Here’s something that gnaws at most writers, whether they’re writing fiction or memoir: How much are you allowed to tell? Who owns our truths?

For several years I was a sexual abuse therapist. And what you learn right away, if you haven’t already learned it elsewhere, is how trauma is exacerbated by silence. Trying to fake that you’re fine, trying to keep a trauma a secret, trying to protect a family system or an abuser you also love – these are emotions that eat at the heart of a survivor. So why not just tell, right?

Not so fast. The moment you tell, you have also exposed a slew of others. You’ve exposed a family system and an entire network of secrets. And maybe worst of all, you’ve opened yourself up to the problem of all problems: whose perspective is right, and whose memory contains the real truth? Rarely, when a survivor speaks up, do others agree that the survivor described what happened accurately. And rarely is speaking up met with hugs and apologies.

Truth is a slippery thing. Let’s stay with the example of the survivor a little longer. Surviving a trauma involves many things including denial, dissociation, and possibly some coercion to process the abuse in some alternative way. A survivor who’s been abused by a family member may feel a number of emotions besides the fear that you might expect. They may like the attention of the abuser. Their body may react positively to the abuse, regardless of how their head responds. The abuser may have many likable traits, and the survivor may have many unlikable traits. This starts to make a mess of the survivor’s head because we don’t have a black-and-white situation anymore. Instead you have complicated and layered characters in a complicated and layered relationship. So the moment this survivor speaks up, there is plenty of room for others to argue the truth of what’s been said.

One advantage to writing essays or memoir is that you can speak your mind without interruption. You can tell the entire scope of a story or paint as large a picture as you need in order to express what you need to express or discover what you need to discover. It can be like traveling through hell to find truth or peace or order, but it can free you from the past, make you wiser, and allow you to connect with others who have no voice for their experience. Say, then, that you’ve done it, you’ve said what you needed to say and said it lovingly and yet fearlessly. Now is when you hope the real people within your story understand the way you see the world, they “get” you, they value your experience and how you’ve become the person you are and why you think or feel the way you do.

Ha ha! You know why I’m laughing, right? Because now your memory is out there for others to question and judge. What is true to you is not necessarily true to the other players in your story. And why is that? For starters, there are mistruths in even the most careful of memoirs: misremembered events, dialogue re-invented years or decades after the fact, things left out because they don’t seem important or because you wanted to quicken the pace, not to mention the blind spots we all have from seeing the world through our own lens for so long. And the final kicker: others don’t want to know or believe your truth because it would be disastrous to their psyche and their paradigm about how they fit into the world.

So, given that others are naturally intertwined with the stories we want to tell, where is that balance? I think the answer is different for each of us. And, of course, it’s complicated when you’re telling things that are true about your heart and your emotional experience of the world through fictional writing. But I’ll answer this question for me: I won’t read tepid writing, and I certainly don’t want to produce it. I like writing that goes where we’re afraid to go and says what we’re afraid to say in our real lives. Salman Rushdie says it better: “One of the things a writer is for is to say the unsayable, speak the unspeakable and ask difficult questions.”

Your thoughts?

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SUSAN HENDERSON is the author of UP FROM THE BLUE (HarperCollins, 2010) and founder of the blog, LitPark, a literary playground for writers.

41 responses to “Who Owns Our Truths?”

  1. Stephen Elliott tackles this question prior to the start of The Adderall Diaries when he states, “Much is based on my own memories and is faithful to my recollections, but only a fool mistakes memory for fact.”

    Only a fool mistakes memory for fact…

    Either genre, memoir or fiction, is perspective-based and because of this, open to rib shots from readers, family, friends, community. I believe that is why memoir, to me at least, is more difficult to write than fiction…. though both are difficult in their own right.

  2. LitPark says:

    Hi Jeffrey. So glad to see that quote from Stephen Elliott – I’m a huge fan of his.

  3. Billy Bones says:

    Heavens! If everyone told the truth we secrets-closet skeletons would be out of business.

