, , , , , , , ,

whatwesawMarch 2016 Discussion – Young Adult – What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler

About the book:

Kate Weston can piece together most of the bash at John Doone’s house: shots with Stacey Stallard, Ben Cody taking her keys and getting her home early—the feeling that maybe he’s becoming more than just the guy she’s known since they were kids.  But when a picture of Stacey passed out over Deacon Mills’s shoulder appears online the next morning, Kate suspects she doesn’t have all the details. When Stacey levels charges against four of Kate’s classmates, the whole town erupts into controversy. Facts that can’t be ignored begin to surface, and every answer Kate finds leads back to the same question: Where was Ben when a terrible crime was committed?  This story—inspired by real events—from Aaron Hartzler takes an unflinching look at silence as a form of complicity. It’s a book about the high stakes of speaking up, and the razor thin line between guilt and innocence that so often gets blurred, one hundred and forty characters at a time.

About the author:

Aaron Hartzler is the author of Rapture Practice (Little, Brown), a memoir about getting kicked out of his Christian high school two weeks before graduation. The New York Times called Rapture Practice “effervescent and moving, evocative and tender.” It was also named one of Kirkus Reviews and Amazon’s Best Books of 2013, and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award.

This is a very topical YA novel.  To set the scene we outlined the real events that occurred in Steubenville Ohio.


The Steubenville High School rape occurred in Steubenville, Ohio, population 18 355 (2013), on the night of August 11, 2012. A high-school girl, incapacitated by alcohol, was publicly and repeatedly sexually assaulted by her peers, several of whom documented the acts on social media.  On March 17, 2013, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were convicted of rape after the trial judge found that it was impossible for the incapacitated girl to have given consent.  A brief summary of the media coverage revealed the following details:

  • On December 24, 2012, following national newspaper coverage, the hacker collective Anonymous threatened to reveal the names of other unindicted alleged participants
  • On March 17, 2013, CNN’s Poppy Harlow stated that it was,

    Incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart…when that sentence came down, [Ma’lik] collapsed in the arms of his attorney…He said to him, ‘My life is over. No one is going to want me now.’

  • CNN, Fox News and MSNBC aired unedited footage that revealed the first name of the rape victim
  • Saltsman v. Goddard concerned an effort by two parents of a teenage boy from Steubenville to stop blogger Alexandria Goddard’s website from publishing allegedly defamatory posts about their son, Cody Saltsman.

An issue that came to the forefront through this media coverage and subsequent trial was that of adult accountability.

  • On October 8, 2013, the grand jury returned the first indictment of an adult in the case. William Rhinaman, the IT director for Steubenville City Schools, was charged with one count each of tampering with evidence, obstruction of justice, obstruction of a public official and grand jury perjury
  • A former football coach was indicted on several misdemeanour counts; including allowing underage drinking and making false statements to public officials, and an elementary school Principal and a wrestling coach were indicted on charges of failure to report child abuse or neglect.

Our discussion opened with the idea of the issue of consent and we talked about the current YouTube campaign “Why Sexual Consent is Just like Offering Someone a Cup of Tea” with slogans such as, “If someone is unconscious don’t make them a cup of tea”.  Although this is a satirical take on a very serious subject it does give a simple perspective.  As noted by the characters in the novel, “Not being able to say no isn’t the same as saying yes” (Hartzler, 2015). It was commented that it would be good to do some short readings from the text with our senior boys and girls before they go off to Schoolies. Potential issues to be discussed include alcohol, bullying, sexual abuse and date rape.

We spent some time articulating what we felt, some of us as teachers, some of us as parents of adolescent males, about the destructive elements of male culture.  We discussed the idolisation of sport in general and the hero worship of male school sports players (referred to in the media as ‘stars’ and ‘heroes’).  We talked about this, particularly in the context of a small town, like Steubenville, but it is also applicable to Australian small towns where sport is revered.  For a further exploration of this in an Australian context in AFL we recommended Anna Krein’s Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport, which is now compulsory reading in some Australian sporting clubs for new recruits.

