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.”