'This World Doesn't Exist. We Don't Live There.' New Book Imagines a World Without Male Violence (Exclusive)

In Tessa Fontaine's debut novel, 'The Red Grove,' a group of women are immune to violence. Here, she examines what that safety might feel like

<p>Max Cooper, MacMillan</p> The Red Grove by Tessa Fontaine

Max Cooper, MacMillan

The Red Grove by Tessa Fontaine

I’m a freshman at UC Santa Barbara, and like most days, I’m on a run. I’ve already determined my favorite trail, a dirt path that winds along a giant scrubby bluff, wild-feeling while still close to my dorm, pelicans swooping nearby and dolphins sometimes playing in the ocean below. It’s technically on campus, but I don’t usually see many people.

Per usual, I’m wearing running shorts and a T-shirt. I have never been the kind of person who ran in spandex or a sports bra, too risky, too showy. I never wear headphones. In part, I like for my mind to wander when I run, but more than that, it isn’t safe. I know this; I have always known this. You’ve got to be able to hear someone coming up behind you.

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The early evening sun is warm on my skin as I round a corner and there, beside a tree, is a man with his pants around his knees. He is masturbating, looking me dead in the eye. I startle a little, let out an oh, and then turn around and run quickly back the other way. I listen, but he isn’t coming after me.

Maybe I tell a few friends about it, maybe I don’t; I can’t remember. He wasn’t the first public masturbator I’d seen, and he won’t be the last. What’s remarkable about this experience is only how unremarkable it is. Nothing bad had happened, really, but it was my imagining how much worse it could have been, what someone like that would have wanted had he chased me, that seeped in.

<p>UCSB Library/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0</p> UC Santa Barbara

UCSB Library/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

UC Santa Barbara

I started to change. Not all at once, and not just from that one incident, but the accumulation of all these moments and stories from friends and news reports and movies and statistics. The woman raped and murdered on her run. The woman beaten by a boyfriend with no history of violence. The woman stalked, kidnapped, killed while walking home alone. It’s not what has happened to me; it’s what I can always imagine might.

I’m fiercely independent, the first to say yes to an adventure or challenge, and so it kills me to admit all this. And yet, when I’m alone on a trail or even in a city, I make casual plans in the back of my mind for what I might grab nearby to use as a weapon. I avoid twilight and make the right amount of eye contact with men I pass — too much and you’re inviting, too little and you’re a snob — and obviously never run in the dark, every girl grows up learning that.

<p>MacMillan</p> 'The Red Grove' by Tessa Fontaine


'The Red Grove' by Tessa Fontaine

The man on the bluff does not register in my catalog of important life events, falling instead into a category of experience that will happen again and again, and in that way, I am extremely lucky. Unlike so many friends of mine, I do not carry major sexual trauma. The luck of this feels like a ticking clock, which might, at any time, go off.

Years later, I am writing my debut novel The Red Grove, which centers on a community of women who believe themselves immune to violence. In their valley, a special protection prevents any violence from befalling them. The deeper into this world I went, the more I realized how absolutely foreign this experience would feel. Because what might change if I were never worried about violence? If I never spent time imagining someone around a corner with his pants down, who might chase me down? If that girl weren’t ever afraid, where might she run, and when? What else would be different that I couldn’t even conceive of?

Christopher Kimmel / Getty Images A hiker standing among redwood trees
Christopher Kimmel / Getty Images A hiker standing among redwood trees

I began formulating my own answers, and to a wide swath of women in my life, I sent this question: “What would you do differently, now or in the past, if you didn’t have to worry about male violence?”

The recipients spanned ages, locations, sexual identities, races and cultures. And I got a lot of answers — amazingly thoughtful, insightful, devastating answers.

“I would have driven alone across the country,” a friend wrote back right away. “And gone camping alone and into bars and on motorcycle through the countryside of Europe by myself.”

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Another friend said she “might have had success in some areas because I wouldn’t have had to always worry about the things that women worry about: being attractive, being nice, being available and attentive to others in my life, being a good wife, being a good mother, being a good daughter, being responsible for making sure others are happy and fed, making sure I fit in, etc.”

And another: “The immense drop in my constant, general sense of vigilance would leave room for... what? I would be so different it's hard to imagine how.”

<p>Cavan Images/Getty Images</p> A woman camping in the Adirondack Mountains

Cavan Images/Getty Images

A woman camping in the Adirondack Mountains

“I wonder what kind of fairy tales we would have (less damsel, for sure), what kind of stories we would tell, and how identity would be shaped if we didn't have to spend so much energy on being so careful all of the time,” another person said.

I was floored by how profoundly people I loved and respected thought their lives might be different — better — without this lifelong vigilance. How different their imagined versions of their truest selves were.

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So many people said they’d do more things alone. That they’d explore their sexuality more, and push the boundaries of gender expression, friendships with men, kindness toward strangers, more dancing, fewer bras, more traveling, less smiling unless they actually wanted to smile, more nighttime exploration, more nudity, more outward expression of who they are that they are afraid to claim. They — we — would be more confident in who we are.

The world I invented in The Red Grove is fiction; we don’t live there. I don’t know if we ever will. But I have liked imagining it for the younger me, running along that bluff in twilight. I like vanishing from her brain the shadows of things she knows happen in the world: poof, no need to imagine a dangerous man up ahead. Poof, no image of your perfectly gentle boyfriend strangling you, as a friend’s boyfriend did not long before. Without all that imagined violence, what else might take up space?

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The Red Grove is out May 14, and is available for preorder now, wherever books are sold.

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