Processing Trauma By Giving It a Name
Sarah Kasbeer on reckoning with the aftermath of her assault in her book "A Woman, A Plan, An Outline of a Man"
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In the first few pages of Sarah Kasbeer’s essay collection, she shares a memory: when she was sixteen, her then-boyfriend punched her in the jaw. The memory, as we learn, is one mottled with blank spaces, a result of trauma and time, but also one that has shaped the course of her entire life. Through court documents she gains the courage to read two decades after the incident, Kasbeer begins to reckon with the truth of what happened to her.
To process pain in private is arduous in itself, but penning pieces that reveal the growths and gaps that stem from trauma is even more challenging—especially as a woman, for an audience. About this, Leslie Jamison, in her essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” wonders, “How do we talk about these wounds without glamorizing them? Without corroborating an old mythos that turns female trauma into celestial constellations worthy of worship?”
Kasbeer answers these questions through craft. She circles the site of trauma throughout the book, illuminating new complicated truths at each turn. Many of her essays, which have been published in places like Guernica, Elle, and Creative Nonfiction, are rooted in Illinois, a place steeped both in hope and horror, but range far beyond in subject matter; Kasbeer covers everything from the emotional lives of animals to the precision of a body mid-dive in A Woman, A Plan, An Outline of a Man so that readers might experience heartbreaks acute to adolescence as well as revel in the power of a woman who has rinsed herself free from shame.
Over the phone, I talked to Kasbeer about the cyclical nature of trauma, wound-dwelling, what it means to name violences, and how to tell the truth in nonfiction.
Jacqueline Alnes: In some ways, to me, essay collections can feel like music where each essay is a variation on one song and you can listen throughout to the ways they work in concert with each other or how they change. In your collection, we return to a site of trauma and it resounds differently each time. How did you see this repetition informing your work? Or in some ways, did the repetition mirror the reality of trauma?
Sarah Kasbeer: That’s it exactly. With a memoir in essays, you can revisit and relive the trauma the same way you experienced it. There are obviously things about trauma that remain fixed, but some of our memories change. In order to understand what happened and why means you have to go through different stages. First, you are triaging the thing that happened. Only afterwards do you begin to realize how it affected you in different ways. For me, it was present in my relationships, how I acted at work. It seeps into everything in your life.
An essay collection lets you look at trauma through a prism. As time passes, you can have a different lens on the same story. Having a specific set of events that you’re circling means you really can’t write one essay about how “I was raped and now I’m fine” and be done. There are other interconnected events: How did people respond to you? How did you manage it for years? What about other things that happened that you didn’t realize were connected but that, in retrospect, left you not in the best place to handle a new traumatic event? Coming from a memoirist’s perspective—as the person who experienced the trauma—it’s kind of a muddled cloud. It’s hard to see the forest for the trees. Or it’s hard to see the trees for the forest. I’m not sure what I can’t see, but I can’t see one of them.
JA: That’s such a beautiful way of putting it. I tell my students that, too. They write an essay and put so much weight on it as being the one essay they might write about a traumatic experience. I tell them they’ll probably write about it dozens of times, and each iteration will be valuable in a different way.
SK: I think a lot about the way Leslie Jamison calls herself a “wound-dweller” in The Empathy Exams. I’ve always liked that description.
JA: There’s a scene that comes late in your collection when you’re at a gun range for the first time. Part of the appeal of the range, you discover, is that you hope someone will notice you are there and understand “you were mourning something real.” It is an attempt to make an often invisible trauma something able to be witnessed and held by someone else. Did writing mirror that process?
SK: Definitely. I carried two traumas for a very long time: my first boyfriend was abusive and violent, and then I was raped by an acquaintance. I do think that I already had a storage compartment for the bad feelings from the first incident. So it was easy to tuck it away the second, even though I knew it was there and affecting me on some level. It was more painful to excavate and look at it than it was to say I’m just going to put it into the container.
At some point, I wanted other people to know. I wanted to put it on a sign on my front door. I want to scream it at everyone who passed by. I realized that I’d been holding this thing for so long. Part of the trauma is being alone. It feels like being trapped in a closet with the monster you’re afraid of. It helps to open the door and let it out.
I wrote essays and put them out into the world partly because I wanted to be seen. I published my first one, the title essay in 2016. What I noticed that encouraged me was that I felt like people learned from it. My theory is that in the comment section of a personal essay about rape, there’s always a man who realizes he’s raped someone. I think one guy said in the comments something like, “Wait, but if XYZ.” Then a woman responded with, “Well, that’s what you should say: Are you okay? That’s why you should be actively asking for consent. Right?” At the time, this kind of discourse felt novel and useful.
I did feel pressure to create a work of art. For me, shining a light on this issue was valuable enough. But it is often artfulness that helps readers engage with the writing and think about how it relates to their life experiences. This was actually more rewarding than trying to turn a painful thing into art. It can be maladaptive to think, “Oh, well, if I take this thing and I make it into a book or I make it into an essay, and then it’s been, or it’ll be, worth it.” And that’s not really helpful either. But I do think that the way that you heal from this sort of thing is through relationships with other people, whether they’re strangers on the internet who write you messages, or it’s telling your family or your partner or whomever. In my case, writing led to that.
JA: T Kira Madden has an essay about how writing about trauma is not wholly healing in itself but that making room for cathartic acts alongside the writing can be. I have felt that in my writing—I have to be doing the work in therapy or other spaces alongside writing.
