How Writing Poetry Helped Me Reckon with Child Sexual Abuse
March 2, 2022
This essay was written for CHILD USA by Phil Goldstein.

Phil Goldstein is a poet, journalist and content marketer. His debut poetry collection, How to Bury a Boy at Sea, is being released by Stillhouse Press in April. His poetry has been nominated for a Best of the Net award and has appeared in or is forthcoming in The Laurel Review, Rust + Moth, Two Peach, 2River View, Awakened Voices, The Indianapolis Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal and elsewhere. By day, he works as a senior editor for a content marketing agency, writing about government technology. He currently lives in Alexandria, Va., with his wife, Jenny, and their animals: a dog named Brenna, and two cats, Grady and Princess.

 

I’ve been writing since I was a kid. When I was 6, I remember writing a story on loose-leaf paper about two brothers who owned a pizza shop and fought off an alien invasion by baking the aliens in their pizza ovens.

I started writing poetry in 7th grade and kept writing it through the angsty teen poetry phase and into college. My writing dropped off after I graduated college and started working, and I didn’t think much about poetry. I never imagined it would be the thing that would help save my life.

From the time I was 10 to about 12 and a half, my older brother molested me. I never told anyone about what happened because of a complex mixture of feelings: shame, guilt, fear. I never spoke about it and I never wrote about it, not even in a journal. I wanted to pretend like it never happened.

In 2018, after I started seeing a therapist who specializes in trauma to help me reckon with the abuse, I began writing poetry again to help me process different feelings and reactions that were surfacing in my therapy: sadness, anger, guilt, frustration, pain, and a longing to help my child self, to let him know that he was not at fault for what was being done to him, and that he was not alone.

After I had written a dozen or two poems, the woman who was then my girlfriend and is now my wife encouraged me to think about writing more, and maybe putting them together as a book. Maybe it could help other survivors, she told me.

Over the course of the next year, I wrote more poems, had a dear friend who is a published poet edit them and refine my manuscript, and then I started sending the manuscript to publishers and poetry contests.

In April, my debut poetry collection, How to Bury a Boy at Sea, will be published and I’m still in a state of disbelief that it will be a real book out in the world. Writing this book was incredibly challenging and difficult at times, but I am so glad I did it. Writing, along with the support of my wife, therapists and loved ones, helped sustain me and heal me after I broke the silence about the abuse.

Beyond readers appreciating the aesthetics of the poetry, I hope it can be used as a healing tool for survivors, their loved ones, therapists, and educators. And I hope it helps other survivors, especially male survivors, feel less alone and more understood.

I think poetry can be just as powerful, if not more powerful, than journaling or writing a memoir if you are trying to process a trauma like child sexual abuse. Poetry allows you to approach feelings, memories, and experiences from multiple angles and personas, and even refract all of those back on themselves. It enables you to bend time, to focus in on a specific moment and draw it out as long as you want. Above all, poetry allows you to focus on evoking an emotion in yourself and in anyone reading your work. It is a powerful tool for processing trauma and I’m so glad I turned to it.

Poetry was my outlet for addressing the abuse I experienced, but it is certainly not the only way one can process trauma. Drawing, painting, dance, music and other forms of creative writing can be extremely beneficial in helping survivors of trauma process and heal. Organizations such as Awakenings focus specifically on showcasing art from survivors of sexual violence. I urge you to find whatever works best for you, art or otherwise, to heal.

I recently started Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and the therapist noted that I had indicated that I had not done any journaling in my healing journey prior to us meeting. She told me that my poetry was really a form of journaling. And I suppose that is true. It allowed me to reckon with what happened to me, to forgive myself, and to heal. For that, I will be forever grateful.