The cover of Rotten, Mandy Brownholtz' debut novel.

It turns out, a global pandemic is not a terrible time to self-publish a novel. Mandy Brownholtz, author of the recently released Rotten, describes making the book during lockdown as “a bright spot in a dark time.” The design process gave her something to focus on and, as a music industry veteran, she was thrilled to put her stimulus money back into the artist community by hiring Brooklyn artist and musician Jonny Campolo to help design the novel. “Somebody the other day called me a poster child for universal basic income because of the way I’ve flourished under the government social safety net last year,” jokes Brownholtz.

Rotten follows a woman confronting sexual assault in a fictionalized D.C. punk scene, and while Brownholtz did not originally intend to self-publish her book, the pandemic rerouted her plans. Ultimately, she embraced her DIY roots—the same ones she explores within the novel—and decided to release the book on her own.

Growing up in Montgomery County, Brownholtz, who now lives in Queens, New York, got involved with D.C.’s DIY scene in high school—much like Viv, Rotten‘s protagonist. While attending University of Maryland, College Park, Brownholtz worked at 9:30 Club, first in the kitchen and eventually moving up to marketing. That’s where she read Washington City Paper, grabbing a new copy each week in the venue’s lobby. Coincidentally, Rotten’s plot largely revolves around Viv writing a cover story for this very paper. “It was very meta,” jokes Brownholtz about being interviewed by City Paper.

Along with the paper, Rotten name-drops numerous local haunts (Black Cat, Big Bear Cafe, Dodge City, etc.), which anchor the book to a time and place in the city’s not-so-distant history. Drawing from the local DIY music scene of Brownholtz’s youth, in the years before the #MeToo movement, Rotten takes readers on a tour of D.C. subculture while examining the complicated realities of sexual assault. 

Viv is a rape survivor in the throes of coping, healing, and trying to move on. Complicating matters is that her assailant is both a friend of a friend and the booker at the (fictional) punk-esque house venue where Viv was a staple of the scene. She’s forced to confront her past, and the many moments in her life that led to her assault, when City Paper assigns her a story on Fort Rotten—not to be confused with Fort Reno’s summer music series, which is also mentioned. “It just seems like if there was going to be a newspaper in D.C. that covered this sort of culture, that would be the one that did it,” says Brownholtz. 

There is no textbook way to survive rape and there is no textbook victim. That’s what Brownholtz captures so well. Survivors are frequently faced with self-blame and victim-blaming from others, often left to ask themselves “what if”: “What if I never went to that party?” “What if I went home earlier?” “What if I went with my friend?” “What if my parents had taught me that I was worthy of more?” Viv is not a perfect victim and neither are the others who tell Viv their stories of sexual assault within the scene, but that shouldn’t discredit them.  

“I hope people that have experienced stuff like this feel seen and realize there’s no way things like this are supposed to happen,” says Brownholtz, who wrote Rotten as a way to channel her unease following Donald Trump’s election. “I guess it’s always been simmering under the surface, but after the ‘grab them by the pussy’ incident, I was like ‘There’s no way this guy is going to be the president’ … And then he was,” Brownholtz says. “I just started thinking about what consent and choice meant in a country that would do that.” 

In Rotten, the present and past happen almost simultaneously, and the reader doesn’t know Viv’s full story until a conclusion of sorts is reached. Within its pages, Brownholtz explores the murkiness of memory, the juxtaposition of free will and being the product of the environment in which you were raised, friendship, and what happens to perpetrators of sexual assault after they’ve been named. 

But Brownholtz also wrote the book to offer insight into what a survivor goes through following rape and how blurry traumatic memories can be. “I feel like men, a lot of times, they think that these things are fairly innocuous … ‘It’s like, it might have been innocuous to you, but it wasn’t innocuous to the other person,” says Brownholtz.

As the country reopens, other media outlets have asked Brownholtz what cultural change needs to happen. Her answer remains the same: Men need to be more aware and they need to “police their friends. … I think that’s the only way that we’re going to have any real, lasting change.”

In this way, Rotten navigates a path to healing, or as Viv would say, “Radical Self Love.” Likewise, Brownholtz found a lot of joy in self-publishing and, despite the work it required, she’d do it all over again thanks to the overwhelming support she’s received. She also remains excited to spotlight an often overlooked side of D.C. “Growing up in that scene was so inspiring and informative to me,” she says. “It was the first time I realized that you could create art and music on your own terms, without institutional support. It just felt like such a natural setting.”

The ebook is available for purchase at mandybrownholtz.com. $10. The limited print edition has sold out, but a waitlist has been set up for people hoping to buy a hard copy.