Whether through keeping a journal or writing fiction or memoir, turning to the written word as a place to process ideas and experience can be a powerful way to freely express our truths–whether they’re secret or sexy, traumatic or transformative, or a mix of all of these.
No one knows this better than Jennifer Cross, noted erotic writer, facilitator of life-changing workshops, survivor of sexual abuse, and now author of her own writers’ guide, Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma (Mango, 2017). At a time of daily conversations about sexuality and sexual violence in our society, Jen brings a message of hope and possibility about the power of creativity and writing in community as a path to transformative healing and personal liberation. Writing Ourselves Whole is full of support and advice for anyone who wants to tap into their creativity as a means to heal and grow, and includes sections on writing the erotic to reconnect to our powerful and gorgeous sexual selves.
Good Vibrations welcomes Jen for a FREE Writing Ourselves Whole book party on Monday, 4/23, 6:30-8:30pm at our Polk St. location: 1620 Polk Street, San Francisco. Sign up.
I was privileged to write the Afterword for this compelling and so-useful book. I asked Jen to delve into some of the issues and questions it raises and the work she does. Here are her replies!
Jen, why do you think writing is such a powerful way to address difficult issues like trauma survival?
Jen: I talk often about the page as a place to think, to discover, and to create. When I’m sitting at the notebook, and writing about something I’ve been struggling to understand or find words for, I don’t have to worry about whether or not the page can understand everything I’m saying, or thinks I’m crazy; I don’t have to worry about the page talking back to me, telling me I got it wrong, telling me I forgot something some detail that explains why everything is really my fault; the page doesn’t ask me to justify my words or back up my poetry with testimony or research or other ostensibly-objective facts. The page also isn’t going to get overwhelmed or freaked out or alarmed or need me to take care of it. So when we’re talking about any subject that has cultural constraints around it — whether that’s sexual trauma or sexual desire or so very many other aspects of our lives — sometimes we need a place to be curious, to write into our own wondering and discovery, knowing we are going to be free of the sorts of reactions that even those who love us the most can give us. We are free to wonder, to explore and investigate, to have all the answers, to use code or metaphor, to be unsure, to be contradictory — in short, to be our full and complicated selves.
When we’re talking about writing about trauma, the other powerful thing that writing can do is offer an opportunity to gain a different sort of control over the narrative. We may be searching for language for things that have been unspoken, or experiences that were never meant to be spoken (and so we were never taught the words for them or the words we used were ignored or shut down, or we got punished for them). We are linguistic creatures — as shaped by the words we have not been given, the words that have been withheld from us, as we are by the words we know. We also know ourselves through story and narrative — and so when there is part of our life story that we can’t language, we can feel fragmented, broken, incomplete. Those in the business of helping us heal from trauma speak of writing as a way to gain control over our own narrative — we tell it the way it happened to us, we tell it in our own words, we tell it in any order we choose, and then we tell it differently; we don’t have to use the stories or lies that were fed to us; we can write ourselves into our own truths, and so we write ourselves — if not new, then wider, messier, more complicated and beautiful.
What role does erotic writing play in your Writing Ourselves Whole community? What IS that community?
Jen: My initial writing group out here in the SF Bay area was an erotic writing group for queer women survivors of sexual trauma. I think erotic writing is always at the core of the work of Writing Ourselves Whole — this is such an interesting question! I talk in the book about drawing on Audre Lorde’s ideas of the erotic (as investigated in her essay, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”) as having to do with our embodiment, of being fully embodied in our power — to create, to find joy, to find pleasure, to explore what we are curious about, to connect with others, to work hard, to love, to struggle for change — she describes many things besides sex as being potential erotic experiences: writing a poem, working in the garden, a deep conversation with a friend — which is not to discount those times when sex feels embodied and connected and deeply erotic as well!
I think about the Writing Ourselves Whole community as existing at the intersection of trauma and desire — whether we identify as sexual trauma survivors or not, we are nearly all of us struggling with something very big in our lives that can pull us away from living our lives fully, and we nearly all of us have a fierce hunger within us, desire for connection, for belonging, for particular sorts of erotic experiences, for creativity, and much more. so many of the folks I’ve written with over the years are writing out of that intersection — what we struggle with, what we long for.
For survivors of sexual violence, sex can, I think not surprisingly, be a fraught place in us. We may feel like we are walking crime scenes— and even consensual sex occurs on that same terrain. Our lover doesn’t have to be doing anything especially triggering for us to be triggered — it just comes with the territory. So moving into consensual sex in the aftermath of sexual trauma can be powerfully healing or deeply frightening, and is often both (and more). Writing was, for me, a way to invent a sexuality for myself that was somehow separate from the sort of sexual being my stepfather had tried to train me to become. I wrote women having the sorts of sex I wanted to be having, exploring fantasies that I was not ready to (or would never would want to) act out in real life, women who didn’t get triggered during sex, and women who did and whose lovers could meet them, hold them, move through it, keep going (much of this was drawn from lived experience). In groups, I found that writing about sex and desire could be a way for us to find language for our longing (it’s all well and good for the sex educators on our high school and college campuses to tell us to say what we want, be clear about our boundaries, say yes when we mean yes and no when we mean no, but if we have never been able to know our own desire or have had that desire used against us, those aren’t terribly helpful instructions). We can explore different kinds of sex without having to act on those imaginings, and we begin to practice saying aloud (if we’re in a group and we share our work with others) these things that may have felt terrifying to speak. Writing about sex can be a way to gently and organically bring sex (back) into a place — these tender and powerful bodies of ours — that others have tried to desecrate.
When you work with survivors, what do they teach you, or remind you?
