Four years ago, in her powerful and galvanizing victim impact statement, Chanel Miller recalled the horror she had felt upon hearing the testimony offered by Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer who had sexually assaulted her while she was unconscious. Initially, Turner had portrayed the evening as an anonymous drunken hookup. But at trial, a startling narrative emerged, one in which the events unfolded like a “poorly written young adult novel with kissing and dancing and hand holding and lovingly tumbling onto the ground,” and culminated in consent.
For Miller, the story’s fabrications were outrageous but so was its form, framed as a tale of young romance — and a poorly rendered one at that. In her astonishing memoir, “Know My Name,” she remained concerned with the unique shaping power of story, of narrative, of genre. “This is not the ultimate truth,” she wrote, “but it is mine, told to the best of my ability.”
Miller’s experience and others like it reverberate throughout Kate Reed Petty’s spellbinding debut novel, “True Story,” which focuses on the rippling impact of an alleged assault following a raucous party in the late 1990s.
The opening set piece brings us to a suburban Denny’s as members of a high school lacrosse team assemble for a post-mortem on the evening’s boozy mayhem. Two players arrive late with a story to tell about offering a ride to a drunken “private school girl.” It’s a story Petty’s characters will keep telling and retelling and reframing for the next 16 years.
The dominant voice in the novel is that of Alice Lovett, who we soon learn was the “private school girl” in question. Because she can’t remember what happened, she has only the crude tale the lacrosse players shared — one that spread throughout the community — and remains haunted by both the trauma of that night and the taunting she endured after.
Now in her early 30s, Alice works as a ghostwriter, telling other people’s stories for a living. Her only connection to her nightmarish high school experience is her old friend Haley Moreland, with whom she shared a teenage love of horror movies. Haley urges Alice to finally go public with her story. But nothing about Alice’s story, or this novel, is so simple.
“True Story” unwinds through a variety of “found” and fashioned narratives spanning nearly two decades that become a bricolage we assemble ourselves. We read Alice and Haley’s eighth-grade horror screenplays, drafts of Alice’s college admissions essays, complete with vapid tutor comments (“I’m surprised you love horror movies. … I want to know why. Can this essay go deeper?”), Alice’s emails to Haley after fleeing an abusive relationship. A pair of bookending letters from Alice to Haley do a lot of the work to help us assemble what happened that night, to get at the “true story,” even as the term itself feels increasingly useless, deceptive.
The most incisive sections, however, are more traditional narratives devoted to Nick Brothers, a teammate of the two lacrosse players who took Alice home that night. When we meet him, he’s a callow jock enjoying the last gasps of high school sports prestige. At first, whatever his teammates did to the “private school girl” is merely a great, dirty story to him. When authorities fleetingly intervene, it becomes a “scare” that soon evaporates as a tide of himpathy rises for the accused players. “Things had turned out all right,” Nick tells us after the investigation is dropped. “We had been through something together, we agreed, and it had made us stronger.”
As the years pass, Nick’s precarious masculinity erodes. The intense partying of his teenage years has curdled into alcoholism and an overall failure to launch. In one tour de force section, we join 26-year-old Nick as he makes his way to a cabin in the woods for a “lost weekend” of marathon drinking. Evoking one of Kenneth Lonergan’s broken and arrested white men, he mourns his failures as he drives, savoring the comfort of a $70 bottle of bourbon between his legs to “remind himself of the reward on its way.” As he approaches the cabin, however, we swap genres, entering swiftly into the sinister foreboding of a thriller before moving into body horror as Nick, over the course of two days, undoes himself with drink and confusion.
Horror, suspense, confessional, epistolary tale, recovery memoir, cautionary tale, even, late in the novel, paranoiac noir — Petty leaps from genre to genre with dizzying velocity. At first, it’s jolting, but slowly we begin to see how she’s using shifting genres to show the way trauma works on us, how it shapes our lived experience and the way we frame that experience for others and for our own survival. It’s a shell game, and in a sense that’s the way the novel operates, tantalizing us with the “truth” about what really happened to Alice that night. We look for clues embedded in the correspondence and confessions, in Alice’s cryptic emails, in Nick’s muddled brain. We await revelations, or at least a dark confirmation.
But despite its puzzle-box structure, “True Story” is not a mystery, either — at least not a traditional one with a gasp-inducing final revelation. Initially, I found the resolution intellectually impressive rather than narratively or emotionally satisfying. But after a day or two, the book continued to work on me, spurring me to question my own expectations of genre, and even story itself, and their capacity to get at stickier truths about trauma and its reverberations and what we expect from narratives dealing with sexual assault. What is ideologically sound is not always narratively exciting, but is that a failure of execution or a failure of genre conventions?
Ultimately, the novel’s true twist is less about what unfurled that fateful night than it is about form, voice, authorship. Alice’s experience was long ago erased — by the young men who drove her home that night and the teammates and school administrators who protected them. They imposed a new narrative about an unstable young woman who drinks herself into unconsciousness and threatens to ruin the futures of promising young men. But it is not just the men. Alice also must fend off her friend Haley, who, as a documentary filmmaker, attempts to extract her story from her and weaponize it, insisting Alice tell it the way victims’ stories are supposed to be told to have a larger use. “Victims exist in a society that tells us our purpose is to be an inspiring story,” Chanel Miller wrote. And that is one genre Alice resists to its core. Her story is messy, full of horror and isolation, unsent messages and stifled expression, manipulation and erasure. Alice refuses to make the story useful. Instead, she makes it hers.