Book Reviews: Abuse in Fiction

I promised I’d weed through the gigillion books at Amazon and find a few gems of self-published work. I’m a slow and meticulous reader, so in no way will this blog turn into a book review site. But, I do hope to highlight some books worth mentioning as I find them.

My book series, Winter Seedlings, deals with the effects of childhood sexual abuse. So, for the first chunk of reviews, I decided to read books touching on similar themes.

I’ll start with The Goldfish Diaries by Winona Teague.

goldfishdiariesThe Goldfish Diaries is an unusual book in that it deals with the very heavy subject of domestic violence in a way that is accessible to teens. Combined with the fact that the narrator is a goldfish, perhaps you’ll assume this book is too childish for adults to enjoy. But, you would be mistaken. The goldfish is like a fly on the wall, seeing everything that happens in the house and trying to make sense of it. As explained by this description of this book on Amazon: “Through the eyes of their long-forgotten goldfish we come to know the Havens family. Tom: the boy with the broken heart. Millicent: the little girl with the broken teacup. Mrs. Havens: the woman with the broken bones. And Mr. Havens: the man who gave them to her. ”
The Havens family goes through so much, but Tom is the one being pulled in all directions. I empathized with every character Winona Teague created, maybe not so much with Mr. Havens, but I understood why he thought the way he did. Though self-published, The Goldfish Diaries is very well written, believable, unforgettable.

The next book on the list is It’s Not Always About Freud by Adele Scott.

itsnotalwaysaboutfreud2

Adele Scott has a Masters degree in psychology and trained as a child psychotherapist. She lives in Auckland, New Zealand. This is her first novel, self-published, and impressive. It is not, however, about a cat.
The story centers around the life of a therapist as well as a situation with one of her clients. I’ll post the Amazon description here:

Thirty-seven year-old psychotherapist Laura Flight works in a mental health clinic and appears to be better at solving other people’s problems rather than her own. She drinks too much, is not woman enough to dump feckless ex-partner, Brad, and is finding it harder to drown out the sound of her ticking biological clock.
Then an attractive new client, with connections to the clinic’s manager, walks into her therapy room. The unfolding events reach a crisis, which unexpectedly jeopardizes Laura’s position in the clinic and inevitably forces her to take charge of her life.
Laura learns the biggest battle she has to face, is the battle with herself.

There is no mention of abuse in the description; and though it is not the central theme of the book, it does happen. Because the author, Adele Scott, is a therapist in real life, this book is full of clinical-speak. I actually enjoyed that and appreciated that she didn’t dumb it down for those of us not in the field. A plus for me was that by the end of the book, I had learned some things about psychotherapy and Auckland.
I hope Adele Scott will write more books. But in the meantime, if this sounds like something you would enjoy, here is the link to It’s Not Always About Freud.

This list is in order from most tame to most graphic. So I am going to put my Winter Seedlings books right here. Most of you have already heard my plugs for them. I’ll just quickly say that they both deal with childhood sexual abuse, mostly the aftermath and recovery. They are both intensely emotional stories focusing more on the psychological effects than the assaults themselves. Both have diverse LGBTQ characters. Each is a complete story within itself, no cliffhanger at the end, just solid unforgettable endings.

 winterseedlingswintersunsfinal

And last on the list, yet first in terms of emotional impact is Crush by Laura Susan Johnson.

crush

This book is not a light read. Be warned: you will not just cry, you will sob. Laura Susan Johnson does not shy away from describing atrocious acts of abuse, nor does she shy away from the details of the physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual effects of that abuse. She is a nurse in real life, and in many regards, the author has seen a lot and is not squeamish. I would almost categorize Crush as horror, but I don’t think the author wrote any of this to sensationalize abuse. She is not trying to glorify the pain. The book is intense and there’s no way to read it and not feel changed by it.

The Amazon description is: “Raw, graphic, candid portrait of two young gay men whose love affair is deeply affected by the scars they sustained from childhood sexual abuse. Tammy and Jamie are soul mates, but their love is thwarted for years by bad timing, fear of ridicule, and the damage that lingers long after childhood.”

Again, here is a link to Crush by Laura Susan Johnson.

I hope this is helpful to those wanting to support indie-authors. I’ll continue to post recommendations as I find gems worth mentioning. I am currently reading a few sci-fi novels. I’ll get back to you on those, possibly in March.

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Hate, Forgiveness, and Self-Control

My mom would often tell us, “You don’t hate anything.” Hate was not allowed in our house.

But when my uncle would visit, he would tell us elaborate stories from their childhood, finishing with, “I hate that woman/man.”

