Exploring Trauma Through Speculative Fiction

Content Warning & Introduction: There are emotional and sometimes graphic descriptions of sexual assault. Please be prepared for that before reading. 

Although this is, perhaps, more for me than it is for you… it’s still for you, too. My hope is that by sharing my own experiences, I might help others contextualize their own. If I don’t succeed at that, well, then,  perhaps someone out there will at least feel less alone.

We all matter, we’re all valuable, and many of us have been through some very complicated experiences. I’m still untangling mine, one knot at a time.

And remember… we’re in this together.

When I was a freshman in high school, my Honors English teacher had a poster on her wall above the whiteboard. It was a faded yellow, with a plain, sans serif, black font. Arial, possibly, though I couldn’t say it for certain. It had been printed on a standard printer and then clumsily laminated, likely in that very building. It was small, 8 1/2 by 11. I’d walk in and feel my eyes drawn to it, every single day. It told me, “You are only a victim once; after that, you are a volunteer. – Naomi Judd.” Naomi – whoever she is, I’ve never looked her up – had her name written in a beautiful cursive script. 

For the past two years or so, my stepbrother had been sexually assaulting me nearly every night I stayed over at my dad’s house. 

I walked into that class, and I read that quote. I read it every day. I read it, I internalized it, and I hated myself. It wasn’t until later that I hated him. There was a short explanation below the quote saying that it wasn’t “meant” to blame victims but instead encourage them to break the cycle of abuse, but that always felt like an unimportant footnote. The real meaning of the quote was clear to me: I was a volunteer. 

In class, we discussed Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. My teacher thought I’d like it. I didn’t. We read Night by Eli Weisel. It broke my heart. We wrote essays, did grammar assignments, as you do in English class. Things were normal. I was normal. I had few close friends.

I would come home from school and go over to my grandparents’ house, where I’d sit in an oversized recliner upholstered in a dark and light blue pinstripe pattern, wrap up in a blanket, and grab my book while my grandma sat in her brown recliner and watched Frasier. I was reading the Pern books by Anne McCaffrey.  I devoured them like nothing else; I was always on the lookout for a new one I hadn’t read yet. The Harper Hall trilogy was a particular favorite, but it was Lessa’s story in Dragonflight that struck me hardest.

As a disclaimer, it’s important to understand that Pern has not aged well. McCaffrey’s way of handling gender, sexuality, and agency are problematic at best and frankly abhorrent at worst. For those unfamiliar with the series, Pern is a scifi-fantasy series set in a world inhabited not only by humans, but also by giant, sentient dragons who bond at hatching with their humans partners. Together, they protect the planet from onslaughts of “thread” – a sort of highly acidic rain that falls and destroys all it touches. The dragons and their riders share thoughts, emotions, and instincts with one another. When a Gold queen dragon flies to mate… well, her partner, too, is overcome with lust for the rider of whichever dragon manages to capture the queen on her flight. Effectively, this results in each of the riders raping one another if they haven’t already consented to intimacy. Not to mention how the challenge of accommodating gay, trans, or other LGTBQ+ folks is hand-waved away; Anne McCaffrey’s commentary and explanations for these issues were consistently both tone-deaf and outdated.

And yet, despite all this, the Pern books have remained a guilty pleasure – including the sex scenes. I liked them. I still do. Sex between dragonriders was simple. The riders were entirely, completely absolved of any responsibility for their actions. There was no blame, there wasn’t any impropriety, and everyone accepted that this was just pure, simply sexuality. As someone who was deeply struggling at the time with the idea that I had – maybe! – been a participant in my own abuse, these books that removed even the possibility of choice held a magnetic appeal. Even a symbolic choice was removed from Lessa, and thus there could be no blame. Her dragon, Ramoth, rose to mate, and F’Lar’s dragon, Mnementh, flew her. That was that. And because of that clear, straightforward context and the influence of their dragons’ lust, they were allowed to enjoy it, too. 

“Now she knew what was needed: to fly fast, far and long, away from the Weyr, away from these puny, wingless ones, far in advance of those rutting bronzes.”

