When I read the excerpt to an audience for the first time, they didn’t clap. They didn’t do anything except sit there for a few moments, sort of stunned. I looked at the faces in front of me. Some were thoughtful. Some looked ashamed. Some seemed on the verge of tears. After a lengthy silence someone suggested the audience applaud. The applause, when it came, was uncomfortable; after all, the audience was cheering a reading in which I described in graphic, close detail the first time a five-year-old child is raped by her uncle.
Child sexual abuse as a public health issue is a topic that is close to my heart. As a survivor of it myself, I understand that however slight the abuse might seem to adult eyes, to a child, it can define everything about them. Some—not all, but some—children take these lessons into their adulthood, and the abuse that is often hidden away by a family to protect the child or the abuser can become a massive problem that spirals outwards from individual to family to community to country to world.
This was one of the reasons that I approached the Groundation Grenada, an arts and advocacy collective, to hold a reading and discussion. We named it “Talking About it: Child Sexual Abuse as a Public Health Issue”, and it served as the final public event I would take part in as the Dame Hilda Bynoe Writer-in-Residence at St George’s University (SGU), Grenada. I’m a journalist and a writer of poetry, prose and just about everything else; I’ve encountered child sexual abuse in my journalism and in my other writing and it was the issue at the core of my main project on the 15-week SGU residency. I’d written a second draft of a manuscript for a novel, the protagonist of which was an adult survivor of child sexual abuse. For this protagonist, being sexually abused throughout her childhood meant that she would grow up feeling hopeless, ashamed of herself, and only aware of her power in one particular sphere: her sexuality.
My character is not unlike many people who survive child sexual abuse. Studies suggest that survivors often have low self-esteem, and may experience a range of mental illnesses as a consequence of their abuse, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety and eating disorders. Children who have survived trauma (like sexual abuse) may also grow up to be adults who take inordinate risks, and who don’t take care of themselves. It leaves the door wide open for any number of serious consequences: sexually transmitted infections (including HIV), and drug and alcohol abuse. Even chronic non-communicable diseases may develop in such individuals at higher rates than in the rest of the population, studies suggest.
Writing the book
When I set out in 2009 to write this book, I thought about all of these things. I wanted to write a book that would show some of the public health consequences of child sexual abuse without being too preachy and prescriptive, a book that would put a face on this terrible thing that afflicts untold thousands of children in the Caribbean, and millions of children worldwide, each year.
I wanted to show in this book how secrecy empowers the abuser; and how abusers often target vulnerable children, how they win their trust only to shatter it forever; how utterly without recourse a child may feel when the person who hurts them is the one person who seems to be on their side. I wanted to show that these hurt children may—not always, but sometimes—grow up into adults who put their trust in the wrong people, who remain vulnerable to abusive romantic partners.
We hear about the cycle of abuse. We hear about the high rates of women who are involved in abusive romantic relationships, even unto death. Yet, many of us don’t connect the dots and realize that in some cases—not all, but some—those adults who are abusing and being abused were subjected to abuse as children. We don’t think that allowing child sexual abuse to go on unchecked could plant the seed in a child’s head that she or he is worthless, that physical strength is the most meaningful power there is, that all she or he is good for is to be a sex object, a captive in her or his own home, a cipher. Yet this is the lived reality for many, many people across all classes, races and religions, all over the world.
Writing about issues of social justice in a way that is not forced or stilted can be challenging. In the first draft I sometimes found my characters being mouthpieces for me and my good intentions, and that made the writing weak and bland. In the second draft, I shut up and let the characters do their own talking, and the story improved considerably. The struggle of the protagonist to come to an understanding of herself beyond victimhood was also much clearer when I didn’t try to impose a social justice agenda on her. She became not merely a representative of all children and adults who have survived child sexual abuse, but a real character, with hopes and fears and wants and needs she tries to meet in the way she knows how to, and I had to let her speak for herself in order to give her the agency her history had denied her.
If I’m talking about this character as if she were a real person, well, to me she almost is. She’s not based on anyone I know, and this is not a roman a clef or memoir in any way. However, I’ve lived with her in my head for so long that I feel I know her. Victims may tend to be revictimised because a series of abusers see the same vulnerabilities over and over and tend to exploit them—and I made the choice to write that into the novel in an implied but not explicit way. I felt sorry for her and made her life a little bit easier.
But I don’t want to spare the reader.
The excerpt I read at the Groundation Grenada event was painful to write, and I hope it is as painful to read. I want readers to be uncomfortable when they read the book on the whole, to reexamine what they think they know about child sexual abuse and the people who live through it. On TV survivors are often shown to grow up to be abusers themselves. While that’s not impossible, I think it’s also worthwhile to note that many of us grow up just trying to stay alive. This legacy can be an impossibly heavy weight for a child to bear. I want the reader to see that, to feel the heaviness, but also see that this woman is in many ways absolutely normal and, just like everybody else, trying to make a life with what she has, however imperfect, however painful, however flawed it is.