Reconstructing a self: early trauma and the healing power of narrative
Portland, Oregon, United States
We carry with us every story we have ever heard, and every story we have ever lived.
— Rachel Naomi Remen
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and the only child of a single mother on welfare who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, a healthy development of self has not come easily. Shame, fear, and isolation negatively shaped the lens through which I viewed the world, and in my early forties I began a practice of reflective writing that spanned over many years, where I deconstructed my story slowly and tentatively through daily journaling. Not unlike the field notes that anthropologists use in ethnographic documentation, I used journaling as a referential tool, allowing it to guide me as one painful memory triggered another. The temporality of these memories provided a thread that tied the fragmentary moments of my life together into a cohesive whole. It was here, at the nexus of memory and identity where I engaged in a continual readjustment of past and present, a process termed “reflexive monitoring,” where I maintained permeability between my role as a writer and one as a witness to a particular moment in time, constantly shifting from one role to the other to ensure a full and complete telling of my experience:
It started when I was five, late at night in the room we shared. Mom would call out for me in the sweetest voice I ever heard, my name riding the space between asleep and awake like a song. I’d lie still as stone and pretend to be asleep, but then she’d call out for me again—this time not so sweet anymore—and force me to stand at the foot of her bed and touch her in ways I never wanted, her legs spread wide and her back arched, the streetlight angled across her body like a three-quarter moon.
“You tell anyone and I’ll beat ya’ to a pulp,” she’d warn, but, even at five I already knew better than to tell, and hid our secret so deep I sometimes wondered if God even knew.
I soon learned how to sleep in snatches. In school I pretended I was like other kids, without a care in the world, but deep down I knew I’d always be an outsider—different from the rest. Other kids didn’t have secrets like I did. No, they seemed safe and sure about everything while I jumped at my own shadow. My world was so different from everyone else’s that there was no connection, no common ground. I couldn’t laugh as others laughed.
I was almost five, 2012
From silent witness to public testimony
Not until I finished writing my memoir, The Sunday Wishbone, could I say out loud that I grew up with a paranoid schizophrenic mother who sexually abused me. Researchers are only now beginning to create typological schemes characterizing different types of female sex offenders, with one of these categorizations termed the “psychotic abuser.”1 This type of abuser is described as one who suffers from psychosis as well as unmanageable libidinal impulses—as in the case of my mother—while other types of female perpetrators range from those who have a predisposition toward this behavior (intergenerational), to those who lack general impulse control.
Recent studies on the overall incidence of mother-daughter incest suggest that it is not a rare occurrence at all, but rather is underestimated and underreported.2 Forged by the mistaken belief that mothers can do no harm, we live in a culture that refuses to face the fact that they are in a perfect position to do just that, given their traditional role as caretakers. Because they lie at the very heart of traditional family values, mothers are able to hide their crimes, and society is prone to protecting them. But until mother-daughter incest is “out of the closet” and recognized as an easily hidden form of sexual abuse, the cycle of secrecy, shame, and isolation will continue to dominate the lives of countless mothers and daughters.
I originally began writing my memoir with the intention of giving voice to the silent and the silenced, to raise awareness so that much-needed resources could be developed and the necessary services offered. But in the process of writing, I found a safe harbor in which to objectify my past and try to make sense of it. As I watched my words, phrases, and paragraphs come together on the page, I could sometimes feel the weight of silence begin to lift, the burden of isolation begin to disintegrate.
The process of writing, of ordering memory and image into a coherent narrative, provides us with a semblance of control over that which we cannot control—the past. The first step is to engage in image recall, which often triggers a string of images that we can then translate through language onto the page. “While recalling our images helps us to re-experience the past and can lead to insights about it, creating narrative from those images locates our stories outside of us, which enables us to feel that we have begun to form order out of chaos.”3 This process of objectification serves many functions. For example, if the narrative is one of trauma, the distance gained from locating it outside of ourselves can facilitate the necessary separation needed in order to individuate, while simultaneously working toward a healthier integration of self within the experience. We begin to develop an “observer” self through the distance gained from writing our stories, and through that objectification we become a witness to the traumatic event—an audience to our own story.
