By every conventional measure, Jessica Knoll's thriller, Luckiest Girl Alive, was a wildly successful literary debut last year. It spent four months on the best-seller lists. Foreign rights sold in more than 30 countries. The actress Reese Witherspoon has optioned the film rights, and Knoll has written the screenplay.
Still, Knoll couldn't escape the nagging feeling that she had let her readers down. Even though her book was fiction, she felt she hadn't fully told the truth.
The white lie she told over and over, at readings and book signings and in interviews, was complicated and hard to untangle. She assured fans that some of the darker elements of her novel, which centers on a successful young woman who struggles with the lingering trauma of a sexual assault, were purely fiction. She deflected questions from readers who wanted to know how she had managed to portray a rape and its aftermath so vividly and realistically, saying she had heard stories from friends and classmates.
She is no longer dodging those questions. This week, Knoll published a raw essay describing how the gang rape depicted in her novel was drawn from her own experience in high school, when she was sexually assaulted by three boys at a party, and then tormented by classmates who labeled her a slut.
"I was so conditioned to not talk about it that it didn't even occur to me to be forthcoming," Knoll said in an interview at her publisher's office in Manhattan. "I want to make people feel like they can talk about it, like they don't have to be ashamed of it."
In the essay, published on Lenny, a newsletter and website for young women, Knoll described how some of the most horrific scenes in her novel came from her fragmented memories of a party that went devastatingly wrong: blacking out and then regaining consciousness when a boy was having rough sex with her; waking up later in a bathroom, seeing a toilet bowl of blood-tinged water, and not understanding where it came from; finding herself in a strange bed the next morning beside a different boy; going to a clinic for emergency contraception and asking the doctor if what happened to her counted as rape, and feeling stunned when the doctor said she wasn't qualified to answer the question.
It wasn't until she was in her early 20s and in counseling that her therapist helped define what had happened. "I was so young that it was very hard to make sense of it,'' she said, adding: "I didn't want to talk about it. I didn't want to deal with it.''
Knoll, 32, grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, and attended the Shipley School, a prestigious prep institution. Before she was assaulted, Knoll was a happy, social 15-year-old who played sports and was on the dance team. Afterward, she said, she shut down and felt crushingly isolated, unable to connect even with friends. Some classmates taunted her and scrawled "trash slut" inside her locker. "No one was treating me like a victim; they were treating me like I was a perpetrator, like I was getting what I deserved," she said.
She never pursued charges against her attackers, and aside from one drunken confrontation, she never accused any of them of a crime. The next day, she called the boy to apologize, afraid that she had made her situation worse. "I apologized to my rapist for calling him a rapist," she wrote. "What a thing to live with."
Knoll does not name her attackers in the essay. Shaming them is not the point, she said. "It's not directed at them," she said. "It's more like, 'I'm going to tell the story this time.' ''
In college, she tried to reinvent herself. Still, she could never bring herself to let loose at parties the way her friends and classmates did. She was too scared.
After graduating, she moved to New York City and took an internship at Parenting magazine, then worked as an editorial assistant at Popular Science. From there, she moved to Cosmopolitan, where she rose through the ranks to become a senior editor.
While at Cosmo, Knoll began writing Luckiest Girl Alive. She decided to use fiction to address her high school trauma. "I knew I wanted to write about that in some way, because it was such a visceral experience that stayed with me my whole life," she said.
Luckiest Girl Alive is narrated by TifAni FaNelli, an ambitious 28-year-old editor at a women's magazine who writes sex columns and is obsessed with projecting a perfect image. Her life is derailed when she participates in a documentary about her high school, and is forced to confront the rage she has carried with her since she was raped as a teenager.
After Simon & Schuster published Luckiest Girl Alive, Knoll was flooded with messages from women who said they had endured traumas similar to TifAni's. Many said they were comforted by the dedication page of the book, which reads: "To all the TifAni FaNellis of the world. I know."
Those messages prompted Knoll to wonder why she had kept silent.
With another big book tour on the horizon — she is traveling to 16 cities to promote the paperback this spring — she decided to stop hiding behind her fictional creation. In January, she contacted Lenny, the email newsletter and website started by the actress and writer Lena Dunham and Girls showrunner Jenni Konner, and pitched an essay about how she drew on her experience for her novel.
There have been hard moments for Knoll, both in reliving that awful night and in the painful conversations with friends and family that have followed.
There is also relief. A few months ago, Knoll attended a book event in New Jersey, where a woman asked her if she had interviewed rape victims while researching the novel. For the first time, Knoll answered honestly.
"I said, 'Yeah, that happened to me,' '' Knoll said. "It was kind of like, 'Why have I waited so long to say that? What was so hard about that?' ''