Mom would say, “Now, now. You don’t hate anyone.”

My Uncle responded, “Hell yes I do hate them, and you should, too!”

I tend to be more like Mom. I’m not comfortable with hate. I think it can eat away at the heart of the person holding it, and does nothing to change those we feel it toward. There are plenty of people I have reason to dislike, some of them are hopelessly flawed and unrepentant. But, I can’t think of anyone I hate in a forever kind of way.

Forgiveness is a different issue. Despite hating no one, I seldom forgive the most harmful people. They simply don’t deserve it, having never asked for it, or even acknowledged the harm they caused. Some people say we should forgive those who have hurt us so we can move on, but I’ve moved on quite well. Forgiveness is not the key to happiness. The assertion that we are going to be carrying around the weight of another person’s transgressions unless we forgive the person who hurt us is a lie.

As a perfect example, nearly a decade after leaving an abusive relationship, I called the guy. I wanted to hear him apologize. I scheduled a meeting in a park. We sat in my car. I asked him why he had physically hurt me so many times. I listed all the atrocities he had committed. He listened, then laughed. He said, “You used to be such a damn crybaby.” And then he leaned over and kissed me. What a prick.

Forgiveness? I’ll pass. But, I don’t hate him. I don’t have room in my life for it. There are occasions when I wish there was justice because I love it when people get what they deserve. But, it’s important for me to feel in control, so I try not to brood over things I can do little about.

Feelings of great dislike do arise, but they are usually short-lived. They usually happen on social media, or when one of my kids is hurt by someone, or someone messes with my mom. I am capable of passionately, momentarily, hating. But if it lasts more than a couple of weeks, I know it’s time to either do something or let it go.

Just for fun, I’m going to tell you about some things I hate right now, in the momentary, yet passionate sense.

I hate the t.v. show The Slap. I hate it because there are no likeable characters. They are all so stereotypical that I think the creators wanted the audience to hate them. That must have been the entire premiss: “Let’s create a show to fuel discord by having non-realistic characters as stereotypes people already love to hate.” And it works. I looked at feedback on twitter. Lots of people hating the characters, no one noticing it was a set up. Lots of people arguing about the show as if it reflects any semblance of reality, and it doesn’t.

I hate the song Jealous by Nick Jonas. My kids know I hate it because every time it comes on, I switch the channel while saying, “I hate that song, I hate that song, I hate that song.” And then I explain to them, every time, “He has no right to act hellish just because he’s jealous. He doesn’t own her. He should either be with her or not. There’s no excuse for being a jerk.” Repeat: No one has a right to be hellish. (Are you listening, Nick Jonas?)

I hate that girl… no, correction, I hate WHEN that girl on twitter mocked Quentin Alexander’s appearance on twitter while he sang I Put a Spell on You by Screamin Jay Hawkins. The girl posted a pic of Quentin and asked something to the gist of “What the hell is on my tv screen?” I’ve never before come so close to calling someone an asshole on social media. I know lots of people just like her. They distract from their own flaws by creating a constant barrage of insults toward others, mostly those perceived as underdogs. I could rant all day about how much I hated that girl at that moment, and how actions like hers almost always set me off. But I won’t. I’ll just share Quentin’s performance because it was rich with emotion, beautiful and smart, and everything that girl isn’t.

So, I was going to list more things I have hated this week, but that video just derailed me into a happy zone. That’s okay. I’m not trying to bring everybody up onto the hate wagon.

Sometimes people are just not worth the price of hating them. It’s not that they don’t deserve the hate. It’s not that letting go of your hate for them means you forgive them. It just means that getting them out of your circle so you can heal means not having to think about them at all. They don’t deserve the power we give to villains. They deserve to be sad and pathetic nobodies.

Winter Seedlings: Jute Confronts Her Mother

I’m sharing an excerpt from Winter Seedlings. This is a small part of Chapter 3 when Jute confronts her mother for abandoning her for four days. Winter Seedlings focuses on the effects of childhood sexual abuse and the difficulty of overcoming them. It’s a journey fumbling toward self-love with a broad range of diverse characters.

In this scene, Jute has been up in the woods behind her house collecting kindling. It is the first week of January and bitter cold. On the way back to the house, she sees her mother getting out of a GMC Jimmy driven by a man Jute doesn’t recognize.

*****

          As long as it takes me to walk to her, she never stops smiling. She is like that when people are around. Even when she shouldn’t be. She makes it hard to stay mad at her.

“Jute, this is Jerry.”

She turns to him and smiles, then looks back at me grinning. She lowers her voice seductively, “We’ve been sleeping around.”

“Momma!” I glare at her. She is trying to be funny but it makes me mad.

