Revising My Novel Unearthed
a #MeToo Story
Rachel Cline Writes Her Way Back to the Truth
I worked on my third novel, which is all of 56,000 words, for 10 years—longer, if you count my teenage journals and the short stories from my twenties. The Question Authority is about a woman whose eighth grade teacher molested her and most of the girls he taught, including her best friend at the time. It’s also a novel about coming to terms with one’s own story as an adult, and how effing long that actually takes. The story my narrator, Nora, is telling herself is about abuse and what it means to call yourself a victim—the #MeToo narrative—but her story is also my story and I am, in some respects, a very slow learner.
I had always known I wanted to write about my seventh and eighth grade teacher and the school in Brooklyn I’d gone to and the things that happened there, because I have never gotten over them. Then, in May of 2008, I watched a two-day group meltdown among some of my former schoolmates on Facebook. The subject was our groovy, revolutionary, married, draft-evading, girl-raping former teacher. There was testimony from students in classes before and after mine, some writing under aliases; a former faculty member also participated, filling in some of the blanks about what happened when our teacher was finally caught (but not punished). There were women on the thread who were hiring a lawyer to go after him—possibly Gloria Allred. One of the now-grown girls wrote, in that first all-night conversation, “we can’t unhappen it.” I put that on an index card. I’d been thinking about this guy a lot, myself. Among other things, he taught me how to write.
Finding a setting and structure for the story was a challenge. I wrote several third-person drafts: one was structured as a compendium of student writing—based on the prompts given by my actual teacher from 1971. It was so meta! I worked on it for about a year—the results would make you wince. The next version was set in a call center: the protagonist takes a call one day and the voice on the other end of the line is that of her former teacher. I learned a ton about Customer Relationship Management Systems and wrote some great stuff you will never read about how hard it is to talk, think, and type at the same time. This was also a nope.
My breakthrough came one early morning in 2013. I was at my desk, in my apartment, and it was still dark outside (before work). I was mad about being awake and being stuck and how long this book was taking. I decided to free-write in Nora, my protagonist’s, voice. It turned out to be a Eureka moment (if you can call having to throw out six years’ of work a Eureka moment), because suddenly everything made sense. First-person made the disclosure of plot information a little more complicated, but it brought the focus of the book onto Nora herself. (This was before the big, public #MeToo conversation and I didn’t know that I was writing about a journey of self-comprehension. I thought I was writing about “the impact of an abusive teacher.” They sound like the same book, but they’re not.) Anyway, having given Nora my own voice (more or less), I soon found myself giving her a version of the job that I’d had in 2009; and a recently dead mother to stand in for my then-dying one. For a while things hummed along.
Until I discovered that I’d left out something—actually someone—crucial. My best friend, Lisa. I knew nothing about what had really happened to her and I felt guilty about that but, also, still resentful that she hadn’t listened to me when we were kids. I didn’t want to include her in my version, my book. Back in 1971, we’d made a pact that we would not succumb to our creep teacher and she’d broken it and I’d cut her off. I felt she had done something colossally stupid in allowing herself to be seduced—I didn’t want to hear about the things she’d done with him, or about the other girls in his retinue, or about his wife and kids. I also didn’t want to hear about the fun I’d missed on their van trip across country in the summer of 1972. A few years after that, in high school, she wrote me an eight-page letter begging me to call or write and I ignored it. I didn’t want to know about her sadness and loneliness, either. Uncharacteristically, I didn’t even want to know if I had been right, all along.Maybe I didn’t really want to find her—survivor guilt, but also a writer’s cravenness?
Instead, I spent nearly 40 years unconsciously imagining what had become of my friend. Once I opened my mental archive, I found I had almost as many versions of Lisa in there as I had drafts of my novel: silicon valley power-wife, Midwestern young adult novel writer, suburban junkie, crusading civil rights lawyer… I’d searched for her in the early days of the internet, but she has a common name and I didn’t know where she lived, what she did for a living, or even if she had married. And maybe I didn’t really want to find her—survivor guilt, but also a writer’s cravenness? On some level, I fear I had always known that she was “material.”
Reinventing Lisa in fiction made it possible for me to tell this story. I turned her into someone named Beth, someone I doubt she would want to identify with. I used her, and not in any way a friend uses a friend. On the other hand, I still have that eight-page letter, and her drawing of our fifth grade substitute teacher in a nun’s habit, and the notes we passed in math. And for all these intervening years, I have relied on my evolving sense of who she might have become as a counterweight to my own choices and disappointments, just as Nora has and does, in my novel.