Middlebury College grad to read from novel about campus sexual assault
MIDDLEBURY — Maria Padian holds fond memories of her undergraduate studies at Middlebury College, during which she attended the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Ripton.
“There I was, this 21-year-old student, surrounded by all these grown-up, professional writers,” she recalled in an autobiographical message on her website, mariapadian.com. “And ‘ouch,’ were they honest; brutal, actually.”
But as Padian put it during a recent phone interview from her home in Brunswick, Maine, “I came to Middlebury determined I would become a writer.”
Thirty-three years after graduating from Middlebury, Padian has penned four books. And her latest, a novel titled “Wrecked,” paints a mythical campus backdrop that many Middlebury College graduates might find familiar. And while the protagonists are also fictional, readers will find in “Wrecked” a tragically familiar topic: a sexual assault at an institution of higher learning.
Padian returns to Middlebury this week for an appearance at the Vermont Book Shop on Thursday, Oct. 6, at 6:30 p.m., during which she will read from “Wrecked” and sign copies of her new tome. “Wrecked” has already garnered some very positive reviews for its treatment of the hot-button issue of sexual assault on college campuses. The novel dramatizes the difficulty in reaching closure and finding justice when colleges — whose interests might not be the same as the victim’s — take on questions of guilt and punishment, according to synopsis of the brisk, 357-page read that is geared particularly to young adults.
The story revolves around Jenny, a college freshman who accuses another student, Jordon, of raping her after a party they attended. Their friends, fellow students, college officials and the greater community arrive at their own conclusions about the allegations in the search for truth and justice.
It is that broader discussion that particularly interested Padian, as a writer.
“I was trying to write a novel that wasn’t about sexual assault, per se,” she said. “It was about the culture that students are navigating on campus. I think it’s about consent, communication, and how we as a community respond to these situations and accusations.”
Padian drew inspiration from the play “Doubt,” which explores allegations of sexual misconduct by a priest. The audience is intentionally left with varying interpretations about whether the priest is guilty of a crime.
“It made a big impression on me,” Padian said of the play. “As a writer, I was drawn to try to dramatize something so we would see all these different characters responding to a story in a variety of different ways.”
She sought to avoid what she said are some of the typical, stereotypical characters seen in sex assault cases ripped from the headlines.
“I did not want to write about an athlete,” she said, alluding to the Duke lacrosse case of 2006, when members of the varsity men’s team where falsely accused of rape.
She also steered clear of using a fraternity house as the scene of the crime.
“I wanted to do something different,” Padian said. “I wanted to tell a story that was more the way those of us who have not been sexually assaulted experience the phenomenon on the other side of a closed door.”
Padian also wanted to the accuser in her book to be a “fairly typical college freshman who is trying to figure out where she fits in. I wanted the set-up to be something a lot of students could relate to.”
To that end, Padian recalled her own college experiences and travelled to some other campuses to get a feel for the territory.
She noted a different climate than existed during her Middlebury years.
“Back in my day, we all did our fair share of drinking, and I don’t think that’s any different now,” Padian said. “But I do think that there’s a different climate, in terms of sexuality. ‘Hook-up’s culture is just pervasive. Back when I was 19 and going to college, we called it a one-night stand, but it wasn’t necessarily a typical Saturday night expectation. I think there has been a shift, culturally, throughout the country — and it’s not simply a cultural phenomenon. So when we talk about ‘consent,’ it’s different than it was 30 years ago, or 50 years ago.”
She cited the example of the scene in the 1940 movie “Philadelphia Story,” when George Kittredge (played by John Howard) carries a drunken Tracy Lord (played by Katharine Hepburn) to her bedroom, and later explained that to take advantage of her inebriation would have been the wrong thing to do.
“I think kids are navigating a different culture,” Padian said, “and possibly a little bit different than what I was experiencing 30 years ago.”
Padian hopes her book inspires new conversations about sexual assault — particularly before such crimes occur.
“These unfortunate-but-necessary conversations have to take place,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].