Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Way I Used To Be by Amber Smith

"...It's the first day back from winter break. And I'm trying so hard to just go back to my life. The way it used to be. The way I used to be."

The Way I Used To Be is a gritty telling of a young girl's struggles to deal with her rape . The novel follows her over a four year time period, from when the rape occurs in her freshman year to the end of her senior year.

Fourteen-year-old Eden McCrorey is raped one night on the Christmas break by her older brother Caelin's friend, Kevin Armstrong. She is taken by surprise in her bed in the middle of the night and told that if she tells anyone he will harm her family. The next morning Eden finds herself bruised all over, her underwear on the floor and her bed sheets, comforter and nightgown bloodied. When her mother enters, she immediately assumes Eden has been caught unawares by her monthly period. Busy and caught up in her own world Eden's mother doesn't given her the chance to tell her what has happened.

After scrubbing herself clean numerous times in the shower, Eden heads to breakfast where she must face her family AND her rapist, Kevin. Although Eden acts differently no one picks up that something serious is amiss. Instead her mother thinks that Eden is mad at Caelin for not spending enough time with her and she suggests she make new friends. Later on Eden begs Caelin not to return to school but he tells her to stop her school-girl crush on Kevin.  Left alone to deal with what has happened, Eden locks her bedroom door that night and cries herself to sleep.

After Christmas break Eden has difficulty when she returns to school. When she and her friends, Mari and Stephen Reinheiser are bullied in the cafeteria, she runs to the library. Unable to stay there without a pass, the school librarian, Miss Sullivan is sympathetic and suggests to Eden she's going to start up a book club. The first meeting is attended by Eden, Mara, Stephen, a new boy named Cameron who has blue hair and piercings and two other girls. Mara is especially excited because she finds herself attracted to Cameron. On their walk home that night, they pass by Kevin's house and Eden remembers that the Armstrongs moved here because of something that had happened between Mr. Armstrong's brother and Kevin. The following week Eden wants to meet up with Mara at her house to tell her what happened with Kevin but this doesn't happen.

At the beginning of her sophomore year, Edy makes herself over in an attempt to look like she is older and in charge of her life. She ignores her friend Stephen from last year, spends her time smiling and in study hall meets the boy who ran into her in the hall at the end of freshman year. That boy is Joshua Miller, a senior and a star basketball player who repeatedly tracks Edy down, eventually convincing her to go out with him. The morning of the day she's is to meet Josh, Edy arrives at school early only to discover that Kevin Armstrong's younger sister, Amanda and her friends are writing nasty graffitti on the bathroom walls about her. Edy meets Josh after school but refuses to go see a movie or get something to eat. Instead she asks to go to his house and they end up in his bedroom. Edy feels afraid that she might not ever want to have sex after the rape so she decides that she will use Josh to make sure that won't happen. Although she tries to go through with this with Josh it doesn't work out as she freezes up.

The following week Josh smuggles her into his house, night after night. Edy lies to him about her age, telling him she's sixteen and eventually they have sex. However,  Edy is strangely detached, which Josh notices immediately, leading to questions and an argument. Edy has a fight with her parents and ends up at Joshua's home several nights later. During her stay with Josh, he reveals that his father is a drug addict and an alcoholic who is struggling to stay clean. But Edy is unable to tell him anything about herself and lies about her middle name.

Eddy drops band and stops attending the book club she helped found. Josh finally meets Mara but is puzzled as to why Edy seems to be keeping him a secret from people at school, her friends and her family. He soon discovers that Edy has lied about her age when he sees the "Happy 15th Birthday" banner on her locker at school. Furious, Josh tells her that he could be charged with statutory rape. Edy tells him it doesn't matter, Josh tries to impress upon her that this is a criminal charge that could seriously mess up his life. When he questions Edy if she even cares about him, she tells him no and they break up.

On Christmas Eve, Caelin and Kevin arrive home for the break. Left alone in the kitchen, Kevin sexually assaults Eden, touching her inappropriately and leaving her feeling shaken and vulnerable. Early Christmas morning, Caelin comes to Edy's room and asks whether she knows Joshua Miller. Edy tells him she does and Caelin reveals that he was told terrible things about her by the seniors. Eden brushes him off, telling her brother that it might just be her who is using the guys. Caelin asks her to be careful because he's concerned, but Edy's response is cynical, "Wow, well isn't this just a great time to start worrying about me...Thanks a lot, but that really doesn't do me any good now!" Later on during his break, Caelin gets into a fight with Josh at a New Years party, making things worse for Edy at school.

