Luckiest Girl Alive Author Jessica Knoll on How the Film Portrays Her Experience of Sexual Assault
Warning: This story contains an extensive discussion about sexual assault.
If you or someone you know is affected by sexual assault, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit rainn.org for support online.
When Jessica Knoll penned her 2015 debut novel, Luckiest Girl Alive, she never imagined that it would lead to a major Netflix movie starring Mila Kunis—or to difficult revelations about her own past.
Knoll’s book follows TifAni “Ani” FaNelli, a magazine editor whose picture-perfect life begins to unravel as she revisits the trauma of surviving both a school shooting and a violent sexual assault as a teen. Although the novel was published two years prior to the watershed #MeToo movement, the story of perseverance at its core quickly resonated with readers. Luckiest Girl Alive went on to top the charts as a bestseller, and its publication was followed by a deeply personal disclosure from Knoll herself. In a 2016 essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter, she revealed that the gang rape at the story’s center was not a work of fiction; it was inspired by her own.
After her essay went viral, Knoll received an overwhelming response from women who had survived similarly harrowing ordeals. Their messages impacted the author profoundly. “A shared experience is really powerful in coming to terms with this kind of trauma,” says Knoll. “There’s so much shame surrounding it—being made to feel like you did something wrong, like you somehow invited this, or there was something about you that made [your attacker] choose you. But when you hear women from all walks of life say, ‘No, that happened to me, too,’ it really does leech that shame.”
When writing the screenplay for the film adaptation of Luckiest Girl Alive, which stars Kunis in the lead role and Chiara Aurelia as the younger version of her character, Knoll reflected on her own journey. Inspired by the events of her life since 2015, she decided to completely overhaul the end of the movie to reflect her writing her essay and Ani taking “full control of her narrative.” And the author’s involvement wasn’t just limited to the writing room; she was on hand throughout the entire production—especially for discussions about filming the graphic sexual assault scene. “We really needed to get it right so that people would understand the depths of Ani’s rage,” says Knoll. “Not shying away from the violence of that night helps the viewer empathize with why she is so angry at everyone and everything.” Here, Knoll opens up about watching that chilling scene for the first time, trying not to take on others’ trauma, and navigating the nuances of being labeled a survivor.
It’s been seven years since your book came out, and since then you published an essay and wrote a screenplay for Netflix. How difficult has it been to revisit your story again and again? I can’t imagine having to keep talking—or writing—about something so personal in a public forum.
Each project has been pretty formative, in terms of my own process of coming to terms with what happened to me. I don’t feel like I have that much in common with the version of myself that wrote the book, or even the essay. I was so raw when I wrote those; I didn’t have the wisdom or distance to understand not just what had happened to me, but why it was handled the way it was. Because the assault on its own was not the worst part—it was the aftermath; how I was treated and how people I loved failed me. I had to really parse that apart in therapy, because it’s very complex. But all I had then was my story, my anger, and my pain.
Now I have an understanding of it, which is—I hate the word empowering—but that’s really what gives me agency in all of this. It’s the power of knowledge and understanding how this affected me and how I can shift my behavior in positive ways. I did not have the skillset to do that at the time that I wrote the essay or the book. I feel like I’m awake now in a way that I wasn’t at the time.
I read your essay about how the book’s gang rape scene was inspired by something you personally experienced. How did you prepare yourself to see the assault reenacted onscreen? Was any part of that particularly triggering?
I just felt responsible for it in a whole new way. Knowing that the actors were going to have to perform that scene was very anxiety-inducing for me, because they’re all really young. I knew I would be worried about Chiara, but once we were on set, I was surprised that I was also worried about the actors playing the guys who assault her. I hadn’t thought about how it could potentially be traumatic and difficult for them. So we had a lot of [precautions] in place to ensure everyone’s comfort and protection level for the actual scene.
What was it like for you, watching the final cut of that scene?
It was a much more intense experience than I ever imagined. I thought I had a sense of jadedness about it, almost—I’ve written and talked about it before, and it didn’t make me that uncomfortable. But seeing it on the screen made me realize that there’s a part of me that still normalizes or minimizes what happened to me. A lot of victims and survivors do that; it’s the mind’s way of accepting the level of violation and violence that was inflicted on you. Watching it, I thought, Oh my god, I need to stop doing that. This was a true act of violence against me. To this day I have empathy for everyone involved in the incident, which is not something I ever thought I’d be able to say seven years ago. But at the same time, I know that this was a crime—and it was not treated like one. We still don’t treat these incidents like crimes the way we do the other crime in the book, [the school shooting].
