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Excruciating detail, and survival after a brutal sexual assault

The Way I Used to Be

By Amber Smith

Simon & Schuster

372 pages, $17.99


By Stephanie Shapiro

As 14-year-old Edy begins to wake from a deep sleep, “He used one hand – just one – to hold both my arms over my head, grinding my wrist bones together. He kept the other hand around my throat, constricting every time I made any sound.”

Why doesn’t she yell? After her brother’s best friend, the fair-haired pet of her parents, stuffs her whole nightgown into her mouth and throat, “No sound could get out of my mouth and no air could get in.” The whole nightgown.

Maybe she passes out, maybe not. The seemingly never-ending attack just takes a few minutes, from 2:48 a.m. to 2:53 a.m., and potentially the rest of Edy’s life. So much happens in those few minutes that Edy never really forgets it all, but parts of the nightmare fade in and out of her memory from time to time. Stress and strong emotion are said to cloud the cognitive workings of our brains, so that only long after an insult can we think of a snappy retort. Edy’s memory clears and clouds, her grades fall apart.

Amber Smith focuses on the odd details we notice in times of panic: the minutes on the clock, the day-of-the-week underwear thrown to the floor, the loose thread that gives way as the nightgown is torn off Edy’s body and jammed into her mouth. Smith, an artist as well as an author, also knows how to smudge impressions and how to convey the cloudy ways we think of and remember events.

Has she sketched or painted the central scene of this nightmare? Her words have painted it with such surgical precision and at the same time chaotic, indistinct menace that the disorientation of these mostly teenage characters starts to feel approximately normal.

Smith’s precision and care for details shows up when Edy shovels the driveway after 2 feet of snow fall in a couple of days. By the time she reaches the bottom of the driveway, she is “the center of this frozen nowhere suburb-scape.”

Smith’s authenticity shows: “At the rate the snow is falling, it looks like I never even started shoveling.” Who here hasn’t been there, done that?

After the sexual assault and all its brutality, Edy no longer wants to be that girl:

“I’m not her anymore. I don’t even want to be her anymore. That girl who was so naive and stupid – the kind of girl who could let something like this happen to her.” This dissociation between herself and what happened to her keeps turning up as Edy tries to destroy her old, “naive” identity and takes on a hardboiled, promiscuous self.

The split begins immediately: “he growled in my ear – her ear, her ear.”

She watches herself slide into, well, depravity. “I’ve been with fifteen different guys – sometimes it seems like too many, other times it seems like not nearly enough,” she says of her efforts to control what happens to her, however sordid.

What could possibly be wrong? In the library, she passively sees symptoms, such as, “With each turn of the page, I notice my hands trembling more and more.” So? She pays no attention. Is the tremor from the gallons of alcohol she consumes an effect of the trauma? Does it matter?

The massive amount of research Smith put into this novel gives it the authenticity from start to finish. She does not spell out interviews with rape survivors, trauma experts or other possible sources, but every paragraph rings true.

“No one will ever believe you,” the attacker tells her, just as rapists forever have slammed their victims with threats. He verbally threatens to kill her if she tells. He also physically threatens any shred of well-being she may have, without a word, creeping up behind her as she washes dishes and running his hands over her body.

A reader may wonder whether this is a literary work or a padded pamphlet. At the end of the book, a page contains contact information about where to call for help. Be assured this is no pamphlet, any more than “The Grapes of Wrath” was. It is a full-fledged novel with characters who develop, deteriorate and, at the very end, begin to put their lives back together.

As Edy gathers the courage to accuse her attacker, she briefly depends on her boyfriend’s emotional support: “I get the feeling that that his arms are the only thing holding these broken pieces of me together.” That is a beginning, and she builds on it.

“Out of his arms, I’m still here. I didn’t crumble to pieces. . . I feel like, for once in my life, I might really have some control over what happens next, instead of this perpetual nightmarish loop my life seems to be cycling.” She has come full circle and goes beyond establishing her own identity.

She starts to understand something: “That this isn’t all about me. This thing, it touches everyone.”

Significantly, the Children’s Publishing Division of Simon & Schuster has published “The Way I Used to Be” for ages 14 and up. It may be a bit strong for some teens, and for some older readers, but tells exactly how lives change after such attacks and how to understand some of it.

One little quirk may be picked up by really bookish readers: The detective who helps Edy through her inability to speak is named Dorian Dodgson. It has to have something to do with underlining the craziness and weird twists in survivors’ lives. In Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” a portrait hidden in an attic shows the distortions of Gray’s character as he sinks into depravity. And Charles Lutwidge Dodgson wrote the Alice in Wonderland books, including “Through the Looking Glass,” under the pen name Lewis Carroll.

Is it Lutwidge? Is it Ludwig? Get it? 

Stephanie Shapiro is a former News reporter and editor.