survivors and sterotypes

Where do you get your image of who and what survivors of sexual abuse can be? Do the survivors portrayed in books and movies accurately reflect real people’s experiences–or are they projections of the creators’ own fears and beliefs?

This summer I sat down with recent young adult novels that have major characters who are survivors of incest, sexual abuse, and rape. It was eye opening to look at these books side-by-side and consider just what they tell young readers about surviving abuse.

“Hero, Victim or Monster? an author looks at depictions of sexual abuse survivors in YA fiction” was just published in School Library Journal.

Here are some exerpts, but you can read the whole article on line.

At age 10, Jonathan was sexually abused by the family priest. “When I started middle school and realized what sex is, that’s when I really started having a problem with this,” Jonathan, now a young adult, told me. “What happened with Father Jim made me feel like a lesser person.” Jonathan turned to alcohol, drugs, and aggressive behavior to cope with his shame and prove that he could be “cool, a real man.”

I spent several days with Jonathan when he was 17, interviewing and photographing him for Strong at the Heart: How It Feels to Heal from Sexual Abuse (Farrar/Melanie Kroupa Books, 2005). My purpose was to show—through their own words—how real teens and adults overcome childhood sexual trauma. I wanted readers to have a clear picture of what sexual abuse is, who survivors really are, and how people make choices that lead to a healthy outcome.

The survivors I interviewed have done a substantial amount of healing and come from a wide range of cultural, economic, and racial backgrounds. Our conversations showed me how much we have to learn, if we will only listen. I saw how teens hunger for stories about others, like themselves, who have coped with traumatic experiences. They also gave me new criteria for evaluating fiction that depicts this all-too-common experience of childhood and adolescence.

You might expect that trauma this pervasive would be examined—and its impact explored—in literature for the very people who are living it. Yet few of the teens I talked with had seen their experience reflected in a book.


Books discussed in depth include two by Chris Lynch, Inexcusable and Sins of the Fathers, Laura Weiss’ forthcoming Such A Pretty Girl, R. A. Nelson’s Teach Me, and Beth Goobie’s The Place Where the Losers Go.

There’s also a list of some excellent older books by Jacqueline Woodson, Chris Crutcher, Cynthia Voight and Cathy Adkins.

To evaluate the books, I used four criteria that came from discussions with young survivors. I’d love to know what you think!

By |2017-06-13T20:45:39+00:00October 4th, 2006|books, media, writing|4 Comments

About the Author:


  1. Catherine Atkins October 22, 2006 at 12:08 am

    Carolyn, congratulations on your article! I enjoyed reading it. Thanks for including Jeff.



  2. Carolyn Lehman October 22, 2006 at 1:14 pm

    My pleasure, Cathy.

    There is so much to say on this subject! By the end, I was paring it all down to the 1,700 words allowed for an Up for Discussion column. But I was determined to mention the best of the books that have been out for a while, including WHEN JEFF COMES HOME.

    There’s some new books, too, that are just out. Have you seen JUMPING THE SCRATCH?

  3. Jacquelyn November 5, 2006 at 5:07 pm

    I am using your article as a resource (a very valuable one!) for a research paper (on children’s literature as sexual abuse prevention/intervention) in my Child and Adolescent Literature class at Niagara University, NY. I just wanted to compliment your work- I’m glad I decided to check out your website too- I am definitely adding it to my list of Favorites.
    I’m a senior Psychology major at NU, and I am also writing my honors thesis this semester on societal perceptions of child sexual abuse (based on a myth scale from Collings,1997) and the effect of social support on resiliency. If you have any recommendations or referrals that you think would be worth including, I’d be very interested.
    Thanks for everything,

  4. Carolyn Lehman November 6, 2006 at 11:48 am


    I’m so glad you found this article useful. I’d LOVE to see your thesis when you are done.

    My understanding is that our subject–perceptions and stereotypes of abuse survivors–is new, as yet pretty much unexamined. But I’ll keep my eyes out for anything that might be helpful to you.


Comments are closed.