Memoirs heal the moral injury of rape

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Some memoirs take me so far into the darkness of human experience, I must struggle through my own moral despair in order to read. And yet despite my revulsion, I forge ahead. Why do I or any of us do this? The answer reveals one of the pillars of the modern memoir movement.

Memoir readers trust that in exchange for our willingness to accompany the author through hell, the story will also show positive forces that elevate our spirits. Such qualities as effort, wisdom, compassion, and spirituality carry us back to hope. After reading 100s of memoirs, I have never been disappointed. Every author has maintained his or her part in this implicit bargain.

Take one of the more horrific ones, for example — Lucky, by Alice Sebold. The cops called her “lucky” because her rapist didn’t kill her. Recently I read another memoir, if possible even more terrible than Sebold’s. Leona Stucky in her memoir Fog of Faith was raped, not by a stranger but by her boyfriend. Then, through a series of deadly threats against her and her family, he coerced her into marrying him. Even after she escaped, he continued to hunt her down.

As if the violence itself wasn’t bad enough, the normal avenues of justice and healing were cut off, adding to the author’s despair. For one thing, the laws of the time were so strongly influenced by patriarchal marriage, the police were unable to intervene. And second, Leona Stucky grew up as a devout Mennonite. Her community’s passivism assured her that God would defend the innocent.

One predatory man stole years of her life. His repeated assaults led to PTSD. In addition, he wrecked her faith in God, forcing her into an absurdist fog, where she vacillated crazily between refusing to believe he existed at all to wanting to blame him for all her problems. In a sense, his behavior destroyed her at a moral level.

Stucky’s experience brought her face to face with evil, and forced her into a personal battle with the age-old theological question “How could a loving God permit evil?” Theologians call this the Theodicy Problem and have spent thousands of years trying to answer it. In the last few decades, psychologists have entered the debate, not so much to try to understand why it would happen but rather to help us recover from its ravages.

Moral injury and the betrayal of beliefs

The American psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, after years of working with Vietnam vets concluded that combat damages sanity in part because it destroys trust in a compassionate, well-ordered universe. Shay explained his proposal in the book Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.

Since Shay gave Moral Injury a name, psychologists have been using the concept to learn how to help combat soldiers recover from PTSD. But combat is not the only cause for this disruption in moral order. Violent or sexual child abuse, rape, violent crime, terrorism, betrayal, and unexpected, untimely, or unexplainable loss of a loved one can all destroy one’s trust in a sane, safe universe.

At the time of their rapes, neither Alice Sebold or Leona Stucky had much guidance to help them repair the psychic damage of these horrific events. So each author went on a long journey to heal her own damaged soul. Reading their memoirs lets us join these two incredibly gifted intelligent women in their effort to repair themselves.

How could a loving God let this happen?

During Leona Stucky’s attempt to escape her spiritual wilderness, she fell in love with a divinity student. Their hours of debate about God’s purpose and presence continued for years.

Their discussions, and her own desperate longing for a loving God add a fascinating dimension to the story. In the end, she didn’t exactly solve theodicy problem. After all it has defied theologians for thousands of years. So if she didn’t resolve her theological struggle, how did she fulfill her implied promise to her readers to uplift us by the end?

To understand why her story helped her and me make better sense of evil, I turned to Alice Sebold’s memoir for an important clue.

At the time of her rape, Sebold was a student in a creative writing class at Syracuse University taught by Tobias Wolff. Wolff. His memoir This Boy’s Life became one of a handful of bestsellers that launched the modern Memoir Revolution. After she told him what happened, Wolff told Sebold to “remember everything.” His instruction guided her toward the eventual development of her book.

Perhaps that is the real reason Alice Sebold was lucky. In the thick of her suffering, her writing teacher handed her a tool that could help her process her pain. Sebold’s book helped her contain and share her moral injury and demonstrated that memoirs of horrific experiences offer an important tool for the modern mind.

Leona Stucky determination to write about her experience came after decades of wrestling with psychology and theology. In the end, Stucky came to the same conclusion as Alice Sebold. In order to survive the corrosive effects of her soulful wounds, Stucky felt ccompelled to wrap the whole painful ordeal, including a lifetime of heroic seeking for sanity, into a literary container.

The two authors, narrated their horrific traumas, and their long journey back to wholeness, thus revealing a profound psychological truth known to all cultures throughout history. Stories frame and contain our experiences, including suffering and evil, in a way that our minds (in particular the higher cognitive functions of the Prefrontal Cortex) can comprehend.

The Memoir Revolution has given us the opportunity to translate our experiences including ones that shake the very foundations of our emotional stability, into a sensible story. In this form, we can then share ourselves with compassionate readers.

Memoir readers can’t rescue the author from horrific experiences, but we do the next best thing. We use our social awareness, wisdom and love to help the author understand that her memories have now become incorporated into our shared experience. By converting private hells into sharable, socially accessible stories, we develop a language for collective hope and effort.

Leona Stucky’s story demonstrates the psychological struggle many of us face in midlife. Whereas earlier in our lives, in order to say energized, we did everything we could to dismiss or overlook the past, as we grow older, we find an increasing urgency to make sense of that past. And we can only do that through the development of our stories.

By teasing apart our journeys, especially the dark times, and the ensuing compassion and courage, scene by scene and chapter by chapter, we can deeply understand our own intellectual, psychological, and philosophical evolution.

And as memoir readers, we can accompany any number of sufferers of trauma, through their moral injury and then on their long journey to make peace within themselves. Through Story, we join together to release our shaming wounds into the embrace of social acceptance and appreciation.

