Meet the Novelist Who is Changing the Way We Talk About Pedophilia

Canadian writer Chelsea Rooney subverts the narratives surrounding sexual abuse in her debut novel

By Doretta Lau

Vancouver-based writer Chelsea Rooney’s excellent debut novel, Pedal (Caitlin Press, 2014), examines the legacy of abuse and pedophilia from a perspective not often encountered in literature. Her prose is confident, her protagonist charismatic, and she writes with such complete empathy that there is never a moment that is simply sensational for shock value. The book begins with a line that signals that a storm is about to come: “The night had started out clear in East Vancouver, but from the west a fat finger of tarnished cloud gestured toward us.”

I’m still marveling at how you wrote about pedophilia, abuse, friendship, and family in such a complex and graceful way. Did you set out to make these your central themes when you first began writing Pedal?

Chelsea Rooney: I set out with one theme in mind. I wanted to talk about the long-term effects of abuse in a way that deemphasizes the victim/perpetrator dichotomy. I experienced the same kind of sexual abuse as the protagonist, Julia, and, like her, I could never fit myself inside labels such as “victim” or “survivor.” Those words are so loaded, and carry the weight of a culture that has spent much of the past century finger-pointing and blaming. Instead of being with our own pain, fear and anger, and instead of accepting these emotions as inevitable and human, we look outward to find who’s at fault. Then we shame them for it.

The problems I was having as a young adult in my mid-twenties (binge drinking, depression, low self-esteem) either were or were not connected to the experiences I’d had with my father. But calling myself a victim and blaming him for my problems wasn’t going to make my problems go away. My intuition was that it would make them worse. Pedal came out of a deep yearning to explore equanimity: can these characters experience what our culture has decided is the worst kinds of abuse — sexual abuse for the children, rape for the mother — and still determine their own emotional well-being? Does pain always have to turn into fear and anger?

What conclusions did you arrive at when you finished writing the book? Is it possible to rise above the culture we live in and bypass fear and anger after suffering a great pain?

CR: In a way, I feel less certain now than I did when I began. Which feels good, because uncertainty is more authentic and has more possibilities. When I began Pedal, I hadn’t touched the core of my own pain and anger. I’d become a master of ignoring it and deflecting it. Evidence for this existed everywhere in my life: not only did I have a drinking problem, but I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day and had lost touch with many friends and colleagues who were once very important to me. Writing Pedal made it incredibly difficult to ignore that my choices and habits came out of a deep mistrust of myself and others.

I don’t think bypassing fear and anger after suffering a great pain is the goal, necessarily. In my first meditation class ever, my instructor quoted Ezra Bayda, saying, “Anger is just inexperienced fear.” I remember thinking, “I have absolutely no idea what that means, and I know my great work in the next while will be figuring it out.” Because, I had anger. I had the same sort of anger my protagonist Julia has. Anger at my partners, anger at myself, anger at the cars in the bicycle routes that didn’t indicate which way they were turning…I would get angry after a party. Angry after a weekend at my partner’s family home. Angry if I put too much lemon in the tahini dressing.

At the meditation center I go to in Vancouver, they say that an enlightened society is full of people who can be with their negative emotions and not do anything. Not try to suppress them, ignore them, numb them, act on them, distract ourselves from them. If we sit with our anger, it teaches us something. It has intelligence. My anger was a protective mechanism, an armor I built around myself as a child to defend myself from my violent and volatile father. When I feel it now, I recognize it as fear. A fear that I will be hurt in some way. We’ll never stop feeling things like pain, fear, and anger. But our relationships to these feelings can change.

By the time I finished writing Pedal, I’d given up drinking and smoking entirely. I’d also reconnected with every person from my past (though not all would have me), and had taken up a daily meditation practice. I’m much more comfortable with discomfort now. When I feel anxiety or anger, I try not to run from it. I try to just sit and listen.

Anger having intelligence — I’ve never thought of it this way and I think this idea is going to stay with me for some time. I laughed at this choice of detail: “Angry if I put too much lemon in the tahini dressing.” In Pedal, your crafting of Julia’s voice is fresh and funny and empathetic, even as she’s facing dark epiphanies. I thought that the way you employ wit and humor in the book allows you to guide the reader through difficult situations and emotions. Do you think your use of humor allowed you to push boundaries in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible?

CR: I did very much want to write a funny book, but I wasn’t at all thinking of humor as sugar to help the medicine go down. I was just tired of reading books that looked at abuse, and specifically sexual abuse, without an ounce of humor. So bleak and grim and somber! No wonder no one wants to talk about sexual abuse!

