Maybe its an exaggeration to claim that
reading and writing saved me. I dont think so.
by Joy Castro
Before there were counselors and therapists, there were books. There were
books stuffed in the torn lining of my winter coat and smuggled home to
read on the school bus, to read after dark in a trailer where books were
Books, and the hope they carried, existed in rural West Virginia before
domestic violence shelters did, and they kept me alive when my mother
turned the rusted car around, halfway through Ohio, sobbing, knowing she
had nowhere else to go but back. Back to my stepfather, to a house where
blood, bruises, and rape were regular events, where contempt and fear
were the sea we swam in, where only police and prison would finally free
There were books like Maya Angelous classic memoir of abuse and
poverty I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in its crackly plastic
cover, suggested by Mrs. McCarthy, the middle-school librarian who lived
farther down the dirt road than we did, who drove past every day in her
red Cherokee Chief. (What did she see, or guess?) And there was rich escapism,
too: Tolkiens trilogy, with its blessedly simple demarcations of
good and evil, and a whole shelfs worth of Helen MacInness
Cold War espionage novels, in which Oxford dons and their pretty wives
stumble into intrigue abroad, wittily eluding disaster. There was one
crucial old 1950s hardback, the title of which I cant recall and
which I never got to finish; my mother found it. It featured a girl who
went to college, something our religion forbade and which no one in our
family had done. The book disappeared, but I began to plot a private future.
When we moved hours away to an unimproved piece of land and knew no one,
there was the old pink paperback my English teacher Mr. Elkins gave me
at the end of freshman year. The Brothers Karamazov? Never heard
Try it, he said. Trust me.
It was my first exposure to the shell-shocked sensibilities of Dostoevsky,
whose characters struggled to understand how a good God could allow cruelty
to innocents. That summer, I was sent out every day to dig the ditch where
the gas line to our trailer would go. I hid the book in different places
in my room and then smuggled it out to the ditch in the back waistband
of my jeans (I was skinnier then: missing meals was a punishment). And
when I got so exhausted I couldn't dig another shovelful, I'd stand there
and read Dostoevsky, ready to shove it back in my jeans if my stepfather
came around the bend to check on me. Then I'd dig, and the story would
keep going in my head. Then I'd read and correct where I went wrong. I
read the whole book that way.
I still have the diary I kept during those years, and I cannot quote from
it to you. Theyre too desperate and sad, those things I wrote, the
handwriting jagging and scraping up and down in the lines like the ink
trail of a seismographs needle. I cant quote from it, but
that little blue-bound diary with its cheap gilt edging made the difference
to me between terrorized silence and a voice, a vision, a version of eventshowever
tinythat was still my own. It kept me from repressing, it kept me
from forgetting, when I ran away at fourteen.
Maybe its an exaggeration to claim that reading and writing saved
me. I dont think so.
"It's now common knowledge--bibliotherapy is the term--that reading
books can offer new models for living, new concepts and interpretations
for howwe see our lives. Telling ones story, tooout loud or
on the pagecan function as a form of healing. Psychology professor
Brenda Bankart, who does research in the field, explains that narrative
psychology takes the point of view that human beings create who they are
through the stories they tell about themselves. That is, we come to understand
the meaning of our lives as we explain our actions and feelings to others.
Journal writing is yet another way to begin a healing process by bringing
one's interpretation of events to awareness. Sometimes just writing the
story, simply, for oneself or for an imaginary audience helps us weave
together the specific, seemingly unrelated events that together make our
lives a meaningful whole. The gift of a journal, then, can provide someone
with the opportunity to begin healing.
This spring, Professor Bankart, Associate Dean Edie Simms (who has done
counseling work in domestic violence shelters), and I invited Wabash,
via an all-campus e-mail, to contribute journals and books to the Family
Crisis Shelter here in Montgomery County.
The response was amazing. By mid-May, students, staff, faculty, and retirees
had contributed over sixty journals to the project, along with multiple
copies of several books such as the do-it-yourself guide Writing as
a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by
Louise DeSalvo; the groundbreaking collection Women in the Trees: U.S.
Women's Short Stories About Battering and Resistance, 1839-1994, edited
by Susan Koppelman; and Sandra Cisneross The House on Mango Street,
a work of fiction about a young Latina who creates a positive future
for herself (through writing, incidentally) despite the poverty, prejudice
and abuse that surround her. In the front of each journal and book, we
affixed a bookplate that reads, "With hope and caring from Wabash
College." New journals will be offered to residents upon their arrival,
and the books will remain available to all residents as part of the Shelters
I was moved by the outpouring of generosity from people all across campus,
from the retired faculty member, to the student working to pay for college,
to the professor whose gift included this stark note:
"This donation is made in memory of Phyllis Majors, a little girl
I grew up with. She was shot by her ex-husband after she took out a restraining
order against him."
I heard several such stories as donations came in. Directly or indirectly,
domestic violence has hurt so many.
Last year alone, our local Shelter served 239 abuse survivors; an estimated
three million children are abused in the U.S. each year. Severe domestic
trauma and suffering continue to exist all around us, often invisibly,
and some kinds of abuse can cause neurobiological damage as severe and
long-lasting as the post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by combat
veterans. Clearly, there continues to be a need for hope and healing.
Unlike therapists, journals pack easily and cost little: for people in
upheaval, they can be a crucial part of healing. The campuss generous
response to this springs journals project, as well as to the recent
benefit concert for the Shelter and last falls Monon Bell fund drive,
suggests Wabashs widespread recognition and appreciation of the
Family Crisis Shelters valuable work. It makes me proud.
Good books offer us the liberating potential of imagining other lives,
lives different fromand sometimes better thanour own. They
offer us catharsis, affirmation, and new models for living. Writing offers
us the chance to record, to bear witness, to grieve, to express outrage,
and finally to sketch on the page new possibilities for ourselves, new
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