It’s no surprise that a palpable sense of outrage animates Taylor Stevens’s novels: the Dallas-based author spent most of her first three decades powerless against forces of cruelty. Born to parents who were members of the Children of God cult, Stevens grew up in crowded communes in locales like France, Japan, Mexico, and South Korea. Books and popular culture were off-limits, significant contact with the outside world forbidden. Although she says she was never subjected to it herself, she knows of other members who were prostituted in order to raise money for the cult, a practice known as “flirty fishing.” And while Stevens managed to break away from the group in 2001 and eventually resettled in Texas, she remains disappointed that the legal community has mostly ignored the numerous allegations of physical and sexual abuse.
“Most of these crimes took place overseas,” she says. “The jurisdictional issues are a nightmare, and no law enforcement agency has any motive to do anything about it.” (Other former members, including the late River Phoenix, have also charged that abuse within the cult was rampant. The group still exists, under the name Family International, but has significantly loosened many of the restrictions on its members and says it no longer condones sexual contact with minors.)
What is surprising, though, is that an author whose formal education ended around the sixth grade should so deftly weave her personal history into a series of dark and discomfiting thrillers. Even more remarkable: in her thrillers about a globe-trotting avenging angel named Vanessa Michael Munroe, Stevens doesn’t just thrust an angry middle finger at her former oppressors, she thoughtfully explores themes of retribution, bloodlust, and survivor’s guilt. The suspense genre is overpopulated with fiery female heroines (Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse), not to mention all those male action heroes for whom this time it’s personal (Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher). But in The Informationist (2011), The Innocent (2011), and this month’s The Doll (Crown), Stevens goes further than any of these writers in portraying a world where sexual violence erupts out of every corner and a woman’s desire for vengeance often overwhelms good sense. These books have less in common with anything currently on the best-seller list than with neo-feminist vigilante flicks of the seventies and eighties like I Spit on Your Grave and Ms. 45, albeit with periodic bursts of tenderness and aching despair.
“As long as you’re angry, it’s really hard to adjust,” Stevens says of her struggle to build a normal life and career after leaving the cult. (Stevens, now forty, has two daughters by her ex-husband, who is also a former member of Children of God.) “But writing and having a way to be able to pay the bills definitely helps with not being angry.”
At first glance, Stevens’s novels seem to indulge in a familiar, not-entirely-plausible formula. When we first encounter Munroe in The Informationist, she’s living in Turkey, where she uses her polyglot talents (she speaks at least 22 languages) and androgynous physical appearance to aid in gathering valuable intel for wealthy corporate clients. The book’s plot revolves around the search for the missing daughter of a Houston oil magnate, but we also learn that Munroe has a dark history of sexual abuse—indeed, the frequent criticism that Stevens was revisiting territory already well-trod by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was not entirely unwarranted. Yet Stevens drew extensively on her first-person knowledge of Kenya and Equatorial Guinea, where she lived during the nineties, to craft a richly observed portrait of a corruption-riddled region rarely explored in contemporary fiction. And unlike Larsson, whose descriptions of sexual assault betray a purple-prosed, chops-licking attention to detail (“When their eyes met a few seconds later, his lips were slightly parted and she could read the lust on his face”), Stevens offers us no reason to doubt the sincerity of her vision.
The second book in the series, The Innocent, follows Munroe to Buenos Aires, where she infiltrates a Children of God–like cult called the Haven in order to rescue a teenage girl named Hannah. The details of cult life, Stevens says, are almost all based on personal observation or the experiences of friends. Her prose refuses to flinch, yet it never lapses into sensationalism. Consider this passage, describing Hannah’s fate at the hands of a businessman to whom she’s been pimped out: “It was not new, what he was doing, even if this experience outside the Haven and with this man were new. He tugged the dress zipper and Hannah closed her eyes. Behind her lids the tears burned hot, but she would never let them surface.”
In The Doll, Stevens extends her preoccupation with violence against women still further, into the shadowy underworld of human trafficking. Once again the premise feels a tad derivative, this time of Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs and James Patterson’s Pop Goes the Weasel: Neeva Eckridge, a Hollywood starlet and daughter of a high-profile American politician, is kidnapped by a mysterious figure known as the Doll Maker, who dresses her as a human-size doll and plans to sell her into sexual slavery. Munroe, too, is kidnapped by the Doll Maker, who insists she deliver Eckridge to a buyer in Monaco—or Munroe’s best friend, Logan, will be murdered. Yet even as Stevens comes close to turning a grave real-world issue into easy grist for cheap thrills, she does justice to the cruel details of her scenario, of women kept in cages and left to stew in their own filth as they wait to be shipped off to the highest bidder. “It’s a subject I was somewhat familiar with,” says Stevens, who spent a year researching and writing the novel. “There’s so much gravity in the subject, and I really didn’t want to make a mockery of it or lighten it.”
What makes The Doll so powerful is the way Stevens gives Munroe’s rage its due, while at the same time hinting at the limitations and moral complications of vigilantism. There’s genuine exultation, for instance, in the description of Munroe turning the tables against one of her kidnappers: “The handle connected with her palm like a creation returning to its mold, metal against skin, familiar and soothing, calling out to be used, begging to shed blood.” But what lingers is Munroe’s deep sense of unease about the payback she’s often forced to deal out, her belief that “revenge is best left to fantasy” because “even if you think they deserve it, killing doesn’t take away your pain, just puts you on dangerous ground that can collapse out from beneath you at any time.”
Set in various European cities, as well as Dallas, The Doll isn’t as intriguingly exotic as The Informationist or as evidently heartfelt as The Innocent. As the story pinballs through Croatia, France, and Italy, Stevens’s usual knack for convincing dialogue abandons her. “A smart one like you knows there is no way out of here,” the Doll Maker says at one point to Munroe, a line I’m pretty sure was previously employed by the Riddler in the sixties Batman series. But even in this slightly weaker installment, it’s not hard to see what attracted director James Cameron to Stevens’s work (he’s optioned The Informationist). Like Ellen Ripley of Cameron’s great Aliens, Munroe pays little heed to rules of gender, even as she’s conscious that to a certain extent she’s fighting on behalf of all womanhood. One of the clever running gags of the series is that Munroe occasionally dresses as a man to complete her missions—at which point she invariably gets hit on by other women.
For her own part, Stevens, who is currently contracted for two more Munroe novels, resists using the f-word to describe her work. “I’m not even one hundred percent convinced I know what ‘feminist’ is,” she says. “I was not raised in an environment where the word was in our vocabulary.”
But she does acknowledge that, in effect, “her whole life” has prepared her to write these books about women struggling to bust out of the sometimes very literal boxes into which they’ve been placed. “I grew up in an intensely male-dominated society, where women didn’t have the same cachet that men did,” she says. “I rebelled against that from a very young age.”
With the Vanessa Michael Munroe series, the rebellion comes full circle. Taylor Stevens has found a way to reclaim her own history, one bloody twist of the knife at a time.