I haven’t read O’Neill’s first book and knew very little about this one before I started it, just a few key details and the sledgehammer title. I’d read a couple of interviews with the author and was interested in what she wanted to achieve with the book. I remember watching the 1988 film, The Accused, with Jodi Foster. I was shocked at some of the attitudes portrayed in this film and how a vulnerable girl’s life can be ruined through rape. Asking For It is an example of how fiction can be used to highlight social issues. In this case, it works brilliantly because O’Neill simply lays out a story in a clever way. There is no moralising. She leaves the reader to absorb the events and reactions and make up their own mind.
In Asking For It, eighteen year old Emma O’Donovan – Emmie – and her friends live in the small town of Ballinatoom. They spend their time, when they aren’t at school, on Facebook, Snapchat, texting and taking photographs of each other and themselves. Their lives centre around who is doing what with whom, who fancies whom, and worrying about what people think of them. Not unusual, you might say, for teenagers.
One night, there’s a party and ‘everyone’ is there. Emma is drunk – as are her friends. Emma wants to be the centre of attention. She wants to know that people find her beautiful and that the boys fancy her. Quickly a situation escalates and alcohol and drugs interfere with Emma’s faculties. The next morning, her parents find her on the front porch of her house. She has no idea what happened. When she gets to school, no-one will talk to her or sit with her, and she is subjected to whispering and finger pointing. Then she discovers the photographs on the internet. Taken at the party, they show what happened to Emma that night. And she reads the comments of her friends and peers. Overnight she has gone from being someone who was looked up to, and sought out, to someone who is vilified, shunned and blamed.
Emma isn’t a likeable character. O’Neill says that she deliberately made her that way so that the reader would find it difficult to empathise and sympathise with her. She is vain, narcissistic, and shallow. She has friends but doesn’t treat them nicely. What she desperately wants is to feel loved by her parents, and for them to take an interest in her and her life. Given this doesn’t happen, Emma looks to others to validate her and to provide her with the self-esteem she so badly lacks. Although the book blurb describes her as happy, I didn’t see her that way. To me, she seems desperately unhappy and lonely and lost. These aspects made me extremely sympathetic towards her. She refers to secrets within the family and I wasn’t sure what these were. She seems to be almost invisible to her father, and her mother has moments of affection but on the whole is remote. Both parents are more concerned with how their daughter makes them look rather than whether she is happy and healthy.
This novel isn’t an easy read. It isn’t escapism. It isn’t relaxing. Nor is it entertainment. It portrays, in a highly realistic way, a chain of events which are extremely disturbing. It raises the problematic issues of responsibility and consent. And it lays in front of the reader a number of factors which contribute to the prevailing attitudes around rape. It highlights gender differences in the way that attraction and arousal can play out, physiologically and psychologically. With the wonderfully unsubtle title, the reader is asked to consider: was Emma ‘asking for it’?
For me, the interesting elements are how socialisation contributes to rape culture and how people react when someone makes a mistake and/or challenges the status quo. Emma’s parents love the fact their daughter is beautiful, and the glory this brings them, as long as she is a ‘good girl’. Their world is one of appearances, worrying about conforming to cultural, religious and social norms, and worrying about how others see them. How does this affect their daughter and inform her attitudes? When she falls from grace, it’s their reputation they are concerned about rather than their daughter’s well-being. This made me furious. Not because it is unusual but because of how common it is. We also see what happens when things get taken out of Emma’s hands. This bounces her into taking a position. Her own confusion about her role in what happened is also highly poignant. It leaves her vulnerable to being swayed into giving varying versions of events based on the reactions of others to what she says. This upset me hugely. It is highly influential in why people don’t report rape: because they’re confused about whether they are in fact victims of a crime and fear that people won’t believe them.
However, for all its commentary around rape culture, Asking For It is every bit as much about the narcissistic, social media obsessed, smartphone, selfie society that has developed. The culture which encourages people to record and document their every move on social media as if it never happened unless it was photographed and uploaded. And it is also a sad tale of how people in communities – whether that is a family, a company, a town – can turn on a person when they behave in ways which they perceive break acceptable norms. The boys in the story are hero-worshipped. How could they do wrong? This means that Emma is lying and someone else to blame. Isn’t it fascinating how certain groups of people are put on pedestals in this way? How many ‘pillars of the community’ have got away with abuse simply because no-one wants to accept the possibility that they aren’t infallible and perfect: they are flawed individuals, just like the rest of us.
It is difficult to talk about the narrative aspects of Asking For It without getting sucked into the issues it raises. The story is told from Emma’s viewpoint. I really cannot say that I ‘enjoyed’ it. How could you enjoy such a harrowing tale? I found it interesting and it felt – and feels – extremely important. It isn’t action-packed. There are long sections where Emma and her friends are hanging out and where Emma is reflecting on her life and remembering events. As you would expect from teenage attention spans, the narrative moves around! I thought that this made it believable. O’Neill portrays Emma’s rumination brilliantly. She is bewildered, disappointed and unable to move on. The novel has many heart-warming moments amidst its bleakness, however. Emma’s brother eventually takes her side. And Conor. Lovely, lovely, Conor. Who sees through Emma’s defences and unhappiness and loves her – but who is invisible to her.
I think everyone should read this book, men and women of all ages. And discuss the issues. If a girl dresses provocatively, behaves flirtatiously, gets drunk and takes drugs, are they asking to be raped? And if they are, to what extent is it their fault? Like violence, sexual assault is a topic which many people don’t want to think or talk about. And it is this reluctance to shift the ‘elephant’ from the corner of the room onto the hearth rug under the light, where it can be looked at, which contributes to the silence when crimes are committed. When men hit women, they often come out with versions of ‘you made me’. When men rape women, the denial of responsibility is often similar. O’Neill says in an interview (my interpretation) that women are taught not to get raped but men aren’t taught not to rape. It’s simple: where consent isn’t given or isn’t possible, it is not consensual sex.
My copy of the book was bought from Amazon.
Vicky Newham © 2015