I was lucky enough to meet Lynn K. Hall when I learned my publisher, Beacon Press, was publishing her memoir, Caged Eyes: An Air Force Cadet’s Story of Rape and Resilience, on the same day in 2017 that my book, Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma was launching. Lynn and I were both newcomers to the publishing world, both writing about painfully raw material, and both feeling more than a little out of our depths. Bonding as “pub buddies” set us on the path toward a lasting friendship that has helped sustain us in the vulnerable arena of sharing intimate stories with the world.
Caged Eyes is a book that breaks your heart and inspires your soul simultaneously. It recounts the story of Lynn’s rape by an upperclassman when she was a first year cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy and details the devastating impact the experience had on her career plans and her long-term health. It portrays her resolute strength as she journeys toward healing. With courage and unflinching conviction, Lynn focuses a deeply personal lens on a far-reaching military culture of sexual violence and the ongoing inaction that has left survivors to suffer silently and alone. By breaking her own silence and writing her book, Lynn has become a necessary activist and compassionate advocate for other survivors of sexual assault within the military and beyond at a particular time when the cultural conversation is gaining steam. I recently asked Lynn to share some of her experiences since publishing her memoir, and I invite you to watch our author chat below and read the interview that follows to learn more about her incredible work and her beautiful writing.
Melanie Brooks: Caged Eyes tells your very personal experience of being raped when you were a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy, but it also exposes a rampant culture of victimization of and abuse toward women in the military. When you began putting words to your own story, did you recognize that you were taking on this broader story, too? Was that part of what prompted you to write it?
Lynn Hall: In 2003, a group of women who were my peers at the Air Force Academy went public with their stories of having been raped and retaliated against when they reported. I was still a cadet and didn’t go public with them, but I watched as they went from 20/20 to Good Morning America all the way to Oprah. I noticed how the public twisted their stories and missed the bigger picture of their testimonies. I first thought of writing a memoir because I wanted to tell my story in my own words, and I wanted the public to better understand the issue in a way that a minutes-long news story wouldn’t allow.
My goal with Caged Eyes was to write my experiences in such a way that it explained the damning effect of “rape culture” without ever using that expression. I think I succeeded. Whenever a reader treats Caged Eyes as an isolated case without seeing the wider trends, I want to tell him or her to read it again. Read it until you see how culture enabled my perpetrators and silenced me, and how the same story happens over and over every day both within and outside of the military. Read it until you see that it isn’t a story about me at all.
MB: In a recent blog post for Moving Forewords, “Memoir as Activism: Finding My Path Post Publication” you share the conflict you’ve encountered as someone who, through your writing, has offered safe space for others to share their stories of trauma. You write about the “privilege” of being trusted with these stories, despite the painful impact that the accounts from other survivors has on you. How do you take care of yourself in the midst of that tension and what advice would you give other memoirists venturing into that tricky territory?
LH: I’m still working out how to manage this self-care. As I wrote in that blog post, I’m someone who becomes deeply affected by others’ trauma. Part of the work of being a memoirist is being open to reader’s expressions of shared experiences – whether those admissions come in an email, or during an office holiday party, or even during a massage. I am constantly trying to find a balance between letting these stories move me into activism and letting them roll off me without stoking my most inner rage.
My advice to other memoirist is the same advice I’m giving myself right now: find a way to control your narrative. Your words are going to be misconstrued. Readers will project their own experiences onto you. Interviews you give will be sliced for the juiciest content. Own your story at every opportunity you have so that however readers respond – by criticizing or by relating – you’ll be able to continue to find shelter in your own truth.
MB: You are an ultrarunner who regularly completes races that range in distance anywhere from 30-100 miles. This tells me you have a pretty intense inner drive and the capacity to push yourself beyond what most of us would consider “normal” limits. Do you think this mindset has influenced your writing life? In what ways?
LH: Absolutely, ultra-running has shaped who I am as a writer. In fact, I would say I became an ultra-runner in part to cope with the pressures of going public with my story of having been sexually abused and raped. Both 100-mile ultramarathons and my work as a memoirist push me to the absolute brink of what I am capable of withstanding.
