How Can I Write About It If I Wasn’t There? Eight Tips for Writing about Dissociation
When people write about traumatic events, a question that often comes up is, “What if I don’t remember what happened? What if I was dissociated at the time? How can I recreate an event effectively on the page if there’s a blank spot where the memory should be?” This is a vital question for memoirists because it’s common for people to cope with traumatic events by “going away,” disappearing, or dissociating. People often report watching the event that was occurring from a distance, as if they were up on the ceiling dispassionately watching the action unfolding beneath them. “It was like watching a movie happening to someone else.” They witness the event but can’t feel it. Or they report just feeling “blank” or “gone.”
As a little girl, I dissociated regularly when I was being sexually abused by my grandfather. The moment he reached under my nightgown, I’d send my mind soaring out the window or disappear into the light on the wall. Dissociating became a habit I spent years in therapy trying to break. With practice and intention, I learned to tolerate staying present more of the time. Yet even now, when there’s major stress going on in my life, when I’m confronted about something, or even when something moderately unpleasant is happening, it’s still easy for me to automatically check out, leave my body, or “go away,” so that I don’t have to feel the sensations, be conscious of what’s happening, or experience the terror, fear, shame, or discomfort that go with it.
Yet when we write about our lives, the same traumatic or challenging moments that we escape via dissociation often play a pivotal role in the story we want to tell. These intense moments frequently represent turning points for our character—life was one way before they happened and different afterwards. They’re significant moments that shaped us. And if they’re germane to the story we’re telling, they need to be included—not necessarily all of them, but a representative sampling that gives the reader a visceral sense of what we went through.
In order to write a scene that readers will feel and remember, we can’t just report on what happened to us, we have to include vivid sensory detail so we can put readers right in the room with us. So, the question remains, how can we do this when we were psychically absent, when our minds were elsewhere, when there are whole swaths of time we just don’t remember?
Many techniques can help us bridge these gaps. I’m going to list eight of my favorites and then share several examples where dissociation is effectively rendered on the page.
- Start by writing what you do know. Use writing practice or freewriting to write about everything you do remember about the time surrounding the period in which you dissociated. Write about everything you recall leading up to the blank spot and everything you recall that happened afterwards. Write around the dissociative episode. Get as close to the empty place as you can. As you write about the “before” and “after” times, you may find that you remember more, though those memories usually come in disjointed fragments, not in a continuous flow—more like individual pieces of a mostly empty jigsaw puzzle.
- Utilize the prompt, “I don’t remember.” Do a 30-minute free write using the repeating prompt “I don’t remember.” Things like: I don’t remember who else was in the room. I don’t remember if it was spring or summer. I don’t remember what she said to me as she unlocked the door. I don’t remember what I felt. And so on. Try throwing in a “I do remember…” every once in a while. Alternating these two prompts. “I remember” and “I don’t remember,” can lead to a powerful piece of writing. It is possible to evocatively write about what you don’t know in a way that pulls in readers, getting them invested in your struggle to fill in the blanks.
- Draw a floor plan of the location where the event occurred. You don’t have to be an artist to do this. Draw out what you remember—how the apartment was laid out, the furniture in the bedroom, the alley leading up to the door, the inside of the car, what the train trestle looked like. Draw what you can—don’t worry about scale or accuracy. Once you’ve made your initial sketch, jot down on your floor plan any sounds you heard indoors or outside (the tick of a clock, the sound of CBS News in the background, a lawn mower outside the window), any words or phrases that were spoken, any smells you can recall—the acrid smell of sweat, the sweet yeasty smell of the bakery down the street. Don’t worry if you draw a blank. If the location was familiar to you (say, a room in your childhood home), try to recall what it looked like or sounded like or smelled like at another time. Knowing where you were, imagine what you might have heard or seen or smelled. Write it all on your floor plan. In trying this exercise, you may draw a blank or you may find that more details and sense impressions come back to you. Even one newly discovered sensory detail can be used to build a whole scene around.
- Share the fact that you dissociated with the reader. Write about your experience of dissociation (you’ll see some excellent examples below). If the reader knows you “left,” they’ll recognize that something terrible must have happened.
- Study your own dissociative habits. If dissociation is still part of your life, even in subtle ways, notice what happens when you dissociate now. Do you stare out the window? Stroke the edge of a silky blanket? Count in your head? Imagine you’re a bird? Count the cracks on the ceiling? Or think about what you’re going to cook for breakfast when X is over? Is this a strategy you also used in the past that you can embed in your writing?
