by Caroline Smailes
170 pages, The Friday Project
Reviewed by J. S. Colley
Disraeli Avenue is a companion piece to Smailes’ full-length novel, In Search of Adam, which centers on child sexual abuse. The protagonist in the novel is a girl named Jude. The setting of the novella is the street where she lives. Each chapter opens a door to one of the row-houses lining the street and reveals a secret—sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, sometimes frightening, something uncomfortable, and sometimes evil. You can live next to a person your entire life and never really know them. Everyone harbors secrets, no matter how significant or trivial.
I haven’t read In Search of Adam, but I’ve read some of the reviews. The varied reaction doesn’t surprise me. For people who’ve never experienced abuse—sexual, physical, or psychological—it’s hard to fathom. But statistics don’t lie: one in four children will be sexually abused at some point in their lives. For those readers who don’t think the stories are realistic, who have been fortunate enough to be one of the three out of four, then I will repeat what a pediatric nurse friend of mine once said, “We live in la-la land.”
The statistics are disturbing, and one with which I have some first-hand experience. While my story isn’t very horrific, it did have an effect on me. In fifth grade, I attended a Catholic school in central Florida. It was a small school and the janitor also served as bus driver for those of us who lived outside the city. Each day the driver would pass the last two bus stops (two sisters and myself) and head for the country store where he bought us a cold chocolate soda before circling back and dropping us off. You get the picture.
Around that same time, I was chosen to create all the calligraphy for the school and the annual science fair was only a week away. I went to the school on a Saturday to finish lettering the banners when I realized I needed more India ink. I headed for the supply room, which was set back from the outdoor breezeway. I met the janitor/bus driver there and he started to chat. I remember feeling nervous, for reasons I didn’t understand, and then, suddenly, my back was pressed against the girl’s bathroom door and the man was kissing me. To this day, I don’t remember how I got from standing in the middle of the alcove to inside the bathroom. I snapped out of whatever fog I was in, pushed the man with all my might, and ran back to the classroom.
The most horrific thing about it was that I didn’t tell anyone. Not my teacher. Not the principal, who I was on good terms with (her Feast Day and my birthday were the same). For all my youth, I had a foreboding prediction that if I spoke up all hell would break loose, and I would receive much unwanted attention. While I was confident the principal would believe me, there were other adults around me that I didn’t trust.
For years, I lived with guilt because I didn’t speak up. In my defense, just before we moved I cautioned my friend to watch her younger sister around this man—a parting warning. I noticed that he often called her up to stand by him while he was driving and he’d put his hand on her leg. The thought of it makes my stomach turn. How could I have not told anyone? It’s something I have to live with, but it is also something that far too many children do—keep quiet. And this is what the pedophiles count on. How to educate our children without explaining too much too soon and shattering their innocent years? I wish I knew the answer.
Even though nothing horrible happened to me physically, the incident had a profound psychological effect just as I was entering that stage in life when one becomes interested in the opposite sex. I don’t feel sorry for myself, though, because others have had much, much more to overcome.
So, please, if there is a child in your life—a sister, brother, niece, nephew, or friend—who suddenly changes, becomes quiet or angry, ask questions. Ask if there is something bothering them that they want to talk about. A child’s natural state is not to be sullen and withdrawn. Don’t put your head in the sand.
I could have left out the personal anecdotes in this review but that would have been cowardly. I wanted to speak up, however late. The author of Disraeli Avenue, Caroline Smailes, is speaking up, and she’s giving away the royalties earned on the sale of this novella to the One in Four charity, founded by, and for, those who have experienced sexual abuse. I’d urge you to buy the book. It’s available in both the UK and USA. You can’t lose—a compelling read, plus contributing to such a useful and, sadly, necessary cause.