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  • Facing the Dark Side in Children's Books
  • Ellen Howard (bio)

There used to be a joke between my husband and me: When I was writing short stories and novels and articles for adults and getting rejection after rejection after rejection, Chuck would say, "Not enough sex and violence. That's the trouble with your writing. Not enough sex and violence." When at last my work began to sell, in the children's book market, Chuck's analysis was vindicated. "I told you," he said. "There's just not enough sex and violence in your stories to sell to adults. That's why they're perfect for kids."

Certainly, his assessment of my work was valid. Gratuitous sex and violence have never appealed to me. I don't like to read it, and I don't like to write it. So the question is: What's a nice woman like me doing writing a novel for children about incest?

I've thought a lot about that question. I'd like to share some of the answers I've come up with. I really don't know for sure, to this day, why I felt compelled to write Gillyflower, but the experience of coming personally to grips with the subject of child sexual abuse was an illuminating experience for me. It helped me to face what I call the dark side of human nature, of my nature.

So far as I can remember, I had never even heard of a case of child sexual abuse until I was 20 years old. Of course I had been warned not to go anywhere with a stranger, particularly a strange man, and I had heard that sometimes little girls were kidnapped by bad men who 'hurt' them. There was a man in our neighborhood against whom my brother especially was cautioned. But my ideas about just what such men did to children were vague indeed. The idea that someone among my own family members or my family's friends might 'hurt' me never occurred to me. In my case, this ignorance did no harm. But as I researched Gillyflower, first by extensive reading and then by attending a therapist's workshop and by interviewing social workers and police, I came to realize that similar ignorance did not protect many other little girls of my generation.

When I was 20, I worked in a pediatrician's office. In a conversation about the reasons she had quit hospital pediatric nursing, the office nurse told me one day about the six-month-old baby girl she had cared for in the hospital. The baby had been raped by an adult man. My friend was traumatized by the experience of caring for this baby. "I hated all men [End Page 7] for months," she told me. I heard the story with horror and, I think, partial disbelief. I decided that such cases must be rare. Perhaps the case my friend knew first-hand was unique. The perpetrator must have been a madman, a pervert, a freak. From that time on, however, I was not completely unaware that child sexual abuse did, in fact, occur. But still, I didn't allow myself to think of it.

I raised a daughter. As a single mother, I exposed her to the company of men whom sometimes I myself didn't know well. While I was at work, I left her in the care of babysitters who had husbands and teen-aged sons whom I didn't know at all. I allowed her to visit her father as often as he requested. I never thought about the possibility that she might be vulnerable to abuse. And I and she were lucky. So far as I know, so far as she can remember, she was not molested.

However, my daughter's experience does add to the statistics of child sexual abuse. She walked to school with a friend one day when she was nine years old. A man approached the girls as they were crossing the playground and exposed himself to them. She wasn't hurt physically, I told myself. He never touched her. That wasn't sexual abuse. When my daughter was...


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