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Abuse

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I wasn’t planning on doing this April A to Z thing – but here I am, literally at the eleventh hour (it’s just 2300h here in Ireland), but I have a thing about synchronicity and when two of my friends on Twitter tweeted in quick succession about having taken up the mantle, I thought about it.

Then, I dismissed the notion. I’m busy. (Everyone’s busy – that’s no excuse and I know it).  A few hours later, however, I realised that April is Sexual Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month. I thought I might like to blog about that. Then, my friend Barbara Bos suggested the challenge on a page for writers that she manages. About two seconds after I posted a reply saying, basically ‘Great idea, I’ll think about it’, the two thoughts collided in my brain and I realised that this blog challenge is a great platform with which to raise awareness of sexual abuse. After all, it is a key theme in my book and much of my academic research.

So, here I am. Committing to twenty six posts this month, on this blog, on the subject of sexual abuse and working my way through the English alphabet as I do so. Wish me luck!

Sexual abuse can happen to anyone – male or female, young or old, able-bodied or otherwise. Likewise, sexual assault can be perpetrated by anyone; male or female (though in over 90% of cases, the perpetrator is male), young or old, able-bodied or otherwise, stranger, friend or family member. Any sexual act which takes place without consent is assault. It is never the fault of the victim and a person who is asleep, drunk, drugged or too terrified to speak cannot give consent, so any act perpetrated on their person is assault.

Rape, assault and abuse are in and of themselves acts of violence. Though the criminal may use other types of physical violence, it is not at all unusual for them to ‘just’ use threats and coercion. Indeed, when a person is the victim of repeated assaults from the same person, and has been groomed by them, additional violence is rarely needed to subdue the victim.

Abuse has a profound, long-term and detrimental effect on the victim.  It takes so much from the person who is abused: Those of us who survive are aware that something precious – something that can never be given back – has been taken from us.

If you have been a victim of rape, sexual assault or sexual abuse, or if you are supporting someone who has, please contact your nearest rape crisis centre. If you are feeling anxious, depressed or suicidal as a result of sexual trauma, please contact your nearest rape crisis centre or your nearest branch of the Samaritans. 

Many Voices

Last month, I was delighted when Barbara Bos, asked me to write a few words for the website ‘Women Writers, Women’s Books‘.

I wrote about how I change ‘voices’ depending on what type of writing I’m doing. You can read that piece here:

Many Voices

I’ve published one book – but written 50!

In November, I published the first volume of my memoirs. Called ‘Gullible Travels’, it is – by the very fact of being a memoir! – a hugely personal tale about the ten years I spent in Asia, married to the wrong men and desperate to become a mother.

Keen to avoid being labelled a ‘misery lit’ writer, I wove the back story of the sexual abuse I lived through into the book, rather than making it the focus. I thought that would make the subject easier for people to read and – crucially – I used a different font for the descriptions of abuse, so that people who didn’t want to read those parts could just skip over them.

A therapist who heard me speak at a conference on trauma a year and a half ago got in touch to say that, having read the book, she was recommending it to some of her clients, in an attempt to help them make sense of their own behaviour.

A woman in her early thirties emailed to let me know that she’d sat up until 2am to finish the book (on a school night!). For her, I’d written a book about maternal love. Another woman emailed to let me know that she had spent four years in therapy after her husband left her; and one line in Gullible Travels made more sense to her regarding her situation than all the things her therapist had said in that time. One reader emailed me from Australia to let me know that she was applauding me – she felt Gullible Travels was a testament to the strength of the human spirit. Many women have been in touch to disclose their own abuse, and to express the feeling that, finally, someone understands.

It’s not just women who are reading my book, of course. Men are contacting me to let me know that Gullible Travels has had an effect on them, too.  Some are shocked at the behaviour of other men – and write, telling me of their resolve to be even more mindful of how they speak to, and treat, women. Others are relieved that they never treated a woman as badly as I have been treated by members of the opposite sex. One man wrote to thank me for helping him to understand a former girlfriend who had been sexually abused. He was planning on getting in touch with her – armed with this new understanding – to see if they could give it another go.

Every few days, I get a message via email or social media from a reader to let me know that they have read my book and how it has impacted them. Never having written a memoir before, I am astonished by how people are reacting to it. I thought I’d written one book, but it seems I’ve written several.

