A man with a loving, submissive wife and a typical teenage son kidnaps a girl and, even after he’s eventually caught, doesn’t ever seem to recognize the immorality of his actions. Author Elena Varvello asks readers of “Can You Hear Me?” to believe, even to take pity on, this man who doesn’t understand what he’s done or the reason he committed this violent crime in the first place. Perhaps it is because he is so demoralized by the loss of his job (which is, un-originally, his identity) that he begins to lose his grip on reality.
Along the way, there were a few confusing side plots. For instance, his son, who is the book’s narrator, attempts to make friends with another at-risk teenage boy who is both verbally and physically abusive in a boys-will-be-boys way, then he has a fling with the boy’s mother.
When it was first published, “Can You Hear Me?” was billed as an irresistible page-turner that grips the reader and doesn’t let go until the last word. I found it underwhelming and grew very impatient with all the tropes, stereotypes and clichés that weighed it down, making it impossible to “soar” with suspense the way many early reviewers experienced it.
This is yet one more story of abuse of women that sympathizes with men. It centers the experience of a perpetrator’s son and wife as they grapple with their family member’s actions, taking the reader along for the journey of tortured explanations, excuses and feelings. The victim of this poor, insane man’s crime is, unsurprisingly, nameless and says very little. The criminal’s wife is bereaved but steadfast in her defense of him, abandoning her own son in his conflicted emotions and clear eye for the truth. The town demands justice. Teenage boys are abusive and it’s portrayed as acceptable, as friendship even.
The son seems to be the only one with appropriate feelings about the ugly thing his father has done, and yet the only action he takes is ambiguous and could be interpreted as protecting his father.
The lens through which the story is told is still male. The victim is still female. The rest of the female characters are either judged as terrible mothers or don’t have much weight in the rest of the story.
I thought for a long time about how to be positive or find the good in this book. Perhaps I could talk about it from a parent-child perspective. I could analyze how this could be considered a study of the ways the crime of one parent strains the relationship between the other parent and the child. Maybe I could find some good in the pseudo-friendship the main character has with a kid his age. Could I fawn over the structure of the book? How interesting it is, how it took a bit to figure it out, how the reader feels rewarded once they have figured it out?
Then I realized that this is exactly what the patriarchy has trained us women to do. Accommodate. Find the positive. Don’t criticize. Be nice. Behave. Ignore your feelings. Control your feelings, lest you be judged as dramatic and therefore not credible.
On the one hand, I don’t want to participate in the culture the patriarchy has created for women: being competitive, back stabbing or otherwise divided. On the other hand, just “keeping the peace” is a trauma response, not one that is in service to any genuine connection or search for fellowship among people.
So I have to speak up.
Why write a book that features a despicable man whom everyone, including those who see the truth and have appropriate emotional responses, accommodates even as he victimizes a young woman? Why continue to write shocking stories that revolve around the hideous acts committed by violent men against females? All these stereotypes and tropes — which are even more disappointing in this book, since it was written by a woman — should only be used insofar as a writer challenges them, provides alternatives, calls them out.
These stories don’t “make us think.” They don’t “help us understand.” We should not be trying to understand or get in the heads of the men who do these things. Women are not extra therapists for men and victims do not in any way need to try to understand what their abusers were thinking or feeling.
We cannot have justice for survivors of abuse and assault the way the #MeToo movement calls for and also celebrate books where the central story revolves around men preying on women because they lose the things they’ve gotten overly attached to and have let define them, while those in the know do worse than turn away; they defend or stick by the perpetrator with eyes wide open to the truth. We cannot vindicate victims while also adorning with awards novels portraying male perpetrators as simply “under a lot of stress” or even “mentally ill,” as if they know not what they do when they bind and gag their female targets, menacing and terrifying them until the end. And we cannot have a safe world for everyone if women continue to be silent when other women participate in our own oppression.
“Can You Hear Me?” may be good writing or good storytelling, but only a culture that has the objectification of the bodies of women baked into its very structure would think to separate a story from how it’s told. It all matters: the stories we tell and the way we tell (and retell and retell and retell) the same damn stories.
Megan Wildhood is a contributing writer for Real Change, advocate in the mental health community, published poet and essayist living in Seattle.
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