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interview on NPR, Alice Sebold said emphatically that writing is not therapy and writing that is done as therapy should not be published.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you know, rigorous, is that therapy is for therapy and that writing can be therapeutic, but therapeutic writing should not be published.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.