Robin Roe’s ‘A List of Cages’ May Be Fiction, But Abuse Is A Reality For Many

Graphic by Sophie Reingold

CW: Domestic abuse, violence

Robin Roe’s novel “A List of Cages” details the lives of two characters: Julian, a present-day high school freshman, and Adam, a high school senior. The two characters are a mentor-mentee pair from elementary school, until they turn into foster brothers after Julian’s parents die in a car crash.

Julian finds himself drowning in a newfound sense of insignificance now that he lives with his uncle.

“[I]t's strange how many ways there are to miss someone,” Julian says. “You miss the things they did and who they were, but you also miss who you were to them. The way everything you said and did was beautiful or entertaining or important. How much you mattered....”

While Julian is still grieving over the loss of his beloved parents, he also silently suffers the abuse from his uncle. Finding comfort in Adam when the two characters reunite during Julian’s freshman year, Julian soon realizes his self-worth is intricately linked to his abusive situation.

Julian swallows his cries and tightens his convulsing body, as his uncle rips through the layers of his naïve skin.

On Jan. 14, CNN reports that parents David and Louise Turpin, who hail from Los Angeles, have been abusing their 13 children, whose ages range from 2-29.

Julian conceals the fresh red stains lashed across his back. Also his feelings.

Reporters say the Turpin children are found shackled with padlocks, starved and deprived of basic necessities that we don’t give a second thought about, such as being able to use the restroom.

Julian hides his story in unobscured daylight.

Strikingly parallel to the novel’s fictional story, the Turpin family was set on a nocturnal schedule to avoid curious outsiders from gleaning their situation, according to the article.

They steadily increased the number of victims they tortured as they brought more children into the world. Numerous years had gone by, yet nobody suspected them, or at least not enough to scrupulously disrupt the Turpin family dynamic.

Like the Turpin children in real life, Julian is his own sole confidant, possessing the inside glimpse into his situation. No outsider is permitted the knowledge of the monstrous secret other than those directly involved.

Written in first person from two different perspectives, the novel offers insight into Adam’s thoughts, including his blindness to the hidden abuse, but Julian’s voice, the insider perspective, which is often unattainable in the real world, enables readers to experience the ugly that occurs behind the scenes.

Although Julian has a story to tell, his naïve tone that is perpetually coated with a frightened, timid temperament demonstrates his inability to voice his story outwardly, further reflecting his silence and the way others fail to neglect these strange details.

Deep internal reflection flourishes Julian’s narrative more so than Adam’s, even when Adam is the more extroverted one. Julian’s internal settlement shows his discomfort with others, as he’s been unfairly removed from society, hindering him from relaying his story to anyone.

In fact, Julian has nobody to turn to for emotional support but his uncle who is the perpetrator. Out of habituation, he latches onto this biological bond despite the threat it imposes, while being forced to comply with his erasure.

“When you know you're going to tell someone everything, you see your day through your eyes and theirs, as if they're living it alongside you,” Julian says. “But when you don't, it isn't only not seeing double — it's not seeing at all. Because if they aren't there, you aren't either.”

Without his story being told, Julian isn’t heard, or more so, his condition doesn’t exist. His circumstances cause him to downplay the harshness of reality, and overtime, Julian almost ceases to exist quite literally.

Like Julian, the Turpin children lacked parent figures in their biological parents. They had no external support, nobody to confide in, almost accepting their situation as their norm. Fortunately, it was one of the Turpin kids who made her voice heard. But, often, that is not the case.

In real life, we see our neighbors, acquaintances, friends, foes, and people biologically arranged like us, yet we are not an omniscient author who can worm our way into the minds of others.

Many times, these stories exist in numerous forms and are left hidden, just like the Turpin children were for many years. Neighbors noted peculiarities with the family, but often shrugged them away probably resuming to attend their own.

It is our job to not only listen but also actively seek out the stories of others, in order to find justice for things we may not know about behind closed doors.