Based on today's standards, I would posit a century ago one-hundred percent of women were sexually assaulted. If not true worldwide, then by any definition it certainly happened in the Eastern European area my stories took place. While we may debate war brings out the best in men, there is no doubt it more often brings out the worse. In my first three novels, Ikons and Banners, attacks and crass behavior against women were only hinted or obliquely presented. In my third, Slogans, I actually broached the subject.
While all my female characters suffered some form of outrage, only my character Kataya was overtly sexually assaulted. I presented her ordeal in a way I believed (wrongly) was not overly graphic but provided enough information for the reader's imagination to fill in the details.
Kataya's assault scene opened on a moving train as she was returning home from the front and written from her perspective. The prose was rather innocuous until the last two lines.
* * *
Soldat Kataya Koscik watched the empty bottles roll across the freight car’s floor, slow to a stop and reverse direction. With every sway of the uneven rails, the bottles repeated their awkward dance. They banged into the side of the car's walls, each other or the bodies of the five homebound Russian soldiers sprawled along the wooden floor. Kataya sat huddled in the rear of the car, her back against the wall and her knees pulled up to her chest.
With her left hand she clutched her torn uniform to her breast and with her right gripped the neck of a shattered bottle. The next time she would be ready.
* * *
The novel's following paragraphs explained the events prior to the opening scene. In her homeward journey, Kataya had clambered aboard what she thought was an empty boxcar only to find it occupied by five Russian soldiers. I chose not to give the men any characteristics other than Old One, Young One, Short One, Tall One and Heavy One. For several days she was welcomed and joined in their food and banter, but when Old One foraged several bottles of vodka, the mood changed.
* * *
“Come and celebrate with us,” the short one yelled and held up a bottle.
“Da, a few swallows will warm you,” laughed the old one. “Then we'll sing and dance and ….” He paused and gave a long shrill whistle. “Then? Who knows?”Kataya knew, but it was too late.
* * *
Several members of Writers' Group suggested I stop at this point and leave the rest for the reader to fill in. However, I ignored their suggestion and went on.
* * *
For the second time in her life, Kataya fought the tongue trying to force its way into her mouth and the rough fingers groping her chest. But unlike Schoko’s attack, no one was here to save her. Kataya raked her nails across the heavy one's face and saw fireflies dance when he punched her in the left eye. The five soldiers grappled over her like a pack of hungry dogs for a scrap of meat and finally succeeded in pinning her to the floor. “I'm first,” announced the old one and began to fumble with his buttons.
* * *
The Next Morning
The effect of too much vodka and the swaying railcar foiled the soldiers attempts at rape. The next scene reverted to the opening passage from the perspective of Tall One. I did not want to make all men monsters, thus I gave Tall One a smidgen of humanity.
* * *
He pinched the bridge of his nose to clear his head and caught sight of Kataya. It was then he remembered. He remembered the eyes.
The tall one had seen those eyes once before. The emotions in the deep dark orbs were the same those in his little sister's eyes had when she was seven and he was ten and took her into the woods. He didn't mean any harm, he was merely curious. Now those haunting eyes were back, accusing him and pleading with him. The eyes wanted to believe in him and they wanted to sparkle and dance in the morning sun and laugh as they did before. Once again they wanted to trust their big brother.
* * *
* * *
The tall one reached slowly down and retrieved the shard. “Don't worry, Little Sister,” he said and patted his hip where the big brother of her blade rested, “you'll be safe.”
Kataya believed him but did not lower her knife.
* * *
|Kataya's Elk Horn Knife|
I really underestimated the emotional effect of this passage on female readers. My Writers' Group said preceding chapters had portrayed Kataya as a strong and independent character, and when I placed her at the mercy of five merciless men, I showed not only Katatya's vulnerability, but also exposed the primal fear of all women. Based on their comments and those expressed in the previous post, I learned my novel would have a hard time being accepted by a female audience.
Their reactions to these scenes showed I had to ability to elicit strong emotional reactions through writing. What they also showed was I should have heeded their advice and stop my descriptions after they made their impact. Emotional scenes are like rich food -- best served in moderation. In other words I learned the hard lesson of "less is more."