Transcending the Trauma: A Conversation with Tracy Strauss

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In her debut memoir, I Just Haven’t Met You Yet, Tracy Strauss chronicles her recovery from childhood sexual abuse. It’s a deeply honest story for anyone who has ever had their body autonomy taken from them without their permission and anyone who seeks to get out of their own way in life and love. Most of all, the book is an act of resistance against a family and a world that told Strauss never to speak of the unspeakable.

Trauma had shaped the trajectory of Strauss’s life in a way that was untenable. “One, day I found myself, a forty-something-year-old single woman, urgently seeking, within the shelves of my local bookstore, solutions to what I saw as my lifelong problem: my inability to meet Mr. Right.” From this singular question, Strauss unwinds the consequences of her father’s abuse, her mother’s complicity, and the resulting PTSD that stood between her and fulfillment. In the form of letters to her future partner interspersed with first-person narrative, the book chronicles Strauss’s adventures looking for love, who she met and what she learned. In between, with the relentless optimism of someone who believes she deserves a life on her own terms, she systematically brings the light of language, truth and compassion to the shame of her abuse, to the transgressions of her mind and body, and most importantly, to her recovery.

I called Strauss at home in Boston, where she writes and teaches college writing. We talked about why opening up about sexual abuse is key to ending it, how the gut is always right, and what she wishes fathers would teach their daughters.

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The Rumpus: What a time to come out with a memoir of sexual abuse, in the midst a national debate over who gets to have power over women’s bodies, and here you are putting your book into the world. How is that?

Tracy Strauss: It is liberating. The book is the story I was told not to tell. By my family, by society and by the publishing industry. The effects of sexual violence are prevalent in our lives, but for so long it was a taboo topic that people didn’t talk about. Now we have a national conversation about abuse, and that opened the door for my book. I spent over a decade trying to get it to a publisher. People were afraid of my book because it talked about trauma—in particular, sexual abuse—and they wouldn’t take it on. I’ve come up against this culturally conditioned fear. The #MeToo movement has helped with this kind of stigma around acknowledging sexual abuse and assault. Now we can speak honestly and have a real conversation, because if I can tell my story others can, too, and then we can liberate each other. When we empower ourselves, we empower each other.

Rumpus: What are the statistics on childhood sexual abuse?

Strauss: One in four girls are sexually abused and one in six boys. I think it’s more frequent than that, because not every experience gets reported. The numbers also may be changing as a result of #MeToo.

Rumpus: You choose to tell your story of recovery from sexual abuse in the form a guide to dating. Why?

Strauss: I was actually writing different parts of this book for many years but didn’t know it. The dating aspect came into play because I was searching for my life partner, and I felt that the things that happened to me changed the trajectory of my life. While my peers were getting married and having kids, I was trying to grapple with what happened to me and how it had affected my life. I was in therapy three times a week, and I thought if I worked hard enough, I, too, could find my life partner and catch up with my peers and be what I thought was “normal.” I still wasn’t finding a partner, and I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong, so I started writing about dating. I had to go through a lot of healing before I could have the perspective to write the whole story, which was a journey to finding my strongest self.

Rumpus: In this memoir, you write openly about the shame of sexual abuse. What was that like?

Strauss: It was hard but necessary. I realized in my relationships and my life and in my writing, that when I didn’t face my deepest feelings or fears or desires or shame, that then became an obstacle for me. I was hiding, because of my shame, and in hiding, I wasn’t able to fully be myself. And that happened on the page too. I was told by a lot of people in the business that I shouldn’t talk about sexual abuse. They called it the “ick.” They couldn’t even use the correct term, sexual abuse. The “ick” was not something that people wanted to read about. It certainly was not something that would get me published. So I also was getting the message my work would not be accepted. I wasn’t being authentic on the page or in my life. I just had to take a leap. I wanted it to be truthful and human. I didn’t want to hold back anymore. I wanted to write in a way that the reader to trust me, and for that to happen, I had to be honest.

Rumpus: I was watching this video where Cheryl Strayed says that writing feels like excavating, and almost always the process entails going back to dig deeper, again and again. She says, “You have to get all the way down to that bottom layer to really do your work.” What was that work like for this book?

Strauss: Given the abuse context, it was really challenging. I wrote everything out, and then I workshopped it. Rather than feedback on the writing itself, I received a wide range of responses to the content—negative reactions like fear, anger, and denial. What it taught me was that I needed to address those reactions through my approach on the page. So while I could do the excavating, I had to make certain deliberate choices in order to disarm these responses.

