I’ll admit I was nervous when my semi-autobiographical novel Hand Me Down was released last year. Until I started writing this book in graduate school, I had told very few people the real reason I was forced to move out of my mother’s house when I was fourteen. The embarrassing details of your dysfunctional family are not what you want to lead with when trying to make friends in a new school. The fact that my mother, when legally forced to choose, had picked her convict second husband over her daughters was not only painful, but another implicit family secret in a long line of secrets I’d grown up keeping. I knew speaking up was against the rules.
But eventually it became too hard to keep quiet; the truth kept bubbling up in my mind. My teenage self screamed at me to let her have a voice, my childhood self asked me to stand up for her, finally, so I did. About a decade after my step-father was released from prison and my sister and I left home, I started writing the story that I’d been too scared to share with anyone other than close friends. I hoped that any potential backlash would be worth the potential gains.
Fast forward six years and now I can’t believe that I ever considered not sharing my story. Writing it helped me move through some of the hurt and anger from that defining period of my life and allowed me to find forgiveness and forge deeper relationships with my family.
But the greater gift Hand Me Down has provided is in the responses from readers who have sent me their own stories of abuse, of triumph over it, of family dysfunction and betrayal, of love and sacrifice and perseverance and healing. I had hoped opening up about my personal experience might encourage others to do the same, but I did not expect to be able to witness that relief and growth. Many of the messages have made me cry because we humans are so strong, so resilient, so determined to survive, that sometimes we forget how vulnerable we still are, how much we all just want to be loved and safe.
All the old tapes in my head cautioned me against revealing so much of myself in the pages of Hand Me Down, but readers have shown me I am not alone. I’d been worried that I would have to explain that the kind of trauma Liz and her family experience really does happen behind closed doors every day even if we can’t always see it, or don’t want to. But instead, I found an outpouring of community and understanding, along with appreciation for my courage to disclose the unpleasant reality, and gratitude for my ability to remain hopeful, for illustrating that hardship doesn’t have to mean destruction.
Healing takes time—and maybe writing—but it is possible if we stop keeping the harmful secrets, if we open up about the hard truths. So many readers have connected to this, to Liz’s and my story, and for that, I couldn’t be more thankful.
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