Here’s something that gnaws at most writers, whether they’re writing fiction or memoir: How much are you allowed to tell? Who owns our truths?
For several years I was a sexual abuse therapist. And what you learn right away, if you haven’t already learned it elsewhere, is how trauma is exacerbated by silence. Trying to fake that you’re fine, trying to keep a trauma a secret, trying to protect a family system or an abuser you also love – these are emotions that eat at the heart of a survivor. So why not just tell, right?
Not so fast. The moment you tell, you have also exposed a slew of others. You’ve exposed a family system and an entire network of secrets. And maybe worst of all, you’ve opened yourself up to the problem of all problems: whose perspective is right, and whose memory contains the real truth? Rarely, when a survivor speaks up, do others agree that the survivor described what happened accurately. And rarely is speaking up met with hugs and apologies.
Truth is a slippery thing. Let’s stay with the example of the survivor a little longer. Surviving a trauma involves many things including denial, dissociation, and possibly some coercion to process the abuse in some alternative way. A survivor who’s been abused by a family member may feel a number of emotions besides the fear that you might expect. They may like the attention of the abuser. Their body may react positively to the abuse, regardless of how their head responds. The abuser may have many likable traits, and the survivor may have many unlikable traits. This starts to make a mess of the survivor’s head because we don’t have a black-and-white situation anymore. Instead you have complicated and layered characters in a complicated and layered relationship. So the moment this survivor speaks up, there is plenty of room for others to argue the truth of what’s been said.
One advantage to writing essays or memoir is that you can speak your mind without interruption. You can tell the entire scope of a story or paint as large a picture as you need in order to express what you need to express or discover what you need to discover. It can be like traveling through hell to find truth or peace or order, but it can free you from the past, make you wiser, and allow you to connect with others who have no voice for their experience. Say, then, that you’ve done it, you’ve said what you needed to say and said it lovingly and yet fearlessly. Now is when you hope the real people within your story understand the way you see the world, they “get” you, they value your experience and how you’ve become the person you are and why you think or feel the way you do.
Ha ha! You know why I’m laughing, right? Because now your memory is out there for others to question and judge. What is true to you is not necessarily true to the other players in your story. And why is that? For starters, there are mistruths in even the most careful of memoirs: misremembered events, dialogue re-invented years or decades after the fact, things left out because they don’t seem important or because you wanted to quicken the pace, not to mention the blind spots we all have from seeing the world through our own lens for so long. And the final kicker: others don’t want to know or believe your truth because it would be disastrous to their psyche and their paradigm about how they fit into the world.
So, given that others are naturally intertwined with the stories we want to tell, where is that balance? I think the answer is different for each of us. And, of course, it’s complicated when you’re telling things that are true about your heart and your emotional experience of the world through fictional writing. But I’ll answer this question for me: I won’t read tepid writing, and I certainly don’t want to produce it. I like writing that goes where we’re afraid to go and says what we’re afraid to say in our real lives. Salman Rushdie says it better: “One of the things a writer is for is to say the unsayable, speak the unspeakable and ask difficult questions.”
Lance ReynaldSeptember 22, 2006
Glad that Rushdie bit worked it’s way in, I’d hate to see that one go to waste.
oh yeah, I’m so happy to see you using the word “fearless” so fearlessly. Certainly you know that makes me very happy indeed.
Great wrap this week!
I’ll be back. 😉
Ellen MeisterSeptember 22, 2006
Sorry something awful happened to your scheduled guest, Sue. But I look forward to seeing who is filling in to shine. Great post today.
mikel kSeptember 22, 2006
“One advantage to writing essays or memoir is that you can speak your mind without interruption…”–Susan Henderson
Hmmmmmmmm…I’m wondering if this is always a good thing. They were trying to teach me restraint of tongue and pen(and email!!) somewhere along the line. Congrats on the Huffington column.
Myfanwy CollinsSeptember 22, 2006
Thanks for another great week on LitPark.
Congratulations on your news! That is wonderful. It’s one of my daily reads and I’ll be delighted to see you there, Susan.
Ric MarionSeptember 22, 2006
Getting to be most everywhere these days.
Congrats on the Huffington Post.
ellen meisterSeptember 22, 2006
Oh!! I just came back and clicked on your “secret.” CONGRATS, SUE! That’s just huge!
Elizabeth CraneSeptember 22, 2006
Congrats from me as well on the Huffington post. The subject of aging/beauty is one I think about a great deal… and you handled the subject so well. I am just praying that I will still believe myself in twenty years when I say I want to age naturally, that I want to look like – what I really look like, and that the mirror and the culture will not win.
Gail SiegelSeptember 22, 2006
Explain this Ariana gig to me? You’re going to be a regular commentator? Cool.
Beauty is one of those things that it’s hard to be honest about — speaking of truthfulness. Myself, I’ve tried to not look in the mirror at all for many many years. But then, having a beautiful daughter has been a real challenge for me. In that, she is constantly pointing out my flaws and trying to improve me. She’s always critiquing what I wear, to the point where I now allow her to help me buy clothes (something I hate to do), often at the boutique where she works. She gives me makeup advice, because I’m kind of a dunce about that, too. If anything, she has heightened my vanity, because I’m aware of being evaluated — far more than men ever evaluated me. (My sense about men has always been that they’re just happy to get you naked. They’re not as picky about how we look as we are.) There is nothing more humiliating than having the daughter you love grimace at your appearance.
And the daughter-scrutiny has snowballed. I’m now sporting a new haircut, with highlights. Next I think she’s going to attack my confortable shoes and try to get me to wear something with stilletos. On that point I will not give. I walk over a mile to the train every day, and can’t do it on stilts.
Susan HendersonSeptember 22, 2006
Lance – Thanks for your comment over at Huffington Post!
Ellen – Thank you!
Mikel K – Thanks for you comment over at Huffington Post, too!
Myfanwy – And you, too, Myf!
Ric – I’m always glad to see you here. And thank you.
Elizabeth – Me, too.
Gail – I hear you on feeling like you’re being evaluated. I’ll bet if you explore the idea of vanity and mother-daughter relationships, you’ll write yourself a nice, publishable story.
Carolyn Burns BassSeptember 23, 2006
Susan, I loved your Huffington Post and left you a comment there.
One last thing about truth and memoir. Everyone sees through the filters of his/her own perception. One daughter remembers her mother as harsh and unloving, the other born a couple of years later, recalls the same mother as affectionate and caring. The father looks at the two daughters and sees one insecure wallflower who clings to her mama, while the other one takes on one challenge after another in a succession of achievements. The mother knows she loves each daughter equally. Which daughter is which? If each person here wrote an honest memoir, each would be truth, but truth as seen through their own perception.