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 email@example.com.
Isn’t it strange how we give slavery the “kinder” name of Human Trafficking?
Your statement sums it up, “The reality is that humans simply don’t come with pristine white cowboy hats or intense black cowboy hats. We wear shades of gray.”
If there were a thermometer measuring shades of good-and-evil, the shade scale would be up and down like a temperature gauge stuck between an air conditioner and a heater that go off at different times.
I find that gray area most interesting to explore as a writer. Your analogy of that in between area on a temperature gauge is fitting — where life is stuck between heat and air conditioning.
Thank you for making me think about how I examine a situation. I believe we are taught to respect those in power, often at all costs, but I need to remember that those who aren’t in power deserve respect and protection as well. I will strive to learn from my past mistakes and move forward into a more enlightened state.
That’s a valid point. Many have been taught a level of respect that when those in a powerful position abuse it, it’s hard to know how to respond. Those who are powerless do not deserve the abuse, but often they are seen as breaking some sort of social code by speaking out. That’s why “breaking the silence” is important. I like what you say about moving forward into a more enlightened space. Thanks for reading and joining the discussion!
Wonderful essay! I’m right with you on how fiction can illuminate the darker side of being human we’d rather not face up to in ourselves. Keep up the grit lit!
I thought you’d appreciate C. Jai’s thoughts on grit lit, Anne!
It is a great place to challenge simplistic views, isn’t it? I see the multiplicity of cases of, say, Priestly abuse coming out of various churches, hear the stories of how the abused were ignored or denigrated and the abusers protected until the scale became apparent. We reset our defaults and now we hear these stories and believe the abused – the pendulum has swung. But we need to retain a cynicism because there will be those stories that aren’t true too. I’m not sure how it works in the US or indeed anywhere else but since the mid 1980s those accused of rape or other similarly awful sexual crimes do not have their identities shielded – it used to be they remained anonymous until charged – whereas the victims (or at this point accusers) remain anonymous throughout if they wish. Lives have been ruined by the media, by a salacious need to vilify even when the cases don’t hold up. The justification is to encourage others who might also be victims to come forward. How is justice done in these situations? Especially if the potential abuser is a public figure. Our criminal justice system has not been at all empathetic to the victims of these awful crimes, but has the pendulum swung too far? The danger is, if it does, then it begins to undermine those who truly have suffered. Thanks for a stimulating debate.
An interesting point, that we reset our defaults as that ever swinging pendulum seeks an elusive point of balance. I think the sensationalism of the media needs reining in — it does no service to chase after these stories for the titillating headlines or shocked reactions. I’m all about supporting professional journalism because they investigate and keep a public informed. But they are not to entertain the public. The US has an entrenched rape culture, which sides more with protecting abusers (white males, that is) than victims of abuse. The laws are not steadily upheld from country to county either. There was an interesting article I read by a journalist who was molested by her gymnastics coach as a child. She “reported” her own case because looking at it from a journalist’s perspective, she wanted to better understand the process about how these cases are prosecuted. What she discovered was dismal. First, as an adult reporting a crime from childhood, one must go to the police. The police ask the victim to call the accused to get a confession (this reminds me of a scene from Buster and Moo). When that fails (when would that ever work?), the police file a report and a prosecutor decides if there’s enough evidence. Often they will move forward and hope that mention of the accusation in the papers will get other victims to come forward. In this woman’s case, none did, however, two other prosecutors from neighboring counties had cases on the same man. One had not prosecuted and the victim in the other county committed suicide after making that police-encouraged phone call for a confession. Further what complicates all of this is that a woman or a child is not always certain. If it’s a celebrity, who would believe he drugged her? If it was the college football star and she was passed out drunk, wasn’t it really her fault? And the child who believes it’s normal, after all he did it to his friends, too and said God didn’t care. Often it’s not until later a person concludes this was a crime. And yes, there are attention seekers who cry wolf, but if you look at the statistics, we amplify the few false claims and diminish the real ones. In the US, the pendulum definitely swings toward protecting the wrong party and many towns/families/arm chair opinionists side with the abusers. That why, “Give Trump a chance.” Good points of discussion, Geoff!