Some of the issues that equally enraged and disillusioned us were the consistent double standards; particularly regarding female sexuality.  Quotes such as “boys will be boys”, “#r&P” (rape and pillage hashtag) are just a few examples of the entrenched ideas in the town.  We felt that some of the characters were stereotypical, although we understood that characters such as Rachel, with her religious overtones, provided a mouthpiece for some generally understood beliefs such as,

All I’m saying is there are rules. You don’t get wasted. You don’t take off your top. You don’t flirt with raging drunks. You don’t dress like a slut. You have to play by the rules. If you don’t, this is what happens.

(Hartzler, 2015, p244).  It was also interesting to look at the actions of the adults in the town and we commented that as educators we do, and should, take our role as protecting all our students as our responsibility.

We tossed around several theories to determine what it is about human nature that allows people to turn a blind eye to what is happening around them.  The idea of fear and difference was raised.  It was okay to feel that Stacey deserved this attack because she was a ‘tramp’, because she lived in a poorer side of town, she had been previously sexually active and she was also completely inebriated.  These facts allow the other girls in the town to feel safe, to feel that this could not happen to them because they do not exhibit those behaviours.  This shocks Kate who realises that what happened to Stacey that night could so easily have happened to her, had she not been looked after by Ben.  Rather than confronting the behaviour of the boys it is far easier to blame the victim and far less challenging to the status quo.  As Kate notes several times, “Nothing is exactly as it appears. The closer you look, the more you see.” (Hartzler, 2015, p61). Justice for the boys, whose families are wealthy and influential, is vastly different from justice for Stacey who lives in a “trailer park” and her single mother is a waitress.

We also discussed the idea of the Bystander Effect – an effect where the greater the number of bystanders around, the less likely it is that emergency aid will be given; in summary, larger numbers inhibit an individual’s action.  It was noted that it would take a particular kind of teenager, with great courage, to stand up to his or her peers in a scenario where the assault took place.  On one level it is easy to understand a teen being paralysed by indecision and fear to act. The addition of copious amounts of alcohol would also limit teen’s ability to take any action.  Again, after the event, it is much easier to blame the victim rather than look at the actions of each person who witnessed the event.

It was impressive that one of the most eloquent discussions in the novel came from a male teacher,

Words have MEANINGS. When you say you ‘can’t help yourself’ if a girl is wasted, that means something, too. You’re saying that our natural state as men is ‘rapist.’ That’s not okay with me.

(Hartzler, 2015, p283).  This is a great chapter where the teacher discusses with all the students some strategies for helping someone who is so inebriated that they have no control.  The scene where Kate confronts her brother about the “rating system” of the girls in his class also raises some very thought-provoking points.

We were glad that Stacey and Kate did not miraculously reunite, although it was noted that the description of Stacey’s trailer as “the nicest place in the neigborhood” (Hartzler, 2015, p.143) was an unnecessary detail. We queried the implication that what happened to her was worse because, although poor, her home was tidy and respectable. Whilst it was found to be a very important story some members thought that the Irish writer Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It, which is from the victim’s perspective, was much more hard hitting and disturbing.  As this novel was from a bystander’s point of view and not Stacey’s there was greater emotional distance.

In ending our discussion we noted how far Young Adult fiction has come.  It was also commented that even ten years ago it would be rare to find a book dealing with this topic in this detail on a school library shelf.  Although these issues, and particularly the issue of sexual content, is getting much more media coverage we reminded ourselves how far we have to go.  Two advertisements from USA publications in 2015 were shown as examples of the media condoning a rape culture.  Both of these advertisements were withdrawn after public complaints.  Firstly, the Bloomingdales’ Christmas Catalogue which shows two people in work wear with the woman looking away and smiling whilst a man gazes at her.


The caption reads, “Spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking”, and secondly, the Budweiser advertisement, “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary”. 


Whilst the media is still showing these types of advertisements (the Budweiser commercial shown during sporting games) it is no wonder that young people, particularly males, receive conflicting messages about consent and societal expectations.

We recommended this novel for Year 10 and up.