We may earn a commission through product links on this page. But we only recommend stuff we love.

“I’m the Girl” Is a Harrowing, Complex Story of Abuse That’s Difficult To Read

Author’s Note: This review contains light spoilers and discussions of sexual assault and abuse.

Sixteen year-old George Avis’ hometown sits in the shadow of a mountain resort for the rich and powerful called Aspera. When we first meet George, she’s biking toward Aspera, desperate for a job at the one place where she knows she might make enough money to someday pay her brother back for what she’s “borrowed” in order to pay for some modeling photos. Before she can get there, however, she’s run off the road by a car, passes out, and wakes up in the woods, alone except for the partially-clothed, lifeless body of another girl, Ashley, the younger sister of a classmate. This is how I’m the Girl begins — with the rape and murder of a child. But unlike Courtney Summers’ last thriller, Sadie, this novel isn’t just about the fallout from that crime. George is about to get mixed up in a world far beyond her control, a world she’s been groomed for, a world her mother, who worked as a housekeeper at Aspera until her death, desperately tried to keep her away from. This is a novel about the sexual exploitation of a teenager, and it was very difficult to read.

Speaking of I’m the Girl, author Courtney Summers has been very clear about her intentions for the book. “This is the world that enabled Jeffrey Epstein,” she says. “I’m coming for its throat.” Summers tries to do so by asking us not to look away as George makes choices, or thinks she is making choices, that put her in harm’s way, and then isn’t fully able to recognize that harm has been done. Only Nora, Ashley’s older sister and George’s one ally (and love interest) is able to see exactly what is happening to George, but as she tries to gently prompt her friend into understanding, she’s often busy elsewhere, working to solve her sister’s murder.

Unlike in Sadie, Summers doesn’t pull away from describing actual (partial) scenes and circumstances of abuse, and that’s something I really struggled with. Reviewers have called the book “gritty” and “unflinching,” but I found myself wondering what exactly Summers was trying to illuminate with her “don’t look away” strategy. We know that abuse and exploitation happen; pretty much anyone who was ever a teenage girl has had many experiences at varying points along that spectrum, and dipping directly into scenes where George is being assaulted felt, to me, like a strange choice.

Summers writes complex, fully human teenage girls, kids who are trying to make it through the world largely on their own. In Sadie, the protagonist was old before her time, world-weary and suspicious of men by the age of six. In contrast, here we have George, both precocious and naive, a girl who’s just recently discovered the power of her own sexuality as seen through the photographer’s lens, the male gaze at its most literal. In the absence of any living parent or many choices for her future, she feels ready to use her youth and beauty as currency in a world she doesn’t yet understand. While my childhood doesn’t come close to mirroring George’s, the fact that George is carefully made to feel complicit in these experiences, that some of the adults around George conspire to help her feel a power she doesn’t actually have, felt familiar to me. It will feel familiar to many of us. Summers’ first-person narration stays right with George throughout, and it’s both effective and suffocating as we wait for her to recognize the full extent of her powerlessness, the full extent of the harm that’s enacted upon her.

I’m the Girl asks us to look unflinchingly at the monsters that hold power in our culture, at the constellation of enablers that surrounds every last one of them, at the damage it does to kids like George and Ashley and the others who aren’t named. It certainly shines a light on a particular dynamic of abuse. But to what end? We know those monsters. We’re the girls. We’ve survived, like we hope George will. But the monsters aren’t reading this, and we know they never will. The story, then, remains George’s, remains ours, and I find myself unsure how to feel about novels like this one.

Don’t look away. 

I won’t.

Is that enough?


I’m the Girl by Courtney Summers is out today.


Before you go! Did you like what you just read? We keep Autostraddle majority free-to-read, but it isn't free to create! And yet most readers don't support this indie queer site. Will you be one of the people who do? A+ membership starts at just $4/month or $30/year and they literally keep us from closing. Will you join? Cancel anytime.

Join A+

Darcy

Darcy, a.k.a. Queer Girl, is your number one fan. She's a fat feminist from California who doodles hearts in the corners of her Gay Agenda. They're living through a pandemic, they're on Twitter, and they think you should drink more water! She also wants to make you laugh.

Darcy has written 312 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on if it’s achieved this, but I would think the book is for all the young people (not just girls) who stumble into situations like that without fully realizing that it’s a trap. I.e. the intent is to kill the naivete, both of teenagers but also of some well meaning adults who surround them. The naivete doesn’t last, but it’s better to kill it with a book like that than with actual experiences.
    I’ve known many teens and early twens who came from protected backgrounds who either believed that these things are rare, or that it can’t happen to them, or that their own environment is “not like that”, or who generally were aware of these things but not of how they play out in a actual situation, the degree of treacherousness.

  2. I’m glad I read this review, because i would’ve gone in expecting similar content-graphicness (is that a phrase?) to Sadie, where the implications are clear but not explicit. Still going to read it but going to be more aware of what i’m getting into

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!