I get a lot of book suggestions from podcasts. If a book comes up more than once on a podcast or is mentioned on a few different podcasts, it immediately becomes something I check out (if it sounds like a book for me).
So when listening to Novel Pairings and Sara mentioned the book Unscripted by Nicole Kronzer at least twice, I knew I needed to get this book for my classroom library. Unscripted intrigued me because it was about improv–a topic I know I have no books about in my class library. The front cover boldly states, “Some jokes cross the line.” I knew going in this was going to be about a girl heading into a male-dominated world. I didn’t quite expect the toxic masculinity to cross into abuse. I definitely could have used those trigger warnings before I started reading the book.
The relationship between Zelda, our protagonist, and Ben, her just slightly older Varsity Improv Team coach, was really difficult for me to read. And it’s actually just as difficult for me to write about.
Ben is clearly in a position of power as the coach of the team. He’s in a position of power over Zelda. He’s in a position of power over the other team members. AND he’s in a position of power over the other counselor/coaches because he’s the varsity coach.
And Ben wields that power quite well and in a very scary manner. He uses his power to silent the campers and to silence the counselors. The boys on the team don’t speak up on Zelda’s behalf because they are worried about what will happen to them if they do. The other counselors don’t speak up on Zelda’s behalf–at least not initially–because Ben is able to move his practices and his group away from others, so those counselors don’t know what’s going on.
Ben also uses his power to promote toxic masculinity. He knows he’s in a space where males are in charge. He listens to the comments the varsity team makes, and he adds to this atmosphere. Ben is the one who writes sketches that only allow women to be shown in stereotypical roles–as a sex worker or a secretary or a nurse. When Zelda writes a sketch that kills in the read through and his bombs, he conveniently doesn’t say who wrote either sketch. Then he takes control of Zelda’s sketch because as he says, “girls aren’t funny.”
Ben uses his power to prey on Zelda and assault her. At first, Ben is emotionally abusive. It begins slowly as emotional abuse does. He changes Zelda’s name from Zelda to Ellie. When she tells him her name is Zelda, he replies that he doesn’t like Zelda as her name because she looks more like an Ellie. For whatever reason, Zelda doesn’t push the issue. She just goes with it, and soon the varsity team knows her only as Ellie. Changing her name is an overt symbol of the power he holds over Zelda. He literally takes control of her identity and changes it to suit his needs.
He also preys on her intelligence and humor. The readers learn from the first pages of the book how smart and funny Zelda is. As soon as Ben enters the page, it is clear that he is not cut out for the role he’s been given. It is clear that Zelda is smarter than Ben. It is clear that Zelda is funnier than Ben. And Ben sees her as a threat, so he does what a lot of insecure people in positions of power do–in my experience, what a lot of insecure men in positions of power do to women–he works to take that away from her.
Zelda’s interactions with Ben cause her to question herself, her talent, and her intellect. Instead of being the loud, funny, brash young woman we meet at the beginning of the novel, she turns into someone who no longer stands up for herself. Who runs whenever Ben calls. Who doesn’t advocate for her needs. There is one scene where she’s trying to justify Ben’s behavior to another character, and the characer–someone older and wiser–asks her if he’s been physically abusive. Yet. This causes Zelda to freeze. The character goes on to tell Zelda that this the logical next step for this relationship. And she opens the door for what will become a safe space for Zelda later in the book.
It was troubling, at best, for me to read.
I put this book down a number of times as I was reading it. I almost didn’t pick it back up. Not because the book was “bad.” But because it was exactly too real. The only issue I had with the book was the timeline. Everything happens in two weeks time. In reality, it takes months and years for emotionally abusive people to gain control of the victim. I do understand no YA reader wants to read something that takes place over the space of years–so a fortnight it is.
This book held so many triggers for me. It was like reading about the relationship I had with my first husband. The one difference was that Zelda had her bunkmates and the Boy Scouts from the camp next door who saw exactly what Ben was doing. There were witnesses to his abusive behavior. They told her about it. They stood up for her. In the case of many emotionally abusive relationships, the abuser is incredibly charming around others. He saves his vitriol and cut downs for when it’s just the abuser and abused. There are no witnesses. I remember a colleague–someone I had socialized with outside of work–ask me many years after my divorce was final if I ever heard from my ex husband. I’d like to be polite and say to you, Dear Reader, that I simply said no to the person. But I didn’t. When I finished answering her, she replied, “Oh, but, he was such a nice guy!”
My reply to her was, “No, he wasn’t. He was abusive.”
And she replied, “Yeah, but…” At which point, I shut her down.
Ben wasn’t as charming to others–as my colleague claimed my ex-husband was–and so Ben wasn’t able to easily fool others. They were able to see Ben for what he was. When Zelda finally came forward with her claims of abuse, there were others like her bunkmates, counselors, and even the Boy Scouts, who stood up and corroborated her story.
In the end, I’m glad I finished Unscripted. I think this book is one that should be read by all teens. Just like Speak is an important book that should be read by all teens. I would love to be able to listen in on book club discussions about Unscripted. Kronzer has written the book in such a way that readers are able to look back and see exactly where the red flags should have been for Zelda. And perhaps they can learn that same lesson. They can read the book and see how important it is to be an ally and how important it is to be there for friends.
In the end, I was just so surprised how a seemingly innocent looking YA book had so many triggers and evoked so much from this reader.