NEW YORK • By every conventional measure, Jessica Knoll's thriller, Luckiest Girl Alive, was a wildly successful literary debut. It sold more than 450,000 copies and spent four months on the bestseller lists. Actress Reese Witherspoon optioned the film rights and Knoll wrote the screenplay.
Still, the writer could not escape the nagging feeling that she had let her readers down. Even though her book was fiction, she felt she had not fully told the truth.
The white lie she told over and over, at readings and book signings and in interviews, was complicated and hard to untangle. She assured fans that some of the darker elements of her novel, which centres on a successful young woman who struggles with the lingering trauma of a sexual assault, were purely fiction.
She deflected questions from readers who wanted to know how she had managed to portray a rape and its aftermath so vividly and realistically, saying she had heard stories from friends and classmates.
She is no longer dodging those questions. On Tuesday, she published a raw and chilling essay describing how the gang rape depicted in her novel was drawn from her own experience in high school, when she was sexually assaulted by three boys at a party and then tormented by classmates who labelled her a slut.
"I was so conditioned to not talk about it that it didn't even occur to me to be forthcoming," she said during a recent interview. "I want to make people feel like they can talk about it, like they don't have to be ashamed of it."
In the essay, published on Lenny, a newsletter and website for young women, she described how some of the most harrowing and horrific scenes in her novel came from her fragmented memories of a party that went devastatingly wrong: blacking out and then regaining consciousness when a boy was having rough sex with her; waking up later in a bathroom, seeing a toilet bowl of blood-tinged water and not understanding where it came from; finding herself in a strange bed the next morning beside a different boy, who laughed it off as a wild night; going to a clinic for emergency contraception and asking the doctor if what happened to her counted as rape, and feeling stunned when the doctor said she was not qualified to answer the question.
The essay sparked a flood of supportive messages on social media from readers who thanked the writer for coming forward.
Knoll, 32, grew up in a Roman Catholic family in the Philadelphia suburbs and attended the Shipley School, a prestigious prep institution. Before she was assaulted, she was a happy, social 15-year-old who played sports and was on the dance team. Afterwards, she said, she shut down and felt crushingly isolated, unable to connect even with friends. Some classmates taunted her and scrawled "trash slut" inside her locker.
She said: "The message I internalised was that nothing bad happened; you did something wrong." She said she took no action against her attackers, who never suffered any consequences. She does not name them in the essay. Shaming them is not the point, she said.
"It's not directed at them," she said. "It's more like, 'I'm going to tell the story this time.' This is a very empowering thing for me to be able to say, actually, this is what happened to me and to take ownership of my own narrative."
After graduating, she moved to New York City. While at Cosmopolitan, she began writing Luckiest Girl Alive. The novel is narrated by TifAni FaNelli, an ambitious 28-year-old editor at a women's magazine whose life is derailed when she participates in a documentary about her high school and is forced to confront the rage she has carried with her since she was raped as a teenager.
After Simon & Schuster published Luckiest Girl Alive in May last year, Knoll was flooded with messages from women who said they had endured traumas similar to TifAni's. Many said they were comforted by the dedication page of the book, which reads: "To all the TifAni FaNellis of the world. I know."
With another big book tour on the horizon, she decided to stop hiding behind her fictional creation. In January, she contacted Jessica Grose, editor of Lenny, the e-mail newsletter and website started by actress and writer Lena Dunham, and pitched an essay about how she drew on her experience for her novel.
NEW YORK TIMES
• Luckiest Girl Alive is available from Books Kinokuniya and Times Bookstore for about $17.