Sexual Assault: When Real Life and Fiction Collide

I’ve made it a rule to avoid politics on my author website and I don’t plan on breaking that dictum now, but the allegations against Supreme Court nominee Bret Kavanaugh prompted one reader to ask whether I would make any changes if I were writing Hawke’s Return now. The question hit home because I’ve been thinking about it a lot myself.

For those who haven’t read the novel (perish the thought), the central dilemma in Hawke’s Return involves an allegation of sexual harassment that is heatedly denied. As in most real-life cases, there are no witnesses, and Jonas has a hard time trying to determine whether the charge is true. There are reasons to doubt the accounts of both parties and little in the way of verifiable fact. Yet a decision has to be made. It’s ultimately up to Jonas to decide whether to dismiss the supervisor, possibly ruining the career of an innocent man, or take the risk of leaving a guilty man in place to prey on other women, including teenagers.

The similarities to the Kavanaugh situation are obvious, but there are key differences as well. A very big one is that the fictional dilemma is outside the realm of politics, and no one is bringing fierce ideological convictions or motives to the table. The other is that the events are recent and no alcohol is involved, so the notion that someone could not remember details is not believable. Someone is lying, plain and simple.

In the end, I don’t think I would have made significant changes to the novel if I were publishing it today, but I certainly would have been influenced in subtle ways by what I’ve learned the last two weeks, and more generally what I’ve seen in the past two years as so many instances of sexual abuse have come to light. The novel was written three years ago, before the #metoo movement had reached such a powerful level, and I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t opened my eyes in painful ways.

What’s struck me hardest in the past few weeks is how many women identify with Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations. It’s not that I believed sexual assault never happened, but I certainly never realized that it happened all the time. It’s left me with the fear that I have lived most of my life with my head in the sand, and I fear too many other men are guilty of the same sin. Some might say that is because women didn’t speak up often enough (though look what happens when they do), but regardless, that’s no excuse for men not knowing. We’re all responsible for the culture we live in.

Mark Willen