You Don’t Want to Go There

You Don’t Want to Go There

After blowing through Tana French’s book The Likeness last week, I immediately started French’s first book In the Woods, expecting more of the same.

I realized about halfway through that though In the Woods was a very good book, I didn’t want to be reading it.

The plot revolves around a rape-murder, and for various reasons (none of which are sensational), I have a hard time reading about sexual abuse. I just don’t want to go there.

I’ve quit some reportedly excellent books–like The Kite Runner–for the same reason. When I get to the sexual abuse, I drop them like they’re hot. Everyone has their pressure point, and that’s mine.

From In the Woods

But I was hooked by the plot and decided to keep forging ahead: I thought I was through the grittiest part already, and besides, I wanted to find out what happened! I read as fast as I possibly could so I could get it over with.

Before I’d finished the book, I’d declared a new rule for myself: I don’t read books whose plots turn on sexual abuse. The End.

But there’s a tension with shying away from a whole category. While it might be wise to stay away from stuff that upsets me, it’s worthwhile to pay attention to those very things. What makes me weep, what makes my heart race? Oh, there’s meaning there. The answers to those questions say more about me than any blithe self-descriptors I could give you. It’s important to know what causes the cringe, what triggers the tears. There’s power in the knowing.

For a long time, I wished I’d never seen The Unbearable Lightness of Being, because my heart ached for the wife wrecked by her husband’s infidelity, and shuddered at its detailed portrayal. I wrestled with that book–and the impression it left on my mind, my heart–for months. And yet, I later called it one of the books that changed my life.

Before I finished In the Woods, I stumbled upon a passage–a bit from a character’s backstory–that was unexpectedly redemptive. It was fictional, true, but it was healing. It made me feel like I wasn’t crazy. It made me glad I’d stuck with this book, rape-murder and all.

What kind of book do you shy away from? (And if you’re feeling brave: why?) How do you navigate this tension?

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  1. Personally, I can handle almost any topic as long as it happens “off-screen” but if the actions of personal violence, drugs, abuse (of any kind), and anything you wouldn’t want to happen to your children are described in detail, I don’t want to read about it. I always wonder what it is like to write such gruesome stuff. You have to focus on it so deeply… I can’t imagine that dwelling on abusive topics is good for the author’s mind.

  2. Mary says:

    I too steer clear of book depicting graphic sex and violence. I so wish I could clear ‘The Lovely Bones’ from my mind, and I read it over 12 years ago! I can still remember how terrified and nauseated I was while reading, but I couldn’t put it down.
    I do force myself to read historical fiction/nonfiction depicting violence, if it is used to show the humanity of a certain time in history. One book that I’m glad I read (but will NEVER reread!) is Immaculee Ilibagiza’s memoir ‘Left To Tell’ about her horrific experiences during the Rwandan holocost. It is too easy to look at times like this in our history and see the facts, but miss that these “facts” were actually people like us, just trying to live. Depicting violence for entertainment is not the same as showing the humanity of the people experiencing the violence.

    • Telicia says:

      It’s been a while since you commented, but I just wanted to say I liked your last sentence. I guess it could be applied to most difficult topics: is the issue being exploited for entertainment, or is the focus on the people and how they handled it and their journey; what is the purpose.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I tend to be an anything goes kind of person, BUT I have trouble with infidelity in plot lines. I’ve had conversations with my boyfriend where I’ve actually used the words “men leave their significant others for prettier versions all the time in books and movies.” And then he’s had to remind me those are fictional accounts. Perhaps I’m crazy, but infidelity brings out the mother of all insecurities in me: being left or found wanting in some way, any way. If nothing else, it will give me something to talk to my therapist about someday. 🙂

  4. Brenda says:

    This was a thought provoking question and discussion. I know that I consciously avoid books and movies and even conversations about the occult & horror because I get way too creeped out. I cannot handle it, and can already feel waves of…something (is it dread? panic?) begin to grow in my chest as I write. That genre ban is a conscious choice. On a less conscious level I think I also shy away from other subjects involving abuse and violence as well, because I don’t tend to select books with these as strong themes. However, if I stumble across incidents in a book, and the book is good, I’ll continue on – but sometimes I can’t get that part out of my head afterword, and regret even that limited exposure. I try to pick something completely different the following time.

  5. Vanessa says:

    I just finished “Little Bee” last night, and I feel gutted. I don’t think I can read books about systemic mass murder or genocide without having to read like 50 chick lit books to recover.

  6. Jennifer says:

    Despite everyone’s recommendations, I haven’t been able to bring myself to read The Fault in Our Stars because of “the cancer factor” (my mother died from cancer five years ago). However, after reading through some of the comments, I’m wondering if I should be brave and give it a go.