I’ll never forget coming into an aid station at mile 93 of my first 100-mile-plus ultra. I was so pushed physically and mentally beyond anything I’d ever felt, I began sobbing. A volunteer crouched in front of my chair, rubbed my quads until the tears stopped, and told me that she wasn’t going to let me quit. After feeding me watermelon, she stood me back on my feet. I followed my pacer’s heels for the next 13 miles up and over one last mountain to the finish line.
I think about that accomplishment every single day. I think about my inner strength which was deeper than anything I knew I possessed, and I think about the love of my friends and the volunteers that got me to the finish. If I could come back from that moment of extreme despair and hopelessness, then I can do the same thing in my writing life. Just this week, for example, I was quoted on the front page of the New York Times. Exposing the most intimate details of my sexual history to thousands of readers doesn’t get any easier. Maybe other survivors would be less affected by such publicity, but me? I struggle. Sometimes I want to sob. To get through I remind myself of all the times in ultra-running I felt like continuing to move my feet was akin to doing the impossible. The strength I gain in ultra-running moves me to do more with the opportunities I have as a writer.
MB: You are working on a second memoir about climbing Colorado’s fourteeners—the mountains with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet—and the healing and self-discovery you found in those treks. How would you compare this writing journey to that of Caged Eyes? Has anything surprised you along the way?
LH: Wow, you give a better elevator pitch for my project than I do!
My second memoir is the story of how I recovered from the ordeal I described in Caged Eyes. Writing this second memoir parallels my climbs of those mountains because in many ways, reliving the journey is healing me from having published such an intensely vulnerable first book. Whether I’m writing about how camping in an alpine basin during a multi-day thunderstorm helped me release years-old grief or how I trusted a climbing partner as if he were a brother-in-arms I never fully connected within the military, re-immersing myself in my favorite mountains is helping me re-discover a sense of peace and trust within myself.
This second memoir is inherently more optimistic than Caged Eyes. While Caged Eyes exposes a culture that is misogynistic, oppressive, and deeply wounding to many, the underlying truth of my second memoir is much more warming: nature’s beauty heals. I feel incomplete having one story about brutality out in the world without it being balanced with the other’s beauty. That’s why I feel so strongly about seeing it through to publication.
The thing that surprises me about this second project is how vulnerable it still makes me feel. Even if my second memoir isn’t as taboo or shame-inducing as my first memoir, the work of making your most intensely private moments fit for public consumption is an act of exceptional vulnerability. I feel every bit as naked writing this memoir as I did when I wrote my first. I push on because that’s how firmly I believe in the power of connecting over our shared experiences.
MB: Thank you so much for this authentic glimpse into your memoir experience, Lynn! I am so grateful that we’ve connected over our shared experiences. I’m so excited to see what’s ahead for you, and I know I am not alone when I say that I cannot wait for Book #2!
Dear writers, readers, and those who do both,
Welcome to the first episode of our Soapbox Series! These short videos will feature thoughts and musings on life (often as they relate to writing) from members of the Moving Forewords collective. Think: TEDx talks, but for memoir writers and other introspective types, and brought to you from the comfort of our own homes. While writing is our typical mode, the Soapbox Series presents the opportunity for us to engage with you in a visual and spoken format. We’re coming to you here as humans: imperfect and unfiltered. Sit down, get cozy, and let’s have a quick, thought-provoking chat.
Today, Dana Mich kicks off the first episode of the Soapbox Series with some thoughts on the “Silver Rule”. (FYI, it’s not what Wiktionary has in mind.) The Silver Rule, as she shares below, is the Golden Rule’s true inverse. It’s for those who exude kindness to others without thought or effort, yet who often forget to extend the same kindness to themselves. Watch the video below for more, and today, remember to be a friend to yourself. Try treating yourself the way you’d wish for others to be treated.
Dana’s thoughts are brought to you, in part, thanks to Lisa Jakub‘s Embrace Your Weird workshop where she first learned about the concept of The Second Arrow, and to Ada Limon, whose poem “The Other Wish” (her anthem for the Silver Rule) can be found here, from her book of poetry, Bright Dead Things.
When I published my memoir two years ago, the initial weeks of interviews and events were every bit as joy-filled as I’d imagined. Manhattan dinners with my agent, NPR interviews, book signings, and even an Op-Ed in the New York Times.
