The Painful Narrative that No Longer Serves Me

August 19, 2019 § 24 Comments

rae author photoBy Rae Pagliarulo

A little while ago, in a fit of whimsy, I sold an article about my two biggest obsessions―Gilmore Girls and tarot cards―to a major website known for lifestyle and pop culture content. It felt great―I got to share this nerdy piece that brought me pure happiness, and I did it on a new platform that was previously outside my comfort zone.

One of my most trustworthy writing partners, a woman who consistently gives me the most thoughtful and truthful feedback a writer could ask for, gushed praise in an email to me.

“I loved it because it felt like a whole different you,” she said, “like the person who wrote it is lighter and happier than the person who wrote everything else.” Then, “I feel like the writer Rae I know has always been buried beneath layers and layers of pain and bad experiences, but the person who wrote this has finally climbed her way up to the surface and just stuck her face in the sun for the first time.”

Because I am an overflowing bag of all the feelings, I had sixteen different emotions about her reaction. But the strongest emotion was a hybrid of shame, tinged with pride. Shall we call that shmide? Prame? (Can you feel both at the same time? Trust me. You can.)

I felt shame because she was right―since I started writing “seriously,” I’ve clung to a few major narratives, most of which revolve around codependency, depression, and addiction. Sometimes, if I’m feeling experimental, I’ll throw in heartbreak and self-hate, too. These stories – the ones that have centered around my most painful lessons – felt like the most valuable thing I could put forward. Why else would I have gone through these experiences, I thought, if not to share what I learned with others? I’ve spent years applying my love of language to pain and trauma, a careful alchemy that felt like a calling. Sure, a calling that has given me endless stress, worry, and frustration, but a calling nonetheless. Of course it would be difficult to tell the most charged and challenging stories of my life. Of course it would be a struggle I could not unburden myself from.

At the same time, her comment made me feel immense pride. Anyone who knows me in the real world, far away from the glowing screens of my published essays, knows I am an optimistic, cheerful, sometimes maddeningly bubbly person who tries to find joy anywhere she can. The new piece I published wasn’t painful to write―it was a perfect reflection of my real-life voice, my interests, and my outlook. Yes, on top of my dark, twisty interior, knotted tight with anguish and self-reflection, beats the heart of a truly annoying Gilmore Girls fan who pulls tarot cards when she isn’t sure what to have for dinner. Beyond being a woman with a past full of difficult relationships and years of cutting myself down until I was barely recognizable, I am also a woman who can rattle off funny stories about disastrous first dates, musings about female friendships, and thoughtful missives about the genuine benefits of watching Hallmark made-for-TV movies.

I realized, after reading my friend’s supportive and celebratory email, that I had been called out in the best way possible. I have been struggling to effectively tell “my story” for a few years now. Each time I think I’ve made progress, something busts up the foundation I’ve laid and puts me back to square one. My Google Drive is overflowing with unfinished drafts, half-revised, clunky essays, and blathering notes to myself about what a ridiculous failure I am.

What if all this teeth-gnashing is happening because I’m holding on too tight to a narrative that no longer defines me?

What if the thing I thought I was called to do is actually the thing that’s holding me back?

To be sure, I’m not going to stop writing about my past as a way to understand it and create connections with people who have experienced similar things. However, I think this exploration of lighter topics could be just the break I was looking for. A way to share my voice without having to dig it up from the deepest depths. A way to remember that I am made of so many different things, and even if they aren’t deep or meaningful or heartbreaking, they can still be what connects people to my work, and to me. I don’t have to be one kind of person, or one kind of writer. If I can accept all the disparate parts of me as a functional whole, then I can trust the people who read my work to do the same.