  7. Anne Leacy says:

    (late-comer to the post, I know).

    Oddly enough, I am an HSP and I can handle violence and gore quite well. I’ll even read stories of abuse, despite them always effecting me badly. But what I cannot handle, at all, is psychological horror.

    Not Steven King kind. Not Lovecraft kind. The “your world is false” kind, that plays on the characters (and readers) perception of reality and their own sanity.

    Classic example is the black-and-white movie The Haunting, and the book it is based on, The Haunting of Hill House.

    I read HoHH… and vowed to never, EVER, read that kind of story ever again. The thing is, the main character-Eleanor- is completely insane. And the book is in 1st person perspective.

    Why do I avoid books like that…? They hit too close to home. For a while, I had lost all sense of reality, and for most of my life I’ve battled being called insane by those around me. Nobody ever believed anything I saw, or heard, or said. It left a sense that nothing could be trusted, not even my senses… only magnified by a hellish stint in a ‘reformatory house,’ or whatever it was called. Cult is more accurate.

    Frankly, I will continue to avoid that genre (and unstable 1st-person narrators in general) with no guilt. I already live that reality daily, I do not need to be reminded of it in my escape world.

    The other ban I have is on any sexual content that is described. I can handle sexual abuse stories (hell, Speak is my favorite book), but not with details. Nothing more than ‘it happened’ is enough to set me off.

    To be honest, I don’t see any issue in not reading issues you cannot handle. Media can abuse you as much as real-life can, and there is no point in traumatizing yourself for sake of empathy. Only you can judge what you can handle before it gets into the dangerous territory. If that’s not very much, fine. Nothing wrong with it.

  8. Brin says:

    Hi, I popped over here after reading the newsletter in my email this morning and decided to leave my thoughts on this subject. The only themes or topics I refuse to read are books centered on clowns and spiders (you know, horrors)…real life fears, and they’re no joke. But…when I come across sexual abuse/rape or domestic violence, I find myself taking pause. These books are hard to get through because I was a victim of both myself, one as a child and the latter as a wife. I have never talked about the sexual abuse with anyone, we all have our secrets and some are just too painful to speak aloud. Yet given my history, I don’t shy away from a book if I know it’s part of the plot, but it will take me awhile to get through. Often, I have to put the book down, sometimes up to a week, until I can get myself back into the mindset of not putting myself in the victim’s shoes or reliving my own experience. I’m sure you’re asking, “why even put yourself through that?” I think it’s a kind of therapy for me. Seeing how characters handle the situation, maybe wishing I had done something, or relishing in the justice that may come helps me understand (…maybe) or realize it wasn’t my fault/I’m not the only one it happened to….even if it’s fiction, often things are based on truth somewhere, or researched from some actual crime, or word-of-mouth, etc. I have the same reaction with movies, too. Actually, those are harder to handle because, you know, seeing it happening and using your imagination are two different things. Movies, though…I tend to avoid or watch on my own or excuse myself if I know a trigger scene is coming. And speaking of triggers, I highly recommend author’s note any triggers on book review sites. It’s a lot harder for me to handle it if it comes out of nowhere. If I have a feeling a book might involve the subject matter, I’ll read reviews and look into it before picking it up.

    Sorry…I didn’t mean to be so winded with this post. Just adding my thoughts 🙂

  9. chelzell says:

    Hm. I recently declared that I never want to read another book about WWII again. At the time, I said it was because the theme was so overdone and I was tired of it, but now I wonder if there isn’t something more to it that I haven’t been able to fully acknowledge yet.

  10. Muriel J Moore says:

    I steer clear of horror of any kind. It totally freaks me out. The last horror stories I read was Cujo and Pet Semetery. I don’t understand why a person would read something that led to freaked out, sleepless nights with lights on. It started in childhood and has continued into adulthood. I know the trigger, and it still leaves me frightened unrealistically. I don’t watch stuff of the same genre. I found I had a negative reaction to a program on the Travel Channel! How ridiculous! But it happens when I least expect it to. I tend to also stay away from novels that glorify sex. Shades is one that comes to mind. I will not read it! Love historically correct novels, an a voracious reader of them. If the author does the research I read it. Like most James Patterson mysteries, Janet Evanovich, Stephanie Plum books, as well as The Shack, books with dogs are good, even if sad. A Dog’s Purpose for example was healing after losing my girl at 17 years. I love reading about our Founding Fathers. As Americans it is vital to understand who they really were, not as taught. Real living breathing humans with concrete beliefs about who we are and why it has worked.

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