- Trust the reader to fill in the blanks. As an example, if you’re writing about rape, you don’t have to share all the details in order for the reader to “get it.” If you utilize the few details you do recall around the edges of the incident (the kind of sneakers the rapist wore, the strong smell of cut grass, the way he carefully folded his glasses and put them on the nightstand), and then focus on your dissociation, the reader will fill in the rest.
- When writing about traumatic events, fewer details are more effective. If you include too many traumatic details, you may lose the reader—possibly traumatizing her (and yourself) in the process.
- Try to identify one salient detail of your story that you do remember and use that to tell the story of the dissociative incident. See the example where I write about my grandfather’s gift of candy below.
Before moving on to examples, I want to give a trigger warning. All of them have to do with sexual abuse, in one case by a teacher and in the second, by a grandfather.
In this first excerpt from the novel, My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell, the protagonist, a fifteen-year-old girl, has been groomed and seduced by her boarding school teacher, Strane. In this edited version of the scene, she’s home visiting her parents, having a clandestine phone conversation with Strane in her childhood bedroom. I’ve put Russell’s description of the protagonist’s dissociation in bold.
“What are you wearing?” he asks.
My eyes dart to the door and I hold my breath, listening for any sounds from my parents’ bedroom. “Pajamas.”
“Like the ones I bought you?”
I say no, laugh at the thought of wearing something like those in front of my parents.
“Tell me what they’re like,” he says.
I look down at the pattern of dog faces, fire hydrants, and bones. “They’re stupid,” I say. “You wouldn’t like them.”
“Take them off,” he says.
“It’s too cold.” I keep my voice light, feign naïveté, but I know what he wants me to do.
“Take them off.”
He waits; I don’t move. When he asks, “Did you?” I lie and say yes.
It goes on from there, him telling me what to do and me not doing any of it but letting him believe I am. I stay indifferent, a little annoyed, until he starts saying, “You’re a baby, a little girl.” Then something in me shifts. I don’t touch myself, but I close my eyes and let my stomach flutter while I think about what he’s doing and that he’s thinking about me while he does it.
“Will you do something for me?” he asks. “I want you to say something. Just a few words. Will you say a few words for me?”
I open my eyes. “Ok.”
There’s some muffling, like he’s moving the phone from one ear to the other. “I want you to say ‘I love you, Daddy.’”
For a second, I laugh. It’s just so ridiculous. Daddy. I don’t call my own father that, can’t ever remember calling him that, but as I laugh my mind flies out of me and I don’t find it funny anymore. I don’t find it anything. I’m empty, gone.
“Go on,” he says. “I love you, Daddy.”
I say nothing, eyes fixed on my bedroom door.
“Just once.” His voice haggard and rough.
I feel my lips move and static fills my head, white noise so loud I barely hear the sounds my mouth makes or the sounds of Strane—heavy breathing and groans. He asks me to say it again, and again my mouth forms the words, but it’s just my body, not my brain.
I’m far away. I’m airborne, freewheeling, the way I was the day he touched me for the first time, back when I soared across campus like a comet with a maple-red tail. Now I fly out of the house, into the night, through the pines and across the frozen lake where the water moves and moans beneath the ice. He asks me to again say the words. I see myself in earmuffs and white skates, gliding across the surface, followed by a shadow underneath the foot-thick ice—Strane, swimming along the murky bottom, his screams muted to groans.
His labored breathing stops and I land back in my bedroom. He’s finished; it’s over.
Strane clears his throat. “Well, I better let you go,” he says.
After he hangs up, I throw the phone and it breaks open, batteries rolling across the floor. I lie in bed for a long time, awake but unmoving, eyes fixed on the blue shadows, my mind full of nothing, glassy and still enough to skate on.
In a later scene, the protagonist and Strane are in bed together. As he goes down on her, she once again disappears:
As Strane works at me, part of me leaves the bedroom and wanders into the kitchen, where the cup he drank from lies tipped over in the sink. The faucet drips; the refrigerator hums. The kitten pads in from the living room, wanting to be held. Standing by the window, the broken-off part of me takes the kitten in her arms, gazes down at the quiet street below. It’s started to storm, a streetlight’s orange glow illuminating the sheets of rain, and the broken-off part of me watches it fall, humming softly to herself to block out the sounds coming from the bedroom. Every so often, she holds her breath and listens to check if it’s still happening. When she hears the metal scrape of the bed frame, the slap of skin on skin, she holds the kitten closer, turns back to the rain.
You can see how effective it is to focus on where she goes when she dissociates rather than the details of the encounter. Russell gives us the impact of the abuse rather than the details—a far more impactful choice.
