Chris Collins: Susann Cokal seized me with her first sentence: “The first one is not so bad, hurts, grinding on the sticky floor with the others watching.” And what proceeds is the story of a character known to us only as “Fourteen”—a girl who’s “been a teenager for a year already”—and her brutal night of being repeatedly raped at a party.
As a father with a daughter just a few years younger than Fourteen, I squirmed in my chair and at times had to pause reading to breathe. It’s difficult to write violence; Cokal does it with a delicacy that haunts. The rhythm of her sentences turns the page and the stomach: “She feels the ticklish trickle between her legs and knows she’s puddling on the filthy linoleum.” Although what occurs in the story is pornographic, Cokal’s artistry brings eloquence to the sequence of events, leading the reader through the assaults on both Fourteen’s body and mind.
The story is not a chronological progression but rather a back and forth, giving us interludes of Fourteen’s movements, from her day at the beach with friends, to her sexual assault by surfers on a kitchen floor, then by college students in a shabby apartment, to her pickup by police, to the day of her first court hearing. This remarkable and distressing piece is written with a veracity that mesmerizes. The tragedy captivates—like a car accident from which we cannot look away.
Susann Cokal on “Fourteen Shakes the Baby”: I’ve been told this story is harrowing. It harrowed me; it hurt, but it wouldn’t let me stop writing. I lived with the idea for decades, hearing young girls’ stories both from their own mouths and from the men who lusted for what those mouths might be made to do. It took a long time to find the form that would convey the sense of brokenness that comes after such a violation—the body, mind, memory, and psyche all rearranged.
For a while I lived next door to some of it. A new neighbor popped up on the sex offenders map when he moved in. Somehow a story spread through the neighborhood that the guy was a victim of a scam, that he’d been dating an underage girl who said she was eighteen and then brought him to court to get some of the family money. I did a basic online search and found newspaper articles closer to the truth: A young girl had been raped multiple times one night, then reportedly had consensual sex with the man who was now my neighbor before being raped again by another man. The papers’ bare facts about this case and others melded with personal testimony about survivors’ traumas and a frequent tendency to blame the victim: “She’s oversexed”; “She wanted it”; “She liked it once we got started”; “Frigid gentlewomen of the jury! […] I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me.” That last claim is from Lolita, a book I love for many reasons but not for this one; the others are typical comments from people outside the experience.
So I lived with the imaginary fourteen-year-old of this piece of fiction as if with a “real” person (she is very real to me), and finally the narrative started coming in staccato, disordered bursts of memory and sensation. I wasn’t sure “Fourteen” would ever find a home, but I needed to write about her, and I’m grateful to the editors for putting her in these pages.