The Party Girl and the Golden Boy: Whom Do You Believe?By L.E. Flynn
"Tabby was never just going to be Mark’s widow. She would also be his executioner." I don’t ever plot my books. I start with an idea and see where it goes, letting my imagination run wild. The seed for All Eyes on Her was, at first glance, simple: A girl and her boyfriend go into the woods, and only the girl comes back. I knew there was a lot I could do with the concept. But when I wrote that line, from the point of view of Tabby’s best friend, I suddenly knew exactly the story I needed to tell: a story much bigger than the thriller evolving in my head, one twined deeply with social commentary on double standards and gender roles. This book was going to have teeth. And the more I wrote, the more I knew why it needed them. Maybe my real inspiration started more than a decade ago, when the world was engrossed in the story of a young woman named Amanda Knox, a nineteen-year-old accused of murdering her roommate in Perugia, Italy. Like virtually everyone else, I couldn’t stop reading about Knox and the heinous crime so many were convinced she committed. I read every article, studied her face. Here was a girl almost the same age as me, who was under the biggest microscope imaginable. What made me unable to stop thinking about Knox wasn’t even whether or not she was involved in the murder, or the grisly details surrounding that night. It wasn’t her upcoming trial, which was nothing short of a media sensation. It was the trial already happening at the hands of the public, the one that started with the first image of Knox herself. The anecdotes about her past, the nicknames she bore in news headlines: “Foxy Knoxy.” “Angel-Faced Killer.” The media fixation, it seemed to me, was less on the crime itself than on Knox’s appearance, her youth and beauty and sexuality, her relationships with men, both past and present, her party-girl reputation. The other suspects in the case faded as obsession with Knox hit a fever pitch—a fascination that would continue for years, even after her jail time and eventual exoneration. “She did it,” I’ve heard people say, not because any actual facts but because they “could tell by looking at her.” Like Knox, the protagonist in All Eyes on Her, Tabitha Marie Cousins, is a girl with a complicated history, a girl who may not have acted or reacted in the exact way the public found befitting, regardless of what that means. Tabby wears a too-short dress to her boyfriend Mark’s funeral and aggressively defends herself as the media machine attempts to grind her up. Stories about Tabby’s past come to a boil, told by people she hasn’t spoken with in years, who are suddenly authorities on her lifestyle and choices. Tabby, like Amanda Knox, was a party-loving girl, and she had engaged in sexual relationships prior to Mark. As gaps in their relationship are torn asunder by their former friends and the media, Tabby is branded the “Blue-Eyed Boyfriend Killer” and reduced to a set of stereotypes: The manipulative, bitter girlfriend who couldn’t handle it when things weren’t going her way. The jealous type. Temperamental, dramatic, impulsive, moody, vain. A trail of adjectives anchored her like chains, pinned her under a spotlight that people convinced themselves she wanted the entire time. It was important to me, in this story, that Mark’s portrayal in the media was completely different: Mark, who is dead from the first page, but whose reputation endures, untarnished, as Tabby’s every characteristic is dissected. And if this pattern sounds familiar, that’s because it sadly is. I recall first hearing about the Brock Turner sexual assault case, feeling sick to my stomach, my blood boiling as I read each double-edged headline. Instead of being referred to as the rapist that he is, Turner was repeatedly called a “Stanford student” and “champion swimmer,” and ultimately served only three months in a county jail for what he had done. Whenever I saw a new article pop up, I was reminded that despite his crime, Turner’s headlines were forgiving, as if reminding us of his virtue and pointing to a different culprit—his inebriation, the college partying culture. The same things girls are constantly vilified for—drinking too much, taking drugs, wearing the wrong clothes—were factors warped in Turner’s defense, in an attempt to hide his abhorrent actions behind a night of drunkenness. When I chose to make Mark Forrester a champion Princeton swimmer, I wasn’t thinking directly of Brock Turner. However, looking back now, I know this deeply inspired Mark’s media treatment. By the time I started writing, it was etched into my brain like an unwanted tattoo, the discrepancy between how the media treats females versus males. I needed to show through my characters how deeply ingrained this prejudice is, how easily we’re willing to demonize women while letting men offer flimsy excuses and slink away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. With a female, there is no margin for error. Any transgressions from her past will show up, ready to play for the opposite side, ready to condemn her. The meaningless hookup from years ago suddenly brands her as a slut. The time she got drunk at a party points to her carelessness. The time she had a falling out with a friend proves she’s a bitch. A heavily filtered Instagram selfie says she’s vain. Any time she got angry means she’s unstable, because anger is an emotion reserved for men. I considered how All Eyes on Her would be a very different book if Tabby were the one whose body was found in the creek. Would Mark have suffered the same fate, the dragging of his reputation over the coals by a society that had already made up its minds? Or would her death have been branded a tragedy from the start, with the “champion Princeton swimmer” and golden boy never even considered as a suspect by the public-but merely someone who was in the woods at the wrong time? Neither Tabby nor Mark get a voice in this story. (Make sure you read right until the end, though...) This was a decision made intentionally. I wanted their story, the chronicle of their relationship and its aftermath, to be told from the perspectives of everyone else. I wanted to show the nuances in each point of view. I took away Tabby’s voice not to silence her, but to make the noise around her deafening. I wanted readers to feel like they were hearing about a different girl from chapter to chapter. Maybe it meant emotional whiplash—just when you think you know Tabby, a new anecdote about her convinces you that you don’t. Maybe this whiplash was intentional, and even necessary, to prove my point. Because make no mistake, this is Tabby’s story: the tale of a girl with all eyes on her every action, both present and past. My book is fiction, but the social commentary simmering throughout is very real, and very present, even now. By the time Tabby’s story is over, you’ll have made up your own mind about her. And what you decide might be very telling—not about her, but about yourself.