I definitely want the abused to be given more help coming forward but recently thru a major celebrity scandal of an abuser protected for many years and who died before he was held accountable we now see the police falling over themselves the other way. It is terribly difficult with historic abuse to know the truth and it has to be so delicately done. I wish I had an answer.
When I read your opening I had wondered if you had visited my town. We had a ‘well respected’ teacher ‘exposed’ – this man taught while my children were in High School! Scary! Another community member who was a volunteer – was also ‘caught’ as the saying goes with his ‘computer’ pants down.
Grit Lit. Indeed. And yet there are also spiteful children who have taken down innocent adults by crying ‘wolf’. There has to be a way to protect the all of the innocent. Knowledge has to be power. Though too often it seems power is misused.
Continued success in opening eyes. I agree a very fine essay indeed.
Jules, great phrase: “caught with his computer pants down.” It’s unfortunate that the few who cry wolf jeopardize the safety of many, but I understand your call to handle it differently. One town I know of, in Montana, had a huge abuse scandal — a teacher who abused two generations of students. It was back in the 1970s and was not highly publicized. Yet, by the time we moved to town special counselors were in place at school and the community had handled the crisis with an eye on healing those harmed and put away that teacher for longer than today’s sentences. They should be a model. And yes, grit lit writers work to open our eyes!
Fabulous post, and discussion. We are all varying shades of grey. We can never know just how we will respond in certain circumstances. I hope if ever I am put to the test, I choose the “right” way. Sometimes there seems to be so much terrible stuff going on, I wonder just what is the norm. Much of it needs to be improved. Grit lit is definitely raw, and I think it’s good to show the thin lines we walk between wearing a black, and a white, hat. Our own hat may not be as white as we think, and our neighbour’s blacker than we know. Scary stuff.
I think is why I read true crime (Anne Rule being the expert on such books in my humble opinion) – wanting to know the real story behind the story when apparantly ‘normal’ people, living within the scope of normal social behaviours, turn ‘evil’. Which also brings up, of course, the question, were they always really evil, but kept it hidden, or did they start off ‘good’ and turn bad, for whatever reason? The old nurture vs nature argument.
Patrick Ledford’s quote describes just the kind of characters I like to read about, the kind I like to explore in my short bursts of fiction. Rooted in wanting to understand the path my dad took in life, the man who grew up in a well heeled, comfortable home with everything he apparantely needed in life, yet who became addicted to alcohol and did what he had to do to survive the emotional fallout that blighted his life. He found his own way, albeit far from the norm and often illegal, but he did what he had to do. But he wasn’t evil, far from it. He was a good man.
But the man who keeps porn on his computer and takes advantage of young women, girls, while presenting the so-called perfect image in his tidy, safe community? Well…that, to me is evil. Because abuse of children, minors, those who trusted him and looked up to him, continues to infect and poison their lives throughout. And it is the very shame of it (and I’m talking about all child abusers here) that makes it the evil that it is.
It enrages but does not surprise me to think that an entire community that you describe here turned such a blind eye to the teacher’s abuse. I once sat in front of a church Pastor as he tried to explain why he had let a paedophile (know to the pastor as such) walk freely throughout the congregation (including my three young children) and give him the position of church treasurer. The pastor’s response? It was ‘okay’ because he hadn’t raped anyone, only ‘touched’. I will not, for obvious reasons, go into my response here.
By writing grit lit as you do, you make us sit up and think and also learn.
Great essay C Jai, thank you.
[…] For the purpose of this series, we’ve been exploring what it is to write first works. We’ve considered What Lies Beneath the ongoing process of a memoirist who digs deep. We’ve interviewed a writer newly elected as State Representative of Missouri’s 91st District. We’ve contemplated writing that is Natural or Explicit, as well as recognizing when Raw is Ready. We’ve considered Jewels on the Page, Safe Spaces and what feeds Grit Lit. […]
[…] incident in a rural community to give us the experience of what it’s like to seek stories for Writing Grit. She talks about how her stories explore human nature between black and white norms. C. Jai says, […]