Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Anatomy of Abuse in Prose and Poetry

Janine Harrison
As you may or may not already be aware, in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the Indiana Writers’ Consortium is devoting October’s blog posts to writing about this important topic.  Adrienne Rich states in her work, Arts of the Possible, “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.”  Considering the fact that 20 to 25 percent of women will experience some form of gender violence in their lifetimes, a statistic that has not changed in over two decades’ time, it is imperative that physically and sexually abused women see this dysfunctional world represented on paper, so that they may feel less alone, to assist in the processing of their own abuse, and to find or strengthen their own voices, voices to be added to this conversation.  The question that victims of abuse may find daunting while attempting to write about such experiences is:  How do I approach the subject?  In the following paragraphs, I will begin to answer this question by analyzing abuse prose and poetry excerpts.
In her memoir, Crazy Love, Leslie Morgan Steiner addresses abuse directly.  In a scene that takes place shortly before she marries her abuser, Conor, and marks the first instance of abuse, she writes:
     He grabbed my shoulder and turned my body to face his.  His skin was stretched tight across his cheeks.
     My heart seized as if I’d stumbled upon a snake on the path behind our house.  I saw a pink blur of his hand as he slapped me hard across the face.  My skin stung as my teeth cut through the soft, wet flesh of my mouth.  My head jerked back.  Conor grabbed my throat, pushed me against the wall, and tightened his grip.  He shook my whole body back and forth.
     Don’t.  Scream.  Like.  That,” he spit through clenched teeth.  With every word my head hit the office wall, my neck bending like a Gumby doll.
     I couldn’t take my eyes off his face.  I could smell his shaving cream but could not breathe.
While Steiner is able to illustrate the abuse that she endured directly, I recently learned, however, that only a small percentage of victims of abuse are able to confront it “head on” upon the page.  What other approaches exist that can still honestly and effectively address the issue while still allowing writers to face their experiences in a manner perhaps less anguishing?   
In her Wounds of Passion:  a writing life, bell hooks chooses to use third-person point of view (POV) to depict difficult memories:  “She remembers somebody big hurting her body, being lost and nobody finding her but the bad man, who brings her home.  She remembers that he wears the color blue, that he tells her not to tell anybody.  She remembers the fear.  Not much else.”  In the preface, hooks discusses her POV choice, stating, “I move back and forth between first person narration and third person.  I conceptualize the third person voice as that part of myself that is an observer—that bears witness.  At times I also use the third person as an attempt to distance myself from the pain.  The inclusion of the third person narrator who has both critical insight and an almost psychoanalytic power that enables critical reflection on events described is an act of mediation.”  I would also argue that many writers, by nature, live in part in the moment and in part as observers, as witnesses, in our daily lives, and that by virtue of this natural state, when we experience abuse, we are even more so divided, becoming, in effect, nearly two individuals.  Abuse or memory of abuse can be virtually an out-of-body experience.  It seems fair, then—organic—to also represent it thusly in print form. 
In the poetry anthology, Women Write Resistance:  poets resist gender violence, edited by Laura Madeline Wiseman, approaches to such discussion are varied.  In “Common Law,” by Grace Bauer, for example, she never mentions abuse, choosing to discuss instead the reasons the abused woman stayed:
Because he wasn’t always bad.
Then because he was all you had.
Then because of the baby.
Because he said sorry.  And never again.
Because your mother said maybe if you tried
a little harder.  Because your father said nothing.
Because you knew the neighbors were talking
And you wanted to prove them wrong.
Though they were right.
Thought they never called the cops.
Even so, abuse is at the work’s core all the while.  Please also note Bauer’s use of second-person point of view, which simultaneously places the reader in the role of the abuser and allows the poet additional emotional distance from the subject.
Similarly, Mary Stone Dockery refers to gender violence only in the title of her prose poem, “After the Rape”; she uses second-person point of view as well.  Interesting, too, is her use of extended metaphor—of a wasp that has landed on the persona to discuss the rapist and the repercussions of having been violated.  Dockery begins, “You wore the same jeans for a week without washing them.  You couldn’t find a good reason to undress and your nude legs, wet twigs, threatened to snap beneath the weight of your bend.” The woman eventually kills the wasp.  The poet then shows the consequences of rape in her final line, “When you tossed the wasp out the window, you imagined that it disintegrated mid-air, but instead it fell to concrete and you walked by it for many days after, aware of its rot.” Her use of metaphor not only allows for psychological distance from the material but also a fresh and vivid approach to addressing it.
Gender violence persists as a global issue.  This means that we must add new voices, fresh voices, to this discussion, to not only help those who have been affected by it, but also to argue that confronting the issue is still necessary—that domestic and sexual abuse still has us firmly within the grasp of its two strong hands.  While I have only explored a few possibilities here, there are many creative approaches for addressing the subject that allow for the writing experience to be emotionally bearable.  Whether as abused or witness, please be brave and add your voice.  We must fight back.
Works Cited
Bauer, Grace.  “Common Law.”  Women Write Resistance:  Poets Resist Gender Violence.  Ed.  Laura Madeline Wiseman.  USA:  Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013.  24.  Print.
Dockery, Mary Stone.  “After the Rape.”  Women Write Resistance:  Poets Resist Gender Violence.  Ed.  Laura Madeline Wiseman.  USA:  Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013.  49.  Print.
hooks, bell.  Wounds of Passion:  a writing life.  New York:  Henry Holt, 1997.  Print.
Rich, Adrienne.  Arts of the Possible.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 2001.  Print. 
Steiner, Leslie Morgan.  Crazy Love.  New York:  St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009.  Print.

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