Trigger Warning: This story contains mentions of sexual assault.
The barbed voice of Ani FaNelli came to me in 2013. Though fictional, the protagonist of what would become my best-selling debut novel, Luckiest Girl Alive, was infused with elements and experiences from my real life, experiences that I was still too raw and frightened to claim as my own. In retrospect, I can see why that year was a personal flashpoint for me. We were post-Steubenville, the world outraged by the live Twitter documentation of a multiple-assailant assault of a girl who had become incapacitated by alcohol. Gone Girl, featuring the proverbial unlikeable female narrator, was a bonafide phenomenon. The alchemy of these two events produced Ani—someone who would allow me to get on the page the gang rape that had haunted me for years, to capture and release the fury that bubbled with comic absurdity beneath the basic bitch current of my everyday life.
At the time, I was a twenty-eight-year-old writer for Cosmopolitan, pitching raunchy cover lines by day and planning my perfect Pinterest-board wedding by night. I looked the farthest thing from someone who had suffered a humiliating trauma as a teenager, who had been ground down to nothing. My voice had expired inside of me, a carton of milk clotting in the back of the refrigerator. Speaking up for myself, in big ways and small—that was for girls whose pubic hair shape hadn’t been discussed by half the student body, who maintained a modicum of self. I became a chameleon, rearranging the little nano-crystals in my skin depending on where I was and who I was with—anything to make people like me. This abandonment of self is a virulent breeding ground for rage and resentment, and I became a split, duplicitous person, much like the character I wrote for the page and later for the Netflix movie adaptation. I smiled and said all the right things, while in my head a hateful and furious narration played on a loop.
The only way I felt comfortable speaking up was under the cover of fiction, and I poured my self-loathing and agony into the invented character of Ani. I was desperate for a voice but there were still so many people I needed to protect, myself included, and fiction allowed me to have it both ways. A twist of the knob, just enough to vent a little steam, while still keeping the lid on most everything. I was scared of hurting my family, and I was even more scared that people would read the chapter where fifteen-year-old Ani attends a high school party and comes to naked from the waist down, disoriented and bleeding, and use the word that everyone had used back then.
In private moments, I hoped that people would use another word, the word I tried to use, once in a physical exam with a doctor, another time with one of the boys whose body I could recall moving above my mine while I moaned in pain. Is what happened to me rape? I asked the doctor, who told me she wasn’t qualified to answer that question before bolting from the room. Rapist, I exploded in a burst of dizzying liberation a few nights later at this boy. The next day, the boy called me, choking back tears at the idea that I could think of him like that. I lost my nerve. Just like I have fifteen-year-old Ani do in the movie, I apologised for making him feel bad.
I yearned, quietly, for the book to be a smash hit. I wanted people to talk about it, and talk about me, in a way that would show everyone from high school that I was A Someone. There were classist factors at play in the assault—I attended a private high school with a storied history in a wealthy area outside of Philadelphia known as the “Main Line.” Though I was far from struggling, I lived nearly an hour away, and did not share the zip code or pedigree of my classmates, some of whom were descended from oil barons and business magnates. I started at the school as a freshman, surrounded by students who were Ivy League bound and had known one another since kindergarten, whose parents were connected through their membership at the Cricket Club. I wore Victoria’s Secret tank tops with the built-in bras when I should have worn J. Crew cable knits, sparkly eyeshadow when all the other girls went barefaced. I was not just a slut, but trash too.
I was never going to be one of them, so I spent my twenties fashioning myself into someone better. At that point in my life, I blindly subscribed to the adage that living well was the best revenge. I moved to New York because I wanted to be a writer, and there, assimilation was possible for me. If you wanted to make it in New York in the publishing industry, it didn’t matter so much where you came from—were you good, were you willing to pay your dues, were you cheap labor? I was fortunate enough to be all three, and I began building a career that I was also fortunate enough to love. Still, I thought constantly about how my life looked to the people back at home. Professional success by a certain age might have been enough if I hadn’t acted like an animal at that crazy party that the guys still remembered fondly. Someone like me needed to be engaged before thirty, to a guy who came from money and went to all the right schools. This part was non-negotiable—the classmates who had scrawled “trash slut” on my locker had to see that one of their own considered me wife material. Living in a New York City doorman apartment, wearing clothes with subtle, correct labels, cutting out carbs and sugar in an effort to asexualise my licentious figure—check, check, and check.