At one speaking event in particular at a college in Colorado near where I live, a few hundred students packed the room. People wanted to hear me speak. Ten years of grueling work had come to fruition. Ten years of pouring my pain into a story for public consumption, of enduring rejection from agents and publishers, of wondering if my words could ever be powerful enough to be heard. Afterwards, the line the students formed in front of my table wrapped out into the hallway and around the quad. They wanted a note and signature on the title page of a book I wrote. My book-signing Sharpie and I were traveling the country influencing readers in exactly the ways I had dreamed of. Initially my ego inflated, I’ll admit. I remember thinking, “I’ve finally made it.”
But on that night, when I began signing books, the students approached me one by one, and I looked into their faces, and even if they didn’t utter the words, “me too,” I felt their pain. Most were there waiting an hour or more for me to sign their copy of my memoir, because that’s how badly the world had already hurt them. This group of mostly women looked like children to me and yet their wounds were deep enough that they were looking for someone to help erase their shame and give them a torch to move forward. They wanted consolation and hope. My words couldn’t have felt any paltrier.
My memoir, Caged Eyes: An Air Force Cadet’s Story of Rape and Resilience, is the first traditionally published memoir about sexual assault within the military. It’s the story of my repeated victimization, first sexual abuse when I was a teenager and then a rape while I was a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy. It’s also the story of a culture that influenced my intense self-blame and enabled my perpetrators.
I often write about a particular moment when I was 19. I had medical conditions consequent to the rape that were so severe I was about to lose my career, but even heavier than the illness and the PTSD was the shame I carried. I believed down to my core that I caused my own victimization.
The moment I write about is when I realized – I started to realize, at least – how false that belief was. The victim advocate with whom I worked gathered us survivors in the counseling center after hours. She gave us a dispenser full of jelly beans and a space for privacy. The other women filling the seats around me were gritty, tough, intelligent, brave women. As they shared their stories, I realized they weren’t to blame. Today, that sentence seems cliché. But in 2002, when I was 19, the thought was profound. If these women I admired weren’t to blame, then maybe I wasn’t either. Maybe I wasn’t the f*cking whore one of my classmates called me.
Of all my experiences in the Air Force, this moment is perhaps the one with the greatest legacy. My kinship with the other survivors freed me from a lifetime of self-blame. However, I traded one wound for another: realizing the pervasiveness of our experiences, how so many of us would lose careers we’d sacrificed everything for, that the same perpetrators who sexually assaulted many of us were being protected by both the institution and the culture which had silenced us, how political my extremely personal experience actually was, drove me to a lifetime of anger and activism.
In my twenties, I became a victim advocate. I was terrible at it. I mean, I was great at the actual job, but terrible at what the work requires. I learned I am incapable of leaving other people’s traumas in the office. Instead, I kept piling the stories onto my own shoulders, one on top of the other. The traumas crushed me, and then when I looked around, I wondered why I was seemingly the most pissed off feminist for miles.
For me, advocacy wasn’t a cure for my anger; advocacy worsened my anger. It wasn’t enough for me to help a survivor after a sexual assault; I wanted the violence to end.
I became a writer. I wrote from a place of anger. Unapologetically. Every time the world outraged me, I directed my fury straight into the keyboard. I couldn’t tell the stories of those with whom I shared survivor’s groups, and I couldn’t tell the stories from my clients, so I told the world my own. I wrote my memoir. I wanted to give other survivors the experience I had had that night in the counseling center, but much more than that, I wanted to help readers understand how culture perpetuates this violence.
What I didn’t consider is how it would feel on the other side of publication. How it would feel when the stories kept coming. Accelerated, in fact. Now, everywhere I go, I am the woman who confessed an intensely vulnerable story of her victimhood. Now people want to tell me their secrets. I listen and nod and don’t speak. The pile grows heavier. The anger intensifies.
I’m more keenly aware that readers are divided into two groups: those of us who need personal stories and memoir to free us from our traumas, and those who have been sheltered and do not have a single clue why I’ve chosen to write. The traumatic stories I hear in response to my writing upset me, but even more upsetting are the responses from readers who, ever so politely, tell me that I really should have kept my traumas to myself. I want to make those particular readers wade through my email or my Twitter mentions, make them listen to women who were raped at age six, or nine, or whatever age and still blamed themselves. But they will never have that opportunity, and they will continue wondering why I’ve exposed myself in this way.
