For someone whose primary focus is on historical fiction, I have written quite a few memoirs (the cover images are scattered throughout this post). That realization came to me just yesterday. Memoirs are a type of narrative non-fiction. They don’t have to be chronological in nature; in fact, memoirs often group common themes together in a chapter rather than focusing on a particular time period. These are personal stories rather than simple biographies, which tend to focus on facts and events.
I remember keenly the first time I talked about the domestic violence I experienced at the hands of a boyfriend when I was in my late teens, which I talk about in Music, Mayhem & Bad Decisions. It was October 2003, Domestic Violence Awareness month, and I worked at a hospital. A colleague of mine had been murdered by her abuser the month before. Without getting into all of the particulars, the last time I saw that colleague alive there were some red flags and I wanted to talk to her privately to see if things were okay at home. I never got that chance; her estranged spouse murdered her and the committed suicide. What I could do, though, was tell my own story … and so I stood in front of an assembled group with my script in my hands and I did it.
I’m not shy about public speaking. I was on the speech & debate team in high school. I’ve briefed high-ranking military officers. At one point, it was my job to be ready to talk to the media at any time. Yet, this time was different. The papers rattled. My voice broke. I was afraid of what people might think of me because it took so long to get out of that relationship.
After it was over, an interesting realization came to me. In telling my story, I had reclaimed my power. I had related facts as they happened, things that I experienced — and I was no longer afraid of talking about them, because I owned that experience. I had been through some bad stuff, and I was there to tell the tale. I had people come up to me afterward and thank me. Some of them had experienced domestic violence in the past, and were not going to be ashamed to talk about it anymore because of my example. Some of them were going through it right then, and thanked me for letting them know they weren’t alone.
That was the eye-opening moment for me. I hadn’t stood up there for accolades and, if I’m honest with myself, I wasn’t looking for them in any of the memoirs I wrote. So many people, in my personal experience, believed that domestic violence only happened to a certain category of people, and they were sure that they’d never met anyone who’d been through it. People actually said this to me.
The first time I talked about it at all was in a very brief telephonic announcement of our continuing education program: “October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. There are many people in our community who experience, or survived, domestic violence. I am one of them. My colleague, S.R., was not so lucky. Please attend our program today on domestic violence awareness. If you are inclined, and there is no obligation, please put a donation in the envelope that will be on the table to help S.R.’s family pay for her final expenses.”
That was how I was asked to speak. I was scared and felt a lot of shame … but I agreed. There was a tiny voice inside me that said I had to.
After I’d had some time to process everything I felt that day, I realized that telling my story mattered. If only one person was helped by what I’d gone through, if only one person no longer felt alone, or ashamed, it was worth it. If I could look through the eyes of compassionate understanding at stuff I’d gone through and share it, I was helping myself as well.
This is also why I enjoy reading memoirs. I have so often found that moment of “No kidding, me too” in the pages of books where people share their struggles, foibles, and even humorous stories. I’ll talk about favorite memoirs in another post some time.