A Tale for the Times: The Black Witch by Laurie Forest

One of the perks of being connected to a bookstore is getting access to advanced reader copies of books that haven’t been published yet. I’ve had the pleasure of being able to read The Black Witch by Laurie Forest recently (I believe it’s released in early May).

Now, I’ve talked about a handful of books on my blog in the past, but generally it doesn’t feel too important to talk about what I read unless is makes a significant impact on the topics I like to cover.

This book does that, but I have other reasons for also talking about it.

It’s caught the ire of a small faction of vocal, well-meaning, but ultimately…shall we say, reactive…people on Twitter and Goodreads. The majority of these people are declaring this book racist, homophobic, and all around terrible. Most haven’t even read the book and are going on, from what I can tell, basically one person’s review.

Thus, this is as much a post about how I personally relate to the book as it is a defense of an important read for our time that has fallen prey to what I consider an unfair campaign.

I read the review before I read the book, and I could only think about how everything seemed out of context. If I cherry-picked statements from The Handmaid’s Tale, I could also write an angry review about how sexist that book is…but just because characters say, think, and do prejudicial things doesn’t automatically mean that the author is condoning that.

I’ve read enough theme-driven books to come to expect that problematic attitudes are often portrayed as a form of social commentary. After all, writing fiction has been one of the most time-honored ways of critiquing reality since fiction was invented.

So I decided to read the book and judge for myself.

What I found was a story that I might have written. A story about a character who grows up in a religious cult that has taken over the government and who begins to encounter other worldviews for the first time when she goes to university.

Sound familiar?

Hell, parts of it could have been my autobiography, if you take out the glitter skin (which I would probably consider having cosmetic surgery to achieve) and the mythical peoples and creatures (God, I wish I lived in a world with dragons).

I read a good portion of the book waiting to be offended, ready to throw it across the room and rage about how the author failed to address something. I really really really looked for it.

But I couldn’t find it.

All I could see was the incredibly, poignantly realistic struggle of the main character as she questions first small portions of her beliefs and then larger ones. I could feel her fear of the repercussions of such a controlling culture should her brother’s same-sex attraction be discovered or her best friend’s romantic involvement with a Lupine (wolf shape-shifter) be found out. I could relate to the chasm of doubt that opens up once the foundation of her worldview begins to crumble.

The world is a prejudicial world, yes.

The main character (along with most of the other characters) has her fair share of prejudices and stereotypes, yes.

But the story arc is not one of condoning or overlooking prejudice. It is one of changing, learning, and growing.

From experience, I know that journey is hard.

And that’s why this book is important.

There aren’t enough books that portray the journey out of extremist, isolationist beliefs. In the documentary “Join Us,” I learned that the U.S. is one of the biggest harbors for cults in the world, with millions of people having experience with a cult in some fashion throughout their lives. Yet, little to no attention is given to the invisible survivors.

Stories have always been important in the way that they can offer a kind of map through a struggle.

The Count of Monte Cristo, Harry Potter, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Rings are just a handful of the ones that were influential in helping me break out of my cult. They stimulated me to think about my own world and the parallels between my world and the problematic aspects of those worlds.

Orwell opened my eyes to the gaslighting and manipulation of the IFB. Harry Potter, Frodo, Edmond Dantes–they showed me that it was possible to resist and that it was worth fighting for freedom and standing up to power abuse, even with little hope of succeeding.

Had I had access to The Black Witch at the time, I think it also would have been one of those that deeply influenced my journey out because it could have shown me a model of someone who leans into the questions and uncertainty rather than retreating from them.

It’s a book I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to someone who is struggling with leaving an extremist position, and I’d feel confident that the book would in no way reinforce prejudicial thinking.

It’s not that I don’t have complaints about the book. There were times when the writing fell short, got clunky, or succumbed to derivative tropes. I would also encourage the author to think about at least some portrayal of ethical, consensual sexuality that doesn’t involve life-mating or a form of marriage.

But the story isn’t ruined by those shortcomings. The strengths of the plot and the importance of the message far outweigh the weaknesses.

Some are saying a book like this shouldn’t exist in 2017, but I think this is exactly the kind of story we need in 2017. I can only hope that the current backlash against it will spur those who most need to read it into picking up the book.

And to those who think that the change in the main character is too slow, I’d just like to say, “Check your privilege.”

I say it cheekily because I legitimately hate that phrase and the weaponized way that it is typically used, but it is indeed a privilege to never have had to question the very foundations of your worldview—to never grapple with the fear that you might actually be damning yourself to hell for rejecting a doctrine that has been taught to you as the absolute truth of God.

Until you go through that kind of existential crisis, you can’t understand how terrifying and difficult it is….or maybe you could if you opened yourself up to empathizing with the main character. 😉

Because of the backlash against this book, I feel the need to make a note about comments on this post. If you’re not respectful, I won’t approve the comment, no matter what you have to say. If you’re unsure of my comment policy, you can check it out here.  