– Ramoth’s thoughts just before her first mating flight in Dragonflight

In real life scenarios, fear responses to situations that strip away choice and agency are typically boiled down to either “fight” or “flight.” However, this is an incredibly myopic way of viewing trauma responses. In addition to “fight” and “flight,” there are two other broad response categories that are rarely discussed: “freeze” and “fawn.” When confronted with an aggressor, some people find that their instinct is to please them, to “fawn” over them. If they do everything their attacker wants and put their energy towards making them happy, then this increases the likelihood that they will survive. “Freeze,” on the other hand, is to become a deer in the headlights. Shut down, play dead. If you don’t give a response, maybe they’ll go find someone else to prey on. I doubt that Naomi Judd had ever heard of freeze or fawn when she penned her little quote, given how incredibly vulnerable people with these responses are to repeated abuse. 

I ended up with a combination of freeze and fawn trauma responses. When I find myself in a traumatic situation, my first instinct is typically to freeze and shut down. Other than a sort of abstract whir of fear and anxiety, my mind blanks. As Chidi Anagonye from The Good Place put it, “You know the sound that a fork makes in the garbage disposal? That’s the sound my brain makes all the time.” In the moment, there is no room for choice. Just like Chidi can’t manage to make a choice between a blueberry muffin or a chocolate chip, I can’t make a decision to act at all. There’s no room for fighting, or running, or anything at all. After the immediate danger has passed, I tend to default into more of a fawn mode – if I cater to the emotional wants of my aggressor, if I appease them, the little lizard brain core of my mind thinks that I’ll be safe and that he won’t hurt me again. 

This, obviously, is a recipe for emotional disaster on my end. At the time, I didn’t have the words of knowledge about these reactions that I do now. When I was a child, I couldn’t explain or contextualize my own experiences. I felt shame, anxiety, and fear – I had an opportunity to fight or flee from a situation, but it felt like a personal failing that I hadn’t taken it. Now, I know that it was literally impossible for me to have done that. It was easy, back then, to say that it wasn’t violent. It wasn’t rough. I had to ask myself: was I a volunteer? Had I forfeited my right to victimhood after I let my first opportunity to fight back pass me by? 

Whenever I tried to think of a way to tell someone what was happening to me, my first instinct was to try to find a way to make it sound violent. I wanted to absolve myself of any responsibility, and to do that, I felt like I needed my experience to conform to the societal view of what sexual assault meant. This was long before #MeToo, and I didn’t know that other people had also had experiences like mine. Back then, sexual assault was something that happened to people in bars and dark alleyways. In the books I read, the heroine always fought back or managed to escape before anything bad happened. It was forcible, with the woman struggling to get away. That’s not how it was for me. I thought about the lies I could tell, just so I could get out the truth. Every time I tried to tell myself that perhaps he’d held me down, maybe he’d whispered a threat, it rang false and made me feel even worse about myself. 

Pern’s problematic approach towards sex completely got rid of all the complexity I was dealing with in real life. There wasn’t a need for Lessa to decide how to respond to it. Instead, she could give herself over to the moment and let it carry her from start to finish. F’Lar, while not perfect, did care about her. Eventually, Lessa came to discover that she cared about him, too. By removing even the illusion of choice, McCaffrey also removed any shame that a dragon rider might feel about having made an incorrect or inadequate one. 

That all said, there were many toxic elements to F’Lar and Lessa’s relationship. F’lar pushed Lessa’s boundaries at every opportunity, right up until she was effectively raped by him when their dragons rose to mate. Admittedly, F’Lar knew this was inevitable – one could argue that he was merely doing his best to prepare her for it. Often, however, his actions felt cruel and ill-suited to Lessa’s personality. Lessa, on her part, considered him an aggressor right up until she was forced into seeing him as a partner. Although she did not truly want him at the start, his attentions at least never objectified her – or at least not in the same way I was. It wasn’t until I fully understood that I was nothing more than trash, a sex object, to my abuser that I began to hate him. F’Lar wanted Lessa to become a strong, powerful Weyrlady who could be his partner. My abuser wanted me to be quiet, compliant, to and continue pretending that nothing bad was happening. 

I remember the very first time he touched me. The four of us – me, my stepsister, and two stepbrothers – had been outside all day, playing as kids do in small town rural Oregon. We’d had a pinecone fight, we’d worked on the pit we were digging in the back pasture for an airsoft field, and perhaps we played a little capture the flag. It was fun. It was a good day. Often, it was our habit to camp out in the living room rather than sleeping in our beds on the weekend. We all set up with our pillows and sleeping bags, we’d put a movie on, and slowly, gradually, we’d all fall asleep. Our movie tastes ran to either Disney or crude humor; sometimes it was American Pie, sometimes it was The Emperor’s New Groove. That night, it was Cars. It had just recently come to DVD; we were obsessed with it. He could recite nearly the entire movie, much to our shared delight. I was twelve, at the time.

