by Libbe HaLevy
My abuse began when I was very young, pre-verbal. I repressed my earliest abuse in total amnesia, not even suspecting anything had happened. But from about age three, I became obsessed with words, language, meaning. Even before I knew how to put letters and words on paper, my imagination took situations around me and spun them into safe stories. My mind took me away from the home I was stuck in to “somewhere else,” and I lived more fully in this dissociative, imaginary world than in the physical world around me.
By four, I had a large vocabulary and made up elaborate stories about my dolls, stuffed animals and toys. I couldn’t wait to learn how to read and write, something my parents considered inappropriate before I turned six and entered first grade. Once I learned the rudiments of reading, I devoured books far beyond my grade level and began writing little stories for class.
When I was in about fifth grade, I secretly started writing for myself. I’d commit poetry, short stories, observations and thoughts to notebooks, then hide them behind the backs of radiators, under rugs, stuffed into drawers of desks that no one used. I sensed that it wasn’t safe to let my family know about the private comfort I found in what I was writing.
I’d been imagining myself for years as a character in westerns, usually a hermit or the adopted daughter of an Indian chief. This character always feared society, avoided it, and never seemed to have a birth family. The men in my stories were kind, sexless father- or brother-figures who saw and respected my secret pains. I never reached a happy ending, just moved from one set of western characters to another when I tired of a plot line.
At twelve, I took my favorite story parts and wrote a script for “Bonanza,” then a popular TV western featuring a father and his three sons. I actually showed this around to classmates and family members, proud of my work. But I didn’t understand why it upset my mother, or why she refused to help me get it to people who might buy it for TV. Ultimately, when the cast of the show changed, I didn’t know how to change my script to match their new needs, and so put it away.
As an adult, I worked professionally in the broadcast and film industries, as a freelance writer, and playwright. I was known for quirky works unafraid to look at the dark side of sexuality and human relations. An award-winning play and my first musical both featured female characters who had been sexually abused or were on the verge of it. Still in amnesia about the abuse, I simply considered it a strong plot device but felt no personal connection with the subject matter. I continued to write poetry for myself, some of it filled with powerful, dark imagery I didn’t understand, but which felt right.
I entered Recovery at thirty-four by attending 12-Step meetings that addressed sexual abuse. Suddenly, my writing became a lifeline. As I found myself triggered by the information shared at meetings, I raced home to write in the journal I’d started in my early twenties. I used this obsessive, daily writing to draw out the emotional toxins being released by my new memories and the healing process. I asked myself tough questions, puzzled through long free-associative answers, recorded life-changing breakthroughs in words, words, words. By virtue of my ability to touch type over a hundred words per minute, I could sit at my typewriter in the middle of a full-blown breakdown/breakthrough and narrate my pain with my fingers even as I sobbed and screamed. Words became the poultice that drew out and transformed my inchoate pain into solid statements of the truth I’d locked away as unacceptable to my psyche.
I did all the recommended Recovery writing exercises: letters to my younger self, future self, perpetrators, other family members – some of which I actually mailed; descriptions of my childhood homes; daily journal entries; gratitude lists; sub-dominant hand writing. I hammered out my Recovery like a blacksmith at an anvil, forging words with heat and sparks and rage and tears, tempering what I needed to say until it rang like a finely crafted sword. Words became my power, my strength, my allies, my friends. I saw the alphabet as sub-atomic particles capable of being organized into explosive devices that changed my world and had the potential to help others do the same.
And then I let those words out into the world. A play I wrote about incest and Recovery, SHATTERED SECRETS, ended up running 2-1/2 years in Santa Monica, California, and being published and produced internationally. Everywhere it appeared, survivors found and used it to empower their own healing. My articles on incest recovery were published in national magazines, survivor newsletters, duplicated for use in hundreds of Recovery meetings. I used my words to address the international media at a press conference that landed me on “60 Minutes” and debated the falseness of “false memory syndrome” on Los Angeles TV. Language, words, writing and delivery of that writing fired an activist response beyond my ability to predict.
With time, I was able to appreciate the true nature of my earlier writings and how they’d helped me survive the abuse I did not then remember:
• The “Bonanza” script featured a young girl who thought she’d murdered the old man she lived with after he came home drunk one night and started to attack her (no wonder my mother did her best to sink it!);
• A collection of my darkest poetry, which I’d labeled “You Should Be Afraid of This Book,” revealed itself as coded descriptions of abuse I was not, at the time of writing, strong enough to consciously remember;
• The incest themes of both a play and a musical revealed themselves as true representations of my relationship with my brother.
Through writing, I’d been relieving the pressure of repressed incest memories on my psyche before I even knew that pressure was there. Again, I state this and mean it: if I did not write, I would have died long before I found the ability to heal from my abuse.
I believe that for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, writing is not optional. Without words, we are trapped in the powerlessness of early childhood with no way out. It’s no accident that the true “incest taboo” is for the victims to talk — and write — about it. I consider writing a necessary healing tool, one that is free, readily available, and ultimately empowering not just in the moment but as a record of one’s personal journey. It need not have literary merit or even be in proper English; indeed, much of my most healing early work consisted of incoherent rage rants that deteriorated into scribbles and stab marks. The important thing is to use words, writing, scribbling, to get it out of you. Release the toxins through whatever language you can find. When words fail, scrawl, scribble, cry, scream (into a pillow, please!), and do what you need to in order to keep on getting what is in you out onto paper.
Then, when you are out of the heat of creation, find at least one safe person with whom to share what you have written. Read it to your therapist, a Recovery buddy, or find a safe writing workshop focused on survivors and our issues to read your truth in a community of others who will understand. I led workshops like that for years and watched the growing health, healing, strength and understanding of the brave women and men who dared to write and speak their truth.
The more truth put into words and released into the world, the greater the peace and power of each survivor. As each of us heals, we become part of a movement to break the cycle of abuse and pass healing on to others who still suffer. The true history of sexual abuse survivors and the impact on our world is just now starting to be written. We need all your stories to understand the truth of our own. I encourage you to have the courage to put your truth on paper/screen.
Whatever you decide to do, remember always: You are not alone, it was not your fault… and yes, it is possible to heal.
Libbe S. HaLevy, M.A., CAC is a Life Action Coach and an incest survivor with 25+ years of healing. She provides coaching for sexual abuse survivors, leads online writing workshops, and by late 2010 is launching the information/community-building site, Incest Survivor Healing. She worked on the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, spoke about incest on “60 Minutes,” and her award-winning play SHATTERED SECRETS, about survivors in Recovery, ran 2-1/2 years in Los Angeles and was produced internationally.
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