In her junior year, Eden's life continues to spiral downward as she and Mara drink, meet guys and smoke pot and attend more and more parties, during which Edy hooks up with random guys. It's not long before she has a reputation as "that girl" who will have sex with anyone. Each party offers Eden a chance to lose herself, to disconnect but Eden risks losing everything, her friends, her family and her chance to make a life for herself. Until someone steps forward and contacts the police regarding Kevin Armstrong. Will Eden be brave enough to tell her story so she can begin the journey towards self-acceptance and healing?

Discussion

The Way I Used To Be explores the devastating effects of rape on the lives of girls and their families and the cost of staying silent and not telling anyone what happened. Rape is a crime of control. Men who rape do so because they sense the girl or woman they are about to attack is vulnerable in some way - she is intoxicated, she has a bad reputation, she's socially isolated and has no family or friends to protect her or she won't be heard because she's unlikely to tell someone what happened.

In The Way I Used To Be Smith suggests that this is exactly what happens to fourteen year old Eden McCrorey. Eden's family life revolved around older brother Caelin's basketball. Family interactions all involved Caelin's latest exploits in sports. So when he leaves for college the fall Eden enters high school, Eden remembers that they did not know anymore how to be a family."The truth is, none of us knows how to act around one another without Caelin here. It's like we've become strangers all of a sudden. Caelin was the glue. He gave us purpose -- a reason, a way to be together. Because what are we supposed to do with each other if we're not cheering him on at his basketball games anymore?" The family dynamic is such that Eden is the quiet, good one who's nickname is "Minnie" after Minnie Mouse.She lives her life in the background.

This family dynamic and Eden's personality have an immediate impact on what happens to Eden the morning after the rape, when Eden attempts to tell her mother what has happened to her. Her mother isn't perceptive enough to realize that something has happened to her daughter and  she doesn't give Eden the time to speak and doesn't listen to her. "Clearly, it was time for me to get going so she could deal with this mess. And clearly, nobody was going to hear me. Nobody was going to see me - he knew that. He had been around long enough to know how things work here." Because her family doesn't communicate well, her mother doesn't pick up on Eden's strange behaviour over the holidays and doesn't notice "the one thing that's different or wrong or off or dangerous."

On her return to school, Eden is unable to contend with the usual bullying in the cafeteria, because it reminds her of how she was not able to defend herself at home or at school. Eden begs Miss Sullivan to allow her to say in the library. She won't tell her why, "...the truth is that it's humiliating. It's too humiliating to be in lunch anymore, to have to hide and still get food thrown at you anyway, and not be able to do anything about it, and your friends are too afraid to stand up for you, or themselves. Especially when you just got attacked in your own house -- in your own bed -- and you can't even stand up for yourself there, either, the one place you're supposed to be safe."

Eden is so distraught that she is unable to walk past Kevin's house to spend time after school with Mara. Instead she runs home, crying and is nauseous. Her parents mistakenly believe she is sick. But for Eden, she feels changed. "I feel like I've gone off somewhere else, like I've just sort of slipped into this other realm. ..This alternate reality where I'm not quite in my body, not quite in my mind, either -- it's a place where all I do is think about one thing and one thing only. " Eden feels "Like I"m raw and exposed, and it almost hurts to even be brushed up against." When a boy collides with her in the hallway, Eden is shocked that she feels such rage inside, "In this moment, I am nothing but rage."


Eden's friend Mara begins to change, partly because she's struggling to cope with her parents' divorce and partly because she doesn't want to be bullied anymore. She quits band, gets contacts, begins smoking and has Eden cut and colour her hair. Mara tells Eden that she should get contacts and cut her hair too, that she should stop hiding.  When her parents refuse her request for contacts, Eden pushes back. "...I let them push me around just like I let everyone push me around. I let them a make me into a person who doesn't know when to speak the hell up, a person who gives up control over her life, over her body, over everything. I do what they tell me to do, what everyone tells me to do. Why didn't they ever teach me to stand up for myself ?

