Entertaining Catharsis- Writing Abuse Recovery
CW: details about abuse and abuse-recovery. If this is a trigger for you, please skip reading this blog.
I very nearly started this blog with, 'my least favorite silencing technique of abuse victims...'
But I stopped myself. It might be a true statement, but I hate the implication that one is worse than the other. Acknowledging they exist is important though, because those silencing techniques are something I've been fighting for years. I was a terrified twenty-one year old sitting in a therapist's office the first time I became aware of them.
I was crying. I was shaking. I told her I had been assaulted by my partner, that it had been going on for most of the relationship. "I'm here because I need to know how to let people touch me again without panicking."
"Tell me about what happened," she said.
So I did.
She sat there, blank face, writing down the occasional note. When I was done--throat raw, breathing a little hard because it was always so damn hard to breathe when I talked about it--she looked me in the eye and cleared her throat.
There was a silence so long, I'll never forget it. Then she leaned back and tapped her pen, then asked, "Do you really want to call it assault?"
I was confused, but it wasn't the first time I'd been asked that. I just...thought she was someone who wouldn't ask that question.
"Isn't that what it is?"
"Well," she said, in words that echo in my brain to this day, seventeen years later, "you two were married. There's going to be a reasonable expectation for sex. I think he knew that, and I'm sure you understand that. If he thought he was just taking what he was owed, can you really accuse him of assault?"
She went on to assure me that the trauma I felt was normal, that I wasn't making it up in my head, but that maybe if I had set my expectations differently, my brain would have adapted to the situation better.
It was gaslighting--she re-wrote the entire situation from reality to fantasy. It was victim-blaming. Yes, he did something bad, but was it really his fault?
But that wasn't the worst part right then. And maybe it was because I had already heard this from friends, from family, and from law enforcement that--in a way--I had come to set my expectations differently.
The worst part came at the end of that session, when my frustration and grief had settled into a low simmer, when my tears were dry. I said, "I just don't know how to get people to believe me."
And she smiled, like it was an inside joke--and maybe it was. "Your story is a little unbelievable. When you have had all these things happen, it sounds kind of like a dramatic film."
She wasn't wrong. Sort of the point of this whole blog, really. My life did feel like some drama, or some over-the-top book or movie where I was just waiting for the person on the white horse to give me my happy ending. I didn't know--at least not then--that I could rescue myself.
But those little words, 'Your story is a little unbelievable' stuck with me. Those words choked my voice out of me, paralyzed my fingers, infected every bit of me and made me second guess every time I wanted to speak out.
Your story is a little unbelievable.
No one will believe you.
The rest of the world backed her up on that.
Writing became a tool for catharsis a few years and a couple of decent therapists later. I knew better enough that she wasn't a person who was going to help me find a way to accept human touch again, and it wasn't hard to move on. I did get help. I did find someone who told me in quiet, confident tones, "I believe you, and I'm here to help."
I haven't been afraid to speak about my past in years. The worst already happened--my ex found out I'd been speaking aloud about it, he found out friends and family knew. He confronted me, denied it, dragged my name through the mud. All of it. I came out the other side just fine. He is the reason I so jealously guard my privacy and will burn down the road behind me to protect my children.
But I'm not afraid of him.
However, it does call to attention the idea of abuse in entertainment. I write it because I know there are people out there like me still in that stage of thinking, "No one will believe me."
It's too much, there's no way that much happened to one single person.
So, I show on paper that yes, it does happen. It happens more than we want to think about to more people than it should.
Writing characters going through abuse-recovery is also for me, though. It might be almost twenty years later, but some days it's as fresh as if it were yesterday. Some days I need to remind myself that there are all manner of happy endings. Some like mine, some different.
Abuse and abuse-recovery gets a lot of hate in media. I get it, believe me. I've seen terrible versions of it. I've read books and watched movies where a character is abused in order to create a rescue scenario. It's the abuse version of fridging. And it hurts to see it played out like that, to watch these experiences inflicted on a person simply to set the scene for romance.
I can't speak to how realistic that is in general. I'm not every abuse victim. For me, the handful of people who directly helped me to get away from my ex--well...we're not friends anymore. We don't speak. In a sort of abstract way, I'm grateful for the help. But I felt preyed on. They were too eager to step in, too eager to make themselves a hero and make it all about them, and what fragile thing we had between us crumbled.
Gratitude wasn't enough when the experience became about them saving me.
I don't have warm feelings for them anymore.
I've been told I'm terrible for that too, but it's something I'm willing to live with. And I don't think I'm the only one.
With that in mind, I toed a careful line when I was writing Kane. Romance is formulaic--even gay romance. It starts with backgrounds, you introduce the ghost of a future conflict. They meet, they struggle, things look like they're about to go well, then it all falls apart. They fight the inevitable before eventually coming back together and falling in love.
Where does recovery fit into that? How does Soren not turn into the hero Kane would eventually resent?
It was easy for me to come up with the solution. Soren became the man I wished everyone else had been--back when I was Kane. Soren was the man who understood, and kept a steady presence, and loved him through it. Soren was part of the steady ground for Kane, but he wasn't all of it. There was no white horse, there was no armor. There were just two men who, at the end of the day--with all the weight between them--fell in love. It was easier after that, to give them their Happily Ever After.
Kane's situation wasn't based on mine entirely. It's easy for me to draw on real life experience--it gives writing a depth that readers have appreciated before. But I involved more than one person, tried to give others a voice to speak through him so he could be that man--the one that says, I went through it too. It exists right here in this book, for the world to see.
You are not imagining things.