September 9, 2018 § 14 Comments
I step up to the microphone. There’s an audience of maybe thirty people here to listen to me read from, and talk about my first novel, The Night Child. Sometimes there are more, sometimes fewer. Once there were only three people and one was my husband, and the other two were booksellers.
I fumble with the microphone. I always fumble with the microphone. I hate the shape of them and how I can never get them to be where they need to be.
Hours before every event, I believe I won’t be able to speak—like seriously not be able to form words, which is a little strange because I’ve been a teacher for decades, and I’ve rarely had this kind of anxiety. But topics in The Night Child are personal and talking about them to strangers has tested me in all the ways.
To draw closer to calm, I tell myself things like: be brave for the child within, be brave for all those bright, imaginative, inventive children hiding under beds every night hoping no one will hurt them again.
Once the microphone is steady, I welcome everyone, thank them for coming, and somehow, I deliver enough of the words I’d hoped to say, even though I sometimes stammer and feel slightly dissociative the entire time. I tell them about the origin of the novel, and why I chose to write my story as a novel instead of a memoir. I’ve written about that here:
But then comes the scary part—the Q&A.
I told my therapist before I left for the book tour how much I dreaded the Q&A, not because of questions about writing or publishing, but because of the questions about the book. The themes.
“You’re in charge,” he says. “You can skip it. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”
But in the end, I couldn’t skip the Q&A’s—because, I don’t know—it seemed like I’d be letting the children down, and I don’t know how to change things if we don’t talk about them.
From the audience, a young woman in the second row raises her hand.
“Anna, you said your book was informed by your own life. So…was it…was it…hard to write?”
Her black hair falls across her face, but even from here, I can see the sad in her eyes.
I tell her yes, it was hard. Sometimes, excruciating. But not writing about it was worse. I’d fallen in love with the characters—Nora, Fiona, Margaret and Elizabeth, and I so badly wanted to give them a voice. To have them finally heard.
The young woman has a follow-up question:
“Was it…ummm…was it hard to tell people? You know, when you told people what happened to you? I mean, it just seems like, well…that sometimes it’s harder to tell a secret than to keep it?”
I am asked this question at almost every event. In one form or another. I’ve received hundreds of emails asking this question. I know people need to know things turned out ok when I told, I know they want to know that if they tell, they’ll be okay. I know because I’d asked myself this question millions of times before I finally spoke out.
I tell her that the truth is I don’t know if she’ll be okay. I don’t know if her loved ones will stay with her. I don’t know if breaking silences will save another child from being hurt, will keep another child from holding in a horrible secret. In my gut, I think it will, but I don’t know.
But I do know that breaking the silence changed me, in a way I’m still reflecting on—it’s a good way, a strong way—a way that’s allowed me to love better and more expansively. Allowed me an authenticity I’ve never before experienced. Without sounding too corny, I felt kind of new.
Also, breaking the silence allowed me to place the shame where it belonged—with him.
I say that breaking the silence was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done in my entire life. Breaking the silence meant inviting the possibility I wouldn’t be believed, or I’d lose people I cared about, or I’d be shunned, called a liar, called crazy, dismissed, disappeared.
Some of my fears came true. I did lose people I cared about. Some couldn’t forgive me. Some worked hard to discredit me, some turned away—people I would have bet my heart on, wouldn’t have turned away. But they did. We weren’t able to find the healing language, and so we had to leave each other.
Thankfully, I had people who believed me, who believed in me, but I think every day of survivors without support systems. Every. single. day. I want to work to change that.
The young woman’s eyes fill with tears as I speak.
In her eyes, I see a hero. She sends me a tremble smile and I send her one back. In my heart, I wish her all the light, all the strength.
A woman with white curly hair, and a gentleness in her eyes raises her hand.
“Anna, you’ve been out on the road for months. What’s it like to talk about abuse over and over and over again?”
I tell her that I try to speak from the lens of healing rather than the lens of abuse, and that overall, it’s been an extraordinary experience, a positive one, that talking about Nora’s story, my story, has been a good thing.
Which was true.
Except when it wasn’t.
I tell her I thought I was prepared for it all, the talking about it, people listening, people taking me seriously, but I kind of wasn’t.
Before publication and the launch and the tour, I’d spoken with other authors about what to expect when you send a book out in the world, let alone one that contains painful personal subjects. I’d felt geared up, psyched, ready. I knew to avoid reading reviews and following rankings and “best of” lists. I believed I had strong coping skills— I was prepared to create safe spaces wherever I went. Diagnosed with PTSD from childhood sexual abuse decades ago, I knew my triggers, my strategies. I knew to go directly to my hotel room after each reading and have a quiet dinner (preferably something that involved pasta and wine, and maybe brownie a la mode) with my husband, and read poetry in a place where I could lock the door and feel my boundaries again.
I was all set.
And the truth is, I was fine most of the time.
But then, sometimes, once I was back in the hotel room, I wasn’t fine. I was wrecked. Sometimes I couldn’t stop crying. Sometimes I’d numb out. I’d have nightmares and wake up, screaming.
In another audience, an older man in a black tee shirt and jeans raises his hand.
“Hi Anna. I don’t have a question. I just wanted to thank you for your book. Watching Nora navigate adversity…tremendous adversity…well…it helped me. And some of the topics turned into family conversations about how we talk about difficult topics. Also, I think what happened in your ending is probably the hardest thing for any of us to do. Anyway.” He folds his hands in prayer over his heart.