    • Susan Henderson says:

      Keeping secrets and telling secrets are both good tension for writers to mine. (You need a cute gravatar, Bones.)

  4. Mary Akers says:

    My co-author (a survivor of Siberian exile during WWII) who has spent his life “giving back” after his own childhood traumas almost killed him has developed a credo based on this idea of personal truth. It goes something like this: “What you choose to remember from your childhood, and how you choose to interpret it, determines who you are.” I really like that.

    • Judy Prince says:

      “What you choose to remember from your childhood, and how you choose to interpret it, determines who you are.” Mary, I really like your co-author’s statement, too. It clearly states what I’ve been wrestling to word for days. Please thank him for me!

    • Susan Henderson says:

      Mary, I love that. And do you have a link for your Siberian exile friend? I want to know more.

      • Mary Akers says:

        Hey Susan! Well, he’s 75 (he likes to say he’s in the fourth quarter of life–and everyone knows that all the exciting stuff happens in the fourth quarter) and doesn’t do computers, but the link to a page about the book (including a video of him) is at http://www.onelifetogive.net Thanks for asking. 🙂

        • Susan Henderson says:

          Mary, that’s an incredibly moving book trailer. And I like the connection the reviewer makes to MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING, one of my favorite books.

  5. Sue, did I know you used to be a sexual abuse therapist?! Cause you know, I was one also. I worked as a therapist for 3 years out in New Hampshire in the early 90s, focusing on battered women and sexually abused teens who had been put into foster care (also on girls from a rich high school who had eating disorders, but that was a very different part of the job, a private contract with a school.) It’s intense work. I was about 23 myself when I started and in some ways I loved the work but it was a fast burn-out for me: by 26, I had left the mental health professions altogether to write . . . though I still miss it at times.

    • Susan Henderson says:

      Gina, I had no idea. And how funny that our responses to the work were so similar. At the time, I remember telling people how uplifting the work was – mostly because people come to you at rock bottom and it’s such a tender time, and up is the only place to go. But I also lasted about 3 years. Once I had kids, I couldn’t listen to the stories in the same way; my professional distance was shattered, and the traumatic stories hurt too much.

      • billie says:

        Susan, that’s interesting – once I had my children I could no longer do the intensive child sexual abuse cases I had done for years. You’re absolutely right that the distance changed and it became much more personal.

  6. billie says:

    Susan, great and provocative post. It’s resonating with me today particularly because my first novel, claire-obscure, which made a run at getting published and has been awaiting its next shot at getting “out there,” made the first cut of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award last month and I’ll find out tomorrow if it made the second one.

    I’m proud of this novel, which is neither autobiographic nor taken from my years of work as a psychotherapist specializing in trauma, but it does speak a truth that is intense and I know will be difficult for some readers. I have often wondered if I have blocked its path into the wider world because of my own tendency as a writer to want to protect both my characters and my readers – I’ve had to work hard to overcome that. For me, going where these characters wanted to take me was a journey all its own, and once I went there, I wasn’t willing to dilute the intensity or shift genres to enhance its chances of being published.

    I tried to remain true to the psychology of my characters and the nature of trauma, while at the same time indulging my love of photography and a literary style of writing that I feel enhances this particular story. In doing so I may have limited its chances in the mainstream publishing world – but I’m eager to see what it might do if it makes the next cut(s) in the Amazon contest, where it will finally get to some real world readers who don’t know me and have no stakes in the game. 🙂

    • Susan Henderson says:

      Billie, congratulations!

      Interesting how many of us have psychology and writing backgrounds, and also your awareness of protecting the reader. I did that too in my novel, I made sure I brought my characters and my readers (hopefully) back out of any depths I’d plunged them into. I wanted to heal and not to traumatize.

      • billie says:

        Exactly. That was my ultimate goal – but I did have to work hard not to protect the reader and the characters initially by censoring the writing! I did that for awhile and finally with lots of encouragement from a few mentors and then my first agent, I was able to trust that I could walk into the depths and back out again with both characters and the reader.