“What?” She says, batting her lashes at me and still grinning. “I’m finally free of that asshole. I can do whatever I want.”

She shrugs and walks past me like she’s Marilyn Monroe walking into someone else’s run down shack.

“Momma, I don’t care what you do or who you do it with. Just keep the details to yourself. Okay?”

I follow her up the porch steps and drop the kindling in the cardboard box by the door. Instead of going inside, I head back to the wood pile and pick up two small logs, leaving the largest for tonight. When I enter the house, Momma is in her bedroom talking to me through the door as if I have been there the whole time.
Ignoring her, I open the wood stove door. The heat is heavenly warmth on my face. I grab the poker and jab at the ashes and burned pieces of wood before throwing on the logs. I hear the snapping and cracking and try to focus on that instead of how angry I am at Momma for being gone so long. I can’t keep the door open any longer or the room will fill with smoke. I reluctantly shut it and hear Momma saying, “Jute, are you out there?”

I stand up and take my hat off. Jerry is standing by the couch, rocking on his heels and toes with his back to me. His hands are in his pockets and he’s looking at a picture of Jesus. It’s the only picture in the room, left here by the previous residents. This must be an awkward moment for Jerry. I don’t plan to make it any easier.
Before he has time to gawk at my shaved head, I walk through the kitchen to Momma’s room. She is sitting on her bed in her underwear. Her back is to me, bent slightly forward as she puts one leg into her black pants. Her olive skin stretches over her bony spine. Everything about her is not enough. Even the blanket on her bed looks threadbare. It wouldn’t even keep a dog warm.

A sigh escapes me. “Momma? Momma, what are you doing? We’ve been here a couple of weeks. You can’t run off with the first guy asking if you have change for a dollar.”

She doesn’t turn around. She looks drained. Her voice lacks all the entertainment qualities it had when Jerry could hear her, “If you had been listening to me a minute ago, you would know he isn’t just any guy. I don’t know what I would do without him. I have been a prisoner for too long, married to that crazy man. So, don’t tell me now that I should still think about that psycho before I make my decisions. I’ve snagged a nice man this time. He bought us those groceries, you know.”

My words come out quiet and empty, “That was nice of Jerry.”

Memories of the last week flash through my mind: The day I scraped the mold off the bread and ate it with mustard. I missed the bus Thursday. Missing school meant missing a free lunch. The next day Allie had to pick me up after school so I could make up the Chemistry test. Allie has always made up for Momma’s negligence, but Allie graduated early and is moving to Ohio tomorrow. I don’t say any of this aloud. Momma doesn’t care. If she knew how I felt, she would just use it to hurt me. She didn’t even want me here.

I pick up the hair brush and start to brush through the tangles in Momma’s hair. I gather it in my hand, turn it in a twist, and pin it. She stares at herself in the mirror. I’ve always loved to play with Momma’s hair. It is bittersweet to do it now. She picks up a small mirror and moves it so she can see the back of her head. She kisses the air and snort laughs.

“Oh, my heavens, who is that wretched old woman?” She giggles before pushing up her nose with her thumb and crossing her eyes.

“Momma, you are beautiful. Shut up.” I smile at her reflection, failing again to stay mad at her.

She winks at me.

I tell her, “Now, put on a shirt. And not that red and gold shirt with the clocks all over it. I hate that damn thing.”

I leave the room and find Jerry standing at the fridge with the door open. He’s pulling a container of cottage cheese out of a grocery bag and putting it in with the other items. There’s sliced cheese, bologna, a bag of apples, and a can of peaches. I see bread on the kitchen counter. I pick up the bread box from the kitchen table and carry it to the counter. We can’t leave bread out or mice will get in it.

“Got a mouse trap?” I don’t look to see if he smiles. It was a bad attempt at humor. I sigh.

Finally, after closing the bread box, I look over at him. He’s staring at me, mostly my stubbly hair.

“Is Jute your real name?”

“It wasn’t. But, it is now.” I don’t offer details. I don’t tell him that Momma named me Judy after herself. I don’t understand why she did that. The name Judy is bad enough without it implying that I am also my mother’s replica. I’m nothing like her. When I started kindergarten, I insisted everyone call me Jute. It stuck. We changed it legally when Momma married Earl and he officially adopted us.

“What do you think Judy is doing in there?” I see his eyes land on my tiny scar, then shift around my face trying to find a soft place to land. He gives up and looks away. My face might be full and round, but it isn’t a place to find comfort.

“She has trouble making up her mind,” I say as though I’m not being mean. “I’ll check on her.”

