By Katherine Jeffries
Lenient and non-existent criminal sentences have given rise to movements such as #metoo, #yesallwomen, #whyididntreport, #protecteverychild, #endmodernslavery, #blacklivesmatter to name a only a few. The growing unrest of a rigged justice system is rightly being met with a “burn it down” sentiment.
The Stranglehold Series was inspired by the very frustrations and inequalities we, as a country, are currently attempting to voice and rectify. While the BlackLivesMatter movement, as well as others, focuses on horridly heavy-handed punishments, even deadly uses of force for petty detainments of people of color, Stranglehold was birthed from the growing disgust of certain privileged offenders getting little-to-no consequence for acts so inhumane that most people cannot process the monstrous details.
We have privileged perpetrators such as Brock Turner, who, in 2016, brutally assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Even with witnesses to the heinousness of his attack, he got little to no punishment for the various and twisted injuries he inflicted. Not a year later, the #metoo movement against prominent men who assault women and men alike went viral. Because of public outcry and the bravery of those willing to share their stories in solidarity, some semblance of justice is beginning. More recently, in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, actual video evidence of the murder did not result in the arrest of the killers until that footage was made public months later, demonstrating that if you are well-connected, you could commit the coldest atrocities and skate back into life-as-usual—so long as someone is incentivized enough to keep your secret.
These kinds of non-existent or delayed sentences doled out by those in the criminal justice system who don’t want to “ruin” the lives of predators has only emboldened some institutions into not only hiding those who commit certain crimes, but also continue to allow perpetrators access to more victims (as we’ve seen with the Catholic and Mormon churches, to name only a few). Despite complaints and investigations filed, some organizations even reward and promote harassers, as we’re discovering with the military and hundreds of women being demoted or discharged for reporting while their attacker is unscathed, such as the recent and upsetting murder of Vanessa Guillan.
Much of the same issues are at play in the society in my thriller series, Stranglehold. Unknown US politicians are funneling money into legal organizations set to keep violent, even sadistic criminals on the streets, all in hopes of growing government power in the name of “safety.” Although I’d quickly condemn anyone enacting vigilante justice against any suspect or convict, Stranglehold does offer a satisfying outlet as Grant Steele, Gemma Pearl and Trent Roth deliver swift and ruthless deaths to those who find pleasure or triumph in the pain of the innocent.
That said, Stranglehold isn’t a typical bang-bang-you’re-dead thriller. After all, Gemma Pearl can hear—down to the word—if someone is lying. That she can decide—on the spot—who is guilty isn’t the sole determiner, it sure helps them focus on who’s a threat and find what they need to decide who lives and dies. (In our current political climate, how handy would it be to have not only a sign-language interpreter sharing the stage with any given talking-head, but someone like Gemma calling bullshit. Not sure it would change much, but it would add some comedy to it all).
Beyond that aspect of magic realism, which allows for many polite phrases and the motives behind them to have moments of examination (imagine being around someone who knows every little white lie you tell—every.single.one), Stranglehold takes on the emotional toll trauma exacts. After all, Gemma Pearl isn’t only an assassin, but a woman who has endured years of isolation, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband. The two of them were corralled into their marriage for the sake of Gemma’s safety, which inspires Gemma to ask, “Safe from who?” After Gemma murders her husband and while under Grant and Trent’s protection, Gemma is allowed to unearth and begin to unravel the trauma she’s not only endured, but also caused.
Most thrillers don’t attempt to unpack the damage done to their characters, portraying them instead as revenge-driven-until-revenge-satisfied. Stranglehold is far more thoughtful than that and readers who have survived abuse and trauma deserve a character who is strong, graceful and vulnerable at once. Trauma survivors have earned a character who is wounded but wanting more for herself, who is writhing out form beneath the feelings of unworthiness and invisibility abuse causes, who is learning to voice her hopes and carefully venture back into trust and love with someone who is just as embattled, just as scarred, just as determined to be healed as she is.
As a society, as a world, we have a long way to go, but with the discussions in Stranglehold about punishment, honesty, government roles and trauma healing, we can hopefully step into deeper interactions with ourselves as we heal and with each other as we demand a better system of actual justice.