Last month, I once again had the opportunity to speak with Julia Dahl, author of one of my all-time favorite mystery series, about her latest novel, The Missing Hours (available now for pre-order and due out on Tuesday, September 14th from Minotaur Books). The novel, which I should note is not a continuation of the series, centers around college freshman Claudia Castro and what happens to her one night during her spring break, is an exceptionally well written must-read that readers are sure to find compelling, timely and exceedingly relevant — particularly, I would argue, given some of the more recent developments in this country. Read on to see what she had to say about how the book came about, the impact of sexual assault on both the victims and those around them, the justice system, family dynamics, and much more.
Andrew DeCanniere: First and foremost, I always find it interesting to learn a little bit about the story behind the story. So, how did you decide to tackle this topic? How did you decide that this, specifically, is something you wanted to write about?
Julia Dahl: The book came, as a lot of my books do, from articles I’d written as a reporter. When I was working at CBS News, back in 2012, I covered a story out of Steubenville, Ohio, where a bunch of teenage boys raped a girl at a party, someone had taken pictures of it, and they sent the pictures around town — to other peoples’ phones. It was all kind of hush-hush until it started leaking out, and eventually there was an investigation. A couple of boys were arrested and, eventually, convicted. I covered that case as a reporter. I covered the trial, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about the girl, and about what it would be like to know that pictures of you — she was blackout drunk — had been sent around and you’d never know who had seen them. You could be meeting people, and they had seen you at your most vulnerable — at your worst — but you wouldn’t even know that. I just couldn’t stop thinking about that. I just couldn’t stop thinking about her family, as well. I have a sister, and I thought about what it would be like if something like that had happened to her. What it would be like for me, for my parents, and for our friends to watch somebody we loved go through this double or triple victimization. You’ve been sexually abused, and then you are victimized by having that abuse repeated constantly by being shown to people. That was in my head for years, and I knew I wanted to write about that. Around the same time, there was this big push — between about 2012 and 2014 — for colleges to get more active in terms of investigating sexual assaults on campus, as well as in terms of helping victims find some measure of justice on campus. I did a bunch of articles on that, and I profiled two young women who had sued the University of North Carolina after they reported their assaults, and they felt like they were totally dismissed. So, I kind of married those two — that victimization by being both assaulted and videotaped, and then having it be something that happens on campus. I’ve done a lot of research on campus sexual assault. Very often, it happens Freshman year, when you are newly out of your parents’ nest and you’re experimenting. Maybe you haven’t done a lot of drinking in high school and, all of a sudden, you have more access to more alcohol — and maybe to more drugs — and you’re making mistakes. I just really wanted to write about that.
I also wanted to write about it because I have felt like “There but for the grace of God go I.” There were many times where I, as a college student — and even beyond, as a young person in my twenties living in New York City — have gotten so drunk that I needed help getting home. I just happened to be lucky enough that the people — multiple times they were men, who were either friends of mine or maybe a boyfriend — got me safely home. They absolutely could have taken advantage of me, but they didn’t. I wanted to write about that, in part, because I really want to focus on the male behavior — not the female behavior. I really wanted to write about the experience of someone who was assaulted, and the helplessness of that, but also about the explosive consequences. One violent act can reverberate through multiple lives.
Andrew DeCanniere: Well, I certainly feel as though The Missing Hours truly is such a well-written and exceptionally relevant book. It does feel that though we, as a nation, ought to be further along when it comes to many of the issues you explore — issues of consent, sexual assault, and justice for victims, to name but a few — but rather than making progress it feels like this country is stuck in some kind of endless cycle. So, I certainly think that we need to keep talking about these issues, no matter how difficult or unpleasant they might be, rather than allowing these things to once again fade into the background. Hopefully, through continued discussion and increased awareness, people like Chad will be brought to justice. One thing that was particularly striking in the book is how Chad’s father seems to think his son sexually assaulting a girl ought to be looked upon and treated as some sort of simple youthful indiscretion — a mistake — rather than what it really is. What it really is, obviously, is a crime. Chad didn’t make a mistake. He committed a felony.
Dahl: Yeah. I think that there certainly still is this sense that “Boys will be boys.” That some adolescent boys are allowed to “make mistakes,” and that there should not be consequences for those mistakes. Of course, non-white adolescent boys make mistakes, and they are more likely to face criminal justice consequences. Among some, there is this sense that behaving violent sexually is something that every boy has to go through or something. “Oh, I drank too much. I can’t be responsible for myself.” The reality is men, typically, are bigger and stronger and can overpower a woman. Thus, they should have the responsibility of that reality.
