Chanel Miller wrote the words below in her memoir, Know My Name, about societal expectations that we only focus on the positive, that we only tell the “happy” parts of our stories and shy away from anything unpleasant or uncomfortable. Anything that isn’t uplifting, heartening, inspiring. Anything that makes us cringe or feel pain or anger.
“You will find society asking you for the happy ending, saying come back when you’re better, when what you say can make us feel good, when you have something more uplifting, affirming.”-Chanel Miller
This is one of my favorite lines from her book. Peter Levine said that trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness, and I think Chanel’s story demonstrates the truth of that, all summed up in her quote above. Unfortunately, we often are lacking that empathetic witness because society as a whole believes that trauma is something to be hidden, unspoken. That it’s something we should be ashamed of and keep in the shadows. And if we can’t, then only focus on the happy ending to it, making sure to include a brilliant smile. This is the opposite of the presence of an empathetic witness and simply does more harm than good. Survivors end up believing they’re alone in their experiences, their pain, their struggle. Loved ones end up believing the same, having no concept of what the survivor is living through because it’s something we have been taught by society shouldn’t be talked about.
During the revision stages with my memoir, resilient, a writer-friend offered to beta read. I knew from experience that this person’s feedback would be honest and thorough, and responded that I’d love to have him beta read it for me. However, before I would send my manuscript over, I wanted to make sure he understood the type of content he’d be reading. I don’t believe in blind-siding people and I know some level of mental preparation is necessary before you read my life’s story; a story of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Rape and sexual assault. Poverty. Suicide. Addiction.
His well-meaning reply was reminiscent of what Chanel encountered when selecting quotes for the bench to be situated at the location of her assault—an urging to keep the unpleasantness out of the light of day.
“Maybe this is a story you write for yourself as a means of closure, then put away. I don’t know … Does the upside of providing others who have encountered similar life traumas with hope and guidance balance the downside of possibly hurting people you love … or dragging you back into memories best left far in the past?”
I responded to his message privately, but I know he’s not alone in his initial thoughts and response. So, below is a letter not only to him, but to all those who may have the same thought, to all those who want survivors to come back when they have something only positive to say, to all those who are wondering why I’d write and publish a memoir like resilient.
My book’s title is “resilient”, a word I have a complicated relationship with courtesy of my life’s experiences. And while, ultimately, I do consider myself resilient, getting there wasn’t pretty or pleasant. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Many folks had no idea, though. There were clues, but people didn’t realize they were clues. There were big neon signs when I started acting out of character, but those signs were dismissed because that was easier, or somehow missed entirely because someone was looking the other way or simply misunderstood my cries for help for teenage angst. The result was that I felt alone. Utterly, irrefutably alone. It wasn’t until I realized I wasn’t actually alone that I was really able to begin to heal from the atrocities in my childhood.
I’ve gotten emails and messages via social media about how healing my novel, Finding Annie, was for rape survivors because it’s so real—it may not seem like it to someone who hasn’t been through it, but it is. I’ve received emails and messages from people after reading blog posts I’ve written because people realized for the first time that they weren’t alone. There were women who, after reading my blog, said aloud for the first time that they were sexually assaulted, finally had the courage to stop hiding.
Because the thing is, people don’t know what we’ve been through because we’re hiding it. We’re ashamed of what was done to us because society as a whole doesn’t really want to hear it. And it’s so damaging to keep things in, to pretend. But until you realize you’re not alone, that’s what you do.
I want survivors to know they’re not alone. I do, vehemently. But it’s so much more than that. I hate suffering and sadness. I hate injustice. My foster mom and I used to get into arguments when I was growing up about the unfairness in the world. I’d ask her why something was the way it was—whether it was women being catcalled going down the street or female genital cutting in Africa or people starving when others routinely discarded food—and I’d say it was unfair.
She’d respond, “Yes, it is, but the world, unfortunately, is unfair.” I couldn’t accept that answer, though. “Why?” I’d ask. “It’s just the way the world is,” she’d reply.
Okay, but why? Again and again, I asked why. Why couldn’t we change it? If we just accepted that’s the way it was, it would never, never change.
But I want the world to change.
I want to save another woman in her mid-thirties from having panic attacks when she drives into urban settings or when she passes a man she doesn’t know on the street. Save her from waking drenched in sweat from having nightmares about being raped and from panicking in the middle of the night when she goes in to comfort her children after they have a nightmare because she’s terrified of having her back exposed in the dark. I want to save that woman’s children from being exposed to her (seemingly) irrational and erratic behavior because she’s secretly suffering from debilitating anxiety and complex PTSD that’s she’s too afraid to talk about because she thinks she’s crazy and alone and it comes out with a hair-trigger temper over inane annoyances so common with young children—these experiences are traumatizing to children and perpetuate the cycle of abuse.
