“How had she gotten to this place of twisted self-hatred? She hadn’t done anything wrong. She hadn’t attacked and hurt someone else. So why was she being punished in this way—shut out of ordinary human activity, all those normal parts of life like smiling, conversation, hellos and how are yous?”
The Pain Eater by Beth Goobie was such a difficult book for me to read. As a survivor of rape, the triggers were at times quite overwhelming. I remember when there was a period in my life where I never would have been able to even think about reading this sort of title. The emotional trauma and the memories of the abuse would come back to my mind in floods rendering me incapable of being a normally functioning human being.
But I am not that victim anymore. And that is why this powerful book is so important.
The Pain Eater is about a young girl named Maddy who is jumped by a group of high school boys in the spring season of her 15th year. She walked a friend home after seeing a play and was attacked. She eventually identifies most of her attackers and is terrified to learn that they all attend the same school as her. What we are faced with is her journey in the aftermath of that attack. The psychological effects of being raped by multiple boys, the emotional chaos that begins to eat away at the victim from the inside out, the unbelievable sense of shame and humiliation, not to mention the unwavering torrents of fear and anxiety—these aspects turn into an intangible monster that mutates Maddy from the art-loving young girl she once was, so full of life and joy, to someone she barely recognises anymore. As she struggles with the trauma, we see blatant signs of post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD), which mostly emerges during her English class. A new assignment begins where they all stand up and recite a story. Each student gets up and adds a chapter to the story called “The Pain Eater.” It’s a story about another young girl in a small tribe who eats all the pain for everyone in her tribe once a month on the night of the full-moon. Through this assignment, Maddy begins to learn about her attack and what it means to be a victim; what it means to be guilty. She gains comprehension of how rape culture affects young ladies and where she stands in that jaded social structure of society. This is the essence of the book, The Pain Eater.
While I feel it’s a bit obvious, I will go ahead and state it off the bat: TRIGGER WARNINGS FOR RAPE AND SELF-HARM. While the rape itself isn’t described in massive details, it still conjures extremely strong feelings of discomfort and pain. What we see are the shards of Maddy’s memories as waves of what occurred plagues her when she least expects, or wants, them to.
One of the most significant aspects of this book is its examination of rape culture! The victims are always blamed with the whole bullshit notion of “they were asking for it,” or that “they totally wanted it and secretly they’re all sluts.” It perpetuates the fear that keeps victims from speaking up about the horrific abuse that they’ve endured.
When a woman finally does find the fortitude and courage to report what’s been done, instead of looking to the rapists and the criminals who’ve committed this abhorrible atrocity, the victim is picked apart and always put up on display for the world to see like some fucking freak that’s meant to be dissected. This is NOT OKAY. This is never fucking okay, and this book illustrates to us in an extremely intimate and raw way as to WHY! It’s both sickening to think this is how society functions, but comforting to see a book that isn’t afraid to explore this twisted societal ideology.
Maddy changes so much as an individual. She was so vibrant and so close to her family. Post-attack she withdraws into herself and begins to self-harm as a means for coping with what’s happened to her. Even her passion for art has turned into something that she can’t put a name on. It’s a way for her to force her mind to just forget. She fights so hard to decipher why this has happened, and when the answers evade her comprehension, her anxiety and depression mutate further. Even with such powerfully delicate themes, the writing is beautifully simplistic. I felt that the author wasn’t just trying to send a message, but she wanted to make this message as accessible as possible to an array of readers, such as teenagers and middle-grade audiences, to make everyone understand how vital the message is. You don’t have to smack your brain to truly fathom just how terrible rape is, how terrible the after-effects are, and why current rape culture is such a problem.
The metaphors are palpable and crystal-clear, eliciting the appropriate understanding for the point that’s trying to be conveyed. Some aspects of the book have a lot more pressure and attention given to them that can come off as unrefined and over-focused, yet I felt that only added to the importance of those particular details.
The intensity of this novel and the subject matter that veils the whole thing never lightens up. It’s stays with you from the first page until the last page; like tar its heavy and sticky and unrelenting. As the different people in her class begin to explore the submission of the Pain Eater and why she keeps on taking her tribe’s bullshit, something inside of Maddy begins to ponder the very same questions. Why should she be the one to cower? Why should she be punished and lose the simplest most wonderful parts of her life? Why is she to blame? And most importantly, why the hell should she sit there and swallow the pain that never should have been hers to start with? The realisation that comes with finding your voice and your inner strength to stand up to being victimised and bullied (whether by the PTSD, or the rapists themselves, etc.) is freeing in such a way that I honestly never believed could be expressed via words. Yet Goobie does a phenomenal job of doing just that.
The Pain Eater is a brilliant book. It’s an uncomfortable book. It is a book that will make you feel. You will feel hurt, rage, concern, and fear. You will be distraught over what’s been done to a remarkable girl. Nonetheless, it teaches us as well. The lessons on human nature, the egregious societal practice that has created a safety bubble for rapists, the inhumane structure of bullying, and the empowering resilience that comes with saying “NO” to the demons left in the wake of abuse—are all so important and necessary, and its execution is absolutely marvellous.
4.75 stars out of 5!