Monday, November 26, 2012

Bearing Witness to Harm Done: Reading, Writing & Trauma

Left Bound
Stories are often appeal to our desire to find out about someone else's secrets. Secrets can be so compelling that we don't even care if it's a fake secret that a fictitious character is holding onto; it's still a secret and therefore interesting. Unlike fiction, real life secrets are often painful to keep, but equally painful to share, and it's often hard to say whether it's worse to keep a big secret or to let it out and deal with the repercussions.

The last twist in an Agatha Christie novel is the secret that keeps you turning the pages. The same can be said for a romance where you have to know if the couple you've been rooting for stays together in the end . . . and if they make it through the sequel. In real life, the secrets are often darker: abuse and violence are secrets too, and survivors often assume, correctly, that the pain of keeping a secret is better than what might happen if they share. When Chris Crutcher spoke at the 2012 SCBWI Winter Conference in New York City, he shared several poignant stories, but one really stuck with me. Most well-known children's book authors are used to fans sticking around after author visits, but as a psychologist, Crutcher could see that one fan in particular needed to talk to him about something beyond enjoying his books.
The fan, a girl sitting in the front row, waited until everyone else had left the auditorium. Then, she went up to Crutcher and thanked him for writing Chinese Handcuffs because the abuse she was enduring at home was such a painful secret, she didn't even know it had a name. The book didn't make the abuse stop, but it made her feel less alone, and let her know that someone understood what she was going through. After he shared this story, Crutcher pointed out that this situation underscores the need to talk about the tough issues in YA books instead of shying away from them because they are unpleasant. The unfortunate reality is that most of us will have painful experiences in adolescence or early adulthood, and every time those experiences are censored from stories, songs, and movies, the message is that it is okay to sweep people under the rug if they've had experiences we think are unseemly.

By incorporating the painful pieces of human experience into stories, writers provide a powerful way for survivors to feel validated. These stories also can help instill hope that even though some experiences are painful at the time, they can be overcome and you can heal and emerge even stronger. Sherman Alexie shared some powerful examples of this in his article responding to calls to censor or ban "dark" YA. Sometimes the painful secret is the shame brought on by everyone telling you that you aren't college material or that you'll never amount to anything because of what you look like, where you were born, etc.

The unfiltered honesty in books like Frank Warren's PostSecret series can also be cathartic for all those thoughts and experiences we think nobody else has. Okay, some of the "secrets" in Warren's books are a bit out there, but most readers share more with the sentiments expressed in the postcards than they would care to admit. I finally had the opportunity to read My Secret: A PostSecret Book and I love it! For anyone out there who shares my love of art books, you will love it too. It even comes with stickers! Since the copy I have is from the local library, I restrained myself from playing with the stickers. (Would anyone tell if I gave-in?)

It's hard to choose a favorite postcard since they are all lovely and poignant, but the most appropriate one for this post is this: "Sometimes, when we think we are keeping a secret, that secret is actually keeping us."--Frank