After listening to the audio version of Alice Sebold’s memoir, “Lucky,” I’m exhausted. She does a spectacular job of bringing me right into her experience, starting from the details of the attack, the numbing and disorienting results of the trauma, the eventual identification of the perpetrator, a detailed, harrowing account of the trial, and along the way, I felt disturbed. If I didn’t know it already, I am now convinced rape is a form of torture every bit as real as the horrors of war.
And it happens without the military ceremonies, the awards of valor, the training, weapons, or body armor. A college girl innocently walks to her dorm, and two hours later, she’s a prisoner of post-traumatic stress disorder. Trauma does not sit comfortably in the mind, so when we’re not in it we try to forget it. And yet, whether we want to think about it or not, it’s real and it’s awful. By sharing her experience, Sebold reminds us of its reality.
So what would make such a book worth reading? Like any story of another human being, such an authentic, well-crafted tale might be your best chance to see life from that other side. If you know anyone who has suffered this trauma, ever expect to be strong enough to help such a person, or want to switch the word rape from an abstract news item to a deeper understanding of the human condition, this book will do it for you. And while the focus is on her own rape-induced PTSD, late in the book, she realizes that war ravaged veterans suffer from many of the same psychological problems as rape victims.
When looking through this book for lessons about your own memoir, take into account that this is the culmination of decades of self-examination, teaching, and writing. Despite all of the power Sebold brings to the project, or perhaps because of it, her writing is exquisitely simple and accessible. Not once in the whole book, not a single sentence, does she pull away into her own world and leave me out of it. She never hides behind fancy, or even pretty words. Through all that training she has learned to be simple and direct. She tells the story. I am so impressed by the simplicity and rawness of her telling, and think it offers a valuable example for any writer.
If you have ever suffered a violent trauma, and you have never been sure how to write about it, or if you feel it’s too raw to put in a memoir, “Lucky” can perhaps offer some insights. Not only is the storytelling simple. It’s also open. I recently interviewed horror writer Jonathan Maberry, author of Bram Stoker award winning novel “Ghost Road Blues.” He explained that the emotional basis for his horror writing is his own actual memory of violent physical abuse. By sharing his real emotions, he injects his writing with the real power of life. He used the word “authentic” and I think it’s a quality that readers have a sixth sense about. If a writer shares real emotion, we feel it.
It is this sixth sense for authenticity that pulls me in so deeply to Sebold’s Lucky. If you can find the authenticity of your own experience, and harness it into a story, you will not only capture your reader, but will also capture the essence of your experience. It’s this combination of real shared experience, real to you and shared in an authentic way with the reader that makes memoirs so exciting, a window into our individual universes.
When our experiences are so raw, our initial attempts to describe them usually spill out in an unpleasant, disorganized way. We say the same things over and over. We hide. We don’t have words to describe our complex feelings. The trauma breaks down all the sense that has come before, and even turns sense upside down. How can you describe a life that itself no longer feels safe or reasonable. After violent trauma, victims feel isolated inside this strange senseless world. As they try to regain order, they want to reconnect with people. Humans live together in a shared experience. We like to believe our world has the same rules that other people have. In fact, one definition of insanity is that you think your world works differently than everyone else’s.
So to regain sanity, trauma victims try to convince other people that their story makes sense. But how? The people they are trying to tell also feel disturbed by the trauma and shrink away from hearing it. Perhaps the only way to find that connection with others is through writing. People accept terrible things in movies and books. Writing seems to bypass our natural abhorrence, and we can let in some of the horror. It bridges the gap between trauma and normalcy.
Sebold has spent much of her life processing on her attack, starting with her first rage filled poem about the rape shortly after the event. She has taken years to turn the emotional upheaval and horror into a story that is readable by others. And finally, by creating this story, she is able to share it with others who have suffered, or those who give care to sufferers, or anyone looking to understand the dark side of human experience in a way that allows them to hang on to their hope.
While writing doesn’t convert horror into amiable pleasantries, it does transform it into something that makes a sort of sense. In fact, much of life is an accumulation of stories, and we turn to these stories to find sense. Look at the very core of religion, much of which is communicated in stories. And we try to make sense about all kinds of things by telling stories. Writing breaks down the walls that isolate you from others and it also breaks down the walls that separate you from your own experience. So by telling your story, even about something that makes no sense, in a way the story itself makes it feel more organized, more like it fits in with the way the world works. Look to the storytelling to incorporate these events into your life and keep going.
The motivation behind writing a memoir can add an interesting dimension to our understanding of the events that take place on the page. In the quote below, Sebold explains:
“One of the reasons why I wrote it is because tons of people have had similar stories, not exactly the same but similar, and I want the word ‘rape’ to be used easily in conversation. My desire would be that somehow my writing would take a little bit of the taboo or the weirdness of using that word away. No one work is going to accomplish the years of work that need to be done, but it can help.”
In fact, her intention has certainly been realized in my own willingness to write about this troubling topic and talk about it in my writing classes. I believe this is one of the great powers of the memoir revolution — that as more of us turn life into story, we build a shared language that breaks through all sorts of silences and helps us increase our mutual compassion and understanding.
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