A Difficult Reckoning: A Review of Grace Talusan’s THE BODY PAPERS
In this brave and piercing debut memoir, Filipino American author Grace Talusan confronts the traumas of childhood sexual abuse, the burdens of being an undocumented immigrant, the loss of a homeland, and early experiences of racial discrimination, to gain insight into a life that can only be made whole through this difficult reckoning. In order to heal herself, she must violate an unspoken rule in the culture of her ancestors by speaking her truth, even if it leads to her family’s loss of face. The culture of silence Talusan’s parents were raised under becomes a burden on the entire family as they silently carry their traumas, both lived and inherited, in their bodies, and it is their daughter, Grace, who takes a courageous first step towards truth-telling and healing by writing this memoir. “What did die was the version of me that was willing to protect those who did not deserve protection,” Talusan writes, finding liberation from her traumas by unburdening herself of all her filial obligations to her abuser, and sharing her story with the world.
Though much of this memoir is centered around the abuse Talusan suffered at the hands of a relative, this harrowing and heartbreaking experience is framed within a larger narrative of immigration, loss, and displacement. Talusan chafes against the strictures of her parents’ culture, especially as she becomes more Americanized, only understanding the true gravity of her losses, such as her loss of fluency in her first language, once she is older. It is understandable how a young Filipina American woman, who has assimilated into American culture more successfully than her parents, would feel constrained by a culture to which she no longer fully belongs, and which requires from her the kind of silence that will protect her abuser at the expense of her well-being. Talusan deftly navigates the uneasy coexistence of these two worlds in their family life as she contemplates the losses they had to endure as they adjusted to a new culture, while also confronting, with honesty and compassion, the various layers of oppression within their home culture that kept her parents from fully shedding the burdens of their traumas.
What Talusan has as a writer is the ability to reflect on the methods of coping that her parents employed to deal with their pain, and to draw from her observations a more complete awareness of the healing process that she can apply in her own life. “As horrifying and unfunny as these stories were, humor allowed my father to move his stories of suffering from the dark place where he hid them into the light,” she observes, reflecting on how her father made light of the horrific abuse he suffered as a child growing up in Tondo. “In turn, hearing these stories allowed me to connect the dots and see violence and trauma as on a continuum, and to understand that what had happened to me was not my fault.” With compassion and insight, Talusan finds strength in her family’s story of survival as she forges a path of her own.