I look into the eyes of the women who attend book readings, like those college students in Colorado, and I read emails from current Air Force Academy cadets, and I am outraged anew, this time without a clear project in which to funnel my frustrations.
For about a year, I served as an unofficial advocate for Air Force Academy cadets. Many reached out to me after they read my NY Times Op-Ed, and a few wanted to go public too. I helped them talk through the implications and through the process of working with journalists. The resulting investigative story aired on CBS This Morning in 2017 and won a News Emmy in 2018. I’m proud…but still angry. Angrier even. Because, no, the Air Force Academy has not changed one bit. And, as we’ve all been aware since November 2016, the world outside of the military hasn’t changed either.
What if having “made it” as a writer, activist, and public speaker, also means continuing to experience the type of pain which drove me to this work in the first place? What if I can’t have one without the other? Two years after my memoir’s publication, I’m still trying to decide what making it actually means.
Leslie Jamison wrote to her readers, “Thank you for making my confession larger than itself.” Her words remind me that the notes from strangers are “gifts as much as burdens.” She’s absolutely right. I will continue to gratefully bear witness to the readers who reach out to me. I know it’s a privilege, even if their stories make me ache.
I’ll keep writing, too. My next project is a follow-up memoir to Caged Eyes. It’s the second half of my story, the recovery half, centered around my climbs of Colorado’s highest peaks. Perhaps writing about this journey of healing and self-discovery will allow me to encounter new stories of hope.
I began a memoir project with my dad four years ago. It’s been an incredibly healing process to write together about his alcoholism and how it affected our family, as well as how his commitment to sobriety changed everything for the better. There are moments in our writing sessions that helped my inner, hurt child to know that I was always loved, even within the shadow of his addiction.
Last year, our family received devastating news. My dad was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s. Though the book is almost done, we are still working on some developmental edits which require his input. As he loses his capacity to remember, the process of editing has been hard on both of us. We meet together once a week, and often times he can’t remember the edits we made last week. Or, he fights me on a change we already agreed upon months before. As much as it frustrates me to rehash decisions, I know it’s even more frustrating for him. When I press him for details about a particular scene, he can’t remember them. You can see the pain in his eyes as he tries to pull sight, sound, texture and memory from some trapped vault inside him. He’s beginning to cancel our weekly writing dates.
I want nothing more than to finish this book. But I don’t want to do it for the sake of my ego. I truly see this book as a spiritual journey that has the ability to help so many families beyond ours. How do I gently work with my dad to finish our book before this disease claims more of his mind?
Clear Eyes, Broken Heart, I Don’t Wanna Lose Him
Dear Clear Eyes,
First, I’d like to say wow. Many stories have been written about the heartache and strife that abound in alcoholic family systems. Few provide a roadmap for forgiveness and reconciliation. The world needs your book.
I’m deeply sorry your story has taken such a dramatic and difficult turn. I could offer you platitudes about the gifts inherent in chronic illness and the lessons you’ll learn, or how this very experience may become your next book. But let’s face it, Alzheimer’s disease sucks. It’s an unfair illness that strips away a person’s time and memory and robs the world of someone who’s deeply loved.
Your letter includes questions about how to honor your father and the work you’ve done together. Co-authoring a book under optimal circumstances can be a trying experience, but add intermittent cognitive impairment or cognitive decline to the mix, and the challenges are monumental. It’s likely you developed a variety of effective processes and routines over your four-year book journey, but it’s clear they’re no longer working. You see the pain in your father’s eyes as he tries and fails to remember certain pastimes, and seeing that pain breaks your heart. That pain is stalling your writing process. The first step in bringing him back to the writing desk is to understand more about his experience so that you can help him regain some agency and control over the process.
Unfortunately, I can’t give you a glimpse inside your father’s head, but I can share my personal experience of living with dementia-like symptoms. In 2012, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease. At the peak of my illness, it felt like I had a combination of the flu, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease. During the first two years of my recovery, I couldn’t read a book, not because I couldn’t read words, but because they made no sense. When speaking, I lost words, sentences, and conversation topics. Sometimes, they sat cruelly on the tip of my tongue—just a hairs-breadth beyond reach. I’d point to a plate and know I was looking at a plate, but I couldn’t say the word plate no matter how hard I tried. Once, I lost the concept of long division—every single part of it. Keys ended up in the refrigerator and the milk in my backpack. I’d stand in rooms unsure why I was there. Getting lost on my way to the store became the norm.
