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'You're Not a Freshman Anymore' : PRIZED POSSESSIONS, By Avery Corman (Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 320 pp.)

January 20, 1991|Digby Diehl | Diehl is the book columnist for Playboy magazine, treasurer of PEN Center USA West, and the father of a daughter

In 1977, when American divorce rates were zooming to 55%, Avery Corman wrote a moving novel of divorce and custody struggles in "Kramer vs. Kramer" that dramatized the quintessential story of a national social crisis. Now, in "Prized Possessions," he focuses on campus date-rape with a similar sensitive docudrama approach. In his new novel, he explores aspects of this emotional issue and takes us inside the lives of a victim and her family.

Deftly, Corman sketches how Laura and Ben Mason lovingly raise their most prized possession, Elizabeth. Her parents sweat and maneuver to secure a kindergarten space for her in New York's prestigious, WASPy, Chase preparatory school, and when she shows an aptitude for singing, they provide her with a musically oriented summer camp in the Adirondacks and a highly respected voice coach. They give her a bat mitzvah lunch at the tony Tavern-on-the-Green in Central Park, and pump up her SAT scores to the magic 1300 mark with private tutoring.

As a reward for their parental labors, Elizabeth is admitted to Layton College, an idyllic Ivy League school in Upstate New York described in "The Insider's Guide to the Colleges" as "Williams II." Corman describes this pinnacle of the Mason's joyous satisfaction: "Now she was going to a college far beyond their own aspirations when they were her age. Elizabeth, their firstborn, represented their dreams of moving up, of not being kids from Brooklyn and the Bronx any longer. And she had fulfilled their expectations. It is all so perfectly, happily upwardly mobile you could gag.

At the annual freshman get-acquainted barbecue, Elizabeth meets a handsome senior named Jimmy Andrews, who is bar-tending at the event in order to check out the new talent. A few days later, he invites her to a party at an off-campus house where he lives with several other seniors. They drink a few beers, dance, kiss and retire to a sound-proofed basement room where, despite her screaming protests and struggles, he grabs her roughly by her throat and rapes her. To Jimmy, it's no big deal; just another conquest. He tells her, "'exually speaking, you're not a freshman anymore." After it is over, he casually offers to walk her to her dorm.

Elizabeth is devastated. Like the majority of rape victims, she does not tell anyone what has happened to her. In humiliation and shame, she withdraws socially. Symbolic of the psychological damage, she drops her class in vocal music and refuses to sing. She often goes for days without speaking to anyone, even in her classes. She tells her astonished parents that she has decided to give up music and to study English as a major. She withdraws so completely that other students nickname her "the hermit." In a few months, she has undergone a severe personality change.

"Intellectually, Elizabeth consigned the rape to the category of nightmares in order to distance herself from it," Corman explains. "This did not stop it from violating her sleep in real nightmares. In her dreams, a figure hovered over her and she couldn't breathe. She would violently throw herself out of sleep, sweating, gasping for breath. The bad images came in the day, too, flickering across her consciousness during her waking hours, triggered by random suggestions of sexuality: a boy in one of her classes who looked at her with interest, a girl on a lawn sitting with a boy, flirting with him. These occurences would provoke the event to return like a hideous rodent that kept darting across her path."

Then, at a mandatory seminar in "Rape Awareness" at the school's Women's Center, Elizabeth cracks. She runs crying from a rape reenactment by professional actors and confesses to some friends that she has been raped. She begins rape counseling with Jean Philips, the director of the Women's Center, and gains the strength to seek justice through the Layton college grievance board. Both families are notified of the charge; lawyers are hired to represent the opposing parties. A date is set for the hearing. Readers of "Kramer vs. Kramer" may recall that Corman is in his element with the dynamics of a courtroom drama, and he narrates this one with the skill of an experienced literary juggler.

In quickly shifting scenes, we are exposed to all of the conflicting points of view in this confrontation. Elizabeth's father Ben wants to kill the guy. Her mother wants to forget it ever happened. Jimmy's father Malcolm is totally convinced of his son's innocence, and just doesn't want word of this thing to get around his golf club. Jimmy's mother is terrified into alcoholic catatonia. The lawyers are tough mechanics of the legal machinery who try to make the language of contracts fit this investigation of intimate relations. Jean Philips wants to make this case an example to warn other campus rapists. The college administrators on the grievance panel are decent people who try to be fair--with a wary eye on the school's reputation. Jimmy, of course, does the smart thing: He lies.

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