The popular and even some of the scholarly literature on writing about trauma, including childhood sexual abuse, suggests that such writing should be healing — or at least that healing is part of the process of engaging in such writing, if not its ultimate endpoint. One book published by the NCTE, for instance, aims to “help teachers” in writing classes “ respond appropriately to the healing narratives that students write.” I applaud that goal. But I can’t help but think that there’s a big assumption here — namely that such narratives are necessarily “healing,” or that healing is even somehow the motivation to write. Other books, smartly warning writers that “to write [about trauma] is to enter the mess,” persist in maintaining the belief that the arc of such writing should bend toward healing.
But does it?
Part of the problem here is a rhetorical one. We expect the telling of such stories to change things, to make things better. But those of us telling the stories are not always convinced that happens. Dorothy Allison, who has written so beautifully, so breathtakingly about her own experience of sexual abuse in books such as Bastard Out of Carolina, knows this all too well. She writes in “The Cure for Bitterness” that “Those of you who work with trauma survivors know that yes, creating the story, creating the narrative, is useful and it has the possibility for a lot of healing work to be done. But it fixes nothing; changes nothing. That work we do in engagement with our story is separate from the narrative we construct for it” (250).
I hear the tension in Dorothy’s words. On one hand, the title of this essay about writing about trauma still wants a “cure” and she seems to hold out “the possibility for a lot of healing.” On the other hand, she notes how creating the story fixes nothing. It changes nothing. That’s a stark statement. Surely, it changes something. Writing about our trauma must change something, right? At the very least, I myself can’t help but believe that there is much, so much, between healing and fixing nothing. What’s between there, if not the writing? And what does it do?
This month I am publishing Dear Queer Self, my fourth memoir and what I think of as the concluding volume of a trilogy. In 2017, I had published my first memoir, which I pompously called a “critical memoir,” Creep: A Life, a Theory, an Apology, and I followed it up in late 2021 with Bullied: The Story of an Abuse. These books traced my upbringing and experiences of intense homophobia in the Deep South in the 1970s and 80s, mixed in with observations and insights about the nature of homophobia, the formation of subjecthood in the wake of trauma, and the lingering effects of systems of abuse. Pretty standard stuff for gay memoir written by someone of a certain age and place.
But I believed that I was also contributing something a bit unique to this narrative. I had grown into young adulthood, on the verge of getting married (to a woman), believing that my uncle had abused me, sexually, as a child. He was my mother’s brother, one of the only uncles my sisters and I knew well. My parents’ siblings (they were from very large families) were country people, and only a few of them (my mother, her brother, my father, his brother) had moved to New Orleans to make their way in the big city, hoping to find a better life than the one they were born into in the damp wilds of swampy Louisiana and southern Mississippi.
My uncle was surely looking for a place that would accommodate, or at least tolerate, his queerness, and he seems to have done so. Many of my fondest childhood memories are of spending time with him and his partner, Michael, at various family occasions, birthdays, holidays, and dinner parties in his artfully decorated French Quarters home. In my books, I describe these events, these memories, and then his painful death from cancer (some thought it an undiagnosed case of AIDS) in the early 1980s, when I was just on the verge of puberty.
Fast forward ten years and I, finishing graduate school in Comparative Literature at Louisiana State University, am long-distance dating a woman to whom I’m about to propose. Before doing so, though, I seek out counseling from a Christian therapist because I can’t quite get rid of these thoughts, these evil thoughts, these feelings — desires for sex with men. I’m a classic case. Overbearing mother? Check. Distant father? Check. And oh, wait: gay uncle? Admitting a biological predisposition seemed to much a capitulation to the possibility that such evil desires are ultimately natural, part of god’s order; but suggesting that this uncle, whom I’d loved, had possibly diddled me as a child…well, that was just too convenient. And there were hints that something had happened, that somehow, somewhere, in my early childhood, he had touched me inappropriately, twisting my path on the straight and narrow toward full-functioning heterosexuality and detouring at least my thoughts (and sometimes my actions) onto the bent freeways of homosexuality, all leading straight to hell.
So, telling you all of this now, I am obviously in a different “space,” having come to a different understanding of myself, my desires, my sexuality, my subjectivity, my relations with others and the world around me. But for just a little while, I was a victim of a particular kind — or so I styled myself. My contribution to the genre of the abuse and trauma memoir has been, then, to set the story, uh, straight, in part to exonerate my uncle from what he most likely never did, and instead place the blame on a larger culture and politics of homophobia, exacerbated at the time by fear of AIDS and bolstered by forces of conservatism in both government and religious institutions that have more recently flowered into the full-blown fascism that has given us Trump.
That is, I’ve read my tortured history into a larger tortured history, and the most recent volume, Dear Queer Self, is the most “historical” of the lot, focusing on three specific years — 1989, 1993, 1996 — when history supposedly ended and the world seemed about to change. I certainly did for me. I finished school, got married, got divorced, came out, and started a new life. You can read all about it in the books, if you want.
