Holly A. Smith
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Childhood abuse is in the news so often that the term itself is almost a cliché. A reader might be tempted to think, upon seeing yet another memoir of abuse on the store shelves, that here is just another tragic story in a long line of many; that it has nothing new to say; that these memoirs are all the same. To an extent this is true: each has the sexual exploitation of children, each is an emotionally difficult read. And each makes the reader wonder at the myopic selfishness of the human race. However, each of these stories also bears the singular voice of its author, and in this respect that new memoir on the shelves is offering something new. Although childhood abuse memoirs seem to be flooding the bookshelves, each is important and necessary, for each memoir reaches different people. The abuse is the same, yet not.
Louise Wisechild’s point of view in her memoir, The Obsidian Mirror, is somewhat scattered among several different characters which represent her fragmented self. The characters themselves are distracting, and yet they are what make the fragmentation real to the reader; she deftly shows us these warring factions within her, never resorting to long-winded explanations. Wisechild also demonstrates with form how memories come to her unbidden, a propos of nothing. She does this by indenting her narrative, abruptly telling the reader that she’s had a flashback. The memory narrative is a bulleted indentation, which serves to pull the reader into the past along with her; it also shows the nature of memory: we may be talking about something unrelated and poof, here’s a flashback.
The simplicity of Wisechild’s story makes her book a must-read for abuse survivors who have just begun their recovery journey. It’s almost as if the author were another child whispering secrets to her friend, which makes this new journey of recovery seem manageable. Particularly helpful are her descriptions of her therapy sessions. Starting therapy is one of the scariest steps in personally dealing with childhood sexual abuse; Wisechild’s portrayal of her sessions demystifies sessions by showing her own experience. One reader on Amazon writes, “The therapy sessions are described in detail, it’s like sitting in on the session and seeing her process happening as she sifts through memories and makes connections with the way her adult attitudes and beliefs were shaped by the abuse. The reader gains vicarious healing by being drawn along in Louise Wisechild’s journey to find her answers from within herself.”
Another reader writes, “In reading her book I was also introduced to bodywork as a helpful therapy to heal from the residual body effects of sexual abuse. Louise provides helpful information about this because she is a massage therapist, who works with incest survivors.” Most people—not just survivors, but the general population—have never heard of bodywork, or body memories. Wisechild writes of both as though they are natural routes to regaining mental clarity and ridding oneself of toxic shame. She is unique in this regard (I think)—most memoirists focus on their personal history.
Sue William Silverman tells her story from the beginning in an unrelenting series of horrific events that she endured from early childhood into her late teens. Her memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, is both artful and restrained, which serves to emphasize the trauma she experienced. She narrates the story from as far back as she can remember, age five, telling the reader, “I knew the pleasure before the shame.” This stands out because most memoir authors do not point out that the abuse felt good. Silverman doesn’t go into detail about the pleasure, but that one sentence is significant. Readers Silverman’s memoir on Amazon write, “I found a kindred spirit in Sue. She has survived the fires of hell at her parents [sic] hands. There are many triggers in the book so if you are a survivor of sexual abuse make sure you are ready to face your body memories;” “It hurt but it helped…I identify with Sue…so much similarity in the pedifile’s [sic] character. However, Sue is much more forgiving and loyal. My father died by the time I was 18…that was closure for me;” “The writing of the book, in a sense, becomes the final chapter of her recovery;” and “To be repeatedly raped by a rich, powerful father–the silencing horror of it. And then, painfully, courageously to regain her own voice” (Amazon). People connected with Silverman’s story, and one reviewer mentioned the hope she found in Silverman’s it. This makes sense, given that Silverman mentions the pleasure she felt when her father touched her; any writer who admits that breeches another taboo that’s nestled within incest: if you’re a victim of it, you only allowed to have felt pain.
Part of what is disturbing about Silverman’s story is that there’s no closure. Is there any hope for her? Or for the reader who has had the same experience? What can the reader take away to help her on her path? The open-endedness of her story illustrates the fact that recovery is a journey, and that although she has finally found her voice she doesn’t have all the answers. Survivors of abuse want someone, anyone, to have answers; it is good to be reminded that someone out there is quietly living her life not knowing everything, yet being okay with it.
Lois Gould’s short story, “Businessman,” from the collection, Close to the Bone, is a memoir of her father. Her story is lush with human details. The reader knows her family. Her parents are vividly drawn, from her mother’s stylish wardrobe to her father’s cigar-smell, and the reader knows them inwardly as well: the father’s careless secretiveness, the mother’s callous disregard of her children. One thing that makes her story stand out is the fact that her father did not beat her; he beat her brother. Her father was contemptuous of women, which is not unique in these stories. But telling the story of vicarious abuse is different, and someone who grew up in a similar situation needs Gould’s story. (It’s not globally unique, of course. It’s just not what one typically discovers on the memoir shelf in a bookstore.)
