Writing as a Path to Healing for Incest Abuse Survivors
What does writing do for me? First thought? It soothes. Second thought? It can be one hell of a challenge to get started. The soothing comes from the articulation: the thoughts and questions swimming around inside me that get released. Writing can be a letting go of pain. Pain that is old and new all at the same time. Writing about the pain is like draining a wound and applying medicine.
Writing is a way of exposing my pain as an incest survivor to the light of the page. Sometimes I get the writing to flow by imagining I’m writing to someone. In this moment it’s a survivor who has just whispered something for the first time, to her best friend or her therapist or the next ocean wave rolling up to the shore she’s sitting on, “I was molested when I was a little girl.”
She says it and holds her breath, waiting, frozen, waiting, wondering. What’s the response going to be? A good friend will say, “I’m so sorry that happened to you.” A good therapist will say, “Would you like to tell me more?” And the good ocean will simply send along another wave – steady and present as always.
This survivor, mustering the courage to speak the truth that has been festering inside her body for however long – it could be decades - she now has a choice. Roll that ribbon of truth back to where it came from, stuff it somewhere and leave it be. It’s a long, wide ribbon of truth. She only let out the ragged front end of it in this first telling.
Now what does she do? Well, I say, start writing. Start with the story of this first telling. Maybe it was eons ago – it doesn’t matter. She will regain the details of that moment as her words pass out her shoulder, down her arm through her fingertips guiding the pen or keyboard.
I much prefer pen to keyboard for initial pieces of writing – the “getting it out” writing. It helps me feel the words as they pour out of me. Once finished, I read that writing out loud to myself. This reading aloud underscores the value of what has been written. Hearing your words makes them real. And sometimes the ears can see thing the eyes can’t. I might stop there – reading aloud might be enough. Then I type it out and store it in my computer. Each step of this process brings a new layer of revelation and confirmation.
I’ll let it lie. Let the truth steep in exposure, take in the light of day, the light from being revealed. Let it be for however long I want. Until the next time. ‘Next time’ being the moment when I want another stretch of ribbon to be unwound. That tightly wound ribbon is its own form of pain. To quote Maya Angelo: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
I’ve been journaling almost daily since 1977. Looking back from this vantage point I see I was doing the equivalent of bodybuilding for my voice and getting familiar with a pen in my hand. In the beginning as I was pumping words from inside me, down my arm and onto the page I didn’t know I was coaxing my voice out. And yet, for the first fourteen years of doing it, I never wrote about the incest.
I pull a journal off the shelf, it’s dated 1980. I open it randomly and read ten pages. There is no allusion to my experience of abuse except one. This entry follows a trip I’d made to visit my maternal grandfather in North Dakota.
“Grampa told me – as a baby I hardly ever cried because my father would go into a rage if I did. Another arrow to the heart.”
That’s it. No other exploration.
Two things happened after I’d been journaling those fourteen years - I read Trauma and Recovery by Judith Lewis Herman, M.D. and I moved from the bustle of Brooklyn to the peace of western Massachusetts. I rode Herman’s book through some scary rapids of memory. And she taught me much of what I needed to learn – especially that none of the abuse was my fault.
There’s another survivor I’m imagining as I write this piece. They have long known and understood the depths of the harm they have lived through. And a voice inside them occasionally whispers, “Tell your story, write your story, expose, reveal, and proclaim what happened to you, what you survived to get where you are today.”
That survivor may listen, ever so briefly, to that inner voice and then shut it down, stow it somewhere deep inside and get on with doing the dishes or finishing their walk. To them I have an offer, a heartfelt suggestion. I often find it helpful to read someone else’s words to spark my pen into action. For example, please, take a moment to read "Telling" By Laura Hershey. Read it. Slowly. Make note of a phrase or line or word that grabs you.
After you’ve read it, take a long deep breath, maybe even two. Now, armed with that phrase or line that grabbed you – write it out and let the pen go wherever it wants –writing the first words that emerge. Don’t overthink – just go. For five minutes or ten, maybe even 25. When you feel finished set the pen down, stand up, stretch your arms to the ceiling and take a long deep breath.
Now pick up what you’ve just written and read it to yourself - out loud. Maybe even underline words or phrases of your own that jump out at you. I follow my own prompt and here is what I write after reading that poem:
Telling is Healing
first it’s painful.
Not telling is painful too.
So, you get to choose.
The pain in suffering
the pain in healing.
I take a deep breath, stretch my arms up high and more words flow:
I shall claim my right to say all I want to say about surviving. I shall not mute my opinion for fear of being judged. I shall claim my voice and let it sing out loud.
A dozen years ago I reached another plateau – moving from only writing for myself to writing with other survivors. I’ve written extensively about all that in my blog. No question – being part of a writing community offers its own high-octane medicine. To learn more about my writing circles for survivors click here.
- Donna Jenson
Donna Jenson founded Time To Tell in 2009 with a mission to spark stories from lives affected by incest and sexual abuse to be told and heard. Wrote and performs her one-woman play, What She Knows: One Woman’s Way Through Incest to Joy. Her book, Healing My Life from Incest to Joy, is a narrative of the choices she made and experiences she had that helped her heal from her childhood trauma. In 2021 she produced a 35-minute documentary, Telling Is Healing, which contains excerpts from her book and play in a live performance. She leads online writing workshops for survivors to find their voice and use it. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.