Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

BooksJune 27, 2021

The book that freed me to put my story into the world

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

Charlotte Grimshaw’s The Mirror Book emboldened an instinct for connection at a time when darkness threatened to overwhelm, writes Polly Lang.

I used to think that I would never have a story to tell. As a child I loved reading the history volume of a set of 1960s encyclopedias we had at home, contrasting the lives of the people within its pages with my own, theirs exciting and dramatic and therefore worth recording, mine mundane and predictable and likely of interest to no-one. I don’t know quite what I thought a life required to become a story, but it had to contain something that elevated it above the everyday and ordinary. Otherwise, what was the point of telling it?

Recently, I went from not having a story to having a big one. My safe and comfortable life turned dangerous and bewildering and my assumptions and certainties were exposed as delusions when my marriage unexpectedly ended in a welter of infidelity and abuse that played out painfully over most of 2020. I eventually left my wife, and soon that initial sense of empowerment, bolstered by anger, slowly turned into a bleak and hollow grief that left me shuffling through each day. I felt worse than I had in my darkest times before I left and I realised this was because I no longer lived with a sense of hope. In the time before, I always hoped things could be made right, that we could do the hard work to understand where things had gone wrong and heal the wounds of infidelity and abuse. Once that hope had truly gone, I was empty and lost. 

The end of a relationship that you thought was forever is a kind of death and the grief is commensurate with this degree of loss. My grief was shot through with abuse-induced trauma, and I struggled to stay upright and keep walking. I was frightened that I would fall over and not get back up. At the same time I was frightened that I could not afford to fall over and stay there, that I had to stay upright, work to pay the bills and be a good mother to my son. How do you keep going when you feel so low and without hope, when your life has become a locked and windowless room in which you stumble around in the dark without any sense of direction?

Telling your story can open the locked room and let light through the door so everyone can see. In simple terms, a story is a narration of a sequence of events. Order is imposed on these events so they make sense, not only to a listener, but also the teller. A story is a record. This thing happened to me. I decided to tell my story, now that I had a good one. It was supremely interesting, cinematic in its drama and personal tragedy, a tale of love, sex, infidelity and abuse that began in the crucible of lockdown. I realised that many people would have gone into lockdown knowing they were going to get the shit kicked out of them, and that others would have been like me and had the nastiest of surprises. My story would resonate with them (this thing happened to me too) and intrigue or dismay the more fortunate ones. 

It could not be a journal exercise. Though I had to somehow make sense of my experience, with the written word my chosen medium, I didn’t want to talk to myself. I had a powerful need for my story to be validated out in the world. When it was unfolding I felt so alone; when it was done I had to be heard. I know this happened to you.

I sat up in bed one Saturday night with my laptop open and the words poured through my fingertips in one go. Over the next couple of months I tinkered and refined. Here was my story. But telling your story can be perilous, especially when it involves other people behaving badly. Questions of what right? and whose story? arise. It may be parsed for evidence of unwholesome vengeance, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, dirty laundry and skeletons. I questioned the wisdom of publicising my humiliation and exposing behaviour I would ordinarily have been very private about. 

Then I heard that the writer Charlotte Grimshaw had published a memoir excavating her famous literary family’s history and relationships. My interest was immediately piqued. Her book felt like a sign. A personal betrayal similar to mine had blown the lid off the safe and secure adult life she had constructed, and the resulting trauma caused her to question the family narrative laid down by her mother and father. The lovely childhood in a house full of books was in fact a story of screaming matches, cold silences, infidelity, parental neglect, near-drownings and tragedy. Her love and devotion is threaded through the story, yet she skewers her parents with her quietly beautiful but penetrating prose. 

I heard Charlotte say on the radio, “I’ll write a book and then they’ll understand.” She also said, “I’ll do anything for them except maybe not publish a book.” My love story was over and I wouldn’t do anything for her again. But I would publish a story and I would do it for myself. As I read The Mirror Book I came to see Charlotte Grimshaw as my guide. On the first page she wrote of “the destructive effect of silence and the restorative power of narrative”. She understood that when you are a writer and something life-changing happens to you, you will write about it. And that if your story is well told, you will publish it. So that’s what I did. My Lockdown Story was published by The Spinoff on Anzac Day, with its blood-red poppies and all that remembering. 

Book cover, mostly black and white, featuring a portrait of Charlotte Grimshaw
The Mirror Book (Image: Supplied)

A belief exists that telling your story is cathartic, that the act of writing is a way of processing strong emotions, and that the full stop after the last word triggers a healing release of those emotions. The processing part is true. My crisis was utterly bewildering when it was in full flight and writing about it has allowed me to retrospectively impose some order onto a chaotic time. Telling my story to the world after being abused by someone I loved and trusted was a way of gaining some control over the narrative of my life. But life is never so tidy that composing a collection of words could be like waving a magic wand and making the pain disappear. Recovery from abuse is a stilted thing, made of slow steps forward and back and forward again. No one act will make things better on its own. 

The power of personal storytelling following trauma lies not so much in catharsis as in connection. Charlotte knows this when she says, “someone heard your protests, and acknowledged they were valid.” I knew it when a close friend went to be with her friend, whose husband had left without warning, and that friend started telling her about an essay she had read on The Spinoff. When someone posted the link in a Facebook group and other queer women said that this had been their lockdown story too. When wāhine toa Jackie Clark of The Aunties retweeted the essay. I worried about screaming into a void, but in fact I had shouted into a crowd and was heard loud and clear. 

I wrote to Charlotte after my essay was published to thank her for giving me the confidence to tell my story. I hoped for a response but had no expectation that I would get one. I should have known that I would, because she had already declared how important acknowledgement is. She told me many people had written to her and that she was delighted her book had been so helpful. “What could be better?” she asked. When you write, you think you are doing it for yourself (you are) but when you publish, you are also doing it for other people who have had a similar experience. There is valuable solidarity in this.  

Maybe there is something in my early belief that a quiet and calm life does not add up to a compelling story. What is there to learn from such a life, even though it is much nicer to live? My writer’s mind is fired up by my experience. Just as Charlotte would not have written a memoir if her husband had stayed true and her parents were the warm and fuzzy creators of a lovely childhood set in a house full of books, I would not have written an essay if my wife had been faithful and kind and my lockdown was all sourdough and Yoga with Adriene. This is not to excuse or trivialise abuse; I simply recognise that human shittiness and suffering are painfully gripping topics, and that trauma can fuel creativity. 

It is deeply ironic that in order to tell my story and be heard, I had to publish it under a pseudonym. Because there was no love left, no happy ending, I couldn’t write as openly as Charlotte did. I still can’t. This is not to underestimate the risk she has taken in publishing her memoir. It is hard to imagine that such a fractious, adversarial family would tolerate a public examination of its organising mythology and allow it to go unpunished, even if it was done out of love. I have been the beneficiary of her risk-taking. Reading The Mirror Book was a form of therapy, and I came to it with a question: is it ok to tell my story? She replied: telling your story is existentially important. There can be no more powerful affirmation than that. Thank you, Charlotte.

Keep going!