Writing Memoir: Working with Violence

“A person lighting a lighter in Oregonia” by Jacob Ufkes on Unsplash

Sometimes there’s a fine line between writing that informs, enlightens, and entertains and writing that appeals to prurient interests.

I’ve experienced a lot of violence, and have sometimes incorporated scenes of violence in my writing. Hesitantly. Because even though I love to shock people in person, I don’t want to incorporate shock value into my writing.

For me, reading and writing are composed of sacred moments when I learn and understand. Gratuitous violence doesn’t fit into my vision. So how can I acknowledge the violence without turning my work into cheap click-bait?

That’s a question I grappled with in the following essay, “No Trespassing,” originally published in volume 34.2 of The Ohio State University’s long-running literary magazine, The Journal, and republished on author Kelly Sundberg’s blog. Feel free to let me know how I did — because managing violence in memoir is an issue I’m still working on.

No Trespassing

The road to my old neighborhood snakes along this rocky New England coastline, but I am too old and cautious now to take those curves at high speeds, especially since a few years have passed since I last traced this route. Midnight has passed tonight, too, and a full moon brightens the salty midsummer air. I drive slowly enough to see the “No Trespassing After Dark” sign on the back of the concrete bench. The bench half encircles a sunken dais above the beach, remnants of the New Ocean House, a Gilded Age resort that burnt to the ground in 1969.
In 1973 I sat on that bench to rest after the first time my boyfriend beat me, squinting out at the dark blue Atlantic, sunlight reflecting off the waves like crystal shards, my face a ghoulish puff.
“I fell into a stone wall on my way home from school” was the lie I told my parents and my friends. They knew what had really happened, but in 1973, none of us had language for it that was not full of shame.

In the next century, on the west side of the Continental Divide, I am one of six middle-aged women who run outside to see a Great Horned Owl. Our host tells us the owl arrives each day at dusk. The other women are avid birdwatchers who carry fieldglasses. I borrow a pair to watch the owl perched atop the triangular yellow Yield sign at the place where two farmroads meet. “He’s magnificent,” says one woman. “He or she?” asks another. The ornithologist among us says it is difficult to tell the females from the males.
Back inside, we take our seats again, and talk turns to the recent murder of Sarah Parks, a twenty-eight-year old woman, pregnant with her first child, a substitute teacher in this small Idaho town. Dental records were used to identify her remains because in the fire that burned her house to the ground, her flesh was consumed by flames. The autopsy had revealed that she was dead before her body burned. Her husband, Silas Parks, is the murder suspect: there is a history of domestic violence.
I close my eyes. This is the second time I have heard people speak of this murder, the second time the image I have concocted of Sarah Parks’ charred corpse rises up behind my eyelids, her body blackened but draped in pale linen, levitating in mid-air like the hypnotized yet living body of a magician’s assistant.
“I just don’t understand that sort of thing,” says one of us, a long-necked woman whose field glasses rest in her lap like two dead blackbirds in a nest. “Why would any woman stay in a relationship like that? It’s so unhealthy.”
Yes. It is so unhealthy that Sarah Parks is dead. So unhealthy that we do not ask what perceptions or constrictions impel us to cast Sarah Parks as the one who cannot be understood. So unhealthy that no one says, I just don’t understand that sort of thing. Why would any man beat or kill a woman he loves?
My impulse is to slip into the sweet release of rage and slap the stupid out of this long-necked woman, out of all of us, but the ornithologist saves me from myself by beginning to tell her own love story. She had lived in an abusive marriage for many years, she says. And yet the beginning of her marriage was a fairy tale. Her voice falls softer and softer, becoming inaudible, but I can guess she is explaining how love starts tenderly, how tenderness twists, how love and power entwine like two colors in the same flame. Or maybe she tries to explain how she bought a lovely pair of shoes that blister her heels, but they cost so much, she keeps wearing them anyway. I am a newcomer here, trying to make friends, and so I change the subject myself, to less fiery topics, like whether I can clear anyone’s dessert plate. I circle the table, stack the plates and silverware neatly into piles.

Why did I stay on, for a year, more or less, after that first significant beating? I could tell you I was dealt a certain hand. I could tell you I grew up in a violent home. I could tell you I come from a culture that still encourages women to be subservient to men. I could tell you I read too many fairy tales, watched too many Disney movies, listened to too many love songs, that I longed to be pursued, over and over again, because women are prey. I could tell you love and power twist together, indistinguishable, two colors in the same flame. That whatever burns gives off some warmth. That he could make his hipbones slip into low gear. That I was young and passionate. That he had an artist’s hands. That months passed before his hands became his fists. That tenderness twists. That he had a certain predatory grace. Why did I stay? I could tell you that this is the wrong question.

