Darkness dwells within even the best of us. In the worst of us, darkness not only dwells but reins. – Dean Koontz
There’s nothing quite like a book about sexual abuse and its emotional and psychological and physical devastation to hammer home the difference between realistic fiction and the sort of books that portray non-consensual, or dubiously consensual, sex as erotica, is there?
Not long ago, I read a book called Not His Kiss to Take—and let me just say that I am in no way singling this particular book out for any reason other than it’s fresh in my mind—in which the relationship between the protagonist and his person of interest begins in a way that, if one is being generous, could only be described as questionable if looking at it from an entirely ethical standpoint. In spite of some reservations, however, I liked various aspects of the story, if for nothing more than they forced me to examine my own thoughts and feelings about the behavior of the characters and the way in which I found myself making concessions for a relationship that, in real life, I might think was beyond the pale. The single most important mitigating factor in this book, however, is that both characters are adults, which made it one that I could entertain a certain disconnect with because it was purposely written as erotica and nothing more. It wasn’t meant to represent a question of ethics or moral truths. It was meant to entertain, and it did.
Not so, Heartless and Clueless, books one and two in J. Roman’s “Keeping Secrets” series. These books also forced me to examine my thoughts and feelings, but make no mistake, there is nothing, nothing erotic or titillating or at all ambiguous about the horrors of the non-consensual sexual relationship in these books. In fact, if there were a complete book of the worst kind of human monster, a book that exposed men like Jason Strummer’s stepfather, Jonathan, as the face of the most vile being with a place reserved in a special ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell, it would be these books. Jonathan is nothing more than an opportunistic predator, and Jason is his victim by virtue of proximity and circumstance. But Jason is also more than a victim; Jason, the sum-total of his being defined, is the wreckage of his abuse, which has left its mark, like a tarry black residue of shame and detachment and misery and re-victimization all over the boy’s psyche. These books are a purposefully crafted example of a teenager condemned to hiding behind a mask of contempt and affected apathy in order to simply maintain and to secure some semblance of self-preservation to avoid ending up a ward of a system we all know isn’t perfect.
Jason’s story is told in two points of view: book one from Jason’s, book two from his boyfriend Tommy’s, and both are a blow-by-blow deconstruction of Jason and the way in which his caustic behavior and command of his own sexual attitudes delineate the fear and stigma of his abuse, and illustrate the half-truths and lies by omission that are a direct byproduct of that abuse. It realistically portrays the enormity of these secrets, as well as the physical and emotional consequences of the stress placed upon the narrow shoulders of two boys whose relationship was already balancing precariously on a shaky foundation. Trusting an adult to help shoulder his burden was a non-factor for Jason, when taking in the scope of a situation where the best in life he could hope for was merely to survive from one sickening touch to the next, and the one person who should have stood up and fought for him, didn’t. For Jason, trust is nothing more than a series of negative denominators in a fraction of an existence with few positives, and it wasn’t always easy to watch his life play out, one trauma at a time.
If you’re a very emotional reader like I am, I think it’s safe to say it’s impossible to read these books and not feel the story on a visceral level. If you’re a reader who loves to pick apart the motivations and behaviors of characters, these books are more than a feast for that habit. There were times while I was reading that I felt as helpless as both Jason and Tommy, and I think it’s also fairly safe to say it could be tempting to criticize some of Jason’s behaviors, but I also think marginalizing his actions down to right or wrong would be to miss the point that there was no black and white for him, rather just a gaping void of in between where he was trying his best to survive the varying shades of ambiguity. Trust me when I say his slow and resolute self-destruction wasn’t easy to bear witness to, and at the risk of seeming condescending, it made me wonder how much—or how differently—this book would be appreciated by a YA audience. I suppose a lot of it would depend upon how young the adult and how varied the life experiences.
Obviously, these books, short as they are, are not easy or light reads. All the rape scenes do take place off screen, but once you know something has happened, you can’t really un-know it, can you? It’s still there, written all over Jason’s every word and action and reaction, so the impact is every bit as uncompromising in its bite.
As a whole, this is a gripping story of sacrifice and endurance, and while I can say I thought J. Roman did a commendable job delivering a drama worth getting lost in, I can’t say these books are for everyone, regardless of whether you’re a fan of Young Adult fiction or not. I think I’ll just go with the recommended-with-caution disclaimer and leave it at that.