Expansion

Expansion

I gave up making New Year’s Resolutions many moons ago. For so many people, they are just sticks to beat themselves with. They are something else to fail at. So many people make resolutions before they are ready to keep them – otherwise, they’d have made them before the new year. Anyway, who says that we can only make changes to our lives at the beginning of the year? That seems a bit restrictive to me.

This year, instead of a ‘resolution’ (or a list of them!), I have a word. Just a single word that I will use to guide me throughout the year. That word is ‘Expansion’. Even thinking it makes me smile, it makes me breathe deeper, it fills me with excitement.

Expansion is, perhaps, the first cousin of Abundance, but this year, it was expansion that demanded my attention as a theme for 2016. Choosing a word as a theme feels like a much gentler thing to do with, and for, and to, myself than giving myself a list of ‘resolutions’.

Expansion is going to be fun; it will probably throw a few challenges at me, but that’s okay – I enjoy a challenge. Expansion is a good, inclusive, word. The more I expand, the more I have space for: More space for more relationships; more space for nurturing the relationships I already hold dear; more space for more learning; more space for more ideas; more space for more books (!); more space for more thinking; more space for more loving; more space for more action.

If you were to choose a word to guide your year, what would it be?

Ten Things Writing a Memoir Taught Me About Writing A Memoir.

As you know, I published my memoir, Gullible Travels, in November. This book is my first memoir, but not my first published work by a long shot. Memoir writing, however, is very different to the other types of writing – academic writing, screenwriting, playwriting, and writing for a variety of magazines from financial to parenting – that I had previously done.

So, while writing Gullible Travels, I learnt a few things about writing in this genre, which I am delighted to share with you here:

Do your therapy first!

I have very strong feelings on this one – it’s a complete non-negotiable, as far as I’m concerned. If you are going to write about something that’s upsetting or difficult, don’t use writing your memoir as therapy. Do your therapy first, work through your stuff, and then write your book. Your reader’s job is not to work through your shit for you. That’s your job, and yours alone.

Sure, writing is therapeutic, keeping a journal is good for all of us, but do that work first, before you write you book. The way you write for yourself and the way you write for an audience are (should be!) very different.

You don’t have to begin at the beginning.

Years ago, I read that the difference between an autobiography and a memoir is that the former covers your entire life – from when you were born until the time the book is written. A memoir, on the other hand, covers a specific time or event; whether that’s a decade or two in your life, your recovery from an illness, or your year travelling through Africa on a goat.

When you have decided which part of your life story it is you want to tell, bear in mind that you don’t have to start at the beginning. Drop in in the middle of your anecdote, if that makes more sense, or is a more interesting point to start. Hit the ground running, and take your readers with you.

You can be honest without being cruel. 

One of the women who made more than a brief appearance in my book was a champion farter. It didn’t matter where she was – her home, your home, a friend’s home, a restaurant, a five-star hotel, or the bus – she would happily, blissfully trumpet away without as much as a ‘Pardon me’ the entire time I knew her!

Of course, I could have included this piece of information – but to what end? (oops!). It would just embarrass her, and it wouldn’t necessarily add anything to the narrative. Even though it’s completely true, I had already given plenty of indication of how difficult our relationship was – so this piece of information wouldn’t have shed any new light on the situation.

Not every anecdote needs to be included. 

I have quite a few funny stories that didn’t make it in to Gullible Travels, but they don’t need to be included in the book.

Doubtless, you have a sackful of those kind of anecdotes as well – interesting, amusing things that have happened to you along the way. Don’t put yourself under pressure to include them; you’re not concealing material facts by doing so. Keep them for your book launch, for interviews, and for when you’re speaking at events. Or even just for sharing with people over lunch, or at parties.

Two can become one without it becoming a ‘lie’ or a fiction.

There may well be certain people who need to feature in your memoir that you don’t want to identify, but who are necessary to the narrative. Beyond changing their names, you can change the sex of a person and their relationship to you. For example, your raging alcoholic Aunt Bertha can be transformed into your raging alcoholic Uncle Benny (who also happens to be a priest). Or you can turn two of your boyfriends from when you were 16/17 into one boy.

In Gullible Travels, for example, ‘The Horrible Boy’ is actually three people amalgamated into one. While all the events attributed to ‘The Horrible Boy’ took place, the abuse by one was very similar to the abuse by another, so it would have added nothing to the narrative to have separated them out – in fact, it may well have confused the reader trying to keep so many abusers straight in their heads. Having just one identity also supported the repetitive nature of the abuse, and the dissociation that is mentioned in the book.

