Friday, 27 July 2018

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Mental Illness in YA Month Review: Pointe by Brandy Colbert

Pointe by Brandy ColbertPointe by Brandy Colbert (Bought) - Theo is better now.

She's eating again, dating guys who are almost appropriate, and well on her way to becoming an elite ballet dancer. But when her oldest friend, Donovan, returns home after spending four long years with his kidnapper, Theo starts reliving memories about his abduction—and his abductor.

Donovan isn't talking about what happened, and even though Theo knows she didn't do anything wrong, telling the truth would put everything she's been living for at risk. But keeping quiet might be worse.
From Goodreads.

Trigger Warning: This book features paedophilia, rape, grooming, anorexia and self-harm.

Pointe by Brandy Colbert is an absolutely incredible novel and it completely broke my heart.

It's a completely different book from what I expected it to be. I thought it was going to be about Donovan's return, reconnecting with him, finding out what happened to him, and Theo seeming to know something about his abduction that would be able to help him. This is not that story. We don't even see Donovan until close to the end. No, this story is about what Theo coming to terms with some truths about her past, when she sees a photo in newspaper of the man who abducted Donovan, and realises it's her old ex-boyfriend. Trent, the 18-year-old boy she was going out with and having sex with when she was 13. Though it turns out his name isn't actually Trent, it's Chris. And he's 30 now, so four years ago, he wasn't 18 but 26. We, the readers, know straight away what this means, but Theo was so well groomed by Chris that she is questioning whether her ex-boyfriend is a creep - the actual word she used - or if, as Donovan knew him, too, her best friend ran away with her boyfriend.

This is not an easy read. Not at all. Even before Theo discovers that Trent is actually Chris, when we all believe her ex-boyfriend was 18, I was still really uneasy. That's still technically statutory rape, even if Trent was a nice guy who was genuinely interested in her. I questioned if he actually knew she was 13. But then we discover he did know, and told her not to tell anyone about him, because they wouldn't let them be together, they would think he was too old for her, and they wouldn't understand. So now alarm bells are ringing. Loudly. And we see some of those times when they have sex in the back of his car in a playground at night, and I feel really uneasy about it. And then the photo in the newspaper, and my worst fears are confirmed, but they're even worse than I originally thought. It's the first book I've read that deal with paedophilia and grooming, and it was a bit startling when I didn't expect it, but it was so powerful.

Theo really struggles with discovering it was Chris - now she knows his real name, she uses that instead of Trent. Two weeks before Donovan's disappearance, the boyfriend she loved so much simply vanished. He didn't split up with her, he didn't say goodbye, he was just gone, and she was heartbroken. And then her best friend disappears, too, and the bottom falls out of her world. She didn't put two and two together at the time - why would she? She was that well groomed. And Donovan is not talking, at all. And he's not seeing anyone either, so she can't even drop in, speak to him and see how he reacts to discover what is the truth. The fact that she can't already see the truth is so upsetting. Even if it turns out that Chris did abduct him rather than Donovan actually ran away with him, she still doesn't see or understand that her relationship with Chris wasn't a relationship at all, that he is a paedophile who repeatedly raped her. She still thinks of him as her ex-boyfriend throughout the whole story. There's one instance when she does confide in a fellow ballet student, Ruthie, about her relationship with Donovan's abductor. It takes someone else to say it for her to even think that what they did was wrong, and she refuses to believe it. Not only do we see how much she's been groomed by Chris, but also how rape culture has affected how she sees her own experiences.
'She says: "Theo, don't you know he raped you?"
Rape.
Rape.

Rape.
No. That's a word for what happens to women who get jumped on street corners or whose dates won't take no for an answer. I was in
love with Chris. He didn't force me to be with him or drop something in my drink so I didn't have a choice.
Sure, he was a little rough sometimes, but rape? It's what people think he did to Donovan, but he didn't do that to me. We had sex and he left without saying goodbye but he
didn't rape me.' (p249-250)
'Rape isn't meant to be this vague notion. It's a harsh reality and everyone knows what it is, can define it in two seconds flat. Chris didn't rape me.' (p265)
I have to say I was constantly frustrated with Theo because she couldn't see the truth, but my frustration would quickly turn to anger that Chris had done such a number on her that even now, now she's 17, she still can't see it. I felt sick every time there was a flashback rape scene (I will not call it a sex scene because it was not sex) - a non-graphic rape scene, but ones where you knew what was happening - between her and Chris, knowing what was happening, but Theo being completely oblivious, even if she was sometimes in pain, or uncomfortable, or felt used. I felt so angry and so sad over how she constantly referred to Chris as her ex-boyfriend or her boyfriend. It's not easy to read how well manipulated she has been, how brainwashed. It's so not easy.