In this example from my memoir, The Burning Light of Two Stars, I minimized the details of the incest with my grandfather because I dissociated while it was happening. I couldn’t play it back like a movie I could report on, even if I’d wanted to. But I knew that this pivotal moment needed to be included in my book. So, I faced a dilemma—how to do it?
I chose to vividly portray the events leading up to the incest and afterwards, but I only gave a cursory indication of what my grandfather actually did to me. I focused instead on how I dissociated while it was occurring—and in the aftermath—by focusing on the most vivid detail I did remember—the candy my grandfather gave me. In this scene, the light that I reference was kept on because my grandparents were Orthodox Jews and on Shabbos, lights couldn’t be turned on or off—so they were left on the whole time.
After I climbed into bed, Poppa sat beside me. In the street below, teenagers laughed and joked in Spanish—the sounds outside always louder than the pale echo of voices from the kitchen. Pulleys screeched on squeaky wheels as mothers pulled laundry from clotheslines. Soon they’d be folding T-shirts and pants, fresh from the line.
It was story time.
In broken English, Poppa told me the story about a skunk and a railroad car. At the end, the skunk sprayed. That was the punch line. Each time he told the story, he folded the blanket back—one fold, two folds, three folds—and I sent my mind out onto the fire escape, soaring over the clotheslines. I stared at the burning light that stayed on because it was a holy time. If I stared hard enough and scrunched my eyes tight, I could forget I had a body. That way, when Poppa reached under my nightgown, I wasn’t really there.
I came back as he fastened his belt and folded the blanket on top of me—three, two, one. Quiet as a stone, I watched him open the top dresser drawer to pull out our special blue roll of Life Savers. Peppermint. I opened my mouth wide, and with rough fingers, Poppa placed a single round candy on my tongue.
Paul and I each got a box of Chiclets gum when we left BPNY, but the Life Saver was special, just for me. It was our secret. Poppa never had to say, Don’t tell. He didn’t have to. The sweet melting candy was my yes. And so, I never told anyone. I never told Mom. I never told Dad. Not that night and not all the other nights. I buried the memories so far inside that I could no longer reach them.
Once the Life Saver was centered on my tongue, I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep so Poppa would go away. This part of the ritual was mine and mine alone. Lying perfectly still, I let the candy dissolve. That was my rule: Don’t crunch it or bite it or crush it, even accidentally. I kept my mouth relaxed on the inside and made my tongue go slack, so the little wafer could get thinner and thinner without cracking. Swallowing was not allowed. I had to make the Life Saver last until it melted completely, but no matter how hard I tried, it always broke. Sometimes it lasted all the way till the last moment, when it was so thin, it almost disappeared, but by then there was so much saliva in my mouth that I had to swallow, and the pressure of my tongue on the roof of my mouth—even for a second—split the slight sliver in two.
My ritual with the Life Saver was a form of dissociation—putting my full attention into something that took me out of the room. The term “lifesaver”’ is also poignant in a scene like this when there was no one there to save me, and the inevitable breaking of the Life Saver mirrored my own brokenness. In this way, focusing on the detail I remembered most vividly gives the reader the full impact of what happened without including graphic (or forgotten) details of the abuse.
And in this last example, in the scene where I finally reveal to my mother, as a young adult, that her father abused me, I play with the themes of dissociation throughout: “going away” when the conversation is going poorly and coming back when it’s going well. When my mother expresses empathy for me, I come rushing back into my body:
Mom crooned the ancient song of mothers comforting their children. “Oh my God,” or “Oh, honey.” Something like that, but I couldn’t hear because of the rushing in my ears. I shut my eyes. Floated out of my body.
“Darling, I’m so sorry.”
Did she just say she was sorry? My God, she believes me! I don’t have to face this alone. I snapped back into my body, and the room came back into focus: My desk. My computer. My bed. My books. My weight on the bed. I was right to tell her. It’s all going to be okay. I can depend on Mom.
Writing about dissociative incidents presents a unique creative challenge. But if you include the reader in your struggle to remember, write about what you do know, and include salient details surrounding the incident, you can create powerful, viscerally engaging scenes that will engage and hook your reader, despite the fact that you weren’t fully there when they happened.
Laura Davis is the author of The Burning Light of Two Stars, the story of her loving yet tumultuous relationship with her mother, and six other non-fiction books, including The Courage to Heal, Allies in Healing, I Thought We‘d Never Speak Again, and Becoming the Parent You Want to Be. Her groundbreaking books have been translated into 11 languages and sold 1.8 million copies.
Laura is presenting a six-day in-person workshop “How to Write About What You Don’t Remember” at Rowe Center May 15-20, 2022, appropriate for anyone wanting to learn more about the craft of memoir, especially those struggling to fill in gaps in their narrative.