SK: I have mixed feelings about it. I think that yes, you obviously have to go to therapy and do the work outside of the actual writing. But for me, writing is the way that I think through things. So to say that I’m not processing something when I’m writing, it would be intellectually dishonest. There’s always an extra step in writing of turning experiences from your life into a narrative. On a craft level, the reader is going to want to follow a thread because they feel they’ll get something out of it, whether it’s entertaining or beautiful or moving. And that’s not the therapy; there’s nothing moving about my therapy.
JA: For me, there’s some power I find while writing that I don’t find in therapy. I feel like I have control on the page.
Something I found valuable here is how you write about coming to terms with what happened to you—to name rape and find power in the naming—but also reckon with the privilege that you have. You write that at one point, an ex “introduced me to ethnic slurs I didn’t even know existed” and admit that “at the time, I attributed them to shoddy upbringing” before talking about your perspective now. What did you find important to consider while writing about trauma from a position of privilege?
SK: That passage is from an essay about my first boyfriend who was violent. I think addressing the intersection between his expressions of racism and misogyny felt important, because it illuminated how oblivious my privilege allowed me to be about both issues When you’re writing about or working through your own trauma, the first thing you’re focused on is yourself. Once you get to a point where you’ve dealt with the things you needed to personally, you can look at the bigger picture and ask, why did this happen? I think a lot of women think “this happened because of me.” But if you look at the bigger pattern behind violence against women, misogyny is really the issue.
While working on this, I also recognized that it is an utter privilege to have access to therapy. I didn’t have insurance that covered therapy until I was 30, which was the only reason I was able to work through my experiences. And also to be able to make time. I don’t have kids and in the essay you mention, I wrote about having access to abortion, to reproductive choice. If I hadn’t had that, I would have been tied to this man who was a repeat offender for the rest of my life.
You can’t write about your life without acknowledging why you’re able to write about it.
JA: In your essay “Apollo’s Revelation,” you include direct email excerpts from the man who raped you. It reminded me a bit of Jeannie Vanasco’s Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl. In that book, she reckons with what it means that she is including her rapist’s voice on the page.
I found the email excerpts in your essay to be jarring, in a productive way, and wondered how you came to the decision to include them.
SK: This goes back to what we were just discussing about how there’s therapy and there’s writing. In 2015, years before I wrote the essay, I emailed the guy, because I wanted him to know that I knew that he raped me. That was really the whole point of the email. I thought he probably just wouldn’t respond, but he did. He wrote me back in a way that wasn’t completely satisfying, but also not surprising. He admitted that what he’d done was not right, but he didn’t like the word “rape” being associated with it, which in some ways is understandable. I also couldn’t use the word for 10 years even though I knew this thing had happened.
I thought about the email again three years later when I was trying to finish the book. It was one of the last essays that I wrote. I wanted to share any answers I had to the question I was circling with the reader. I realized I had this resource, which does it in direct quotes. Because the excerpts are pulled out of context, I tried to err on the side of making him seem somewhat reasonable compared to what I actually experienced based on his replies. But I also felt like, I’m going to tell my side of the story, no matter what, so I may as well also include his.
I understand the idea of not wanting to give an abuser a voice, but at the same time, sexual assault is an epidemic. And the things that he said are things that I’ve heard repeated in the news in other people’s cases on social media. They’re not unique to him.
JA: In “On the Edge of Seventeen,” there’s a part at the end where you name what has previously been unnamed: you bring in court documents that have language like “physical contact,” “bodily harm,” and “aggravated.” To me, it was so important to think about your journey of naming trauma throughout the book.
SK: Yeah, those phrases stood out to me as well, which is why I included them. In part, I think because I always minimized, saying oh, yeah, I had this boyfriend who was a real asshole. He got drunk and punched me in the face. But really, he harmed me. He scared me. He stalked me.
To be able to rediscover on paper an objective account of what happened changed my whole perspective of the assault. It always held a lot of power over me, but then I saw it on paper and thought, yes, that is what happened. And now I can kind of stop questioning whether it was a big deal or not a big deal and just say, this is what it was and move on.
JA: The language makes it so it’s visceral on the page, too, especially since you are framing the documents in your own narrative.
SK: Yeah, it’s always tricky. I hate saying “my rape.” Or even “I was raped.” It’s like when news outlets use passive voice to say “police involved shooting,” right? When I was able to write “he raped me” I felt better, but it’s something I thought about the whole time I was writing.
JA: You have this really great line when you are talking about leaving the church. You write that without religion, there’s no map for the gray area. I think it relates so well to ideas of truth in creative nonfiction and how you have crafted such complicated, empathetic essays. In your collection, you have court documents, interviews, and scientific studies, but then as you write, the murkier gray areas of life emerge.
SK: I think the more you can frame contradictions, the more interesting an essay is. Obviously, there is no one arbiter of objective truth that we can go to and say, “this is what happened.” There are different strands of or different angles on the same incident. I think a lot about understanding things over time, and how my understanding has changed. Memories that were true to me at one time aren’t exactly true any more. And what does that mean? It doesn’t mean there’s an objective truth and I got it wrong, it just means that my understanding has changed with time. And there’s value in thinking about that change.
You can only tell your side of the story, but if your side includes you wondering about someone else’s side of the story, then that becomes part of your truth too. The most interesting truths take a while to get to and aren’t the most obvious.
JA: I like the idea that you can honor a variety of truths and not feel like you have to flatten the narrative for the one that seems easiest.
SK: Exactly. The expected one is the one you’ve probably been thinking about for a while. The real story is underneath that.