The students were chosen by two creative writing professors at Western out of a much larger group of undergraduates; they were about equally divided between young men and young women with one slightly older woman to add salt to the mix.
As I looked around the circle of faces at the start of my class, I realized that some of them were quite anxious. I am an outsider, a rare bird in that setting, and they could not have known what to expect from me. Some of the most cruel comments I’ve ever had to endure have come from men who used their power and prestige to eviscerate the women in their writing classes; I’ve heard over and over about young women reduced to tears and I have never heard of young men experiencing this mistreatment. So the students sitting in a circle before me could hardly have felt safe, and for some of them, they rarely feel safe anywhere in the world.
This is because they come from, and write about, abuse―abuse from parents and grandparents who are violent addicts or violent alcoholics or both, or in one case, simply removed from any contact with their children.
No one wrote of an adult intervening to protect them. If it happened, it went unremarked and was perhaps ineffectual. More likely, it never happened.
I must understand how it is that we adults see children suffering and do nothing about it. I must understand our complicity as women too enthralled by men to risk intervening. And sometimes the women are the abusers, as in one tale of a grandmother secretly popping pills; when this student read the old woman her account, her grandmother claimed she just couldn’t remember.
My role I realized immediately was to emphasize, over and over, their absolute right and unshakable authority. They MUST write these stories. Most of them said they would never show their work to their families; only one young man, who had written of a suicide attempt so horrific I hoped it was a fantasy until he silently showed me the scar on his arm, did risk reading his account to his parents. His father was silent—how often are men silent in these situations! His mother whispered, “It’s good.”
And it is good, probably the most powerful one page I have ever been privileged to read.
Only one student wrote about a social event with very little meaning to it, as far as I could see. All the others were at the core of their suffering, finding words for the intolerable. If my suggestions about word choice helped, it was marginal; the real power in their writing lay not in their word choice but in their courage.
And this is why young people write memoir.
My reading later that day from The Blue Box might have seemed irrelevant; I was afraid of that. After all, this account based on my maternal ancestors’ letters is about lives of relative privilege and—to the extent the writers were being truthful—relatively happy family lives. Of course it is very likely that they were not being truthful, and I hope my students, sitting in the front row to listen, guessed that. In any event, The Blue Box details few acts of courage, and none of them compare to what the young people in front of me displayed in their memoirs.
Deeply rural universities are seldom noticed, seldom given the attention, the funds and the acclaim that the East and West coast institutions garner, but I am sure that the work a place like Western Kentucky University is doing to salvage live is more important than the granting of gilded degrees.