Thurs. Feb 17, 2011
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Best of the blog
- "I have to think of something before I die"
- Dear "books on how to not kill yourself"
- Mommy, tell me about the war.
- Questions for the Author
- How do I get to Ground Zero?
- A Flaming Asteroid Hits My Ex-Boss In the Nuts
- Book review: Wuthering Heights
- "Feminist Men": Oxymorons, or Simply Morons?
- Random facts about the book
- Amanda Cudy Swavy
- Amanda Stern
- Anne Elliott
- Anne Fernald
- Ariel Schrag
- Ashley Davila
- Ayun Halliday
- Beehive Hairdresser
- Bridgit Antoinette Evans
- C. Brooks
- Cheryl B.
- Claire Cox
- Clio Bluestocking
- Dana Piccoli
- Dorothy Parka
- Geoffrey Ian Bara
- Janet Reid
- Jen Bekman
- Jen Dziura
- Jess Zaino
- Judy McGuire
- Koren Zailckas
- Lauren Cerand
- Lea Jacobson
- M. David Hornbuckle
- Maud Newton
- Melissa Febos
- Michael Stuart
- Nathalie Hardy
- Rachel Kramer Bussel
- Satia Renee
- Sharon Mesmer
- Tayari Jones
- Virginia Vitzthum
- Wendy McClure
"It was a Friday night at the Bowery Poetry Club, and a group of ethnically diverse young women in their late teens and early twenties were preparing to take the stage. But these girls weren’t performers. They were survivors of New York City’s commercial sex industry..."
Check out this wonderful article about the GEMS party in the Villager this week! Thanks so much to reporter Will McKinley for covering the event, and photographer Andrew Marks for the photo -- more to come!
Last week, I led two writing workshops -- my weekly one at GEMS, with a group of girls age thirteen through twenty, and a private one, with a group of women in their late twenties. I managed to recycle a few exercises between them, including one of the hardest: Write nice things about yourself for five minutes.
Thanks so much to those of you who were able to come out on Friday night for the GEMS tenth birthday celebration. It was an exhilarating night, and I’m very glad and grateful that some of you were there to share in it. Watching the girls take the stage and read their work was incredibly powerful and moving – they put so much heart and so much guts into their performances, their heads high and their voices strong – I know I wasn’t the only one who had to sneak a tissue from their pocket to dab at the tears of happiness, pride, and pain they inspired.
Also amazing was the performance by the brilliant Imani Uzuri, who sang in honor of the girls, raising goosebumps throughout the room, and the speech by GEMS founder Rachel Lloyd, who said some very important things I’d like to share with you now, in case you weren’t able to be there in person.
1. Sometimes people ask Rachel if she ever imagined how big and successful the program would grow to be when she started it ten years ago. “And,” she said, “I have to say, I kind of did. I kind of knew that we were going to change things. I kind of knew that young women had the power, and that survivors could be leaders, and survivors could step up and be the experts on the issue, and that we would create a home for girls, and we would create programs and counseling and health care, and all the things we’ve been able to do over the years.”
To hear Rachel say that yeah, she did know that she was going to create a successful, strong, multi-faceted organization, rather than hearing her waffle and shrug and titter and talk about luck or chance or god’s plan or whatever, was so potent and so (I hate this word but) empowering. To hear someone say, “Yeah, I did know that this would be huge, because that’s how I planned it, and that’s the only way huge things happen, is by planning and believing in them” – that’s something I think everyone in the room really needed to hear.
2. But what she didn’t know, she continued, was how much she would gain from GEMS. She spoke about the girls being family to her, and how proud she was of them for being family to each other – “Seeing you really value and support and cheer each other on, and stick behind each other,” she said, “It’s huge.” And this is something I’ve witnessed myself – GEMS girls supporting each other emotionally, lifting their friends’ kids out of their strollers and cooing to them when they cry, lending money or hair products or just words of encouragement to each other. This kind of mutual support between survivors is the core of the GEMS program, and it is beautiful to behold.
