“They are all innocent until proven guilty. But not me. I am a liar until I am proven honest.”
Asking For It, Louise O’Neill’s second novel, tells the story of Emma O’Donovan a secondary school student living in small town Ireland. Emma and her friends like to have a good time. This includes nights out, with pre drinks while they are getting ready and being in constant competition with each other to be seen as the prettiest.
Following a party, Emma wakes up on her doorstep with little memory of what happened or how she got home. She can’t explain where the bruises came from. She remembers going to the party, the drinks, flirting and taking pills but after that everything is blank.
A Facebook page soon appears full of photographs showing, in graphic detail, what went on at the party. No one will talk her, choosing to whisper behind her back instead. But Emma didn’t allow those photos to be taken, did she?
Emma’s life is turned upside down as she pieces together the events of that night and tries to come to terms with what happened to her and the reactions of her family, friends and the wider community.
The sharing of images on social media and the media coverage that follows made me think of “Slane Girl”. The actions of the parish priest are reminiscent of Fr Sean Sheehy, who was among a group of people who shook hands with Danny Foley following his conviction for sexual assault. Communities rallying around men accused of sexual assault and rape is an all too common occurrence even when those men have been found guilty.
These aren’t the actions of people from an Ireland of old. They all happened in the last 6 years. This is the world we live in. This is the world that O’Neill skilfully and painfully explores.
Emma may not be as likeable a person as we expect a victim to be, but that is kind of the point. Why do we expect victims of rape or sexual assault to be a certain way? Why do victims have to be likeable? Is there anything that Emma could possibly have done to deserve what happened to her? Of course there isn’t and these questions shouldn’t be questions at all.
Yet, we all know that when it comes to sexual assault and rape questions about what the victim was wearing, drinking, doing and whether they were “asking for it” happen. It often happens in the very place that people turn to for justice, our court system. Is it any wonder that so many women don’t report when they have been sexually assaulted or raped?
It would be easy for O’Neill to give us the satisfying ending we so desperately want. But the ending you want isn’t always the ending you need and O’Neill has already shown us, with her debut novel Only Ever Yours, that she is the master of endings that are necessary.
I was left shaking with rage when I finished Asking For It and 3 weeks later I am still thinking about Emma O’Donovan. I wonder how she is doing and whether she has found some sense of peace since the conclusion of the novel.
More importantly, I wonder how all the Emmas of the world are coping. Do they blame themselves? Do they have someone or somewhere to turn for support? Do they have someone to reassure them that it is definitely not their fault? Do they know that they are not alone?
Asking For It may be difficult to read, subject wise, but it is essential. When you’ve read it make sure everyone you know reads it too, especially teenagers. The resulting conversations about consent, rape culture and victim blaming are extremely important.