How Do You Say the Thing You Are Not Allowed to Say?
“What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak….it was born in the moments when we accumulated silent things within us.”
– Gaston Bachelard
There are things we are allowed to say and things we are not allowed to say. We learn the distinction early on.
When I stopped working as a counsellor for abused women over twenty years ago, I hoped never to have to coach a woman on what to say and what not to say in court ever again. I never wanted to warn another survivor that she would be blowtorched in cross-examination about every previous sexual encounter she’d ever had. Or to dress ‘modestly’ so a judge would form the right opinion about her, which is to say, he would stereotype her as a credible, not-asking-for-it-kinda-gal. In court, you are supposed to tell the truth, the whole of it and nothing but it, but one truth will invariably butt up against someone’s rebuttal of it. As in, ‘I never did what she says I did.’
When I started teaching writing six years ago, I did not foresee that the majority of people who would want to write would be women, and that nine out of ten would want to write memoir. Nor could I have predicted how many would have #metoo stories. Incest. Rape. Molestation. Harassment. Abuse. Violence – the whole spectrum of legal issues I swore off two decades ago because it was too painful to invoke these narratives in a legal forum and expect something resembling ‘justice.’
Back then, I naively believed truth would outmuscle bullshit. I trusted judges would understand that to claim ‘I was raped’ in a court of law is a catastrophically self-annihilating attention-seeking or avenging device and that sane people seldom resort to it. And that if indeed the defence proves a complainant is ‘insane,’ ‘hysterical,’ ‘unhinged’ or on anti-depressants, thereby destroying her credibility, perhaps suppressing a truth for decades may have something to do with doing her head in. In my activist days I didn’t understand a simple marketing principle: know your audience and speak into their listening.
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In teaching women to write their stories, I’ve found an outcome perhaps more enduring and wholesome than justice. It is self-recovery. Witnessing. Revisiting the scene of the crime and saying ‘He did this to me.’ Without self-pity or self-blame. Without fear of being judged for having invited these traumas.
I have now coached dozens of women to write their brave stories. And against my better judgement, have set up a small niche publishing house, Joanne Fedler Media to publish these stories so that writers don’t have to prove to a big publishing house that there is a mass market out there who will buy their books. I don’t know what people will buy. I just know women want and need their truths out in the world.
Now, as a publisher, I face this dilemma: can one of my authors tell the truth in writing? Can she say ‘my uncle sexually abused me,’ ‘my father beat my mother,’ ‘my ex husband raped me’? By doing this, will we expose her and my publishing house to legal action? Truth is a defence to defamation, but generally the onus lies on the person alleging the act to prove the truth. All it will take is for the person named to deny it and the burden of proof will land on my author to prove otherwise. We all know that the reason these crimes have gone unnamed and unpunished in the first place is precisely because they are difficult to prove when she says he did and he says he didn’t and who’s to say otherwise? Unwitnessed – that’s what makes these crimes so abuser-friendly.
So I find myself in yet another ‘what are we allowed to say?’ bind.
I feel sickened that I even need to have a conversation with my writers about how to publish their work without invoking the wrath of those they’ve named. I thought I was done with my blood-boiling days, but knowing that a woman not only endured these violations, but must now be careful about how she speaks about them in naming her abuser, stirs an old cauldron. I’m taking my writers through a rigorous due diligence process – to seek permission where possible and to forgive those who hurt them.
But I’m standing by them and we’re going to tell these stories. Not to shame or blame anyone, but simply to honour the soul that has carried these wounds alone all this time. When we break our personal silence, it speaks into the collective silence and we give a voice to those who are still too afraid to speak up.