I want my writing to advocate for change, to better the foster care system and social services, to change how we treat people struggling with their mental health, to stop and question why kids might be acting out instead of punishing them, to recognize the signs that something has happened that those kids are grappling with.
I want loved ones and potential partners to understand what their survivor loved one is going through, what they’re battling every single day because we don’t ever get to shut it off, and because they will never truly be able to help—and the survivor never truly heal—until that understanding exists.
For much of my childhood and for most of my adulthood, everyone thought I was simply well-adjusted and successful. But as a child, I was suicidal and self-harmed in various ways. And as an adult, until the day I decided I had to face everything and started going to therapy and unearthing my hidden demons, it wasn’t fundamentally much different. I dreamed about ways of dying that would be less traumatic for my family. I destroyed my health first to look the way everyone thought I should, and then again in order to cope with pressure to perform in college and, later, my career.
Successful… such a loaded word with a definition which depends very much on how you view success. Financially secure? Sure. I have a stable job in a stable career that compensates me well. But for many years this was predicated on giving up my personal life, being available around the clock and putting my family second. Most days, I believe I’m doing alright at this parenting thing, but I wasn’t always. It’s a hard thing to admit, but it’s true. And I don’t mean that in the normal self-deprecating way that all caring parents worry if they’re doing things right. I didn’t realize the extent of it—only enough to prompt me to go back to therapy—but I was damaging my kids for a while. I wasn’t doing the things that were done to me as a child, but I had rampant anxiety and PTSD and was often in a state of emotional unavailability. If I hadn’t realized that, my kids would be headed for some of the same kinds of emotional trauma I’ve survived.
But, I could not have done what I needed to end that cycle without realizing I wasn’t alone. The more I found out about people who struggled like I did, the more I was able to open those doors and face those nightmares from my past, the more I could be vulnerable, and true healing cannot, CANNOT, occur without vulnerability. But it’s damn near impossible to be vulnerable when you’re alone.
As far as hurting folks I love… they all know what I’m doing and why, even if some of it may be unpleasant or upsetting for them to read. I talked about some of my experiences for the first time in my life with my foster mother when I was drafting this book and I could physically see the toll my revelations took on her, the pain and guilt that clouded her features, the literal weighing down of her shoulders. But then something else happened: we were able to talk about events and feelings we’d never talked about before. Each event I revealed left me feeling more authentic and genuine with her, allowed her to see the complex, multi-faceted person I really am for the first time since she’d met me when I was eight.
I wrote my life out years ago right before I started therapy, and that was for me. This is for others—the survivors, those who love us, the folks who don’t know what it’s like to be a survivor, and for all the children born and unborn, to help make this world safer and more accepting for them, to do what I can to make it a better place for my own daughters.
I’ve talked to other survivors about my book well before it was all drafted and found nothing but support, was told that I was paving the way for other women to heal and be heard. That’s something I can live with, even amongst all the pain to do it and that will come with folks who don’t believe me or simply are so uncomfortable with human suffering that they cannot accept what I’ve written. I know it will happen—it happens to everyone who steps out and stands for what they believe in when that belief isn’t popular or is uncomfortable or hard to digest. But I’m not doing it for me. I’ll go to the ends of the earth to make the world a better place for others, and I truly believe this book is one piece in that puzzle.
I want to lead by example to teach my girls that you can stand up for yourself and others no matter what has happened to you, that you can keep it from defining who you are and use it to improve life for other people. That while nothing justifies the horrible things that happen to people, you can use those experiences to do good in the world. That you don’t have to be ashamed—should never be ashamed—for others’ behavior.
I shared an early in-process version of my book with one of my editors in part for some direction and in part because I just needed someone to read the things that had hijacked my mental health for a few weeks while I re-experienced them so I could heal and write about them. She wrote me a long email in response, but I pulled out these words, printed them, cut them out and taped them up in several places where I can read them multiple times a day:
“I can feel that fire inside of you that is pulling you to your destiny—taking all your pain, your experiences, your lessons—and helping others go from surviving to thriving. You’re grabbing society’s attention, one person at a time, and letting the world know what it’s really like to fight so hard for each day. You’ve emerged beyond a survivor and stepped into something new: a Warrior.”
Those words help me more than I can accurately describe every time I read them. I want my book to be those words for other survivors.
Because they, too, have survived.
They, too, are warriors.
They, too, deserve to know they aren’t alone.
- My memoir resilient
- We are the Storm
- Chanel Miller website
- Chanel Miller’s Know My Name
- Trauma resources
Katherine Turner is an award-winning author, editor, and a life-long reader and writer. She grew up in foster care from the age of eight and is passionate about improving the world through literature, empathy, and understanding. In addition to writing books, Katherine blogs about mental health, trauma, and ways we can be more compassionate as a society on her website www.kturnerwrites.com. Sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date and get a free copy of her book moments of extraordinary courage.