Book Review: The Program by Suzanne Young

Trigger warning: discussion of suicide and suppressed memories

In a future that isn’t too different from our present, suicide has been declared an all-out epidemic among teens. In a desperate attempt to “cure” them, the nation has developed a treatment program that involves the involuntary confinement of anyone “at risk” of suicide (including those who know someone who committed suicide). The treatment involves altering the brain to remove painful, traumatic memories . . . or as Sloane learns, any memories associated with “dangerous topics.”

After Sloane’s brother commits suicide, Sloane and her boyfriend James (who was also her brother’s best friend) do their best to hide their grief in order to avoid being flagged. Unfortunately, their plan doesn’t work. Shortly after her boyfriend is taken into the Program, Sloane is deemed at risk and taken too. She emerges with her memory wiped of her brother’s suicide and of her entire relationship with James.

However, unlike what the Program promised, she’s not given a fresh start and a happier life now that her memories are gone. Instead, she finds herself overwhelmed with emotions that she doesn’t understand, a grief that seems to have no place, a love that seems to have no object. Her body remembers what her mind can’t, and it tortures her as she struggles to put the pieces together.

This is an intense book—so intense that I had to take multiple breaks from reading it. Not five-minute breaks. More like month-long breaks.

But it’s fantastic. I almost think it should be required reading.

Despite being set in the future, I feel like Suzanne Young was referencing more reality than speculation through most of the book.

Memory wipes, for instance, are already in the making. A couple of years ago, one of my psych teachers showed the class a video discussing the new “hoped for” treatment for PTSD that involved preventing traumatic memories from forming and blocking already formed memories. They had already even had a few test subjects.

I’m not sure if Suzanne Young based The Program off of this developing “treatment,” but she definitely understands the drawbacks to which the developers seemed to be blind. Memory isn’t just held in the brain. Muscles hold memories too. Even now, I can sit down and play songs on my violin that I can’t consciously remember the notes to because my fingers remember the way the movement feels.

And yes, my body remembers my abuse even when I can’t consciously recall the details. It’s terrifying and confusing to have my body react to something that I can’t see or even fully remember. My vagina doesn’t care if I can pull up an exact image of my sexual abuse or not. It spasms just the same. My bottom doesn’t care if I can recall how many times a belt was drawn across my bare backside; the muscles clench anyway when I’m exposed to triggers.

For someone who has spent over twenty years with patchy memories, the most terrifying thing I can imagine is a treatment that removes my memories. If I were to imagine hell, hell would be knowing something bad happened but not being able to remember it. People live that hell every day, yet science thinks they are offering a solution to pain by offering to put people in that hell.

But memory isn’t what drives The Program (It may be what drives the sequel, but I’ll have to wait to find out where she takes that).

Rather, the main thrust of the book seems to be about the way society responds to depression and suicide. Perhaps it’s exaggerated a little, but not a lot. Even today suicide risk is one of the things for which a therapist is required to break confidentiality. Friends and family members are encouraged to report if they believe someone is contemplating killing themselves.

And the response? The same! Lock you up; take away your autonomy.

Now if that isn’t a recipe for desperation and isolation, I don’t know what is.

In the book, Sloane and James are afraid to even cry in genuine grief. They have no one to confide in about their feelings except each other, and even then they have to be careful about where they confide to each other for fear that someone will notice them looking “sad” and report them. They have a school therapist, but the therapist is all but useless because…how can they trust someone who has the power and responsibility to flag them for what they are feeling?

The bottled up emotions don’t dissipate. They become stronger until even normal emotions seem overwhelming. They are drowning in their emotions, but it’s the only choice they have because the alternative is to lose themselves entirely.

The Program directors try to make themselves look good on the television and to parents, but amongst the teens it’s pretty well understood that the Program isn’t a cure. It’s an erasure. The “epidemic” of suicide grows because teens would rather die than be taken into the Program.

I felt as though Suzanne Young were pulling back the veil on our own societal stigma around suicide—a topic so taboo that most people can’t bring themselves to talk about struggling with it, leaving them to flounder in their emotions alone.

Those who do talk are given medication that may not erase memories but certainly deadens their emotional response. They’re shamed and treated like they have a horrible disease, often hospitalized whether they want to be or not.

And perhaps because we view depression as an illness that needs to be cured rather than something that should be worked through, we encourage people to assume that once “infected,” they can’t think rationally. They start to act as though they can’t think through their feelings, and it all becomes a rather tragic self-fulfilling prophesy (or group-fulfilling prophecy).

Ultimately, despite the lives that are saved by drugs and bed restraints, I don’t think our solution is any more effective than the Program is. We make suicide the problem rather than the symptom. We treat those who struggle with the desire to kill themselves as though they are broken rather than autonomous, rational individuals who are in pain.

In essence, we create a war against those we are trying to save. 

I think Suzanne Young wanted to make us think about what it would be like if, instead of punishing and shaming those who feel depressed and suicidal, we supported—genuinely supported—them with resources that empowered them to navigate their own emotions and thoughts constructively rather than locking them into a destructive pattern of fear and reaction.