I was reading Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liar’s Club, and I had to stop at a rape scene. I picked it up the next day, skimmed the scene, and began reading again as she was walking home from the terrible incident. The book chronicles the fear she had towards her grandmother, who was both dying of cancer and abusive to her family, as well as the apparent PTSD that entrapped her body. I put it down once I realized that the entire book would be this way: a grim recounting of her most painful memories. I didn’t want to go through that with her.
That’s the thing about memoir. I love getting inside someone’s head, but I don’t have any desire to relive the writer’s most traumatic events alongside them. Rape scenes, accounts of abusive family members, “war stories,” in general, aren’t that different from each other. Reading or viewing them on screen feels like a pointless endeavor, where I risk secondary traumatization. I want to know how you lived. Sure, tell me about your trauma, so I have context, but as they say in rehab, “headlines, not details.” (A rule that wasn’t enacted until my second time in treatment.)
I didn’t always feel this way. It was helpful to hear people’s war stories at the beginning of my journey. It felt good to know that I wasn’t alone, but more than that, it felt good to feel. Hearing about the darkest and most horrific events in someone’s life made me weep in rehab. My memory of support groups is that of constant sobbing. A purging. Finally, finally, feeling.
After treatment, that went away. Slowly, I left the pink cloud of early sobriety, and my pathologies started to do battle with my sanity. I’d learned that vulnerability was the key to emotional freedom. That “shame lives in secrecy,” in the words of our deeply revered Brené Brown. So I continued to share as often as I could, recounting my own rape scenes diligently, to whoever could stand to listen. I stopped experiencing that grand purge I felt initially, unfortunately, and I found myself telling my story in the hopes that someone would cry. If I could see someone else being affected by my horrors, maybe I could begin to feel again.
My most frequent confidant was the sister of my boyfriend at that time. She and I had been in treatment together, so we continued where we left off; sharing, sharing, sharing. I thought it was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. It’d helped so much just a few months prior. I doubt there is anything that happened to Lydia that I wasn’t made aware of. Deeply, unsettlingly, aware. She would likely say the same about me. In fact, I know she would, as she cut off our friendship after about a year, explaining that we needed to be able to connect over more than our trauma. By that time, I wholeheartedly agreed, but it was too late to communicate that with her.
Vulnerability stopped working for me. I didn’t understand why it was happening, so I pressed on, shoving my story down my own throat just as often as my friends’. I got this habit of driving past one of the homes I was assaulted in. Sometimes I would park. I would sit and stare at the Casa, the pseudo-commune that I’d lived in during my rock bottom. I tried to cry. I played the music that reminded me of my pain and sat, unmoving, attempting to feel. Nothing.
In hindsight, I think I stopped feeling after rehab because, a) I no longer felt safe, and b) feeling wasn’t exactly my forte. It was an actual anomaly that I managed to emote to the extent that I did during my month-long stint in treatment. So vulnerability became my booze, in a sense. I’d used alcohol to feel. I began over-sharing to feel.
I have written a couple of detailed accounts of my own rapes. When I got sober, I immediately started to write my memoir. It’s fragmented and it’s not any good. It was also not helpful whatsoever to my healing process. As a result, what has occurred instead, is writing pieces like these. Afterthoughts. Hindsight. Here is What I Learned. This is How Experience A informed Experience B. I find more value here. The span of time where the gruesome Story was helpful to hear was extremely short for me. I can’t imagine the duration is very long for anyone because what begins as catharsis turns quickly to trauma bonding. Still, the literary genre of memoir remains.
My intention when I set out to write my own memoir was to show the reader How I Survived. I think I succeed at that occasionally. Mostly, I write What I Learned. This speaks to my case against extreme vulnerability, as well as my personality, which is inherently invested in learning and growth. I suppose I’m not a memoirist, after all.
I don’t drive past the Casa anymore. I don’t speak to Lydia. I don’t sit on my parent’s back porch feeding my mom my pain, subconsciously trying to get her to cry, hoping that it will let my own tears shed. I misunderstood Brené’s message about vulnerability. I think she really wants us to be honest with ourselves. Own our stories. Talk about them when it’s helpful. Don’t keep our skeletons in the closet, because they become monsters that way.
I wish I hadn’t pushed my trauma onto my loved ones, but it was out of the sincere desire to be vulnerable. To heal. None of it felt real anymore. The Casa looked like any other house in the valley. When my story left my lips, it felt as if someone had placed a tape recorder in my mouth, and pressed play. As if I wasn’t doing the talking. I just watched myself do it. That was not real vulnerability as Brené seeks to teach it, but it’s what I thought it was.
When I read a memoir, part of the reason I can’t put it down, is the craving I get for resolution. I will blow through 300 pages in half a day if it means I get to see the author come out the other side, and tell me how they finally got there. I don’t want to read your rape scenes. Not because I don’t care, but because I do. If you want to talk about your trauma, tell me how you felt. Tell me how it affected you. Show me how it turned your world upside down, and inside out. Tell me what you learned.