“We are walking wounds, but I am not sure any of us know quite how to talk about it,” writes Roxane Gay in her new essay, “Writing Into the Wound,” published on Scribd. The piece, inspired by an undergraduate workshop Gay taught at Yale on writing trauma, describes Gay’s experience attempting to write about being gang-raped at age 12, first in fictional stories written as a teenager, “melodramatic and overwrought and dark and graphic,” and then, as an adult, in work like her essay collection Bad Feminist. “I wrote around it,” she writes of that book’s description of the assault. “In part, I was protecting myself. I could admit this thing had happened to me, but I was not ready to share the details.” Finally, in Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Gay wrote “directly and openly about my sexual assault, how it changed me, how that assault has haunted me for more than thirty years.”
In her new essay, she describes the book’s reception—overwhelmingly positive responses from readers, while interviews with some members of the media ranged from misinformed to callous—and how the experience of writing the book led to further questions of how to depict trauma in writing. The piece is well hewn but expansive, exploring the ways in which we reveal ourselves through writing—by choice, as in the detailing of an assault, or more obliquely, as in how a journalist describes a piece of writing about an assault, and the writer who experienced it.
Roxane and I have known each other for a few years and, of course, my awareness of and admiration for her writing predated that. I’m sure few would wonder why I was interested in talking to her about this particular essay—which we did via a Zoom call from our respective Los Angeles homes—about the nuance and intricacy involved in writing about one’s trauma for public consumption.
Monica Lewinsky: Did teaching the course on trauma writing change your thoughts about how we write about trauma?
Roxane Gay: I don’t know that it changed my thoughts, but it certainly expanded them and helped me develop a stronger understanding. I thought of the class after asking myself, how do we write about trauma? And how do we write about it well? I had edited an anthology called Not That Bad, a compilation of women writing about their experiences with rape culture. Most of the submissions were just straight testimony. They weren’t essays. And I was in the unfortunate position of having to reject these truly painful stories that clearly took quite a lot for the writers to submit. It got me thinking, how do we teach people how to take a trauma—whether it’s theirs or someone else’s; a cultural trauma, collective trauma, so on—and write about it in ways that can be more than just catharsis? Over the course of the semester my students were really astonishing in the different ways that they approached the topic and tried to answer the question I posed to them at the beginning of the semester which is, “How do we write trauma, and how do we do it well?” It really helped me to further refine my thinking.
Does “writing trauma well” fall under the category of what we would normally say is “good” writing? Or does writing trauma well mean that it’s effective in a different way?
That’s a good question, and I think a lot of the time what we mean by writing well is very subjective and there can be a lot of different criteria. For some people, writing about trauma well means that it helps them work through something. But is that going to be writing trauma well for an audience? And which audience? You really do have to think through these questions as you’re writing trauma and decide, what is your end goal? And what are you going to consider a success?
I’ve written about my trauma and what ends up feeling meaningful to me is when someone connects with it in a way that helps them. You had an outpouring of that after Hunger. Did that mitigate some of the experiences you were having with the press? What was that like?
It was surprising, because I did not expect the book to resonate with as many people as it did, and with as many people who were not fat. I just thought, Great, I’m going to reach my fat brethren, yay. But living in a body is hard, no matter what that body looks like, and no matter what that body’s ability is. And so people really had a lot to say, and I really felt I had done it well, because so many people came to me. But also because it created a small measure of change. Now, it’s being taught in many medical schools and it is helping doctors rethink how they interact with their fat patients and how they treat their fat patients and how they understand their fat patients. And that, for me, was when I knew I had done okay. Because, that’s such a real problem, fat phobia in the medical profession. And so many fat people go undiagnosed with issues they have every right to seek treatment for. Being fat is not a crime. And so, if the medical establishment can decriminalize fatness a little bit, I will have considered my life a life well lived.
My best friend from college is a pediatrician, and she read Hunger and told me that it completely changed how she talked to all of her adolescent patients around this issue.My confession is that Hunger was too hard for me to read. I’ve struggled with weight my whole life and was also fat-shamed publicly. It opened up those triggers. But I do wonder, do you like or dislike when people say that it was brave to write something like this?
