Writing As Therapy - II

In an interview on NPR, Alice Sebold said emphatically that writing is not therapy and writing that is done as therapy should not be published.

Ms. SEBOLD: My feeling, and it's pretty, you know, rigorous, is that therapy is for therapy and that writing can be therapeutic, but therapeutic writing should not be published.

My job as a writer is to go through the therapy myself, and if I manage to get through it, and I feel I have something to share from that, to share it with my audience or my readers, but I don't write novels and seek to have them published so that I can get therapy from having written them. That's really the responsibility of an individual to do outside the context of their published work.
I agree with Sebold that the raw journal is not in most cases the thing to be published. But clearly, writing was therapeutic for her. She was writing her great bestseller The Lovely Bones when she got completely stuck. She had to write her memoir, Lucky, about her actual rape and recovery, before she could complete the fictional Lovely Bones. Something happened inside her there—perhaps not therapy but therapeutic.

For me, writing my story for others led to another level of healing, one that was possible only because I’d already done several years of intense therapy. Martin Moran told me that his book, The Tricky Part, took 10 years to complete. I doubt he could have come to the beautiful compassion shown in his book in a short space of time.

The relationship between therapy (or healing) and writing (for self or for publication) is complex and can't be captured in any short prescription.

Holiday Greetings to Your Inner Child

Every year as I move towards Christmas, it feels like an improvisation. In the back of my mind there is some ideal, stable (family) Christmas that is calm, loving, and exciting all at once. In that image the children are all loved and the parents know their limits. Everyone appreciates what is present instead of fussing about what is not there. People act loving, they don’t explode or drink too much or act mean.

In real life things change. I’ll spend the day with different friends’ families and then see my son a few days later. It will have its ups and downs.

My little girl inside still holds that image of the ideal Christmas that never happened, and I love her for that hope and belief. I wish that all inner children—with all their hopes and fears—may be cherished during this holiday. I hold you all in my heart, both in the intensity of family interactions and in the loneliness that so many of us experience (whether we are alone or with others).

We are all one family, with a special bond among those who were abused or neglected as children. Peace and love be to all of us.

Writing As Therapy - I

I deeply believe in writing as therapy--and yet, I don't exactly. I've kept a personal journal for thirty years now, and it is my closest companion in many ways. It’s where I record my moods each morning, my memories of early abuse and my reactions to that trauma, my healing journey, my spiritual quest.

Freewriting (as taught by Peter Elbow ) opened up this world of writing-as-therapy to me. Freewriting is free association on the page, pouring out thoughts, fragments and feelings just as they come, coherent or not, repetitive and uncensored. When I first had memories of being groped by my father, the blank, nonjudgmental page of my journal was a goddess-sent release and receptacle. But I needed my therapist as well. My journal was wonderfully receptive, but the human contact and love began the true healing.

When I started to write my memoir about healing from abuse, after I’d done therapy on it for six years, I needed to change my writing style. As I reread my journals and transcribed excerpts from them, I could see how their rawness was perfect for my own healing, but it was not what the reader needed. In fact, I tried to read a self-published memoir that simply printed up excerpts from the writer’s journal of healing, and it made me feel nauseated. I wanted to love and respect that writer, but the actual stuff of her book was too messy and uncontained for me—it didn’t feel safe to read.

A memoir, unlike a journal, needs to be crafted.

Elements of Memoir--Part II

You begin writing a memoir for a purpose. There is a story you're compelled to tell, whether it is from outrage or wonder or a desire to give hope to others.

If you're lucky, this purpose gives your memoir a beginning and an ending, between which the major events unfold. A memoir is not the story of your whole life--it's just one of your stories. It might be the year you traveled to Nepal to find your spiritual goal, it might be the three years when your mother lay dying.

Then there are all the vivid details of your life at that time. It's important to give some of these, or else you seem an anonymous figure. It's equally important to choose a few aspects, a few other characters, a few incidents. You may need, as I did, to write out a lot more than you can realistically include, and then trim, trim, trim.

There's the back-story. Yes, the memoir is about the years when you mother was dying, but incidents from the past may illustrate the meaning of what's happening now. Most times, it's more effective to jump into the storyline first, showing the writer's dilemma as the mother is dying, and then find ways to weave in the older material through flashbacks or conversations.

And then you weave all this together into a shape that suits your particular story. It might be linear in time, it might be fragmented, it might start out one place and then loop back to satisfy the reader's curiosity about the narrator. "Form follows function" is what the biologists call this. Your story, like a living organism, is shaped by the purpose it serves.