DeCanniere: Thankfully, I do think that “Boys will be boys” has become somewhat less common over time. I do stress somewhat. I will say that I am aware that it is an attitude that some still have. I think you can even see this sort of double-standard in the way that some parents think about their son being sexually active versus their daughter. It’s as if there was this antiquated idea that their son ought to be out, sowing their oats, so to speak. Personally, I find that notion absolutely ridiculous. If they had a daughter that acted similarly, I think it is fair to say that quite often that would not have been the response she would have received. They would not have felt it a natural thing to do, or that it’s something she ought to be doing. It almost certainly would not have been viewed as some sort of rite of passage, in the way that it often would have been when it comes to boys. So, it just strikes me as very bizarre that there was all this judgment and all of these labels reserved for girls, and yet if a boy engaged in the exact same behavior, it was viewed as perfectly natural for them to do so.
Dahl: Right. There’s not really an equivalent of “slut” for men.
DeCanniere: Exactly. There doesn’t seem to be that sort of a label for men. If there is one, it doesn’t immediately come to my mind, and certainly doesn’t seem to be as widely or liberally applied. If you were to ask me, that is a good illustration of how unequal things are in our society. I mean, there are many other double-standards as well, but that illustrates this particular one quite well.
I think that this also goes back to what you were saying initially, about how you wanted to focus on the male behavior. I would hope that, in most any society, if someone — particularly a man — sees someone under the influence, I would also hope that most people would not try and exploit the situation.
Dahl: Right. And that’s really what it is. Women are sort of blamed. “Oh well, she got so drunk. What did she expect?” Well, she did not expect to be the victim of a crime. You don’t say that about other crimes. You don’t say “She got so drunk, she should’ve expected to be murdered,” or “She got so drunk, she should have expected to be the victim of a theft.” That’s only said about sexual assault — or especially with sexual assault. There’s this sense that, if you are intoxicated, you are asking for it. I just think that’s appalling.
DeCanniere: Absolutely. I think it’s as ridiculous as blaming someone for what they’re wearing — or what they’re not wearing, as the case may be.
Dahl: Right. And we do that. When I was in the news world, one of the sort of ugly secrets about how we cover crimes is that there is this term, “clean victim” versus “dirty victim.” A “clean victim” is given more positive press coverage if they are the victim of a crime. A “dirty victim” could be somebody who may be a sex worker, or has a mental illness or a drug addiction. There’s this sense of “Well, they were living a dangerous life. We’re not going to spend that much time on it if they get kidnapped, or if they get murdered, or if they get sexually assaulted.” I don’t agree with that, and I wanted to write a book because I believe everyone deserves justice and empathy.
I created the character of Claudia who, in many ways, is not a terribly sympathetic person. She has a ton of privilege because she’s extremely wealthy and beautiful, and she’s famous in that her family is famous. Because she’s sort of sexy, and she plays off of her sexuality, there’s also this sense of “She asked for it.” For the reader, I wanted to challenge the reader that even if you don’t like Claudia — even if you think she’s kind of a snob, which she is, and that she’s privileged and careless, even people you do not like deserve justice. She realizes pretty quickly that’s how people are going to see her. They’re going to see her as someone who is unsympathetic because, for one, she got too drunk and because she sort of flaunts her sexuality, plus she’s wealthy. Her wealth, in a way, makes her unlikeable and makes everybody go “She’ll be fine. She’s rich. It doesn’t matter.” However, the trauma of sexual assault doesn’t care how much money you have or don’t have or where you live. I wanted to challenge readers to face the fact that they maybe don’t like her, but I hope by the end of the book, they feel that she does still deserve justice.
DeCanniere: Absolutely. I don’t think we should be judging people based on whether they have money, or on how much money they do or do not have or anything like that. I also think you touched on something that I found interesting as well — having or not having money seems to loom fairly large. As you said, the fact that she comes from a wealthy family seems to work against her. She’s seen as this privileged person. By contrast, when it comes to Trevor and his family, without giving anything away here, I think it is fair to say that their not having money works against them.