But then the thing I thought I wanted most happened. The book was a hit, and during the year that followed, women came up to me at signings and asked me how I was able to depict a rape victim so vividly. Had I done research, or….they always trailed off here, in case I wanted to say that no, I hadn’t needed to do any research. But for that first year, my answers were evasive.
“The only way I felt comfortable speaking up was under the cover of fiction, and I poured my self-loathing and agony into the invented character of Ani”
In 2016, a year after the book was published, I did what Christine Blasey Ford would later talk about doing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the world—I calculated the risk-benefit ratio of coming forward, and amazingly, I found it in my favour. I wrote an essay revealing Ani’s assault as my own. I was inundated with messages from old classmates, apologising for any role that they may have played in the ostracising and bullying that came after, and with messages from total strangers, sharing their own harrowing stories with me. Women I knew—friends, colleagues, family—opened up in a way that made me realise the perniciousness of the societal messaging around sexual violence. It’s terrible but it’s complicated, and can’t you just deal with it on your own? (So we don’t have to.)
This was “revenge”—a multi-media platform on which to flaunt my success and issue a retraction. The payback, the deliciousness, of those guys, experiencing the same shame and debilitating exposure that I had back then, that feeling that everyone is talking about the most intimate parts of you, looking at you askance. I ran into one of my wealthy former classmates at a party in New York, wearing an Armani pantsuit and drinking vodka neat and saying with a sly smile, Heard (redacted) is sweating bullets. The headmaster of my high school sent out a school-wide email acknowledging my essay and claiming no knowledge of the assault I alleged—to which another former student wrote back, copying my literary agent so that it would get back to me. He accused the administration of knowing about my rape and burying their heads in the sand. This former student was a few years older than me, someone I had never met, but he had heard about the party even though he had graduated and was away at college. He wasn’t buying that the school hadn’t caught wind of it.
It was a full-fledged reckoning, but I did not revel in it the way I thought I might. I ended my essay by admitting, after many years of insisting that I was fine, that I was not fine at all, and that this, finally, was the truth, a start. I felt painfully sincere and hopeful, but I had no idea how much work it would take to finally begin the long, overdue process of healing, how ugly things would get.
By this point, I had quit magazines, gotten a two-book contract with Simon & Schuster and moved from New York to Los Angeles, where I was working on the screen adaptation of Luckiest Girl Alive. Though I had never written a screenplay before, the idea of someone else telling my story made me rabid. I needed to do it, I begged to do it, and in the end, the fact that I had never written a screenplay before became my saving grace. The studio (understandably) wasn’t going to give a first-time screenwriter a Diablo-Cody-sized paycheque, but why not take a chance? If I screwed it up they’d hire a new writer, which is so commonplace as to not even be insulting in Hollywood, and they wouldn’t be out much money. If I knocked it out of the park, they got gold for pennies.
All the while I was working on the script, I was angry. Angry that Trump had been elected president after bragging about grabbing women by their pussies. In 2017, I was angry again when the wall of silence came down around Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men. In 2018, I was incensed when Christine Blasey Ford told the truth, and still Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court. The anger showed up in the script and on Twitter, where my outrage over everything was quite literally liked, a corrosive reward system that produced insufferable wallowing and unchecked rage in real life.
I am ashamed to admit that my husband took the brunt of my fury during these years, for being a man, for being white, for being a popular athlete in high school, for just not getting it exactly how I demanded he get it. My therapist tried to get me to shift the way I saw things. Yes, I had a right to be angry—so did a lot of other people who experienced disparity and inequality in this country—but that did not give me carte blanche to make others feel small, especially those who had not been the ones to hurt me.
This sanctimony showed up in my writing as well. I turned in a new draft of my third book and my editor returned the copy with a note in the margins about my latest main character—she’s so victimised; enough! I even went for my therapist’s throat when she posted something online about eating “whole foods” to be healthy. From my soap box, I haughtily informed her that was the insidious language of diet culture. There was no room for nuance, grace, or rational discussion. I was a one-woman mob, pumping a pitchfork in the air, about perceived injustices of every variety.
Enter Mila Kunis.
