For this month's YA book club, Jennie Law asks Erin Blakemore, Ellen Papazian, and Nona Willis Aronowitz what they thought about Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. Add your own answers to Jennie's questions (or come up with your own discussion points) in the comments section!
Erin: This book had a real train-wreck sensibility that kept me turning pages even as I was repulsed, panicked, and ashamed. So...quite different from Sisters Red and Tender Morsels! Its immersive quality did not necessarily translate into a pleasant read...I would have loved to see my body hooked up to some kind of biometric machine while reading because I had some very visceral reactions to the story. One of the things that was most upsetting to me about the book was the sense of unreality and dissociation that pervades the book (echoes of Tender Morsels, but in a very different way). Also, the ending PISSED ME OFF, not just because I had unwittingly cast in my lot with Alice, but because it seemed so...pat? Easy, somehow? I don't know. I feel like the intensity and horror of the subject matter kind of messed with my compass for this book.
Nona: Unlike Sisters Red and Tender Morsels, I found this book to be really sensationalized. Not because of the graphic descriptions—this was more graphic than the rapes in Tender Morsels—but because of the cheesy tone. It reminds me of a few slightly less well-written young adult novels I'd read in the past. They all featured imprisoned white girls, describing their impending doom. I know Elizabeth Scott wasn't putting this book in that category, but it felt like that for me.
Jennie: The scene of Alice getting her pubic hair waxed near the beginning of the book shocked me. What was your reaction? Do you think this was a statement on the attitudes towards female body hair (pubic and otherwise) in contemporary American culture?
Erin: I was struck by this scene, too, but more by my own wonderings whether it would be seen as out-of-the-ordinary for the millions of women (and teenage girls!) who choose to go completely bare. It was interesting that someone so broken could be in a spa environment and experience no pleasure of any kind (not that waxing is pleasant), just a kind of anonymity. I'm not sure if it was a statement on our attitudes toward body hair; more of a physical manifestation or Ray's need for Alice to remain girl-like and "non-threatening."
Nona: I think it was a heavy-handed attempt to make a comment on who enjoys the look of waxing. It seemed to portray the practice as fundamentally creepy, just because Ray was a child abuser and therefore used waxing to keep Alice childlike. To me, this seemed a little knee-jerk. What I thought was more interesting than Ray's preference, though, was the nonchalant reaction from the waxer herself. Why didn't she question Alice about her age? Why didn't she look around for the parent?
Ellen: I really didn't have a strong reaction to the scene other than it was interesting to see a YA author comment on the issue of equating "sexiness" with a prepubescent female body. I definitely felt like it was the author stepping out of the narrative a bit to make a statement on the infantilization of adult women in the guise of beauty ideals as well as on the pornification of American beauty culture.
Jennie: Ray actively stunts Alice's physical growth as well as her emotional and mental growth. Wonderland allusions aside, what did you make of Ray's insistence that Alice stay a little girl?
Erin: The stunting of Alice's physical growth really reflected the way in which Alice's body became a canvas for Ray's sick fantasies and tortured personal history. I was really struck by the passage in which she says that she didn't know how not to talk like a child. It really seemed like he "owned" her body and used it as an expression of both his pleasure and pain. The other thing that struck me was her entirely dissociative relationship with her own body...no wonder.
Ellen: I don't have much consideration for why Ray insists that Alice stay a little girl. I didn't really "consider" his character in this way as a reader. He began the book as a disturbed predator participating in the destruction of a girl's life and he remained that way for me. Nothing he insists upon makes any literal sense; it's part of his pathology.
Nona: Funny that you mention Wonderland—for some reason this book reminded me of a twisted inverted version of Hansel and Gretel (where the kids starve themselves so that the witch wouldn't eat them). Anyway, this is another aspect that just made the whole scenario unbelievable to me. Or rather, unoriginal. This guy seems to have a textbook case of pedophilia, mommy issues, etc. It would have been nice for Ray to have had a more complex reaction toward Alice's changing body.
Jennie: There are brief mentions of the abuse that Ray experienced at the hands of his own mother. This revelation of Ray's past brings up the idea that abuse is often cyclical with the abused becoming the abuser. Alice almost continues this cycle with her targeting of Lucy as a replacement. What do you think of the exploration of abuse in Living Dead Girl? Why do you think Alice chooses to break the cycle?
Nona: This was probably the part of the book that resonated with me the most. But I didn't interpret the ending as Alice choosing to break the cycle. It seemed more like it was a happy accident that Alice chose to break the cycle of abuse. Although she does seem to be very relieved, and "snap out of it" very quickly.
