Sometimes, in order to write a book, authors need to carve out a part of their soul and face the demons of the world. They need to learn the lives of a character who has been through tragedy, through trauma, through things nobody should go through. But at the end of that experience is a book, something with the power to open minds and change opinions.
Cut Me Free is one of those books.
“The themes in this book were by far the most difficult I’ve ever dealt with,” said author J.R. Johansson. “I enjoy challenging topics, but this book is really about the strength of the human character. It is about writing a strong victim and still staying true to how difficult it is to overcome something as terrible as child abuse.”
In Cut Me Free, 17-year-old Charlotte is trying to start her life over, free from the abusive parents she barely escaped. She’s changed her name and has hired someone to erase all digital ties to her past as well. Unfortunately, changing a name is much easier than becoming a new person, and Charlotte struggles to overcome the years of damage she suffered. She’s also grieving her little brother, Sam, who wasn’t as lucky in his escape. Just when she thinks she’s regaining control of her life, she sees a girl at the park — a girl covered in bruises and scars — and knows she has to do something. But someone is trying to drag Charlotte back into her old life, and is leaving terrifying notes inside her apartment. Charlotte must find whoever is threatening her before everything in her past destroys her future.
Johansson did extensive research into child abuse and the impacts of abuse psychologically. She also researched child trafficking, and felt the immense burden of presenting these realities with accuracy and integrity. As a mother of two young boys, she found the topics especially disturbing.
“These were emotionally intense and a struggle to write at times, but also something I am so proud of now that it’s finished. Victims of abuse are stronger than anyone realizes to survive what they’ve been through. I’m proud to have my name on something that brings that strength to light,” said Johansson.
Cut Me Free also deals with the idea of identity as ever-changing, fragile, yet indomitable.
“To me, identity is that complex way that a person recognizes who they really are. It is more than a name. It includes so much more than just that,” said Johansson. “With my main character, she changes her name, but it is just surface level and happens very early on in the book. It takes much, much longer for her to change the way she identifies herself. It takes much more for her to come to terms with who she was and what she went through and merge that with who she wants to be.”
Though Charlotte’s identity is framed by extreme situations, Johansson recognizes the universality of Charlotte’s struggle. “I think this is a struggle we all go through on some level. We’re always asking if we are who we want to be…and if the answer is no, what must we do to become that person. I love exploring those kinds of issues that cross every boundary.”
Charlotte is actively trying to flee her past while simultaneously attempting to build a new life. Her journey is not only plagued by the creepy and cruel intentions of her unknown stalker, but is marked by the constant presence of her younger brother’s voice in her head. Johansson, who was surprised by this development in the writing of the book, recognized that Charlotte hearing her brother’s voice was an important part of her healing.
“He was her truest companion. He was her family, her everything. Dealing with his loss was something that broke her in a very real way. He needed to be part of this book. Charlotte needed him to be. And in doing research on this kind of loss, hearing him and keeping part of him alive and with her is a very real way for her to cope,” said Johansson.
Despite the heaviness of the themes and the difficult realities Johansson had to face and represent, she is immensely proud of her book.
“I hope readers will connect with Charlotte and [her]strength. I hope they will have their eyes opened about abuse and wonder what they can do to help stop it from happening. Mostly, I hope they’re entertained and somewhere in the book find that spark of hope that I believe is humanity’s greatest asset.”