I have long lurked in the Binders Facebook groups, reading with wonder as talented writers turned around thoughtful reaction pieces and hilarious listicles one day, and poignant braided essays about family trauma the next. Everything I was working on felt so heavy, so burdensome, so impossible to finish. I envied those writers, believing that kind of lightness couldn’t come out of me, believing that I couldn’t look away from what hurt long enough to talk about the small delights of my life. Believing, maybe, that my value as a writer hinged on those painful narratives.But it feels like change is now inevitable. An essential adjustment, not just to the kind of pieces I write, but to the trauma-identified writer mentality that I have maintained for so long. I’ve still got years of heartbreak and pain to talk about, and if I live a full life, I will have many more years in front of me. But I also want to talk about moisturizing sheet masks and psychic mediums and online dating and that new show on Freeform. And there’s value in all of it.
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Rae Pagliarulo is the flash nonfiction editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and earns her living in the fundraising and resource development sector. Her poems, essays, and articles have been featured in Full Grown People, bedfellows, r.k.v.r.y quarterly, Cleaver, POPSUGAR, the Brevity Blog, and many others. She is the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, and earned her MFA from Rosemont College, near her lifelong home, Philadelphia. Find her at raepagliarulo.wordpress.com.

A Review of Reema Zaman’s I Am Yours

June 5, 2019 § 2 Comments

zaman_coverBy Lisa Ellison

I met Reema Zaman at the 2018 Hippocamp Conference when she presented “The Art of Radical Vulnerability: Using Writing to Turn Wounds into Wisdom.” Audience members sat elbow-to-elbow as she revealed the insights she’d gained while writing her debut memoir I Am Yours: A Shared Memoir. Reema’s message was received with the powerful silence deserving of profound truths. Follow-up questions focused on one theme: writing about trauma.

Six years ago, I worked as a trauma therapist, helping clients understand and revise the stories they tell about painful experiences. Now, I teach classes in memoir. Trauma is a frequent guest at our workshop tables. Sometimes it’s an uncontained beast that threatens to derail projects. As an instructor, I constantly seek tools students can use to safely house their suffering and mold chaotic experiences into something ordered. A favorite is the Soham meditation—a Sanskrit mantra that roughly translates as I am that. It serves as both repository for errant thoughts and reminder that our essential nature is powerful and good.

Like this meditation, I Am Yours creates a haven for trauma narratives—one that simultaneously records and reauthors the writer’s deepest challenges. Structured as a love letter to her highest self, Reema’s memoir encapsulates her experiences with misogyny, sexual assaults and rape, intimate partner violence, and the racially-charged subjugation she faced as a Bangladeshi immigrant in the United States.

Letters like Reema’s serve as apt vessels for traumatic experiences. Her greeting, “Dear Love,” invokes the ultimate loving witness for her vulnerable stories. In her letter’s body, she processes her story, and through the closing, we are invited to let go of past harms and embrace radical self-love.

Reema’s letter has a meditative quality she sustains through a variation on Soham. Each episode begins with “I am” and her age. “I am 3. I am 5. I am 11.” This “I Am” invites the reader into her painful experiences—ones she renders with stark clarity and poetic finesse. On being raped, she writes: “He grabs me. I steel my body against his…. The vile truth, as bitter as bile: He is much too strong.” When her abusive husband insisted she downplay her looks and intellect, she writes “I blot my cheeks, lips, eyelids, dimming myself.”

Her memoir opens with her early life. As the oldest daughter to parents of an arranged marriage, she tries to fulfill the preset roles of a toxic patriarchy. To cope with the challenges of living in a world that silences women, she develops anorexia—an illness that shrinks both body and spirit—and pursues beauty as she strives to become a voice for the voiceless. This leads to careers in modeling and acting. But external changes don’t result in internal metamorphosis. Eventually, she realizes, “being raised by a bully, I married a bully, and through my choices, I become my biggest bully.” Each page contains similar epiphanies that frequently read like prayers.

Her memoir fulfills the satisfying arc we expect: the heroine loses her innocence, struggles, and ultimately prevails. But her unique approach makes I Am Yours distinctive. Many memoirs weave traumatic episodes into gripping tales that ascend to a triumphant crescendo, placing readers fully in the story’s present moment, desperate for resolution. In the midst of Zaman’s darkest episodes, she invokes the witness, “my love,” and reminds readers that an actualized writer (not the wounded character) controls her story. She tells her younger self, “she is kind, loved, and has value in this world,” creating an in vivo reauthoring of traumatic experiences as she recounts them. A miscarriage is “my body knowing how to take care of itself.” Of her gritty and painful marriage to a man who says she’s a wife for “greensies not for keepsies,” she writes “I entered my first marriage a girl. I leave a woman.” On her rape, she writes, “this is but one chapter and only I author my life.”