I never knew when my symptoms would occur. Some days, I felt completely fine and I’d believe the worst was over. But oftentimes, the following day I would have no idea what was going on. To compensate, I faked my way through meetings and conversations by thoughtfully grabbing my chin and offering extra-long pauses or rambling in hopes that I sounded smart. But rambling made me lose focus and the pauses, well, they just amplified my panic. These symptoms were always worse in the evening, something referred to as sundowning. Some nights, all I could do was nod. Each loss reminded me that my body was failing, but what kept me up at night was wondering about all the things I didn’t know I had lost.
Losing ideas and memories is maddening and terrifying. To compensate, I shrunk my life down to what felt like a manageable size. I quit my job, and not wanting friends and colleagues to witness my decline, avoided other people and situations that caused me stress (which was just about everything). In some ways, shrinking down my life minimized my symptoms, but it also made me feel powerless, incapable, and devoid of purpose.
We carry these identities inside us. Mother. Father. Teacher. Doctor. Smart Person. For me, intelligence was the one quality I could always count on. But the day I lost long division, my Smart Person identity vanished. In its wake, I felt a soul-crushing grief over what I had lost and what I anticipated losing. It’s likely your father is experiencing a similar identity crisis. Perhaps the one thing he always relied on is no longer dependable.
I am very aware that while there may be some overlap in our experiences, there are some key differences. Though my experience felt like it would last forever, it didn’t. I got well. Your father is at a different stage in his life and has a different prognosis. If he’s willing to talk about his experience, try to find out about the pain you see behind his eyes, so he doesn’t have to carry this burden alone. The more you discuss it, the more you can find ways to cope.
In your letter, Clear Eyes, you mention your father’s struggle to remember what you’ve agreed upon during prior writing sessions. The pain and frustration you are both experiencing hits me in the lungs so hard it stifles my breath. It’s terrible to forget and to have your ideas forgotten. I can see why this breaks your heart and why he may not be calling you back. Your writing sessions could be amplifying the grief he feels about his disease while it also causes feelings about old disappointments to resurface.
Empowering your father will be the key to bringing him back to your writing desk. When I was sick, certain aspects of my brain worked better than others. I’ve never been good with auditory directions, but even during the periods when I couldn’t speak or read, I could still write down my thoughts. Signposts and visual aids helped me remember what I needed to do next. My computer monitor was—and still is—a mosaic of Post-It notes. Some people use notecards or alarms. Other people work best when they can touch or manipulate textured objects like fuzzy sweaters or glass Coke bottles to stimulate memory. As you develop your new working relationship, identify and play to your father’s cognitive strengths.
At the end of your writing session, record your plans for moving forward in your father’s strongest modality, be that a written plan, or an audio or video recording. Have him summarize and record the ideas in his own words. Because his disease is degenerative, he may need to create a script now that he can read before he begins to remind him that this is your mutually agreed upon plan. Encourage your father to review the plan either privately or with you before you start your next writing session so the content is fresh.
As you revamp your writing process, consider the time of day that you write together. As best you’re able, schedule your meetings around your father’s best hours of the day. Your father may function best early in the morning, midday, or later in the afternoon. Follow his lead. It will minimize the frustrations you both feel as a result of his symptoms.
All of this leads to the final question in your letter: how to access your father’s stories when he can’t remember. It’s likely some of your father’s memories are still stable, though he may need cues to prime his memory pump. You can do this with photographs and other visual stimuli from the time you’re trying to capture, but don’t underestimate the power of other senses. Songs from that time period, familiar foods, a family member’s cologne, and phone calls from old friends can serve as powerful memory triggers. If he’s willing and you’re able, consider video recording phone calls with people who knew him at that time you’re writing about. In a relaxed state, these conversations could help him access memories he couldn’t otherwise retrieve. As you watch the videos, pay attention to your father’s words and his body language. His expressions and gestures may give you insight into the flavor of that time period when his words cannot. These videos will be invaluable, especially if your revision process exceeds his capacity to help out.
When he can’t remember, relaxation is key. If I forgot something I knew, forcing the issue was futile. Moving on or trying again later frequently helped me express myself. But I also learned another useful trick: talking around the subject. Instead of getting angry with myself because I couldn’t say the world plate, I’d say all the words around plate—round, eat, that thing you put food on. My non-sequiturs frequently made me laugh so hard I retrieved the word I was looking for.