Rumpus: What kind of choices?

Strauss: There are techniques for this. Some writers choose to be graphic. I felt that less was more, not to minimize the truth, but to convey the truth in a way that doesn’t flood the reader. I began to understand in my recovery the different psychological reactions to trauma, and I would try to use these techniques on the page. For example, when someone goes through trauma they dissociate, they space out because it’s just too much. So how do I mitigate that on the page? That’s working with the idea of less as more. Another technique is to focus on setting, so a reader feels grounded in time and space. In her memoir Hunger, Roxane Gay is really great about guiding her reader, and that’s something that I also wanted to do. That was part of the impetus behind my letters in the book, to be a guide into the material. In Hunger, before Gay tells the story of her rape, she explains she wants to tell her story on her terms, tells readers how difficult this is for her and then how she’d like for her story to be received. In my own book, I wanted to be able to show my reader that yes, I experienced this, but I’m okay. I’ve not only survived it, but I’m thriving. I might switch to future tense during a traumatic moment, for example, so that my reader understands we’re okay. That we are going through this material in order to understand how to overcome it.

I spent a lot of time studying how people broach difficult topics. It’s amazing how people come to the page with all their own baggage, and they project all over the place. Language is important, as is understanding what these terms mean. What is sexual abuse? What is post-traumatic stress disorder? We need to teach our readers how to talk about these things. I wrote to disarm the culturally conditioned responses of fear, anger, denial, and disavowal. I knew if I didn’t, my manuscript would remain buried.

Rumpus: In How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee writes how an abuser makes the abused complicit, and you address it, too. Multiple times, you mention how even in abuse, the body physically responds. This can be a source of some of the deepest shame and confusion of the experience. Why do you address it?

Strauss: I wrote about it for a couple reasons. It goes back to that excavation—I wanted to be as honest as possible so that my reader would trust me. But it’s also a hallmark of sexual abuse, and if I were to not put it on the page, I would be leaving out part of the truth, and to me that would chip away at my own integrity. It was very hard to put on the page because I think in our society we have a lot of victim shaming that goes on. People don’t understand what actually happens physiologically when someone is sexually abused. Finger pointing only compounds the shame. I felt it was important to write because you know the saying, the truth shall set you free. It was a way for me to no longer carry my shame. There is so much manipulation that happens in abuse. How could something that is so wrong produce a pleasurable physiological response? The paradox of that, I think, is something that many people have a hard time understanding, and yet it’s the reality. That’s one reason, among many, why abuse is so heinous. It really can play with your mind. That’s what abusers count on so that they can keep abusing.

Rumpus: You wrote an essay calling out literary gatekeepers for enabling our abuse culture with the belief that the truth disables rather than empowers. It led to you finding your agent and publisher. Can you tell that story?

Strauss: Right, I mentioned the response I got over years about the ick factor. Agents told me any mention of sexual abuse would be a major roadblock if not a complete dead end. I was urged to wipe by book clean of it. They said there was no readership for sexual abuse, and at the same time the market was flooded. These were two opposite realities, and I did the research and found neither were true. Over the course of ten years I queried more than three hundred agents and had three different agents. My final agent worked with me on the proposal, and then she told me before we presented it that I should erase any mention of trauma—not just the sexual abuse, but my mother’s cancer diagnosis, even how I worked through my grief. She didn’t want me to use the word “rape.” I said, but then there’s no story. If there is no impetus behind the journey, what kind of book is it?

I wasn’t going to write a fluff dating book, so I refused delete the five chapters she asked me to delete. She submitted to eleven editors who praised the writing, but declined, and that’s when she decided it was too hard a sell. I had gone through ten years of trying to get my story published. I thought maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. It didn’t understand why people in the business couldn’t see that while there was trauma, it was not about the trauma, it was about transcending the trauma. We all have baggage that affects our lives, no one is immune, and that to me was what the book was about. I thought I had reached the end, and I got very depressed. A writer friend suggested I write an essay about what it had been like with the publishing industry. At first, I thought, why bother? But because writing for me has always been a kind of buoy, it’s the thing that keeps my head above the water when I feel like I am sinking, I decided to write the piece. I didn’t want it to be whiny, I just wanted to put the facts out there. Publishers Weekly picked it up. That’s when the editor at Skyhorse Publishing reached out and asked to read the book, and two weeks later, offered me a contract.

