The Solace of Dark Novels and Memoirs

Too many of us think it's only our family that's filled with horror, or secrets, or moments of the deepest shame. We read these books and we are less alone.
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Whatever his politics, and I am certain we'd disagree far more than agree, I bless Senator Scott Brown for revealing the sexual and physical abuse he suffered as a child.

What could be a more compelling argument for being truthful about abuse suffered than the fact that so many of us hide the pain others have heaped on us. Maybe we hide it by wearing our pain with a hundred extra pounds, perhaps praying the world will guess the hot mess we are inside. Or we won't leave the house without our face made into a Kabuki mask of make-up, refusing to present an inch of reality.

We hide with food, with drugs, with cigarettes, and, on the other side of reactions, with driving wills to succeed. One can certainly see that in Senator Brown.

Yesterday I had the great fortune to participate in an online discussion about my book, The Murderer's Daughters, a novel of sisters who witnessed their mother's murder at the hands of their father. The girls, wrapped in the shame of being the murderer's daughters, tie themselves in the worst sort of lies and knots to avoid being defined by their past, until they are as much jailed as their father.

Talking with women yesterday, I was struck anew by the hunger of so many for truth telling that provides solace for their own troubled past. My book is not memoir, but it is a big what if: my father did try to kill my mother; what if he'd succeeded?

This is what dark novels and memoirs provide -- I don't think it's a matter of peering at others, but a way to feel less alone. Too many of us think it's only our family that's filled with horror, or secrets, or moments of the deepest shame. We think we are the only one whose uncle visited us when we were vulnerable and alone, visiting the awfulness of his adult needs on our child's body. Thinking we are the only ones, we believe that we brought this horror unto ourselves, or that we share these genes of destruction and therefore must keep everything hushed.

In Her Wake by Nancy Rappaport reminded me with head-spinning honesty that I wasn't the only one who carried a parent's tragedy like the heaviest of unwelcome luggage. Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp said, yes, we carry awful secrets about our own behavior. Right now I'm reading 32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter and am entranced by her ability to reveal the tragedy that is a little girl whose mother who convinces her that she is ugly, she is worthless, and she is undeserving -- and reveal it by showing the humor and strength that the character, like so many, manages to take away from hardship.

We read these books and we are less alone. Books give us this gift.

As a child, it was Francie Nolan who let me know that other children than myself had fathers who could be wonderful and awful all in one. Betty Smith's A Tree Grows In Brooklyn was undoubtedly a bible for many more little girls than just me.

We don't want to believe that children are hurt; that adults use them in horrifying ways. We often deny the breadth of the exploitation of children, or we pretend it's only happening out there, far away in other countries, other homes, and other cultures. We deny like this because it's so uncomfortable to acknowledge the truth, because acknowledging it should force us to fight it. And it doesn't always happen like that. Just like a family will turn a blind eye to abuse in a family, and a congregation will deny sex molestation in their midst, so too will we, as a country, turn from the ways that our children are hurt at home. I don't think these blind eyes come from sins of commission, but prayers that omission will make it not be true.

On the other hand, when Senator Brown lets out the sadness of his boyhood abuse, all over the world many of us are given a measure of relief. We are not alone. We are not to blame. We can fight the abuse of children together.

It is time that children know, and that we tell them, that these are not battles they can ever fight alone.

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