Jen: I was in a room this weekend, in the house of my teacher Pat Schneider, that was filled with women, most of whom, I think, who were survivors of sexual violence in one form or another. I was reminded how rare these sorts of spaces are — and how transformative it can be to sit in a room with others who share, if not your particular experience of trauma, then many of the same difficulties in the aftermath of that violence. I was reminded of how terrifying it is to speak about these violences, to find words for them at all, and how hungry we are for one another’s words, how much we need to know how others talk about these things, how others make sense of them (because that helps us to make further sense of our own experiences) — and how hungry we are to offer kindness and support to one another.
You write: “Silencing people in service to… cultural discomfort is an act of re-traumatization”–would you unpack that for us?
Jen: Folks who experience any sort of trauma — be it sexual trauma or racism in any form or sexual harassment or bullying or homophobic harassment or poverty or so very many other manifestations of power and control in our society — are often expected by the perpetrator(s) of that violence not to speak about what has been done to them, and are just as often expected to take the blame for their own violation. We are harmed first by these perpetrators, and later, when we try to talk about what we have experienced, it is quite common for us to find that folks can’t or won’t hear us — even those who love us very much. They are uncomfortable, they are triggered into unprocessed memories from their own past, they don’t want to believe that someone they know or love has done these things, they don’t want to have to look at their own actions (or inactions) in the world. Perhaps someone calls us a liar, or punishes us for naming these things aloud. And so we swallow our words, we are silenced ourselves again. This silencing deepens each survivor’s isolation and also tacitly approves of the cultural silence that supports this sort of violence. Thus, I believe the opposite is also true: when we share our stories, when we are heard and believed, we undermine the silence and silencing that supports and condones sexual and other violence.
“We are free to allow for the remaking of ourselves.” Can you riff on that? What sorts of remaking do you see among your community? What kinds of remaking do you think the world could use more of at this time?
Jen: We can get stuck in our stories. I wonder if folks out there reading this can relate to that idea – when we are living in the aftermath of violence, we work hard and deliberately to construct narratives for ourselves that feel right, that fit, that will express what we have been through, what we want others to know about us. In addition, our culture has ideas, stories, that all of us are supposed to be able to fit into (lest we be labeled antisocial or something worse). Our culture, for instance, has language for what it means to be a rape survivor — you are broken, your soul got murdered, you will never be the same, you are annihilated. These are big words, vast enough to encompass the enormity of the hurt we feel after we have been harmed in this way. These words are also singular — that is, they convey a singular aspect of our experience: that we are wounded. They do not express confusion, strength, resilience, joy, desire — all of which we may also feel, as we are human beings, not only rape victims.
I write in the book about getting stuck in a particular story, the story of “broken.” I wanted my community to see through my outer surface of functional woman to what lived beneath: grief, terror, loss, fragmentation. The best way to describe that was through ‘broken.’ And then, a few years ago, I started to question that story that I’d been telling about myself for so long — what if, in fact, I wasn’t broken — and what if, even if I wasn’t broken, what my stepfather did to me was not even remotely ok? What if I didn’t have to walk around being the evidence of his crimes?
It was a frightening thing to question this story, this word and idea that had become embedded in my identity. It’s similar to how I felt when I began to shift away from a butch identity, and to embrace my femininity again — who was I, who could I be in the world, who would love me, if I let this part of myself go and something new and unfamiliar emerged?
As a culture, we don’t like for folks to shift in their identities. We are supposed to go through adolescence trying on different selves, find the one(s) that fit(s), and keep that/those for the rest of our lives. If, at some point later, we transition away from one story of ourselves to another, we are supposed to repudiate what came before — that was a lie, I was living a lie, I wasn’t living my true self. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes we just grow and change and our identities and stories grow and change with us. When I talk about being free to remake ourselves, this is the sort of thing I mean — we are free to become all that we might have been, we are free to cast off stories that constrain or harm us, we are free to question the stories that have shaped us, decide whether they are still serving us, and recreate them as necessary. We are free to be complex, contradictory, messy, living and breathing beings — we don’t have to be what our culture tells us “woman” or “man” or “queer” or “survivor” or “victim” or “straight” or any other identity is supposed to be. Just imagine, if we allowed, if we had room, for this sort of fluidity in our country these days — what would our political or cultural conversations look like, then?
Finally, would you explain the use of a writer’s prompt? Can you offer one to us, in case anyone is moved to begin writing right now?
Jen: I love this question! I am using each of these questions as prompts right now — a prompt is just a way to get the pen moving, a way to invite us onto the page. I like to think of a writing prompt as a doorway into our creative mind, a path to use to step inside and begin an exploration. We might start writing in response to a prompt and find that, as we go along, our writing takes a sharp right turn — we started writing about our childhood bedroom and we find, suddenly, that we are writing about our favorite song when we were 22. That doesn’t meant that the prompt was bad or that you did it wrong — on the contrary, that means the prompt worked! It got your words flowing, and you followed those words to what wanted to be written.
Here’s a prompt that I offer in the book, and also use often in my writing groups—First times: make a list of all the different sorts of (consensual, for this exercise) erotic or sexual ‘first times’ that someone might have (first kiss, first sensual feeling, first time having public sex, first experience of desire, and so on). Give yourself a few minutes to make the list, maybe 3 or 4— you can be as specific or as general as you want to be, but don’t worry about making it comprehensive. Then, notice which of these firsts is choosing you, or is most calling your writer’s attention at the moment, and let that be where your writing begins (and then you have a whole list of prompts that you can come back to and write about later). Set a timer for 10 or 12 minutes, and follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go!