Overwintering, San Juan Islands, Pacific Northwest, www.carolineallen.com
After posting yesterday’s blog Just listen to me, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the people who refuse to listen to our stories.
Example after example came to me. I work with a lot of clients who had difficult childhoods. Many have had trouble in writing groups because some of the members refused to listen. Even in writing groups, these writers have felt silenced, shamed, humiliated for sharing the truth about their lives. I have dozens of stories around this, but will share one from my own life.
I began to write fiction in London in 1993. I’d just split with my jazz saxophonist husband and was a sobbing mess. A therapist guided me toward writing fiction. It was not an easy time.
One of the first stories I wrote was about a woman who put her head in her hands and when she sat back up, her head didn’t come with her. She held it in her lap, spoon fed it, her husband built a shelf for it in the kitchen so she could keep cooking his food. Her headless state made her husband horny…
Yes, it was a dark story. I’ll admit it. But I believe the whole world would be a better place if everyone were more willing to explore their own darkness, turn darkness into art, not let it fester until it turns to violence and war.
At any rate, I moved from London to Seattle after my divorce, and joined a writer’s group in a local second-hand bookstore. I gave copies of the story to group members and read Mind Your Head out loud. After I’d finished, the facilitator of the group, a man, THREW the pages down and said, “I’m not reading this shit.”
I was devastated. Wrecked. I felt shamed, humiliated. Aren’t other writers supposed to be your support system in this intense process called writing?
Ha ha ha ha. Oh that makes me laugh now. Oh that makes me bust a gut now.
I found out much later, about a year later, that the facilitator’s mother had just committed suicide. I understood then his reaction and healed my own shaming around it. But I can tell you a dozen more stories like it that didn’t end in clarity.
OK, here’s another one. There’s a point to all this — bear with me.
A few writer groups later, I joined a group of retired psychotherapists who were writers. It wasn’t just psychotherapists, other people belonged to it, but what I liked and trusted was that the core group understood that writing was a healing process, and understood the need for people to speak their truth.
Or so I thought. (Man, I’m naive.)
I have a scene in my novel Earth where Pearl the protagonist has had a lot of trauma. Her mother, who’s in denial, tells Pearl she’s getting hard and needs to go to confession. Pearl ragingly agrees, and sits across from the priest in face-to-face confession in the local catholic church and decides to tell him about her sexual exploits just to see if she can make the priest squirm. He plunges from his chair, kneels at her feet and sobs.
Wow, did this not go down well with a couple of the psychotherapists. They thought Pearl, who was just a teenager in the story, was disgusting and appalling.
Didn’t they get that her own trauma led her to this place of dark rebellion? I was too hurt to ask, too shamed to respond, too confused to understand. I still can’t explain how they could be so small-minded and clueless and not see the truth of the divine in what I wrote.
So, when I write about telling our stories and being listened to, I also want to say that I understand that so many people have been told to shut up about their own lives, that it may be difficult for them to listen. So, don’t be surprised when you open up if other people try to shut you down.
You can’t change other people’s behavior, only your own. So start with watching where you close down when someone is trying to tell you their story. Look for how you shut people up. Then look deeper. Be mindful of how you are reflecting back your own shame. Where were you shamed around truth-telling in your childhood? Look deeply. To be listened to, we must also be good listeners.