Damaged Girls, or, How Putney Subverts the Lolita Trope
CW: sexual violence and trauma. Originally published
The loudspeaker has been streaming the voices of white men in—well, the list goes on: politics, art, history, etc., etc., and, in a particularly excessive case, literature. I do not want to repeat what should be obvious, but this disclaimer seems to be necessary: no, I do not hate all white men. Yes, I am aware that not all men actively support the diminishment and suppression of non-white and non-male voices. However, all white men do in fact benefit from a brutal and intractable history of white supremacy, in institutions and in art-making. White men have inherently held access to a club in which they were, for so long, the reigning members. White men have held the social capital and positions to make art, to write books, and to make a profit from it. They have made and continue to make some excellent, canon-defining work. I don’t deny this.
The loudspeaker, though, needs to play something else. The monotony must crackle, must be disrupted. To amplify only white and male voices is to insist that those voices are the only important ones. Or worse: that those voices can speak for everyone.
Literary history teems with non-white-dude writers, with brilliant and sizzling work that defies the master narrative, but here’s the buried, barbed wound: when we talk about certain experiences, our cultural understanding of those experiences may have been shaped largely, even solely, by the master narrative, by those with the most amplified voices. When speaking about sexual violence in particular, I see a gash in our discourse. How we even think about sexual violence, about victimhood and its intricacy, might come from the story we’ve been taught, a story not everyone had the opportunity to participate in telling. Thus, when a piece of literature which cuts this cycle off comes along, which subverts and upturns the mono-narrative, I feel a roaring need to talk about that piece. To urge everyone to read it. So let’s talk about Putney, a new novel written by Sofka Zinovieff. The novel takes place in the eponymous district of Putney, London. At its center is the “relationship” between a young girl and an adult man, leading into the intractable damage that “relationship” inflicts on multiple lives.
I thought about Lolita when I read Putney. I’ve read Lolita more than once, and although Nabokov’s prose is irresistible, the novel influences our cultural psyche more so than any actual survivor’s story. We all know Humbert Humbert’s voice; we do not hear Lolita’s. Which is the point, but also a knot to untie, because Nabokov cannot be the beginning and end of our discourse.
Victims, or survivors, go manipulated, disfigured, narrowed by the gaze of their imprisoners. The eroticization of trauma: how we disown Dolores of her voice and gloss her fractured world with seductive, allusion-heavy language, silky imagery tarping gore. White male writers have excavated suffering that does not belong to them. They’ve made paintings from the hurt of Damaged Girls. So popular is the male obsession with “damaged” girlhood that it can be called a trope. Alice Bolin talks about the “Dead Girl Trope,” referring to America’s morbid fetishization of and obsession with the deaths of pretty white girls, and I can flesh out a similar sort of song in the books we read. Men telling us about broken (almost always white) girls, their brokenness raw inspiration for art. Why is it that we only collectively obsess over the deaths of one type of victim: pretty, white, female?
That’s why Putney feels like an opening of some infected, yellowing wound. An opening of a constricted chest. I can breathe because the “broken girl” is much, much more than what the man who did the breaking understands of her. Putney emerges from entanglement: how acts of sexual violence and manipulation, perpetrated overwhelmingly by men, are not momentary. These acts cannot be dismissed as impulses, whims, flights of passion, because they have the damning potential to twist their victims inside and out. The aftermath of sexual abuse is not quiet, easy, or necessarily coherent, Putney says. A cyclical groan rather than a linear scream.
It is tricky to summarize this novel. It almost feels like a retort to everything the novel embodies: the fragmentation, incoherence, debris, and time-warping of trauma. If you were to summarize, we read from three distinct perspectives: a victim, the perpetrator, and a friend of the victim. This easy paradigm shatters as the novel progresses, though. Daphne, “the victim,” is in her forties, living in London with her newly-teenage daughter, and the real, difficult meat of the novel doesn’t quite emerge until she herself recognizes it. We twist time, slip back and forth, into the stages of a complicated, unsettling, shifting relationship between Daphne, as a child, and a seemingly charming, eccentric friend of her parents named Ralph. This “relationship,” as Daphne calls it, cannot be called such a thing at all, but how unnerving it is to feel the gut-churn of knowing an abuser’s manipulation from the experience of the manipulated herself. We are not romanticizing anymore. When we see young Daphne twisted into this man’s charming, attentive web, girlhood goes rotten. Our urge to witness the “ruin” of young girls, lost. Nothing seductive or okay about this.
Daphne embodies this entanglement; she never outlives her trauma. She reconstructs it into something she can stomach: a “relationship.” A consensual relationship at that, one she need not question. Daphne lives the oft-quoted truth of Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Is that a good thing? Is it better to cement the darkest darks of our lives into palatable stories, to make our pasts manageable? Daphne perhaps could not find any other way to coexist with her childhood—storytelling thus is a coping mechanism, a way of survival.
She considers herself a victim until she doesn’t. Self-understanding circling itself. Words like “victim,” Putney contemplates, may not always feel adequate or even right. Neither does “survivor,” all the time. The layers upon layers of self cannot be made digestible through such terms. We need Daphne because she is a woman, a person, and her trauma affects her without defining her. We need Daphne because to make Lolita Lolita instead of thinking about Dolores, defined through her relation to Humbert, is to disown her of herself. Those whom we call victims don’t belong to those who traumatized them. The aftermath of trauma does not belong to those who traumatized them. We consume hollowness when we accept the Damaged Girl as an adequate representation of trauma—that girl is known to us only through what men say out loud. What men shape into art.
To maybe “understand” someone does not mean I forgive him, or think him worthy of any redemption. I like Putney because we humanize Ralph without excusing him. We recognize abuse not only as the masked stranger in the alleyway but, more often than not, the person we know, the person we think knows us back. A person we think we trust. To alienate sexual violence as a monstrosity that only anomalously, obviously terrible men commit erases how common, how omnipresent it actually is. It lives everywhere, lurks and swells, and we cannot pretend we don’t see it. We cannot say, ever again, that Lolita seduced Humbert—because yes, some believe that. To me, Putney can be interpreted dangerously, too, as a meditation on the complexities of consent, but for me, to see the sweet-faced facade of an abuser dishevel itself only insisted that no, consent is never really that complicated. No, we just hate to recognize monstrosity when it has such a human and familiar face.