Dear friends, events in our world are deeply troubling right now. We are watching new national trauma unfold before our eyes–daily.
As a therapist for the past twenty years, I’ve sat in small rooms with people as they relay stories of terrible trauma–sometimes personal, sometimes political. I’ve had as my clients people who have been brutally damaged by their own parents and those who have lived through life in internment camps and have fled from genocide. I have taken into my heart and my psyche the deepest grief and retain in my memory the stories of every wound I’ve heard recounted.
When I heard that Sherman Alexie decided to cancel his book tour because he felt every reading re-traumatized him, I thought of several of my students/clients in Memory into Memoir who are writing about abuse, oppression, homelessness, war, or other traumas. It’s one thing to tell your therapist about a trauma; it is quite another to articulate for an audience on the page what wounded you and continues to wound you.
But there are very good reasons to write our hardest stories. Below is my Facebook Live conversation about why people write about their traumas and how to do it safely and sanely.
Since making this video, I’ve read Mr. Alexie’s book. I understand why his mother was haunting him. She herself was haunted–by the ghosts of generations of loss and abuse and injustice. I’m glad Lillian’s son is taking care of himself, and even as a fan I don’t begrudge him time away from the book peddling trail. But I’m glad, though he may not want to TALK about the book, that he did WRITE the book. Reading You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me helped me understand more deeply the impact of white colonialism on the North American continent and the peoples who inhabited it before Europeans arrived. Also, I felt a personal connection with Sherman’s trauma, as any child from a difficult family riddled with abuses would have to feel when reading his raw poetry and unshielded prose.
One reason we READ trauma memoirs may be an inclination toward voyeurism, but another reason is to know we are not alone. No matter the cause, pain hurts. (Let me be clear, I’m not saying all “pain” is generated from equal sources. Pain caused by hurt feelings, for example, is generated by a qualitatively different source than that which is caused by power/control, abuse, social injustice and oppression.) And we want to place our pain in context. We read other people’s stories to learn, relate, change, be challenged, connect, delineate, wonder, rage, cry, and heal.
Are you writing your trauma story now, dear one?
If you are, make sure you are in community as you write. In the Memory into Memoir critique sessions, we have boundaries and guidelines put in place to give writers of trauma memoirs the best possible feedback while absolutely respecting the pain behind the story. This benefits everyone, even those writing travel memoirs or hilarious accounts of family quirks, because there is no competition, no cruelty in the critique. Only belief that story can set us free of ghosts and bring us home to ourselves. Only the commitment to telling the story well and supporting the story-teller as she works with it.
Don’t NOT write what is hard. But DO surround yourself with people who understand what you’re up to and can offer genuine support.
Keep your butt in the chair. Be brave.