Susan Minot’s novel Thirty Girls
presents an insightful and harrowing depiction of the experiences of a group of young girls abducted from their convent school by rebel soldiers in Uganda, one that a recent review in the New York Book Review lauded as “a novel of quiet humanity and probing intelligence.”
Minot portrays the ways these girls attempt to come to grips not only with the abuse and degradation they suffer, but with the atrocities they are forced to perpetrate on others. This serves to put a profoundly human face on theoretical constructs—such as moral agency, perpetration-induced trauma, and moral injury—that have provided powerful insights in the recent literature on child soldiers (Annan, Blattman, & Horton, 2006; Betancourt, Borisova, Williams, Brennan et al., 2010; Kerig, Wainryb, Twali, & Chaplo, 2013; Wainryb, 2011).
In this passage, an American journalist elicits an account from one of the kidnapped girls, who is now being treated at a rehabilitation center:
The rebels beat and rape the schoolgirls, but it’s the violence they make them commit against one another that may have the gravest effect. Esther and some of her friends are told to gather up sticks. “You,” a soldier says, “You kill that girl.” … No one moves. “If you do not do this,” the soldier says, “instead we will kill you … All of you.” Esther recalls what happens next … “After that day I am a new person. I am no longer a person who has never killed … At the time I thought, ‘This is the worst thing that would ever happen.’ Later I stopped deciding what the worst things could be.”
Further, in this novel, Minot effectively captures the felt experience of trying to cope with an inescapable stressor in perhaps the only way one can find to do so—through dissociation. In this passage, Esther describes how she psychologically survived the experience of sexual assault:
“He pulled me over and I vacated my body … This body only carries me, it is not me. When that body is being hurt, I will go from it … I made my body not belong to me.”
Annan, J., Blattman, C., & Horton, R. (2006). The state of youth and youth protection in northern Uganda. New York: UNICEF. Retrieved from http://chrisblattman.com/documents/policy/sway/SWAY.Phase1.FinalReport.pdf
Betancourt, T., Borisova, I., Williams, T., Brennan, R., Whitfield, T., de la Soudiere, M., et al. (2010). Sierra Leone’s former child soldiers: A follow-up study of psychosocial adjustment and community reintegration. Child Development, 81, 1077–1095.
Derluyn, I., Vindevogel, S. & De Haene, L. (2013). Toward a relational understanding of the reintegration and rehabilitation processes of former child soldiers. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 22(8), 869–886.
Kerig, P. K., & Wainryb, C., Twali, M. S., & Chaplo, S. D. (2013). America’s child soldiers: Toward a research agenda for studying gang-involved youth in the US. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, and Trauma, 22(7), 1-23.
Minot, S. (2014). Thirty girls. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Wainryb, C. (2011). “And so they ordered me to kill a person”: Conceptualizing the impacts of child soldiering on the development of moral agency. Human Development, 54, 273–300.