is it too much? wrangling with trauma memoir

stencil graffiti of a green butterflyGood morning! Bay Area folks, are you soaking up this amazing sunshine? You know how fickle our weather is here — get yourself out in it before it’s gone! Take a notebook, even better, and let the words flow while you sit somewhere outside; let the people, the growing things, the small birds around you be your prompts!


(A bit of this morning’s post gets into some specific details around sexual trauma — just be easy with yourselves as you read, ok? xox, -Jen)

I want to write a bit about the controversy around a book called Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso, which is a memoir written by a woman about her experience/’relationship’ with a pedophile who began abusing her when she was 7 years old.¬† I’ve read a number of reviews of this book, including one that calls her a ‘real life Lolita unapologetic for affair‘ (and this article, too, rather than including a photo of the author or her book, includes a photo of a book entitled “the Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure,” which was recently banned by Amazon — what?).

Reviews question whether the author showed good taste in going into as much detail as she did in her scenes portraying her abuse, and they call her a ‘willing victim’ (at 7, or 10, or…). Too, they say there’s no way she could have recalled as much as she did about conversations she had with her father: how could she recollect a whole long diatribe of his, and even remember when he stopped and took a sip of his beer, asks the NPR reviewer. But isn’t this what we do with memoir? Isn’t this the landscape that memoir occupies, the place of truth that is furnished with fiction’s gift of plot development, scene crafting, narrative structure? Do we ask this question of all memoir-ists? I feel this way every time I read a memoir: how could they possibly remember that? It brings me to despair sometimes, thinking that I’ll never be able to write my own memoir or some of my stories, because I don’t remember the specificity of conversation, I can’t remember everything he said, how he said it, what he sounded like when he did. My memories of my adolescence are fuzzier, sometimes devastatingly clear, sometimes ghostly. This author is pulling from her journals, and memoir also, I’m going to venture, gives some leniency around details: yes, it happened this way, or close to it. Memoir is a crafted thing, it’s structured, it’s not autobiography, it’s a work of literature. Memoir rides close to fiction, and we call it memoir, I think, when we are conscious of working to keep most of the work on this side of the line between fact and fiction.

And then there’s the fact that folks have a hard time with the descriptions of the sex, the scenes of abuse. Why would anyone read this book? some reviewers ask. And then I wonder why I’m working at all on some of my writing projects — who will want to read them? The readers ask, why go into so much detail during those sex scenes, those scenes of abuse? Couldn’t we have just gotten the point with some more obfuscation, with metaphor, with hints? Are these scenes the reason that the author is called ‘unapologetic’?

I haven’t read the book, though I will eventually. What I will say is that these scenes, in my own case, are an essential part of the story. They are a part of the making of the character, the narrator, that this memoir is seeking to reveal. We as a society, of course, have this split-personality when it comes to sex in our art: We are fascinated by it and repelled. We understand, intellectually, that people are sexual creatures — but we wonder if it’s really polite to talk about it matter-of-factly. Scenes depicting the realities of sexual violence, in all its forms, particularly in its more insidious forms, the ways it can look like seduction and play, are necessary for us to represent and for us to allow ourselves to read. Sexual violence isn’t always brute force, it often isn’t brute force. It much more often, I think, would look to an outside viewer as though the child/young person/partner being abused was a ‘willing victim.’ If we don’t look at this reality, we as a society don’t change — we, as a society, will continue to make space for more children to be sexually abused, because we won’t want to see how people continue to use sexual manipulation and coercion to their own ends.

Yesterday in my journal I wrote, What sort of rape victim uses a vibrator during her assaults? This one. That’s a terrible line to write, and I feel apologetic even in the middle of it. If I don’t include this caveat, though, I am also the unapologetic victim. In my writing about my own experience of sexual violence, I slip easily and consistently between the language of rape and the language of having sex. I would never have said that he was raping me, when I was a teenager — it took years for me to come to that word as an option for me, because his force wasn’t physical, it was psychological and insidious.

Here’s a line that saved me recently: In Tara Hardy‘s chapbook, Shoulder Strap Slip, in the piece, “Being (This) Femme Means,” she writes: “Being a femme means knowing that just because you’re cumming doesn’t mean you’re not being raped.” That’s it. I closed the book when I read that line, grateful, devastated, seen. I don’t know how Tara felt when she wrote that line, if she felt embarrassed or worried or scared or knowing and sure of herself — I closed the book when I read that line. I was on public transportation, I think. I looked out the window, I said, Yes yes yes, and held something in my heart open to witness.

There are stories we have to tell that many people won’t want to read. That’s ok. There are others who will need to read those stories. This is what I remind myself, when I am feeling the most ashamed in my own work. I need to get back to that work now, for at least a little bit.

They will want to (continue to) make us ashamed for our words. We don’t need to give them our shame by putting down our pens and shutting up, by feeding the part that wants to write the stories down with alcohol or too much food or too much partying or too much facebook. We can give that part of ourselves the gift of 20 minutes or even an hour of writing time, we can open the notebook, offer the pen, say, Here, I love you, we made it, let’s go.

Want to do that now? Take 20 minutes, take your morning coffee break, take your lunchtime, with your notebook and a small part of the story that you most want to tell. The story that’s most important to you, right now, to be able to write. Start with the line, “This is what I wanted to tell¬† you…” and use it over and over, if you want, even for thirty sentences in a row — it’s ok! Let the raw material out onto the page — that’s the clay you use to craft your literature.

Thank you for your honesty, for the ways you have lied to hold truth safe, for the ways you have saved your good and broken heart, for your gorgeous and necessary words.

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