War Stories

I’ve just read a book I couldn’t put down, one that I think will change lives.

Clare Best writes the story of her dad’s dying. She weaves together her reflections on the visits, coping with his deteriorating health as cancer takes hold, the clips from the audio he asked her to record and her transcripts of the cine film she is re-watching at home, of her childhood.

Each visit she is waiting, hoping, dreading, anticipating, that now, finally, on his death bed, he will acknowledge the sustained and comprehensive sexual abuse he submitted her to from the age of about six. Hoping that he will say sorry, that he will acknowledge the crimes which had remained un-prosecuted, un-named, that he will explain, take ownership, take back the weight of the crimes so she no longer has to carry them.

With each visit, Clare Best excavates memories and parts of herself which have remained buried with the abuse trying to find a new coherent narrative of herself that overcomes some of the trauma.

She writes lists. Lists of her father’s view of the world. A list of the effects of child sexual abuse. A list of the effect of what it had on her. The lists are pitiless – relentless and written without self-pity. Clare Best is one of the bravest writers I have read as is Rachel Williams  who in her book The Devil at Home writes about her experience of abuse.

Abuse gains its power from shame, from fear, from secrecy and in writing about it as honestly and as powerfully as these two women, do the power dynamic is changed because in finding the words to articulate our experience, we are more able to take charge of it and make it our own.

‘The truth will set us free’ is optimistic. My work with domestic abuse shows me that I don’t think we are ever entirely free of its impact, but we can certainly lessen it’s hold by naming it and talking about it.

There is also power in connection and words connect us to each other, to strangers. Shame is isolating and so we are without support, but telling our stories not only allows us to name, shape and frame our experience in a way that makes sense for us, but also allows it to reach other people, to let them know they are not alone, that other people have experienced the horror that abuse and survived.

A few people have said that they don’t want to read Into the Woods when it comes out because it is too dark, and too heavy. The same might be leveled at Best and William’s books, but they accusation is wrong. Yes the material is dark, violating, disturbing but there is so much light and courage in all three books that the people who have read ‘Into the Woods’ have found it empowering and Williams and Best have reinforced for me the power of the human spirit, the capacity of the human heart to continue to love and hope and trust.

War stories are part of our literary landscape. The Heart of Darkness, The Railway Man, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, The Empire of the Son are just a few which grace my shelves. Then we have the fantasy wars of the Lord of the Rings, The Marvel comics. We are inured to violence and cruelty in conflict, some of our greatest fiction comes from this source.

And yet the wars that women fight are so often domestic: child abuse, domestic abuse, sexist attitudes in the work place, rape, assault, the sex trade, pornography. I have been wondering why War stories are so much more acceptable, so lauded, so valued when stories such as Best and William’s are not.

My answers are simple. They are women. They are writing about crimes perpetrated by men. The power dynamic continues.

They are also writing about the ‘private’ sphere of life, what happens behind closed doors rather than on battle fields and the Victorian injunction not to wash one’s dirty laundry in public is still present in spite of social media.

Maybe also, these are things we don’t want to think about because they are too common. War, for our generations is something which happens elsewhere, to other people. But we probably all know someone who has been abused, which statistically speaking, means we must all know someone who has been an abuser and that’s just a bit too close to home, a bit too uncomfortable and alarming.

So we don’t want to know. We don’t want to know what goes on behind closed doors but are happy to discuss wars and read about them because they are not us, not here, not now. Cognitive dissonance at its finest.

Because some people find that they can justify and legitimise war through political and ideological discourse, they can use ‘logic’ to justify the means to the ends. But no one can justify the sexual abuse of a six year old by her father. No one can justify the point blank shooting of a wife by a husband can they?

What’s more, whilst there is nothing that most of us can do to intervene in wars to bring support and care, apart from hand over money to charities without getting involved without getting our hands dirty, there is something we can all do about abuse but it calls on us to step into the dark, to screw our courage to the sticking point and to face our own fears and shame by sharing our stories and by reaching out to connect with those people who are brave enough to share theirs.

