ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
Dark experiences lie at the heart of the trauma memoir. Like their counterparts in fiction, poetry, and drama, trauma memoirs can portray devastating encounters with nature, as in Wave, the story of Sonali Deraniyagala’s heartbreaking loss of her parents, husband, and children in the 2004 Sri Lankan tsunami. They offer accounts of overcoming horrific accidents, such as Matthew Sanford’s Waking in which the narrator survives a car accident that left him paralyzed and killed his father and sister, or sudden, life-threatening illness as in Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight in which she heals from a massive stroke at the age of 37. Trauma narratives also encompass the human experience in war, such as Jon Swain’s River of Time: A Memoir of Vietnam and Cambodia or Madness Visible: A Memoir of War, journalist Janine di Giovanni’s story of covering the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
And, of course, trauma memoirs tell stories of a wide-range of interpersonal experiences in which people cause harm, intentionally or inadvertently, to other adults or to children. Memoirs of harm a narrator experienced as a child at the hands of adults comprise a particularly remarkable, if wrenching, group of stories within this category. These stories challenge an expectation that children will be protected due to their vulnerability in body, mind, and spirit. Even more remarkable and gut wrenching within this subcategory are memoirs in which children suffer abuse and neglect within their own families. These writers depict family situations in which their young bodies, minds, and spirits were steeped in overwhelming, chronic stress. To further appreciate the extraordinary triumph that these memoirs represent, consider the range of events they can encompass.
A landmark investigation of the health impact of childhood abuse and neglect in the late 1990s identified ten types of adverse events that cause overwhelming stress for a child. Five relate to direct personal experience: physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Five relate to family member experiences to which a child may be exposed: parental alcoholism, a mother who experiences domestic violence, an incarcerated family member, a family member with mental illness, and an absent parent due to divorce, death, or abandonment. Although not included in the original study, other intra-family experiences have since been recognized as contributing to overwhelming stress in children, including losing a familial caregiver and witnessing intra-family abuse, such as a sibling, father, or grandparent being mistreated and hurt.
Keep in mind that adverse childhood events that occur within a family don’t happen in a communal vacuum. A child’s encounters with social, economic, political, and cultural forces within the community surrounding the family often compound the injury of events that occur within the family. These include experiences of racism, bullying, community violence, homelessness, the foster care or juvenile justice system, and refugee, immigration, and asylum systems that separate a child from her parents. Because of detrimental experiences within the family, too often a child lacks the personal skills and resources to functionally navigate the social world beyond the family experience.
Transforming experiences of childhood familial trauma into literary art presents significant challenges for those of us fortunate enough and healed enough to have developed the skills, resources, and support to do this work. Given the darkness at the heart of these stories, how can we tell them in a way that does justice to what we lived through without weighing down the narrative? How do we tell them without minimizing or masking the continuous work of healing and transformation upon which the art-making rests? How do we present and sequence the darker moments in our stories in a way that allows the reader to breathe in those moments and appreciate their amplitude? And how do we create a narrative structure that holds their presentation and sequence in order to effectively support the story’s message?
These are the questions I’m grappling with as I compose a narrative of growing up in the shadow of my aunt’s murder, living with parents whose own unhealed childhood trauma led to abusive and neglectful behaviors towards me and my siblings, two of whom were my aunt’s daughters. To create compelling and resonant literary art from my childhood experience and its impact on my adult life, I need to attend closely to the story’s pacing, both narrative and emotional. When writers talk about pacing in storytelling, they’re usually referring to narrative pacing, that is, the tempo at which a story is told. At a high level, elements such as scene length, the speed of the story’s action, and how quickly information is imparted affect the overall pace of a narrative. These elements are carried out through techniques such as dialogue, detail and description, syntax, paragraph length, exposition, and narration.