3. I think I’ll just go with the transcript here:
“And I have to say that whilst GEMS is the place that I kind of have to come to everyday because it’s my job, it’s also the place that I really want to be at every day. It’s the place that makes me happy. It’s the place where I know that, as much as we try to give you love, I really appreciate all the love that you give us too. I really appreciate the time that you take to teach us stuff. I appreciate the fact that I get to be inspired by your courage and by your strength. I appreciate the fact that you don’t stop, and even when things are really, really tough, and we’ve gone through some difficult situations, I appreciate that you come back, and you give us the opportunity to work with you, and you give us the opportunity to serve you, and it is such a privilege. I can not say it enough – it is such a privilege to work with such an amazing group of phenomenal, resilient, smart, funny, funny as hell young women. I think sometimes people think if you’re working at GEMS and you’re working on this issue, you just kind of, you know, sit around and cry all day, you go home and you drink a lot – and some days you do that. But we get to laugh a lot at GEMS, there’s a lot of fun at GEMS, there’s a lot of joy, and that comes from you guys and your energy and the humor that you bring.”
Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Again, this is something I’ve felt personally: GEMS is a place of happiness and hope. There are tough times, and sad stories – unbelievably sad stories, stories that make you want to run out and kill people with machine guns – but there is a lot of love, and a lot of laughter, and a lot of reasons to feel joy there. As Rachel found, I’ve found that GEMS is a place where I feel happy and inspired, and that’s because of the staff and the girls and what they share with each other.
I’m hoping the girls will give me permission, when I see them tomorrow, to post some of their poetry as well, because their voices are irreplaceable, and their stories have got to be heard. But I wanted to get this post up tonight, because I am overdue in thanking the amazing people who supported the event, including Lauren Cerand, Jess Zaino, Bridgit Antoinette Evans, Amanda Stern, Will McKinley, Andrew Marks, Stana Weisburd, Dana Piccoli, Lana Lauriano, Erik Seims, Jen Glick, Heather Fischer, Marsha Blank, luckydave, DJ Jools Palmer, the Bowery Poetry Club, super assistant Georgia Jelatis-Hoke, super parents Larry and Sylvia, super husband Bill Scurry, and of course the entire GEMS family. Thank you!
(If you weren’t able to join us on Friday, please consider donating to GEMS online.)
I recently read Rachel Sontag's House Rules, a memoir about growing up with a tyrannical, punitive father who used to berate and belittle her constantly. Despite her elegant writing and storytelling skills, it was hard for me to read this book -- it was painful and infuriating, and it brought back a lot of unpleasant memories of my own. But it definitely struck a nerve in me, so I wanted to reach out and tell her how affected I'd been by her book, and to ask her some questions about the writing of the book...and the aftermath of its publication. She was good enough to answer me, and to allow me to share those answers with you.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer? And when did you realize you wanted to write about your family?
I got lost in books growing up. Reading allowed me to escape into others' realities. It saved me. I loved writing but never considered it more than a hobby. After college I spent years moving in and out of jobs, trying to figure out what to do with myself. I loved people, was attracted to work environments where I could collect “characters.” I’d accept the oddest, most quirky jobs I could find -- working in a factory, working on the docks for the Electricians Union. I’d been writing for a while on my own but I enrolled in my first class when I was twenty-five. My teacher asked us to make a list of ten things we wanted to write about and ten things we didn’t. Things I wanted to write about came easily, but the only thing I really didn’t want to write about was my family. We were instructed to try writing about what we didn’t want to. I wrote one short story and then I couldn’t stop.
In the "P.S." included in the paperback edition, you write, "I've been asked if this was hard to write about, if the memories were painful to reenter. But the most hurtful memories came back with the most ease." Even though the memories came back easily, it doesn't sound like they were easy to remember. Was it painful to write? And did you have any emotional support while you were writing the book?
The memories were easy to access. They’d been crowding my head since I’d left home for good. I revisited them every day, which really wasn’t much fun at all, so the writing provided purpose for revisiting them, some greater context. In time, it freed me up. I was so used to emotionally shutting off -- it was how I pushed through life with my Dad- so this came naturally to me when I wrote the book. I shut off and I got it all out. Ultimately, this posed a problem (in writing and life). I’d written a very one dimensional book about the events of childhood without inserting myself into the story. Even after four years of writing the book, I looked at my dad as this amazing God given character because it was easier than admitting to the hurt that existed within me. Often the pain came in rereading what I’d written. It was easy to get it out, but then when I went back to edit, it was awfully hard to read through. My friends are incredibly important to me. I’ve always had there support in writing this book. I’d never gone to therapy, but the writing process provided a lot of clarity for me. I felt so driven to write the book. I’ve never had that feeling about anything. That feeling stayed with me the whole way.