Technically, he wasn’t “really” my stepbrother; my dad and his mother weren’t married. However, by the time the abuse began, they’d been living together for several years. In all the ways that mattered, he was. I knew and trusted all three of my step-siblings: Brooke, Jake, and Ostin. It wasn’t until this past year that it occurred to me to wonder: did Ostin do to Brooke what he did to me? I’ll probably never know, but I think about her often. I hope that she is safe. I hope that she is loved. I hope that she never had to go through what I did. 

That night, his spot in the sleeping bag and blankets nest we’d all made was next to mine. I was dropping off to sleep, slowly and surely, when I felt a hand brush up against my rear. It was soft, barely noticeable at first. I thought it was a mistake. He’d fallen asleep, or perhaps he didn’t realize it was me. Maybe he thought it was just the blanket. I shuffled over a little. The hand returned. Ostin’s hand returned. It wasn’t a mistake. I was 12, and afraid, and my brain was whirring and couldn’t stop. He was… 16? 17? I don’t know. He was old enough to know better. I kept my breathing slow and steady. I was asleep. I was sleeping. This wasn’t happening – but it was. I was wearing volleyball shorts and a thin tank top. He only touched me on top of my clothes that night, though that wouldn’t be true in the future. 

After devouring as much of the Pern series as I could get my hands on, I discovered Mercedes Lackey. I still have my hardback omnibus copy of the Queen’s Own trilogy (Arrows of the Queen, Arrow’s Flight, and Arrow’s Fall). It was a secondhand mail-order book club edition. I read and reread Talia’s story more times than I can count; the thought of a gorgeous, silver-white Companion coming to carry me off and away from my life was all I could have wanted. The Companions of Valdemar are “horses” with human-level intelligence, often exhibiting powers that aren’t fully understood even by their Chosen human partners. They share a bond deep in their soul: when someone is Chosen, they know that they’ll never be alone again. I wanted that – I wanted to be seen and understood by someone who loved me unconditionally. 

Additionally, the Queen’s Own trilogy had the first actively sex-positive representation of female sexuality I’d encountered. It focused in on the fact that women deserved to enjoy sex. It emphasized that it should be a good, positive experience. For Talia, this was hard to accept at first; having been abused by her brother Justus (albeit not sexually), she had a deep, engrained distrust of men. 

Justus was loved by all. He was good looking, soft spoken, and the angel of Talia’s backwater little village. When she spoke up about the way he treated her, no one cared. Talia was the black sheep of the villager, always with her nose in a book. She wanted to ride horses and hunt and make choices for herself – all things that were firmly in the domain of men in her little hamlet. Her people didn’t believe that women should have agency. They believed that a woman’s place was wherever her husband said it was, and as long as a man didn’t kill or cripple any of his many wives… well, women must be disciplined. 

Ostin was a lot like Justus, though his cruelty relied on my compliance. Justus used Talia’s headstrong nature as an excuse to punish her, up to and including nearly maiming her with a hot poker fresh from the fire. Ostin used my quiet, timid nature as an excuse to use me as a sex object. He – Ostin – had a girlfriend at the time; I don’t know what kind of exploration they did. I don’t know if he used me to feel powerful, or if he felt entitled because his girlfriend wouldn’t let him touch her. Either way, he made me into an object for his own sexual thrills just as Justus used Talia to make himself feel powerful and in control. 

When Talia’s Companion, Rolan, spirits her away from her impending fate as an abused housewife, she discovers a whole new world of acceptance waiting for her. Despite the kindness of those she encounters, she isn’t able to immediately internalize that she’s safe now. She struggles to trust men with pretty faces like Justus’. It takes her many years to become comfortable enough to open up to friends and reliable adults, and even then she finds it difficult to overcome her mistrust of gorgeous young men. She knows, deep in her bones, that they will hurt her. 

In the second book of the trilogy, Arrow’s Flight, Talia is sent out on an apprenticeship circuit to learn the practical side of being a Herald. Her teachers, knowing how she struggles to trust, decide that she should be sent out with a Herald named Kris. Kris, of course, is utterly gorgeous. He’s everything you could want in a man, looks-wise, and everything Talia has learned to fear. As they begin their travels, Kris discovers that Talia’s magical gift, empathy, is wildly out of control. Empathy allows Talia to sense the emotions of those around her as well as giving her the ability to project her own emotions onto others. Just as her magical shields come down, Kris and Talia find themselves stranded in a small waystation to weather a heavy blizzard. 