Catherine Texier’s short story, “My Father’s Picture,” also in Close to the Bone, actually focuses on her mother. She writes, “My mother’s breasts. They’re always in my face…I see them in the bathtub, when we take baths together” (232). Her mother flaunts her sexuality in front of Catherine in defiance of her mother, with whom they live. The story is as much about Catherine’s father’s absence as it is about her mother’s emotional and sexual abuse, but it is the female aspect of incest that is different. In fact, one wonders if readers even identify what her mother did as incest. The idea that mothers molest seems to be another taboo: only fathers perpetrate sexual abuse. Why is this? Is the concept of male power so deeply embedded in our collective psyche that mother-as-sexual-perpetrator cannot be ingested? Texier’s story shows that mother abuse exists. We need more stories like hers.
Louise Wisechild’s second memoir, The Mother I Carry, is stylistically different from Obsidian Mirror. The characters she used to tell her first story still exist, but she has incorporated them into herself. She refers to them occasionally, as when she describes her reaction to a fifteen page letter her mother has written to her brother: “It’s been eight years and she still uses the same phrases she used when I was fifteen years old. And they still bring Fuckit to my throat” (199). Wisechild is fully in her body, and this is reflected in the way she recreates her childhood memories. She tells of sitting in the dirt, crying when some boys called her names: “I like how soft the dirt is. When I sit in the dirt I can feel my bottom and I don’t feel like I’ll fly away any minute…A great tiredness is pulling at my limbs” (69). She writes of a memory from age fourteen: “I hate my body for blushing. I hate my fat body for wanting a cupcake” (146). Again she emphasizes awareness of body, which few memoirs do. Her tone is still that of a confiding adolescent, but her growth along her journey shows, and now the tone seems more purposeful.
In Fire of the Five Hearts, Holly A. Smith’s memoir as a therapist treating incest survivors, emotion is unfettered and freely expressed. She writes, “These children were trying desperately to mimic a secret they could barely articulate, much less comprehend” (76). She compensates for their muteness: “My sorrow has eroded and devoured my spirit. Its new embodiment comes to me in the form of tears…I feel the constriction, and…an immediate bitter taste of bile and an obstruction of air. It rises with great fury up my throat, and I cannot speak. The tears collect underneath my bottom lid and pool there, refusing to erupt and stream down my cheeks. My lower lip quivers and then is stilled. The tears evaporate, never evolving into a satisfying, cathartic weep” (63). What is ironic is that memoirists writing of any childhood abuse are strongly urged to eliminate such emotive writing from their stories because the dry telling will allow the reader to fill in the emotions herself. Any memoirist writing like Smith did would be labeled as over-wrought and dramatic. An interesting juxtaposition exists: in therapy the therapist is controlled and unemotional, while the patient is allowed free emotional expression. In both instances the restriction is necessary; nevertheless, the restriction itself is interesting.
It is also ironic that memoirs are supposed to remind the reader that those little girls were much more than their bodies; what happens instead is that a sharper awareness of their bodies, their victimhood, has been created. Were we to meet any of these authors face to face, would we not think primarily of them as victims of sexual abuse? Why is this so?
If we encounter a survivor of a major disaster, we do not compartmentalize them into the victim category. Rather, we regard them as people who had bad things happen to them. The people who lost their houses in the California wildfires, those who suffered through the 9/11 attacks, war survivors, hurricane Katrina victims, earthquake survivors—none of these people is automatically assigned the label of victim, yet they all underwent tremendous emotional and physical trauma. We recognize that they are more than what happened to them; they do not become the event.
This is not true of sexual abuse victims. If we were to encounter, say, Sybil, on the street (assuming we recognized her,) would we not immediately think, sexual abuse? Augusten Burroughs’ name conjures the term as well, although to a lesser extent, perhaps because he has written other works that make him seem more rounded, which leads to my point: incest memoirs, instead of showing the world that the author is a human being who suffered, are instead reinforcing the notion that victims are still victims, not whole people who had bad things happen to them. Memoirs should be regarded as wounds exposed, their words the seepage of an infection too long untended. They should be seen as individual stories rather than as a whole, but somehow they still get lumped into an autobiographical stewpot in the same way that we seem to label the authors as victims.
Recognizing these stories as part of a whole rather than the sum of its parts will lead to healing of the collective whole. The singular voice of each author contributes to the chorus, whether the voices are dramatic or detached, sad or triumphant. It is good that the shelves are flooded with memoirs. People are finally telling their stories, and, while those who remain silent won’t find their own stories in all of the published memoirs, they will find them somewhere, as long as the brave ones write.