I have tried to come to a place of peace about it, because I don’t feel brave. And so it feels like people are giving me a recognition I don’t deserve when they say that. I don’t think it’s particularly brave to write about your reality and to write about the ways you’ve suffered or the ways that you have experienced joy. But, at the same time, I do recognize, given how terrifying I found it to write the book, that it took something to finally hit send and give it to my editor—and I delayed that for a year, because I was so overwhelmed by the prospect of even starting the book. So yeah, in the end it did require some bravery. I try to just be as gracious as possible when people say that because I do recognize it’s a compliment and that people don’t need to know all of my interior angst. But I also sometimes find myself qualifying it like, “Oh, I’m not brave.”
Like just now?
Exactly. Exactly like that.
You wrote in the essay, “How do we write about the traumatic experiences of others without transgressing their boundaries or privacy?”
That’s a question I think that we are always going to have to grapple with, but I always think we have to err on the side of respecting other people and their lives and not putting words or experiences into their mouths that they have not shared. I don’t ever want to suppose that I know anything about someone who’s experienced trauma, if I haven’t asked them about it directly. We see all kinds of speculation. You’re very familiar with this. The media will invent stories, whole cloth.
According to the tabloids, I had an alien child once, you know?
Oh, I did not realize. How are they doing?
Wonderful. I’m getting the tax credit.
Lucky! Yeah. It’s wild to see what writers can do. I think that as long as we recognize that we have to respect other people and their lives, even if we’re writing about them, we are going to get to a place where we’re doing a reasonably good job of writing about the trauma of others. I never want to co-opt someone’s experience, and so when I write about the trauma of others, I just try to be careful. I try to use common sense. I think, Would I want something like this written about me? Because having had people write about me and do so in ways that are inaccurate, or just wrong, or offensive—I know how that feels. I would never want anyone else to feel that way, and so I try to be careful. And I think if everyone was a little more careful and a little more thoughtful about the choices that they make, we could spare people further trauma.
Do you feel comfortable talking publicly about the healing modalities that you’ve used or are using?
Oh yeah, I’m very comfortable. I took a long time to write about my sexual assault because I wasn’t ready, because I didn’t want people to know something so intimate and something so painful. And then I started to think, It’s been so long. Let it go. And so, one of the things that got me to a place where I was able to write about it and open myself up to everything inevitably that would rise out of writing about it was a therapy. And a lot of reading and support groups online, and things like that. And so, I’m actually way more comfortable talking about the healing modalities that I am using than I am talking about the trauma itself. And I’m fine talking about the trauma itself. It’s not that interesting. It happened, it’s over, and yes, I’m still dealing with the repercussions of it, but it’s not that interesting.
What is interesting is, for me, is just how long trauma can linger and how sometimes when you least expect it you have these reminders. And that has been one of the more stunning things about living through trauma. Trauma compounds. It just surprises me where I feel like I’m doing something normal, everything is cool, and then something happens and all of a sudden nothing is okay, everything is terrible and I am falling apart. And then I have to pull myself back together all over again.
We don’t talk a lot about the messiness of recovery, because people like to believe that it is a contained and discrete experience. It happens, it’s over, you heal, you move on. You heal, but sometimes the wound reopens, and it heals again and then reopens and scar tissue develops, and so on. I try to also accommodate that in my writing so that people are clear that I’m not offering you some sort of magical solution. This is not therapy. This is just a memoir. It is an accounting of a life…. So many people with trauma feel like they’re failing because they have a bad day or a bad week or a bad year. And you know what? If you wake up, you’re not failing. If you brush your teeth, you’re not failing. And I think if we just have slightly more realistic goals for ourselves than perfection, we’ll be okay.
During the pandemic, after things just completely went away for about two months, three months, people figured out that virtual events are viable and work started pouring in again. And of course, I was writing about the election, and I had gotten married, and my mom has lung cancer. I have a lot going on. I haven’t had a chance to worry about my own shit because there’s five other things that are horrible that I’m dealing with at the same time. But one of the things that the isolation did do, though, was force me to recognize that I actually have time to work on some things that I have not worked on personally. I’ve kicked up therapy to twice a week now, and that has been very useful. I was very resistant, but someone told me that it’s very useful to go twice a week.