Talia slowly begins the process of learning how her empathy works from the ground up. She’s been torn down and is sitting at rock bottom… and Kris is there to help her. Finally, she has an opportunity to open up about her childhood to someone who accepts her. Kris sees how she’s been abused, how afraid she is of merely being touched by another person, and he does everything in his power to simply help her and support her. Talia feels seen for the first time in her life, and eventually the two of them begin to sleep together. 

“I’m tired of being alone, and fighting my battles alone.”

– Mercedes Lackey, Arrow’s Flight

Kris makes this experience wholly, entirely about her. He makes her feel safe. He focuses on making sure she enjoys the way he’s touching her. It’s her that matters. Unlike so many representations of sex that focus on male pleasure, Lackey makes it clear that the first time having sex shouldn’t be a painful, frightening thing. Instead, it should be something shared with someone who cares about you and wants you to be comfortable. It’s an expression of joy and desire, not something to be afraid of. 

It made me realize that I wanted that, too. 

Even though my nights were filled with buzzing, whirring horror, I began to seek out Ostin’s attention in the daytime. Now, I understand that this is a part of my trauma response: where during the act I exhibited a freeze response, now I was moving over into fawn territory. I was twelve years old, and this was how my mind was trying to keep me safe. He was sixteen, or seventeen. I thought that sexual attention meant that I deserved… more. It meant he should care about me. I wanted to feel like something other than trash, and this was my attempt to make what he was doing okay. If I could please him, if I could make him happy and make him care about me, then I wouldn’t be hurt any longer.

Sometime after my dad and his mom had split up, I was at the apartment their mother had moved into. I was spending the night there. Our parents wanted the separation to be slow and amicable so that neither I nor my “step-siblings” were cut off from each other abruptly. The apartment complex had one of those old-style merry-go-rounds; the wooden ones that you could push from inside the middle to bring it up to dangerous speeds. We laughed, dizzy and joyous and free. It was spring, and we were young, alive, fearless. We watched a movie that night, munching on snacks and popcorn.

We were texting that night as we lay camped out in my step-sister’s bedroom, all four of us on the floor as we began falling down to sleep. I asked him to kiss me. He did. Softly, quickly, once. I don’t remember how I felt, precisely, but it wasn’t good. I didn’t feel valued or cared for, like I wanted. I still felt like I was trash. I turned over and went to sleep. It was my first kiss. 

That night was the first time he tried to penetrate me with his finger. He wasn’t able to; I was too dry, and I assume he didn’t want to wake me up by being too rough. Or maybe he knew I wasn’t asleep. I’ll never know. It hurt. When this failed, he took my hand and placed it on his penis. He wrapped my fingers around his shaft – I was thirteen by this time – and began to pump himself with my limp, yielding hand. I didn’t even realize it was his penis at first. When it hit me, I tried to convince myself that it was something else I was touching. His leg somehow, or his wrist. Soon, he put my hand back at my side. He got up and went to the bathroom. At the time, I didn’t understand that he was certainly finishing himself off to completion. I thought he’d gone to… I didn’t know. Maybe I thought he actually had to use the restroom. On his way back into the room, he knocked into a shelf by the door and caused a loud crash. I was surprised, physically startled, and said, “That was loud.” And then we went back to sleep, like nothing had happened. This was the day that I understood that even if I hated myself, I should hate him, too. 

I often wonder how many times his hands were on me on nights where I never did wake up.

The next day, I went back to my mom’s house. I don’t remember what all we had for dinner, but I know there were fish sticks. I ate two, and shuffled my other food around on my plate. My mom and stepfather merely chuckled over my lack of appetite – “That’s our Christine. She eats like a little bird.” It was a few days before I could eat a normal meal again; I dropped weight rapidly. Fortunately, it didn’t develop into a full-blown eating disorder. 

Often, my dad would tell me in a very serious tone to tell him if any of my stepbrothers at my mom’s house ever touched me inappropriately; it made me feel powerless, knowing that he couldn’t even see what was happening under his very own roof. 

Last year, I read Among Others by Jo Walton. I loved this book for many reasons, but I best loved it for the clear love and affection Walton infused in every word. Truly, Among Others is a love letter to books and reading. It’s a slow, reminiscent story about a young girl who is learning how to live a normal life in the wake of tragedy. Mori’s mother was out to abuse the magic of the fairies to create a world that revolved around her as queen. Mori and her twin sister, Mor, stopped her. The price was high: Mor was killed, and Mori was permanently maimed. She walks with a cane and a special shoe, both of which set her apart from the other girls her age.

