Rachel ClineThe Question Authority
Red Hen Press, 2019
“I was born free like Elsa the lioness,” writes Rachel Cline in the candid, often child-like voice of the middle-aged Nora Buchbinder, an employee at the Department of Education. Yet at this point in her newest novel, The Question Authority, Cline has already established the term “freedom” to refer to a concept which, during 1970s America, was often misused to justify turning a blind eye to the abuse of young girls: the patriarchal tendency to diminish and minimize trauma resulting from psychological and sexual manipulation by abusive men in power. “My troubles with men,” Cline’s hero continues, “come from some other place.” The search for this place is the driving force behind The Question Authority; the tension between the need to recover the past and the need to let go of it makes for a mesmerizing, laser-focused examination of trauma and its effects. Cline’s relentless novel is not only a courageous, gripping exposé, but also a way back to the power which can be reclaimed through the telling of stories.
Despite this, throughout the majority of the narrative, Nora does not know she has a story of her own to tell. She doesn’t even believe she has been traumatized; like the society which has already betrayed her, she herself minimizes the events which took place in her middle school. There’s the sense that she only knows how to deal with her trauma by questioning the reality of what happened, by looking away and dissociating from it. Unfortunately, she can’t look away for long, because the trauma begins to appear everywhere she looks: not only in her reconnection with Beth, her former best friend, but also in the obvious distance between herself and the world. As her inability to connect becomes clearer to the reader, Nora likewise wakes to that understanding. At the opening of the novel, surrounded by what Nora knows is beauty, she “sit[s] up and gaze[s] dolefully at the stupendous view.” This personal limbo, exacerbated by the death of her mother, is the state in which Nora must handle the prosecution of an alleged sex offender in the present—a work assignment which forces her to reconcile with the past.
Throughout her involvement in the case, we gain insight into Nora’s inner world. One of the most profound effects of her trauma is revealed when she is looking up at the constellations painted in her poet grandfather’s mural on the ceiling of his old library. Though she “grasp[s] at the idea of order, of stories embedded in random patterns,” she is unable to reach them. It’s as if the mechanism with which people make myths of stars has been impaired in her, prematurely.
As Nora investigates further, the reader bears witness to stories of other women who must shatter to survive. It’s craftful of Cline to write that the offender takes Nora’s class to a literal hall of mirrors, because the minds of these women eventually come to bear a likeness to a place of such multiplicity: “There must have been a time in my life where I was two people, or four, or eight, enough versions of me to thin out the horror.” Still, this same insight reveals their resilience. Lines like “… my life took a turn at that moment… the volume got cranked on my sense of what was at risk when a man touched me, or tried to, and it never really got turned back down” offer alarming clarity into what they’re up against. Cline’s precision with language and unflinching investigation of their trauma makes this work hit uncomfortably close to home.
But it’s within this discomfort that the vital questioning can take place.
What makes this book readable, despite the weight of the questions it raises, is Nora’s voice—the consistency of her humor, cleverness, and charm. Though including the perpetrator’s point of view feels at first Lolita-esque, the novel’s overall perspective stays satisfyingly decentralized from his disturbing, first person account. Cline repeatedly directs our awareness away from it and back to the victims. Ultimately, the offender’s point of view serves a single purpose: to remind us of the unfortunate fact that the abuse of young girls is “tradition,” and that the only way to keep ourselves from becoming accomplices through inaction is by bearing the discomfort of questioning what’s normalized. Ultimately, the book is not excellent because of a subversive point of view, but because the rage and pain of victims is given a place to rest.
Rachel Cline’s new novel is designed to shake us out of the stupor which permits that tradition to continue. By presenting societal disregard as a continuation of the original act of violence—“... our families ... treated us like lepers, and ... the Academy board ... with all their liberal rhetoric wouldn’t stand up for [us] the way we’d been taught to stand up for everyone else,”—Cline places our responsibility into the spotlight. The Question Authority is successful because it is at times so vivid you’ll forget it’s fiction— and because, like the #MeToo movement, Nora’s story is grounded in a specificity which gestures towards other stories, many of which are yet untold. This novel is evidence of just how powerful such stories can be.