I get a lot of emails from various writers and publishers asking me to talk about their book on my blog, and I noticed an interesting trend in my inbox recently. I’ve had quite a few requests from self published female authors who’ve written books about growing up in abusive homes or about the stories of their traumatic childhoods. I’m aware that it may be because I’m a woman, and one who is generally respected as a fair critic and someone who is also approachable, but as a trend, it seemed like something worth talking about.
I feel like self published works are a real mixed bag for quality and are often badly edited, but I get offered some really good ones too, and there are quite a few that are interesting passion projects, stories or themes that are close to the authors heart. There’s something about that that I like.
And what can be closer to the heart than our own lives, our struggles and our family secrets? In homes where child abuse is present, and other kinds of abuse, violence or addiction too, there is often a silence that is so ingrained in the child that it can be hard to break through. Often the public story blames the child or the child fears there will be blame, other times there is a serious threat to the child if they speak the truth. Sometimes, a child’s reality is denied, when the very real abuse is glossed over or denied in what is called gas-lighting. The child learns not to believe their own feelings and narrative about events. Even in adulthood, it can be impossible for the person to speak about and have their stories heard.
The other side of this is also that the act of writing about events as they happened can release a lot of feelings. Having something out on paper helps us process feelings, and having your own version of events in writing can be very liberating. So often, women’s stories from their own perspective and in their own words have not been heard, or have been brushed aside or discounted. This is also true for children. Part of the catharsis of publishing your story must surely come from knowing that the general public will finally know what really happened.
I think there is a great deal of courage in this decision, since the backlash of family who don’t want the real story known or who might have known that there was abuse and not done enough, can be very real. And of course, the fragile emerging person who writes about very real trauma is also opening the door to attacks from internet trolls and others who will attack at any sign of weakness. As a writer, any writer, you put your self into a story, and can be very hurt by the critical response to it. But when you write about your own personal life, the critical response surely could be dangerous to someone coming to terms with abuse.
I accepted two of these books to read and share with you, and found them both very brave and very different from each other.
The thing with these two books is that they both want to share their stories in an effort to not only be heard, but to show that there is a way out of the darkness, a way through to a good life. They survived, and you can too. But what they can’t do is show you how to get from the story of trauma to recovery. These are not mental health professionals or counselors. Which is fine, but makes the stories feel like they end rather abruptly, in a way. The question is, for the reader who may be looking for a way out or through, how? How did you get from that bad place to one that’s more emotionally healthy? And as a reader, how you can you process and deal with what you’ve just read?
Amelia Hendry’s What Nobody Knew (on Amazon UK HERE and Amazon US HERE) uses a mix of her own memories of events with actual documents from social services, the courts and school documents. Its a format which works well, because it shows how authorities knew something was wrong, but often believed her father and his girlfriend when they could have looked deeper. She was labelled a troubled child with learning difficulties, when in fact, she lived with an abusive alcoholic father and a step mother who had no interest in raising her. Sadly, it’s a story that’s all too familiar in the UK, and there are no easy answers here as to how things could be changed. I found Amelia’s story very sad and moving, especially when her mother, who left her when she was 3, resurfaces in her life. This is real life, there are no romantic endings here.
Hendry seems to have found her own way out of the darkness, with the support of a good relationship, which made me really happy for her. She surely deserves it. She mentions that she ended up choosing to take medication to help her with her flashbacks or panic attacks, but that counselling wasn’t for her. I think that’s reasonable, since a lot of therapy methods that are great for people with some problems are really damaging to people with CPTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress, the kind of PTSD you get from prolonged exposure to trauma, such as an abusive childhood or relationship, rather than PTSD that you can get from one event alone. Neither respond well to going over events, for example). But that said, I would hope that her readers would consider therapy, one that will work for them, and also not hope that a true love will save them, as that could lead to co-dependence or an abusive relationship. I’m not saying that she prescribes romance as an answer, but that the thing that these books can’t or don’t do is provide answers. What do you do if there isn’t a relationship that you can rely on? Etc. That said, I found that Hendry structured her book well, and told her story clearly and logically, showing how she felt, telling us what happened, but never letting raw emotion take over. I really applaud her for this book, and feel touched that she felt like she could send me her story.