The term “witness” is used here as opposed to the more general term of “survivor” to delineate a call for action. Survival doesn’t involve any particular responsibility other than continuing to survive, while bearing witness assumes a responsibility for telling what happened, of offering “testimony to a truth that is generally unrecognized or suppressed. Each of us can only witness from the particularity of who we are,”4 for the lens through which we view ourselves and experience the world is uniquely ours, and ours alone.
Writers such as Isabel Allende, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and Sapphire, to name only a few, have written about what they have lived through in order to heal themselves, but they also write to help heal a culture that, “if it is to become moral, ethical, and spiritual, must recognize what these writers have observed, experienced, and witnessed. All are writing to right a human wrong—one that affected them, surely, but one that affects others too.”5 By making our stories public, we claim not only our voice, but also our place in the world. We connect with and join others in the imperative to tell, to make sense of our lives, and to create meaning—for the act of writing is and always will be a struggle against silence.
Giving pain a voice
Can a family be broken?, 2012
Becoming intimate with our pain, and developing a practice of sitting with it in the most compassionate way we can, is the key to changing at the core of our being. And yet our instinctual and immediate response to pain is to run away from it, not toward it. Giving pain a voice through telling our stories remakes us, for we emerge out of the shadows into a broader perspective of who we are, and who we can become. Writing my memoir was a quest for identity, a way to put the pieces of my life together in a way that fostered empowerment instead of helplessness, and in so doing I retrieved the disowned parts of myself on the page and began to construct a self that was authentic, whole, and centered.
I wrote and rewrote for nearly 13 years. I wrote in fits and starts until I couldn’t write anymore, and then I’d sit back down and write some more. It was as if the words had finally found a way out, and there was no stopping them. The more I wrote, the more I was able to understand. The more I wrote, the more I was able to let compassion take seed. The more I wrote, the more I was able to construct a self—a fragile, frightened, and vulnerable self, but a self nonetheless. As feminist philosopher Judith Butler notes, “In the making of the story, I create myself in new form, instituting a narrative ‘I’ that is superadded to the ‘I’ whose past life I seek to tell. I am always recuperating, reconstructing”.6
Narrative in all its forms is a representation of human experience, and it is in the sharing of our experiences, even as we struggle to make meaning of them, that we create a sense of humanity. Literature provides a voice for the disenfranchised, a link from one world to another through the power of story. It is through literature where new truths and new perspectives are found, and within these new perspectives we broaden our capacity for humility and become better clinicians, better colleagues, and better human beings.
- Elliott, M., (1994). Female sexual abuse of children: The ultimate taboo. The Guilford Press, New York and London, pp. 229.
- Ogilvie, B. A. (2009). Mother -daughter incest: A guide for helping professionals. Routledge, New York: NY.
- MacCurdy, M. M., (2000). From trauma to writing: A theoretical model for practical use. In Writing and healing: Toward an informed practice. Charles M.Anderson and Miriam M. MacCurdy (ed.), pp. 158-200. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers in English.
- Frank, A. W., (1995). The wounded storyteller: Body, illness and ethics. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, pp. 137, 133.
- DeSalvo, L. (1999). Writing as a way of healing: How telling our stories transforms our lives. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, pp. 216.
- Butler, J., (2005). Giving an account of oneself. New York: Fordham University Press.
MARY T. SHANNON, MSW, MS is a psychotherapist, award-winning artist, and author. In 2010, her passion for narrative led her to earn a second master’s degree in narrative medicine from Columbia. In 2011, she founded Narrative Connections, a counseling and consulting firm specializing in using story and art as adjunctive treatment tools. An international speaker and workshop leader in the field of narrative, she is currently at work on her second book, The Anthology Project, a compilation of art and narrative by and for adult survivors of sexual abuse. Visit www.marytshannon.com for more information on how you can be included in this powerful anthology.