There are a lot of strong reactions to this book because it’s a topic that provokes strong opinions. Does a person have to actively say no in order for it to count as rape? Especially when it’s date rape.
The Mockingbirds starts by throwing us right into the middle of this question. Alex wakes up, naked, in the bed of a strange boy at her exclusive boarding school. She is shaky and sick and doesn’t remember anything about the night before. Slowly her memory starts to come back and she realizes that she’s had sex with this boy. Sex for the first time. And she can’t remember it. She knows she was drinking. She knows she ended up here. So it must be her fault, right? That’s what she thinks. That’s what she’s sure of. Because she can’t remember saying no.
It isn’t until she tells her roommate what happened that rape is even considered. So, now we get to the age old question – does drinking cancel out the things that happen to you when you’re drunk? Does being really drunk mean it’s okay for a man to have sex with a woman because she’s clearly asking for it? Does going back to someone’s place mean you‘re obligated to have sex with that person? Does kissing someone when you’re drunk mean you’re not allowed to not want to sleep with them? Let me be super, duper clear about this – NO. Hell no.
It’s questions like these that lead a huge number of women not to report their rapes. To just live with it. To feel shame and ridicule because of something that was done to them. There is an entire systemic change needed to the way we as a society think. To ask what happened. Not what did you do that would make this happen. To be understanding. To look at the facts. For us to raise the next generation of boys and girls to believe in one another. For us to raise boys to understand what rape is, not just girls. To be more ashamed of raping someone than we make girls feel about being raped. That consent is required from both sides. That a lack of a no is not a yes.
What makes something rape is one of the central questions in the novel. As the story unfolds and more of Alex’s memories come back, she starts to remember more and more moments from the night. She remembers being a little tipsy at the club and pulling Carter onto the dance floor when her favourite song came on. One girl tries to use this scene as evidence that Alex wanted to sleep with Carter. She looked like she liked him, so she must have wanted sex. She danced with him. This isn’t Footloose. Dancing isn’t actually the root of evil. Dancing with a boy at a club is simply dancing with a boy at a club. That’s where it begins and ends. Alex remembers trying to leave Carter. To go home. Telling him she wants to go home. But she’s so intoxicated that he’s able to easily lead her to back to his house. That’s the first indication that she’s in no condition to have sex with him. She tries to leave. If there was any question of consent, it’s given in this scene. She doesn’t want to be there. She wants to leave. Then, when she’s in his room, she can barely drag herself somewhere to pass out. She can’t barely form thoughts, let alone sound decisions.
There is no question of consent at this point. Alex is unable to provide it. But Carter has been raised by a society that has taught him that a drunk girl in his room obviously wants to have sex with him. The problem is systemic. And it’s not the only problem at this school. I could talk about the rape portion of this book for pages, but I’m going to move on to the other portion of the novel – The Mockingbirds. This is a group of students who have been set up to reign justice over the school because the teachers won’t. Gifted, intelligent students are often given more leeway to do what they want in school. They get more freedom because their scholastic achievements somehow make them more responsible and adult than their peers. In a school like Themis, all the students are gifted in some way. They’re all book smart. They’re all responsible. They’re all specifically talented in some way. For Alex it’s music. Her obsession with music was actually the most annoying part of the book. I wish that part had been pulled back. It made her a little unrelatable. She’s a talented pianist. Awesome. But she is obsessed with it. It overshadows everything else that makes her real.
This is the one problem with the book where I agree with some other reviewers. Alex is a little bland. Her obsession has made her pretty one dimensional. If over the course of the book, she’d grown and realized that music wasn’t everything. That her dedication to her craft had left a little flat. Maybe she would have been more humanized. If she’d grown and realized that focusing so singularly on her music was making her less developed. If she’d found a way to balance her music and her life. Instead, her growth is more like a circle. Music is all I need. Music has let me down. Music has saved me and is all I need. I could not make myself care about this portion of the storyline. It’s a problem with all the characters. None of them feel fleshed out or layered. Maybe it’s because there are too many characters, so no one character gets enough attention. I’m good with books with lots of characters, but I need to know about them – not all of them, but most of them. I want them to be important. I want them to be relatable. I want them to make me feel. This book gets high marks from me because of the way it dealt with the subject matter. The fear and shame that come with rape. The different reactions of the different characters to one singular event. But the lack of development in those characters makes it a middling read.
But back to the Mockingbirds. They are an organization made up of students to counter their teachers unrealistic ideals about what students are capable of. Gifted, talented students may have special talents, but that doesn’t make them not teenagers. They make bad decisions. They do stupid things. They experiment with drugs and alcohol. They aren’t just good people because they go to this special school. All of these things aren’t true for all students, but some of them are. So, when Alex’s sister was in school, she started this group to act out against a group of seniors who were bullying other students. Here’s where my biggest problem with this novel comes in – this group, who is held up as this bastion of rightness, bullies people into doing what they want. They take away privileges. They needle their way into people’s lives until they agree to come to their hearings. They make themselves better than the other students. They accuse people publically before they’ve done all their research. They believe they are doing right. They are the ones that uphold truth. But they’re doing pretty much exactly what they were set up to stop.
A lot of authors talk down to teens. Treat them like they can’t understand or handle hard truths. I appreciate when authors don’t do this. Whitney let’s her readers know that she respects them and their intelligence. However, she swings it too far. She gives them too much responsibility. She makes it okay that Alex doesn’t go to the police. She makes this ‘justice’ a good thing. And a student body that helps govern the actions of students is good – when it works in conjunction with the school authorities. Cases like Alex’s almost never go forward to the police because girls fear being blamed for what happened to them. Because their lives are trotted out in front of them – just like Alex and Martin’s relationship is. Too many women would rather suffer than be degraded. The students in this book suffer from Dawson Creek-itis (yes, topical reference I know, but I don’t know anything newer that does the same thing). The students are too smart. Too worldly. Too grown up for their own good. They make all the right choices. They do all the right things. They never misstep. They aren’t whole and complex characters. They are placeholders. It becomes unrealistic and clouds the overall message of the book.
Alex didn’t need to scream or shout or fight off her attacker for it to be rape. She doesn’t need to be ashamed of what happened to her. Carter and his friends chuckling about Alex around the school need to be raised to know how to treat other people. Teachers need to remember that students are still just kids trying to figure out who they are. They need help and guidance – no matter how smart or gifted they are. Whitney raises some incredibly important issues in this book. It should resonate deeply. It should be an important book for teens to read. But it creates an unrealistic expectation of justice and the aftermath of Alex’s experience. Somehow, it doesn’t drive home the point.