KICKING AND SCREAMING
In the Men’s Adventure Paperbacks of the 70s and 80s Facebook group (the best place on FB to hang out ever), we usually share weekly what we are reading, even if it doesn't pertain to the group's main focus. Recently, I posted I was finishing up One Kick by Chelsea Cain judging it as very good. Surprisingly, this elicited almost instantaneous negative responses. told how horrible, unsympathetic, and icky the twenty-one year old female character was. I was also told I must be the only person who liked the book because it had been such a flop the publisher had cancelled the second book even though they had paid for it. And all of this came from as nice a group of knowledgeable, generous guys you could want to hang out with.
(Note: For the record, the real reason behind the second book not appearing is far more complicated, including the author following her editor from one major legacy publisher to another leaving the follow up book, Kick Back, in limbo with the original publisher, who was clearly upset by the editor and author defection.)
There are plenty of five star reviews for One Kick on Amazon, and an overall average of four stars for all reviews. However, there are a surprising number of one star reviews in the mix. These reflect the same sentiments I received when I mentioned reading the book—Sick... Cringe inducing... Do not read… It’s awful... Extremely disturbing... Unlikable protagonist and unbelievable story... Unless your world is enjoyed in a state of perpetual ineffectual fear and loathing, don't bother...
Even One Kick author, Chelsea Cain, has lamented on her Facebook page over how the book was received and the lack of understanding many readers showed toward the main character, Kick Lannigan.
I nearly cracked from the pressure. Like serious Judy Garland level mental breakdown. When celebrities announce that they are being treated for "exhaustion"—I get that now. But it was the best thing that could have happened, as trite as that sounds, because it forced me to make changes in my professional life and set some boundaries and get back to what this is all about, writing. Anyone crazy enough to write a book is, after all, crazy. The trick is staying functional enough to do the work, because it's the work that keeps me sane. That sometimes creates an interesting loop.
Cain is well established on the thriller front. She has had six previous novels on the New York Times bestseller list, been published in twenty-four languages, recommended on the Today show, appeared in episodes of HBO’s True Blood and ABC’s Castle, and included in NPR’s list of the top 100 thrillers ever written. She has also weathered sustained Twitter attacks of a viperous nature over her outspoken feminist stance regarding women working in comic books (she is the writer of the Marvel female superhero Mockingbird)—The girl ain’t no newbie.
All of this experience, yet somehow, One Kick elicited a deeply polarizing reaction. The question then is why. However, to find the answer, we have to begin by looking at the premise of the novel: Meet Kick Lannigan: famously kidnapped at age six, Kick captured America’s hearts when she was rescued five years later. Trained as a marksman, lock picker, escape artist and bomb maker by her abductor, Kick continues to expand her strange skill set after her release: mastering martial arts, boxing, knife throwing, and host of other talents—all part of training herself to be safe. Imagine if Elizabeth Smart had become a mercenary.
Now twenty-one, irrevocably scarred yet determined to never be a victim again, she is approached by an enigmatic and wealthy former weapons dealer named John Bishop. Bishop uses his fortune and contacts to track down missing children. He wants Kick to help him and he won’t take no for an answer—Yet everything he tells her about himself seems to be a lie.
With lives hanging in the balance, Kick is set to be the crusader she has always imagined herself. Little does she know the answers she and Bishop seek are hidden in one of the few places she doesn’t want to navigate—the dark corners of her own mind.
Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? So, what’s the problem. The answer lies in the fact, Cain did not deliver the book readers were expecting based on the cover synopsis. Cain had done her research too well. She understood victims who have endured the sexual abuse described (more implied than overt) as happening to Kick between the ages of six and eleven irrevocably changes an individual—forever. There is no going back.
Instead of giving readers the expected sympathetic, yet strong, vengeance seeking hero, Cain chose to treat her character with an understanding of the constantly shifting, unstable, misleading sands of the mind left behind by this kind of experience.
Kick Lannigan wants to believe she is strong. She wants to believe she can obsessively train herself in all the defensive arts in order to control the world around her and protect herself and those few similarly broken birds she cares about. Perhaps in wish fulfillment fiction this would be the path the protagonist would follow on the way to healing and reintegration...But not in the real world...Never in the real world. Cain understands this and treats her hero with the respect she deserves. Kit Lannigan is broken. The pieces of her shattered by her experiences may have been gathered together, but like Humpty Dumpty, all the kings horse and all the king’s men don’t stand a chance of putting Kick back together again.
How do I know this? I spent over thirty years of my law enforcement career trying to put together again the Kick Lannigans of the real world, when the only thing you can hope for is a modicum of empty justice. I have sat with the abusers, not across a table like you’ve seen on every television show cop show ever, but up close—close enough physically and mentally to reach in and access their dark places. I know the madness there. I know the damage the madness wreaks. And I know, Cain got it as close to right as I’ve ever come across in fiction.
Kit Lannigan is a mess. She is unlikable. She can be cringe inducing. Her behavior is extremely disturbing. She does live in a state of perpetual ineffectual fear and loathing. She epitomizes icky.
She dissociates between the personality she was before the kidnapping, the personality she was during the years she was missing, abused, and molested, and the personality now she has been returned to the normal world. She obsessively trains to protect herself, she has killer skills, yet when the time to use them comes she freezes. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t break to emotional and mental bond burned into her by her abuser. She is indelibly and always linked to him—forever.
Those who are supposed to protect her failed, and now those same people are failing her again—especially her celebrity seeking mother who is a nightmare of a sociopathic narcissist in her own right. And kids are still being taken—every day—and Kick knows exactly what they are going through and it tears her apart in obsessive frenzy.
The films of her being molested as a child are still making the rounds of the internet porn sites and have made her an unwilling celebrity of the worst kind. They will forever be out there, and by law, she gets notified every time law enforcement recovers a download on a pedophile’s computer. And worst of all, she knows exactly what every pedophile who views her films is thinking and fantasizing about doing to her.
It’s all ugly. Very ugly. Unfortunatley, it is also the sordid reality for those who are victims of long term sexual abuse—especially at a young age.
For a fictional character, Kick Lannigan is as close to real as it gets. I’ve met her. Many times. Cain has my respect and should be applauded—not reviled—for not shying away from the inconvenient truth of the damage from which victims of this type of abuse never fully recover—not even close.
And therein lies the problem. Readers don’t want real. They want escapisim. They don’t want to look into the hearts of real monsters—those who lurk in the darkness of the world and those who lie in wait in the darkness of the mind. Imaginary serial killers in the pages of a book are nothing more than Halloween haunts compared to the real thing. They always get caught and they always get their comeuppance. They allow the reader to feel the vicarious scares from the safe distance of their proverbial armchairs. Real serial killers, real rapists and serial sexual abusers of children, are terrifying in their warped sordidness. Pray you or a child you love never end up in their hands.