The Damage is a visceral story of the aftermath of rape.
On one fateful night, Nick, a twenty-year-old college boy, goes out drinking with his flatmate to work up the courage to let go of his unrequited love. At the bar, Nick meets Josh, a handsome and charming man to whom Nick is instantly attracted. Josh is nothing like the boy Nick is pining over – he seems genuinely interested in Nick. So after hitting it off, they leave for Josh’s motel room to have a one night stand.
When Nick wakes up the next day, he finds himself drenched in blood with cuts and bruises everywhere, and Josh, nowhere to be found. Nick remembers Josh hitting him in the head when they entered the motel room, and Nick is terrified and in shock, not processing what happened to him after that. But the minute Nick returns home, after taking one look at him, his flatmates rush him to the hospital where the sexual assault nurse examiners confirm what they already knew and dreaded. The police get called, and an investigation ensues. And what this novel explores is the lingering damage Nick’s rape inflicts on Nick and his family.
I have always felt rape is a heinous crime, even more than murder, as rape survivors have to deal with the psychological trauma for the rest of their lives. The Damage is a painful read in that regard, because we see how this rape changes Nick, especially as a male survivor. Wahrer sensitively dissects the confusion about masculinity and conflicting feelings Nick carries within him. Nick hates the victim label which serves as a concrete reminder that he was powerless – he is so angry at himself for not being able to defend himself against his rapist, which he perceives as his weakness. He is also ashamed he’ll be judged as being promiscuous by society for having gone with a stranger. So, before long, Nick’s self-blaming attitude translates to self-harming behavior, leaving his family helpless.
Tony, Nick’s half-brother, and Julia, Tony’s wife, are Nick’s closest family. Nick’s parents are drug addicts, who were violent towards Nick when he was growing up. So Tony has always been a surrogate father to Nick, protecting Nick from his parents. Since Tony is a fixer, it pains him that he can’t fix the situation that further spirals out of hand when the police arrest Nick’s assailant. Finding “Josh,” whose real name is Ray, isn’t difficult. There’s a photo of Nick and Ray at the bar, plus Nick’s rape kit provides DNA. But Ray has no priors, although police suspect he is a serial rapist because of the brutal nature of Nick’s assault. A possible explanation for this is that Ray has been targeting closeted gays — his interactions with Nick at the bar hint that he might have assumed Nick wasn’t out. Either way, after Ray gets released on bail, he uses his “upstanding citizen” persona to try and turn the public opinion against Nick, claiming Nick wanted rough sex!
The whole ordeal that Ray puts Nick through was nauseating to read. But The Damage highlights the negative connotations that rape of a man carry within the society only too well. As the public chimes in with its unsolicited two-cents after Ray’s assertions on media, we see some people doubting Nick, not believing a young man can be subdued and assaulted by another man. Prejudices also surface, with some claiming Nick must obviously have a rough sex kink because he is gay! As they callously make these insensitive remarks, we see the mental toll it takes on Nick, even when Nick tries to put on a brave face for his family for a while. It also puts a severe strain on the marriage of Tony and Julia – Tony, understandably, wants to kill Ray, driving Julia, a former defense lawyer, to feel anxious about the safety of their family.
The Damage is a very moving novel, although its subject matter is dark. The only thing I didn’t like about the novel is one thriller component of it – Nick “lies” to everyone, in the beginning, saying he blacked out after Ray hit him in the head at the motel, when in reality, he remembers everything that happened. Nick thinks if he tells everyone he doesn’t remember, he will eventually forget the rape. I understood this was a coping mechanism, albeit an ineffectual one. However, without revealing Nick’s “lie” outright, Wahrer writes the story in a way that could make one wonder if Nick lied about being raped in the first place. While reading The Damage, I didn’t believe that Wahrer was writing a boy-who-cried-wolf story, but I didn’t appreciate this trope that might make readers doubt Nick even for a second unless Wahrer was trying to make her readers introspective and ask themselves if they really believe in survivors stories. All in all, The Damage is a gripping debut that ends in a hopeful note for Nick.
Note: Many thanks to Pamela Dorman Books for sending me a review copy of The Damage.