A Vicious Cycle: Jessica Strawser on Telling and Re-Telling Traumatic Stories
“It’s funny, how sometimes the things you know for sure can still surprise you.”
Jane Smiley recently said, “Reading novels is a form of emotional education.” If that’s true, then writing novels must be a form of emotional exploration—into all the reasons a theme won’t let us go, and what it is we most want to say. If you’re writing about a difficult truth, it’s easier to imagine how wiser, braver characters would respond than to relive it yourself.
My first novel that dealt with domestic violence was inspired loosely but earnestly by a close friend who became a victim. Shocked by the unthinkable tragedy of her death, I switched into info-gathering mode, leaning on my journalistic training, trying to force the senseless to make sense. I buried myself in agonizing research about the warning signs I must have missed, the wishful thinking of what I should have done.
It was probably inevitable I’d write about it sooner or later, but the first time I did, I wasn’t attempting to tell any kind of story of my own. I was volunteering for my local YWCA’s public awareness campaign during Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Survivors told me their stories and I wrote them, amplifying their voices through a social media campaign. I toured the women’s shelter. I memorized the stats. I put faces to numbers. The stories were, paradoxically, hard to hear yet easier to retell. Perhaps that’s what happens when you know someone has narrowly escaped being silenced.Sometimes, when we hand that book to a friend, it becomes the springboard for discussing our own truths.
The campaign ended, but my role didn’t feel finished. If these women were brave enough to share their stories, why wasn’t I? I drafted an essay about grappling with the anniversary of such a loss. It wasn’t something I liked to talk about—in fact, by then, years after the incident, many people in my life didn’t know it had happened it all.
Yet there it was, in The New York Times Modern Love, laid bare for millions of strangers. It was intensely personal, cathartic, and well received by others who could relate. But it was written largely in retrospect and about specific memories, so it didn’t touch on the more universal questions that still weighed on my mind.
Like many writers, I suppose I do my best thinking on paper.
After nearly a decade of careful thought, I spun a novel that I hoped finally said what I wanted to say, the way I wanted to say it. Not That I Could Tell is about a woman who disappears, along with her preschool-aged twins, after a backyard bonfire with neighborhood friends—and whose estranged husband quickly falls under suspicion. The story is told not from the point of view of a victim or an abuser, but the neighbors who are left to wonder what was happening behind closed doors—and how much responsibility we all should have to our friends and neighbors.
The story has no soapbox. Instead, it’s chatty, so the big questions sneak up on you, leaving you with something deeper to think about: Such is life, right?
By the time the book released in spring 2018, I was swimming in gratitude—not something anyone takes lightly in publishing. I thought it would be my only novel on the subject, out of my system at last.
Then came the response.
It’s funny, how sometimes the things you know for sure can still surprise you. I knew domestic abuse is far more common than anyone realizes. I knew the only way to combat the stigma was to stop sweeping it under the rug, to pull important conversations out into the open. And I knew—as Jane Smiley alluded to—that fiction has an important voice in that conversation, particularly when it comes to building empathy.
But there’s a vast difference between knowing something and seeing it for yourself.
Which is why my new novel, The Last Caretaker, flips the script with the ultimate point-of-view shift. Gone are the innocent bystanders wondering if someone should do something. These are characters who understand that the system doesn’t do enough to protect women who’ve found themselves in the crosshairs of dangerous men. They’re taking things into their own hands, with a grassroots network that operates under its own moral code. They’re smart, resourceful, and willing to do what needs to be done—in secret, with no recognition or thanks.There’s a vast difference between knowing something and seeing it for yourself.
I never would have dreamed up this network, this novel, if not for my own readers who’ve responded to my stories by sharing their own. Because at the heart of every interaction, I saw compassionate humans who wanted us all to do better by each other. Men and women, like me, who wished they’d known or could have helped, who genuinely wanted to be that friend who you can call at any hour, for any reason, and know you can count on them.
It’s inspired by the book club that invited me to their affluent neighborhood, sat with me sipping wine, and recounted how they’d hid one of their own members from her abusive ex years before. And by the woman in question who was there among them, safe and smiling.
It’s inspired by the librarian who nervously pulled me aside when I arrived at her branch, and with embarrassed tears in her eyes confessed she hadn’t read my novel, though she was supposed to lead the book club discussion during my author visit. She was in recovery, and her therapist had advised against it—and she put such blind trust in me when I took the lead to cover for her.
It’s inspired by the readers who’ve written me to say they’re lucky to be alive. Not a single one has done so without expressing condolences that my friend was not so lucky. Because they understand, better than most, that we’re all more connected than we might think.
It’s inspired by all the ways I’ve seen firsthand that strangers can embrace one another as sisters, laughing and crying like old friends over nothing more than a shared experience with a story—even if it’s fiction. Especially if it’s fiction—because sometimes, when we hand that book to a friend, it becomes the springboard for discussing our own truths. The cycle continues: And isn’t it refreshing, really, that not all tough-to-break cycles are bad?
We all know words have power.
Sometimes how much depends on your point of view.
The Last Caretaker by Jessica Strawser is available from Lake Union Publishing.