Self-soothing and reparenting the inner child are therapy terms frequently met with balled fists and pursed lips. How does one practice what one never had? Whether Zaman learned these skills or intuited them, she models self-soothing for us and reveals a new way to write memoir—one that speaks back to trauma in her revolutionary style. Time will tell whether other writers will emulate her in vivo reauthoring in their books. Regardless, I Am Yours has proved an essential guidebook for authors who wish to harness their internal witnesses and speak compassionately to themselves throughout the writing process.
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Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach and member of the Moving Forewords Memoir Collective. She teaches classes in memoir and creative nonfiction at WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in The New Guard Review, The Kenyon ReviewThe Guardianand The Rumpusamong others. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen.

 

On Writing about Trauma and So-Called “Misery Porn”

December 12, 2018 § 32 Comments

detraBy Detra Damskov

I’ve kept journals since my 9th birthday when I was gifted my first blue sequined journal and matching pen. My academic writing assignments had always received high marks. I did quite well in my undergrad poetry class, though afterwards,I never wrote another poem. Mostly, I wrote in secret and only enough to keep the urge at bay. My secret depended upon my silence, even on paper.

After recently entering a graduate creative writing program, however, the professor in my first workshop asked us to spend 40 minutes writing without lifting our pen.  She said we could write about anything we wanted, but if we needed a prompt, we could write about what we could not write about.

Write about what you can’t write about.

I couldn’t write about my abuse at the hands of a mother with sociopathy.  Because of this, I hadn’t been able to write about anything.  My story needed to breathe so I could do the same.  So that night, I exhaled and began.  What came from that 40 minutes of writing, would eventually evolve into my first piece of authentic writing.

I’ve been writing ever since, some of it expounding upon early traumatic experiences, but much of it completely unrelated, on topics ranging from Japanese Mamasans to Hoodoo priests.  Still, my most meaningful writing to date is that first piece that allowed me to breathe, to begin the path to writing with veracious honesty.

But as is the case when the oppressed speak out, there are those who want to quiet them.

Until recently, I had only heard these writings of abuse referred to as “trauma writing.”  Apparently, they’ve been given other “names” as well: misery lit, misery memoirs, and my least favorite, misery porn.

Sociologist Frank Furedi speaks about trauma writing as the “pornography of emotional hurt” in his article, insensitively titled, “An Emotional Striptease.” Furedi spent his childhood living in a refugee camp, working to help his family and feeling frustrated his parents were unable to help him with homework due to a language barrier. He considers this experience commensurate to that of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, suggesting because he does not dwell on his childhood experiences, neither should anyone else. Through his critique of misery porn, Furedi claims, the world morphs into a place of unfounded familial mistrust which bleeds into communal distrust serving to break down society as a whole.

If this isn’t an attempt to victim shame and keep survivors quiet, I don’t know what is.

While I do not pretend to understand the struggles Furedi experienced living through such a difficult time, and while I’m sure his time in a refugee camp had a profound effect on his life, I do not see how the events of his life, negate the experiences of mine.

Other critics of “misery lit” or “misery porn” invariably site, as evidence of its perversion, literary scandals regarding debunked accounts of childhood trauma. While there have been a few who have exploited the suffering of victims of abuse in an attempt to gain literary success, (hence further victimizing them) this does not negate the genre as a whole, nor the legitimate experiences of actual survivors of abuse.

Another common attack on trauma writers lies in accusations of the commercialization of voyeurism.  Commentators argue that those who read trauma writing aren’t doing it out of appreciation for triumphs of the human spirit but are sadists who read misery lit from a place of depravity.  Readers are seeking a cheap thrill and writers are merely capitalizing on this.  Which leaves survivors with two options if they have the audacity to tell their story: either they are liars, or they are merely attempting to exploit their trauma for the sole purpose of financial gain.