        It sounds so simply when I type it out. But it was one of the harder things I’ve done in my life.

        • Susan Henderson says:

          Yeah, isn’t it true–at some point, a writer has to leave behind all their fears (of being judged, of being traumatized, of producing mediocre work) and just dive in to the deep water.

  7. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    A couple of years ago, I read this quote: “To be a writer doesn’t mean to preach a truth, it means to discover a truth.” (It was attributed to Toni Morrison, but I can’t find confirmation.) Regardless of one’s genre, the journey of a piece reveals far more than what the writer expected.

    On a different subject, I find it odd how many readers WANT fiction to be “true” or to be a hair’s breath away from a writer’s own experience. And some don’t realize there’s a difference between fiction and nonfiction.

    Whatever truth is, no matter the genre, if a story “rings true,” it has connected with a reader and done its job.

    • Judy Prince says:

      Ronlyn, re readers WANTING fiction to be “true”, I’ve begun to think that readers want to know truths that will help them, as well as entertain or distract them. I’ve struggled internally with readers thinking I was “the character” in my poems and plays. It’s not that I don’t want to be those characters; it’s more that I’m not conscious of choosing them as “me”. They are just “they” to me. I hope this makes sense to you!

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        Judy, indeed, I agree with your first sentence. What I referred to as “true” I could reframe to read “based on actual events.”

        You and I might have a similar process in that we understand that we share attributes with our subjects/characters but “they” exist in their own right. They are not “us.” Yet I’ve had a number of strange encounters with readers of my first novel who were positively crestfallen that I was not like the narrator (or other characters) or didn’t believe me when I said certain parts of the book weren’t based on my own experiences.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Yes, Ronlyn, you and I have a similar process and understanding about our characters as existing in their own right, not as being “us”. I’ve never had a reader comment on these aspects of my works, so I hadn’t realised, until you just explained it, that some readers might think your narrator or one your characters is “really” totally you and that all the narrated experiences were your own. I’m guessing that if the readers had written some fiction themselves, they’d “get” the process, and it *is* a fascinating process! Many beginning writers write their life stories, and find themselves roadblocked when they try to write fiction; it’s difficult to “stray” from what you remember having experienced. Fiction, poetry, plays are delicate, balanced, fresh blends of “truth” and “make-believe”. Not an easy juggling act.

    • Susan Henderson says:

      I’m just loving all these quotes about truth you guys are finding. I do like fiction that feels true and urgent and that tries to find answers to big, unanswerable questions like what’s a person or a society to do about innocent suffering? And if we had more control over our lives and the lives of others, would we make a mess of it? It doesn’t matter to me if I’m reading a memoir or Animal Farm, when writers dig down to discover our nature and I care about the characters, then I’m engaged.

  8. Judy Prince says:

    Susan, this is a wonderfully helpful, revealing piece that carefully and clearly shows us how truth-telling’s often fraught with tricks, twists and agony. Excellent analogy between writing non-fiction and the truths told by the sexually abused. Much to ponder here…..

  9. Susan Henderson says:

    Sorry I’m checking in so late. Finished my copyedits, dedication and acknowledgments! Finished an interview! Finished choosing and timing a piece for my reading on Wednesday (http://apexart.org/events/almostfamous.htm)! Finally bought tickets for my writer’s retreat in Canada! Did not finish the laundry!

  10. Megan says:

    You have a fascinating professional background, Susan. And great quote from Salman Rushdie.

    There’s a curious prejudice built into English – we tell “the” truth or “a” lie. Truth is supposed be absolute, but we all know that’s rarely the case…

    • Susan Henderson says:

      Wow, you know, I never really thought of that, how the limitations of our language are right there. That’s fascinating, Megan, and I’m glad you pointed that out.

  11. Slade Ham says:

    Just dropping a quick thank you. The last paragraph in particular, while it just reiterates what I already know, was exactly what i needed to hear someone else say right now.

