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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - A Teen Mother's "Brother"

We’ve got our first secondary character assessment on The Character therapist, people! I nearly clapped when Steena from Chocolate Reality emailed me back and confirmed that Rhonda* is indeed secondary in this spiritual thriller! But I gotta tell you…she’s WAY interesting. Read on.

Rhonda is a 46-year-old cookbook author. Never married, although she had one child, Ned*, when she was 16 years old who was the result of a rape. Her parents, local ministers, “covered up” the pregnancy by telling the congregation that Rhonda’s mother was pregnant. So Rhonda’s little boy becomes her “brother.” Ned—30 by the time the book starts—is the main character. Rhonda was raped by Stan*, a boy 4 years older than her whose alcoholic father murdered his mother. Rhonda’s family took him in, and he had been Rhonda’s hero. Now, at 50 years old, he’s the “bad guy,” playing head games with Rhonda and using his sphere of influence to manipulate her. Rhonda suffers panic attacks when she sees Stan and has an intense fear of him.

* Names have been changed to protect the fictional.

Steena has re-written Rhonda many times, something we can all relate to. When she started, she thought Rhonda was 30 in her head, but when she discovered Rhonda’s relationship to Ned, the main character (i.e., when Steena realized Ned was Rhonda’s son), Steena needed her to be older, but not “too old.” (Steena, by any chance are you a Pantster?)

Steena wants to know how she can make Rhonda’s reactions to the rapist and her “brother”/son be more realistic. Also, she wants more consistency with Rhonda at her current age of 46.

Let's start with young Rhonda. At the tender age of 16, she gets raped...for many women, their worst nightmare. But she wasn't raped by a stranger. She was violated by someone she knew; worse, someone she looked up to. Then, just as the initial shock wears off, she misses her monthly period and then her body begins to change, from that of a youth to a soon-to-be-mother. Her nightmare doesn't end, but now includes a 9-month gestation of a child conceived in the worst way possible.

Being raped is a traumatic and shaming thing, but Rhonda's is even more so because the ramifications of her rape--a child--are now being "covered up." Francine Rivers wrote an excellent book about a woman who carries her baby to term after being raped. It's called The Atonement Child. So good, and it gives some ideas of how Rhonda might feel, even though the heroine is older in Francine's book.

Depending on how Rhonda handles stress, her response could be very different. But I imagine that any young teen faced with the difficulty of raising a child she hadn't wanted, conceived in an act of violence with someone she probably thought she could trust, would feel some relief at her parents stepping in to help take care of the child. She likely doesn't know how to feed a baby or change diapers or deal with cholic or burp or bathe a baby. She's really just a child herself. With that in mind, it's feasible that she could slip right into her normal teenage role, but things wouldn't be business as usual.

Why? Because she gave birth. Any female who's ever sat on that table, legs splayed wide, to bring life into this world, knows the other-worldly connection a woman can have with this tiny infant that she's never met. A 16 year old might not fully grasp all the significance in the way of say, a 26-year-old, but she's certainly old enough to feel a bond. I imagine her being in awe of this child she carried, perhaps even scared to hold him, thinking she's not experienced enough or might hurt him. She might even be proud of how beautiful he is as she lets her mother cradle him in her more matronly arms.

As she watches him grow from her "sisterly" role, I imagine she looks on with more interest than average as Ned learns to crawl, walk, potty train, and ride a bike. Depending on how the parents deal with this, it may or may not look odd. Many 16-year-old older siblings babysit and have a lot of involvement with younger siblings, so it's not a stretch, really, for any level of involvement she'd have. She could easily go in lieu of her parents to the school principal's office at 30 years old when her 14-year-old "brother" gets suspended. So lots to play with there, even if these interactions never make the book. They still make up Rhonda.