When talking about literary craft, however, writers seldom address a story’s emotional pacing, that is, how emotion embedded in a story’s raw material is presented and sequenced within the narrative. In one of the very few references I found, fiction writer Donald Maass describes emotional pacing with respect to the way a protagonist understands an event and in terms of the story’s emotional effect on the reader. According to Maass, one way writers accomplish emotional pacing is by shifting gears between tension and energy within a story. He writes: “Think of tension as a tiger poised for a pounce, and energy as the pounce. A shift inside a character is like that. As emotional gears shift, the reader feels the force of physics. There’s a sense of surging forward or pulling back” (Maass). I consider what Maass describes above to be part of the unfolding action and information within the story, and thus an aspect of overall narrative pacing. As Maass conceives it, emotional pacing has more to do with the emotional gear shifting itself, as if emotions were two-dimensional, mechanical objects disconnected from the body and the senses (internal and external), including the mind. His use of a mechanical metaphor—gearing—to describe emotional pacing doesn’t capture the aliveness, multivalence, and nonlinearity of its subtle force within a narrative. This energetic force is separate and distinct, yet intimately and seamlessly interwoven with other elements of narrative craft.
As I conceive it, emotional pacing relates to the raw material of the memoir itself, its situation and the events that comprise it, which come ready-charged with myriad and often divergent emotions. In the trauma memoir, particularly narratives of childhood familial trauma, the situation and events at the story’s heart carry inherently dark, heavy, and complex emotions, such as parental betrayal, fear of annihilation, grief, rage, guilt, shame, and significant confusion around personal boundaries and responsibility. Pacing or modulating the presentation of this emotionally laden material allows us as writers to convey, with intention, the meaning we’ve made of an experience after the fact, that is, after we’ve processed and made peace with the emotions that were part of the experience. It involves not only decisions around which events to include, but how much detail to provide, how to present that detail, and how to sequence the events. It involves using narrative techniques that enable us to manipulate the narrative distance between the narrator and the moments or events narrated. Without skillful emotional pacing, we risk overwhelming readers, giving them too much heavy emotional content at once or too soon, without proper preparation or the time and space to fully take it in, digest it, and appreciate its weight and impact.
For example, in the mother-daughter memoir I’m writing, at what point in the story do I reveal the facts of my aunt’s murder, which occurred when my mother was pregnant with me? What’s the most effective perspective from which to show scenes of my mother’s abuse and neglect of me in the wake of that event? How do I relay the relationship confusion I experienced as a child around my biological brothers and sisters and my cousins/sisters, including displacement as my mother’s daughter? How do I show the impact of the situation on my father’s behavior, his increasing rages and abuse of my siblings and me without those aspects of the story overwhelming or hijacking the narrative? At what point in the story do I reveal that I found out about my aunt’s murder, which had been kept secret, by snooping around my parents’ private papers when I was nine, leaving me with a secret of my own to hide? How do I convey the ripple effects of that discovery on me in the context of increasingly out of control and abusive relationships among family members and conflict among me and my siblings, including competition for parental attention, love, and protection?
With each of these questions, I’m confronted with an artistic choice around where and how to present highly charged, emotionally laden content in a controlled and modulated manner. To come to a better understanding of emotional pacing, I will examine three nonfiction narratives that tell stories of injuries to the body, mind, and spirit of a narrator that occurred within her family and altered the narrator’s life course in significant and sometimes radical ways: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) by Maya Angelou, The Liars’ Club (1995) by Mary Karr , and Crazy Brave (2012) by Joy Harjo. I limit my analysis to memoirs written by women because I believe that gender conditioning impacts not only our experience of childhood adversity within our families but also how we carry the imprint of those experiences into our adult relationships with ourselves, our family members, and others in the world outside our family. It also influences how we render those experiences artistically.
Aggie Stewart recently completed her MFA in creative writing at the Newport MFA with a concentration in creative nonfiction. She moderated a panel on emotional pacing in the trauma narrative at AWP22 in Philadelphia. Her craft essay, “Emotional Pacing: Lessons in Writing a Trauma Narrative” was published in Brevity. Ms. Stewart is writing a memoir about growing up in the shadow of her maternal aunt’s murder, which occurred when her mother was pregnant with her and kept a closely guarded family secret.