    They’re our memories and ultimately it’s our story, right? If other people are upset, they are more than welcome to write their own versions and throw them out into the world.

    • Susan Henderson says:

      I go back and forth with the whole idea of how much is the storyteller’s story, and how much is breaching another’s trust or sense of privacy. But I don’t waiver on that last point, which is, if you’re going to write, don’t turn out something polite and tepid.

  12. Becky says:

    Thoughts:

    The unspeakable often has unthinkable consequences?

    I mean, at heart, I agree with you.

    But on the ground, “The Truth” can end marriages, divide families, and otherwise destroy people’s lives.

    So.

    What do you do with that? As a writer? Is there, really, no such thing as a benevolent lie?

    I mean, I struggle with this. My default reaction, in most aspects of my life, has been to be honest. After all, it is the best policy, they say.

    And sometimes it is. And sometimes honesty, no matter how much love you’ve got for the people involved, is hurtful and destructive and almost nothing else.

    I mean, our somewhat remarkable capacity for fibbing is not an evolutionary mistake, I suspect.

    I suspect it’s functional. Maybe fiction is an expression of that.

    • Susan Henderson says:

      I don’t disagree with you. This is a big struggle for writers. And not just with “truth” telling. I think often about the books I love the best and how they push past our comfort zones. Did Nabokov worry if his family would think he was perverted? And if he’d changed his writing to appease his family, would Lolita be a book we’d still read today? Did Tim O’Brien worry that people would think he was sick, did he worry about betraying his unit? Probably he did, but he went to the far reaches of the “truths” he experienced in war, and that’s why his books are great. I don’t know where I stand on telling others’ secrets–I go back and forth–but if writing doesn’t go deep, if it doesn’t cross those comfort lines, if it doesn’t wander into the places we all hold secretly but would never dare admit in polite company, then I don’t know if the story is worth telling.

      • Judy Prince says:

        What a dilemma that you and Becky have raised, Susan. Naturally, I agree with everything both of you are saying…..which means a writer needs to choose fiction—understanding that her intimates may never speak to her again even though she’s tried to conceal their identities—or let the intimates be damned by writing The Whole Truth, which guarantees her being cut off from them.

        I really appreciate your writing, Susan, and these discussions about the issues you’ve raised. I had wanted to tell you, as well, that your words have a profound calming effect, and they raise strong, confusing feelings. These feelings baste rather nicely in your wisdom—in the way you lead us to discover our own wisdom. The gentle peace you bring is a rare quality in a writer, as is the thoughtful perspective you give.

        • LitPark says:

          I think it shows how much writers think about these kinds of things. We’re trying to tell the stories that press on us, trying to bold, trying to say something important that gets at “truths” and struggles at the core of being human, but we’re also thinking of the impact of our words and our stories knowing that what the National Book Award rewards is not necessarily what our families reward.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Thank you, Susan, for challenging us writers as we work through our ideals and aims. We need the oases you bring us and our thoughts, as well.

  13. […] SUSAN HENDERSON can handle the truth. […]

  14. Susan, this is a very interesting, thought-provoking post. It’s something I struggle with all the time, especially the catharsis I get from writing truthfully (in fiction or nonfiction) while protecting other people as best I can. It’s a tough line because even when we are trying to be, there are some truths that just can’t be shared, not all the way, not fully, yet I think if you worry too much about how anyone and everyone might react you lose the soul of your story. But it’s not an easy challenge in any way.

    • Rachel, You said it exactly right. It’s a battle between trying to respect where your story infringes on another’s privacy, but without losing its soul. And probably, in most cases, writers feel like they went a little too far in one direction or the other. (Glad you’re here!)

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  18. Laura says:

    Sexual abuse is black and white. The predator shouldn’t hae done it. Yeah maybe the predator has good traits and this might be confusing for the survivor as he/ she can see his/ her own character flaws and this might be confusing. Memory is confusing sure but if someone knows they’ve been sexually abused by someone it’s the person who’s done the abusing that’s wrong, totally black and white.

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