Rumpus: How was that?

Strauss: I was sick at the time, and I thought I was having a feverish delusion. I really thought all hope was gone. I had put it all out there. I believe when you take the risk to put your truth out there, the universe will take care of it.

Rumpus: Abusers steal from us. In the book, you detail the theft of your agency, your ability to say no, set boundaries. I’m a woman. I know what it’s like to have my power stolen, and that feeling is so singularly and intensely enraging and yet also disorienting. How did you find your way back to your power and your voice?

Strauss: Honestly, through writing. For me, when I was at the lowest of lows, being able to put my abuse into words was an act of intelligence. Being able to capture an emotion, a situation, any aspect of that disempowerment was a way of turning it into empowerment. For me, words are where I find my power. To be able to speak the unspeakable. Obviously, I also went to a lot of therapy. But, I found power in sharing my story through the written word. In a weird way, I never rebelled as a teenager: this book is my rebellion.

Rumpus: There’s a scene in the book where you’re speed dating, and a guy is going around inappropriately touching woman after woman, and you’re watching, and every single woman looks uneasy, and no one speaks up. We’ve all been in that situation. Why do we just put up with this stuff?

Strauss: We’ve been taught for so long that we’re not supposed to say I feel uncomfortable. People say you’re making a big deal of nothing. Men have gotten away with it for so long, that it’s become part of this cultural conditioning where we are in many ways shamed into silence. It really bothered me that no one was saying anything. Here we are out in public trying to find a mate. We paid to attend the event and we are being sexually harassed, how is that okay? We’ve been trained to put up with it. It’s very hard to speak out against it. I think it’s getting easier now that there is a conversation about it, but it’s still difficult.

Rumpus: Your mom stayed with your father, in spite of his abuse, for a long time. She taught you to be defensive, a victim. To fear men and sex, even traveling alone. This is internalized misogyny, and it’s everywhere. Still in America 2019, women are advising other women to make themselves small. Can you talk about that?

Strauss: It bothers me very much when a woman disempowers another woman. It’s a culturally conditioned approach. I think a lot of women don’t even see they’re doing it. It’s so difficult to let go of that programing—even if its dysfunctional, it’s comforting. It seems safe somehow. My mother above all needed safety. It’s hard to take the risk to do things differently, and I think that’s why internalized misogyny is still going on today.

Rumpus: How do we change that?

Strauss: I think it’s probably different for everyone. For me it was choosing my beliefs over my mother’s beliefs. There came a point in my life when I was so beaten down by my mother’s beliefs that my life seemed like a dead end. I finally realized in order to get where I wanted to be in life, I needed to empower myself, not diminish myself. I was worth it. Even if it was scary, and at times it was really scary, and to surround myself with people who encouraged that.

Rumpus: What haven’t we talked about yet?

Strauss: Part of the impetus behind the book is to talk about the things we don’t talk about, and I want to say something related to that, about trigger warnings. I’ve started doing some bookstore readings, and this has come up. People are asking why I don’t have trigger warnings, or how I feel about them. We see a lot of trigger warnings on social media and online. I understand not wanting to set off someone who has PTSD. It is never my intention to have someone get triggered by my content, but trigger warnings are generally not used for other types of trauma stories like war, combat, murder, cancer, or a host of other things. I feel trigger warnings are a symptom of a cultural insistence that abuse is too much to talk about. They are saying: we can’t handle this. My stance is if we can’t talk about sexual violence, if we can’t handle a discussion about it, then how can we expect to help anyone to heal from it or prevent it from occurring? There’s no content warning for fictionalized stories, but it’s a problem when the experience is real. We need to normalize talking about sexual violence and its effects. A lot of people disagree and feel trigger warnings are important. I respect that, but this is why I don’t use them.

Rumpus: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

Strauss: I want readers—particularly women—to persist. In whatever area that they need to persist. I honestly never thought I would be able to overcome the effects of my trauma. I never thought I could have a fulfilling life, never thought I could be happy. I never thought my book could get published. And all of those things have happened. Maybe not as quickly as I would have hoped, and yes, I almost gave up. But somehow, I persisted. Because for people who have been through sexual violence, to persist and to live your life is an act of defiance, one that is really worth it in the end.

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Photograph of Tracy Strauss by Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Studios.


Amy Reardon is an alumna of Stanford’s OWC in novel writing and an MFA candidate. She is at work on a novel. More from this author →