This post contains spoilers for K.M. Szpara’s book, Docile, and may also contain trigger warnings for gender dysphoria, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and sexual assault.
In January, I was lucky enough to receive an ARC for what was probably my most anticipated release of 2020 (not including Murderbot). Pitched on GoodReads as a gay Handmaid’s Tale and written by an openly trans author, this was a book I’ve been thinking about for the better part of a year. When I finally did read it, I was taken aback by how hard it hit so many intense feelings that I spend most of my waking hours repressing into the void I pretend doesn’t exist.
The novel tackles issues with consent and the abuse the lower classes face at the hands of the ultra-rich, even if it isn’t 100% directly so. The class system will always be the cause of a lot of hardships and this book takes it to the extreme by forcing debt on generations of families and crippling them entirely with it, while those without debt flaunt their money and buy the poor for their own entertainment. Debtors are faced with an ultimatum that isn’t really a real choice as they are forced to pick between servitude and prison. It’s a false choice. No one would want to have their entire family imprisoned when the option to sell themselves for some financial relief is an option.
I, myself, have student debt that isn’t going anywhere any time soon. The weight of it constantly dangling over my head is unbearable at times. The fear of this trickle-down debt accumulation feels very real in the current climate of the world, which made the anxiety of thinking about this very intense. Paying and paying and paying without getting anywhere is an awful feeling especially when the job market is the way that it is. Especially when hobbies feel like time wasters unless they can be monetized. And yet this is only a fraction of the weight Elisha must feel where the debt his family carries is in the millions.
But what hits me the hardest is how Elisha manages being a Docile. The dependency he develops on Alex and how he struggles to face his family after only six months as one.
After spending months learning how to anticipate Alex’s needs and going through tutoring to learn everything from cooking to art history to music, Elisha feels that despite his status as a Docile, he is becoming a better version of himself. At long last, he is able to learn all of the things he longed to but was never able to out in the middle of nowhere and crippled by debt. The relationship he shares with Alex borders on abusive, to say the least. Elisha was essentially forced into signing the consent waiver that allows Alex to have his way with him sexually, and he has no real choice but to allow Alex to shape and mould him into whatever person he desires. But Elisha doesn’t really see any harm, not when he begins to enjoy his plush life with Alex and all of the things that come with having money.
But when Elisha goes home for his state-mandated family visit, his family is far from receptive. Because of his mother’s long-lasting struggle under the effects of Dociline, the drug that turns people into obedient drones, Elisha’s loved ones struggle with what they see in the young man they thought they knew. To them, Elisha is a doll. He isn’t a person as his obedience comes across as robotic, as his new likes and knowledge make him better than the rest of them.
The scenes where Elisha was back home, both his weekend visit and his later abandonment at the farm, were so difficult to read. The more I thought about why these moments upset me, the harder it got to breathe. And then the anxiety attack hit me. What I was reading were reactions I was – and still am – facing in regards to coming out as trans. The feeling that I was finally being my true self, snatched away by people who didn’t understand and who didn’t want to accept the changes. The backhandedness of being “tolerated” but put down in the same sentences. Elisha’s family still loved him, but they othered him, they pushed away his feelings and dismissed him as no longer the man they actually loved. When Elisha can’t stand it anymore, when he can’t bring himself to live with those who were brushing him aside and wants to fade away, I felt that. I knew exactly what he was fighting. The idea that it would be easier to not exist at all instead of simply being tolerated or “put up with” set my nerves on fire. In that moment, I wanted to fade away with Elisha.
It also echoed my own experiences with abuse in a relationship, the longing and the wanting to please the person who you aren’t even sure you really love simply because as long as they’re happy, you’re not hurting. These things made this book so difficult to read at times but Szpara just knows how to put it, how to say these things that encourage you to keep going, keep reading until the end. That you can open your eyes after taking a deep breath, and you’ll have the courage to move on.
But Elisha gives me the hope that I might have the courage to move on, to keep going and know that I’m living my life to me and as long as I don’t forget who I am, changing and growing won’t cause me to lose myself. He stumbles, he falls hard, he hurts so badly and yet he’s still able to keep going.
I’m afraid of saying more and letting this “article” get out of hand, but this book touched me in more ways than I was expecting it to. I cherish it more than I was expecting to. Perhaps I did, in fact, read way too much into things with Docile, but this is an example of what a book can mean to a person and for that, I can do little else but say thank you to K.M. Szpara for telling this story and to Tor for publishing it. I hope everyone involved knows how loved this book is. At least by me.