Thanks to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, sexual assault and harassment have been in the news more than ever, finally giving people the chance to stand up and speak out against behavior that has been accepted as the status quo for centuries.
Though novels can take years to make their way from an author’s brain to bookshelves, Rochelle B. Weinstein has found her latest novel debuting at precisely the perfect cultural moment. Somebody’s Daughter explores the disturbing rise in cyber-bullying, particularly cyber-sexual harassment, while also addressing broader questions of victim-shaming, double standards, and how women (and mothers) cope with unmerited guilt and shame.
When a video of Zoe Ross performing a sexual act at a high school party goes viral, her twin sister Lily and her parents Emma and Bobby Ross find their lives turned upside down as their family becomes thrust into a humiliating public scandal. For Emma, it also brings up a long-buried secret that she must contend with as she fights to save her family and her marriage.
EW called up Weinstein to find out what inspired her story, how intense research shaped the narrative, and what she hopes both parents and teenagers take away from the novel.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The novel deals with a growing concern — digital sexual harassment and the sharing of private sexual content with many parties via social media. What made you want to tackle this issue?
ROCHELLE B. WEINSTEIN: I am a mom. I am the mother of twin boys who are 18. I’ve watched them and their friends dive into the intricacies of what the internet can offer and I’ve seen an upsurge in this type of oversharing. I felt that parents today really just don’t understand the anomaly of the internet. We need to educate and we need to be responsible, and we need to understand both the psychological and the legal ramifications because this type of online sharing is actually a crime for minors.
The book certainly addresses the costs and consequences of certain choices, but it also has an understanding eye for what being a teenager is like. Was that something as a mom you were keen to include?
When people ask me why I wrote this book the answer is I wanted to educate people and I wanted to teach families to be more responsible, but one of the things I see in neighborhoods and communities around the globe is a lack of compassion for when teenagers or anybody makes a mistake. We all sit here in our glass houses and think that would never happen to my child, and we need to be better at understanding that people are imperfect and people make mistakes. Our reaction to these types of mistakes goes a long way in teaching our youth and our children. So yes, the empathy piece is so important to me.
Somebody’s Daughter is a provocative book title in the #MeToo era when prominent men have come under fire for relying on the “I have daughters, etc.” trope instead of acknowledging women are deserving of respect no matter their familial status. When you selected the title, were you purposely wanting to enter into that fray or comment on it?
Yes, I think that “somebody’s daughter,” it could be anybody’s daughter. It could be anybody’s child; it could be anybody’s sister. It could be anybody male or female because this is not just women. It symbolizes that this could happen to absolutely anybody. Somebody’s daughter is every daughter per se.
The book deals a lot with the culture of victim-shaming and how quickly we, especially women, are to blame ourselves in these situations — something the culture is now actively working to combat. How did you decide to engage with that subject and what do you hope women of all ages take away from the book?
I believe there is still that double standard, but that being said, I do believe it’s changing and it’s evolving and women are being seen in a different light. It’s important for all of us as moms teaching our daughters about respecting our body and owning our choices and respecting our decisions that men and women shouldn’t be treated differently in this spectrum. We all need to be treated equally.
You also really delve into the difference between the male and female reaction to this, particularly between the mother and father. Why was that a subject you wanted to explore and how did you find the balance?
I actually fell right into the stereotype. But I did want to show how there were different reactions. When I was interviewing some of the victims, these were some of the true stories. The mothers were a little more empathetic and understanding. I believe it happens both ways. It happens where a mother could be terribly disappointed and a father could be a little bit more understanding, but I just wanted to show both sides of this because both sides do occur. You have different types of reactions and I wanted both of those reactions to be exploited in the story.
You mentioned you interviewed some victims and their parents. Can you elaborate more on that and how that helped shape the book?
I worked with a woman, her name is Elisa D’Amico, and she was one of the co-founders of the Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project, which is an organization that does pro bono work for victims of revenge porn/cyber-sexual harassment. I interviewed these victims really to get an understanding of how damaging this was for them, how deeply it touched their lives and the lives of those around them, the ripple effect. I really wanted to get to the emotional core of what was going on inside their brains and one of the lines in the novel was actually from one of the victims. We were talking about why do people do this? And she said, “Hurt people, hurt people.” Their contribution to the book really gave it the emotional muscle that it has.