Writing in dialect can be a distraction.

If someone in your life/book speaks in a particular dialect, or with a specific accent, it’s probably best not to try to reproduce it on the page. As well as being a distraction to the eye, it may not be ‘heard’ in the reader’s ‘mind’s ear’ the way you hear it in your memory. The best thing to do, really, is to write the words that the person meant, fully and completely.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that writing in a dialect or reproducing an accent on the page can also present problems for your translators further down the road.

When recounting dialogue, the rules of fiction apply.

When I started writing my memoir, I thought I needed to be completely faithful, in my recounting of conversations, to what was actually said. Halfway through the first draft, however, I realised that wasn’t useful. Just as when I was writing for stage and screen, I needed to keep dialogue to the essence of what was said: The meaning needed to be conveyed to retain the truth of whatever conversation I was recounting, but every word did not have to be set down on the page. Actual speech can be very repetitive, full of half-finished sentences, thoughts that aren’t completed, and meanderings that aren’t necessary to the story you’re telling.

Sometimes, the conversation itself doesn’t even need to be recounted at all. You can simply say ‘We shouted at each other for two and a half hours without resolving anything’. Or ‘By the end of the discussion – which we returned to on a daily basis for a week – we decided boarding school was the best option.’

Even though it’s a memoir, your job is still to entertain your reader. 

Your memoir might be dealing with the darkest, bleakest of human experiences, but it can still be entertaining. My book, for example, is about being sexually abused (by several people) as a child; re-victimisation; abusive marriages; miscarriages, and lots of other un-funny subjects. Even with those subjects as the material for the book, the one thing I repeatedly hear from people who read Gullible Travels is that they can’t put it down. Some people even tell me that they laugh when they’re reading it. Good! I’m delighted.

I want to entertain the people who are giving their time to me and my book. That, I believe, is the contract between writer and reader; they read your work with the expectation that they will enjoy it, and you must do your best to render unto them something that will amuse them.

Be clear about your motivation. 

One question you need to ask yourself is why you want to write your memoir.  It doesn’t have to be something deep and profound – having a cracking great story you want to tell is reason enough.

I wrote Gullible Travels because someone else told me that – in spite of it being my story – it wasn’t about me. The point of writing that book, I was told, was (among other things) so that other women could identify and remove themselves from abusive relationships; so people who haven’t been abused could better understand how it affects those of us who have been, and so people who have been abused would realise they are not alone.

Of course, you don’t have to write for publication. I know quite a few people who have written memoirs in order to preserve their memories for future generations of their families. These books are prized possessions by those who are entrusted with them.

A word of caution, however; a desire for revenge is not a good motivator. If that’s why you write your memoir, then you can be sure that your writing will appear bitter, mean-spirited, and will make for squirmy reading.

Remember, it’s your memoir.

The book you’re writing is your memoir. It is your story. It is yours to tell the way you want to tell it. You are under no obligation to explain, excuse, interpret or analyse anyone else’s behaviour.  Write your own story, write it in your own voice, and write it with all the integrity you can muster.

Consent

Listening to Louise O’Neill chatting with Seán Moncrieff today had me thinking about consent again. Particularly and specifically consent in the context of sexual relations. Now, when I say ‘sexual relations’ I don’t just mean penetrative sexual intercourse. I mean everything up to, and including, penetrative sexual intercourse; and, yes, that includes snogging.

 

It really isn’t okay to lunge at someone and ‘lob the gob’ (as the young people say), stick your tongue in their mouth and swish it around a bit. Uninvited, unwelcome, that’s assault.

 

I remember the first time someone asked me if they could kiss me; it really surprised me, and I thought it was a bit quaint and slightly old-fashioned. Afterwards, though, I realised that it was probably the most respectful thing a man could do before kissing a woman. Now, I expect it. I don’t know if consent is such a huge issue for me because – for most of my life – who touched me, and when, was not something I had any control over; or if it’s simply because it’s a respectful way of going about things.

