Stories Told and Untold

I recoil from collective confessional, so the recent “Me Too” movement was not as helpful to me as it might have been to others. I realize there are any number of ways to address exploitation, but for me collective public confession is not one of them. It lacks specificity. As a private person (despite Facebook appearances) and not a joiner, I prefer my own internal processing and private engagement with these issues.

I am not fond of confessional stories and their air of voyeurism. I don’t argue that for others, and depending on how well-written they are, they may offer genuine healing.

So far, I have chosen never to write a first-person account of my own abusive encounters, some but not all of which remain shared only with a select few friends, family members or healers. However, in my recent engagement with the short story and its allusive possibilities in character and plot, I found myself writing a curious story about the perpetrator of my first and most disturbing molestation. Without quite knowing what I was doing, I wrote from the perspective of my perpetrator and the moment—very subtle—forty-three years later he feels a kernel of culpability. The moment he feels seen and known for his actions, when his understanding of what went on is challenged, if only minutely. While you might call this an oblique approach to the issue, it is one that worked for me. What is interesting is that in writing this somewhat biographical story, all sorts of subconscious details inadvertently flowed into the narrative. There was a charge in the process of writing it and a discharge in having laid it on paper where it could be seen and felt by myself and others, too. But since it is written from the perpetrator’s point of view, it still remains mostly fiction.

It is the currency of fiction to create characters that one might not encounter in one’s own life, to enter their world and see or even understand how they operate and sometimes (although not in this case) why. The best stories for me are those that don’t impose an authorial moral directive on the reader, but through plot, setting, and character allow the reader to come to their own conclusions. Very Chekhovian, I know. But he is one of my greatest short story mentors. Fiction can allow us glimpses into a character’s heart where we might see there a cold and chilling place. Or a person in emotional anguish with whom we can sympathize. Or it might, like Joyce’s famous story “The Dead,” show us that ultimately, despite seeing their actions and hearing their words, others are essentially unknowable.

For a certain span of time in my teenage years into my twenties, I seemed to have been a target for unwanted sexual advances and molestation in varying degrees. I now know that I am not an anomaly and that other women and men have suffered the same. We do move on, most of us, but those experiences will remain embedded in who we are, imprinted on the very insides of our being. But they represent only a part of who we are.

What goes on in the smithy of one’s soul to deal with these unwanted harassments and atrocities is particular to each person, whether it be vociferous public declaration, litigation, therapy, private engagement or complete disavowal to avoid the pain. As human beings, one of our greatest assets is empathy for others.

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