Eden blames her parents for what happened to her and hates her parents, Caelin and even herself. "Even though they don't know what happened, what he did to me, they helped to create the situation. In a way, they allowed it. They let it happen by allowing him to be here and making me believe that everyone else in the entire world knows what's good for me better than I do....Most of that hate, though, I save for me. No matter what anyone else did or didn't do, it was ultimately me who gave them permission. I'm the one who's lying, The coward too afraid to stop pretending."

This all leads Eden to try to take control of her life, to make her own decisions, especially about her body. However, because she has not dealt with the rape, Eden's choices gradually become more and more destructive. In her sophomore year Eden initially makes some outward changes. She gets contacts, dresses differently, wears makeup and smiles more. She tries to act normal, even though she's not sure exactly what that entails,  in the hopes that people will starting treating her that way. However graffiti in the bathrooms at school proclaims her a "slutty whore".

Eden begins a relationship with a senior, Joshua Miller and lies to him about her age. She becomes sexually involved with Josh initially because she's afraid that she won't ever be able to have sex again. However, after having sex with Josh, Eden finds that it doesn't help her - she's still sad and angry. In an effort to demonstrate that she is the one in control of the relationship, she tells him she doesn't want to be his girlfriend, but soon she is having sex almost every night with him. When this relationship breaks down, Eden sinks deeper into alcohol and promiscuity.


By the time Eden enters her final year she has hooked up with fifteen different guys. She's a month away from turning seventeen and Eden admits "there isn't the slightest trace left of the frizzy-haired, freckle-faced, clarinet-playing, scared-silent little girl. And her big secret is really not such a huge deal anymore."  As Eden becomes more and more disconnected from her parents she begins referring to them by their names, Vanessa and Conner rather than as Mom and Dad. Her destructive behaviour finally alienates Steve and Mara. When she looks through her ninth grade yearbook, Eden see the "ghost of the girl I used to be." Thinking back on the past three years, Eden realizes "...that things went terribly awry, this wasn't the plan. The plan was to get better, to feel better, by any means. But I don't feel better, I feel empty, empty and broken, still." Neither the drinking nor the hooking up can take away the pain of that night. "...I still feel like I'm back there, always back in my heart I'm still that girl."

Although initially Eden wanted to tell her mother and then her best friend Mara what happened to her, when she is confronted by Caelin about her relationship with Joshua, Eden remains silent. "I'm really beginning to like the silence. It's become my ally. Things happen in silence. If you don't let it get to you, it can make you stronger; it can be your shield, impenetrable." But Eden soon discovers the price of silence. When Kevin's ex-girlfriend accuses him of rape Eden realizes that although she's not the girl she used to be, in one way she still is - she is still silent , she's still the mouse who won't speak up. When she does tell, the first person to learn what happened is Josh. Eden realizes that telling what happened does not destroy her world. " The Earth is still intact. I"m still alive. The floor didn't open up and swallow me whole...I don't know what I thought would happen if I told, if I let that one word exist..." Josh, by believing Eden and telling her the police will believe her too, encourages Eden to report her rape. When she tells her brother Caelin, he is devastated and Eden realizes that her rape has affected more than just herself but also her family. "It touches everyone."

Although the novel ends on a hopeful note - Kevin is charged in the rape of his ex-girlfriend and Edy is able to come forward and finally report her rape,Smith's conclusion to the novel felt rushed and incomplete. As is often the case in rape, once an allegation is made, things move quickly. When Kevin's ex-girlfriend reports the rape, Kevin's family is interviewed and his sister Amanda tells police they should talk to Eden. Finally the catalyst for Eden's rebellious behaviour throughout high school is revealed to the other characters in the novel. However, readers deserved and would have benefited from an Epilogue that detailed what happened to Kevin and perhaps had Edy state how she was doing several years out of high school. In this way readers would have been provided with more closure, especially with regard to Edy's life.

The Way I Used To Be is a powerful novel exploring how a brutal rape changes an innocent, trusting young girl  into someone filled with anger and self-loathing at her inability to tell anyone what happened, to defend herself or standup for herself.Her anger leads to isolation, alienation and some very harmful and dangerous behaviours. The price of silence is high for both herself and those around her. The novel is painful to read but Amber Smith's message comes across: silence is not the answer, tell someone. You deserve to be heard.


Book Details:

The Way I Used To Be by Amber Smith
New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books       2016
367 pp.

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