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Book Review: A Deep Dark Secret by Kimberla Lawson Roby

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Kimberla Lawson’s Roby latest book A Deep Dark Secret ably straddles three genres. It is Christian fiction, African-American fiction, and young adult novel. These three genres are often at odds, and — when joined together — the accomplishment that is often problematical. Roby’s novel exhibits some of the same problematical issues. Still, considering the hurdle, the book manages to do a good job of joining these three disparate genres.

A Deep Dark Secret is the story of twelve-year-old Jillian Maxwell who is normal in every way except that her stepfather, a fine-upstanding church-goer, is sexually abusing her. She doesn’t tell it to her mother because her mother is so happy in her marriage. (I can understand her mother’s utter ignorance of the situation, but, heck, the stepfather switched churches three times! How could Mom still have no idea?) The book is well-written and accessible, and as it shows us Jillian’s journey from secrecy to healing through the revelation of her secret, we feel ourselves to be in the hands of a good writer. But unfortunately, we feel something else. Or at least, I felt something else.

Sexual abuse is a subject tackled in all three genres — YA, Christian Fiction, African-American Fiction. They all have different ways of dealing with it, and Roby’s great skill is that she is aware of the requirements of these genres. The book feels courageous, and, as one reads, one feels the author is aware that she is attempt to steer her course through these different waves of writing.

Many writers or young adult fiction have written about childhood sexual molestation. These writers often ignore the religious aspects of the characters or (more often) they are outraged at religion because their victimizer was religious. At the end of such books, the characters are shown as still somewhat damaged. Some authors — both male and female — have shown how these childhood exploitations led to lives of sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, suicidal tendencies, obesity and other issues.

Christian Fiction tends to end on a hopeful note. That’s the requirement. There are also other requirements in many but not all Christian fiction — such as avoiding discussions of sex or not calling a penis a penis or a vagina a vagina. Christian writers often are very aware of the sensitivity of their readers to certain words. It goes without saying that Christian authors don’t want to pick on religion, so if a bad character in a book is religious, the Christian author tends to go out of show that this is an aberration and not the rule.

Writers of African-American fiction tend to call things as they are. But for Christian African-American writers, there’s often a tendency to want to show how totally normal and regular African-Americans can be. Call it the Bill Cosby Show Syndrome. Perhaps it’s a reaction to all those urban lit books or maybe just our need to show the stability and goodness of our culture, but it abounds in Christian fiction. And the normalcy one encounters in A Deep Dark Secret is often counter-productive to the horror of the story.

All this leads to the one problem I had with an otherwise great and courageous book: Jillian’s apparent sanity and well-adjustedness. Jillian does well in school for much too long, and is so well-behaved and so generally happy for way too long. By the time she starts to fail in her grades, I found myself wondering what took her so long to start fraying. Weirdly, for all her ruminations and worries, she ends up seeming untouched by all that she’s been through. The sadness she feels is ongoing, but it doesn’t feel like a soul-destroying depression, which is what it really should feel like.

As a Christian I want to believe that perhaps the Lord has protected Jillian from the emotional and spiritual effects that usually attack victims of molestation. But I had serious trouble accepting her as a real character. She doesn’t have premarital sex. She isn’t even overweight. She questions God but, well, she doesn’t really have a religious crisis. She seemed more like a symbolic character created to manifest the typical life of a sexually-abused girl. Typicality is okay, of course. Many girls who are abused by their step-fathers come from educated typical middle-class church-going families (rather than slums or inner cities.) But, honestly, I kept thinking: dang, this girl is too damn normal and perfectly well-adjusted to have been sexually-abused for all this time.

So I am conflicted about this book. It is surely a brave book. It definitely sheds a light on the sexual cruelty going on in many churches — black and white — throughout Christendom. It actually calls a penis a penis. This book will probably be a healing balm and stepping off point for discussions for those who read it. At the same time it will definitely offend many of its readers who simply don’t want to think about sexual cruelty…or sex, period. But for me it felt like a fictionalized thesis with the main theme being: Speak Up. Which, of course, is an important theme.

The problem is probably with me. I wanted Deep Dark Secret to be deep and dark. I wanted it to rip my heart out. It doesn’t. I’ll admit thought that as I began reading its pages, I suspected my heart was in hopeful Christian hands. The African-American fiction earmarks of normalcy, and the Christian Fiction hope of restoration were already apparent by page three. They were unspoken requirements, after all. I find myself wondering if I’m a curmudgeon or if I’ve been reading too many harrowing books on the effects of sexual molestation. I’d hate to think that I’m a Christian who belittles hope. I don’t think I do. Maybe I just retreat a bit from easy normal hope. Yet, I am happy this book is written for the Christian community. It’s about time the Christian world discusses an issue that secular Young Adult writers have been discussing for a long while. Deep Dark Secret is not exactly an answer to secular YA books on sexual molestation in the religious community. But it definitely contributes to the conversation.

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  • Interesting discussion of the author-imposed and reader-imposed limitations on Christian fiction. You may also be interested in my new release, Angela 1: Starting Over, as it is unobtrusively imbued with Christian values but it is not preachy at all, while still dealing with serious issues of interest to all, Christian or not. If you want to know more, just click on my website. Thanks, and keep the reviews coming.