Amber Smith’s The Way I Used To Be snatches readers into Eden McCrorey’s world from the very first page, and it doesn’t let go. Through the novel, told in stages that mark Eden’s four years in high school, the devastating effects of rape are made plain, heartbreaking, and so very real.
The novel is told from Eden’s point of view, and while it seems at times that Smith doesn’t go too in-depth with Eden’s character development, we see—like outside observers—her thought processes and her steady shift from seeing sex as a threat following her rape, to using it as something that allows her to find a release from her inner pain, because it’s “[b]etter than any feeling I’ve ever had. Empty and full, all at the same time.”
Some of the moments of the novel do seem a bit too cliché—and a bit too monochromatic—but I definitely felt the novel’s main focus on the damage rape can do to a young girl’s mind, and how far those effects can reach. There were times when Eden, as she fell further and further away from the person she used to be, became someone I didn’t like. But she freely admits she doesn’t like herself either, nor can she sometimes even remember who or what she was before the rape took place. Her scattered thoughts, to me, did perfectly emulate the thought processes of assault and rape survivors: the myriad ways one’s mind spins both immediately following the event and for years after.
Her major moment of realization comes in her senior year:
“Only now I can’t remember, damn it, where the lies ended and I began. It’s all blurred. Everything suddenly seems to have become so messy, so gray, so undefined and terrifying. All I know is that things went terribly awry, this wasn’t the plan. The plan was to get better, to feel better, by any means. But I don’t feel better, I feel empty, empty and broken, still.”
When Eden finally shares her story, it’s after her attacker has raped again, and only after she the catharsis of sharing her story to bring her attacker to justice can she finally begin to heal. Even then, though, she’s riddled with guilt, wondering if she could have saved another person from the same fate, if only she’d told sooner.
Finally, though, she begins the slow healing process. She realizes, “I’m just a girl, a girl who needs to pick up her own pieces and put them back together herself.” And that, for Eden—and for so many other survivors of sexual assault and rape—is the hardest lesson of all: one day, it is possible to put the pieces back together and be (mostly) whole again, though there will always be cracks.
There are some things I wanted to know more about, such as how Eden’s parents were so hands-off that she could function in a world seemingly all her own, not to mention how she went from calling them “Mom” and “Dad” to “Vanessa” and “Conner.” How no one at her school—counselors, teachers, administration—noticed the sudden shift in her demeanor and behavior between 9th and 10th grade, nor recognized it as a red flag for some kind of trauma.
But, perhaps that is another indictment of people who don’t pay enough attention to realize that something has gone wrong.
It’s been years since I’ve read Speak, and while Smith’s book could never overtake the status of Laurie Halse Anderson’s work, I’m sure The Way I Used To Be will be a book that helps many understand the vicious aftereffects of sexual trauma and rape.
In the tradition of Speak, this extraordinary debut novel shares the unforgettable story of a young woman as she struggles to find strength in the aftermath of an assault.
Eden was always good at being good. Starting high school didn’t change who she was. But the night her brother’s best friend rapes her, Eden’s world capsizes.
What was once simple, is now complex. What Eden once loved—who she once loved—she now hates. What she thought she knew to be true, is now lies. Nothing makes sense anymore, and she knows she’s supposed to tell someone what happened but she can’t. So she buries it instead. And she buries the way she used to be.
Told in four parts—freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year—this provocative debut reveals the deep cuts of trauma. But it also demonstrates one young woman’s strength as she navigates the disappointment and unbearable pains of adolescence, of first love and first heartbreak, of friendships broken and rebuilt, and while learning to embrace a power of survival she never knew she had hidden within her heart.