In the Acknowledgements, you mention that your mom read the book while it was in progress. What was her reaction while you were writing it? And what was her reaction after it was published? Did her reactions surprise you?
My mom’s reactions shouldn’t surprise me at this point, but I guess I’m always left feeling a little baffled...in that kind of removed, sci-fi way. My grandmother passed away last week and my mom called to make sure I wouldn’t come to the funeral because it would be awkward for her with my Dad there, and she wanted to make sure he was comfortable. I respected her request, but it made no sense to me. That’s taken some getting used to. That she chose the life she did infuriated me as a child, and now I can accept it. It’s her life. The only thing I can chose in this is how I react to her. She was supportive while I was writing. She used to call me every Sunday and ask that I read her a chapter, and I would. My mom still lives with my dad. She is incredibly self-preserving. I can’t even imagine what must go on in her head, but when I read to her she found a lot of the book funny. Sometimes I did too. I think it was, oddly, our way of dealing with what was so painful and real and unexplored. She’d say “Oh my Rachel. You nailed it! That is so Dad.” Her tone changed quite a bit when I told her of the book deal. I don’t think she believed that would happen. She took her space. We talked less. I did read her the “worst” parts of the book (meaning the parts that portrayed her in unflattering ways). Sometimes she was so removed that she’d compliment the writing and say something like “It’s beautiful, but sad, very sad.” I was quite impressed with her post publication response. She first refused to read it, but this didn’t last long, and after she did she called to tell me that she enjoyed it. She didn’t want to come to the readings obviously, and she’d go through stages of being okay with it and then cutting me off for a month. Again, this is the nature of our relationship. There was a lot I excluded in order to protect her, and I think she realized that.
Did you assume that your dad would read the book? Were you surprised by his reaction? (Note: Rachel's dad posted screeds attacking Rachel on her book's Amazon page, then deleted them. One "anonymous" review that sounds an awful lot like him remains.)
I didn’t know if he would or how he might respond. He’s quite a sick man. Because he is undiagnosed and refuses to get help, it is difficult to understand what is happening to him. But I imagine there is a war going on in his head. He doesn’t have friends and he doesn’t have much contact with the outside world. I got an outpouring of letters, of thanks and support for having written the book, from doctors and nurses he’s worked with over the years. That shocked me. It’s been ten years since I’ve spoken with my dad or been home, but my mom keeps me updated. He spent the summer creating a website in response to the book. My mom says it was a good project for him. That he put a lot of love into it.
(Another note: Rachel included her dad's website address in her answer, but I'm not linking to it, because I'm not interested in driving any traffic his way.)
I teach memoir writing, and the first thing most people say in class is some version of, "My mom is going to kill me if I write this book." I tell them to write it anyway, and worry about their families' reactions after the first draft is finished. How would you answer this question?
Write the book and deal with the family reaction afterwards. I think the initial shock of being written about is huge. It seems to be more a reaction to being exposed than it is to the specifics of what is written. However, I think what a writer chooses not to write is as important. My parents are still working. My mom loves her job. I wasn’t going to include anything that might put her at risk of losing her job. It’s important, as a writer, to ask yourself, what information NEEDS to be out there and what is not so important in telling this story. Writing about family, especially when they are living, is never going to be easy. But putting this book out there has brought me worlds closer to my sister. She was furious, didn’t speak to me for a year, and now we have something honest and raw and real which we’ve never had together.
Specifically, what advice do you have for people who want to write about abuse they've experienced at the hands of living family members?
I think it’s important and can be an amazing journey. It’s also important to do it for the right reasons. For me, I wanted to try and make sense of these people who I was estranged from, who I loved more than anything and who had caused so much pain. I wanted to try and find a way to understand why my father had done what he’d done. When I started writing the book I saw him as evil and mean. I hadn’t given much consideration to what it was like to be him. He had to struggle to do what he did, to feel such a convoluted amount of love and anger towards me, and I had to better understand that in order to forgive him and get past this. Writing is an incredibly powerful means of seeking clarity, as long as we leave ourselves open. We might have the events down, but we don’t have the answers. The answers may or may not come through the writing, but there is real beauty in that process.Rachel's website is at RachelSontag.com. I thank her very much for sharing her story, and for answering these questions for me.