The Bizarre Book 'Consensual Hex' Is Getting Dragged for Depicting Real People

Any avid reader knows the feeling of being enthralled by a great novel and getting familiar with a variety of characters that you relate to. But the feeling is surely very different when it's your former high school or college friend actually painting a clear portrait of you—and doing so in a negative light.

People claiming to be former confidants of author Amanda Harlowe are urging folks not to buy her new book Consensual Hex,after noting many similarities between themselves and the characters in the book.

Consensual Hex (from Grand Central Publishing) is Harlowe's debut novel. According to the plot on the book's page on the publisher's website, the book centers on a Smith College student named Lee, who is raped by an Amherst college frat boy during orientation week. While taking a course on "Gender, Power, and Witchcraft," she befriends three other young women (a hipster, a frightened girl and a cool international student), who are "granted a charter for a coven" and suddenly need to use magic to retrieve a spell book from an Amherst fraternity, the members of which have been using magic to cover up sexual assaults.

"As Lee's thirst for revenge on her rapist grows, things spiral out of control, pitting witch against witch as they must wrestle with how far one is willing to go to heal," reads the book's description.

The novel was released on October 6, but reviews of the book starting pouring in on GoodReads in July, when people who believed the characters were based on them started grilling the novel and Harlowe. The drama came to a head again on Wednesday, when author Emmett Nahil, who says he was best friends with Harlowe in high school, said on Twitter that Harlowe based a minor character on him and exaggerated events to make that character more of a villain.

While many authors use real people and experiences as the basis for their work, the book's critics claim that the details Harlowe included are way too close for comfort.

Nahil claimed in tweets on Wednesday that Harlowe detailed his "high school job, hobbies, and insulted [his] parents" in Consensual Hex. He also called the account "a horrifyingly twisted version of what the author perceived me to be in high school," and slammed Harlowe. "This is a racist, extraordinarily lesbiphobic, transphobic book written by a racist, lesbophobic, and transphobic author who truly made their less wealthy Arab 'best friend' feel like trash throughout adolescence," he wrote.

The dialogue included in the book are RIDICULOUSLY overblown, falsified versions of conversations between us as high schoolers, all framed to make the main character, which is an obvious self-insert, an object of sympathy.

— emmett nahil: wrath edition (@_emnays) December 23, 2020

This is a racist, extraordinarily lesbiphobic, transphobic book written by a racist, lesbophobic, and transphobic author who truly made their less wealthy Arab 'best friend' feel like trash throughout adolescence.

Pretty rich to call me a TERF, Miller.

— emmett nahil: wrath edition (@_emnays) December 23, 2020

Despite insulting the book, Nahil also acknowledged that other people who knew Harlowe received far worse treatment than he. Three lengthy reviews (which have been updated multiple times) on GoodReads came from people who said they knew Harlowe at Smith College. They wrote that the plot of the book is fictional, but that Harlowe still gave away too many personal details that could reveal the identities of the people who seemingly inspired characters.

Those three reviews on GoodReads—written by people using the names Sunny, Ash, and Izzy—not only rip Consensual Hex as a literary nightmare, but the writers of those reviews claim that they were the obvious inspiration for several of the book's lead characters. Like Nahil, the three all say that they lost contact with Harlowe after "petty drama" within their friend group.

Sunny alleges that the "Brooklyn hipster" character of Luna (whose name isn't exactly a stretch) is based on her. She says that details about her family, sex-life, appearance and the name of her high school (among other things) are all included in the book.

Ash, meanwhile, alleges that the international student Charlotte is based on her, and says that although she is actually white in real life and Charlotte is Korean, the character is an obvious stand-in for her. Ash claims that amid other "invasive personal information" that's included, her medical history os also laid out. Despite all of this, Ash expresses some relief in her review that the Charlotte character is "flat and unimportant to the narrative." The Luna and Gabi characters get it much worse in Ash's eyes, with the former being reduced to a sexual-fantasy-fulfillment character and the latter being totally villain-ized.

In her review, Izzy likens Consensual Hex to "literary revenge porn." She also calls out Harlowe for allegedly painting an unflattering picture of her through the Gabi character. In the book's description, Gabi is described as having "a laundry list of phobias," but Izzy doesn't seem to find this descriptor cute or endearing, especially after seeking out some of the novel's passages. She claims that Harlowe used her personal details with "no alteration, other than exaggeration to make me seem like a monster for the crime of needing emotional and psychological support for my struggles with mental illness and trauma."

These critics also allege that Harlowe used the character of Lee not only as a representation for herself, but also as a way to detail sexual encounters that never happened. Nahil claims that Harlowe "creates sexual fantasies about 'Zara [the character based on him]'. like.......buddy if we made out in high school that's news to me."

In their GoodReads reviews, both Ash and Sunny say that they reached out to Harlowe's publisher, requesting that Harlowe make serious changes to the characters, so they would be less identifiable. They state in their reviews that a legal representative for the publisher told them that Harlowe would make some changes to the details; they say, though, that they were kept in the dark about which details would be changed.

In the most recent update to her review, Sunny says that she read through a released copy in a Barnes and Noble, and while "surface-level changes" look to have been made (such as details about hometowns and high school), she claims that other details are still in the book. She also argues that only some—and not all—of the medical details have been altered.

One paragraph of Sunny's update reads:

Despite these surface changes, this book is still unoriginal, and exploitative, and bad. The main characters are still clearly based on me and my friends, and the non-magic parts of the plot are based on real events. There's still plenty of my personal information in there, including stuff about my sex life and my relationships. There's still plenty of content directly informed by real people's trauma. There's real life, intimate conversations I had with Harlowe, reproduced nearly word for word. The way she talks about my body is still objectifying and awful.

At the end of the review, Sunny implores readers to not buy Consensual Hex or any book that Harlowe may put out after this. She then directs her review at Harlowe, asking why she thought it would be okay to lay out her and her friends' lives in the book. Sunny also notes that she's actually still friends with the other people who allegedly had characters based on them.

Newsweek reached out to Harlowe's publisher and Emmet Nahil for comment via email, but did not hear back in time for publication.

Amanda Harlowe Consensual Hex
The cover of Amanda Harlowe's novel 'Consensual Hex,' which has received much criticism for basing characters on real people. Screenshot/GoodReads/Hachette Book Group