Chantal V. Johnson on Childhood Abuse and Disclosure
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
Chantal V. Johnson is the guest. Her debut novel, Post-Traumatic, is out now from Little, Brown.
Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts!
From the episode:
Chantal V. Johnson: I grew up in a household that was very violent when I was a kid. It was physically violent. It was sexually violent. It was sadistic and humiliating. From a very early age, I knew that I was hated and despised for reasons that were a mystery to me. Eventually, I escaped that situation, and one of the first things that I did was start telling little girls what I had experienced. The first time I did that, I remember it was at night. It was on my stoop. I had just moved to a new town and made some new girlfriends. I told them about the violent situation that we had just escaped, and no one made any admissions to me that night. But later, when I would tell the story to other little girls, they started saying to me that they had experienced something similar.
I have a horrible memory in a lot of ways, but I remember every single abuse admission that I have ever heard in my entire life, and I felt like I was collecting. I felt like I had this secret knowledge of these things that are happening to little kids. It made me feel part of something bigger than myself, which was great for me. That’s a wonderful way to start the process of contextualizing and later politicizing what has happened to you, while also minimizing the significance of what happened to you, making it less personal. It becomes something that happens to more people, so you have this sense of connectedness with other people who are all bound by this thing.
A lot of this book comes out of that collection of stories. It’s like I had been taking in all of your stories for all of this time, and now I have to give it back to everyone. I have to make sure that I do it in a way that is aesthetically interesting, maybe philosophically interesting. Not self-pitying, not overly sentimental. The language has to be right. No haunting, no ghosts, no wounds, no ravages, no scars. The only scars that my character has are literal scars on her body. She’s not haunted by the scars of the ravages of the wounds of her traumatic past. Stop. Can we stop with that language? So I did. I felt this sense of obligation to survivors that I had known throughout my entire life.
Brad Listi: As you talk,the phrase that occurred to me was collecting testimony. Which squares with your lawyerly profession.The other thing that strikes me is how as a child, your inclination was to disclose. At least from what I gather personally and from the culture, a lot of children don’t disclose. Something like this happens, and they lock it away because they don’t have language for it. They feel shame around it, or fear. A lot of times there’s fear about what will happen if they do disclose. They don’t want to disrupt their family structure or get a parent or family member into legal trouble. You took the opposite tack. You were ready to talk right away. That’s interesting to me.
Chantal V. Johnson: Yeah. To be clear, I wasn’t talking right away. It was talking after. But I think about that a lot when I think about myself and my personality. Personality and temperament is something that I really believe in. As someone who experienced a lot of violence and abuse in my life, I have often questioned and wondered, what is authentically me? What am I? Is everything just a response to that? What’s me? But those moments of telling, that feels like that is me. Because, like you said, not everybody does that.
The other thing that feels like me, which is in the book, is this kind of defiant streak. I was at times pretty openly defiant to people who were abusing me. That was not good for me. But I did it anyway. That feels like that’s me.
Chantal V. Johnson is a tenant lawyer and writer. A graduate of Stanford Law School and a 2018 Center for Fiction Emerging Writers Fellow, she lives in New York.