Louise O'Neill may still be relatively new to the scene, but the Irish author is already earning comparisons to feminist literary legends like Margaret Atwood, and being declared the best YA fiction writer working today.
With two award-winning books under her belt, 31-year-old O'Neill has certainly earned her reputation. The first, Only Ever Yours, tells the story of two best friends living in a dystopian society where a woman's value hinges entirely on her skin-deep beauty: It's dark and frightening, not least because of how closely it mirrors our contemporary cultural values. But it's her second book, Asking for It, that will find its way deep under your skin and send a chill down your spine.
Released in the U.K. last September and here on April 5, the novel — which has already taken home a host of awards — tells the story of Emma O'Donovan, an 18-year-old small-town beauty whose life unravels after she is raped, and photos of the assault circulate on social media. If that narrative sounds familiar, that's because it's sadly all too real: Asking for It formed in O'Neill's mind after she read about the high-profile sex crime cases in Steubenville, OH and Maryville, MO.
After images of her attack go viral, Emma becomes a pariah in her community. Her friends, schoolmates, teachers, and even her parents shun her, questioning her story and suggesting, as the title goes, that she was somehow to blame for her own rape.
O'Neill took a break from her writing desk, where she's hard at work on her third book, to talk all things Asking for It — including why it's a phrase that needs to be taken out of circulation when it comes to survivors of sexual assault.
Asking for It is an incredibly tough read because of the subject matter. What do you hope people get out of it?
"When I was writing, I wanted to challenge certain ideas that we have around rape and sexual violence. We have it in our heads that rape is a stranger in a dark alley — raping a white, middle-class virgin at knife point. Obviously, those kinds of violent attacks do happen. But it's much more common for the victim to know the perpetrator. It might happen at a party, there might be drinking. Gray rape, dubious consent, non-consensual sex: all of these are just really nice ways of saying rape.
"We also have this idea of what a perfect victim will look like. Most women won't fall into that category. Then they'll have this feeling of, I was drunk, wearing a short skirt, taking drugs. That creates this culture where it's so much easier to blame women, and that's the problem — that is rape culture. When women are violated in one of the most horrific ways possible, their first reaction is to blame themselves, to wonder what they did wrong, to wonder what they could have done differently. I wanted the reader to understand — to be complicit in the victim-blaming with Emma — so that we understand how deeply those attitudes are ingrained. People say to me: Emma's a bitch, or Emma's really unlikeable. Well, horrible people get raped every day. That doesn't mean that they're any less deserving of our sympathy or our support."
Emma, of course, doesn't fit the profile of "perfect victim." She's flawed in the way that most women — most people — are. What is that meant to convey to the reader?
"With my first book, I was dealing much more with the pressure on women to conform to an often unattainable ideal of beauty. In this book, I was also trying to look at not just physical-attractiveness standards — we're also expected to uphold much higher moral standards. We're supposed to be well-behaved and nice and good girls.
"It's a double standard that still really exists; like girls who carry condoms, there's almost a shame in that. I think with this book, which has had a very strong impact, particularly in Ireland, it just came at the exact right time and kickstarted a national conversation about sexual consent and what that means."
How did you settle on the title?
"It's perfect because it encapsulates rape culture, because there is this real premise that a woman who gets raped must have been asking for it — that she must have gone out of her way to be looking for it. I think both men and women are guilty of this line of thinking. With women, it's not necessarily that we want to blame other women; it's a way of protecting ourselves emotionally. We think: If I take all these precautions, if I mind my drink, if I always get a taxi home, if I don't walk late at night, if I do all of the things, then I can prevent myself from being raped. So then when we hear about someone who has been raped, there's this sort of automatic scramble to try and find a reason why that person was raped and why I won't be raped. So it's like, Well, she went back to his house, or She was really drunk. It feeds into this culture that blames women, with a two-pronged effect: We don't believe women and we blame them simultaneously."
In the book, Emma's friends pull back after her assault, even suggesting that maybe she invited her attack, or she's not being truthful about what happened. On top of victim-blaming, there's a lot of evidence of toxic girl culture in the novel. Could you talk about that?
"I went to an all-girl school from the age of 4 to 18. I'm very familiar with that sort of toxic environment. As an adult, my female friendships have become the most important aspects of my life. As you get older, you begin to recognize more of the effects of the patriarchy and you begin to understand how that works. It actually makes you reject a lot of those tenets that made friendships so difficult as a teenager.