(In Part I of Elements of Memoir, I described Judith Barrington's thoughts on memoir writing.)

How Prevalent is Child Sexual Abuse?

Last weekend I sat on a rock at the top of a hill, looking down at a cluster of suburban homes. Everything looked so normal. But I couldn't help thinking, There is sexual abuse going on in some of those homes, kids who are terrified and have no one to help them.

At least one in four girls is sexually abused before she reaches age 18, and one in 6 boys. These are figures from the U S Centers for Disease Control. They are probably low estimates because people had to be willing to answer "Yes" on a questionnaire at the doctor's office asking whether an adult had touched or fondled them or attempted intercourse before they were 18. Other studies have suggested 30-40% of girls and 20-25% of boys experience some kind of sexual abuse. Of course, most of these incidents are never reported to any authority, much less the police. Therefore, the numbers for successfully prosecuted cases are a tiny fraction.

Abuse includes so-called fondling, inappropriate touching, and asking children to touch the adult's private parts, as well as oral, vaginal, or anal intercourse or attempted intercourse.

Any and all of this is wrong and very damaging to the child and her healthy growth. But perhaps the worst part of it is the damage to trust, the sense of betrayal, confusion and fear that come with the abuse, especially when it is done by someone the child trusted. Abuse is so traumatic that many children repress the memories and carry the sense of wrongness inside them.

Do you have multiple inner children?

I do, but it took them a while to appear. At first, when I was working with my therapist on issues from my childhood, she would ask, "How does your little girl feel about this?" I would get vague feelings of distress and maybe just a glimpse of a girl. It seemed like my inner child was always sad or scared.

After I paid attention to the sad little girl for some months, I met Good Girl. She was the one who always did what the parents wanted. She suppressed any memory of abuse and she was eager and cheerful, did well in school, and just acted painfully Good. She was frightened by my explorations of the abuse and wanted to scare me back to my not-knowing.

Slowly I found a Lost Girl and a Silent Girl, also, girls whose voices and emotions had been completely lost to me. They were mistrustful and it took a lot of patience to call them back and love them.

It seems these different inner children are unrecognized aspects of my young self, ways that I split off parts of myself because of the trauma. Finding them and loving them back into my life has been a joy was well as a lot of work.

Not everyone has multiple inner children. I'd be interested to hear from you about how it feels to you - you can write in Comments below.

Memoir Rejected - "Too difficult a topic"

Yesterday I was at a writers' conference, which provided a wonderful opportunity to speak with a literary agent for a few minutes. However, she glanced at my query letter and immediately looked more nervous than I was! Although she's someone who likes memoirs and writing on women's issues, she said over and over that the topic was "very difficult." It was clear she could not represent me well.

I can understand her discomfort, but what a shame that this society still is not ready to hear about incest and abuse, even when the real story (as I told the agent several times) is about healing and growth. I let her know that I'll continue looking for an agent who can advocate for me.

Healing is Not... Getting All the Memories Clear

I'm one of the people who remembered late in life. It was just a fragment but very clear: I was four and it hurt when I peed.

I wanted other memories to come. I was frantic to know what happened. I began to remember peculiar things about my family--my father's affairs and his temper, my mother's passivity and helplessness. I felt strange things in my body.

But I didn't get Kodak-sharp memories of what happened.

Gradually, I realized that I could heal without the memories. The important shifts were:
  • to believe myself and the little girl inside me who said "Listen! Something is wrong!"
  • to recognize the ways my birth family was untrustworthy and how they had slanted the truth.
  • to learn to trust my therapist and open up to love.
  • to build my own world.
It's only after all this loving hard work that I see clearly--getting clear memories was not the point. Healing was.

Healing is not the same as… confrontation

A lot of survivors of sexual abuse feel they need to confront someone about it. Face down the perpetrator and tell him (usually him) – tell him what? That what he did was wrong. That it was hurtful and did substantial harm.

I imagine it’s amazingly empowering to do that. Even though the response may be further denial and anger. To hold one’s own against such responses is a big deal. And confrontation can provide a chance for remorse and repair of the relationship — I guess that would be everyone’s dream, that the perpetrator would have an opportunity to open and soften, to repent. And the survivor would be able to let go in a new way, seeing and feeling the new responsiveness in the other.

I didn’t have that chance, since my father was dead before I remembered what he did. But my mother was still alive. When she received the diagnosis of colon cancer that we knew was a death-sentence, I had to decide whether to confront her tacit collusion or let it be. I chose to let it be. It felt like a combination of cowardice and wisdom. The cowardice... of course I imagined she’d deny it all over again or minimize it: “What are you talking about? How could you accuse him of such a thing? He loved you.” or “Oh, he was just being a man.” or “But it didn’t really do you any harm — see, you grew up fine.”

