped, all three sisters suffer in ways that an adult would find difficult to unravel, let alone an 11-year-old.
The problem, of course, is that Elv’s rape remains a secret. No one knows about it except for Elv and her sister, Claire. And for the next five years, Hoffman realistically and poignantly portrays how this slight girl grapples with what happened to her on her own—without any help from her mother or any other adults in her life. No one knows who she is or what she has done to save her sister. Her sacrifice is a dirty little secret that she has to suffer until she is as twisted and mangled as the treacherous man who undid her.
And she is undone: she creates a world of faeries and demons—a world with a secret language that she teaches her sisters. She escapes to this world whenever she feels alone or betrayed by the humans in her own world. And when her imaginary world isn’t enough, she becomes rebellious, full of rage, promiscuous, develops a dependency on drugs, and begins to cut herself to feel something and nothing at all.
I’m struck by this beautiful and dark tale; and I’m struck that although she has a mother and father who divorced the summer of her rape, Elv still suffers alone. Everyone sees her spiraling out of control; her mother sees her, but does nothing—nothing relevant. Her mother is so into her own sadness—her husband left her and moved on with other women—that although she notices her daughter’s dark side exposed, she lacks the gumption to save her, to see her. She does not see that her daughter is suffering, not just acting out.
It makes me think of kids whose parents are present without being present. Physically, they’re there—they make sure their kids have three meals a day, send them off to school, extra-curricular activities, soccer, and cheer leading camps; they attend school conferences, but have no clue as to what is going on in their lives. Children are raped every day and parents have no clue. They let them go to sleepovers or parties without really knowing the parents at those homes. They drop off their kids at other homes, games, malls, play dates, while they go off running errands. Parents should know where their kids are and who they are with—they should take nothing for granted—not their nice neighbors, nice friends, or nice suburban neighborhoods. Everyone and everything should be suspect. It’s exhausting, yes, but more exhausting is attempting to unravel the chaos and psychological damage of child rapes.
Yes, some of them hide it well. Why? Because their rapist threatened them; told them he was doing it to them because they deserved it, wanted it. And kids remain silent about the rape, but the signs are always there. They dress differently: some hide their bodies in bulky clothes; others dress provocatively because they believe that they are bad and they deserved what happened to them. Girls cut themselves, burn themselves, develop eating disorders, have indiscriminate sex, dabble with drugs, and lose themselves. But the signs are there—they’re everywhere, if you know what to look for—and if you are looking. Damaged children are everywhere, always in front of us, doing something to get our attention; we just need to pause and look—see—really see, and then do something relevant about it. Get them help, hear them out, see them—because they feel invisible.
Albeit a dark tale, the down spiraling of Elv’s life and that of her sisters is beautifully told—like poetry in some sections. It’s real and edgy and it makes me think of all the girls out there who have had her experiences and hold them inside—secrets that fester and rot and eat at them until there is nothing left.
And I hope someone out there sees them, and helps them, and keeps them away from other corrupt demons. Someone who recognizes their pain and teaches them to empower themselves and shows them to define themselves, not according to demons that haunt them and the experiences that tainted them, but as victors over the bad our world has to offer. They cannot do it alone.