On Sexual Assault, These Violent Delights, and Media: An Interview with Victoria Namkung

These Violent Delights is available in bookstores now.

Author, journalist, essayist, and cultural commentator Victoria Namkung released her second novel on November 7, 2017. These Violent Delights tells the story of a young newspaper intern who pens a story of inappropriate, sexual behavior by her high school English teacher at the highly revered Windemere School for Girls in LA. The story is told through the points of view of three of the teacher’s victims, as well as a hardened journalist who covers the case against him as more and more survivors come forward.

These Violent Delights is a fictionalization of real-life sexual abuse stories. In an interview with Namkung last month, she said the book was inspired primarily by the number of sexual abuse stories coming out of elite schools. She specifically talked about the case against ex-Marlborough School teacher Joseph Koetters, who admitted to having sex with two of his students in 2015. He was sentenced to just one year in prison following accusations that he lured two teenage girls into sexual relationships with him: once in 2000 and again in 2004.

Koetters was the first teacher Namkung could recall going to jail over inappropriate sexual contact with students, excluding high-profile cases like the one against Mary Kay Letourneau. The Koetters case struck Namkung for a number of reasons, not least of which that sexual abuse stories are often so commonplace (and labeled as “sex scandals”, which detracts from the severity and criminality of them) that people become immune to them.

“I just started thinking that there’s this sort of myth that only poor children get molested or that it’s only kids who are on their own because they’re from a single-parent household or somehow being neglected,” Namkung said. “I knew that was not true. This happens to all people at all income levels, all racial groups, no matter who you are. I was interested in doing something in fiction because in a nonfiction sense, we’ve just become desensitized for some reason.”

'This happens to all people at all income levels, all racial groups, no matter who you are. I was interested in doing something in fiction...' - @VictoriaNamkung Click To Tweet

As of December 2017, we’ve seen a surprising uptick in consequences for men who commit sexual assault. Following The New York Times‘ publication of a story detailing decades of sexual abuse from film mogul Harvey Weinstein in October, dozens of men in Hollywood and media have been accused of rape and sexual assault.

Most recently, NBC news host Matt Lauer was fired by the network following a complaint about inappropriate sexual behavior. After being mired in controversy for allegedly not believing survivors who came forward about actor Danny Masterson, Netflix executives finally fired him from The Ranch on Tuesday.

This attitude isn’t uncommon. Victim-blaming — and the suggestion that people are lying about their trauma (when RVA reports that only 2-8 percent of accusations turn out to be false) — is a major component of rape culture. Most of the blame for sexual assault and abuse falls on the shoulders of the survivor rather than the perpetrator. Rapists like Brock Turner serve minimal time in prison while others never see punishment at all. Oftentimes, survivors don’t even report rape, expecting nothing to come of it other than retraumatization.

When we listen to survivors and believe them, the tides can change. We’re seeing that now. But first, we have to give survivors the space to speak.

Namkung focused on the survivors in These Violent Delights when she framed the novel’s narration. She said she chose to write solely from the points of view of women (the survivors and the journalist covering the case) so as not to give a voice to the abuser. She also said she was ultimately unconcerned with making her characters likeable.

“I don’t really care if anyone clicks with [Caryn, the newspaper intern who first reports her abuse in the novel],” Namkung said. “I care that her story was told and I think that this society is obsessed with ‘perfect victims’ and you have to be a certain kind of victim to be supported or believed. I just wanted to show a varying experience of different women trying to come forward and what the reaction would be.”

'I think that this society is obsessed with 'perfect victims' and you have to be a certain kind of victim to be supported or believed.' - @VictoriaNamkung Click To Tweet

Each of the survivors in These Violent Delights processes their trauma differently. Namkung said it was important to her to feature characters of color (she is mixed race herself, and writes protagonists who are also mixed race) and to feature women of all different backgrounds.

She dove into comment sections on websites and pulled from the abuse she receives herself on social media, simply for being a woman in journalism. The “news” aspect of These Violent Delights demonstrates the distressing aspects of going public with an abuse story, and Caryn suffers a lot of vitriol from random strangers for daring to tell her story.

The timeliness of this novel — which Namkung said many people have told her reads like nonfiction — was unprecedented. Namkung said she started writing well before the election, the Women’s March, and the #MeToo campaign, but that the combination of working on such difficult subject matter and watching current events unfold has sent her into therapy for the first time in her life.

“It’s not an easy subject but it is one that needs to be talked about, so I feel really lucky that the book came out at this time because everyone is ready to talk now, whereas they weren’t always before,” Namkung said.

For sexual abuse survivors, these are trying times to be following the news. On the one hand, it’s vindicating to see these predators finally face consequences for their behavior. On another, the news bombards us daily with new allegations, and it can be overwhelming for people who make it a point to stay on top of the news — Namkung, for example, is a self-described news junkie.

“People talk about trigger warnings and I think it can definitely be triggering to read one thing after the next,” Namkung said. “I think it’s important to tear yourself away at times, like I think that you can still be an advocate and not read every single story.”

'I think it's important to tear yourself away at times, like I think that you can still be an advocate and not read every single story.' - @VictoriaNamkung Click To Tweet

There’s also a public fascination with sexual abuse stories that stems from the sensationalist lenses through which we consume media. Namkung said she was careful not to sensationalize the heavier subjects in These Violent Delights, especially when it came to writing characters who could have easily been more stereotypical.

“I have real world experience with all of those topics,” Namkung said. “I’ve lost friends to drugs and to suicide and to alcoholism and other things. Even though I’m only 40, unfortunately I’ve lost a bunch of friends over the years so I drew on those experiences as well.”

Additionally, Namkung said she also spent hours pouring over court documents and witness statements, as well as interviewing survivors of sexual assault.

Namkung said she strived to point out the increased likelihood of childhood sexual abuse survivors suffering from PTSD and depression, as well as the increased likelihood of those survivors turning toward drugs and alcohol to cope. (RAINN reports that these survivors are 4 times more likely to abuse drugs or experience PTSD, and 3 times more likely to experience major depressive episodes as adults.)

These Violent Delights has been classified by the publisher as “women’s fiction”, but Namkung said she hopes men will read it, too. It’s not a universe she intends to revisit, though it went through several versions before publication.

The original, working title for the novel was The Snowflakes, which Namkung said she had to abandon after the election of Donald Trump. The decision to use a line from Romeo and Juliet came from two things: the abuser in the novel is a Shakespeare specialist, but in many cases of childhood sexual assault, the grooming that takes place follows the lines of “we’re star-crossed lovers” — which she wrote into These Violent Delights as a tactic the teacher took when isolating his victims.

“I read this in court testimony where some of these teachers had used very similar language to that, so I thought, let me read through Romeo and Juliet and maybe I’ll come across something,” Namkung said. “Then when Friar Lawrence said that, it just hit me like a ton of bricks, like, that’s it. That’s the title.”

To see more of Victoria Namkung’s work, check out her website or follow her on Twitter @VictoriaNamkung.