Real life isn’t like that. Real life — what occurs between two people in any kind of relationship on a day-to-day basis — contains laughter and sadness. Most people I know laugh more than we cry, despite our lives being replete with loss.

As someone who has experienced abuse, and has walked around with the label of “the molested” my entire life (weathering decades’ worth of “edgy” sitcoms’ hackneyed jokes about touchy uncles, and horrified looks from anyone with whom I’d share my childhood experiences), I felt a kind of responsibility to retell that old story from my perspective. And my perspective contains humor. Thanks to my mother, who could laugh at anything. Humor is a form of power. It says, “This bad thing happened, and it didn’t break me.” Most of the cultural conversations around sexual abuse imply victims of it will be damaged for life. Humor is a way of subverting that narrative.

And on a personal note, the absence of humor within conversations of trauma and abuse is actually what perpetuates the illusion of boundaries. That’s why people say good comedy is all about “pushing boundaries.” Because really, the best comedians are just pointing out ludicrous facts. As someone on the other side of that perceived boundary, the idea of a boundary feels like a dangerous cultural construct. Like the eugenics of ideas. This notion that some things are okay to talk about openly and other things are beyond the pale. Who decides what a barrier is? When people tell me, “You’re brave for writing this book,” what they really mean is, “I’m brave for reading this book, because it made me uncomfortable.”

I think if a book is any good, it challenges the reader’s view of the world and they’re forced to examine their beliefs and prejudices regarding everything from feminism to narrative technique; perhaps this translates to discomfort for some people.

CR: Oh, yes, I absolutely agree! I am thrilled that Pedal makes people uncomfortable. That’s a wonderful function of fiction. We should all get more cozy with discomfort, I think.

A friend said to me recently, “I feel like we’re all going through the same pain, it just looks different from the outside.” I had been telling her about how my mother, who is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, threw a tantrum at her adult-day program. She refused to eat her lunch, yelled at everyone and tried to run away. As I told my friend about this, I cried, and she cried too, and she said even though she hasn’t experienced losing her mother, she feels the same pain I feel. I like that idea. Pain — which feels so personal in the moment — as actually this generic, universal emotion that moves through different people at different times.

That’s why I balk (mildly, because maybe I’m wrong) at the word “brave” to describe women who write about stigmatized topics like sexual abuse. It keeps them othered and separate. When I first started researching the history of childhood sexual abuse discourse, I would say to my friends, “I wish women could say, ‘I was molested as a child,’ as casually as we can say, ‘I had braces as a child.’“ Not to minimize the damage of abuse, but to take the burden of shame off the person who deserves it least.

Sheila Heti recently wrote: “Wow. The writer Chelsea Rooney is working on a novel with the best title: Ignorant Narcissistic White Women Meditating.” Can you talk a bit more about your next project?

CR: The quality of life that most — not all — but most of us have in North America is extraordinary. The majority of us here literally live in paradise, especially if we’re white. Most people on this planet are suffering from war, disease, and starvation, not FOMO. But that doesn’t mean our anxieties and depressions aren’t real. We’re more addicted to drugs and more likely to commit suicide than ever before. Our suffering is definite and robust. So, we’ve turned to mindfulness to “cope.” It’s a thousands-year-old tradition, only very recently introduced to the west, but a Google image search for “mindfulness meditation” will return fifty portraits, forty-five of which are serene white women in the lotus position meditating. We’ve packaged mindfulness as a strategy to help us improve ourselves, climb up corporate ladders and increase productivity. But the core tenets of mindfulness would have us give up all our earthly possessions and embrace non-doing.

Of course, my personal ambivalence drives me to write this book. I myself am an ignorant, narcissistic, white woman meditating. I hold questions of colonialism and cultural appropriation close as I deepen my practice and learn more about the origins of mindfulness. I do think it’s great that more westerners are meditating — middle schools instituting daily meditation programs are having magnificent results. But. We in the west have to learn that mindfulness is not about self-improvement. At all. Sitting down for thirty minutes a day is a privilege that most people don’t have. A way to check that privilege is to continuously remind ourselves that there is no goal in meditation. There really isn’t. Ask any enlightened person! If we really want to practice mindfulness, all we have to do is accept that we’re already good and whole. That nothing needs to change. That everything we are and everything we have is fine — not fabulous or awful, just fine.

[Note: After the completion of this interview, Rooney’s mother passed away.]