In June 2015, Kyle and Jesse wait nervously for the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage and their celebration prompts a proposal from Jesse, which Kyle says yes to with no hesitation. They celebrate with a day at Chicago Pride only two days later, an event that ends with both Kyle and Jesse in hospital, and their lives are irrevocably changed after a violent attack. Physically and emotionally scarred, both men have to try to come to terms with how their lives have been so radically altered and not only does this place pressure on their relationship with each other, but they realize that those things they once took for granted, like family and justice, will be questioned too.
I begin writing some reviews thinking that whatever I say I will be unable to do justice to the story and the author. This is one of those times. Defenseless is emotional and intense and each time I stopped reading, my thoughts were filled with Jesse, Kyle, and the events of the novel. It is no detriment to A.J. Rose that I could not finish Defenseless in one sitting. In fact, it is a testament to the brilliance of her writing because the story left me so reflective and agonized for her characters and the drama they so unfairly face.
Although Defenseless is a gay romance, it is inclusive of the whole LGBT+ community and even forces heterosexual people to think about their treatment of those minority groups. Kyle is bisexual and unfortunately has to deal with prejudice from his own parents, though it is his relationship with his father that suffers the most. In one scene he carefully describes the Kinsey Scale to his mom and dad in an effort to validate his feelings for Jesse:
“On one side, you have straight people…” He held up his right hand, then his left. “On the other, you have gay people… Somewhere in the middle are people who identify as a mix of the two… You think I’m exactly in the middle because I like both men and women, and it’s a simple matter of focusing on one or the other. What you don’t understand is that while I’m physically attracted to women, that is all… But I’m emotionally, romantically, and physically attracted to men. I could fuck a woman, but I want a relationship with a man.”
In my opinion, this is one of the most important speeches of the whole novel. Rose is able to challenge every preconception that there is about bisexuality being a simple matter of “choice” and though I think of myself as being intelligent, informed, and not in the slightest bit prejudiced, even I had to stop and think about my ideas about those who society presumes to “swing both ways.”
However, not only is Rose’s novel inclusive of the gay and bisexual elements of LGBT, but when Jesses seeks therapy for his emotional trauma he is advised to meet with a man called Calvin. It emerges that he is, in fact, transsexual and his story of bullying and his subsequent transition is extremely frank and moving.
The reader is tied to Kyle and Jesse throughout everything they face, from the attack, to the hospital, to the therapists, to their secrets, and to the trial. Rose handles both Kyle and Jesse’s visits to their therapist, Dr. Newsome, with a knowledgeable sensitivity. The reader becomes omnipresent within these very private sessions and Dr. Newsome’s overriding message is as important to us as it is to both men, especially if the reader is themselves a survivor of any kind of abuse.
I could not get away from the fact that Defenseless made me feel so much and Rose also gives her reader some really beautiful and hopeful moments. It is without a doubt that Jesse and Kyle’s relationship is strained, but we understand that these are two men who need each other and the love they share is overwhelming. I also really liked Bobby, Kyle’s brother, who is initially portrayed as the joker but actually becomes one of the couple’s main cheerleaders. There is a wonderful speech made by Bobby in the story’s epilogue which summarizes all he has felt and I had one of the biggest lumps in my throat.
Rose’s storytelling is slow but perfectly paced and I really appreciated her attention to detail when we reach the point of the trial. I was unable to read this part of the story without feeling the tension in the courtroom and even I wished I could block everything out. Jesse and Kyle are confronted with painful reminders of their attack, but perhaps the thing I found the most difficult to comprehend was the defense’s argument. Yet, by setting Defenseless during such a recent American event, Rose not only allows her story to be relevant, but also reminds us that such extreme homophobia and bigotry are still so sadly in existence.
Defenseless is a truly amazing story that hits the reader hard, but although Rose broke my heart into pieces, she also gave me enough thread to stitch it back together again. I am so thankful that Defenseless challenged me and hope that it will do so to other readers. Stock up on tissues and a punchbag to unleash your anger on and make time for Defenseless – this is a must, must read!