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!