His Favorites follows Jo, a woman reflecting on the traumas she experienced when she was 15 years old. Through a series of flashbacks and current reflections, Jo tells the reader (and a mystery person I won’t spoil here) her story. She is not only dealing with the death of her best friend, Stephanie, but sexual assault and an absentee mother.
When she was 15, Jo accidentally killed her best friend Stephanie. From this moment on, her life shifted and changed in ways she never thought imaginable – in ways no one would think imaginable. Her town turned on her. Her other friend who was there when it happened, Carly, stopped speaking with her. Her mother and father drifted apart. Her mother, eventually, decided to leave her at Hawthorne, a boarding school in a different city. Jo, who feels helpless and abandoned by everyone she loves, is vulnerable.
Jo’s mother also feels lost after Stephanie’s death. Her friends don’t want anything to do with her and her marriage is not as stable as before. Jo became this burden of a child, someone that her mother had to get rid of. Those are harsh words, but I believe that is why she picked Hawthorne. Jo could’ve gone to a school in Portland, where they were relocating to, but instead her mother choose a boarding school. “I went...to Hawthorne and she moved to Portland, we moved to Portland, she corrected” (95). Her mother wants this fresh start away from her daughter, the person who turned their lives upside down. I don’t want to vilify Jo’s mother here (her father wasn’t a stable support system either), but her treatment of Jo – intentional or not – made her more vulnerable to abuse. Jo understood that her mother was drifting away from her: “Our lives were so far apart I could no longer remember what we had even done or said before to one another” (96). Abusers look for people that are easy to manipulate. Jo’s vulnerability is exactly what Master was looking to exploit.
Jo met Master at Hawthorne. He was an English teacher of some sort, and immediately took a “liking” to Jo. Master manipulated Jo from the very beginning. He invited her to join his class that is usually reserved for upperclassmen, a class, as we learn, that he used specifically to target young girls. He made her feel special by telling her secrets and relating to her with the story of his cousin’s suicide; which we understand later was a lie. He was grooming her from the start. Jo looked to Master to be a parental figure or a mentor, to fill the void of her mother and father. As she said, “I am fifteen. I want forgiveness” (61). But Master sexually assaulted her and continued to violate her despite her protests.
Jo tried to report her assault to Headmaster O’Connell. She found her strength through Stephanie by wearing a sundress that she made in a “Home Economics class Stephanie and [her] took together, side by side” (110), during her confession. O’Connell ignored her, used her clothing against her; he acted as if she was the evil one for trying to “ruin a man’s career”. It’s not until she is a grown woman that Jo tells her story again. Charlotte, another one of Master’s victims, asked her to corroborate her story by telling her own to a detective.
Here, we can make parallels to the #MeToo movement. The movement focuses on women coming together against their attackers in order to create a sense of community, safety, and understanding. Jo says, “The details [Charlotte] brought up about herself felt both true and foreign, like reading the story of a parallel me” (142). His Favorites is not only about the trauma and abuse women face, it’s about processing that trauma and having the courage to speak up.
Walbert, Kate. His Favorites. Scribner, 2018