Or a double session.
It takes me a while to warm up and I find that around minute 41 is when I really when I’m like, “and so then he stabbed me.” And then she’s like, “Well, we got to go!” And so I have found that because even though I’m still busy, I’m not traveling, which saves so much time and so much energy that I have been able to direct that energy to productive things. And in addition to the increased anxiety of is humanity coming to an end, so it’s been challenging. What about for you, Monica?
My experience in the beginning of the pandemic was that old trauma made it really challenging. In the first several months of 1998, I couldn’t go outside. So, because of that, unless I’m sick, it’s rare for me to not leave my house at least once a day. Yes, we could go for walks…but. There was a real claustrophobic feeling about quarantine for me—that “have to stay inside” mandate. And then, in terms of compounded trauma, I had just started dating somebody and Linda Tripp died unexpectedly. A lot of old trauma kicked up.
It surprises me, all the crevices in the psyche where trauma can lurk. My therapist is a trauma psychiatrist and she talks about exactly what you were just saying, that there’s such a long echo of trauma. I’ve had the experience of sometimes trying to prepare for something that I think will be traumatic, and then it’s like, surprise! Trauma has its own way of wanting to deal with something.
And its own agenda. I find that whenever I think I’m planning for how I’m going to feel about something, life surprises me. The most surprising thing about Hunger was not the reader reception, it was the way the press dealt with it. I had anticipated it and my best friend and I had actually spent some time trying to imagine what were the worst things that reporters were going to ask me? What were the worst headlines? We ended up being right, and then it was way worse. If I had known I would’ve never, ever published the book. So I’m glad in a way that I did not know…. Culturally, it’s really hard for people to let go of these singular narratives. Again, this is nothing you don’t already know. It just surprised me, I must say. It surprised me.
But you don’t regret publishing Hunger, do you?
I don’t regret it. The book has done more good than not.
There’s a lot of talk in the anti-bullying world around how media is not very well trained at talking about suicide, and the importance of the language we use. Do you think that that was a similar case with the people in the press—that they didn’t know better? Or they were going for clickbait, or it was their unconscious bias?
I think it was all of the above. And not every interviewer had all of the same motivations. Like Mia Freedman [cofounder of Mamamia, an Australian women’s website, who hosted Gay on her podcast; “Freedman wrote a description of the show that was one of the most humiliating things I have ever seen in print about myself,” Gay writes in the essay. “I was stunned. Blindsided.”], she was just about clickbait. She knew what she was doing, and she clearly has issues around fatness as well.
I wrote the book, and the kinds of things that the media were obsessing about, I put in the book. I knew that was going to happen, but I just did not realize the enthusiasm with which it was going to happen. People were very excited to write about my highest weight over and over. For the first few weeks, there was not a piece of press that did not mention it. And I just thought, Well, of course they were going to do that. And you just have to hold your head high. There’s nothing I could do about it.
But it was also disappointing. When someone like Terry Gross, who I held prior to this in really, high esteem, because my friends and family really held her in the highest esteem—for so many writers, that’s the holy grail. And I’ve heard good interviews with her, so I was actually excited to have a substantive conversation. And then when it didn’t happen—oh, it was hugely disappointing. [“She fixated on my highest weight,” Gay writes of her experience in the essay. “She was deeply curious about my eating habits, about how I could spend so many years being so fat.”]
That was my experience too. I left. I left in the middle of the interview.
I did not have the chutzpah to do something like that. But I wanted to. I wanted to just leave because I was so hurt and then mad at myself for being hurt. And then mad at myself for not being prepared, to not expect that this was going to happen with someone like her. Because I just thought she was better than that. And she wasn’t.
I had different traumas, younger years, adolescence, and then obviously the ones everybody knows about. I think there was a tendency as a younger person to turn the blame back on myself. Do you think that’s part of the trauma of what you experienced with Terry?
