Yesterday was a day of firsts for me. Having only recently moved to this sweet Coastal Georgia town, I attended a meeting of the St. Simons Island Literary Guild for the first time. Gathering in a classroom within view of the ocean, doors opened in hopes of a breeze since the air conditioner had broken, a friendly crowd of about 60 people took name tags, cookies, ice water or lemonade and found seats ’til there was standing room only. Harrison Scott Key, author of the new well-reviewed memoir, The Largest Man, would be the guest speaker and he’d be signing and selling books afterward. What an entertaining guy! He captivated the audience with his talent for story-telling and he was funny; he brought a smile to our faces many times and made us laugh. Gift given; gift received.
Yesterday I also began my work on the judges panel of the United Kingdom Child Sex Abuse Peoples’ Tribunal, as I delved into the stories of sexual abuse survivors in the UK who have come forward to tell. To tell about the atrocities they experienced as children and adolescents at the hands of family members, physicians, police, teachers, lawyers, etc. and about how even as adults, individuals and institutions have failed to support their needs for healing, often leaving them feeling re-abused instead. I brought my computer and pages of material with me to the library and sat in a secluded rocking chair by a window with a view to the water to soothe me as I read about incident after incident of horrific sexual and psychological abuse, and grief. Raw grief.
In my psyche raw grief doesn’t take too kindly to jokes. Though I’ve often admired authors who could wrap the misery of their childhood pain in a cloak of humor – it feels more literary to me, more creative, more generous and protective, in that it carries the reader though the tough stuff so magnificently – it just doesn’t work for me. That’s why I couldn’t write a funny memoir. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t have a sense of humor. I do. In fact one of the strengths in my family of origin was that we each had a sense of humor. We could joke about anything. It was fun, entertaining; it gave us relief. But it also helped us to pretend; it helped us to hide secrets and even forget. And my memoir is about remembering. Remembering and telling and healing. I’m one of the lucky ones; I get to put those three words into one sentence and know that they name a process I have actually experienced, and in some measure continue to.
When I think about my work in the Tribunal, there’s a posture with which I imagine my approach to the months ahead. It’s a kind of genuflecting, to the process and to the women and men who have courageously come forward with their stories . Though these individuals are strangers to me, I know that their lives are sacred; that their stories need to be told and need to be heard in a spirit of reverence.