Essay by C. Jai Ferry, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers.
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Several years ago, scandal erupted in a small rural town, population 1,000. A female junior in high school contacted the school administration to say that one of her teachers had requested naked photos of her in exchange for a better course grade.
The townspeople were outraged. How dare this girl make up outlandish lies about such an upstanding teacher—a man who had been voted teacher of the year three times already in his relatively short tenure, who had won state-level accolades and was clearly a rising star? This girl was just looking for attention and needed to be put in her place.
And then a second girl, one who had already graduated, stepped forward with a similar experience.
Again the townspeople were outraged. How dare these girls conspire together to harm this innocent man. Didn’t they know what kind of harm they were causing to the school, the community, and the man’s family? The authorities needed to be called and the girls charged for their maliciousness.
So the authorities came for an investigation, and they charged the teacher, who pleaded guilty, after they found evidence on his computer that he had been requesting nude photos throughout his entire tenure at the school.
Once again the townspeople were outraged, this time reaching a fervor not often seen in such sleepy communities. How dare these girls not just keep their mouths shut? Clearly they had misunderstood the teacher’s propositions, reading something in his emails that simply was not there. Now his career was ruined because these girls had taken it upon themselves to send the teacher naked photos of themselves. Worse, the community was making headlines throughout the region—not for its economic revitalization efforts or its pristine parks and nature trails. The girls should be ashamed of themselves! Clearly they had no sense of community.
The teacher has already completed his three-year prison sentence, but many in the town still blame the girls, saying that they must have worn skimpy clothes that enticed the teacher, that they had to have intentionally manipulated him to say things that could be misrepresented to the authorities, and that they undoubtedly sent him unsolicited photos to get him into trouble.
The teacher pleaded guilty and went to jail. The numerous victims were publicly and viciously shamed. Those who could left the town, losing their families and their homes. Ask the townspeople about this situation today and many will respond that it was such a shame that the teacher had to give up such a promising career.
Yeah, too bad for that sexual predator.
Most readers are probably thinking that “normal” people wouldn’t react the way these townspeople did. But these were “normal” people. They went to church every Sunday, paid their bills on time, and were quick to step up when their neighbors were in trouble…except when their neighbors were female and the situation involved sex in any capacity.
The reality is that humans simply don’t come with pristine white cowboy hats or intense black cowboy hats. We wear shades of gray.
Search the internet for the world’s greatest predator and you will find websites boasting the ferocity of sabre-tooth cats, megalodon sharks, and dinosaurs that make the T-rex look like a baby kitten. In truth, the world’s greatest predator is humankind. We have the unique capabilities of free will, logic, and empathy, yet we routinely and repetitively harm and even destroy our own kind simply because we can. Tearing people down is commonplace in our world (although it is not a new development—not by a long shot), and it seems that hurting someone is easier for many people than standing up for that individual.
Most readers would probably argue that humans are, for the most part, good. I would agree with this. Yet every day we see more and more headlines about how a ten-year-old pushed his best friend into moving traffic, a college athlete raped an unconscious woman, and an aunt sold her teenage nieces to men in hotel rooms. Society goes to great lengths to find a way—any way—to set these individuals apart, underscoring that they are not the norm. They had difficult childhoods. They are mentally unstable. They recently changed their meds. They are too young to understand the consequences of their actions.
In our desperation to prove that we are not like these “evil” individuals, when none of our excuses work, we shift to victim blaming: the best friend had a history of bullying the ten-year-old, the unconscious woman was drunk so she should have known what would happen, the nieces could have just gone to the police for help, but they didn’t….
I think most people would agree that, in certain situations, humans will do the wrong thing if they feel pressured to choose the lesser of two evils. We have that capacity. But we console ourselves with the idea that these situations are the extreme; they would require us to choose between the survival of our loved ones and the harm or death of a stranger. In my writing, I explore just how easily humans make the wrong choice in everyday contexts. The worlds of my short stories focus on the guy next door, an elderly man missing his dead wife, a woman with inappropriate thoughts about her best friend’s husband. My characters deal with break-ups, infertility, cancer, rape, anger, frustration, abuse, and revenge—usually between cups of coffee or during a commercial break. Often my characters are simultaneously protagonists and antagonists; no one is categorically good or bad.
My stories will never be made into after-school specials. They are gritty and raw, tackling difficult issues that we all face at some point in our lives. I categorize my writing as “grit lit,” which is a type of gritty, raw literature (think Cormac McCarthy). Patrick Ledford describes grit lit characters as “desolate and volatile common folk who will do what they have to do to get the job done. Grit Lit is an uncensored, ‘balls to the wall,’ literary throwdown.”
For me, writing is inspired by characters who have made really, really bad choices in life or who find themselves in horrible situations. I take them back to a point in time when they would be perceived by society as “normal” and then let the story unfold from there. Sometimes I create a “normal” context for them and then, through the story, reveal that their normal is a far cry from the reader’s normal.
My biggest fear in my writing is that readers might accuse me of normalizing such unacceptable behaviors. For example, lately I have been focusing on trafficking contexts in my writing. I am working on a novel in which, in the near future, human trafficking has become the norm due to a biological threat to the human population. To understand the intricacies and relationships between trafficker and victim, I have been studying recent historical situations, like comfort women in Asia, as well as current trafficking situations in the West (and am shocked at how little progress we have made in stopping trafficking). I use my short stories to work out my own struggles to understand how societies accept such occurrences.
But if I write a story where the reader ultimately empathizes with a character who turns out to be more evil than good, am I normalizing the behavior of that character?
Normalization is not my goal. Rather, I try to draw attention to how seemingly everyday activities are actually laying the foundation for a society much darker, much more heinous. The kid sitting next to you at the doctor’s office could be tomorrow’s headline. The girl with her mother ahead of you in line at the grocery store could be a victim of trafficking. Your child’s favorite teacher could be a sexual predator. If we can’t identify and recognize the everyday behaviors that set the stage for the evil world lurking in the shadows, we will never be able to stop it from becoming a reality.
Humans are amazing creatures, and not just because of the atrocities we commit in the name of…well, whatever suits our fancy. We have this fascinating ability of self-realization. We can learn from our past mistakes. We can educate ourselves. We can work through the logic and see where our behaviors and actions today might lead us tomorrow. It’s not always an easy process, and it almost always requires us to confront ideas that make us squirm in our seats, but as long as we are willing to work through the uncomfortable, we have hope.
This is why I write grit lit.
C. Jai Ferry grew up in a small rural town in one of those middle states between New York and Los Angeles. She put together her first book of poetry, complete with a lime green cover, for a class assignment in fifth grade. Today, she focuses on short stories with narrators who are often described as brutally honest and who likely need some form of professional help.
Her most recent collection of microfiction, “Unraveled,” earned a 5-star review from Readers’ Favorites, and her award-winning short story “Skeleton Dance” was made into a short noir film that was chosen by the Prairie Lights Film Festival for its Nebraska Noir anthology project. To learn more about her publications, get a free collection of short stories by signing up for her newsletter, and read her (more or less) weekly musings and stories, visit www.cjaiferry.com.
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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at firstname.lastname@example.org.