During the last week of summer vacation, as much of Boston’s news media was fixated on the trial of St. Paul’s alum Owen Labrie, my son was finishing his last summer reading book.
It was a book that troubled him on several levels—namely its descriptions of physical brutality and its unsentimental treatment of male maturation.
In Robert Newton Peck’s 1972 book A Day No Pigs Would Die, the protagonist Robert—a young boy growing up in rural Vermont, is given a piglet to raise. Robert’s father is a sometimes farmer and butcher and unless “Pinky” demonstrates her utility by producing offspring, her fate is not good.
In one of the book’s most troubling scenes, a mature boar, Samson, is brought into Pinky’s pen to mate. This is not uncommon in the farming world, obviously, but the female pig’s response is. She resists the male’s advances—at one point sinking her teeth into his ear in protest. “All part of courting,” says the sow’s owner. “Samson just got his face slapped. That’s all.” In the scene that follows, the boar violently overpowers the sow and after being bruised, battered, and bloodied, she can’t stop whining. The description is gruesome. The book’s Robert is devastated and tries to hop the fence to comfort his pet. He is 12. So is my son. As he read the book in the living room, I caught him wiping his eyes. He later said it was while reading that passage.
The first time I heard the word rape, I was staying with my paternal grandparents for the weekend. I was about 8 or 9 and the word was splattered across the front page of my grandfather’s morning newspaper in large block letters. I recognized it later when I heard it on the news update that came in between Red Sox innings on the radio. Later, when the newspaper was read and left on the coffee table, I pointed to the word and asked my grandmother what it meant. She snapped the paper up and tucked it under her arm. “A rape is a type of root,” she said in a tone suggesting that I shouldn’t ask again.
When I went home the next day, I asked my mother for an explanation. She provided a definition that was more accurate and still age-appropriate, but still vague—something about someone touching one’s privates without permission. (I gave my second grade daughter the same answer when she asked me what the word meant after hearing it on the radio news.) This was probably all I was ready for. Like my daughter, I knew the basics of procreation, but did not have any idea of the dark side of sexual contact. Nor should I have.
But when I was in junior high—the same age as my son, that scary precipice between childhood and teenager-hood—I had to read Peck’s book too. I remember that after I read the mating scene, I closed the book for a while. Finally I had gotten definition that had eluded me years before. And it made me sad.
A few days ago, my son and I listened to NPR on the drive to school. He had A Day No Pigs Would Die tucked in his backpack, prepared for a pop quiz. The news updates mentioned the upcoming sentencing in the Labrie case and cut to some audio from inside the courtroom where the accuser delivered emotional testimony. When asked by the defense why she didn’t put up more of a physical struggle, she tearfully said that she was afraid of “offending [him].” My son, in the passenger seat beside me, covered his ears before changing the station to sports radio.
“You okay?” I asked.
“I just don’t know why someone would do that. Why didn’t he listen to her?”
“I don’t know,” I said quietly, lifting my hand off the steering wheel to ruffle his hair. “It’s important to listen. Always.”
He nodded as he looked out the window.
The last week of August, to celebrate the end of the first week of school, my husband and I took the kids out to dinner. On the way to the restaurant, a reporter for The Boston Globe stopped me and asked my reaction to the verdict. (Labrie was acquitted of the more serious charges, aggravated sexual assault, and charged with three lesser crimes relating to the incident.)
“I’m upset,” I said. “Just sad about the whole thing.” What I wanted to say was this: While only the two parties know what really happened, we need to talk to our kids and our students about sexuality and consent—in the same sentence. It is essential and it needs to happen early.
After our dinner out that night, I went in to say goodnight to my son. On his desk I saw his worksheet on plot elements in A Day No Pigs Would Die. For “Turning Point,” he had written, “The turning point of the story is when Samson, a prize boar, tries to mate with Pinky when she is unwilling.” Sitting in the dark, we had a conversation about the book and the trial and making empowered choices. Who knew that a book published before I was born would provide me such a good way to talk about this with my son. I sure am grateful.
Amy Carleton is a writer and teacher of writing at MIT in Cambridge.
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