I wrote a memoir about abuse. That doesn't mean you're entitled to every detail

Gemma Carey
·5-min read

In the weeks since the launch of my memoir on grief and abuse, No Matter Our Wreckage, I have been asking myself a lot of questions. Questions such as, how much can I complain about people overstepping my boundaries when they want more information? What rights to privacy have I given up? To what extent is my consent being ignored, re-enacting the very abuse I wrote about when I am interviewed about the book?

I wrote a memoir about child sexual abuse, so I asked for this. Or did I?

Some of these questions have been prompted by readers, but mostly they have been prompted by the media. In particular, an interview at a radio station which asked for intimate details about the abuse that I found uninformed and uncomfortable, and who gave my mobile number to at least one listener who called in after it aired. The station has since apologised, but my mobile kept me awake through the night as it vibrated with messages from people who had heard the broadcast, reinvoking the anxiety that comes with feeling violated.

Related: Just Ignore Him by Alan Davies review – a life derailed by abuse

A few weeks ago, journalist Ginny Dougary came under fire for her interview in the Nine papers with actor and comedian Alan Davies. Davies recently wrote a memoir that included his story of childhood sexual abuse. So entitled did Dougary feel to the details of that abuse, she wrote an entire article lambasting the fact he wouldn’t discuss them in their interview. Part of Dougary’s reasoning is that “Davies’ memoir and himself are inextricable. The book is himself”.

Dougary is wrong. Davies, like other memoirists, have provided a curated account of parts of their life they think are important to share – for themselves and for other survivors, for those struggling to make sense of their own trauma. We are not reducible to the materials we write, even when it is memoir.

Like Davies, by writing my book I opened the doors of my life and let all those reading it inside. To some extent, I even let readers poke around a bit. But I spent a great deal of time thinking about what I owe the reader. Do you need every salacious detail? Every stomach-churning moment of what it is to live through and with abuse?

This is not trauma porn; our lives are not here for your voyeurism

In the end, I decided that that isn’t where the power of trauma memoir lies. What is important is showing how trauma has flowed through every part of mine and other peoples’ lives – in both good and bad ways. How we learn to live with it. Like Audre Lorde wrote, “It is important to share how I know survival is survival and not just a walk.” At its best, trauma memoir shows you “the walk” so others may follow. But that is not about a chronology of events, of who did what to whom. Some details, quite often, are frankly beside the point.

Writing trauma stories that will change societal narratives around abuse and victims involves showing the contradictions that exist in trauma and grief.

To write a trauma memoir means meeting yourself in the darkness and committing some of that darkness to the page. But it does not necessarily follow that everything we find in that darkness needs to be revealed to others – for one’s own sake, or for the sake of readers. Crucially, it does not mean that people are entitled to know everything you find there.

Trauma writers walk a tricky tightrope. Our stories must be told. They must be heard. If they aren’t things will not change, and others who have suffered similar fates will not know that they are not alone. They will not know that it is perfectly OK to have felt as though you are not quite “normal” because you hold secrets; secrets that mean you alone have to figure out how to put yourself back together. But we cannot tip over the wrong side of the tightrope. This is not trauma porn; our lives are not here for your voyeurism.

I have wondered this last week about the potential of readers and journalists to re-enact the very breaches of consent that trauma memoirists write about in our work. They overstep, they push against our boundaries, then claim it is us who has the problem: you asked for this, you wrote the memoir.

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I worry that not only does this impact the writer, it holds back those who might have come forward – perhaps less publicly than in a book – from telling their own stories. The potential for damage here is real, and its scope is large.

We need survivors to know that it is OK; that it can take a long time to find the words to tell these stories. And that there can be something transformational about both finding them and organising them on the page, or in your mouth, or in any the way you want. I want my readers – professional or otherwise – to know that this also means leaving a few words out. For my sake, and for the sake of those who come after me.

Yes, I wrote the memoir. No, I didn’t ask for this. Just like the woman in the short skirt on the street didn’t asked to be catcalled. Just like the woman who walked home alone in the dark didn’t ask to be raped.

No Matter Our Wreckage by Gemma Carey is out now

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000