October 2011 is Domestic Violence Awareness Month: Why It Still Matters
A while back, or perhaps it was more than a few years ago, we all became aware of the epidemic of violence against women in this country, and memoirs began to be written as the survivors felt empowered to describe what they had gone though, battling through shame and the fear of family repercussions. We all have our lists of these titles, some of them bitingly effective, others less so, and perhaps I was not alone in imagining that writing about the problem would make the problem go away, or at least diminish it.
I’ve been rudely awakened during these past weeks of teaching writing workshops, primarily to women, and women of a certain age.
Because my newest book, “Mending”, in a collection of short stories, I’ve been teaching the writing of fiction—but that is not what most of my students want.
At first, I thought this was due to the fact that now many people don’t seem able to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction, and my definitions don’t seem to clear up their confusion.
Slowly, it has dawned on me that the reason is more profound: the stories these women are desperate to write can’t be fiction, as they understand fiction, because they have experienced acts of violence at such a deeply personal level it is impossible for them to imagine transforming these pivotal events into short stories, or novels, or anything other than raw pieces of memoir.
Raw, because by and large they have not been exposed to writing as a craft. They have talent, as was shown when each of the ten people in my class this morning in Lexington, Kentucky, wrote, in five minutes, the first sentence of a short story. Their sentences were rich, and varied, and seemed to remove them from the red hot center of their preoccupations, which is why those first sentences will never turn into completed stories.
The heat of their preoccupation, their fear of revealing it, and their intense desire to be told that they have a right to their own experiences, is what, at least potentially, would yield powerful writing.
But Chekhov advised in a letter to his brother that to write effective fiction, the write must be reserved, detached, objective—and my experience tells me he was right.
So how are these survivors, some of whom may not really have survived, deal with the pain and shame of this preoccupation?
If the very intensity of their emotional reaction to what happened means they can never aspire to detachment or objectivity, writing is never going to be helpful to them—beyond the uncensored outpourings in journals which they have already probably tried.
Journals have their place, but at some point, women who have been abused need readers to justify what they are exposing, to make them feel (if this is possible) that they have a right to their own lives, including these memories, which inevitably blemish the men in their families, alive of dead, who have managed to keep their behavior hidden.
As one woman explained, her family has arrived at a hard-won truce, a peaceful surface that allows them to enjoy getting together; their mother is now viewed as a saint, a matriarch—which of course is part of the truth.
When I asked her if she had ever talked about what happened in their childhoods, she said that she hadn’t. No one had. And if she brought it up, the surface would surely be broken, and she might suffer the consequences, as one of my dear friends did when she told what she remembered, and her family refused to have anything more to do with her.
Writing is not therapy, can never be therapy; it is an art. But when so many are suffering from silenced memories, memories that will not “go away”, what other outlet is there? How can they be healed? And, perhaps more to the point, how can they ever develop as writers if their main point of intensity is blunted?
As another woman said, she is writing an historical novel—but somehow it doesn’t seem to matter, and she is having trouble finishing it.
Will this terrible pattern of violence against girls and women never be broken? And how am I, as a teacher of writing, to respond to this overwhelming need?