Why I'm Writing Reinventing Hannah
I didn’t really know a lot about my story when I started writing Reinventing Hannah. All I knew was that it was about a girl who was struggling after she’d been sexually assaulted and that she wanted to be different, more authentic somehow.
I didn’t know any of the details and I’m grateful that Hannah allowed me to get to know her as I wrote the first draft. I did it during NaNoWriMo, which is a month-long challenge every November where you try to write 50,000 words in one month. I wrote every day and I learned a lot about Hannah during my first, relatively shallow dive into the complicated character and circumstances I’d created.
I learned that Hannah’s mom suffers from a serious mental illness and that she was stable now, but her difficulties when Hannah was a little girl made her scary and unpredictable, and that she felt incomplete because she didn’t know who her father was.
I discovered that Hannah presented herself to the world as the “perfect” student who got As without even trying, tutored after school, and was the leader of several community service clubs, but secretly she was a frightened, timid girl trying to cope with the pressures of teenage life and feeling unable to either be herself or be who everyone expected her to be.
And I learned a lot of about what some of those pressures were, how she’d just put up with bullying and unfair treatment before her rape, but that the sexual assault tore open all the wounds she was trying to desperately to hide from the world and made her feel exposed in more ways than one.
Four drafts later, I know a lot more about Hannah that I can’t wait to share with you. And just as importantly, I know more about why this story grabbed my heart with both hands and wouldn’t let go.
Reason #1: I had a LOT to say about the way teenage girls are treated.
As I was writing, I realized my story wasn’t just about a girl who had been sexually assaulted. It was about a girl struggling to find her place in the adult world, and that she was afraid and unsure partially because of the way she and other intelligent, ambitious girls she knew were constantly being treated.
I lived that life as a teenager, light years before my gender transition, and apparently it made more of an impact on me than I realized. I had chalked a lot of the discomfort I’d experienced up to confusion because I wasn’t really a girl but I was treated like one, so being compared unfavorably to my brother or being discouraged from taking advanced science classes was even more senseless.
And then there were the boys who would “accidentally” brush against my chest while I was at my locker. I reported them once and the boy in question apologized and said he didn’t mean to touch me. It was an obvious lie but it was just as clear nothing was going to be done about it, so I just stopped going to my locker altogether to avoid any further incidents of that nature.
I hated my chest after I transitioned because it made people read me as female when I wasn’t. I hated it in high school because it gave me unwanted attention on top of not matching who I was on the inside.
So when I sat down to write Reinventing Hannah, I had all those memories at my disposal that I hadn’t even thought about in years. The next thing I knew, Hannah had a science teacher who made a million backhanded compliments and jokes that weren’t jokes per class period, a bunch of boys in her classes who stared at her butt every time she went to the board, and a bully who wanted to slut shame her after her rape in order to get back at her for being smart enough to be in competition with him for valedictorian when she’s a girl.
Unlike me when I was in high school, Hannah has a group of girls she’s close with, at least at the beginning, but their solution is to ignore the gender based bullying and the inappropriate looks and comments, which she can no longer do.
I’m writing this novel for girls who feel like Hannah does, both those who have been sexually assaulted and those who are just living with constant put downs and inappropriate treatment.
Reason #2: I wanted to tell the story of a "good" girl whose life is turned upside down.
Initially, I was fascinated by the idea of the “girl who had it all” having to deal with her life being turned upside down.
Of course, Hannah doesn’t really have it all. She’s under tremendous pressure all the time; in addition to the academic demands of being in advanced track classes, her status as a model student is fragile and people have expectations for her behavior that just aren’t fair.
After her rape, everyone focuses on the fact that she went to a party where people were using alcohol and other drugs, and the general consensus is that girls like Hannah shouldn’t go to those kinds of parties.
Rumors start flying that she has a secret life as a party girl and the bullies start calling her “Slut Hannah”. Her friends aren’t much better, wondering how she could have worn a low-cut dress or why she didn’t listen to them and stay home.
Part of why I had to tell this story is because I wanted to make it clear that sexual assault is never the victim’s fault and that it’s harder to realize that when friends and enemies alike insist on blaming you for what happened to you. And that obviously, being in a circle of high achievers doesn’t protect someone from being hurt this way.
But the deeper story I wanted to tell is one of how hard it is to deal with societal expectations, especially when they don’t match who you are as a person and who you’ve built yourself up to be.
As a trans person, I know the pain of being totally different from who everyone thinks I am and not knowing how to navigate that gaping chasm between identity and expectations. But I think that everyone — cis or trans — goes through this to some degree or another, and that for high school students it’s even harder because there are so many competing pressures, from adults and from other kids, and that everything you do to explore who you really are puts you at risk of disappointing someone or causing yourself trouble.