There’s a fist in my heart as I say this, but some of his memories may be lost, except as impressions. And yet, even these impressions may lead to something beautiful. I invite the two of you to create mandalas for key time periods in your book—ones that rely on shapes and colors instead of words. Perhaps you’ll find your father sees the time period as hazy blue with a trace of red while you see it as a dollop of green. Maybe you both have a swipe of yellow. You can also create collages using old magazines or create playlists on Spotify for important time periods. Go to thrift shops or antique stores and see if he can create an outfit or a dinner setting that stands in for a memory. Perhaps there’s a menu for that time. Instead of fighting against Alzheimer’s and your father’s memory loss, make it part of the story. Exploring the significance of what he cannot remember may be just as useful as the memories you recover. I realize these suggestions may feel tangential to the project you are working on, Clear Eyes, but they may offer you a poetic entryway into those crucial chapters that may not otherwise exist.
To work as a team requires enormous creativity and flexibility. You’ve spent four years practicing these skills and while the universe has given you a major detour, you have what it takes to pivot. As you continue to work on this book, remember that your father is still in there. While he may be struggling, he retains a vitality and purpose that are important to this book.
Somebody I Used to Know is the Sunday Times bestselling memoir by Wendy Mitchell. Her memoir is proof that people living with dementia still have a story to tell. I spoke to her while crafting this post. She had this to say about her illness. “We all had talents before a diagnosis of dementia, we don’t suddenly lose them overnight. We simply need help and the support of those around us to outmaneuver the challenges dementia throws in our direction.”
I know you will outmaneuver the challenges you’re facing and complete this book. It will be a huge gift to you, your father, and your family. More importantly, your book will provide us with a desperately needed roadmap for broken families that wish to be whole.
Have a memoir question of your own? Contribute to the Heart Speak column.
Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health and a background in mindfulness meditation. She teaches experiential workshops on The Art of Forgiveness and The Gifts of Grief as well as classes in memoir and creative nonfiction through WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Lisa is passionate about fostering authors’ creativity. Whether she’s working one-on-one or with a class, Lisa uses her knowledge of craft and love of human relationships to empower writers as they approach the page. Clients and students have commented that Lisa’s insights as well as her compassion and heartfelt encouragement have helped them achieve creative breakthroughs and complete their projects. Learn what writers have to say about working with Lisa.
This week, I Am Yours (Amberjack Publishing, 2019), Reema Zaman‘s dazzling debut memoir, launches into the world, and we couldn’t be more excited! With unwavering courage and lyrical precision, Reema offers readers her story of unshackling her voice from the binds of patriarchy, sexual assault, emotional abuse, and anorexia as a companion through trauma and an antidote to loneliness. Her book embodies the truism: to speak is a revolution, and in this unprecedented time when all voices must be heard, Reema’s is one leading the charge.
I recently sat down with Reema to hear about her memoir (and life) journey and what this lead-up to the release of I Am Yours has been like. I invite you to watch our author chat below, read the interview that follows, and then head over to the Ms. Q&A: How Reema Zaman Found Healing in Her Own Story at Ms. Magazine to learn more about her and her beautiful writing.
Melanie Brooks: In I Am Yours, you write out of your own personal trauma from growing up in a culture infused with misogyny, experiencing sexual assault and emotional abuse, and living with an eating disorder. I’ve heard you speak to other writers about the importance of “writing from the scar, not the wound.” Before you began committing words to the page for this book, had you achieved any kind of reckoning with these experiences that gave you clarity on how you wanted to write about them?
Reema Zaman: Yes, because before I started writing the book, I had written all of these essays just for my own integration and clarification of self. I spent such a long period of time not speaking my own words, so this outpour was the first time my inner child was being allowed to speak without the threat of physical danger. When you are in the weeds and you are writing your way out of the weeds, you’re writing your way out of the wound. I could tell that these essays were quintessential to the making of me and to the making of a larger project that perhaps would be a book one day. But I did all of this analysis and getting to the heart of things first. For example, what was my anorexia? Where did it come from? I realized that for me, it was a side effect of being raised as a girl in this world. So when I sat down to write I Am Yours, I had already come to this place of deep understanding of what my disease had been and the roots of that disease. The question now was, how do I talk about this? How do I explain this to people? That became the exercise: I wanted to find language that was so precise and help people say, “So that’s what it is.” I think finding clarity of something is 90% of being able to heal and release it.
