Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer/reviewer/blogger Lizzie Skurnick rereads Richard Peck's 1976 novel 'Are You In The House Alone?', the story of a teen named Gail Osbourne and her Very UnSpecial Rape.
I am 34. I say this not because you asked — although I think some of you have asked, actually — but because it's key to understanding why through the babysitting days of my youth, I was incapable of getting through the night without being incapacitated by the thought that an attacker with a hyper-attuned grasp on my every move was waiting in the bushes for the minute I got the drumstick-shaped chicken nuggets scraped off the tray. Because for the entire stretch of my girlhood, they were raping everyone! First Kimberly was locked up by that old man and molested while Arnold banged on the door. Then Natalie had some bus-station incident with Tootie banging helplessly on the door. Irene Cara had to show her breasts to the pervy guy in Fame — even a girl in the Fame spinoff TV series got raped.
Justine Bateman got perved on by her dad's best friend. The pretty daughter on Gimme a Break had her sweater half-ripped off, if I do not mistake myself, and then they raped Dee Dee. (That's from Hunter; I might be taxing even my own generation bracket there.) They raped Cagney. Actually, I think they raped every cop, just to show you still couldn't defend yourself if you were a cop. (I'm surprised they didn't rape Kit). And there was of course, the infamous Lipstick ("They raped my sister!") which we weren't supposed to watch but did.
I know nowadays — as I rock in my corncrib chair — they have shows devoted to rape and the procedural accoutrements thereof. But I cannot explain how disconcerting it was, back in the days of the dual slot of Love Boat followed by Fantasy Island, in the days before TV had any serious dramatic pretensions whatsoever, to take a major characters from an ordinary comedy or a cartoonish detective series and just freaking assault them.
I know, I know, there was that new statistic about one in four women getting raped! I know they were trying to bring attention to an important issue! I know they all also had a suicide show or an alcohol show to also shed light on those important issues! But I don't care. By the time my television set got around to raping Dr. Melfi, I sat up straight in my chair, livid — because I didn't care if they were bringing attention to important issues, they were also just raping someone again!
Anyway. I only lay out the Rape-In-Our-Times roundup to emphasize how Richard Peck's Are You in the House Alone? was such an important counterpart to the one-episode treatment, and to wonder, given the temporary cultural fascination of the time, why there weren't more books like it. (In fact, I can only think of one, if we don't count Go Ask Alice: Happy Endings Are All Alike by Sandra Scoppetone, which had the double whammy of rape AND lesbianism.)
Are You in the House Alone? is the story of Gail Osbourne, a teenager who moved from New York to the Greenwich-esque Oldfield Village in Connecticut when she entered high school. Gail is dating Steve Pastorini, a hot, working-class brainiac given to sending her notes with quotes from Othello, and is the best friend of Allison, who is dating Phil Lawver (ironic name alert! ironic name alert!) scion of the richest family in town. Yes, nowadays you wouldn't be able to look at that foursome without pretty much knowing what's going to happen immediately.
It's interesting to me how Peck breaks all the sorts of narrative conventions we'd have going in this kind of story nowadays, when we'd either have to save her just in the nick of time or Bastard Out of Carolina her happy life into oblivion in the aftermath. First of all, Gail is kind of chill about sex at the outset without that being a explicit narrative facet of her relationship — she is on the pill, she is having sex with Steve but it isn't DRAMATIC that she is. Her best friend, Allison, is planning on marrying Phil right out of high school and taking her place in society (that really was a little anachronistic; I had forgotten how characters used to do that and it wasn't weird!). But after the rape, Allison sells Gail out and abandons her to her fate completely—when is the last time the best friend did that? Also, she and Steve don't last romantically — but it's not because of the rape. Mrs. Montgomery, the hip and likable divorcee Gail babysits for and whose house she's raped in, actually tells her she can't let her babysit for her anymore, because it's too much of a reminder. (When was the last time the hip divorcee totally copped out on the feminism thing??!!??) And though Gail's parents can't save her from what's happened, they also don't go vigilante or accuse her of anything — they're just powerless to help her. When Gail — who wants to — goes back to school a week later, no one really knows exactly what happened.
Oh by the way, obviously, it's Phil Lawver who rapes her, after creeping her out for weeks by leaving psychotic notes in her locker and calling her up and saying, you know, "Are you in the house alone?" (Just another one of the few reasons this book couldn't be written today. Besides doing an emergency breakthrough — REMEMBER THOSE??? — if someone's phone was busy, you were shit out of luck. Nowadays, obviously if you were "in the house alone" and a call came up "Restricted" and you were freaked out, you would just CALL your boyfriend who was delivering a load of pipe with his dad to someone two hours away and he would be like, "JESUS, Gail," and you would text your eight friends or Twitter or Dodgeball them or whatever and then log into Facebook and be like OMIGOD. In fact, cell phones have so denatured the entire phone trope in horror movies — the call is coming from inside the building!!!! — I guess the cell phone itself has to kill you now.)
What Peck is interested in is laying out the ways Gail can't help herself when the harrassment starts, but also why it wouldn't have mattered even if she had. When the lawyer her parents hire asks her why she didn't tell people she was being threatened, she thinks: "It was like running a film in reverse. The events skipped back in a blur, jumbling up. Alison saying, 'It never happened, Gail.' My mother saying, 'What has that Steve Pastorini done to you?' Connie saying, 'Men can't afford to fail. It's like bred into them.' It seemed to that everybody had turned blind ears and deaf eyes to me." Then she asks the lawyer, "Why does the law protect the rapist instead of the victim," and he gives my favorite answer ever, unglossed, just the last line of the chapter.
"Because the law is wrong."
I don't know if what happens to Gail is realistic — being able to go back to school soon afterwards without loads of Paxil, keeping herself together more than her family can, being able to handle being ditched by her best friend, being able to smash Phil's windshield when he bothers her again without feeling helpless or powerful: "Just knowing I could give Phil Lawver a little hell, even if that only meant scratching his surfaces....What can I say? That thinking made me feel better? No, but it got me through the moment. I carried the rock from Mr. Wertheimer's garden all the way home, not thinking about the moments to come."
What can I say? That Are You in the House Alone? is a realistic narrative? I'm not sure it is either. But I appreciated, in the midst of all the Very Special Episodes, that Peck was giving a look at rape in teenagers that took on the outside and the inside world, and that was neither salacious nor bleak, something I never saw anywhere else:
Later, in that winter, Mother said, "It could have all been worse."....
"It could have been worse, Mother, but not much." She was sitting at her desk in a little pool of light, composing a real-estate ad for the newspaper. "Not much worse. We were all trying to protect ourselves as individuals and families instead of organizing to make everybody safe. There are more Phils out there, you know."
"Don't talk that way," she said.
"Well, there are. We should have done something else. We still should."
"But what?" Mother said. "What could we do?" And then she turned back to her work.
I don't know. Bob?