"I think women are encouraged to compete with each other in a way that men aren't. I remember that from school. It wasn't about who is the most intelligent, who is the best at sports, who is the most ambitious — those were not the ways in which we were encouraged to compete. It was who's the skinniest, who's the prettiest, who gets the most male attention. It's impossible, actually, to be truly friends with someone when you're watching all the time, comparing yourself with them. Girls are encouraged to value their appearance and in a way that men aren't. It's a burden.
"When I was writing my first book, I barely washed my hair, I didn't wear any makeup for six months, I wore, like, my tracksuit pants every day. But it's amazing when I'm not thinking about how much I weigh, or worrying about what I look like, but actually how much I can achieve. And then I think, like, Wow, this is what it must be like to be a man. Just wash and go. This is why they're ruling the world."
You've referenced some of your own experiences that have been baked into the book. But Asking for It is not autobiographical, right?
"Obviously, Asking for It is set in a small town in West Cork, [Ireland], and I'm from a small town in West Cork. I'm very familiar with that world and the culture. But Emma is not based on me. I have had my own experiences — to be honest, I know very few women my own age that don't have a story. When I was 18, I was sexually assaulted. I couldn't quite piece together what had happened, so I just put it in the back of my mind. When I got older, I was telling my therapist the story, and she said, 'You know, you didn't give consent in that situation.' I was like, 'I don't really understand what you're saying.' It just wasn't even a conversation I was used to having.
"What I found funny was the amount of friends who contacted me once they read the book to tell me about something that has happened to them. I wondered, Why have we never talked about this before? I'm that person that people tell stuff to. So why haven't we talked about this? Everyone said, 'I just wanted to forget about it.'"
One of the hardest parts of this book is that it reveals, in a culture that's hostile to survivors, that it actually is easier to stay quiet, however damaging. You leave Asking for It open-ended in that way. Emma doesn't get a triumphant moment. Why did you decide to take it in that direction?
"The first part of your question I wanted to address is that it's easier to be quiet, because I think there's a real truth in that. A lot of people actually said to me, 'I don't understand why she wants to pretend at the start that she had consented.' I was like, 'You obviously didn't grow up in a small town.' People just look at you in a completely different way. Emma is concerned with how people perceive her and manipulating her image — of not being able to control that, and being seen as a victim.
"As for the ending, I think a lot of people are very frustrated with me. Even my editor asked, 'Why did you end it this way? It's really dissatisfying.' And I said, well, I want it to be dissatisfying. I want the reader to finish the book and feel so furious about what happened to Emma — so furious at the fact that those boys will get off and won't see any jail time — because I really feel like that fury is the only way that we're going to enact any sort of real change."
How does social media compound the trauma of Emma's rape?
"There are two elements to that. First, there's something so horrifying about an unconscious girl being violated, and that people's first reaction isn't to stop to help her, but to take a photo. It reflects our need to record every part of our lives. It's just such a lack of empathy. I think it also highlighted the entitlement that these men had, to use her body in whatever way that they wanted, and this real presumption that they couldn't be touched, that they were invincible, that if they put the photos on social media, they wouldn't see any sort of repercussion, legal or moral.
"Beyond that, what I was interested in with Emma is that I actually don't think it's necessarily the rape [that is the most traumatic]. I'm not saying this is the case for all survivors. I mean it is individual to Emma: It's the humiliation. It's the reaction afterward — the way her family failed her; the way her friends turned their backs; the way that her entire community and people that she's known since she was a child and that she loves have all banded together to protect the perpetrators and to isolate her. I think that is what is so crushing for her.
"Twenty years ago, Emma could have moved to Dublin. She could have gone to New York. She could have moved to London. She could have started an entirely new life for herself. But once something is on the Internet it lives forever. She can't escape this now."
You've tackled some major social issues with your first two books. What's next?
"I'm in the middle of writing my third book, but there's pressure; Asking for It really seems to have hit a nerve. Since it's been published, there's hardly been a day that I don't receive email from a woman, and a few men, who want to share their stories of being raped. I gave a talk at a sexual violence center for survivors. One person I spoke to afterward sticks with me. 'I was raped five years ago and I've been in counseling ever since. Everyone keeps telling me that it's not my fault. When I finished your book, it was the first time in five years that I thought maybe it hadn't been,' she said. And I honestly was so overwhelmed. I felt like such a fraud, to be honest. I'm just a writer. I'm not a therapist. I'm not saving lives.
"That creates a little more pressure because maybe the next book — now I need to tackle some new social issue. But as a writer, as a creative person, I don't know. The story comes, and you tell it the best way you can. It just so happened that the first two stories that came to me dealt very strongly with important social issues. I don't necessarily think that the third one is going to. But I'm just at the very beginning."
Asking for It goes on sale in the U.S. April 5, 2016.