Dahl: I’m glad you saw that, because I wanted to show how the justice system can, and often does, fail people across the spectrum. Claudia is the victim of a kind of crime that rarely sees a conviction, even though she has all the privilege that you could want. She could get a great lawyer. She has a voice in that she is educated and her family has money. Still, she senses that no one is going to believe her, and no one is going to believe that she deserves anything other than an eye roll for what happened to her. On the other side of the coin is someone like Trevor, whose family couldn’t afford a good lawyer, and that was sort of the death knell for his brother. Maybe, if they had more money, they would have gotten more justice. It’s sort of the idea that the justice system is so incredibly imperfect it is failing people all over the place. It’s failing certain kinds of victims. It’s failing people of a certain class. It’s failing people of a certain gender. It’s failing people of certain races.
DeCanniere: And the racial aspect is arguably why we saw a lot of the protests we saw last year — particularly last spring and summer.
Dahl: And I think that, as thinking Americans, many of us get this. We see the justice system doesn’t work for a lot of people. Either it doesn’t get justice for victims, or it victimizes people who get caught up in it. We’ve sort of recognized these problems for a long time, and the progress is just so slow. That’s something I’ve always written about, and something I think is really important as a writer and artist — to constantly hammer away at the systems I see are failing people. In my previous novels, I wrote about the justice system, but also about the world of a very insular religious community. While it works for some people, I felt it really didn’t work for a lot of people, and I wanted to highlight the things that I thought were unjust about it. With this book, I wanted to highlight some of the injustices I see constantly.
Mostly, this book is at some level about sexual assault, and that is mostly about women — although many men are victims of sexual assault as well. Actually, I just read a great book about a male victim of sexual assault called The Damage by Caitlin Wahrer. It’s been so interesting reading that book because a young man — a young college student — is sexually assaulted in that book. And so many of the same issues apply about “Well, he drank too much,” “He went home with the guy,” “We don’t believe him,” or “He’s just regretful.” Sexual assault victims are just not believed. I really wanted to dig into not only the problem with that, but into how the consequences of that reverberate throughout the rest of peoples’ lives — both the victim’s life and the lives of those connected to him or her.
DeCanniere: Absolutely. Though I cannot say that I know from any kind of personal experience, I will say that — from the little bit I have seen and heard in the media over the years — it seems that there is a bit of a different sort of stigma when it comes to men who’ve been sexually assaulted.
Dahl: Yeah. Absolutely. And this book — The Damage — really goes into that. The idea that “Could he really have been overpowered? He’s a young, strapping man.” Just the questioning of the victim. There’s so little of that in other crimes, but in sexual assault, the victim is the victim, but the victim is also the witness and the crime scene. So much burden is put on the victim in those crimes that it’s no wonder most people don’t report, and those who do report, frankly, end up dropping out of the process. It’s just too much on top of the trauma they’ve already experienced. So many of the people I talked to when I was reporting on sexual assault talked about the trauma of going through the criminal justice process. That’s just such a good example of how broken things are. If you can’t report a crime without being traumatized again, what does that say about the way our system is working?
DeCanniere: For one thing, I think that it definitely has to move past this place where people are being re-traumatized by the system. Right now, it does seem to be re-traumatizing those who are in need of help.
Dahl: Right. Absolutely.
DeCanniere: Getting back to the book itself, there are two boys within the book who record and electronically distribute a video that is essentially a video of them committing this assault. I just thought that aspect of the book is just so timely as well. I feel as though, perhaps, we don’t hear so much about someone filming an assault, but we do hear about “revenge porn” and those kinds of things.
Dahl: Absolutely. It’s just another way to victimize someone. You know, sexually assault them and then record it and show everybody. It’s just so egregious. Again, as in the early 2010s, when I was reporting on sexual assault, I did a lot of stories on what is now called “revenge porn,” which wasn’t really a term we had a decade or two ago. There are now, in some states, laws against that sort of thing. “Revenge porn” isn’t just images of a sexual victimization. It can be images that were initially consensual. For example, if a girl sends their boyfriend an intimate picture of themselves, or maybe someone records themselves having sex and it is only supposed to be for them, but then the couple breaks up and the boyfriend decides he is going to spread it around, in some places that act is illegal. Of course I think it should be illegal, but I did so many stories about people who would go to the police and say “Look, I sent this to my boyfriend and he’s now sending it around,” and the police were like “Sorry. There’s nothing we can do.” There’ve been some really amazing activists and attorneys who have taken that on, and who have said that this should be illegal, and I was fortunate enough to be able to interview a lot of these women.