MB: You are trained as an actress and you are also a talented artist—some of your stunning drawings are woven into the pages of I Am Yours. How did this creative background make itself felt in the writing of your memoir?
RZ: I had all of this acting training where the first two things we’re taught are: 1. Story above ego, and 2. Audience always knows. We’re taught to respect the emotional intelligence of the audience and trust that they know what is happening without needing it explained to them. I Am Yours is a long book, but it’s also very sparsely written. In acting, it’s also all about creating urgency. Everything is done in the present tense—the audience is watching the scene happen as it happens. So for me, it made sense from the very beginning to set my book in the present tense as an effective way for the audience to literally be there with me while I was going through it. That urgency helped me find the accurate language, where my job was to just paint what was happening. I’ve also been really fortunate, in a sense, that the characters and the experiences that have come into my life have been so vivid and enormous. The dialogue sections happened verbatim, and then my acting background lets me know what feels authentic.
I attached to art at the same time I attached to anorexia—age fifteen—because both of them help you to create beauty out of the wreckage, clarity from chaos. There had been so much trauma and chaos in my life that my brain attached to anorexia because this disease is all about precision and intention. I realized I had to figure out how to meet those needs of precision and deliberate action in a way that was not killing me. I had to replace it with a new set of habits. I developed this really precise drawing style and then I began creating this really precise language.
MB: In our Q&A for Ms. Magazine, you tell me: “The biggest goal and purpose of this book is to provide medicine.” I know your words have already been a balm to other women who have experienced trauma and a call to action for them to lift their voices with yours. What do you hope men will take from your book?
RZ: I wanted to write a book as an agent for empathy—where you start to experience that person’s life through their body and voice. I want men to be looking and feeling these experiences through my eyes. My entire life, as I’ve stood in front of the different men in my life while they’ve done the things they’ve done, I’ve thought, If you only knew the pain that was coursing through my body, I think you would not be doing what you are doing. The most effective attempt I can make of that is to write a book that guides men through what it is to live life in the body of a woman through these experiences. That’s why raw emotion and vivid language are such huge parts of what this book is. I wanted to create that cinematic exploration of a woman’s life—specifically for men. A lot of women are able to access the experiences so quickly because they have a memory that connects to my memory, but most men reading my book don’t have a parallel experience. My job was to paint it in the most evocative, 4D effect as possible so it becomes like virtual reality for them. If this doesn’t ignite someone’s empathy, they are lost.
MB: In the past year, you have exploded onto the literary scene as a noteworthy writer and sought-after speaker. Your work has been widely published, and you’ve gained a global following in anticipation of your book’s release because of the undeniable power of your voice. Did you imagine this level of success?
RZ: I say this with complete, unaffected humility. The greatest surprise has been me—the presence of my intelligence. My degrees in college were theater and women’s studies. I began my career as an actress and model where my identity was based on sex appeal. I had never written personal essays, or thought of myself as a writer. It never occurred to any of us that I had any talent. I stepped into this voice only four years ago. Had you met me in my twenties, you’d say, “Oh, what a sweet little girl.” My voice was literally an entire octave higher, my energy was like that of a glass bird. Writing this book was an unpeeling of who I’ve always been. The first draft came out in such a flow that I wasn’t conscious of it and I wasn’t reading it while writing it. It was only when I was creating the second draft and doing a read-through and going through the process as an editor versus the author that I was able to objectively view this manuscript. That was the first time in my life that I started filling with a deep sense of genuine self-appreciation and self-respect because I started recognizing there was something there. I had a voice. The transformation was a revelation. And maybe as women, our transformation is the revelation. To peel back, to unlearn everything that was taught to us so that we can reveal ourselves to be the mighty women warriors we actually are.
MB: Thank you so much for sharing these pieces of your writing journey, Reema. I’m holding my breath along with so many other grateful readers in anticipation of what comes next!
To celebrate the release of I Am Yours into the world, the women of Moving Forewords read the poem “I Am Woman” by Reema Zaman from the book’s opening pages.