Here’s feminist Germaine Greer on fear:
“It’s interesting to me that women are encouraged all the time to be terribly, terribly frightened, and nearly always of the wrong thing.”
This isn’t an original observation. Mass media usually goes into a frenzy over the disappearance or the murder of young women, especially if that young woman is white and middle class. Fear sells papers, gets clicks, glues eyeballs to the screen.
The novel, Nothing Can Hurt You, feeds into this by depicting the world as essentially predatory towards women. This isn’t too surprising. A look at the back page of the book, in the “about the author” section, tells us that the author, Nicola Maye Goldberg, is a true crime writer. Fear is part and parcel of the genre. Nothing Can Hurt You is her first foray into fiction.
What’s strange is that the novel, which is about the murder of a young girl, mostly features sexual predation. In the opening chapter, a man named Ted Simpson, whose daughter is missing, stays the night with his friend and his friend’s wife, Marriane. When she comes to give him an extra blanket, he inexplicably puts his hand up her skirt.
What are we to make of this bizarre, if implausible, behavior? Certainly, we are to see the irony of a broken man consumed with searching for his missing daughter victimizing another woman, but what’s more is that we’re to see that this behavior is normal, everyday, even routine. A few chapters later, Goldberg gives us more sexual predation in a hotel scene, and in the last chapter, a neighborhood Dad gropes his children’s babysitter and then slips her ten bucks. There’s no penetrative rape, but we catch what underlies misogyny, namely entitlement.
The novel itself isn’t about sexualized crime, however. The book is about a rather simple murder. A young, moneyed, schizophrenic college boy named Blake Campbell stabs his art student girlfriend, Sara Morgan, in the neck while high on LSD. He confesses to the murder almost immediately, is taken into custody, tried, and mostly let off on a temporary insanity plea because he was high on LSD and off his usual meds at the time of the murder.
Young men killing their female partners is certainly a common phenomenon when it comes to murders. But unlike say spousal murder, the bread and butter of many true crime books and television shows, where money is the usual motive, murders committed by young men against their girlfriends are relatively unexplored. That was the chief draw of this book.
Only, that’s not what Nothing Can Hurt You is about. The fictional murder is mere back story, and we are given the salient facts of the case in little nuggets planted throughout the book. The novel is in reality a series of backward glances taken by people linked to either Sara or Blake. Each chapter has its own narrator, and though only a few of the chapters are written in first person, the writing has a confessional style. There’s a lot of blunt honesty, especially about dark desires or unthinkable thoughts, and very little of anything else. Everything is psychological; nothing happens due to circumstance.
Blake’s sister, for instance, has a daughter with behavioral problems, which leads her to wonder if violence is hereditary. The book later details a girl named Jessica, who Sara Morgan babysat. Jessica befriends a behind-the bars serial killer and writes him letters, in search of understanding. My favorite chapter was the penultimate one. In it, a local sheriff named Jonathan is investigating a missing child case with the aid of a psychic named Christabel, who we later learn is Sara’s mother. In one scene, Jonathan is searching the house, combing through the sordid mess of a girl’s bedroom, while fixating on a pair of pure white silk panties stained with menstrual blood. He looks out the window and sees Christabel on the swings, her shoes only skimming the dirt. Christabel’s odd spirituality has set her free from the sordidness of the world.
Of course, all violence is sordid. So the image is both uplifting and sad.
The novel also places Sara’s murder in parallel with the crimes of a local serial killer named John Logan. We all fear serial killers; they are a known quantity. The text seems to ask: but what about the Blakes of the world, these young men who frequently murder their girlfriends? They are a phenomenon of the world too. What drives them? Is it misogyny or something else?
The book has no answer simply because it doesn’t dare to imagine Blake. There can be no understanding. All you can do is be afraid.