DeCanniere: Right. I think it’s very difficult to get government to keep up with the ever-changing tech industry. I think that’s a lot of it. Many of the laws governing the internet are so outdated. They were created when 56k dial-up modems were the primary way most of us went online. How many of us are logging on with a 56k dial-up modem today? Not many, that’s for sure. Not the vast majority. As technology changes, the laws need to do a better job keeping up with those changes. The technology has moved on, society is very different, and the laws are still where they were when that was the height of technology.
Dahl: And that’s always the case, right? Governments move so slow. How do we make them move faster? We have to talk about this. We have to scream and yell. We have to use our voices when we can. That’s why, when I was at CBS, I wrote articles about this because I was like “Well, my role as a journalist is to write about things that are important.” Maybe somebody reading CBS News had never heard of this phenomenon, and they could read my article and they could go “Oh yeah. That’s actually really bad. I’m going to tell some of my friends about it. And when I see that a Representative in my district is supporting a bill like to do something about that, I’m going to support that Representative.”
It’s this slow process of the public becoming aware that something is a problem, and then becoming aware that something can actually be done to help solve the problem. Now, in my role as a novelist, I also see that as my role. I haven’t gotten many reviews yet, but I’ve had a few that have said “I’ve never heard of revenge porn.” That makes me really happy, that they could read my book and learn something new about a phenomenon that exists and that is really traumatizing to a lot of people. I want to entertain, but I also want to educate. At the very least, I want to spur people to ask questions, to do more reading, to do more digging.
DeCanniere: Switching gears a bit again, another thing that I found interesting in the book is Claudia’s response. On the one hand, Claudia has been assaulted. She is the victim in all of this. On the other hand, she does engage in actions that I would not engage in myself, nor would I ever encourage or enable others to engage in — actions that are themselves illegal.
Dahl: What Claudia does is extreme, and most people wouldn’t do it. In a way, one of my inspirations for this book was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It’s about someone who just said “I’m not going to take this.” The assault changed her, and it changed her into somebody uglier, in a way. The way she deals with that, initially, is not healthy — but I think you can understand why she does. I certainly understand why she does. Some readers might not. I don’t think those are choices I would make, but I don’t know because I’ve never been victimized in the way that she is. I wanted to explore what someone who just decided “Screw it. I’m kind of going to go off-the-rails here.” In a way, maybe she didn’t even decide that. After what happened to her, she’s extremely traumatized. She’s not, frankly, thinking all that straight. She doesn’t go to her family. I think she’s in shock, and she makes decisions out of that trauma and shock. I wanted to explore that. That trauma and shock and violence have real and negative consequences. Claudia’s actions really do show that.
DeCanniere: Right. I do feel as though it is much harder to judge Claudia’s actions than normal. She’s been victimized, and seems to feel like she’s been backed into a corner, doesn’t really have anybody to rely on, and as though she will not be able to rely upon the justice system. With people like Chad and Jeremy — who assaulted her — it’s much more cut and dry. They committed a crime. They need to be prosecuted and held to account for their actions. They attacked her. There was no reason for them to do what they did. Though I, personally, cannot see doing what Claudia ends up doing — nor would I encourage others to do what she did — I do feel it’s not quite so simple when it comes to her and her actions.
Dahl: Absolutely. That, in a way, is exactly what I wanted to show. It’s not simple. When you commit an act of violence against someone, you cannot predict the consequences.
DeCanniere: Right. And though, again, I don’t want to give too much away here, I do feel it is outrageous that Jeremy’s family reacts as they do when what happens to him happens. They literally blame the person that he assaulted for taking the actions that she, in turn, took.
DeCanniere: There truly is just so much I can sort of try and unpack here — so much we could talk about — but is there anything that you wanted to address that we haven’t yet covered?
Dahl: I guess the one thing we didn’t talk about yet is the relationship between the sisters, Claudia and Edie. You may have noticed that the book is dedicated to my sister. I wanted to write about sisterhood. Claudia and Edie let each other down at really important times in their lives. Claudia misses her sister giving birth. Of course, we find out why and that it wasn’t exactly her fault. She got drunk, but what happened next wasn’t her fault. Then, Edie, not knowing what happened to her sister, kind of lets Claudia down by sort of dismissing her and not being there for her when she needed her — even though she didn’t really know what was going on.