The wisdom part... my therapist asked me, “What would you hope to gain?” In my dream, I said then, my mother would acknowledge the fact of the abuse. She’d acknowledge the hurt of it. She’d comfort me and apologize. She’d act like a protective, warm mother.

How likely was that? Knowing her, she might have been able to acknowledge the fact, but what would have followed would not have been comfort for me—it would have been her overwhelming guilt and shame. She was too scared to be protective as I was growing up. She never had been warm—too scared for that, too. So it wasn’t in the cards that I’d receive what the wounded child inside me so keenly desired — the lost love and protection of a good mother.

... and as I say this, it’s not with bitterness. She did her best, the best of a woman who was timid by nature and brought up to hardship and limitation. She loved me the absolute best she could and manifested that love in gifts and praise.

So I did not confront my mother. I still can’t tell you if that was the right decision, but it did make something clear to me: Healing is not the same as confrontation. The movement that needed to happen was inside me, not out there in the world. I had to soften towards my self, acknowledge that the hurt would always be a part of me, find comfort and love inside my own psyche. In a strange, paradoxical movement, my inner confrontation released me to freedom and joy.

Just When I Think I’m Better…

I’ve been working on healing from my abuse trauma for 14 years now… today is around the anniversary of the first memory, in fact--the memory that tipped me off and started me exploring my past in years and years of intense therapy.

Recently I’ve been “moving on” to more spiritual matters, less focused on the abuse and recovery. I’ve been doing other creative things like painting and writing fiction.

But it comes back to bite me from time to time. Today in my writing workshop, another writer gave a fictional account of a young man with PTSD who wanted to tell his girlfriend about it. The man in the story froze and could not speak. That story felt entirely real to me and even triggered the young part of me that feels she’ll never be heard. The same part of me that sometimes feels silenced in Buddhist circles because we’re supposed to let all those emotional things “just come and go.” Ha! When it bites you in the back, letting go is just a concept.

There’s nothing to do, I think, except accept that this happens. The spiral keeps circling, even though it’s not as dire and overwhelming as before.

Survivors, what enormous patience we need!

The Inner Child and Love

This morning I sat to listen to my little girls inside, as I do every morning. I felt an enormous, safe love well up inside me—or was it from beyond me? This brim-full sense of love first came to me in therapy, when (after many struggles) I learned to trust my therapist’s love and came to rest in it. Even then, it felt bigger than just two people. It felt like a sacred love that was coming through the agency of this slight, human woman and was being poured into me.

But the other part of it was the trust that I brought to the relationship with my therapist. The little girl inside of me desired with all her heart to open up, be seen, and express love. This was the way I was born, I am sure, full of the desire to love and be loved. Early on, I’d been both stifled and abused, so that the loving-hearted inner child had to flee to a remote place in me. Now she could come home and join me in this new-old loving place.

This morning also, before I sat with my inner children, I read a piece on lovingkindness meditation, what the Buddhists call metta and what the Christians know as God’s love. It’s all one. I knew that clearly as I sat with the little girls. They are part of my path to a sacred loving awareness of the world.

Inner Child of Love and Light

Once upon a time, I was delving deep in therapy and retrieving the lost children inside of me—-the terrified and abandoned—-with the help of a marvelous therapist. Somewhere in all of these thorns and mud, I experienced the lightening-bug, butterfly presence of a little girl of light and love.

It didn’t happen by logic but by magic and hard work. There she was, the amazing presence of my original child-soul of innocence and love. I saw the world through her eyes for a time—-the people, the trees, the sky all wondrous and glowing.

I can’t always find my way back to that soul-place but it’s a vision, a glimpse of how to be in the world with trust and love.

Inner Child's Turn to Play

I've been turning to art recently to express myself. During the long hard process of healing from abuse, the art was squeezed out of me. It was often dark or angry-red zig-zags. These were very important to me to give form and validation to my feelings. Then it became child-scapes, pastels of my little girl in wondrous worlds, visions of the life I could have.

Now, having completed my memoir of healing (which is still looking for an agent), I feel new openings. To make my abstract art I need to experiment and play, without critical voices to stop me. I need to listen to color and form and above all, trust my intuition. Of course there are amazing days and discouraging days. But my inner child and I have a lot of fun with it, and the path of art is a model for the path of my life unfolding.