I’m glad authors like Cammie McGovern are writing books like A Step Toward Falling. McGovern’s 2015 novel gives us two alternating narrators: Belinda, a young woman with cognitive disabilities nearing the end of her high school years who is reluctant to return to school after being sexually assaulted under the bleachers at a football game; and Emily, a high school senior who witnessed the attack on Belinda but, because she did nothing about it, is required to “volunteer” in a Boundaries and Relationships class at a center for intellectually impaired young adults.
Just as Emily’s friends and enemies struggle to figure out how friendship, relationship, and sexual intimacy relate to each other, Belinda and the other disabled students wrestle with the same questions. The disabled students have the added complications of not completely understanding the complexities involved in these issues, as well as societal prejudices about what is appropriate for them to experience. A Step Toward Falling provides insights into how these students see themselves, and how they relate to their peers and family members.
But McGovern’s novel is more than just another “social problem” book. The author explores how all of us are defined and affected by the choices we make when confronted with uncomfortable situations. Several years ago our school had some special education students clean the glass in the hallway doors. I suppose the idea was to give them some responsibility and some stake in school pride. Although most other students simply walked around the window cleaners without giving them much notice, there were also those who chose to say things like, “Hey, retard. You missed a spot.” We can easily characterize the despicable nature of that kind of response and recognize it as evidence of a certain kind of impairment itself. But what about those who witness such abusive actions and do nothing? Of course, doing nothing is actually a conscious or unconscious response, so it’s not really “nothing,” and that absence of an overt response can have profound effects on those who just stand there or turn away, not to mention the victims of the negligence.
A Step Toward Falling deals with how to move forward. How does Belinda move forward after being subjected to violence and humiliation? How does Emily move forward after discovering something unpleasant in herself? Other characters in the book make these kinds of decisions too, and readers will easily relate to their struggles, epiphanies, and choices. As the title suggests, moving forward isn’t always easy or smooth, but reading books like this one can help readers know they are not alone as they take wobbly steps in the right direction.