Subscribe to SLJ
Bowllan's Blog
Inside Bowllan's Blog

The Heart Can Heal…An Interview With Author Carolyn Lehman

A.B. How did you get the courage to write this book?

C.L. The opportunity to save lives is a very strong motivator. I know first hand how freakish and isolated a teen who has been sexually assaulted can feel. There's a tragically high suicide rate among abused teens, too. So putting a face on healing from abuse–inspiring others to hang on and get help–has been very important to me.

Then there is my insatiable curiosity. I wanted to find out how other people, men and boys as well as women and girls, successfully dealt with sexual abuse and assault and got on with their lives.

Writing this book gave me the chance to ask questions like: How did you cope when it happened? What got you started healing? Who was important to you and why? What helped you the most? I also wondered if race, class, gender or culture play a role in the ways people deal with sexual abuse. I found out that people heal in very individual ways, but that there are important commonalities.

Doing the interviews with teens, I saw how important friends and family members are, so I shaped this book to speak to general readers not just survivors.

All along, I knew that I would use photographs and real names. I wanted that immediate experience for readers—to look into the face of someone like themselves and know that they were hearing the true story from a real person who lived it.

An eminent YA editor told me, "You can't do this." My internal response was, "Will see about that!" Nothing like this has ever been published for adults or kids on this subject. That was all the more reason to write the book.

A.B. You mention that sexual abuse is "a crime surrounded by silence." Please elaborate

C.L. Recently a friend told me that her daughter didn't disclose a childhood rape for years because, the girl said, "I didn't want you to think less of me."

In the book, Jenner describes going to an unsupervised party when she was fourteen and being raped by an older teen. She says, "For a long time I thought that if I told people what happened to me, even my parents, they would think I was a bad person and blame me for it. I even blamed myself."

Somehow we have attached the shame of sexual abuse to the wrong person! The fact that a child is abused says volumes about the offender, but nothing about victim. Yet there is this persistent stigma. It's one of the reasons that using photographs in the book is so powerful. We are saying, "Yes, I was abused. There's no shame in that. What matters are the choices I make about my life."

I think our society is profoundly uncomfortable with disclosures of abuse. People have a very hard time understanding that someone who is otherwise normal—even very wonderful—can harm a child in this devastating way. We want to believe that all coaches, siblings, babysitters, grandparents are "good people" and "would never do something like that." Of course, that isolates the child victim even more.

A.B. What was the hardest part about writing this book?

C.L. I think the hardest part is dealing with people who just don't get it or who are afraid to even consider the subject. Sometimes I hear responses like, "That doesn't happen at my school!" or "Isn't it just too depressing?" or "Maybe for kids who are already in therapy…"

Well, sexual abuse and peer rape happen in every school, at every age, and in every population. Two thirds of reported rape victims are under eighteen and half of those are under twelve, according to Department of Justice statistics. That's the reality our children face. And it's the kids who haven't told anyone yet, who haven't begun to heal, who need encouragement the most.

I found working on this book incredibly hopeful. The stories show how people face trauma and ultimately gain strength from the their experiences. And the younger people, like sixteen-year-old Sheena, are doing the work of healing now while they are young. Sheena is a Native American girl who spoke out right away. She's got good support from her mother, her community, and especially her friends. The kids in the book are wonderful role models.