Photo by Jane Ely
As part of my 80th birthday celebration I chose to do a vision quest—four days and four nights alone in the wilderness, with no phone, books, watch, or digital devices. I hoped being alone, with no distractions, and only a journal to write in, would enable me to shed emotional and psychological burdens I’d carried for years.
There were months of preparation—making 144 prayer ties filled with cornmeal and tobacco, monthly visits with the vision quest leader, a 12-hour mini-vision quest in a nearby forest, preparation with our retreat leaders and the group for two days before beginning the vision quest, yet nothing prepared me for what happened.
We entered our designated location at 5am and I immediately slept for hours, lulled by the sounds of the forest. I was woken by a voice inside me telling me it was time to get started.
What I did during the four days and nights is considered medicine, not to be shared. What I can say is that each time the voice told me to do something, like stamp on dead branches, memories of my early childhood surfaced—memories of horror and abuse and murderous violence—of living away from home. At times, experiences I’d been told never happened. Other times, experience for which I was blamed. I understood the abuse was not my fault, that for years I’d had a metaphorical sign on my chest saying, “Abuse me.” I left it all in the wilderness.
At the retreat center we processed what we had experienced. When it was my turn, I began to cry for the first time since I was 16 and had been refused entry into a school club because I was Jewish. The other retreat participants waited with calm, waited until I was ready to speak. I told the truth of some of the abuse, how it had scarred me, how I never felt good enough or lovable. They listened with no judgment, many quietly crying. When I finished there was a perceptible silence. Had I said too much? Had I said the wrong thing?
As a group they came over to me, offering hugs, encouragement, kindness, caring. For the first time I felt part of a group. For the first time I felt good enough.
Once one knows something, one cannot unknow it. What I experienced doing the vision quest made it possible for me to continue healing, by choosing to be with people who treat me well and with kindness. I’m still learning how to feel good enough.
Nancy was joined by friends and readers Live on Zoom for the virtual launch of her latest book and memoir: Breaking the Silence. Nancy did not read from the book directly, opting instead to tell some of her life's story and some of the stories she has picked up along the way as she would have recounted them to a friend. In the Q & A session, she talks about how this memoir came to be, how writing this book has been a part of her healing journey, and what she hopes this book can do for those who read it.
I think I was born a storyteller. At first, when I was young, I hid in as safe a place as possible and told stories to myself. I imagined saving children from evil monsters, floods, fires, and parents who abandoned them in the forest. As I grew older, I noticed that when I told stories, students stopped what they were doing and calmed down, adults listened attentively. I told world stories that featured brave heroines, murderous queens and incestuous kings.
I discovered that telling stories helped create a kind of community no matter the ages of the listeners and this helped people feel connected to one another and to me. I later realized that what was happening in my life found its way into the stories I was telling. When my son was in the hospital, not knowing if he would live or die, I told Cinderella, focusing on the hardships she suffered, her disbelief in fairy godmothers, her depression—the bleakness of her life. A few weeks later, when my son was out of the hospital, I easily focused on how quickly Cinderella responded to her fairy godmother, the wonderful ways in which her life changed. Both times I told the same story, but how I was feeling personally worked its way into my storytelling.
Stories matter—all stories, whether they’re world tales or personal stories. Stories are how I make sense of the world and help to create the person I am.
I began what I thought would be my sixth novel, but everything I wrote turned out to be stories of my life. Disgusted by my lack of ability to control my imagination, I gave in and wrote what poured out. The more I wrote the more deeply I remembered. As I typed, first person present tense, it felt like I was typing from a theatre in my mind. I could taste, smell, feel, touch, see each happening as if for the first time. Some memories were very painful, full of horror. I kept the chapters short, allowing the energy of each memory to dictate what and how much I wrote.
After I had about 300 pages, I sent the manuscript to my editor who told me, “Nancy, the writing is fine, but I can’t figure out where I am in your life. How old are you? Where are you? Why does this chapter matter? You need to revise it so your writing is chronological.”
Once the chapters were arranged chronologically, I understood the arc of my memoir was about healing from trauma, abuse, and violence, beginning before I was born. Writing opened mental barriers long closed by pain and disbelief. The more I wrote, the more I understood how unknown forces acting on me had resulted in making bad decisions that I knew were bad at the time. Writing released body memories and freed me from the emotional and psychological grasp of lies told by family members. I understood that I was able to use my wounds to help heal the wounds of others.
I sent the new draft to my editor. She asked, “How are you going to end it? Happily ever doesn’t quite do it.” Finding a satisfying ending was agony. I wrote so many ending chapters, that had I been printing out each chapter I discarded, my wastepaper basket would have been overflowing.
I wanted to end the memoir with some sense of how “old age” was proving to be the best time of my life. I wanted the last chapter to be about love and loving. It came to me, there was only one way to end the book—with an experience I had with a very young child in a small Peruvian village. An encounter of love and warmth and total acceptance that still lives in my heart.