However, one scene in particular took me longer to process. When Mori is plucked from the Welsh countryside and sent to live with her father and three aunts, she expects the worst. Although she’s terribly suspicious of her aunts, she discovers she has common ground with her father: a love of science fiction and fantasy. They chat about LeGuin, Vonnegut, and McCaffrey; Niven, Tolkein and Clarke. These are the interests she’s had forever, but has never had anyone other than her sister to talk about them with. Now that her sister is gone, she has no one. Then, one night when they are in a hotel, he assaults her. 

“Last night, after I finished writing in here, I read for a bit (World of Ptaavs, Niven) and then put the light out. I fell asleep, but then later he, my father—I really should call him Daniel, it’s his name, and that’s what Sam calls him—Daniel came in, putting the light on and waking me. He was drunk. He was crying. He tried to get into my bed and kiss me, and I had to push him away. I know I said I was going to be pro-sex, but. In one way, it’s nice to think that somebody wants me. And touch is nice. Also sex, well, there is no privacy in school, so, but I’d had a chance the night before. (How long does it take? Masturbation is five, ten minutes tops. It never says, in books, how long. Bron and the Spike were at it for hours, but that was exhibition sex.) And I know from Time Enough For Love, which is very explicit on that, that incest isn’t inherently wrong—it’s not as if it really feels as if he’s family. I can’t imagine wanting to with Grampar, ugh! Ugh!!! But with him, Daniel, it really is just the consanguinity thing, because we’re strangers really. And that just means contraception, which I would want anyway. I’m only fifteen! And it’s illegal, I think, and it wouldn’t be worth going to prison for. But he seemed to want me, and who else is going to want me, broken as I am? I don’t want to be depraved, but I suppose I probably am. Anyway, I said no before I thought about it, because he was drunk and pathetic. I pushed him away, and he went to sleep in the other bed and snored, loudly, and I lay there thinking about Heinlein and that Sturgeon story in Dangerous Visions, “If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?” Great title. This morning, he acted as if it had never happened.”

– Jo Walton, Among Others

The assault is never addressed in the rest of the book – I watched for any mentions of it. Mori let it simply be a thing that happened. Water off her back with no lasting impact. On one hand, I felt like I should be angry and upset by this representation; it completely brushes aside the inherent trauma of an event like this. On the other… reading it felt almost like wish fulfilment. Why wasn’t that my response to being assaulted? Why couldn’t I have been like Mori? Or, maybe, I was too much like Mori – if she hadn’t said no and pushed him away, if she had instead frozen like me, what feelings might she have had later on? I, too, was broken and felt unwanted. Who else was going to want me?

I was terribly jealous of Mori. Not only was she able to let go of her father’s actions, but she also had the agency to make the choice to say “no” in the moment. I wasn’t able to say or do anything at all. Even with her crippled leg and the pain she felt from losing her sister, she was able to say “no” when I couldn’t. As Naomi Judd would have put it, she never became a volunteer in her abuse.

Towards the end of my freshman year of high school, I stopped seeing my “step-siblings” in a one-on-one context. I was safe, then, for several years until I went to college. That, however, is a discussion post for another day. 

If you’ve been a victim of abuse (sexual or otherwise), believe you are being abused now, or simply need someone to talk to, then know this: my inbox is always open to you. I know we’re all locked down and quarantined, but if you ever need someone to be in your corner, don’t hesitate to head on over to my Contact Me form and get in touch. Reach out via Twitter. I will help you to the best of my ability. That can be calling the police, helping you reach out to a local domestic violence agency, or steering you towards resources that can help you make sense of your situation. 

You are not alone. 

Continue to A Personal Exploration of Sexual Assault and Trauma through Speculative Fiction – Pt. 2.

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Published by Christine Sandquist

Christine Sandquist is an NYC-based sensitivity/developmental editor and author assistant to writers such as Hugo Award Winner Mary Robinette Kowal, World Fantasy Award Winner Tobias S. Buckell, and SOVAS Award Finalist Cadwell Turnbull. They specialize in analyzing and providing feedback on works that include diverse, queer casts, representations of sexual trauma, and broader gender-based violence. They are part of the team behind Reddit r/fantasy, the internet’s largest discussion forum for the greater speculative fiction genre.

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