Sensitive Issues

In editing Book 2 of my series, I have now reached the scene where Something Bad Happens. My editor is, perhaps understandably, disturbed by this brief episode. But while I take her ideas seriously — considering how much I’m paying her, I’d be a fool not to — I’m not persuaded that her suggested alternative will work.

I have several concerns here. First, I don’t want to upset readers who are sensitive to this issue. Nor do I want to sensationalize it in any way, or use it to titillate. But nor do I want to censor myself. Second, I try to write realistically. The scene is technically G-rated — no body parts more intimate than fingers and legs are mentioned — but there’s no doubt at all what’s going on. The motivation of the evil character is also realistic, I think. Third, I really do need the plot to move in a certain direction, and for that to happen I need an emergency. Something more muted won’t quite do the job.

Okay, I’ll stop being mysterious now. The evil wizard is trying to get himself out of a legal morass by offering his 9-year-old daughter to a pedophile judge. In the scene I wrote, the girl is sitting on the judge’s lap as he negotiates the arrangement with her father. They’re all fully dressed, but the judge is doing things with his fingers.

Nothing bad is actually going to happen to the girl, other than being groped. Within a couple of hours, she and her older sister will run away. They will suffer no further indignities (and indeed, at the end of the book their father will be, quite fittingly, killed). But they have to run away in order for the plot to work. To my way of thinking, if the threat is less graphic the two girls will try to convince themselves that they misunderstood the judge’s intentions. They will prefer to hope for the best. They won’t run.

It’s clear, however, that my editor is more freaked out by this scene than I expected. Other people may react the same way. I don’t want the scene to destroy anyone’s affection for the story. But I do need a genuine plot emergency; everything that happens in the scene is in character; and I don’t approve of censorship.

I think perhaps my own jaded attitude toward sex is affecting my thinking. I know that people (especially the male of the species) are aroused by quite a variety of different things, not all of them involving a healthy respect for personal autonomy. That’s the real world. Also, my own background has enough low-grade sexual trauma in it, trauma from which there was never any prospect of my being protected, that I’m probably a little irritated that my editor thinks I should rush to protect a girl who doesn’t even exist. I’m afraid my attitude boils down to, “Shit happens. Deal with it.”

I will probably compromise by adding a few sentences to show how traumatized the girl is, if I can do that without sending the story off on a horrible tangent. She’s a very minor character, and this sort of trauma is not what the story is about.

It frankly didn’t occur to me that she would be traumatized, and that’s probably my failing as a writer. But I can’t afford to pull the plot apart and leave it in a smelly heap on the floor in order to prove to the world how sensitive I am.

I’m probably not that sensitive, actually. I’m not even sure I want to be that sensitive. As Frank Zappa once said, “Broken hearts are for assholes.” But then, the Seventies were a different era in terms of sexual mores. Zappa also has a song with the line, “She’s only thirteen but she knows how to nasty!” You couldn’t say that in a song today. Are we more enlightened today, more aware and sensitive, or are we just more straitlaced? I will leave you with that conundrum.

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