Notes and Links

Leona Stucky’s Website
Check out Fog of Faith by Leona Stucky on Amazon

More articles on Memoirs and Moral Injury by Jerry Waxler
Alice Sebold and the moral injury of rape
Response to the moral injury of an untimely death of an infant
Repairing self-concept through memoir writing
Kate Braestrup’s solution to the theodicy problem
The moral injury of war
A website that explains  Moral Injury

More resources on moral injury
Recovery from child sexual abuse, Leaving the Saints by Martha Beck 
Documentary movie about combat vets and moral injury
Soul Repair at Brite Divinity School
Awesome interview with Leona Stucky about writing her memoir

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

Kate Braestrup’s memoir transforms grief into love

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

At the beginning of the memoir, “Here If You Need Me,” Kate Braestrup takes us into her home, sharing her romantic, mutually respectful marriage to a state trooper, their love for their children, and their plans for the future. It seems like an ideal relationship. And then bam! In an instant, her partnership is torn asunder by an auto accident. The cereal bowl from which Drew had eaten an hour earlier sits in the sink while his body lies across the front seat of his police cruiser, the life crushed out of it by a broadside collision.

Now that Drew is dead, Braestrup continues to let us into her heart, this time to cry with her, while she learns the ancient lessons of grief. In order to raise her young children and get her life back on track, she enrolls in school to become a minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church. After graduating, she works as a chaplain for the State Game Warden Service in Maine. Traipsing around the countryside, she comforts loved ones while the wardens searched for lost children, potential suicides, and accident victims. If the search ends with a death, she offers the survivors condolences, embraces, and support.

On her journey from grief back into full connection with the living, Braestrup sets her sights beyond her personal experience. Through her study to be a minister and her work with the public, she raises huge questions, and then through the magic of storytelling makes me feel that together we can understand it all. As a result, this memoir turns out to be one of the most intelligent, loving, and compassionate books about life and death that I have ever read. It is one of those rare books I feel pulled to read again, and in fact, it was only after my third time that I began to tease it apart to see how such a simple story could carry me so far.

Her job with the game wardens takes her through the woods and across streams. With them she flies through the air, drives across ice, awaits the recovery of swimmers who had fallen 70 feet over a waterfall, stands in frigid silence as divers search for a body beneath the solid surface of a river, holds a mother’s hand as the wardens search the woods for a missing child. Through Braestrup’s eyes, nature becomes a backdrop for life, and also a backdrop for death. A tree grows through the skeleton of a dead body. A bear plays with a skull as if it’s a toy. After the death of her husband, Kate Braestrup dresses his corpse with her own hands, certainly the most affection directed towards a dead body that I have ever considered. Her relationship to his earthly remains expands my notion of death, by embedding it lovingly within the natural order.

Despite her religious training, or perhaps because of it, she treats people with equal tenderness no matter what their affiliation, or even if they have no interest in religion at all. To her, religion is simply one of the ways humans have chosen to explain love. Take for example this incident in which she consoles the brother of a woman who killed herself. The brother asks Braestrup if she thinks a suicide victim can receive a Christian burial. Here’s what she says.

“The game wardens have been walking in the rain all day, walking through the woods in the freezing rain trying to find your sister. They would have walked all day tomorrow, walked in the cold rain the rest of the week, searching for Betsy, so they could bring her home to you. And if there is one thing I am sure of, one thing I am very, very sure of, Dan, it is that God is not less kind, less committed, or less merciful than a Maine game warden.”

At the center of the book lies the great theological question, “How can an all powerful compassionate God allow evil in the world?” Attempting to answer this question is known as “theodicy” and whether we know it has a name or not, many of us grapple with it. If we conclude that suffering proves God cannot exist, we cut ourselves off from a valuable source of hope. For example, after my brother died of cancer, my dad landed on the “God can’t exist” side of theodicy. His choice drained his vitality. My mother responded to Ed’s death by extending her search for truth, a decision that allowed her to become an increasingly generous and spiritual person.

Braestrup steers through the battle of good and evil with exquisite finesse and dignity and comes up with an inspirational message. After a particularly horrifying crime was committed in the woods of Maine, she quotes the devil who threatens all goodness by claiming his forces are legion. In the aftermath of that crime, the community, whose hearts had been broken, stepped forward to care for those who suffered. Through Braestrup’s eyes, I feel this outpouring, and I agree with her that the multitudes of people are basically good. After making this case she throws it back in the devil’s face, asserting that he’s wrong about which side has the real advantage. “No,” she says. “We are legion.”

Guided by her images and explanations, the theodicy problem collapses into a tribute to love. From a psychological standpoint, I suppose grieving might mean simply recovering poise. Her story shifts the focus and shows how grief can extend what it means to be human. In fact, I wonder if this is the central challenge of grieving, to return from the loss that rips apart your soul, while accepting the presence of hope and goodness in the universe.

Writing Prompt: Consider the things, people, or opportunities you have lost. Write a story about that loss, but instead of letting the story lead you towards your pain, start from where it hurts, and move forward from there. Describe how you regained sanity, confidence, and the other things you have needed in order to maintain your healthy connection with life. Take advantage of tips from the Hero’s Journey, and focus on the allies and amulets that helped you proceed on your quest.


For another memoir of grieving see Joan Didion’s “A Year of Magical Thinking” in which she describes with exquisite insight her relationship with the person who is no longer here, and how her mind works and doesn’t work during the year following her tragic loss.

See also “Losing Jonathan” by Robert and Linda Waxler about recovering from the loss of their son.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.