I bring my hands together too, and send gratitude back to him.
A woman in a flowered sundress and dreadlocks wrapped up in a bun, says, “I’ve been thinking a lot about why Nora’s mother didn’t protect her. I mean, I grew up in that sort of family, you know where the patriarchy is set up from the start, where the men can’t be wrong, so you must be…” She hesitates while we wait for the rest.“ That’s all,” she says, choking on her words. “I…I…just wanted to say you can’t really underestimate the power of patriarchy.”
I might have said, more than once to audiences this past year, we need to smash the patriarchy and smash it fucking hard.
In another audience, a young woman asks, “Anna, I’m curious, how do you handle all the reviews?”
I say I try not to read them, because they hurt my health and creativity, but the truth is, sometimes I do read them and I begin to feel like that woman, Lacie, in the Nosedive episode of the Black Mirror series—the episode where everything Lacie does, every action she takes is scrutinized and rated from 1.0 to 5.0.
Many of The Night Child reviews are insightful and beautiful, but a few are cruel, and those reviews sometimes cut my heart and I can bleed for days because I’ve not yet learned to shrug them off. And when I say “cruel” reviews, I’m not talking about constructive commentary, I’m talking about harsh things you’d never say to someone’s face unless you truly were an asshole.
Cruel reviews make me recommit over and over again to kindness. There’s enough hurtful energy in our world and I’m going to try not to add to it. Also, the last thing I want to do is be part of someone else feeling insecure or defeated about creating art.
Sometimes, I read this quote by author Janet Frame:
“…a writer must stand on the rock of herself and her judgment or be swept away by the tide or sink in the quaking earth: there must be an inviolate place where the choices, however imperfect, are the writer’s own…what was the use of my having survived as a person if I could not maintain my own judgment?”
A young woman with a guitar leaning against her chair, and tattoos up and down both arms, raises her hand.
“Hi Anna. Without spoiling anything, I just want to say how much I loved David, (the therapist) and James (the brother) and John (Nora’s friend). I loved the things they said—you know, that they didn’t just tell her to let it go, you know?”
She sits down abruptly, stares at her Doc Martens.
For a moment, my brain flips into the intellectual part—the part that understands traumatic experiences are encoded in our brain—the part that makes it nearly impossible to let it go.
But then I see the way the young woman is looking at me now, her watery eyes, and my brain flips to the emotional part, which isn’t hard, because let it go is a trigger phrase for me. After taking a huge breath or two, I say, “Yeah, sometimes people who say let it go are well intentioned? but mostly it’s a silencing thing—they need you to let it go so they can be comfortable again—it’s part of the argument invested in keeping us quiet. It was part of keeping Nora quiet. And Maeve. And Margaret. And Elizabeth. And millions of woman before them. Listen, who doesn’t want to move forward with their lives? Recovering from trauma can be extremely fucking hard. And childhood sexual violation?”
Now, my eyes begin to fill. My eyes always fill when I say childhood and sexual violation in the same sentence. “That kind of violation runs soul deep. Not everyone makes it. There were times when I didn’t think I would. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to let it go. I’m learning to manage, that’s all.”
The young woman is sitting so still. I worry I’ve said too much. The wrong things. I look at her guitar. Wonder what music she plays. If she sings. What she sings about. Someone in the audience coughs and I realize I need to wipe my eyes, and say something. Eventually, I say, “All I know is to take all the time you need—no matter how long it takes. There are no short cuts. Everyone’s trauma experience is different. Surround yourself with people who understand you, who listen, who would never say you are broken, or damaged, or a liar, or crazy.”
She nods, whispers thank you.
A woman who has been knitting the entire time, raises a silver needle and asks, “Anna, you mentioned advice your author friends gave you…can you share something with us?”
I will be forever grateful for the support and wisdom of my writing tribe. Forever. Grateful. Someday, I want to write all their words in one place. During all these events though, there’s one piece of advice I’ve repeated to myself often. It’s from my dear friend, Rikki Ducornet. Right before I left on the tour she took my hands, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Anna, trust your story will take care of you, like you have taken such deep care of it.”
And the truth is, she was right. Even when I broke apart, forgot shame wasn’t mine, wondered if I could go on, I could feel my story—built upon thousands and thousands of other survivor stories—had wings strong enough to carry the all of me back into safety, and with any luck, carry another child too.
September 22, 2016 § 1 Comment
Fear, anger and uncertainty are escalating, and lately, I find myself caught between extremes of being scared shitless, profoundly sad, and trying to hold onto enough courage to stay present, listen, and take action.
But this I am certain of:
Abusers and misogynists and bigots count on our silence. They count on our fear. In our silence and fear lies their opening for greater intimidation and exploitation.
PLEASE do not allow yourself to be silenced. We have struggled to claim our voices and no one has the right to shame us for having found them. In telling our stories and claiming our voices we’ve had an epic impact in claiming equal rights and will continue to do so until equality holds all our names. Please let us not become divided against ourselves and retaliate with assumptions, combative words and aggressive actions. Please let us go out of our way to help each other and convince each other we are resilient and extraordinary. Please let us stay the course, however uncertain, and raise each other up with gentleness, sensitivity, and love.
PLEASE let us soften, and trust our fundamental goodness.