Erin: My experience of these themes was kind of weird. I identified with Alice and understood her eagerness to get a replacement and get out, already...what choice did she have? She seemed to view Lucy as a potential sister instead of just a replacement; not that that made it right or okay in any sense of the word. I found the ways in which Alice uses her sexuality to be a fascinating inverse of this. She's had so much sexual power wielded over her that she sees her only power as a sexual one (which she then totally displaces and dissociates from). It honestly seemed like the only reason Alice decided to break the cycle was because she was dying anyway, which I found disappointing and awful. I do think the book does a good job of showing how the usual pat answers about "rescuing" others from abuse, "just saying no," etc. are way more complicated.
Ellen: I thought it a telling and curious choice for Scott to, in a sense, put the "blame" for Ray's pathology and predatory behavior squarely on his mother. So, in this so-called feminist work, a woman/mother is to blame for the innocent girl's near destruction. This aspect of Scott's exploration of abuse disappointed me as a feminist reader. I was glad to see the cyclical nature of abuse presented in a work of YA fiction, because it ultimately helps illuminate the issue for young adults. As the hero of the work, Alice breaks the cycle (though I would not say "chooses" to do so), but I don't feel I was given enough information about her whole character (and rightly so, in this context) to be able to adequately understand or pinpoint exactly why she was able to survive (and therefore, end the abuse). Perhaps she survived in large part because she loved her family fiercely and sought to protect them from Ray's violence. So, she subsumed his violence (and near destruction of herself) to save her family and/or preserve her love for them or their love for her—to "freeze" and "hold" the idea of herself as a loved and living part of her nuclear family.
Jennie: Do you think Living Dead Girl is a feminist book? Why or why not? Erin: Oh, wow. I have no idea. In the sense that the book showed someone who had become a complete object and victim, no way. In the sense that the book exposes the complex inner workings of extreme abuse...maybe. The book's portrayal of sexual violence as inevitable and of men's power as absolute (or utterly ineffective, as in the case of Lucy's brother) was maddening. I was left wondering if my own gruesome reflexes played into the issues the book presented in a gross or exploitative way. Also, I ran into a quote on Amazon that claimed that "every parent should read this book" for a sense of the inner workings of kidnappers. Um, no. That raised a bunch of interesting issues as to whether the book had something real to say about kidnap and sexual abuse or if it might not just play into the kind of hand-wringing mentality that allows patriarchical and abusive systems to flourish. Ultimately...I don't know, and I don't know if I'm supposed to know. And I'm interested to hear what the rest of you have to say about the YA classification of this book and its exploration (or not) of feminism.
Nona: I wasn't thinking about feminism either way, except during the waxing scene and during the blowjob scene with Jake in his car. Like I mentioned earlier, this seemed less about societal norms and more about a textbook psychopath.
Ellen: A few things keep me from calling Living Dead Girl a feminist book. One is the author's tracking the origin of Ray's predatory behavior to his mother. This isn't to say I don't acknowledge the abuse many children suffer by their mother's hand; it just doesn't propel me to claim the book as "feminist" given the history of male violence against girls and women. I personally consider more groundbreaking work to be feminist work. I don't believe this is a groundbreaking treatment of the issue. Some may consider it a feminist book given Alice's heroic ability to survive. But this question seems almost impossible to answer given the many different living feminisms that exist today.
About today's panel:
Erin Blakemore learned to drool over Darcy and cry over Little Women in suburban San Diego, California. These days, her inner heroine loves roller derby, running her own business, and hiking in her adopted hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Erin's debut book, The Heroine's Bookshelf, was published by HarperCollins in October.
Jennie Law is a feminist children's librarian in Decatur, GA. She's also a member of the Amelia Bloomer Project (Feminist Books for Young Readers) under the Feminist Task Force of the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association. She spends her free time challenging the patriarchy, hanging out with Butler (her Russian Tortoise), reading, tap dancing, and writing in rhyme.
Ellen Papazian is a writer and teacher. Her work has appeared in the anthologies About Face: Women Write about What They See When They Look in the Mirror and The Long Meanwhile: Stories of Arrival and Departure, and Bitch, including the Page Turner book blog. She leads creative writing workshops for young people and senior citizens. She gifts her babysitters with Weetzie Bat and her niece with Pippi. Learn more about Ellen here.
Nona Willis Aronowitz is a 26-year-old multimedia journalist and cultural critic. She has written about women, sex, politics, music, and youth culture for numerous publications including The Nation, The Village Voice, Salon, Slate, and BUST. She is the author of Girldrive: Criss-crossing America, Redefining Feminism. Nona is currently a contributing producer at public radio's All Things Considered and Morning Edition in New York City, and feminist-blogs in her free time.
Our next YA book club is on July 1st, and we'll be discussing Ash by Malinda Lo. Be sure to get your hands on a copy so that you can participate in the conversation with us! Looking to get caught up on past book club conversations? All prior YA book club posts can be found here.
Previously: Tender Morsels