The older she gets, maybe the more she'd want to "claim" him, too. More life experiences = more confidence. Her parents might try to talk her out of it..."for the health and well-being of Ned." This could be a source of contention with her parents, for sure. But you mention that her parents die (or at least her mother) and that Rhonda steps up to take care of Ned more, so it might be a very natural response for her to want to tell him. But I'd think as his mother, she'd also take into account how the revelation would affect him.

Oooo--total aside here, but one scene I'd just love to read...gosh! it'd be so a scene where Ned gets married. Every mother has the right to sit at the front of the church while her offspring ties the knot, and I just wonder what Rhonda felt in her sisterly role relegated to a position other than her own? My own heart just about breaks thinking about that. And what about when she would get to dance with him? sad.

But back to my assessment...ah, yes. The revelation. You mentioned in our emails that Ned experiences a heartbreaking loss of his family in a car crash. He gets mad at God, and turns his back on him, at which point lots of bad things happen in the town in which he is a pastor. Only once he starts to believe in God again does he learn the secret that Rhonda is his mother. Talk about PUNCH. Best-seller, Steena. Seriously gripping stuff.

I think it would be better on Ned to learn the truth in some sideways manner. I would think Rhonda wouldn't tell him due to everything else going on with him. If he truly leans on Rhonda for emotional and moral support, than her revelation would possibly devastate him. But if he kind of put two-and-two together on his own, I would think he'd be more likely to see past the 30-year lie and know his mother had lied to him with good reason, at least in her heart. (And no, I won't get into the debate about good lies v. bad ones, but feel free to do so in the comments section.)

One way I thought about doing this would be for Ned to have some contact with Stan. A cool twist could be some little-known fact about Stan, like a health deficit or allergy, also being present in Ned. Give them both an unlikely mannerism to boot and it wouldn't take a smart preacher-man to figure it out, especially given Rhonda's reactions to Stan, but it's just a suggestion.

So on to those reactions to Stan. Panic attacks would be a result of some post-traumatic stress Rhonda has regarding her rape. If you're wanting the man to be really mean, I'd have him play with her mind by sending her to the place where the rape happened. That would really do a doozie on poor Rhonda. (Aren't we authors mean?) People with PTSD will go to extreme lengths to avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma, including people, places and things. Extreme lengths. So this could garner Ned's attention.

Her fear isn't going to lessen because she gets older. The old adage of "time heals all wounds" just isn't true for everyone. The way you wrote Rhonda's initial meeting with Stan sounds like it's dead on. She's be beside herself, so it's very likely she'd let something slip, like the fact she had a baby, so kudos on that. But she's a MOMMA at heart. If Stan were to threaten Ned in any way...big Momma Bear would come roaring. I think it'd be a fantastic way to get Rhonda to face her fears of Stan.

Man, I want to read this book! Great job. Hopefully I've been of some help. As always, questions welcome in the comments section to continue the "session."

This service is for fictional characters only, so any resemblance to real life examples is entirely coincidental. Any other fictional character assessment questions can be directed to

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Natalie said...

Wow, that sounds like an intense premise! Great breakdown as always Jeannie.

Steena said...

Jeannie - thank you! First off ... what is a panster?????

I'm at work ... so I'll be digesting this in bundles ... I apologize for all the 'comments' I'll post ...LOL

I have Ned finding out about the 'secret' from an old journal his wife wrote. Her last entry. You can imagine the heartache, the anger, the shock Ned experiences. He lashes out at Rhonda - who breaks down. I need Ned to wrestle with the forgiveness aspect of this lie.

Ned has leaned on Rhonda for emotional support throughout his grieving process, to the point where I think he subconsciously views her in a mother type role.

Rhonda - hasn't told a soul about her secret - she made a promise to her parents never to reveal it. She finally tells a friend who asks her how she dealt with having her 'motherhood' ripped from her. Your descriptions help - thank you. I have her wresting with her mom on this issue. I wonder if I should have Ned looking back and seeing instances where it 'slipped' at times - the roles.

