Again. It was happening again. The boy cringed and pulled the covers over his head, a narrow slit the only opening in his thin armor. The streetlight sickled the night and latched onto the faux crystal door knob, its prism shattering the beams to a million glints of light peppering the room. The door fell open into the bedroom and he felt the intruder’s feet pulling the carpet with him, the leaden steps echoing distant thunder. The boy could feel his breath, taste the bar, and inhale its staleness. He could feel his stare undress the thin veil that feigned protection, the only barrier between them. Fearing for his life, the boy found the grip of the worn steak knife, his constant companion in slumber tucked under his pillow. His white knuckles trembled at the thought, a thought that wouldn’t see its own fruition that late evening. The intruder withdrew, but his point was made: his arrogance dulled the boy’s every possibility to fight back.
But wait – this wasn’t supposed to be a fiction piece. And it isn’t. The above scenario was real, one of many violent or psychologically intimidating incidents throughout the victim’s childhood. The victim was this writer. Odd timing brings this piece to light, with Father’s Day bearing down as I write. For many years after those incidents, celebrating any parent, or even the institution of parenthood, was a sore point for me. Because, I am a survivor of domestic violence in the form of child abuse.
Why mention this? Often readers assume my writing – and perhaps any writer’s work – to be autobiographical. This in some cases would be rather pleasant, and in others – well let’s just say not so much. Whispers in the Alders is no different. Many readers have asked, “Is this based on your life?” To which I answer, no. As a writer, I take in all I have experienced, witnessed, and read, and recycle them through my imagination to create my fiction and poetry. These are all products of my imagination, although at times they can seem quite real to the reader, and even to this writer.
There were points during the writing of Whispers in the Alders where the scenes were so vivid, so painful to even write, that I questioned penning them, wondering if I was crossing a line. As has been the case for most of my life, I looked to the bookshelf flanking my desk for answers. At eye level was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which sits on my desk as I write this piece. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison recounts horribly abusive situations towards children in as tasteful a manner as can be committed to paper. Still, those scenes haunt me. I knew I hadn’t come close to crossing any line in Whispers in the Alders, as tragic and heartbreaking as some of those scenes came to be written.
So why come out about this now? Simply because it has come up numerous times in conversation following the release of Whispers in the Alders. I have always said that Whispers in the Alders is a story that needed to be told. But it’s not just my story, it’s also the story of Aubrey and Tommy, and countless other children who suffer through the cycle of domestic violence in their childhood. Whispers in the Alders is their story as much as it is mine. However, I am not a psychologist. I am educated in the Humanities. I have no true standing to explain away the psychological chaos wrought by abuse except for the fact that I survived many of those situations myself.
This is not to say that survival was any easier than losing my life to abuse would have been. For years I suffered from the post-traumatic stress of physical and psychological abuse. I didn’t even know it, thinking I had escaped, only to later learn that the past has a funny way of keeping pace with the future. In the end, you have to confront the past to survive it. Sometimes those memories were just as frightening as the events themselves. The depression was deep, an enveloping darkness that dulled the senses. It was like a drug, except there was no high.
Where did Aubrey and Tommy end up? Those answers are within Whispers in the Alders. I’d like to say I was the perfect Aquarian like Tommy, and always optimistic, but it’s not true. Like many survivors of childhood abuse, I faltered for years in all my relationships. To my surprise, the models of behavior I abhorred resurrected themselves within me. I was traveling a path to become as abusive as those who abused me. Destructive behaviors became the norm, and I hurt many people along the way, some of whom may never find the means within to forgive me. While I have always accepted responsibility for my actions, this is the legacy of my childhood. I never fully understood the trauma I had undergone from childhood into early adulthood until I was in my thirties. The pain of therapy was near crippling, but it was the first of many challenging experiences that allowed me to begin healing from my past. I am still a work in progress, and always will be. As long as I keep that in mind, I can stay honest with myself, and to those who love me.
Whispers in the Alders is a story for anyone that has suffered, or is suffering, from child abuse. It’s a story of how to weather the circumstances of an unfair childhood. It tells society why it is failing its children, if it should choose to listen. It’s a story about finding love in friendship and having the courage to place your faith in another human being even after all others have failed you. That is the most difficult position that many survivors of abuse face: placing trust in others.
This Father’s Day, I’m quite lucky to have a father-in-law that has accepted me as his own, and filled the role of father without even being asked. I no longer have fear of the man lurking outside my bedroom, wondering whether or not a rusted blade will save me. It took years of hard work to reach this point in my existence. I’m not alone in this struggle, although for many years, the struggle was lonely.
It is my hope that Aubrey and Tommy’s story will keep this dialogue going. That is why Whispers in the Alders is a story that needed to be told. It’s not one person’s story either – it is an entire generation’s story. And unfortunately, this is a story retold generation after generation. Is it getting better? Perhaps it is, but not better enough. There is a spring to the human mind, and that spring is childhood. Without it, imagination and hope wither in the winter of human pessimism. I’m certain that there are many who can empathize with Aubrey and Tommy, and many more that should learn to have empathy for their situation. Empathy that can begin to be felt in the pages of a book.