At age 14, Maddy is gang raped by five boys from her school. She tells no one, suffering horribly in silence, trying to obliterate the memories by burning her skin with lit cigarettes. Months after the rape, false stories circulate around school that she is sleeping with any boy she can. She becomes prey, frequently humiliated and sometimes molested.
From the outset, Maddy’s story is almost unbearably grim. But after being presented with an opportunity to confront her enemies in a unique way, the devastated girl slowly begins to marshal her inner strength, fight back, and share her story with some new, supportive friends.
Maddy’s English class is assigned the task of writing a collaborative novel about a mythological girl called the Pain Eater, who is forced to absorb all the pain of her community. Each student writes one chapter of the novel, which begins to parallel Maddy’s own life as it progresses. While certainly useful, this novel-within-a-novel device is, at times, more clumsy than enlightening.
Saskatoon author Beth Goobie has written two dozen novels, mainly aimed at young adults, often dealing with teen sexuality. Although Goobie crafts an uplifting, hopeful ending, she does not provide a view of the world that is overly rosy, presenting instead the reality that sexually abused teens do not necessarily solve all their problems by confiding in teachers, parents, or the police.
Despite the limitations of our imperfect world, the lessons in The Pain Eater can still be helpful for girls dealing with the aftermath of sexual abuse. The book can also be instructive for teen boys who fail to comprehend the pain caused by sexual bullying and violence.