Many subjects we once considered taboo are now the topic of dinner conversation: the lingering stigma of mental illness; transgender rights; rape and what constitutes consent. In many ways, we are more open and honest about things that we used to leave undiscussed.
However, one subject tends to remain unmentionable, shrouded in a complex web of shame and secrets. Incest.
In Healing from Incest: Intimate Conversations with My Therapist, Geri Henderson bravely shares her story of trauma — and, ultimately, her healing. Cowritten with her former therapist, Seanne Emerton, the book provides an honest and often painful look at Henderson’s recovery.
In bits and pieces, Henderson brings us the story of her childhood. The book begins with what might seem like the end, but is really just another step in recovery: the death of her father. She attends the funeral, something she hadn’t intended to do.
“I didn’t care, not really, not about saying goodbye to my father,” she writes. “But I was glad I had come when I found out how much it meant to my siblings. I did all the things the eldest should do — be involved in the planning, organize the music, help choose flowers and casket, and agree to say something during the funeral.”
Here we begin to see the themes of her story: the secrets she keeps, her attempts to do the “right thing” and maintain the peace in the family, her complicated feelings about her father. Slowly we work back to her childhood. Henderson describes how she did everything a little girl can do to protect herself from the early morning visits from her father. It is a chapter that will make your stomach turn.
Even today, Henderson writes, she has trouble sleeping at night, haunted by a survivor’s instinct of self-protection. Yet the book does more than serve as witness to the horrors of her abuse. Ultimately, it is the story of her personal struggle to create the life she deserves.
With frankness, Henderson shares with us how the incest, and the messages it sent her, permeated the rest of her life. “Childhood is important for learning about the world, relationships, play and a whole host of things,” Henderson writes. “When most of a childhood is missing, so are the pieces that make up a whole life.”
“It was after the rape incident,” she writes, referring not to her father this time, but an episode with another man, “that I began to accept the fact that I had no other value than sexual, at least to men.” She continues, “It wasn’t that I wanted to say yes. I didn’t believe I had the right to say no.”
This, she writes, “became a long, miserable pattern and confirmed again and again that I was amoral and wicked — just like my father had said I was.”
Though the subject is powerful — healing from grave trauma — the style of the book can at times be difficult to follow. The narrative bounces from present to past and back again, structured around themes rather than a tight timeline. Henderson acknowledges this at the beginning, writing, “There is no chronology attempted in the narratives.” Instead, she explains, she wrote each chapter based on daily incidents that acted as triggers for her past experiences.
In some ways, reading the book feels a bit like talking to someone with post-traumatic stress disorder, the stories blending one into the next without a cohesive structure. While that may in fact mirror Henderson’s experience, it sometimes distracted from the story.
With Emerton as coauthor, we are also privy to the therapeutic process as Henderson seeks help. We see her struggle to tell her family what happened. But these sections, too, made the reading choppier.
Emerton was Henderson’s therapist for a number of years, and her commentary is interspersed in italics throughout the primary narrative of the book. While Emerton’s perspective is interesting, at times it further disrupts the flow. I sometimes found my gaze skittering across the italicized text to return to the main story. That said, her input does add something to our understanding of the healing process, even if it is done in a disruptive way.
Format aside, Henderson and Emerton have bravely gone where few are willing to tread, sharing an intimate and incredibly difficult story. We see throughout the pages how much Henderson has grown and changed. She acknowledges her ongoing struggles, noting that writing the book itself has “brought new waves of shame and pain for which I was unprepared.”
But, she assures us, she can see the light of survival at the end of the tunnel — “the light of hope and healing,” writing, “Though it disappears from time to time as the road curves around one obstacle after another, it is always there, closer than before.”
Healing from Incest: Intimate Conversations with My Therapist
MSI Press, June 2015
Paperback, 190 pages