The question I’m posing myself at the moment is, why? Why, that is, write out any of this? On one hand, I very much have wanted to set the record straight, and I’ve understood a large part of my adulthood as grappling with my own subjectivity as it has formed in a homophobic culture. Tracing and sharing this narrative, I hope, is useful to others engaged in similar grappling. More personally, just allowing myself to write explicitly about myself seems, now that I’m in my 50s, like a careful untying of the knots of self-loathing that I was tied up in by family, friends, religious leaders, government officials, etc., etc. The untying continues.
And that untying leads me to a question that I’m frequently asked as I talk about these books, as I read from that at events: is writing through this trauma healing?
A lot hangs on that word, “healing.” And I often wonder, when asked if my writing is healing, what people are expecting happens when we write about trauma. The question seems to come most often from those who don’t actively write about trauma or their own woundedness, so perhaps they are inquiring about possible paths they might take — the writer’s journey toward healing, a cathartic release from talking to and vanquishing old ghosts, a grappling with the demons in which, this time, we control the narrative and come out on top.
If that’s what is meant by healing, then, no; in my experience, that doesn’t, or hasn’t, happened. I suspect I’ll take my wounds with me to the grave. That doesn’t mean I don’t relate to them differently now, having written about them, but no, they are not healed. And I’m not sure I even search for healing when I’m writing.
Still, the imagination of writing as healing persists. It’s hard not to hold on to writing as fixing something, if not actually healing us. I wrote Bullied in the midst of #MeToo, when I could tune in daily on the radio to stories, one story after another, of so many women coming forth to talk about the abuse they’ve suffered. Surely, the value of such stories en masse must change something. Preponderance of narrative must help alleviate some sense of isolation, of being alone, of feeling alone, of believing that you are the only person to whom this horrible thing has happened. And then what changes happen after that? Do rules of employment change? Do laws alter? Do consequences for abuse become more explicit? Do cultures change to discourage if not actually prevent such abuse from being commonplace, accepted, normal? At least some victims see their perps go to jail. That must offer some…healing? I cannot be so sure, but I hope so.
In her essay, Allison differentiates between our “engagement” with our story and the “narrative we construct for it.” She advocates for writing about a range of experiences, encouraging people to write, write, write: “I believe all people should attempt to write on the page. I think boys should fight with their daddies and girls with their mamas and figure it all out. Say impossible, horrible things. Then you don’t have to say them to your actual mothers. That’s a useful exercise.” But that kind of writing is different from the writing that you then send into the world. As she puts it, “I had to write a narrative of damage that is explicit about the damage but with carefully chosen crafted words about the thing that I’m not even sure I believe in: recovery, healing, who you make yourself” (255).
And this might be the crux of the matter for me. The pop writers might be right to advise, like Allison, that writing can allow you a kind of release, a way to say things that you might not have been able to say — to tell your abusers, for instance, what you really think of them. But that’s not writing that will likely ever circulate. And perhaps shouldn’t, like the story I started telling about my uncle as an abuser to explain my homosexuality. I might be able to convince myself that it was ok to tell myself that story all those years ago as a way to start dealing with my history, my desires, but it was also too tempting to tell that story to others, to release it, to circulate it.
After all, it matched similar stories already in circulation: abuse perverts people, abuse makes perverts. No, I should’ve kept that story to myself until I had a better one to tell, not just one more truthful, but one that complicated the genres of abuse that are themselves violent to the extent that they reduce the experience of abuse to a few catchphrases, a few cliches, a few easy ways of talking about difficult things. To engage the complexity requires, as Allison puts it, “carefully chosen crafted words.” And even then, she’s not sure it leads to recovery, or healing.
So what does it lead to? To be sure, I can point to instances in all of my writing, and even in just my experience of writing, in which I have found comfort, comforted others, entertained thoughts of revenge, and come close to feeling that I was, if not purging, then at least excavating a set of complex emotions and thoughts about a set of complex experiences.
At a base level, I have wanted others to know they are not alone, which means that I, also, am not alone. Sure, that’s part of what’s going on here. Is it “healing”? Does it offer resolution? Is the small act of revenge — writing about what has been done to you, outing your abusers — is that satisfying? I constantly turn such questions on myself. Is any of my writing about my experience of homophobia healing? Is writing about my uncle and how he got caught up in my psychodrama, itself an extension of our culture’s hatred of queers into my psyche — is any of that healing? No. I still remember, I still hurt, I’m still a neurotic mess, I’m still angry.
But I’m writing. I’m connecting to others. I’m offering up my experience, for whatever worth readers can find in it. I’m writing.
I’m writing. Still.
Jonathan Alexander is a writer living in Southern California. He is the author, co-author, or co-editor of twenty-one books, including the Creep trilogy: Creep: A Life, a Theory, an Apology; Bullied: The Story of an Abuse; and Dear Queer Self: An Experiment in Memoir. For more, see his website: https://www.the-blank-page.com.