All of the news comes out at the same time that her ballet teacher tells her that she is one of the ballet students she's putting forward for the Summer Intensive Auditions. And when she's starting to fall for Hosea, her friend Phil's dealer and the new pianist at her ballet school, who has a girlfriend. Then it comes out that Chris is pleading not guilty, which will mean, as the last person to speak to Donovan, Theo will have to testify. But what does she stay? She still doesn't know the truth. And if she tells people Chris was her boyfriend, they will only judge her and think bad of her, sex-shame her for having sex with such an older man. And then her ballet career will be over. This she is certain of. Even though she told Hosea she doesn't want anything to happen between them until he leaves his girlfriend, once she realises that nobody is going to want to know her once the truth comes out, if it comes out, she decides she wants to take what happiness she can now.

All of this - finding out Chris is Donovan's abductor, that she will have to testify, that Summer Intensives are coming up and she must be perfect, because that's the only thing she has going for her now, and hiding her relationship with Hosea, a relationship that is majorly unhealthy, as she seems to need his kisses and his touch - causes her to relapse with her anorexia. Originally, she became anorexic when Chris disappeared without a trace. Certain foods reminded her of him, and every time she was reminded, she would hurt. So she stopped eating them and would avoid them. Then she started looking on pro-anorexia websites, and started the rainbow "diet", where she'd only eat one coloured food a day. She ended up in Juniper Hills, a facility run by hippies to help those with eating disorders. She ended up back on track, but now everything is too much for her, and she's fallen back into old habits. It's a form of control; she can't control anything around Donovan and Chris, and the news that keeps coming out. She can't control how it affects her. She can't control what ill happen if she tells the truth. But she can control what she eats. She keeps herself focused and stops from giving in whenever she's tempted to eat something by self-harming; she pinches the skin just beneath her ribcage painfully, until it drowns out her hunger, a constant bruise left on her skin. But more than control, it's also a distraction from everything else.
'Or we could forgo the meal altogether, something I've been doing more of lately. Not full force, like before. I know not to go too far. But with the trial eight weeks away, I need something to keep my mind off the fact that I still haven't talked to Donovan.
[...]
Thinking about food--exactly what I'll eat and when and exactly how much--helps keep my mind off the trial and the fact that I have no idea what to say when I get up on the stand. Marking down what I eat every day deters me from obsessing about how many days I have left until the trial.' (p185-186)
'The pizza here is mediocre but it's hard to fuck up a slice of cheese, which is what I really wanted to order.
But the less I eat, the stronger I feel. A few flashes of weakness, constant rumbling in my stomach--it's worth it. If I can sustain my willpower with food, I can do anything. Like face Chris in court next week. Decide what I'm going to say. Survive.'
(p262)
I really felt Theo's anorexia was dealt with extremely well, though I've never had anorexia, so I can't talk about it with any authority. But it did feel right. It wasn't the focus of the story, it was one of many elements, but the reason she became anorexic in the first place, and why she's relapsed felt true to Theo's experience, to what was happening in her life.

What I felt was particularly great about the mental illness rep in this story was how there were other people who had mental illness, even if they're people who are only mentioned rather than actually seen on page. Donovan has selective mutism, and Theo's friend Sara Kate comments that, when looking it up, she discovered that people with PTSD get selective mutism "all the time" (p265) - this is during a conversation with Phil and Theo, where Theo was asks whether they think Donovan was abused, as he's not talking and there's no evidence. Hosea mentions that his mum has Agoraphobia, and Ruthie also mentions that her mum has Bipolar. It's not exactly mentioned casually, the characters talking about their mothers' mental illnesses are in context with the conversations that Theo has with them, but I just thought it was awesome that other people with mental illnesses also featured in Pointe, even if only briefly. And Pointe is an all round diverse novel; Theo is black (making this novel #OwnVoices), as is Donovan, and Phil is Latino.

Pointe is such an incredible, heartbreaking novel, one that shows the healing and coming to terms with the past after experiencing something so horrific. It's a difficult read, but a really powerful and important one. I absolutely loved it, and couldn't recommend it enough.

Mental Illness in YA Month

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Published: 4th August 2015
Publisher: Speak
Brandy Colbert's Website

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