I think it was a lot of that. Why was I not prepared? Why did I expect any better from people? And why did I write the book? I took all the blame on myself. Why could I not get my weight under control, so that I didn’t have to write the book? I could go all the way back to: Why was I born? It can be a really slippery slope of self-blame and self-loathing. I tried to pull myself out of it and remind myself, like, this is radical, but maybe I’m not the problem.
Somebody told me this quote a couple years ago and it came to mind as I was reading your essay. It’s from the French writer André Malraux. “You did not come back from hell with empty hands.”
You know, I’ve never heard that saying before, but it’s an interesting thing and it’s true. You’re never going to emerge from a trauma unscathed, and as much as we’d like to believe that healing is a sort of a neat and complete thing, there’s always going to be baggage and scars. And sometimes it literally changes who you are, which can be challenging.
When I taught the class, having taught undergraduates before, I knew I was going to hear about difficult experiences that the students had endured. And so I was prepared for that, but I was not prepared for how powerfully they were able to write about those experiences. And I just kept looking, each week, out at this amazing group of young people and thinking, They shouldn’t have these stories to tell…. It was really striking to me to recognize that trauma really is one of the great equalizers. We don’t talk about that enough when we talk about we are all human and we have common ground because of love, we all have families, blah, blah, blah. But also, most of us have endured trauma.
I think it’s always important to recognize that you shouldn’t be ranking oppressions and you shouldn’t be ranking traumas, because it’s not fair. I wasn’t in a war-torn region during a war, but that doesn’t mean that my trauma didn’t have a profound impact on me. Women tend to minimize their experiences and their traumas because women deal with so many terrible things. When you look at young women who have been sex trafficked, young women who have been kidnapped, people who have been gang-raped by soldiers—I mean, the level of horror that those poor women in Cleveland who were kept in a house for seven years. I have enough perspective to recognize what I went through sucked, but it wasn’t like that.
One of the things that I did realize during classes, and that I also tried to impart to my students, is that you should never minimize your trauma. But I also think perspective is incredibly important, and recognizing that there’s nothing productive in saying, “That was so much worse,” but there is something important in recognizing that trauma can be compounded and it can last beyond imagining.
Is there something that you’ve wanted to talk about with your essay that you haven’t been asked about or that you feel should be highlighted that doesn’t get highlighted enough?
The one thing that I don’t think is highlighted enough, and I think this applies to a lot of different kinds of writing, is that people underestimate the craft. So many people assume that when you’re writing about trauma, when you’re writing about marginalization, oppression, whatever, anything sort of negative, that you’re writing only from emotion. And one of the main points I was trying to make, and I don’t know that I actually did it well in the essay, but I will, when it becomes a chapter in my next book. People underestimate that it’s a craft. That writing is a job and I’m not just doing it to exorcise my demons, I’m doing it to elicit a response from the reader and to accomplish something. And I do wish more people would ask me about what are some of the mechanical choices that you make to write about anything, but to write about trauma in particular.
I’m interested in that.
You have to have boundaries. And boundaries are this great container that will keep out things you don’t want to include, and keep in everything else. Once you have boundaries, you know that you’re never going to be harmed, and you’re not going to cause harm, by whatever you’re doing because you respect yourself enough to have these boundaries. It’s important to recognize that you don’t have to divulge everything. You get to determine how explicit or implicit you want to be. So many people think that if I’m writing about trauma, I have to be incredibly explicit and I have to give you every gory detail. You want to think about how you are going to put the reader into your experience, or whatever experience you’re writing about, so they can really understand the impact of it. You have to start to think about the choices that you’re making in terms of the level of description and the kind of setting and the way you set it up and introduce whatever you’re writing about into the piece. I really wanted to get my students to also think in addition to the ethical questions, just mechanically, how are you going to do this? It helped a lot of the students, because they had to recognize that not only are you going to write this, you’re going to be critiqued. And you don’t get to use the trauma as a shield from critique. Just like I couldn’t use trauma as a shield from book reviews—nor would I. And that is a useful framework, especially in the realm of writing.
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