Friday, October 5, 2018

The Brain Protects Us from Fear

I don't directly use personal life events in my writing, though of course I write from the perspective of my experiences. I've wrestled the last two weeks with whether to discuss one incident, and finally decided it could help others see a familiar face in the age of #MeToo.

First, I'm fine. What happened to me changed some personal  behavior, but not my life trajectory.

In my late twenties, I lived in a suburban neighborhood in Rockville, Maryland. Many evenings I took a brisk walk on the street that ran in front of my house -- a busy one.

One evening, a male jogger approached from the opposite direction. Nothing unusual. As he reached me, he stuck out one arm, roughly grabbed my left breast, squeezed, and then kept running. I stopped, but just for a second, before walking faster to get home. I feel certain that I didn't look back.

Home was a ranch house I'd bought to accommodate my mom's wheelchair, so she, my dad, and I lived together. I assume I did as most nights and said hello and went to my bedroom in the back of the house to change.

I do remember sitting on the bed, stunned, to process what had happened. (Such a neutral word, process.) After a short time, I began to think about what to tell the police.

Then reality hit. I could remember nothing about the man who groped me except that his hand was white.

Not. One. Other. Thing.

He had passed within inches of me five minutes prior. Was he clean-shaven or did he have a beard? Was he wearing shorts or longer pants? What color shirt? Tall or short? Solidly built or slim? Nothing. In retrospect, I suppose he had on a shirt, because I think (?) I would have remembered a bare chest.

Eventually I spoke to a therapist, but I didn't call the police. I should have, but I was embarrassed at how little I could tell them. I was a smart woman who had a responsible job, loving family, and lots of friends. I should have been able to describe the man.

I can't tell you the date other than it wasn't winter and had to be between mid-1979 and 1985, because that's when I lived in that house. I might figure out a date range because soon after I joined a health club. Why? Because I was afraid to walk on that street. I never did so again. The street in front of my own home.

The therapist explained that the lack of memory was my brain's way of protecting me. He said it more eloquently, but that was his essential point.

Like most assault survivors, I told few people. I had no guilt other than not remembering enough to tell the police. I didn't tell my parents because they would have been terrified every time I went into the front yard. The couple girlfriends with whom I discussed it were sympathetic, but we'd read worse stories in The Washington Post.

Eventually I stopped thinking about it ten or fifteen times a day, and then I 'only' thought about it when I read about someone else being groped.

Since the #MeToo movement, I've remembered it more often, but distance (and the lack of intense trauma) do not bring the emotional terror that many survivors of sexual assault feel. I'm still angry.
Two times is too many.

Why write this? I don't find it the least odd that Dr. Ford remembers few details of her assault. That she didn't want to tell her parents she'd attended a party with beer served makes perfect sense to me. And why would she talk about it a lot afterwards? Who wants to relive terrifying experiences?

I had the benefit of being in my late twenties and self-assured. I sometimes wonder if I sold that house after six years because, subconsciously, I wanted to be away from that event. Don't know, don't care to think about it anymore.

At least I have that option. The trauma others suffered is not so easily dismissed, and we all know what happens when they confront their assailants. #WhyIDidn'tReport


Monday, October 1, 2018

Hank Philippi Ryan Teaches in Indianapolis

Hank Phillippi Ryan's talk to the Speed City Sisters in Crime on September 29 stressed how structuring a book well can keep a reader turning pages. True, we know a book has a beginning, middle and end --and you try to write so people aren't looking forward to the end.

Thinking of those three segments as distinct acts with separate purposes is a useful way to plan a story (even if you don't do a detailed outline) or assess a draft. Ryan suggested these distinctions for a mystery or thriller. They apply to other genres as well.

Act 1:  Establishes key characters (especially the protagonist), the environment in which they operate, the problem to solve, and why it matters that the situation be resolved. The sleuth knows what she wants to accomplish and readers learn her values. The act ends with something that propels the book to Act 2.

Act 2: The problem the protagonist faces, and efforts to solve them, become even more important. Obstacles keep resolution at bay, and the reader finds twists and red herrings. In a mystery, the bad guy realizes the good guy is after him, and begins to obstruct efforts to find him. Characters evolve and subplots may become more prominent at times. At the end of the act, something huge happens.

Act 3: The highest level of dramatic conflict takes place. At some point the situation may appear hopeless, but eventually the protagonist overcomes the obstacles and the bad guy gets what's coming to him. The resolution has to make sense. If the reader is surprised because the author hasn't built in clues or laid groundwork for the mystery's resolution, the reader will feel cheated.

Two general points were: watch out for dialogue that is simply chatter rather than advancing the action; and give the reader visual pictures, as if they're watching a move. That doesn't mean describe every room or article of clothing in detail. A couple of pertinent brushstrokes can paint the picture.

Ryan peppered her presentation with examples from many books. My dry retelling of her talk doesn't do it justice.

Ryan offers regular advice on a multi-author blog, Career Authors. I reviewed a number of her articles, and found they usually address ways to keep the reader engaged -- through effective use of point of view, ensuring that unneeded conversation comes out of a draft, and ending chapters (especially the first) in a way to propel readers forward. Add your name to the site's mailing list for regular updates.

And do pick up a couple of her books, thinking as you read. Read once to follow the action, and a second time to think about why the characters and plot 'work.'

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