On the other end of the scale, Pieces of Me by Rose Marie Abrams (on Amazon UK HERE and Amazon US HERE) is a very different book, albeit with the same desire to speak out and also be heard. I found this a much harder book to read because it’s very explicit and dark. It’s also interspersed with angry italic asides from Abrams fractured personalities that she developed to cope with her trauma and makes reference to reincarnation and angelic being who watch over her. Abrams was raised by an abusive caregiver on a farm, where other foster children had also been raised. Later, she found that a young woman there was actually her birth mother. The woman she called Mother was a highly toxic, abusive and controlling woman, and so it was very hard for Abrams to find her personal strength and move away, a process that was slow and took many years. She was able to leave home through a good marriage to a kind man, which surely was a big help and support, and Abrams talks about undergoing different therapies in her book. One interesting point that she makes is that it wasn’t until some of her therapy sessions where she talked about things she remembered and asked her therapist if they really happened that she was able to believe her own knowledge of what happened. It shows how toxic families can create environments where it’s not safe to believe your own reality or that you can be made to feel that you can’t really trust yourself.
Reading Rose Marie Abrams work, I had a lot of feelings about it. Of course, the story of the trauma and abuse that someone has suffered is never going to be an easy read. But I didn’t feel comfortable with the angry and often childish voices of her other multiple personalities. Her references to angelic beings and reincarnation and God felt too dramatic. It was all a bit much, and I actually had to skip over one part that went into great detail about an abuse on her as a small child. I had to wonder, if that happened at two, how did she know? Was there some medical record of this? Surely she can’t have recovered that memory? I’m not denying her reality, but pointing out that we as a reader need to know this. Abrams talks a little more about her process of breaking away from her foster mother, going to therapy and starting to open up to people about what happened to her, it can’t have been easy at all. Her damage is much more a part of this book, much more presented to us. It’s not that I have a problem with that, but that the book on the whole is a little odd, and makes Abrams herself a little inaccessible.
When I review books, I always at the end say who I think the audience for the book is, and why my readers may or may not like to read it. And that’s where these books as a trend are kind of an interesting thing too. I think they are a voice in the dark, a cry to be heard adn ackowledged, but who is the person that will be listening? Stories like these are stated to be meant to be empowering, with the idea that if these women have lived through these childhoods and turned out OK, then you can too. But I think if you’d had an abusive or traumatic upbringing or life, then you might not want to read about this. Perhaps you’d find them highly triggering? Perhaps they would bring things up for you in a way that isn’t healthy? I’m not sure. On the other hand, if you haven’t had some kind of dark life story of your own, will you be drawn to bearing witness to these stories for these women? Will this be a subject matter that will appeal to you? Will you be left feeling empowered or depressed? And also, since these women both are not mental health professionals or don’t have a recommended approach to dealing with trauma, what are you left with as far as answers to the questions raised? Should we be doing something about abuse of children, and what might the solutions be? If you were abused, can you learn from these stories? What do they mean? And what steps should you take next?
It leads to an ambiguous review, for me. I do think that these women have been bold to write and to share so deeply as they have, and I feel so much compassion for them as human beings and survivors. It’s hard to write a review of someone’s life experience. How can you begin to know what to say as a critic when you’re talking about someone’s life and raw emotions?
I can say that these books are stories about lives that started badly but that came out OK. And that there are many kinds of ways you can find answers to the questions that these books can’t answer. If you’re not ready to talk to someone, there are books on recovery from abuse that can help you. There are various numbers you can call to talk to someone anonymously, or you can talk to a therapist if you’re ready to do that. I do think that you should never try to go it alone, and that you should always know that there are people out there that care. And there are people out there who have been through things who can understand what you are going through. Two of the people who know are Amelia Hendry and Rose Marie Abrams. I want to thank them for their stories.