One of the greatest challenges I have in my writing is drawing characters that are likable and yet can turn on a penny and become brutes. Some readers want to be able to see the danger foreshadowed in the personalities of these characters, because they just don’t want to believe that nice guys can do such harm. But if you have ever spent any time around someone prone to domestic violence, you know that it’s not visible from the outside and it does come out of nowhere.
I never had any intention of using my childhood in my writing but then one day, I was driving along the freeway, listening to Steve Scher interview a domestic violence survivor on National Public Radio, and for some reason I felt myself becoming more and more agitated. I couldn’t understand why. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know this was what I had grown up with, and it wasn’t as if I’d never spoken of it. So why this agitation? This uneasy twisting deep in my core, like a trapped animal pacing inside a cage.
I was so upset I wanted to pull off the freeway and find a pay phone to call into the show, but I knew that if I called in, I would have to say something more than just, “Stop it! You’re upsetting me!!” I would have to ask a question. And I didn’t have a question to ask, so I kept on driving. It wasn’t until I reached my destination, after the show was over, and got out of my car that it came to me. “You keep giving out a 1-800 number for women that find themselves in this situation,” I wanted to say, “but what about a number for the children that have to grow up watching it? Don’t you know what it does to our brains to watch someone we love very much hurting someone else that we love very much?”
Of course I would never have asked that question if I had thought of it in time because it would only have elicited pity – and I didn’t want pity. I wanted answers. Instead, I went home and penned a play, From Me, To You, which had my teenage self as a character. The play was not intended to be about the darker aspects of my childhood, and it wasn’t. It was a love story, set in the 70s, between two teenagers writing letters across the Atlantic. Once I knew that the girl was in England, writing letters in a bedroom filled with pop music, I knew she had to be me. And if it was me, I had to be true to what was happening in the background at my house.
Even though the violence was peripheral to my story, when the play opened, my heart beat hard in my chest with the fear that audience members would point fingers at me afterwards and say, “No wonder you’re so messed up.” But they didn’t. They bopped their heads to the music, laughed and sighed and listened and watched, and afterwards, they came up to me, smiling, and told me how it reminded them of their own teenage years. Then they came back with their children and watched it again. And I felt a little door close on the pain in one part of my brain.
When I heard on the radio that the stepfather of the Marysville-Pilchuck High School killer had a permanent domestic violence protection order against him, prohibiting him from buying the gun used in that shooting, I knew immediately that the killer had grown up seeing that an acceptable response to anger was violence. And while many probably heard that news report and thought about lax gun control laws, I thought about domestic violence. Because I know that as a result of growing up with domestic violence, the real trigger the Marysville-Pilchuck killer was holding was in his brain. And it’s a trigger that can go off at any time, for no apparent reason. I know this because I had that trigger in my brain too. I believe – although I haven’t asked too many others who grew up in a household like mine – but I truly believe, you cannot spend your formative years around that kind of behavior and not get the trigger in your brain. Fortunately I also had a powerful override button that I think I earned through education and distance. And the day I stumbled into forgiving my father—through a comedy I wrote, in which he was the main character – was the day that trigger went away. Pouf! Like a mental magic trick. Which makes me a huge advocate of forgiveness, as you can imagine.
The thing is that trigger gets sewn into the brains of ordinary, likable people. People that grow up to be successful, charming, kind in many ways. They don’t have to be substance abusers, they don’t have to be of a particular skin tone; they are admired community members and, yes, the popular kid at school. When I was a child I used to wish people could see what my father was really like behind the white goatee and pot belly but all they saw was someone who looked like Father Christmas and had the cheery disposition to match. So when I read the lines, “We fail to spot shooter after shooter because they look so much like us and they are like us. They are our neighbors, our classmates, our friends or even our family members,” in Mark Manson’s article, How We All Miss The Point On School Shootings, I couldn’t help but connect it with my private take on the Marysville-Pilchuck killer. And it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t keep it private any longer.
Not that my being open will necessarily help us “spot” the shooters, as Manson puts it, but it might shine a light on one part of the equation that we still don’t tend to discuss – domestic violence. It’s a dark subject, I get that. I can still remember how, as a young adult, I would try to tell certain people about the things I’d seen as a child, and I’d watch them close down. Now, after all these years, I get that too. I didn’t like seeing it – what in the world made me think people would want to hear about it? Fortunately I had my writing where I could use it as a “theme” as Stephen King calls it in his book, On Writing. A theme that I took from personal experience and turned around and over on the page, trying to explain why, even though my dad’s actions had embedded a trigger in my head, I was grateful to him for all the good things he did for me. And I loved him. And each time people told me that they couldn’t quite picture a man like the one in Lesson 5 of my novel, doing what he did in Lesson 10, I went back and reworked it. I knew he could do it, because I’d seen it happen – but I had to find a way to make it believable to others. Because there’s a chance that if they can believe it in fiction, they will be able to believe it more readily in reality.
Of course, there’s a part of me that regrets that domestic violence became a theme in some of my writing because it is The Dark Subject; but a bigger part of me knows I had to write about it because I survived it. And it’s the survival part that makes it a story. My reward for sticking with it was watching audience after audience sit, with their eyes fixed on the stage, through a scene of more ‘real’ (less ‘Hollywood’) domestic violence in my play, Carried by the Current. When that happened, I knew I had found a way to tell it. And when people came up to me afterwards and pointed at the stage behind me, asking, “How did you know…?” I knew I had found a way to share.
Writing letters helped me escape what was happening in my house as a teenager, and stepping on stage to act, as a 17-year old, saved my life. Those, and where they led me, together with love – the one thing I was sure I never wanted to let into my life because of what was hiding in my brain – those were my 1-800 number. I think about how little is spent on teaching our children creative endeavors in the public schools and I wonder how some of them are ever going to find their 1-800 number.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month; for everyone who now fears sending our children to school, it’s time we started talking about The Dark Subject.