Opening the bedroom door, I see her shoving her folded up blanket into the top of her closet. She’s wearing the clock shirt. There is a suitcase open on the bed, full of her clothes. Her dresser is cleared except for a bottle of baby lotion.

She turns to me and forces a weak smile. She walks toward me as if she is on a t.v. screen. She is just walking toward the camera.

*****

Books by Julie Roberts Towe

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Winter Seedlings Book Series

The final novel in the Winter Seedlings book series has been released. Winter Suns debuted as #60 on Amazon in the category of Women’s Fiction: Christian. It is not a Christian book, but has a lot of Christian keywords in the text and description because the Main Character was abused by a man who used the Bible to justify his actions. His beliefs would have placed him in a Christian cult more than anything similar to how Christianity is normally practiced. But thanks to Amazon, and those who purchased the book on pre-order, I am technically a bestseller. I do not, however, feel accomplished. That will not happen until I start to get some feedback and hear what people think of it.

Winter Suns is a story of the next generation after Winter Seedlings, with the common theme of childhood sexual abuse. There are certainly many characters dealing with it in many different ways. Book one ends on a sort of bittersweet note. So, I wanted to make sure Winter Suns came through with a little more hope at the end. I think if it’s ever made into a movie, The Beatle’s “Here Comes the Sun” should play as the credits roll.

About John (from Winter Seedlings/Winter Suns)

Winter Suns, the second book in the Winter Seedlings series, is written from two rotating points of view. One of those belongs to John. I’m going to tell you about him and make every effort not to include spoilers for either book.

John is a teenager living in an abuse shelter which is really a huge Victorian farm house in Nashville, Tennessee. His mother runs it through an organization she has formed with her sister. He has lived in the abuse shelter since he was six years old. The farm on which it sits was purchased by his father who lives in a ten bedroom house built on the hill. Though John’s father had been homeless and unemployed when he met John’s mother, he is now wealthy and famous, as sometimes happens in Nashville.

There are two men John refers to as “Dad”. One is really his father, the other man is his father’s partner who has been in his father’s life since John was born. John’s mother and his two fathers have built a sheltered world where they can exist as the unique family they have become.

In an effort to keep John from being teased or bullied about having such a unique family, his parents send him to a private school. But nothing can protect John from kids pretending to be his friends just to get close to his dad. John learns to value honesty and true friendship. He weeds out the people who only see him as his father’s son, which leaves him with very few friends.

At the start of Winter Suns, John is almost sixteen years old. After a decade of living in a house with constant new arrivals of abused women and their children, John has come to despise the sound of crying. He understands why his mom does what she does. He is even, deep down, proud of her. But, the constant sounds of misery has made him nearly immune to it. Not only is he tired of the crying, he also resents the women for taking so much of his mother’s time and attention.

With his father gone on tour and his mother constantly providing therapy, heading group meetings, and preparing meals for the women, John feels ignored. His father’s partner works unusual shifts as a police officer and sometimes sleeps in the day, so going to the big house isn’t always an option.

John does get enjoyment out of working with Ellis, an old man who leases the land for hay, horses, and to grow pumpkins. John views the farm work as a means to get away from all the women, as well as a way to build up his muscles. He’s not very happy about ending up with more of his mother’s genes than his father’s.

John has lived his entire life around the richest kids in Nashville as well as those in most need. He can clearly see that he wants no part of either lifestyle. He really wants, more than anything, for his family to spend more time together, laugh together, and go places together.

He doesn’t know it at the beginning of Winter Suns, but his family hasn’t only been protecting him, they have also been protecting his mother. In their efforts to protect her, they have kept secrets from John. When John discovers these secrets, he feels even more alienated.

The day a backwoods girl from Kentucky shows up at their door and knows more about his mother’s past than he does, John’s life gets turned upside down. At first he sees her as just another abused girl, another woman to take his mother’s attention. But his expertise at tuning out other people’s pain doesn’t seem to work with her. He actually feels sorry for her, and maybe something more. His reaction to her scares him; his fear makes his resentment greater.

This girl says she wants nothing, but maybe he is right to think his life will never be the same.

Get the books here: http://www.amazon.com/Julie-Roberts-Towe/e/B00O6U2N1E/

Writing about Childhood Sexual Abuse

1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of childhood sexual abuse.
[Click here for more child sexual abuse statistics.]

There are many ways to process this information. Just the idea of childhood sexual abuse brings images to mind which are unsettling. We probably think of stories we have heard on the news, or a friend who confidentially divulged their darkest secret to us, or perhaps our own painful memories. What comes to mind is the act of abuse and we find it hard to divert our eyes, like seeing an accident on the road. We look at it in awe of its terribleness. We may even feel compelled to act to prevent the abuse, report it, or beat the shit out of the perpetrator. Almost all the feels we feel about childhood sexual abuse are centered around the horrific images we hold in our mind of the act itself.

