Kimberly Ann Priest is the author of Slaughter the One Bird, finalist in the American Best Book Awards, and chapbooks The Optimist Shelters in Place, Parrot Flower, and Still Life. She is an associate poetry editor for Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry and assistant professor at Michigan State University.
In Trauma & Recovery, a book that expertly reviews the dynamics of trauma due to long-term exposure to abuse (among other things), Judith Herman testifies to the empowering nature of unmanaged recovery. “The first principle of recovery,” she says, “is the empowerment of the survivor. She must be the author and arbiter of her own recovery. Others may offer advice, support, assistance, affection, and care, but not cure,” (133). How right she is. And how grateful I am to have been allowed to work through my own recovery, unimpeded, writing poetry in an MA at Central Michigan University and MFA program at New England College.
In these writing programs, I had full freedom and play. There were no restrictions put on my writing or my obsession with my personal narrative. The lack of management during this period of my life facilitated incredible exploration and growth, a deep sense of safety and community and, most importantly, a curated ownership of my story. Here, I began the poems that would make up my books still life and Slaughter the One Bird.
Slaughter, my first full-length book of poems (published July 2021), is a compression of my trauma history from pedophilic assault against my 8-year-old body by a babysitter to the 15 years I spent with an intensely psychologically abusive spouse. After divorce, when I began my MA, I began to reckon with these traumas all at once, and until I read Judith Herman’s conceptualization of domestic violence as domestic captivity, I didn’t really have a solid framework for explaining the intensity of those 15 years that I spent cut off from family, friends, and other social interactions that would have increased my autonomy while raising two kids and having (literally) no assets or money of my own. Herman writes, “…. [r]epeated trauma occurs when the victim is a prisoner, unable to flee, and under the control of the perpetrator. […] In domestic captivity, physical barriers to escape are rare.” Such was my life while married. Captive. And this captivity is what Slaughter is all about.
Likewise, my bodily experience while reliving childhood assault was another form of physiological captivity. In many ways, writing the poems of assault were like rattling the cage and rendering myself free of its confinement. In my writing programs, I shook, bent, and broke the bars and no one told me I couldn’t.
The moment I graduated from my MFA program, I left the safe incubation of those academic poetry communities and stumbled into a world of stigma as well as all the imposed identities and restrictions that come with that. I was still writing the poetry, but the communities I would write with, and read that poetry to, were not as comfortable with my topics. People, meaning well I’m sure, but clearly not aware of the dynamics of domestic captivity or in turn with the needs of a trauma survivor—or simply ashamed of their own stories of trauma—questioned, interrogated, probed, and even accused me of various motives for writing through a traumatic history, heaping a new brand of abuse on the wound still festering from past abuses.
Spring 2020, as I was looking over the first proofs for Slaughter, trepidation set in. My legs even shook during one of my editorial sweeps of the manuscript. Despite the pressure to do otherwise, I has persisted in telling my story exactly as I felt the terror happened, and now, people I didn’t know would be reading my work—my history—in a whole book. I suppose every writer who writes from a place of exposure and damage carries a fear of how others will react; but more than that, American society [and perhaps global society] exhibits incredible discomfort in the presence of the sort of vulnerability my book expresses. There is something deep inside all of us that longs to be unconquerable, to never be exposed as the loser, fraud, failure, or victim. Socially, it’s shameful to admit that we are often powerless and helpless in the wake of evil deeds. The woman in Slaughter doesn’t have the luxury of looking away from her shame or covering it. She feels no way out of her captivity or her traumatized body—and this, I think, is closer to real life than most of us are willing to admit.
Since this book has gone out into the world, I’ve become more aware of the deeply ingrained patterns of avoidance most of us prefer to engaging reality. Many in my community have internalized messages of ableism and abuse that seem to strike visceral terror at the mere thought that they would be known as violated or dysfunctional (according to imposed cultural standards). There are codes of silence dictating what we can and cannot say about evil in the world and how it has wreaked havoc in our lives, and those codes always favor abusers, even though they are mostly established to protect the general population from realizing their fantasies of ease and stability might only be fantasies.
Such is the danger of telling stories of assault. The telling is disruptive. These stories remind that all is not well in the world and, collectively, we bear responsibility for this.
Listening to stories of harm and injustice are a first step toward acknowledging the full range of experiences in the world. Sometimes the role we can play in righting wrongs is very small; mostly it begins with reflection and change in our personal reactions to harm in our immediate circumstances and with our closest companions. Often it begins at an even more internalized space. While reading a book like Slaughter, or any story of injustice, we must ask ourselves how much we have personally adopted false messages about ourselves when we were harmed and the people around us made us complicit to evil through blame, disbelief, and dismissive positivity. Hearing a survivor’s story, or any story of harm, is an invitation into our own stories. This is where the real work begins.
I’m glad I didn’t put my pen down when others’ discomfort burgeoned around me. And while I know a book like Slaughter, or any of my books are not likely to reduce the amount of violence experienced in the world, I do hope that it will help my readers to become more tender to their own stories of harm and assaulted bodies, as well as toward the stories of others who have suffered. I hope that we will become more willing and capable of nurturing the heartbroken and sitting with grief, welcoming the captive without imposition, and learning from those who have been wizened by hardship and pain. I hope we will be less fearful of confronting our fantasies.
Often, throughout my journey to recover what I can from my past, I have felt that the knowledge I have acquired, and my ability to articulate this knowledge creatively, are gifts despite the circumstances that necessitated these discoveries and energies; a gift for myself and others to not only become aware of stories of harm, but to also realize what those harms feel like. Because once you’ve felt it, you can’t unknow its happening.
Herman, Judith, M. D. Trauma & Recovery, Basic Books, 2015.