Aaron Hartzler's 'What We Saw' YA Fictionalization Of Steubenville Holds Us All Complicit For Rape Culture
The video doesn't show you everything. Given enough time, everything changes. The closer you look, the more you see.
These three phrases are echoed throughout the pages of Aaron Hartzler's What We Saw, a YA fictionalization based on the Steubenville, Ohio rape case that occurred in 2012. But the novel isn't just about this group of characters Hartzler creates and it isn't just about what happened in Steubenville. It's about the anatomy of rape culture across the country. And Hartzler shows how we are all complicit, as we are all seeing it happen. The "we" in the title is all of us.
What We Saw opens as high school student Kate Weston wakes up hungover after a rager at basketball player John "Dooney" Doone's house. She barely remembers anything that happened, and her best friend and other basketball player Ben — whom she harbors a crush on — drove her home safely. At school, however, lots of other people do remember things that happened, especially when a troubling photo of Kate's one-time friend Stacey is circulated:
A shot of Deacon with a girl slung over one of his shoulders. I remember my dad was hauling me around like this when I was a kid, playing in the backyard. Oh look! I found a sack of potatoes. Mmmm! These'll be good eatin'... I'd giggle and squeal as he tromped around, his arm wrapped firmly around my knees, the blood rushing to my face. The girl in the picture is Stacey, and she is clearly not giggling. She's only wearing a bra and her tiny black skirt, and she doesn't even look conscious. Her mouth lolls open, eyes closed, arms hang limp. She's bent at the waist, tossed over Deacon's shoulder, his chin resting on her butt, his arm clamped across her upper thighs.
Soon, rumors start to circulate around school that Stacey had sex with several members of the basketball team, including Deacon and Dooney, at the party, and that there is video of it. What the students don't anticipate is that the two players who are 18, and two other minors, are arrested and charged with sexual assault and disseminating child pornography. The town turns to an all-too-familiar uproar. Kate has to face what she believes about what Stacey is saying happened and turning on her best friend (and maybe more) Ben, or joining in the rest of the town in denigrating Stacey. The fact that she, too, was blackout drunk at the same party does not escape her. And what about Ben? Does he know more than he's saying?
In Hartzler's brutal story, everyone plays a role in perpetuating rape culture. Kate's moral struggle is indicative of how difficult it can be to break free of the small town belief system that strangles everyone and side with whom she truly believes in, if it means smearing her name, too. Hartzler acknowledges that it's not always cruelty that keeps rape culture alive, it can often be fear. But no matter what, it is all of us who are responsible.
What We Saw looks to the basketball team, the adults, the female classmates, pop culture, social media, and the small-town mob mentality all playing key roles in building and supporting a rape culture.
Dooney and Deacon are both superstar athletes the town believes are destined for success — whether we the reader buy into this or not. Because of that, Stacey's allegations are considered an "attack" on their futures. Even the arresting officer makes this stomach-sickening statement to the police:
These allegations are serious and could plague these boys for the rest of their lives.
But the way Hartzler builds up the importance of the team, it's not hard to see where this perspective comes from, as difficult as it can be to swallow. In the early pages of the novel, readers watch as varsity athletes get "free passes" when they break small rules at school, whether it's skipping out on school lunch to grab food off grounds or coming in late too class. He's building and building us up to watch as the basketball players, of course, feel entitled to receive special treatment and how their status is looked on in awe from everyone in the town, students and adults. As Hartzler writes, "The promise of Hawkeye basketball has a chokehold on this town." In the story, Hawkeye basketball's stature fated Stacey to be the antagonist, as if she is the one actively trying to hurt them, along with anyone who stood with her.
These allegations are serious and could plague these boys for the rest of their lives.
In fact, this us-versus-them mentality reaches its heightened point during a disturbing pep rally for the basketball team, after the players have been arrested. The coach leads the whole school in a chant as the local media looks on:
"What happens to losers when they run up against the Buccaneers?" Coach Sanders shouts into the mic. "We BUCC 'em!" This blows the roof off the gym again.
The gameday mentality has bled into real life. The basketball team considers itself the underdog; Stacey the rival. And, like on the court, they don't take lightly to someone coming to take them down. Teammates wear Dooney and Deacon's jersey numbers on armbands. And just like the whole town supports its team on gameday, it supports its team for any "fight," unable to see past this black and white loyalty. And they aren't afraid to show it on social media:
@fr0nt¢er If we lose state cause of this whore she's gonna get more than raped #r&p #buccsincuffs@Pheebus17: White trash ho was so drunk she couldn't tell a dick from a donut #buccsincuffs@B1gBlue32: Wait, the police can take my phone cause U R A SLUT? #buccsincuffs
In the principal's statement to the media, he hits all the — almost stereotypical — notes we have heard on the news when rape allegations come up for athletes: slut shaming and accusatory toward the victim. Innocent until proven guilty. Examples of fine sportsmanship. The young woman was very drunk. The student making the charges remained at the part of her own volition. Deemed the young woman's attire to be provocative. She may have been dating one of the men.
But as Hartzler knows, it's not just men that perpetuate these problems. The female characters in What We Saw seemingly harmlessly slander the victim, but their behavior and language is a major reason why rape culture is alive. Here's a conversation between Kate and her friends, looking at the photo of Stacey at the party.
"Where's her top?" I ask."Still in the corner of Dooney's rec room, I'm guessing," says Rachel."Along with her dignity," agrees Lindsey.
Then they change the subject as if their words have no connection to what is happening around them. When one of Kate's friend's brings up that maybe Stacey was too drunk to say "no," another retorts, "And whose fault is that?"
The women in Hartzler's book aren't blanketed as cruel or "other." In fact, "othering" women seems to be the antithesis of what Hartzler is after. The girls themselves try to separate themselves from "girls like Stacey," reporting that they don't dress slutty, don't flirt with the whole party, don't get black-out drunk. Hartzler knows that these girls aren't just mean girls. They aren't different from everyone else. They are afraid. By blaming Stacey for her own rape, they can assert some control over whether it happens to them. But there's a lightning bolt here for Kate. Because, of course, she did get blackout drunk.
And this sentiment, this "it could be me" flash of light, starts to infiltrate Kate's mind slowly. First she hears the word consent, seemingly over and over, first when her teacher asks for parents' consent on a permission slip for a field trip. And then this "othering" conversation, which leads to this exchange between Kate and Ben when Kate asks why he didn't help Stacey get home, too:
"I don't owe her anything.""What about me? DId you owe me something? I was just as wasted as she was. Why do I get driven home and kept safe but not her? Why not just leave me to Dooney and Deacon and the boys in the basement?"
Every character in What We Saw has to confront what they believe when Stacey accuses four teenage boys of raping her, when most of them were at the same party. Even those who (quietly) lean to Stacey's side find it gut-wrenching to watch the video of the incident, and so choose not to look. But we have to look. Just as the characters need to come face to face with the horrific nature of what happened to Stacey, so do we as readers, Hartzler is saying. What We Saw is a brutal, difficult book that will make you want to look away. But we cannot. If we don't look, we are just more people in the cyclical machine, keeping rape culture churning through our society. The closer you look, the more you see. And, beside Hartzler's top-notch storytelling and the compelling characters, that is what makes What We Saw a must read.