“No Trespassing After Dark.” It is after midnight in my old neighborhood when I drive by, too late, I tell myself, to stop, too late to sit on the encircling bench in the moonlight and visit the dais, the stage and the grave of my adolescence. Too late because my best friend Lisa waits up for me tonight; I have just blown back into town. She knows everything. Forty-six years of witnessing each other’s lives relieves us of the strain of explanation, the tiresome setting up of context for a conversation. She is standing under the yellow light of her front porch as I pull into the driveway, wrapped in a thick robe that cannot conceal the lasting angularity of her frame, the smoke of her cigarette swirling from her perpetually manicured fingers into the night. She yells a greeting from her door as I grab my suitcase from the rental car trunk, and we are catching up for five minutes before we remember to embrace.
I cannot sleep that night. My legs twitch, and my feet insist on cuddling each other. Images of shame blink like flashcards, in no particular order and without regard to geography: my grotesque face in a bathroom mirror, the high school janitor’s snicker when he asks whether my boyfriend beat me up, the tree of my determination to make love work being cut down again, again, again. The lovers who came after and how I fell for them, then cut them down myself. My pride. Blood dripping from my nose onto the seat cushion of the Greyhound bus that took us from New England to California. The advice a convicted killer dropped like a sack of gold in my lap: you have to be willing to do whatever it takes to make sure you are the one who walks away. The sandwich lines, the flophouses. The woman at the San Diego rescue mission who urged me to apply for Welfare: “You can’t eat that pride, honey.” My pride. My bewilderment. The tree of my determination. The sack of gold I could not spend. The lovers who came after and how I cut them down.
I take a pill. It does its work. In the morning I sit outside and let the salt air soothe me, chatting with Lisa before she leaves for work.
That afternoon, I wait for Heidi, another childhood friend, to meet me at a train station. She is late, but I am not worried. We always manage to meet up, like we did in 1974, the first time I tried to leave Jimmy. He and I were crashing at a dorm at Harvard after hitchhiking back east from San Diego. I left him sleeping on a mattress in a room full of morning light and walked the bridge across the Charles River to Boston Commons, my black high-tops splitting across my instep, my army surplus backpack half full of dirty clothes. On the Commons, the third old man who tried to hustle me for sex had some heart and gave me a few bucks for food. His timing was just right; I walked into the McDonald’s and saw Heidi there. She knew a recently married couple — teenagers, like us — who let me stay with them, but that did not last long. I reeked of unhappiness and bad luck. They asked me to leave. I had no place to stay. Jimmy tracked me down and cried, his head in my lap, my fingers curling in his wiry hair. We reconciled in our shared belief in romance, in starting fresh, in what we called forgiveness. The tree sprang back to life again, fuel for the flame.
My train is long gone. Heidi is late, but I am not worried. I trust my old friends, the ones who knew me back then, the ones who need no explanations. I wait. A young woman, perhaps a teenager, crosses the tracks. She is costumed in rags, half fashion statement, half necessity, I guess, her bare shins a map of scabs. She plucks a discarded cigarette butt from the pavement, asks a group of youngsters for a light. They shake their heads and back away, as different from her in their youthful innocence as they are from me in my dowdy middle age. She steps back, and her chin dips, her eyes drop as she mimes her submission to them in her plaid tatters, her short dark hair, her black sneakers. My heart shatters. Oh my darling, my penitent, my broken mirror. You are so young, so undeserving of your pain.
Heidi arrives in her mammoth Chevy Suburban. I hug her hard from the passenger seat, reassured by her solid muscles. We catch up on the drive to Plum Island: our families, our work, our thoughts on the changes wrought by menopause and middle age. Then we each do our own thing for an hour before getting back together in time for dinner. She hops on her bike and heads off to the end of the island; I haul a chair over the boardwalk and sit on the beach, watch the waves curl and break, curl and break. But for the contrails, the sky is cloudless. The ocean is New England cerulean, an intense distillation of the sky’s blueness, the same color it was on the day of the first significant beating at the New Ocean House’s abandoned boathouse. I do not recall whether even then there was a sign that said “No Trespassing After Dark,” or other warnings of how memory can spring at you in the dusk of life.