The book came out before the #MeToo movement gained momentum in 2017. Does the film reflect that cultural shift in any way?
The movie is set in 2015, which is really important because the stakes would be different if we were telling this story post-#MeToo. I don’t think the idea that Ani is so afraid to come out with her story would have landed in our society today. There’s a greater tolerance for women who come forward and tell their stories now, whereas in 2015, people might have believed me or they might not. We hadn’t had this kind of reckoning yet.
In the movie, Ani is asked if she prefers to be called a survivor or a victim. That conversation didn’t appear in the book. Why was it important to include that dialogue now?
After I wrote my essay in 2016, I saw that people online were calling me a survivor. I hadn’t really heard that term before, and it was very jarring because I was like, Wait, I was never treated like a victim at the time that I was a victim. I haven’t experienced that stage to get to the point where I would call myself a survivor. I had a stunted growth process, and I just wanted to be a victim for a little bit. I didn’t get that when I needed it. But the lexicon and Twitter made it clear that those were the words we were using now—and that the word victim was degrading. I adapted the language of the mob out of fear because I didn’t feel comfortable challenging it at the time.
For the movie, I wanted to use a bit of humor to show how I felt then. It’s like, really, what are your options? They’re not great. When Ani hears the word survivor, she recoils. Because for this character, there’s something that feels very grandiose about calling yourself a survivor. She’d rather be called a victim. I don’t want to be defined by what happened to me; I’d rather just be a whole human being. It’s hard, but I get it. We do need terms, and the language around all of this is important. Just in my personal experience, I felt a little put off by my options.
At one point in the movie, a character implies that Ani “participated” in the assault. What did you want to convey with that scene?
I think that with all kinds of trauma, the landscape and language is constantly evolving. In one minute you’re supposed to say this, but if you say that the next minute, it’s offensive. We don’t want to create more harm, but we also have to show people grace. I’ve worked really hard to realize that no one is going to be as plugged into my trauma as I am. People who want to be allies and support women might not get it exactly right, but that doesn’t mean they should be exiled.
The film breaks from the book in its ending—Ani writes about being sexually assaulted in a piece for The New York Times and tons of women reach out to her, sharing their own experiences. Was that a nod to #MeToo?
Ultimately she decides to write about what happened to her so that she has full control of her narrative. It wasn’t about the #MeToo movement; it was about what happened to me in the wake of publishing my essay. I sat on calls with the producers and director and Netflix executives, and they would be like, “Okay, well, what happened to you after you wrote your essay?” I started talking about how many women I heard from—strangers who wrote to me, and also women in my life who I knew, but I did not know something like this had happened to them. I was getting pulled aside at dinner parties and at work, just hearing these horror stories. You start to realize, “Oh, this is bigger than me; it’s not because I wore the wrong thing, said the wrong thing, or was too flirtatious.” It helps to let go of that and understand that if this is happening on such a large scale, it’s not about you at all. And that’s a really powerful thing to realize.
How do you metabolize taking on the trauma of others, in addition to working through your own?
Not well. I’ve had to work on not prioritizing other people’s feelings over my own. It didn’t feel good to constantly read such difficult messages, but I would respond to every one. I gave them as much of myself as I could. Through therapy, I’ve learned not to minimize myself in the service of others. I’ve also realized that people might not even expect me to give them so much—that’s a burden I put on myself. I was such a people pleaser. But I no longer put that added pressure on myself where I feel like I’m letting people down if I don’t respond.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
I hope a lot of men watch it. Back when I was on the book tour, it was all women at the events. One young guy came up to me, asked if it was always like that, and I said yes. He was like, “Just because the protagonist is female, that doesn’t mean men can’t enjoy this book.” I was blown away by that. I hope that now, seven years after the book came out, men will watch the film, take something away from it, and also enjoy this female character. She’s complicated and interesting and flawed in the same way as characters like Tony Soprano and Don Draper. Women are invested in male-dominated stories like Mad Men and The Sopranos—and it would be really cool if men were invested in this story in that same way.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Luckiest Girl Alive is now streaming on Netflix.
Samantha Simon is a writer, editor, and pop culture enthusiast living in New York City. She previously served as Features Editor at InStyle. If she’s not in the middle of a Law & Order: SVU marathon, she’s probably on a 4-mile walk with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Dexter (named after the fictional vigilante serial killer, naturally), shopping, or searching for the best cacio e pepe that the city has to offer. Her favorite topics include celebrity memoirs, emo bands of the early aughts, and the weekly Sakara Life menu.