You know - I never thought about the wedding aspect. That adds a whole new dimension. Rhonda on the sidelines when she should be upfront. I wonder - does her mother ever relinquish this role for Rhonda? Does she ever regret it or does she take it on naturally?

Do you think Rhonda never married because she felt 'dirty'? I want to explore the hero turned tormentor a bit more but I'm not sure how exactly. She will have felt betrayed, she can't trust again, insecure ... so how does she go from that to being a successful woman (who runs when Stan comes back in her life).

Again ... thank you!!!!

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

steena - a pantster is someone who writes by the seat of their pants. :) as opposed to a plotter. the reason i wrote that is because you said the relationship "surprised" you hadn't planned for Rhonda to be Ned's mom. which is like you were typing out a scene and it just hit you, "WOW! this would be an awesome connection!" that's a pantster. and nothing wrong with it, either.

sounds like you've got Ned's revelation already in place...and just like how i suggested. how good am i? :) your idea to have him see glimpses of her "slipping" is wonderful. while he's stewing over the hurt and shock, have him make a couple flashbacks...maybe to the wedding when she did something typically only the mother of the groom does--like maybe she begs him to dance with her or something. says how proud she is of him (which some older sisters do, not many). something like that.

rhonda's reasons for not marrying definitely need to be explored. did the right guy just not come along? did she not want to have to lie to a husband about Ned? maybe after Ned's birth, she couldn't have children anymore and this devastated she thought every man would want to have a family and she was incapable. what do YOU think? why would you ask if she felt "dirty?" millions of raped women get married...would they all feel dirty, or was there something in particular for Rhonda you're thinking of?

and i really think her success should have been a total accident...something that surprised her. like a cookbook she made for church all of a sudden gaining an agent's interest or something, then thrusting her into the spotlight as some sort of rachel ray/paula dean or something. just something to think about.

let's keep it going. i'm at work too...that's what "breaks" are for. :)

Tara McClendon said...

What a complicated story line. Eek. Thanks for the analysis. This is one reason why I included you in a list of awards today. :]

Steena said...

Rhonda is a PK (preacher's kid). I'm wondering if she felt ashamed, thought she somehow gave Stan the impression ... I'm trying to place myself in her shoes as a 16 yr old who was just raped by her 'hero'.

I like the idea of her fame being an accident, that coincides with who she is as a person - not expecting, not thinking she was good enough for it, always thinking that it was a fluke until it gained momentum ...

would this aspect of her character continue to her 40's or would she outgrow it? Do you think that by the time I've met her in my story the success would have been a boost to her character and would have strengthened her as a person?

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

if she felt like she has somehow encouraged stan, that would make ALL the difference in the world. she'd have this internal manta that she wasn't a "good" person deep inside, that she had gotten what she deserved (which could definitely be reiterated by stan after the fact that he forced himself on her. many rapists say this to their victims..."you asked for it.")

glad you liked the fluke fame idea. :)

if rhonda never got any kind of therapy, then this internalization of her lack of worth, her not deserving anything good (like a husband), would continue as long as need be. without intervention, things have a tendency to either stay the same or get worse .

about the success, i think she'd see it as something she was undeserving of, as well. like it should have happened to someone else. (like, say, she was asked to do this cookbook b/c someone else backed out. that other person should have gotten recognition.) that sort of thinking....makes for such a wonderful, flawed character. but you wouldn't want to leave her that'd want her to realize that the rape wasn't her fault at all. so even secondary characters need to have full character arcs.

Steena said...

Thank you! She was in therapy, so I see where you are going.
Thank you! You've helped so much!

Jessica Nelson said...

That does sound interesting! Great job Steena.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Wow, that's a fascinating story. There's a lot to "play" with as a writer. Thanks for sharing it!

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

thanks, ladies!

steena - i'm glad this has been helpful. that's all i'm out to do. :)

Unknown said...

Love the term "pantster" and glad to find out there's a real term for how I write...

Ha. I'm a pantster.

The way I've always explained is that I am watching a movie in my head and am just there to take notes.

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.