The book-to-screen development process had been nothing short of psychological warfare—at first, fast and exciting, then slow, then stagnant, then rejuvenated by various studio changes and executive shuffling and director developments, rewrites and notes meetings and more rewrites. Rinse and repeat, for six years. We moved the project from Lionsgate to Netflix. I did another round of rewrites for our new executive team and in December 2020, we sent the script to Mila Kunis, who I was certain would pass. The material was too unwieldy, too risky, for someone with her star power.
Instead, Mila thanked us so much for thinking of her. She was looking for a dramatic role to take her back to her Black Swan days, and she thought the story was weird and tense and compelling, but there was one caveat. The ending wasn’t there. That old ending, which already deviated from the ending of the book, which I had already written and rewritten dozens of times already, involved Ani getting a big fat book deal for coming forward with her story. There’s no arc for the character, Mila said in our first Zoom meeting. It’s all about using money and status as a crutch to feel superior to others, which is exactly who she is when we meet her at the start. Either let’s hang a lantern on that or let’s show at least an inkling of change. Mila was in, but only if I could resolve that. Preferably overnight, one of my producers added, joking but not.
“That scene always makes me cry, but this time I was crying for another reason: that it had taken me so long to realise that the kind of person who wants revenge is the kind of person who has no other recourse”
As a writer, I was panicked. But as a human, I was mortified. Mila could have no idea that she had called me out for being the same angry and self-loathing person I had been at the start of all this, but that is exactly what she’d done.
I spent the night chastened, mulling and soul searching, re-reading the messages from women I’d never met, telling me their stories. I read my responses to them. They were brimming with hope. That together we’d taken this first, important step of admitting that we were not fine. That from there, we could start to understand all the ways that we weren’t, that we could live in a way that would restore agency again. How had I lost touch with this person?
The next morning, I pitched a new version of the ending to Mila. She loved it.
By the time we got to set in spring of 2021, I’d deleted Twitter. I stopped expecting everyone to be plugged into my trauma by my exacting standards. I gave people grace, realising I would hope for the same if I didn’t get it exactly right either. I caught myself in what my therapist referred to as colicky episodes, and I would apologise to my husband and walk away. Then later, when I calmed down, I would apologise again and thank him for bearing with me, for understanding that big feelings are often tied to things that happened young, that it was not his fault that my needs were frustrated then, that it was also not anyone’s job to meet them all now. And then I tried to figure out how to better do that for myself, which is work that is hard and constant and ongoing. I don’t know, goes one of Ani’s lines toward the end of our movie, what is me, and what parts I invented to make other people like me.
What kind of person wants revenge? One freezing, windy winter evening in NYC, nearing the last month of post, I left the edit room late and turned on the TV in my hotel room. The First Wives Club was on. I’d seen this movie dozens of times over the years, but I’d never watched it with an eye to plotting before. Though we’d troubleshooted our ending ahead of filming, eight months after wrapping, there were still kinks that needed smoothing. No one could agree on a voiceover line that Mila was going to record for her character as she prepares for a Today show interview, which she is invited to do after writing an essay coming forward as a survivor, mirroring my real-life experience back in 2016. Our director, Mike Barker, kept saying that we had to show that Ani had gone from thinking about the “I,” to thinking about the “we.” I balked at the idea. I didn’t see anything wrong with Ani only thinking of herself and what she wanted in that moment—vindication.
I was puzzling over what to do when the movie reached the moment where Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler, and Diane Keaton are on the precipice of getting what they set out to get—vengeance against the men who had wronged them. And yet, they’re left feeling so empty. I sat up in bed and turned up the volume. It had been five years since I’d written my essay, but I remembered feeling this way too. In the end, instead of using the dirt they dug up against their exes to destroy them, they use it to bribe them into funding a center for abused women, named in honour of their friend Cynthia, whose suicide at the top of the film, after her husband callously leaves her for a younger woman, sets the whole story in motion. The film ends on the non-profit’s opening night gala, our star trio skipping off down the street, singing the song they sang when they were young and full of hope about their futures. That scene always makes me cry, but this time I was crying for another reason: that it had taken me so long to realise that the kind of person who wants revenge is the kind of person who has no other recourse. I won’t judge myself or anyone else for wanting it when so many of us are denied justice and support from our communities. I just want you to know that you can have more.