When I was four, living in New Jersey with my Aunt Ida, Uncle Walter, and cousins Rose and Norman, I was physically and sexually molested by my uncle. Since my bed was in an alcove off their bedroom, and my aunt often woke when my uncle forced me out of my bed during the night, she knew something was wrong but never tried to stop his abuse.
My uncle told me that if I told anyone he would send me away. I was only four. Where would I go? My parents didn’t want me.
My uncle said, “Don’t tell.” I didn’t tell. He didn’t say, “Don’t write.”
I told myself stories and when I learned to write, I wrote stories like the one about an unhappy bunny who runs away from home where she’s treated badly and finds a place to live in the forest. My first-grade teacher asked why I always wrote about animals. “I like animals,” I told her. I was smart enough to know not to write about my life.
What I didn’t say, and couldn’t have known to say at the time, was that writing about animals allowed me to express my feelings yet kept me safe from further harm for telling the truth about my life. My world was dangerous—at home there was constant violence and emotional abuse. Outside, there was virulent anti-Semitism. Writing “safe” stories allowed me to release feelings that were too dangerous to express at home and unwanted at school.
How did you express your feelings when you were younger? And now?
Nancy King is a widely published author and a professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she has taught theater, drama, playwriting, creative writing, and multidisciplinary studies with an emphasis on world literature. She has published seven previous works of nonfiction and five novels. Her new memoir, Breaking the Silence, explores the power of stories in healing from trauma and abuse. Her career has emphasized the use of her own experience in being silenced to encourage students to find their voices and to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with authenticity, as a way to add meaning to their lives.