That is sort of based upon my relationship with my sister, who is just 15 months younger than I am. We’ve been close our whole lives but, like sisters do, we have had little dramas. We’ve gotten so much closer, frankly, since we both had kids. She had a child before I did. My empathy meter was not working very well. I didn’t understand how difficult it was to have an infant, and I feel like I wasn’t there for her in the way I wish I had been. I didn’t realize that until I had my own son, and was so bowled over by how difficult those first few months were. I realized I wasn’t there for her in the way, frankly, that she was there for me. I think that, in friendships and in family relationships, that happens, right? You’re wrapped up in your own stuff and miss when somebody you love really needs you. So, I wanted to write about that.
DeCanniere: Right. I think that, within families, the dynamics can get somewhat complicated. It would be nice if everyone always understood everyone, and everyone was there for one another when they ought to be. In a way, it would be nice if family dynamics were as uncomplicated as they seem to be in some old sitcoms, and if familial squabbles were as easily resolved as they so often seem to be in those shows, but I think that the reality is that the dynamics within such relationships are often far more complicated than that — and, as you also say, our own lives can get so busy that sometimes we’re just not as aware as we should be that somebody could use our support.
Dahl: And, in the book, everybody has their own little lives that they’re wrapped up in. What happens to Claudia affects each member of her family in a very different way. I wanted to explore how a violent act against one member of a family can affect the whole family, and can affect that person’s friends. When you victimize someone, you don’t just victimize that person. You victimize the people who love them, and the people who are around them.
DeCanniere: Right. It can have long-lasting — potentially permanent — and far-reaching consequences.
Dahl: Absolutely. There are many impacts that the book doesn’t go into. I like the idea that, at the end, this isn’t over. Is Claudia going to be satisfied and happy now that she’s had some revenge? Is Chad satisfied that he had revenge on her? No. The pain is going to continue. The idea that revenge can sort of make you feel better is an illusion.
DeCanniere: Last, but not least, is there anything you’ve been reading that you would like to recommend? As I’m sure you know by now, I always find it interesting to know what someone has been reading.
Dahl: One of the books that I read as I was finishing this book is a book called What Happened to Paula by Katherine Dykstra. It’s a non-fiction book about the murder of a 17 or 18-year-old in Iowa in 1970. It’s true crime in a way, but it really just delves into how dangerous it is to be a young woman in this society. That was an absolutely fantastic book and touches on a lot of the same issues — the idea that if you get drunk and don’t get raped somehow, are you lucky? What does it mean to be “lucky?” I always love Laura McHugh’s books, and I read her most recent book, What’s Done in Darkness, which is fantastic. She’s a feminist and she writes about the particular struggles of women — often in very rural and conservative communities. I find that really fascinating. I’m super excited to read Megan Abbott’s new book, The Turnout. I can’t wait for that. Another reporter who is also a novelist is James Queally, and he has a new book that is also due out in September called All These Ashes. His writing is great, but he really tackles social issues in a way that I love. And so much of crime fiction is that these days. It’s people seeing what they think of as wrong in the world and, for him, he writes a lot about what I wrote about — especially in the Rebekah Roberts trilogy — which is the criminal justice system and the media. The Missing Hours touches a little bit on the media, because there’s this fear of what the media will do if they find out what happened to Claudia, because she already has been humiliated by this reality TV show that she kind of got caught on. So, I loved that. All These Ashes is a great book. Then there’s also this book by Michelle Bowdler called Is Rape a Crime? It was also really formative in writing this book. The book that I feel was most impactful to me in doing the research for this book was Chanel Miller’s memoir, Know My Name. She was sexually assaulted by a Stanford student, and he ended up getting convicted and sentenced to six months in jail. It was a big news story. I covered that story when I was at CBS. She wrote a memoir about it, and what’s great about it is that it is so beautifully written. I hope she writes more about anything — a novel. I would read her writing a book about paint drying. Her prose is just so beautiful. So, I definitely recommend that.
Julia Dahl is the author of Conviction, Run You Down, and Invisible City, which was a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, one of the Boston Globe’s Best Books of 2014, and has been translated into eight languages. A former reporter for CBS News, she now teaches journalism at NYU.
Additionally, you can read my previous interviews with Julia regarding Invisible City, Run You Down, and Conviction by clicking on one of the following links:
“Conviction” – In conversation with Julia Dahl (Published: March 26, 2017)
“Run You Down” – In Conversation with Julia Dahl (Published: June 12, 2015)
“Invisible City” – In Conversation with Julia Dahl (Published: May 23, 2014)