A sex offender is a parent’s worst nightmare. That person’s crimes not only irreparably harm the victims, but they can tear families and communities apart and cause pain that lasts for years.
This is the subject of The Word Game, the latest by New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Steena Holmes. She has shown skill and personality in her light-hearted romances, and she shows a deft hand in dealing with this heavier subject.
The story surrounds Alyson Ward, her sister Tricia, and their mother Ida. A trauma from Alyson’s past has made her nervous and overprotective of her daughter Lyla. Alyson finally agrees to let Lyla go to a sleepover at Tricia’s house. When her daughter comes home the next morning, Alyson learns about a secret that shakes up the people around her and forces her family to face horrible truths they kept hidden for years.
As the accusations emerge, we see how Alyson’s family, friends, and neighbors deal with them. Holmes does an excellent job in realistically depicting the range of reactions from doubt, to denial, to downright hostility. She shows us how characters are believed or disbelieved, not based on the facts of the case, but on their personalities and standing with their family and community. Alyson’s reputation for being anxious and overprotective, along with her own struggles in communicating with her family, make it difficult for her to get her story out. To make matters worse, children have their own “code of honor” that makes them feel they have to protect each others’ secrets even as they put themselves in peril. Holmes also shows us the word game where the slightest turn of phrase can reveal something serious. The most disturbing example is when one of the children says, “She said she wanted to know if a boy’s kisses are different than a man’s.”
In this respect, The Word Game is more than a fascinating story. It provides valuable lessons on how to deal with suspicions of sexual abuse. It shows how the effects can last long after the attack, and that the pain doesn’t just affect the victims. It affects the parents who blame themselves for not protecting their children enough or not seeing the warning signs sooner. Siblings and friends also struggle with guilt, sometimes in self-destructive ways. The story doesn’t end tidily when the baddie goes to jail. The Word Game shows how damage takes a long time to heal, and it never fully goes away.
My only comment is that the scumbag molester is shown to be a scumbag (and is recognized by the community as such) from the beginning. We’ve seen in recent headlines how seemingly moral, well liked, and respected public figures turned out to be monsters. Their reputations made it much harder for their victims to get their stories listened to and believed. As a result, these predators have been able to commit their crimes unchallenged for years, sometimes for decades. Confronting a sex offender requires courage in itself. Dealing with ones who cloak themselves in respectability, or are too well liked and seem too normal to be suspected, requires even more.
The Word Game is a great story and a must-read for parents and anyone else concerned about child safety. It reminds us to be aware to keep the worst from happening and to be honest, compassionate, and supportive when the worst does happen.