For All The ‘Survivors’ Who Don’t Survive
By writing a character who shares my trauma, I found a path forward even though she couldn't
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Growing up I was touched inappropriately and repeatedly by someone I loved and trusted. The first few times it happened, I think I thought of it as part of a game and I played along, but as I got older, visits to this person’s home filled me with dread. The gradual realization that I had been participating in something I thought was one thing and turned out to be another altogether was sickening—literally. My stomach burned at the thought of seeing this person I both loved and feared. I was ten before the reality of what had transpired—what would continue to transpire—actually dawned on me, and I was also crippled by the fact that I had no name for it or the feelings it gave rise to.
Worst still, I didn’t have the words to stop it.
But where does a child go in search of the ones that tell of such a thing? To whom do we deliver these words in order to seek protection when the abuser themselves is someone who claims to love us?
Almost two decades later, I began to write a novel with incest at its core. What happened to me was nothing at all like what my character endures. May DuBerry Cherymill, one of the main characters in my debut novel, A Hand to Hold in Deep Water, is raped by her father and bears his child. Her experience is far more brutal than mine and for a time I even questioned whether I had the right, in the age of own voices, to tell her fictional story. I wondered if my own experience, if measured by degree, made me less qualified to know my character’s experience. How do we quantify victimization? Stranger rape versus date rape, adult victim versus child victim, violence versus coercion? All these things matter in a court of law, but in the court of our own mind it’s a very different process. We judge ourselves harshly.
What happened to me over the length of my childhood was complicated, but the way it bled into the rest of my life was surprisingly simple. I suffered from depression and a fear of being touched by even my closest family members, a sense that physical gestures that most would interpret as comforting are actually disingenuous. Friends will tell you I’m not a hugger. As a young adult, taking leave of my godmother, a woman I adored, she reached to hug me goodbye and stopped herself. Oh, I’m so sorry. I know you don’t like goodbyes. Something crinkled in my heart at that moment. I felt discovered, as if my secret had slipped out in some kind of code that she was at that very moment deciphering. Other than my husband and children, I am not one to relax into a hug between friends or the family I grew up in. There is always that moment of discomfort that leaps into my throat just a split second faster than the alleged warmth of a hug. The length of a hug is measured by how long I must endure before I can wiggle my way out of it—released, back to breathing my own air.
Surprisingly, when I met my husband, I couldn’t keep my hands off of him. We still, to this day, hug and touch one another constantly. He is the human I am good with. He is the one I trust implicitly and, other than my children, he is the only person who can wrap me in his arms without that spark of dread igniting.
The depression that trailed me through my childhood, teens, and adulthood, wasn’t something I attached to my victimization. I didn’t see a clear and direct line between the two. I only knew that I couldn’t catch a lick of true happiness on most days. The kindness of others made me squirm and felt like a debt. What do I owe in exchange? What will you take from me? My husband may have been the exception, but any flickering sign that he didn’t have my best interests at heart could send me into a strange and feral rage, convinced he had tricked me into loving him.
At twenty-seven, in a writing class led by Richard Bausch, I wrote a short story that would eventually become the first chapter in my debut novel. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it clung to me over the next twenty years, and I obsessively imagined a backstory around the characters that would explain how they found themselves in that moment. In the original version I wrote back in that class, Willy, nearly seventy years old and steeped in his own disappointments, is awaiting the arrival of his thirty-five-year-old stepdaughter. His much younger wife had “run off” thirty years earlier, leaving him to raise Lacey, only five at the time, alone. The missing wife, May DuBerry Cherymill, was at the crux of the story. And I kept asking myself, who was May, and what would compel a woman to abandon her child and a man she loved?
Precisely how I landed on May’s backstory—that she was a victim of paternal rape, from which she became pregnant with Lacey—is a mystery to me, but I did know that Willy and Lacey, who appeared in that first short story, were loved by May, and that she left them would require a damn good explanation. I was a mother myself when I conceived of May and so it was natural to examine my own self for a link to who she was and what her experience had been. At the same time, I needed to be sure that, from a plotting standpoint, her backstory justified her husband and child choosing not to look for her, believing she disappeared of her own volition.
