My debut book is out(!) — and its content packs a punch. A story like this may upset you or inspire you. I hope it will do both.
The Man Behind the Curtain is a memoir I coauthored for a survivor of sexual abuse whose family and community tried to silence her when the truth came out. As I’ve blogged about before — in introducing you to Jessica and in interviewing her as we neared the finish line — there’s no denying that this is difficult subject matter, and that’s precisely why we felt it needed to be heard.
For too many years, Jessica was the one made to feel guilty about what had been done to her, including feeling guilty if she tried to talk about it — even long after the abuse had been reported and investigated, even long after her rapist stepfather was convicted and imprisoned. The people who continue (yes, present tense) to revere her abuser and portray Jessica as a liar have made grand attempts to shame her into continued silence. As I write about in the book’s afterword, Jessica told me in one of our early meetings, “Every time I tell my story, I apologize for my story.”
This is maddening. Jessica knew it wasn’t right but had to wrestle with that for years, often alone. I knew it wasn’t right upon my first meeting with her, scribbling down page after page of notes by hand as the earliest notion of a book took shape. Now our readers are experiencing that fury, too — and I must say, I love to hear that.
“I was so enraged I wanted to throw the book across the room on multiple occasions,” wrote one reviewer. Another wrote, “This book will make you angry. And it should. A brutally honest depiction of the abuse that a young girl faced, and the heartbreaking account of those closest to her who refused to believe it.”
I want you to feel angry. I also want you to feel proud of Jessica, as I do and as so many readers have told us they do, and cheer for her as she finds her courage and her voice amidst all of those causes of anger.
And I want you to know that Jessica’s story, as shocking and infuriating as it is, is not unique. I want you to be all the angrier to think about the countless others who have lived a story like this or are currently living it. And I want you to be all the more inspired and hopeful and proud to think about each one of those people stepping into their own power. Jessica and I hope that a book like ours helps them, and their loved ones, along that journey. As we write in the book’s last chapter, we’re aiming to “help others take their own first step — or second, or hundredth — toward healing, and toward hope.”
Michelle Bowdler’s memoir, Is Rape a Crime? A Memoir, an Investigation, and a Manifesto, served as a torch guiding my way through my research and writing. In an essay she wrote for Lit Hub, “When Your Memoir Has the Word ‘Rape’ in the Title,” Michelle addresses a struggle similar to Jessica’s: “The temptation to hide the word because the reality of rape is so horrific only made it more critical that it stood front and center in my book. As it was in my life, it would be in my words. If I hid the word rape and its impact on me, it would make anything about my life a lie, an omission, a nod to shame and silence.”
In working to suppress the shame and self-doubt, people like Michelle and Jessica used something terrible as a catalyst for something great, providing a guiding light to other survivors who are still trying to find their way through.
I see a similar light emerging from the darkness when I watch a woman address her church about the abuse their pastor inflicted upon her as a teen, or when I read about the reckoning currently unfolding for the Southern Baptist Convention — which encompasses Jessica’s family’s church — about sexual abuse from the highest ranks, covered up for decades by its executive committee. When I hear these stories, I am simultaneously furious and hopeful, with each emotion amplifying the other. I’m honored if our book can evoke a similar cycle of feelings for our readers.
Yes, the things Jessica experienced can be difficult to hear about. The fact that she and too many other people have lived those difficult things makes it imperative that others of us are willing to hear about them and discuss them. We may not always understand or know what to say. We may feel powerless in response to such horrible things. But we can listen. That seemingly simple action holds a lot of power.
In listening, we acknowledge the victim as a fellow human being with a story bigger than their abuse, with a life still to be made. We bear witness, we learn, we grow.
Another reviewer of our book wrote, “This is admittedly a tough read from an emotional standpoint, but it is well worth the pain to read how Jessica persevered.”
Jessica and I are both so grateful to our readers for being willing to take this emotional journey with us. Collectively, we come out the other side of it stronger. I hope continuing to share stories like this helps us find a way forward, toward a time when there are far fewer of them to tell.