In discussions about consent, I have heard people dismiss the obtaining of it as ‘not sexy’.  Personally, I find it really sexy. I find it very sexy when a man doesn’t assume that I’m there to be touched as, and when, and where, he feels like it. I find it quite sexy that he considers me important enough in the proceedings to find out before touching me that it really is something I want.  And, let’s face it, if I’m in a position (no pun intended!) where a man is asking consent, chances are it will be granted. There again, it might not be – I might say ‘no’, or ‘not yet’ or ‘wait’ but at least I have been consulted about what happens to my body. The effect that has on me is intoxicating. Knowing that nothing will happen to me until I have granted permission for it to happen also means that I relax and am much more in the moment – and much more open to enjoying it – than I would be otherwise. I’m not tensely on guard, aware that the moment might well arise where I have to fight someone off.

Also, it’s so much nicer to be asked for permission than to be in the situation where you have to stay ‘stop!’ or ‘don’t’ or push someone away. Particularly for those of us who have been sexually abused, and where having things done to us without warning, and without consent is triggering. It can be very difficult to stop someone who starts to do something unwelcome when your historical experience is that your pleas will either be ignored, or met with more force. In those instances, we’re less likely to feel as though we’re active participants in a pleasurable exercise than we are to feel that we’re objects being subjected to activity. This can result in ‘stop’ being screamed in our heads, but never making it past being more than a lump in our throats. It can also result in dissociation, meaning we’re no longer even in the room – which is a bit sad when you fancy someone and have been looking forward to a good spit-swapping session (or more).

The last time I snogged someone, I tried to discuss how I felt about consent. I explained that, if his hand was to end up anywhere between my neck and knee, I either wanted to be the one who put it there, or to be asked first if it was okay. He was surprised.

‘I’d hate you to be uncomfortable,’ he explained. I knew this already. The reason we were kissing in the first place was that I’d decided he was one of life’s nice guys, and that I was probably as safe with him as I could reasonably expect to be with any man. ‘But I’m kissing you. And when I’m kissing you, it feels natural to want to touch you, and to want to run my hands over your body. If I do something you don’t like – then tell me to stop and I will.’

I have no doubt he would have stopped if I’d asked him to, but – really – that’s too late. You’ve already done something to me that I don’t want you to, you’ve already breached my trust, you’ve already made me anxious. Also, as I explained earlier, for those of us with a history of sexual abuse, saying ‘stop’ can be difficult.

At the other end of the spectrum, I renewed an acquaintance with a very lovely man about six months ago. We hadn’t met since 1999 (we live thousands of kilometres away from each other) – and the last time we’d seen each other, we’d been kissing. I was hoping we’d pick up where we’d left off. We did.

In and of itself, that was lovely; but what was lovelier was the fact that he did nothing without making absolutely sure first that it was something I wanted. It started with him telling me – when we were arranging to meet – that he wanted to kiss me, and asking if that would be okay; to asking permission to hold my hand when we were out walking, to checking with me, when we alone and getting cosy, that his intentions were acceptable before acting on them.

After about a week of this wonderfulness, I asked him about it.

‘Consent is really important to me,’ I told him. ‘But why is it important to you? Why are you so aware of it? Why do you always ask me before you touch me?’

‘Because I was raised to have respect for women – and I respect you,’ came the response. ‘And I can’t just presume that because I want something, that you want the same thing at the same time. I would hate to hurt you or upset you, so I need to be sure before I do something that I am allowed to do it, and that it’s something you want as much as I do.’

Still intrigued, I asked a bit more. It turns out that he was raised to treat women with respect not because we’re weak and need ‘minding’ but because we’re strong and formidable. As such, we need to be treated with due consideration, and as equals.

Of course, consent is a two-way street, and I would never dream of touching a man without his permission. I often find, however, that my requests are met with puzzlement, amusement and / or surprise. On more than one occasion, requests for consent have been answered with

‘Just do what you want with me!’

Once I’ve explained that I’m uncomfortable with that, and why, they have come around to my way of thinking; and enjoyed being asked as much as they have enjoyed the acts they have given consent for.

Dear Reader

I just had an amazing phone call from a woman who read ‘Gullible Travels’ yesterday in one sitting. She was in tears as she spoke about how it had affected her. *I* was in tears as she told me how it had affected her.

 

Then her partner got on the phone and told me that *he* bought the book, but she took it and read it first. He won’t get a chance to start reading it until today, but he’s looking forward.
‘Write another one, Hazel!’ he said. ‘There was no talking yesterday, there was no television, it was great! She was just reading all day until after midnight.’
‘I was more affected by your book than I was by his,’ my reader chimed in, from the background.

 

*That* left me speechless, because this is his book:Bigger Belsen