How Writing About My Trauma Taught Me I’m a Badass
I’ve never considered myself a badass. I thought the term described another kind of person — someone adventurous, happy to leave their comfort zone, unafraid of what others think. The type who jumps on a Harley and speeds off, barely slowing down at the corners.
I’m none of these things. But lately, I’ve been feeling like a badass anyway. It’s all because of the 2019 publication of my autobiographical novel, “Shrug.” It was cathartic for me to fictionalize my childhood experience — which included a battering father and a brutal mother — and to see it through until I had a book. Without asking anyone’s permission, I told my story, and it was one of the most meaningful accomplishments of my life. Besides being profoundly grateful to have had the opportunity to do this, I think it’s pretty badass.
Of course, readers don’t care about my personal feelings of “badassness;” they want to be engaged in the book and interested in turning the pages. I’m delighted so many people have told me the book moved them, or they gobbled it up. Most respond to the story and the characters, others to the musical references, others still to the scenes of 1960s Berkeley. Having started out as an essayist, I taught myself to write fiction, and somehow it worked. Another reason to feel like a badass.
Since “Shrug’s” publication, friends have indicated their shock that I came from such a challenging upbringing. I seem “functional,” sensible and stable — confusing traits I guess for someone who grew up with domestic violence, chaos and cruelty. While I’ve never been secretive about my past, there’s something about words on the page that seem to hit people more deeply than even the most intimate conversation.
Some of my friends, too, have expressed surprise I’ve been able to read painful scenes aloud at my presentations without breaking down. Break down? I’m busy! Besides trying to speak slowly and clearly, project my voice and make eye contact with the audience, I’m also experiencing a deep thrill just to be there. It’s my party and I’ll bask if I want to. Which is what a badass would do, right?
Believe me, I didn’t feel like a badass while I was writing “Shrug.” It took me years, partly because of the feelings of shame, regret and self-doubt that have always plagued me. It’s not so much I’m ashamed of my awful childhood. It’s that I’ve always felt I should have been able to accomplish more in spite of it. Alongside my unrealistically high expectations of myself, I was plagued with self-doubt, and there were times when attempting to write the book felt like hubris. I’d published one other novel, but “Shrug,” being much more personal, was a different animal. Who was I, among all the trauma survivors out there, to think I could actually pull this off?
Oddly, I didn’t feel retraumatized or overwhelmed by the upsetting content while writing “Shrug.” What was challenging was making my main character sympathetic. That probably sounds easy (I was the one writing it, after all). But my self-esteem was so compromised by my upbringing that it was hard for me to find compassion for myself. As a result, it was difficult to write a main character for whom the reader would have compassion.
In order to make my main character lovable, I had no choice but to detach from her. Along the way, I found empathy for her and, by extension, for myself. At the same time, I had to look shame squarely in the eye and say, “Enough! I’m good enough, and my book is good enough!” I feel like a badass for having been able to do that.
Liberating? Absolutely. I’ve transferred my childhood experiences from the inside of me to the outside world. I’m no longer alone in my specifics. Other people, my readers, are carrying the weight for me. But best of all, “Shrug” may help others who struggle with shame and self-doubt because of their own violent, unstable childhoods. I’m truly thrilled if the book lightens anyone’s load.
And yes, I think that possibility is kind of badass.
Original photo by author