News stories about child abuse are often written with the voyeur in mind. A voyeur being an enthusiastic observer of sordid and sensational subjects. The big questions in the minds of many are, “How bad was it?”, “How low can a human being get?”, “What was it like to be in that situation as the perpetrator and/or the victim?” Some of us like to push the limits of our empathetic responses as if being able to process that much pain will somehow make us stronger. Some of us want to peer into the ugliness to figure out where it is rooted so we can avoid it in our own lives. Some of us just get a rush from it like going straight down toward the ground on a roller coaster.

No, I’m not policing society’s motivations to consume information about sexual abuse. I am simply stating that for many reasons, we eagerly consume it. And there is plenty of water in the well.

But for the children who have experienced sexual abuse, the train wreck is just not a good analogy. With a train wreck, people rush forward to save the passengers, clear the track, haul off the train, bury the bodies. News articles go away and lives go on. With childhood sexual abuse, the tracks take decades to clear. Sometimes the bodies are never buried.

What we believe about our world and expect from society is learned. The rules are created by us and are illusions. The truths you think of as absolute are often not. A child who suffers will often not view that suffering as abnormal. It is not unreasonable that, with no other points of reference, abused children will believe whatever they are told about the world and themselves. By the time they have enough world experience to inform them otherwise, they typically find themselves in a mess of trouble and are seen as the source of it. This is why the train wreck analogy doesn’t work for child abuse. It isn’t about a black eye or ripped skin. This is the loose tie rod causing the car in front of you to shake, the car that annoys you as you attempt to get around it, perhaps screaming at the driver to get that fixed. The long term effects are neither sordid nor sensational. They aren’t a tsunami of pain, but a repetitive crashing of unceasing waves.

Those children will grow to experience a higher rate of depression, substance abuse, low self-esteem, self-mutilation, sexual promiscuity, and suicide. They likely distrust their own ability to view the world and society correctly, to predict social outcomes, or judge the character of others. They often distrust others’ perceptions as well and have little faith in authority.

When the people you trust most hurt you in such a traumatic way, every single thing you ever thought was true becomes a potential lie. Your strings are cut loose from the order of the universe and you just float around in chaos trying to figure out if it’s safe to land and how to reconnect, if at all.

Breaking free from the grasp of a hand on your wrist is a piece of cake compared to trying to find a place that feels like home ought to feel once you’re free.

I don’t want to write about the easy part.

I write about trying to find that home. My first set of novels, a two book series titled Winter Seedlings, is about these journeys. They explore life beyond the actual events which caused the trauma. My characters want to heal, they want to love, they want a place that feels like home should feel. My stories aren’t perpetrator-centered, or sexual-abuse-centered. They are centered on the heart’s persistent desire for love despite all obstacles. I hope the stories shed a light on the part of childhood sexual abuse which never makes it to the headlines.

Books

Winter Seedlings / Winter Suns

Without giving away too much of what happens in Winter Seedlings (though a few spoilers are unavoidable), here is the description of the sequel and final book in the series:

Winter Suns

A nameless teenage girl in Eastern Kentucky has been isolated since birth. She experiences her abuse as unquestionably the will of God. She follows the house rules in hopes of banishing her demons and finding redemption. But when she breaks a rule to search for the Bible in order to teach herself to read it, she discovers something more powerful than her faith. A letter written sixteen years ago by a woman named Allie reveals both disturbing and electrifying secrets. The girl feels called to action. She perceives it is the will of God that she find a way to get the letter to Jute, even if none of the maps in the Bible show the way to Nashville, Tennessee.

Meanwhile, in Nashville, Jute has finally decided to clear out the attic to make room for Dawson’s daughter. It has been over a decade since Jute even looked at Allie’s things. She asks her son, John, to take everything to the barn. To him, it’s just a lot of junk. Jute never told him about Allie because it was too painful to tell. But, when John discovers an old photograph tucked inside one of the notebooks, he is instantly drawn into solving the mystery of what happened to the girl. What he discovers is even more devastating than the secrets his mother is hiding. He wants to forget he ever found the photograph, but he can’t.

Winter Suns contains a wide array of characters usually under-represented in fiction. Every letter in LGBTQ is represented here as well as one (or more….?) characters on the autism spectrum. Don’t think this is a sensationalizing story written to be shockingly different. It’s very ordinary and yet unforgettable. I hope to have it published by the first week of January 2015, if all the stars align.