Jessica Knoll is the author of Luckiest Girl Alive, which is the story of Ani, a woman who appears to have a perfect life. However, Ani is hiding a dark secret of public humiliation that has left her desperate to reinvent herself. For a very long time, Knoll kept it a secret that the story of the main character, Ani, was not fiction but rather a very real story about Knoll’s own gang rape. In an essay written for Lenny Letter entitled “What I Know: Why I’m coming clean about the real rape informing my novel, Luckiest Girl Alive,” Knoll reveals the unsettling truth: what happened to Ani in her book really happened to Knoll when she was only fifteen years old.
In the Lenny Letter essay, Knoll discusses the dedication in her book, which reads, “To all the TifAni FaNellis of the world, I know.” When asked by her readers what she meant by that dedication, she had responded that she only meant that she knew what it was like to be an outsider, to not belong. However, in a recent article by Buzzfeed, Knoll stated, “I’m scared that people won’t call what happened to me rape because for a long time, no one did.”
When Knoll’s literary agent read the manuscript for Luckiest Girl Alive, she did describe what happened to Ani as rape. The agent was unaware that by doing so, she was confirming that what happened in Knoll’s life was indeed a violent sexual act, and not just “boys being boys.” Only one other person in Knoll’s life had ever referred to the incident as such, and that person had been her therapist. Everyone else had blown it off, swept it under the rug, and pretended it never happened. When Knoll confronted her rapist and used the actual word rape, she later apologized to him because she was terrified of the consequences of speaking up. After all, her locker had already been vandalized, and fellow students had vilified her as a “slut.”
But readers saw the story for what it was – a story of a gang rape. A story of trauma. A story that eloquently, yet terrifyingly details what happens to many at the hands of people who have no regard for boundaries and human decency. People read that story and recognized it for what it really was. In turn, they wanted to know where Knoll got the knowledge to tell the story so well. Did she research a real rape victim, they asked? What did she mean when she said, "I know" ?
“Fuck it,” Knoll says. “What do I know? I’ve come to a simple, powerful revelation. Everyone is calling it rape now. There’s no reason to cover my head. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t say what I know.”
Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones, a story of the rape and murder of a young girl named Susie, wrote her memoir in 1999. Lucky tells Sebold’s story of being beaten and raped by a stranger and his resulting arrest and conviction. When she reported her attack to the police, they had told her that she was lucky to be alive.
What do Sebold’s and Knoll’s stories have in common besides rape? The notion that they are both “lucky” in some way. As if luck has anything to do with it. As if luck calculates into both of these women living with the knowledge that they have been violated. As if luck includes reliving those haunting events day in and day out. How is that lucky? How is it even close?
The good that comes from these women’s stories – from their lack of luck – is the hope that, by sharing their stories, they are raising awareness and helping other people see that it is okay to speak up. Sebold wrote Lucky to bring more awareness. “One of the reasons why I wrote it is because tons of people have similar stories, not exactly the same but similar, and I wanted the word ‘rape’ to be used easily in conversation. My desire would be that somehow my writing would take a little bit of the taboo or the weirdness of using that word away. No one work is going to accomplish the years of work that need to be done, but it can help.”
I read Lucky in 1999 when it came out, and I don’t remember there being much attention given to Sebold being a sexual assault survivor. Maybe I’m wrong. It was seventeen years ago: there was no Facebook or Twitter. People couldn’t weigh in with their thoughts as easily as we do now. There was no common place for people around the world to all gather and share their feelings after they read the books. But I do know that now, in 2016, Jessica Knoll and The Luckiest Girl Alive are everywhere I look. People are noticing.
While it is heartbreaking that Knoll never felt that she could say, “This terrible thing happened to me and I need help” before now, it’s amazing that other people have supported her through her fictional character, Ani. It’s remarkable that support led to her feeling comfortable enough to tell us the truth about what happened to her. It is even more incredible that because of her speaking out, other people will be encouraged to do the same.
“The response to the Lenny Letter from social media has been positively overwhelming,” Knoll says. “We live in a much different world now than we did seventeen years ago, when Lucky came out." She adds, "I've been floored by the number of people who have contacted me and thanked me for being so vocal. I never thought my story would reach this far."
Nothing about the experiences that Knoll or Sebold endured is lucky. But it is lucky for survivors, past, present, and future, that their stories are being told.