Before I start this review I want to put a trigger warning in: This book contains a lot of talk about sexual assault, rape and substance abuse.
“The Way I Used to Be” by Amber Smith follows Eden, a young girl just about to go into high school. She has always been a good daughter, a good student, a good friend. The book starts off right at the moment when her brother’s best friend rapes her the night before the first day of school. The reader is thrown into Eden’s thoughts, feelings and actions—the feeling of being outside of her body, of her body not being hers, wondering what to do with the “evidence” of her underwear and bedsheets. It’s an extremely well-written but graphic opening, depicting the immediate aftermath of rape and assault. Following the opening, the story slows down considerably, but the beginning is meant to always be in the back of the reader’s head.
The book is told in four parts – during her freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years – and shows Eden’s slow progression from the “good little girl” to a young woman who is willing to do anything to regain control of her life. Even though there is some classic high school drama throughout the book – fighting with friends, first loves, breakups – the central message is clear, showing how trauma can take shape and what can happen if it goes ignored or unnoticed. Early in the book Eden says, “No, can’t cry. Because there’s nothing to cry about. Because it was just a dream. A bad dream. A nightmare. Not real. Not real. Not real. That’s what I keep thinking: NotRealNotRealNotReal. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Like a mantra. Like a prayer.”
Eden keeps quiet about the rape, feeling like she can’t confide in the people she once told everything to, including her friends and parents. Across the four years Eden voice changes subtly and naturally, so the reader can tell how we got from point A to point B without the author spelling it out for us. Freshman year she is sweet but naive and confused, trying to find her way through high school while also figuring out what to do with her trauma. In her sophomore year, she meets Joshua Miller, an 18-year-old. She lies to him about her age and he falls for her, but she finds herself unable to reciprocate in a way that he wants.
By junior year she is known for “sleeping around” with guys at parties, often men she doesn’t know. This section could have easily come off as slut-shaming and saying how terrible it is that she was having so much sex, but the point of this section, in my opinion, was to show how Eden was ignoring certain dangers (being alone with strange men, not using protection, drinking and smoking all the time) and how she was using this sex to regain some aspect of control in her life, especially when it came to the way men treated her. By senior year she is unrecognizable from her freshman year, although I won’t include any spoilers in this review.
Eden tells the reader, “All you have to do is act like you’re normal and okay, and people start treating you that way,” but it is evident that this isn’t the case and there wasn’t a way for Eden to go back to her old “normal” self without talking about the rape and her experiences.
What I loved about this book is that Eden wasn’t a perfect character by any means. She hurts the people closest to her and oftentimes make bad decisions that can hurt her in the long run. Although it was frustrating, I loved this because it showed that she wasn’t a “perfect victim” and she challenges the reader to think about why she does what she does. Should she be discredited because she had sex with so many men after the assault? Does it matter that she lashes out at her family and friends? What about lying about her age to Josh? Or drinking and smoking? Does her story only “count” if she stayed in the “sweet little girl” phase of her life before the assault? This book also forces the reader to ask questions about other characters: Do they not realize something is wrong? Do they think something is wrong but don’t know what to do? Were they being too easily pushed away or did everyone try their best to help Eden?
The book itself is not particularly plot heavy, and the rape and trauma aren’t always the center of attention, but I loved that about the book because it was more realistic; not every victim or survivor is thinking about their trauma every second of every day and sometimes it’s hard to connect how trauma and certain actions go hand-in-hand.
The ending was amazing, I literally teared up when I was reading it. The book is so beautifully written but talks about such a terrible subject, and Smith blends those two aspects together almost seamlessly. There were definitely a lot of questions left unanswered, however, but I took that as Smith saying that Eden’s story wasn’t over just because the book ended, and it was up to the reader to figure out how certain things came together.