We can all educate ourselves about the signs and symptoms of abuse so that we can ask people how they are and listen without minimising their experience and signpost them to the agencies who can support them, the police, the charities, the child protection teams.

Abuse is here around us daily, whether we chose to see it or not, it is a fact. What Best and Williams show us is that it is only by walking into the dark places that the light can be found. It is by facing our fears that courage can start the process of healing.

These are beautifully written, un-putdownable books written by survivors. These women have scars on the inside which are as life threatening and as life changing as those born by war heroes such as Simon Weston. Women in Into the Woods on the battle field would have been given medals for the courage they showed in protecting their children, often putting their own lives at risk to do so.

These women are survivors of the underground wars that too many women and children are battling daily under our very noses. They are my heroes, their stories deserve to be read and heard.

Into the Woods

I hope to do the same.  Into the Woods is moving forward.  All the illustrations are done, the typesetting has been proof read and I am just waiting for the legal review to come through in readiness for the launch on 25th November which is the UN day for the End To Violence Against Women and Girls.

Into the Woods is a collection of fairy tales based on interviews I did with real women about their experiences of domestic abuse.  My intention with it, is not only to turn the women’s experiences from darkness into light, but to educate and support people who are either in abusive relationships or know someone who is.

It tries to find answers to the questions such as “Why doesn’t she just leave?” or “Why did she get into it in the first place?”  Patterns of behaviour became clear as I was writing, and so did patterns of thoughts and up-bringing.  My hope is that by increasing awareness of these patterns we might keep our young women from finding themselves being one of the 1 in 4 women who experiences abuse in their life time.

A friend pinned me down and got me to talk on camera about the book…you can watch it here.

All profits from the paperback book will go to charities supporting families who are living with or escaping from domestic abuse.  So many people have gifted their time, experience and skills to help this book get its message into the world.  The women I interviewed, and how have approved the stories at every point, have given their stories so that others may learn from their experience.  Sue the interior designer has cut her costs and so has Alex who is doing the legal review.   Illustrator Anita Wyatt has worked her magic without charge as has the editor Kate Taylor from Middlefarm Press.

Together, we all believe we can make a difference.

I really want to start discussions about domestic abuse and to raise awareness of it.  Please will you help me do that by:
  1. Coming to the launch on 25th November 6-8 (you need to buy your tickets from Booka Bookshop, Oswestry,they are on sale now)
  2. Buying a copy of the book – pre-orders here: http://www.julieleoni.com/product/into-the-woods/
  3. Liking the facebook page and sharing it as widely as possible : https://www.facebook.com/IntoTheWoodsbyJulieLeoni/
  4. Sharing this information with your friends.  Please feel free to forward this email to anyone you think might be interested in the book and the cause.
Reviews:

“Into the Woods takes true stories of modern day abuse, co-dependence and domestic violence and retells them as spell binding, classic fairy tales, ingeniously combing self-help with magic and fantasy. This nurturing collection of tales shines light on these dark, seldom spoken about experiences to create a healing, informing and empowering resource. An absolute must read for women everywhere who will find at least one character they can relate to in these carefully crafted tales, uniting women to reclaim their power and potential.”

“I hope this book is read, shared, talked of, written about and passed from woman to woman. I hope it inspires more women to tell their stories and to grow in courage and strength. I hope it inspires women to support one other, to ask for help, to value themselves, to learn to put themselves first and to turn darkness into light. I hope it saves some lives”

“It genuinely has made me laugh and cry in equal measures…”

“Tales of fierce love, deep courage and tentative hope in the commitment of the hard work of recovery and healing”.

“Fucking hell, Julie Leoni…no really, just fucking hell! Goldilocks has left me all churned up, emotional…and blown to kingdom-fucking-come!”

Please help me turn darkness into light for everyone who has lived with or is living with domestic abuse.

 

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My email address

julieleoni.com@gmail.com