Understanding Backwards

“We are a family of well-kept secrets and they all nearly end up killing us.”                       Tom, in The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy


Telling our stories can be extremely difficult, especially when those stories include the ugly truth of abuse or neglect. Noted author Pat Conroy spoke and wrote openly about the physical and emotional abuse of his childhood and its devastating effects on him and on his siblings. In his novel The Prince of Tides (made into a movie with the same name), Conroy takes us inside his own family dynamics through the words of the main character, Tom: “My mother forbade us to tell anyone outside the family that my father hit any of us. She put the highest premium on what she called ‘family loyalty’ and would tolerate no behavior that struck her as betrayal or sedition. We were not allowed to criticize our father or to complain about his treatment of us…I lived out my childhood thinking my father would one day kill me. But I dwelt in a world where nothing was explained to children except the supremacy of the concept of loyalty. I learned from my mother that loyalty was the pretty face one wore when you based your whole life on a series of egregious lies.”[1]

Family loyalty. The cardinal rule of the household of abuse: don’t tell. I’ve witnessed this again and again in my position as a child advocate for the courts (CASA) over the past few years; I’ve experienced it myself as a child. An overwhelming atmosphere of fear reigns, enforcing silence. The message comes through loud and clear: “Straighten your face up and smile. Don’t let anyone know. If you do, they won’t believe you anyway. You will be dishonoring your family. So don’t talk. If you do, I’ll find out, and then you’ll be in for it.” Being constantly hammered with this threat makes opening up, telling the truth, interrupting the cycle almost impossible. Yet breaking the silence is essential for progress to be made and healing to occur.

Pat Conroy (through Tom) continues: “My mother taught us that it was the highest form of loyalty to cover our wounds and smile at the blood we saw in our mirrors. She taught me to hate the words family loyalty more than any two words in the language. If your parents disapprove of you and are cunning with their disapproval, there will never come a new dawn when you can become convinced of your own value. There is no fixing a damaged childhood. The best you can hope for is to make the sucker float.”

There’s the picture: cover your wounds, smile, keep your mouth shut in the name of family loyalty, of family honor. Conroy’s words, again through the voice of Tom, reveal his life experience of never being able to heal, to become convinced of his own value. Conroy was expressing what was believed during his lifetime. What has been learned in recent years about traumatic childhood experiences, however, shows us that healing is possible. True, there will always be scars, but those scars can become a source of strength and healing for many.

Last year, J. D. Vance raised his voice to tell his story of how the culture he grew up in impacted and shaped his life in his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. In the introduction, he wrote: “That is the real story of my life, and that is why I wrote this book. I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it. I want people to understand how upward mobility really feels. And I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.”[2]

Vance talks candidly about his own life experiences and the difficulties faced by so many in the culture of Appalachia. I’m especially fascinated by his interpretation of his life events at this point in his life, since he was 31 years old when he wrote this book. I think of how I made sense of my life events when I was his age; I’ve lived another lifetime (of his, that is) since then. Vance presents a compelling picture, yet I wonder how his understanding will change with time. I’m in no way diminishing the power of his story, but I know from experience that the way he makes sense of it will change. As Kierkegaard once wrote: “It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.” Right now Vance is living forwards; as the years pass, he will be farther down the road, there will be more to see when he looks backwards, his view will change, and so his understanding should be different, more comprehensive. At least, that’s how it’s been for me. Even so, the picture he paints at this point in his life is powerful and telling. I have to admit that reading his story was difficult for me because it triggered so many memories, so many deep emotions. I was drawn back into a time I had no desire to relive. Others have told me they read his story and thought, ‘Wow! Do people really experience things like that?’ I read thinking how well he told my story—a part of it, at least. Many times I had to stop reading. Emotional triggers—another reason telling our story, lifting our voices proves challenging.

As I said, there are many reasons it can be difficult talk openly about the truth, but there’s one more I’d like to focus on before I move on with my story. It has less to do with bravery than with shame and a sense of failure; it too has caused me a lot of inner turmoil, made me want to hide, caused me to remain silent. As I did before, I’ll turn to the words of another who went through this struggle to help me express it: Henri Nouwen. For you readers who have not heard of him, Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest, professor, and theologian. He was also a writer whose books on social justice, spiritual life, and living in community have touched, and continue to touch, the lives of countless people. In the introduction to his deeply personal book, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish To Freedom, Nouwen wrote:

“This book is my secret journal. It was written during the most difficult period of my life, from December 1987 to June 1988. That was a time of extreme anguish, during which I wondered whether I would be able to hold on to my life. Everything came crashing down—my self-esteem, my energy to live and work, my sense of being loved, my hope for healing, my trust in God…everything. Here I was, a writer about the spiritual life, known as someone who loves God and gives hope to people, flat on the ground and in total darkness. What had happened? I had come face to face with my own nothingness. It was as if all that had given my life meaning was pulled away and I could see nothing in front of me but a bottomless abyss.”[3]

When I read these words, I connected immediately, and my spirit breathed the words, ‘Yes! That’s it! He sees…he knows…I’m not alone in this.” I read on, watching to see how he came through this “time of extreme anguish.” I took note as he spoke about how long it took him to be able to share this experience with others after he emerged into the light. Friends encouraged him to share his struggle through his writings in the journal, but he couldn’t, not for a while. Not for eight years:

“…when, eight years later,…I read my secret journal again, I was able to look back at that period of my life and see it as a time of intense purification that had led me gradually to a new inner freedom, a new hope, and a new creativity. The ‘spiritual imperatives’ I had put down now seemed less private and even possibly of some value to others…friends encouraged me not to hide this painful experience from those who have come to know me through my various books on the spiritual life. They reminded me that the books I had written since my period of anguish could not have been written without the experience I had gained by living through that time. They asked, ‘Why keep this away from those who have been nurtured by your spiritual insights? Isn’t it important for your friends close by and far away to know the high cost of these insights? Wouldn’t they find it a source of consolation to see that light and darkness, hope and despair, love and fear are never very far from each other, and that spiritual freedom often requires a fierce spiritual battle?’”

There it is, in that last statement: the truth that a fierce spiritual battle is not something to be avoided, not a sign of lack of faith or failure. Instead, walking into and through this kind of struggle can lead us farther and deeper into hope, and love, and spiritual freedom. Sharing our experiences can be “a source of consolation” for others. I have so much more to say about this, but later.

I’ve enlisted the help of other voices to help me bring to light these reasons that I, for one, retreated into silence. Reading their words, seeing their willingness to speak gives me courage and comfort, lets me know I’m not alone. But now it’s time for me to lift up my own voice once again as I move forward in my story.


[1] The Prince of Tides: A Novel; Pat Conroy (Open Road Integrated Media, 2010)

[2] Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis; J. D. Vance (HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2016)

[3] The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish To Freedom; Henri Nouwen (Image Books, Doubleday Publishers, 1996).