And that’s the story I want to tell: the story of how hard it is to be yourself, especially when you’re not sure who that is, but that in the end it’s worth it.
Reason #3: I had something I wanted to say about stigma and shame.
There was one more thing I wanted to write about that I didn’t know I wanted to write about at the time, and that’s all the shame that surrounds things people shouldn’t be ashamed of.
Hannah is ashamed of having been raped, and at first she can’t even say the word, often referring to it as “that thing that happened to me.” The assault she suffers causes her to be confused and ashamed when it comes to her burgeoning sexuality, and she feels guilty about wanting to take sexier photos to share with her boyfriend or even just wanting to wear clothes that make her feel pretty.
Part of Hannah’s problems with this stem from her rape, but she also has been conditioned to believe she’s not supposed to be a sexual being.
It feels odd in some ways for me, as an asexual person, to be writing about the shame someone else feels about being a sexual being. But it’s not really about sex vs. no sex. It’s about the idea that we all should have the right to make sexual choices and not be judged for them.
That’s what’s behind the way others torment Hannah after her rape, accusing her of having a lot of sex all the time and starting rumors about her sex life. Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter if those rumors are true or false; she didn’t consent to the sex she had after being given a spiked drink and that’s not okay, period.
For Hannah, there’s a lot bound up in this whole thing, too. She was conceived as the result of a one-night-stand her mother had with a man whose name she doesn’t know, so for her being too sexual is associated with being out of control, and she’s also bought into the idea that “good girls” don’t go to wild parties and don’t have sex, consensual or otherwise — something her friends still believe.
Something else I’m passionate about is ending the stigma surrounding mental illness. I didn’t set out to write a book about that. That would be agenda-driven writing, which I hate because it’s inauthentic. But as a person who works in the mental health field as well as someone who suffers from depression and anxiety, I wanted to talk back to that shame.
Hannah carries a ton of shame and fear around because of her mom’s mental health issues and her fear that she could have similar ones. Throughout the novel, she struggles with the question of whether to seek therapy to help her deal with her sexual assault, and a major reason for her hesitation has to do with not wanting to face the fear, shame, and pain of her childhood experiences.
I wanted to tell that story because I have seen it over and over, both when I was interning as a social worker and when I talk to people as a life coach. There are so many people who are so afraid of dealing with mental health issues because they think it means something it doesn’t mean, and I want to be a voice asserting the opposite: that it’s okay to talk about mental health and that it’s okay to get help.
The other thing I’ve been passionate about for a very long time is the stigma around drug use and the related stigma around having a criminal record.
I had a close friend who died as the result of long-term crack cocaine addiction, and ever since drugs have played a role in every story I’ve written. I think my friend, like most people who struggle with substance use, had mental health issues that weren’t addressed.
Anyway, Hannah loves a boy who has a bad reputation with her circle of friends because he smokes weed and is facing criminal charges because he was arrested for drug possession the same night Hannah was raped.
I was nervous writing this part of the story because I don’t want it to come off like I’m one of those people who think weed is the worst thing in the world. (I’m not; I haven’t smoked it in 12 years but I don’t think it’s problematic for every user and I think it should be legalized.)
But I wanted to tell it because I wanted to show all the ways something like this can ruin a kid’s life.
Throughout most of the story, Hannah is worried about Brad’s court date and whether he’s going to be sentenced to juvenile hall when she knows the reason he smoked weed that night was because he was worried about her. Her friends think his weed use disqualifies him from ever being her boyfriend and her parents worry that he’s going to influence her to smoke weed too.
Because this is Hannah’s story and not Brad’s, I couldn’t really devote time to the other consequences for his future, like his parents’ fears about his college options now that he’s in this trouble, but there are a lot of ways his life — and by extension Hannah’s — could be affected by something like this. I also wanted to counter the societal message by showing that there are people who will still love someone who gets into this kind of trouble, as Hannah certainly loves Brad and is not about to be dissuaded from dating him because of people’s opinions about his weed use — not even his own.
Ultimately, this is a story about authenticity.
Hannah’s story isn’t about her rape or the other things she’s dealing with.
Those are all important issues in her life, but really, this is a story about authenticity.
Hannah is struggling to find her own voice while it’s being drowned out by all these other voices, and her determination to be herself makes her life difficult.
That’s why I had to write it. I’m all about helping people find and express their authentic selves and I wanted to write a story about what that means.
About Jack A. Ori
Jack A. Ori is a writer and life coach dedicated to helping young adults and their parents transition into independent, fulfilling, and productive adult lives. He believes everyone has the right to live life on their own terms and specializes in helping young people overcome societal barriers to creating the kind of life they want to live.