When I dug into my gut and dredged up a plausible explanation for May’s behavior, I found myself writing a story with an incest victim in the bullseye, paying particular attention to the way a victim’s mind bends and spirals in the years following trauma. May held on to her secret in the same way I held on to mine, never really making a conscious connection between her own abuse and the sense that she was somehow unworthy of the love around her. I didn’t plan to make May suffer with depression. But it dripped onto the pages and I couldn’t wipe it away. I didn’t plan for May to be backed into a place in her head that she couldn’t escape from. She went there on her own and I chose instead to bear witness. I did my due diligence in researching this novel, but never once had to research the long-term effects of incest. I simply took my own smaller—but by no means small—experience and I used it to infect May, watched the viral bloom of it.
Sometimes what landed on the pages surprised me. Niggling thoughts that had woven in and out of my consciousness over the years suddenly became clear. Part of the novel includes May’s diary and it is through this diary that we learn what May has endured. At one point she writes, “I don’t know how to tell of this, and so I will tell it slow, just as it happened, and in the end of the telling I will read it back to myself and find the very place where I went wrong.” She then proceeds to relay the most recent attack upon her by her father. At the end of the passage, she concludes, “I have read this over and tried to imagine it different. What I could have done different is nothing. I am nobody special.” There it was, the truth of what had been clawing at me most of my life, I am nobody special. I had been stripped of the chance to believe I had a place and a purpose in this world. That sense of worthlessness has its collateral damage as well. For May, for me, it meant that we were never able to fathom the ways in which we were loved. We can love, but our capacity to be loved is compromised. The inability to know our worth makes it difficult to maintenance the most important connections in our lives—spouse, children, extended family, and dear friends.
May is drawn to water and fantasizes about drowning. My impulses were more violent when it came to self-harm. I fantasized about terrible accidents—usually involving a rogue vehicle, a stray bullet, a sharp knife—that would take me away. Unlike May, I was a good strong swimmer until I was ten and developed an inexplicable fear of water, of what lay under the surface. I am not exaggerating when I say that for many years I could not even take a bath. I went to college on the water and live in a town that boats on weekends. I waterskied as a child, swam in a lake every summer, and grew up with a swimming pool in my backyard, but by the time the abuse stopped in my early adolescence, those things were lost to me. My fear of water is real. I hyperventilate in water. The pressure of it enveloping me, the terror of something below the surface touching me and not knowing what that something is. Perhaps that is why I couldn’t help but imagine May drawn to water but incapable of swimming. I took the thing that had been stolen from me and turned it into May’s Kryptonite.
This novel went in and out of a drawer over two decades. But always when I pulled it out, May was waiting for me, and I would get an uncanny sense of having abandoned her. It was as if she was slipping off the pages and admonishing me to get on with it—get this thing written. I melded my own shame with her storyline and it unfolded organically, though the inevitability of where it would take her frightened me. She was the character I had to let chart her own course. I ached for her to heal, but I refrained from intervening in what was happening on the pages.
We call these women survivors, but the euphemism does a disservice to those who do not survive, to those who will never rise again beyond the shame or dig themselves out of the sadness, those who will never again see their own value. The word survivor is meant to empower us. But it becomes instead a challenge, one most of us cannot rise to, crippled as we are by the way our mind has turned on us. And so, once again, we fail.
What we do is endure. We accept that we are nothing special.
My years of sadness were bundled with shame and a sense that if someone knew me—really knew my deepest self and secrets—they would know I was unworthy. But I didn’t consciously attach it to what had happened to me as a young girl. That is to say that I couldn’t plot the way from abuse to my mental state. Only that the feeling in the pit of my stomach when my depression crested matched perfectly to the feeling I recalled hitting me for the first time when I was ten and on the way to see the person I loved and feared. And then, in the last year of writing the first draft of this novel, a strange thing began to happen. As May’s depression deepened, mine began to lift. A kind of transference was taking place. The clarity around cause and effect was on the pages.
Writer Roxanne Gay has paid a lot of attention to the healing power of writing. And I have, for the most part, scoffed at this idea. I misunderstood what she meant when she said “I wrote myself back together again. I wrote myself towards a stronger version of myself.” I assumed I needed to write a heroine in order to claim my own healing. In other words, I needed to use the example of a fictional character who overcomes trauma in order to inspire mere mortals like myself to do the same. So imagine my surprise when I wrote a character who is utterly destroyed by her victimization—who doesn’t rise out of the ashes—and found myself rising instead. I can’t explain it, I don’t understand it. In some hyperbolic way—in writing a horrific fictional experience in which the blame cannot be pinned on the victim—I wrote my own grief and in doing so, I gave it away. May Duberry Cherrymill is now folded neatly into the pages of a novel, and, lucky me, I have stepped out of it, nearly whole. I am walking away.