Fearlessly Confessing the Dark Side of Memory in this Memoir of Sexual Abuse

by Jerry Waxler

For more insight into the power and importance of memoirs, read the Memoir Revolution and learn why now is the perfect time to write your own.

When I talk to people about writing memoirs, sometimes they chuckle nervously and say, “Oh, I don’t want to remember all of that.” When I first heard this reaction, it puzzled me. The speaker appeared to assume that writing about their past will force them to divulge information they would rather keep quiet. It’s as if they were afraid that by merely writing their past, their secrets would fly out into the air.

As I learned more stories and dug deeper into my own, I found that some dark memories are so compelling they draw you in and frighten or upset you. When you try to seal them back in their crypt, they continue to haunt. The courageous memoirist actively faces these fears and crafts them into stories. Under the guidance of our inner storyteller we gain power over our own memories.

Recently I heard about a memoir that offers an extreme example of this challenge. Throughout her childhood, Sue William Silverman was molested repeatedly by her father, a successful banker and diplomat. The assaults took place within the walls of their home where his manipulation and rage silenced every protest before it was uttered. Silverman’s memoir “Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You” offers the tragic story of a childhood, betrayed by the adult who was supposed to care for her.

At first, the topic of this memoir horrified me. I would have given it a wide berth, like crossing the street to avoid passing a beggar. And yet such is the magic of memoirs that it has allowed me to explore situations I would rather avoid. Reading is a powerful form of empathy. Now I pressed past my reluctance to share her experience.

I found the book disturbing as expected, and yet, in a way inspiring because of its frankness. It offers another validation that memoirs can take me into the dark pockets of the human condition. Researchers have found that a staggering percentage of children are abused. (see note) And despite the widely known statistics the human story of their plight is hidden from view. Few of us know what to say about this upsetting and confusing subject, and so the topic is avoided in polite company.

The public, with its voracious appetite for sound bites and quick solutions, is occasionally exposed to pleas for harsher sentences for the few predators who are caught. Meanwhile, abuse continues unabated, most of it taking place privately and quietly within the home.

While Silverman’s memoir does not offer a political or legal solution, it does hint at a reasonable first step. By sharing the story of the psychological damage, the trauma and breach of trust, we collectively shine light into the darkness of these private hells. Without such stories, sexual abuse is just a word, a statistic, devoid of the sad terror and emotional truths of each situation.

The silence that protects victims also protects perpetrators

Victims have important reasons for hiding the things that happened to them. There is the stigma of shame, often made worse because the victim is made to feel responsible. And there is the risk of angering the perpetrator. Until the memoir age, many wounded people have never felt empowered to share their stories. Now more people are telling and more listening. In my optimistic vision, I see memoirs tearing down walls, and I feel a surge of hope like the crowds who were swinging sledge hammers in the final hours of the Berlin Wall.

A polished voice helps to earn the public’s ear

Writing in a journal allows us to turn our feelings into words, and helps us gain power over our own thoughts. However, if you want to go to the next step and tell your story to the public, you need two more things. One is the courage to publish. And the other is the willingness to craft the experience into a readable form. Every writer discovers they need to develop skills in order to earn readers, and memoir writers are no different.

In this aspect of confession, Silverman excels. Through her writing skills, she engages my reader’s mind, moving me through each scene and then on to the next. I feel protected by her authorial presence, which occasionally cools me with beautiful language, like a drizzle tickling my skin on a hot summer day.

Her terrible story written in pleasing language, transforms me from a complete stranger to an empathetic listener, learning about the strange, complex desperate love-hatred between father and daughter. I deepen my understanding of her as an individual, and also of us as a race, perceiving the vast and sometimes horrifying range of human experience.

She also wrote a book to help you write your memoir
Silverman’s memoir offers an excellent model of good writing about bad memories. After writing two memoirs, she recently published a guide that can help anyone tell their story. “Fearless Confessions, a Writers Guide to Memoir” offers a roadmap through this difficult terrain.

Statistics about Child Abuse
If you think this is an isolated problem, you are probably under that impression because of the impenetrable silence that surrounds it. For statistics, click here.

For more on Sue William Silverman:

Click here for her website.

Click here for her Women On Writing Blog Tour

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

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8 thoughts on “Fearlessly Confessing the Dark Side of Memory in this Memoir of Sexual Abuse

  1. I good article, and I agree with thrust of it, with a few notable exceptions.

    The appropriate reactions to stories of abuse extend well beyond horror and rage. Compassion is one–for the victim, and by extension, for all victims of violence. Curiosity is another–for what we can learn from one person’s story sheds light on how abuse can be ferreted out and prevented. Celebration/acknowledgement–honoring the writer with the courage and determination and luck and whatever else it took to dig deep and persevere and write an ugly truth well enough that people will read it.

    It is also important to be aware that no two people process abuse the same way. Some are far more sensitve than others, and are traumatized every time they revisit the images that haunt them. Some can barely get through life simply by walling off the memories and keeping their focus on the now. These people are no less, nor more, courageous than people like me and Silverman, who dig for understanding. Everybody processes their stuff in the best way they can. We do what we feel we must.

    From the viewpoint of one who is well into the process of writing about horrendous institutional aubse at a Texas orphanage, I commend Silverman for her accomplishment. It takes much more than mere courage to produce writing about abuse that is accessible to the general public.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Monty. I am glad to hear you too are organizing your own experience into a story you can share.

    Naturally you are free to disagree with anything I say, but in reading your comment over several times I don’t find anything in it I disagree with. Presumably the problem was in my choice of words. These tiny words, these squiggles on the page, seem so inadequate to express the horror and scope of life, and yet to not try to use our words leaves the horror to have its way with us. So we try, and fail, and try again.

    Best wishes with your writing. Please keep in touch.

    Jerry

  3. Seems to me the more we learn about the situations that enabled the perpetrators to keep their secrets, the more we can see the symptoms displayed by those who may be current victims. This can help us make some progress in being better prepared to help the predator as well as the preyed upon.

    Garret

  4. Pingback: 100 Top Memoirs: Sue Silverman’s List Will Give You Even More! | 100 Memoirs

  5. Jerry, as I prepare to give a speech on the purpose of memory, I began to think about the dark side of memory. My inclination is always toward the light, and so I need to think consciously about the dark. Your excellent revew and reflections above offer hope and understanding to those who otherwise might be haunted by memories of abuse. Thank you!

  6. Pingback: 100 Top Memoirs: Sue Silverman’s List Will Give You Even More! @ Shirley Hershey Showalter

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