The Little Brother, the third novel by South Pasadena author Victoria Patterson, explores the forces that collide to create a rape culture — specifically, the culture surrounding one of the most notorious crimes in recent Orange County history. The book, by extension, becomes an examination of wealth and privilege, toxic masculinity and collective culpability. As one New York Times critic wrote, The Little Brother is “an arresting and haunting experience. To say the book is about a rape is true, but that’s only part of it — in many ways, the least interesting part. The real subject is the conditions that allow that rape to happen.”
To recap the real crime behind the story: In July 2002, Rancho Cucamonga teenagers Greg Haidl, Kyle Nachreiner and Keith Spann repeatedly assaulted a 16-year-old acquaintance as she lay unconscious after consuming much alcohol and possibly some drugs. The attack took place in Corona del Mar, at the home of Donald Haidl, Greg’s father, a self-made multimillionaire who had bought his way into a position as an Orange County assistant sheriff. Despite the fact that the boys videotaped the entire episode, it took two trials to convict them. Haidl, Nachreiner and Spann ultimately were sentenced to six years and required to register as sex offenders.
The rape at the center of Patterson’s fictionalized retelling loosely follows these facts. Narrated 10 years after the attack, the book zeroes in on a would-be bit character, the titular little brother, Daniel Hyde, or “Even,” as he’s been nicknamed. Even pieces together not only the events leading up to the crime — spearheaded by his older brother, Gabe — but also the dissolution of his own family and the moral tug-of-war he must navigate in its wake.
“I thought, what if it were your brother who had done this?” Patterson says over brunch at Silver Lake’s LAMILL café, “and you were complicit somehow, because it was your family?”
“People throw around the word ‘fearless’ a lot, but I think she is,” says USC professor Dana Johnson, the author of Elsewhere, California and a member of Patterson’s writing group. “I think it’s really brave to write about rape culture from the point of view of young men. … When you read Tory’s writing, you have to confront whatever uncomfortable feelings you’re experiencing.”
Since publishing her debut short story collection in 2009, Patterson has emerged as astute chronicler of the uncomfortable Golden State intersections of class and race, sex and power. This Vacant Paradise transposes the gender politics and class consciousness of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth to 1990s Newport Beach. Drift, her collection of interconnected tales about the working-class waiters, substance abusers and single moms, complicates the O.C.’s TV-ready image. Michelle Huneven, a senior fiction editor at the L.A. Review of Books and author of Off Course, describes Patterson's subject matter as “what families can inadvertently do to children … and the power [wealth] gives to stupid people.”
Patterson spent years in Newport Beach, conducting primary research as an alienated teenager, and she happily admits that she’s still drawing from journals she kept during that period. Patterson landed in the upscale community fresh from Yorba Linda, just as she was entering seventh grade, after her mother’s remarriage upgraded the family’s financial situation. In a split mirrored by The Little Brother, Patterson’s older brother remained inland with their father, while Patterson entered into a difficult relationship with her new home — loving its beauty and rebelling against its conservative Christian ethos and competitive, nouveau riche aesthetic. “I had this craving to know different types of experiences,” she says, which came to include an unruly phase defined by extensive substance abuse and lasting well into college, where Patterson's Mount Holyoke roommates dubbed her “Crazy Victoria from Southern California.” She left the elite women’s college halfway through, returning home to enter rehab before finishing her degree at UC Riverside. “That’s another reason I related to Jane Doe,” she says, referring to the victim in the 2002 case. “I was drinking heavily during that time. I could have been her.”
Patterson, who’d been following the case for years, contacted Jane Doe through a reporter before going ahead with the project. “I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t gotten her blessing to do it,” Patterson says, “mainly because I knew what she’d been through and how she had to endure. The real-life crime was so horrific. … Anyone who saw that video would say you can’t believe what was on there. It would permanently affect anyone who saw it.”
She recalls coverage of a similar rape trial in Steubenville, Ohio, and the moment when CNN anchor Poppy Harlow ignited a firestorm after expressing sympathy for how a rape conviction would shatter lives of the perpetrators as well. “I thought, yeah, I felt bad for them too,” says Patterson, who has two sons. “Maybe it’s because I have teenage boys, and I know their friends, and I love these boys. But to say that you’re not allowed to feel these feelings for those young men too, I think that’s wrong. I know that’s not popular.”
Patterson’s writing has long drawn praise for its ability to critique without vilifying, and those who know her say that the empathetic quality in her work springs from a very personal place. “She’s missing a layer of skin. I think that’s part of her emotional intelligence,” Huneven says. “What I love about her and her writing is that she’s completely incapable of tolerating injustice or hypocrisy.”
In person, Patterson has a tendency to ask as many questions as she answers, her own responses often drawn out by a thoughtful hesitancy. She won’t go near social media — “it’s just not me” — and showing up for a post-publication round of publicity takes conscious effort. While immersed in a project, she says, “I just hole up in a room. No one sees me, so basically I just wear the same clothes every day. How do you even put on something nice? I have to remember how to do that.”
Lately Patterson has been quietly passing around early drafts of a new body of work, of a rather unexpected sort. “She has secret funny person career” ahead of her, Huneven predicts.
If so, we might have The Little Brother to thank. Patterson calls it the most consuming of her books; after finishing it, she started rethinking where to go next. “I think the world is a sad place, and I just want to make people laugh,” she says. “Just getting through life is hard. No matter who you are or where you grew up.”