It’s been a year since the New York Times published a story detailing allegations of assault and harassment by Harvey Weinstein—revelations that reinvigorated the cultural debate about whose stories are believed, what consequences perpetrators should face, and where society goes from here. As the world at large ponders questions of memory, consent, and power, fiction is proving fertile ground for exploring these issues.
Film rights for Alafair Burke’s 2018 suspense novel The Wife (Harper), about a woman with trauma in her past who discovers her celebrity husband may be a predator, went to Amazon Studios for seven figures after a five-way bidding war, and Burke is currently at work on the script. She wrote her novel before the spread of the #MeToo movement; forthcoming titles continue the conversation.
All the Rage
A prime example is Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry by Mary Higgins Clark (S&S, Apr. 2019), which revolves around a journalist doing research for a piece on #MeToo. A long-buried incident returns to her mind when she learns that the man who assaulted her at a college fraternity party is now a powerful businessman who will do anything to hide the truth about his past.
In Rachel Cline’s The Question Authority (Red Hen, Apr. 2019), a middle-aged woman reunites with a childhood friend and discovers that the friend had a relationship with their teacher in the eighth grade. As with Clark’s book, Cline’s raises questions of what justice might look like after so much time has passed.
The roots of Good as Gone author Amy Gentry’s Last Woman Standing (HMH, Jan. 2019) predate the emergence of #MeToo by several years. In 2013, Gentry, then a freelancer for the Austin Chronicle, began covering women involved in the local stand-up scene and was invited into private online groups where the comedians shared their experiences with sexism and harassment.
Last Woman Standing, pitched as Strangers on a Train meets Thelma and Louise, begins when stand-up comic Dana Diaz meets computer programmer Amanda Dorn. After bonding over the toxic masculinity in their respective industries, they agree to get revenge on each other’s assailants.
“I was trying to look at the bigger systemic reasons why women are traumatized over and over,” Gentry says. “What drives women out of the tech industry? What drives them out of comedy?” She realized, as she began writing, that it’s often easier for women to feel angry for and protective of other women than it is for them to be angry for themselves.
“What keeps women up at night is knowing these men are serial predators,” Gentry says. “In reality, that’s how and why these things come to light. Many victims don’t think they will get revenge. It’s on behalf of other women that people come forward.”
Vigilantism also figures into S.A. Lelchuk’s debut, Save Me From Dangerous Men (Flatiron, Mar. 2019), which launches his series about private investigator Nikki Griffin. Working out of an office located above a bookstore, the hardboiled PI punishes men who hurt women, humiliating them in order to keep their victims and other women safe in the future.
“I wanted to explore what is justified, and where does that become too much?” Lelchuk says. “It’s vigilante work, but not with a bloodthirsty morality. She wants a proportional response.”
Lelchuk’s lead character believes and helps other women; by contrast, the main character in Liz Lawler’s debut novel must fight for herself. In Don’t Wake Up (Harper, Feb. 2019), Alex Taylor, an emergency physician, comes to on an operating table, with a man wearing a surgical mask standing over her. She then suffers a chilling assault that leaves no physical evidence. After reporting the crime she encounters skepticism everywhere, including from her boyfriend and the police. Alex begins to question her memory, until there’s another victim.
Lawler, who worked as a nurse for two decades, says she finds the idea of not being believed terrifying, though she acknowledges that it is a very real issue. “Not everyone wants to hear the truth, because it’s more comfortable to hear the lie,” she says. “I hope, when women come forward, we hear their truths and say, ‘We believe you.’ ”
Stories that unpack female anger and frustration aren’t just cathartic for readers—they can be a way for authors to process their emotions, too. Libby Fischer Hellmann traces the origins of the fifth entry in her series about Chicago PI Georgia Davis to a specific source: “After the 2016 election, I went through a period of rage that lasted for a year.”
In an effort to cope, Hellmann joined a Facebook group dedicated to discussing Russian collusion and interference and became friends with its founder. At the same time, she brainstormed one book, then another, and lost interest because they were too apolitical. She eventually found an idea that excited her: what if the female head of a large resistance group were murdered?
After gaining permission from her friend, to whom the book is dedicated, she wrote High Crimes (Red Herrings, Nov.), in which the nonpolitical Davis must solve a highly politicized case. PW’s review noted that “for readers who watch the nightly news with dismay, the novel offers a satisfying alternate reality.”
Authors with legal and law enforcement backgrounds are bringing their experiences to bear in novels that mine similar territory. Retired NYPD detective Ed Conlon—whose memoir, Blue Blood, was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist—asked permission of his former colleague Marie Cirile to fictionalize her 1975 book, Marie Cirile: Memoirs of a Police Officer (Doubleday, 1975), which details her 20 years on the force. In The Policewoman’s Bureau (Arcade, May 2019), Conlon zeroes in on the Bronx in 1958 and the daily sexism experienced by Cirile working in what was, and still very much is, a man’s world.
Former litigator Amy Impellizzeri, who clerked for two years at a Washington, D.C., federal court, examines how #MeToo plays out in the legal and political arenas in Why We Lie (Wyatt-Mackenzie, Mar. 2019). The novel weaves together several narrative threads, all centered on D.C., to look at the ways the powerful tend to escape culpability; characters include a rising political star, a power player who assaults a woman in his corporation and attempts to impede her career, and a woman haunted by the false accusation she made against a real abuser to escape her small town.
Author and former prosecutor Linda Fairstein, who continues to consult on cases, has spent her 45-year legal career focused on sexual violence and crimes against women and children, including a stint as head of the first sex crimes unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the model for the similar unit in Law & Order: SVU. During that time, Fairstein says, there were a number of occasions when she thought the culture had reached a watershed moment—during the Anita Hill hearings, for instance. But then, she says, the status quo would return.
In October 2017, as Fairstein searched for the right topic for the 20th entry in her series featuring Manhattan prosecutor Alexandra Cooper, she considered whether she wanted to base a milestone book on what might have proved to have been a short-lived moment in the news cycle. But when the #MeToo movement continued to pick up steam, she knew exactly the story she wanted to tell. The result, Blood Oath (Dutton, Apr. 2019), finds Cooper on a case involving a woman who is speaking out about the abuse she suffered by a high-profile law enforcement official while a witness at a federal trial many years earlier.
Even after the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation battle, which Fairstein says has uncanny echoes in her novel, the author remains optimistic about the prospects for lasting change. A year after the Weinstein allegations, she says, #MeToo is still front-page news, noting that in earlier times the press and the public were quick to move on. “So that, to me,” she says, “is distinctly different than anything that came before.”
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Gwenda Bond is the author of many novels for young adults and children.