How Do We Portray Violence When We Are Writing About Violence?

There has been such an outcry about Eminem's new video. I Love The Way You Lie.  People are concerned that this glorifies domestic violence or is going to tell young kids that beating each other up is "cool" or "okay." People are also upset because Rihanna, after her experiences, is singing lyrics like "I like the way it hurts" but, much to my own surprise, I see this video in a much different light.

As most of you know, I write a lot about growing up in a violent home.  I also write about my experiences in a very violent marriage that actually ended with my ex-husband trying to strangle me one night.  I have not written about many of these things just totally balls-out honest because, these are the "secrets" we are taught not to talk about it. 

I didn't talk about how violent my marriage was when I was going through it either but, come on: did people around me really not know? Three weeks of turtle necks? Moving out without furniture or enough income to support me and my daughter? Three times? Really? No one saw the finger bruises that went all the way up to my jawbone? No one put it together with having no voice for weeks because my larynx was bruised?  Just like no one saw the bruises down my arm and down my back when I was in eighth grade because my mother had a manic episode and I was the only one home so I became her target?

Well, you know what, I think that's all bullshit.  Because  people asked what happened.  In the eighth grade when I didn't say "oh I fell off my bike" or, "I fell down the stairs" but instead said, "My mother beat me" because I needed help. My friends and teachers  just shook their heads and gave me sad, helpless looks; but no help. 

And, later, when friends and co-workers asked what happened and I said, "He tried to kill me last night" in a hoarse, whisper while drinking only warm liquids and chain smoking because I couldn't swallow solid food for weeks.  All anyone could say was, "he's an ass" or, "you need to get away from him." But no one could help me do that.  No one had a clue.  And neither did I. It was easier for everyone to walk away and not see it.  Not see the violence; not get involved.

One of the most embarrassing things anyone ever said to me when I was a teenager was: "We know what goes on at your house." I wanted to crawl into a deep pit and never come out.  And that was the last time I shared a lot about my childhood.  I became fearful that people would find out about what happened to me.  I continued to be a victim because when people found out, they couldn't deal with it and they left my life.  So I kept silent and didn't get close to people for fear that they would find out and think less of me.

So when I see someone have the courage to just put it out there, just as it was: with all the ugliness and violence and "politically incorrect" images that look like they could have come out of my life, I kind of feel a little satisfaction. Because when you live it, and I mean REALLY live it; not overhear it; not  see a newscast about it; not know someone, who knew someone, who once might have had a black eye;  you see it differently.  Because if you don't fight back; if you don't become as violent as they are; you are dead. Period.

So my question to you, as a non-fiction writer is this: How do you depict this violence without being violent? And, how do you write about this knowing that somewhere someone is going to tell you that you are glorifying violence. That you are telling it wrong.  That maybe you shouldn't be telling it at all. Or, maybe that it just shouldn't be so violent. That you should make these characters sympathetic for your reader.

Well, you can't. Not and be true to the story and what you lived through.  I've spent my life hiding these things.  Not wanting anyone to know that this is where I came from.  That this is how I lived. And when I do tell it, it's as if I was the one that has done something wrong.  As if by telling it exactly how it was I am still doing something wrong.

So I will leave you with a quote from Tobias Wolf, from his recent reading at Ashland University, on the subject of how he depicted his step-father in This Boys Life:

"If he didn't want me to write about it, then maybe he shouldn't have done it."


Michelle McGee said...

What a moving post! I found you on She Writes. I'm writing my mother's story and it is chock full of things that shouldn't have been done. I struggle with offending family members, but you know what???? They should have considered that when they pretended nothing was happening. I'm glad you are taking the honest approach. It's the only way and it will help people. Much luck to you!

Joan Hanna said...

Thanks for your comment Michelle and good luck with finding the voice and courage to write the story as you saw it!

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

That last quote just gave me chills. I agree with you and Tobias. Honesty is extremely important in terms of portraying violence, or trying to render a violent experience on paper. It seems to me that your approach is exactly right. Thank you for the inspiring post, Joan. I think it's wonderful that you are in an MFA program, changing your life ;)

Joan Hanna said...

Thanks so much Rebecca!

That quote has been ringing through me since Tobias Wolf said it during a Q & A session after his reading. It healed so many little wounds.

Doreen McGettigan said...

Wow; what a powerful post! I have just finished writing such a book. It is the true story of the very violent murder of my younger brother. The first time I wrote the story it was totally fake. I did not want to hurt anyone; write such violence and blah blah blah. The second time I wrote it will leave me feeling totally naked when it is finally shared with the world because it is truth; violence and all.
That quote gave me shivers and also made me feel very good!
I am also following from She Writes.