Can you walk me through your process — did you conduct interviews before you started writing or how did it work?
When I’m writing, I have my idea. Some authors are plotters and some authors are pantsers. I’m a little bit of both. I write women’s fiction, but I tend to write realistic women’s fiction, like real things that are occurring in our world today. I like to also delve into the emotional, psychological side. I knew that I wanted to shed light on this growing problem affecting our teens, and at the same time, incorporate the emotional piece to it — families and raising children. So, I started interviewing the victims very early on, before I even sat down to write. I needed to shape my characters and shape my stories based on some of their experiences. I had a bare-bones outline of where I was going, and then I interviewed them thoroughly before sitting down to really get the story down on paper.
When you were interviewing the victims and their families, did anything really surprise you or catch you off-guard?
There are two things going on in our world right now and one is revenge porn, which is where somebody with consent takes pictures for their boyfriend and then they break up and then it goes viral. And then there’s a surreptitious taping, you don’t know you’re being taped — that’s cyber-sexual harassment. There were a couple of things I learned. One of the things I was surprised by was how many people are consensually doing this and not even remotely afraid of any type of consequences. You see [it] whether it’s divorce, whether it’s a breakup, and those pictures are out there. A lot of people are doing this, and the lawyers who work at the Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project are advocating for these victims…all these laws are being implemented because of these victims. They should not be penalized for sharing with somebody that they love and trust. The other thing — and I understand the teenage brain isn’t fully developed but it really concerns me — is the psychological reasons for doing some of the postings. The need for likes and swipes is very concerning to me. We need to understand our kids better to understand why they need that type of validation.
In terms of Emma’s part of the story and her own shame from a past situation, was that something you also discovered in talking to parents — maybe not a secret on this scale, but it would dredge up their own past or concern about things they did when they were younger?
I wanted to show two different reactions to sexuality. Emma had her own reaction. She felt shame. And Zoe, who happens to be a 15-year-old girl, she was ashamed that her video went viral, but she wasn’t ashamed of the act. Why is it okay for a man to engage in a physical act, but it’s not always ok for a woman? We talk about double standards. I understand Zoe was young. I’m certainly not condoning any type of behavior, but it happens. I’m just very realistic. Zoe was an example of somebody — she was young, she was empowered, she was not going to let this defeat her or define her. The two different plot lines were really to show the differences in how women see themselves, but also how moms, dads too, take their earlier experiences and it shapes them and it shapes their parenting of their own children. And their judgments of their own children. In the beginning, this drudged up all of Emma’s own feelings because of her own shame. She eventually learns something from her daughter. She was able to open up her mind because of her daughter’s confidence.
What’s your advice to parents for preventing or dealing with a scandal of this nature?
I know this is going to sound like a weak answer, but I happen to believe it’s one of the strongest responses and that’s communicating with your children. We don’t get to hide anymore behind certain subjects. We need to have open lines of communication with our children. The internet’s strengths are its greatest weaknesses and it’s just a big challenge today for kids to [walk] this line. They have a tremendous amount of freedom right now, and it comes with a lot more responsibility. Talking to our kids and educating our kids so they understand the laws; they need to know that this is a crime. They need to understand long-term effects. As far as technological safety, I would say no sharing of passwords, covering the camera on your computer, some people are borderline paranoid of their surroundings. You always keep your phone and computer locked. For parents, there needs to be some type of applications to monitor your children and that will change as they evolve. You’re not going to have the same type of monitoring and controls for a 5th grader as you’re going to have for a 12th grader. Most importantly, if you don’t want something to get out there, don’t post it.
What do you hope young women take away from this book?
I hope they practice online safety. I hope they understand what motivates them to post incessantly. I hope they do a better job at showing compassion if someone they know finds themselves in any type of a scandal. It’s not just internet scandal. It’s the kid who gets in trouble for drugs, any type of trouble. We all need to do a better job at showing some type of compassion. I hope there’s some level of awareness of the power that they hold in their hands, of how they can hurt people, and how they can be hurt by it. Technology gives people the opportunity to hide behind a screen so we don’t see the flaws and the imperfections. We are all flawed, and we are all imperfect.
Somebody’s Daughter is now available wherever books are sold.