Why did I leave? And how many times? Those memories are scattered, like cards from a deck; I pick one up and hold it against my heart and the old fears, the old bewilderments drop into my belly: the circular fears of being abandoned, disfigured, abandoned, the swollen-faced bewilderment at why he beat me this time, if he would ever beat me again, if he would never beat me again, the seesaw fear of being wrong or dead, no matter how I chose.
A year passes, more or less, from the day of that first beating. I return to New England, to my parents’ breaking up home, to the trivial drama of high school, to my old friends, girls and boys who are all living on the fringe in some way, outcast from the social norms by choice or circumstance. After school one day, they sit me down in a wing chair, its back and arms all torn up by cats, and they take seats, too, encircling me. They do not ask me to explain why I ran away from home with a boy who beat me. They do not ask me to explain why I keep going back to him. They do not tell me I am crazy. They do not tell me I have made bad choices, big mistakes, that they would have handled things differently.
They tell me if I go back to Jimmy again, they will kill him. And then they tell me how.
I never go back.

In my twenties, I volunteer at a battered women’s service agency in another coastal New England town. This is what I learn: not to ask for explanations, not to stand in judgment, not to substitute my values for another woman’s idea of what is right for herself, not to undercut — in any way — the power women take when they make their own decisions.
The agency owns a transitional shelter, an ancient three-story clapboard house near the harbor. The first floor holds four square and ample rooms: a kitchen, a dining room, a living room and an office. On the upper floors, the once spacious rooms have been quartered into a warren of bedrooms and closets that accommodate as many as a dozen women and their children at one time. I facilitate a creative writing group here once a week.
The house is crowded, always, and if the weather is fine, the writing group often meets in the backyard, protected by the stockade fence, shaded by the weeping willow. One spring day, as the air is warm and salty and the gulls are crying, we sit at the wooden picnic table. We will be writing fiction today, I tell the women, as I pile up my color-coded index cards with little chunks of stories on them. I have written random details on the pink cards such as “a ham sandwich,” or “a ‘No Trespassing’ sign,” or “a half-smoked cigarette.” The green cards describe settings such as “the back seat of your mother’s car” or “a bench overlooking the ocean.” The blue cards describe characters such as “a high school janitor” or “a maid in a hotel.”
“Everyone gets five cards from the pink pile,” I tell the women sitting at the table with me as I start dealing out the cards. “It’s important to use plenty of concrete details in your writing.” I pick up the green pile and keep dealing. “And everyone gets one blue character card and one green setting card. Put the cards together any way you like,” I tell the women, “and make a story.”
“Do I have to use all the cards I get?” asks Lucy, a young woman whose four children, none yet school age, are playing or napping upstairs under the watchful eye of Brenda, our childcare volunteer.
“You have to play the hand you’re dealt,” I tell her bluntly, but when she casts her eyes down at the table, I regret then I regret my harshness and I say, “Never mind that. You don’t have to use all the cards if you don’t want to. Here are a few blank cards to make some new story chunks. We’ll add them to the pile. Write whatever you want on them.”
One woman writes “a romantic full moon” on her pink card; another writes “a love letter”; another writes “a kiss”; Lucy writes “my daughter’s baby shoes.” We add them to the pile. I shuffle and deal. From the window over our heads, we hear the children rampaging. One cries out, and we all look up, but Lucy says, “Brenda’s watching them,” and we can look back down at our pages and write our stories.

It is Halloween in the present, in the West, a few months after my visit to my old neighborhood, a few months after my dinner with the birdwatchers. I walk my dogs down to the park at dusk. Inside a fringe of tall grass gone gold with the season, the lawn glows green after a week of rain. Children dressed as princesses and fearsome creatures play on the jungle gym, screaming and rehearsing terrors we must hope will never come to pass. The full moon shines through gauzy clouds, precisely the right light for ghosts.
A broad shape wings past my peripheral vision, and my breath stops midway to my lungs in fear before my mouth hangs open in astonishment. A Great Horned Owl lands like ash along the bough of a weeping birch tree. A few yellow leaves hang on like tattered flags below the fierce talons. He or she? I cannot say. We are bound together anyway. The owl turns round eyes down at us, keeping us in visual range while swiveling those tufted ears to catch the chipping of a sparrow, the clucks of quails, the rustling of a rabbit in the thicket, the children’s make-believe screams.

I have no children, but my stepdaughter tells me that in the full moon she sees a rabbit from the stories her Japanese mother has told her. Other women say they see a goddess: Diana or Artemis, goddess of the hunt. Try as I might, I see neither the rabbit nor the hunter when I look up, neither predator nor prey. I can only see an ordinary woman’s face: her hollow eyes, her mouth held open in what might be fresh astonishment, what might be constant ache.

Cover of The Journal 34.1



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Michele Sharpe

Michele Sharpe

Words in NYT, WaPo, Oprah Mag, Poets&Writers, et als. Adoptee/high school dropout/hep C survivor/former trial attorney. @MicheleJSharpe & MicheleSharpe.com