As a so-called misery porn writer, I’m motivated neither by voyeurism nor capitalism. Writing about my childhood affords me the opportunity to give my experiences some semblance of order and meaning. My child-self and adult-self are able to merge into the unified human being I am meant to be, having been damaged but becoming whole in my refusal to carry the burden in isolation and shame.  In writing my story, it becomes a part of who I am both publicly and privately, losing its potency and power to rip me apart from within. It ceases to be the thing I battle within the dark but is a telling of how I exist in the light.

Well-crafted trauma writing has a long history through such literary greats as Eli Wiesel, Maya Angelou, and Joan Didion, to name a few.  Writing, such as theirs, speaks a universal truth which helps survivors feel less alone and less freakish, while encouraging those fortunate enough to have grown up in loving environments to gain a much-needed empathy.

If this isn’t the purpose of high literature, I’m not sure what is.
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Detra Damskov, a Canadian living in America, is pursuing a Masters of Arts in Creative Nonfiction Writing at the University of Omaha. She was also a finalist for a graduate fellowship in creative nonfiction.  She spends much of her time searching for the perfect cardigan and has an irrational hatred for bananas.

Facing the Fear: On “Wide Open Spaces”

October 4, 2013 § 6 Comments

LAPDHS-Old-No.-11Kathryn Miller discusses the origin of her recent Brevity essay, Wide Open Spaces:

I was in Chicago for the summer, supposedly to work on my book about getting shot as a kid in an affluent Chicago suburb. But I wasn’t writing much, if at all. I also wasn’t doing any of the things I said I’d do while there, like go to the police station. Instead I went to street festivals and concerts and rode my bike across the city and spent money that I shouldn’t on fancy dinners with old friends.

Two years earlier, I’d decided to confront the shooting, take in as much as possible about it, to hopefully attain further healing or closure or something else good. In that time, I’d immersed myself in it. I’d read the two books written about the woman who shot us, looked at my hospital records, talked to my mom for the first time about her experience. I’d endured the strangeness of workshop, listening to fellow MFA students debate things like where placing the shooting scene in my book would garner the most narrative tension and hearing my description of the boy who died the day of the shooting read aloud, making his death happen again, right there, in class, so I’d almost embarrassingly yelled, Please stop. But even after all that, I still avoided reminders of that day. Thus, while I’d resolved at the beginning of that summer to go to look at the records, days and weeks passed, my guilt mounted, but I didn’t go to the station, nor did I even call to find out if accessing the records was possible.

It took the man I was involved with at the time to make me finally call. Just do it, he said one morning, crawling back into bed next to me, where I was lying far too late, especially for a Wednesday. Maybe we can even drive up there today. I didn’t look convinced. All you’re doing is calling and getting some information, he said, putting his hands on my shoulders. It was the reasonable, casual terms I needed the task to be put in—I was capable of doing something simple like “calling and getting some information.”

And like that, a couple phone calls later, I had an appointment to look at the files the following week.

When I told my good friend about the police station plan, we were drinking beers in a dive bar with mismatched, disintegrating stools, the metal legs rusting, the black vinyl peeling back from the seats, exposing yellow foam cushions. There was handwriting all over the bathroom walls saying things like, Imagine Charlie Sheen fucking a centaur on Mars. We were watching open-mic stand-up comics. He said: Jesus, dude. Don’t go by yourself.

When I told my dad at dinner in a crowded suburban restaurant, trying and failing to mimic a Wisconsin lodge: his eyes got red and misty.

What my stepmom did at that same dinner: clasped my hands across the table, across my bread plate with a piece of half eaten onion bread on it and said, We’re so proud of you. You’re so brave.

But I didn’t feel brave.

The morning I went to the station, I was in a foul mood, irritated by everything, even the blue, cloudless sky—will it ever rain again—until I realized driving to the station that no one was making me go. What I was about to do wasn’t such a big deal anyway—it was paper, words, photographs. The hard part, the trauma, was long passed. No matter what I saw, I was okay and nothing in those files could change that.

When I sat down to write about the experience, it was the first time all summer that I was able to write almost effortlessly. The words flowed with ease (though I still wrote, rewrote and edited the hell out of it, like I do everything). It was getting myself to the police station, to that moment, that was the work.

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