The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #198: Rene Denfeld
In her latest personal essay, “The Green River Killer And Me,” Portland-based author Rene Denfeld shares scenes from her own life as a homeless child. Having escaped an abusive household, she says, “On the streets I felt I had a fighting chance—not just to survive, but to define myself. On the streets, I told myself, at least I could run away.”
These deeply painful and visceral memories build the foundation of Denfeld’s newest novel, The Butterfly Girl, which serves as a companion cum sequel to her 2017 bestseller The Child Finder. Readers are reunited with the strong and skilled private investigator Naomi Cottle as she embarks on the most personal case of her life—searching for her missing sister. Along the way, Naomi’s path entangles with that of Celia, a twelve-year-old street kid who has nothing left but her belief in butterflies. Together, Celia and Naomi find their lost selves in one another—pieces of themselves they thought could never be found again.
After reading the novel, I keep coming back to this scene: Naomi tells the parents of the children she rescues that the most important thing is to tell their children they are loved. “Not loved despite what happened to them. Loved including it.” This inclusion of everything—the good, the bad, the ugly—is exactly how this novel sets out to educate its readers.
Denfeld herself is a great model to remind us that an individual really can make change in the world. All of Denfeld’s books, including her French Prix Award-winning debut novel The Enchanted, are rooted in her own social justice work with sex trafficking victims and innocents in prison. In 2017, she was awarded a Breaking the Silence Award in Washington, DC, for her advocacy for victims, and the New York Times named her a “Hero of the Year.” She is also the proud parent of three children adopted from foster care as well as other foster kids.
I recently spoke with Rene about everyday rebirths, the frequent misconceptions that society has about homelessness, and the ways in which our imaginations can save us.
The Rumpus: You are quite open about the fact that Naomi and Celia’s stories have similarities to your own history. So first of all, I want you to know how much I admire and respect your commitment to writing these important stories, especially considering the inevitable memories that the writing process must dredge up. I’m wondering how you first knew that your heart and mind were ready to work closely with such painful and personal material? Is there such a thing as “being ready”?
Rene Denfeld: What a tremendous question! I don’t know if we are ever truly ready. Healing is a process you must actively engage in. I don’t think you can sit back and decide that someday you will be ready. You do the work and eventually, it happens.
It’s kind of like the justice work and fostering. I didn’t start either because I wanted to write about such topics. I started working public defense because I felt called to work in justice reform, and I started fostering because I felt called to parent children from backgrounds like mine. In the process of those journeys I became ready to write about matters closer to my heart. I healed myself by healing others.
We have this myth that distance is the key to healing. The idea is we have to go off alone, a la Walden Pond, and somehow we find ourselves. Personally I think this escape myth of insight and healing does us a great disservice. The greatest healing comes in proximity to others, when we invest in our own vulnerability and care, and when the love we show others can become a mirror to our own soul. It is how we show ourselves we have the strength to face our own sorrows.
Rumpus: Naomi’s mission to track down her missing sister, whose real name Naomi doesn’t know, is infinitely more challenging because Naomi doesn’t even remember her own name. Cottle is the name of her foster family. You write so beautifully: “She couldn’t even find out who she was. It was as if she had been born the day she escaped, rising from the earth.” This rising, this rebirth, is such a powerful image here. It’s not quite a do-over, but something bigger, like an alignment with a new identity. Celia also experiences rebirth, I think. There’s her rebirth as a street kid after she turns in her predatory stepfather and escapes her home. I also imagine that every day Celia wakes up and finds herself still alive is a kind of rebirth. How have your own “rebirths” worked their way into your writing?
Denfeld: I think every day is a new kind of birth. It goes back to what we were talking about knowing when we are ready. Change isn’t a big grand gesture we make. It’s those little decisions we make all day long. It’s getting up early to take care of the kids. It’s being kind when we could be angry. It’s taking a healthy risk. Isn’t it interesting how our society encourages us to take unhealthy risks like drinking too much, but then gets all ninnyish when we want to take a healthy risk, like becoming a foster parent?
Those choices are part of the process of healing. They create our new identities for us. They are the rebirth we are looking for. I believe there is a great freedom in realizing we have this ability to transform. It is never too late. We must push back against the idea that some of us are forever broken or damaged. That’s bullshit designed to keep us from changing the world. Women, in particular, are forever being told we should feel helpless, broken, and scared. Push back against this. We all have the power to change the world. Don’t believe for a second that we do not.
Rumpus: Transformation is such a big theme in this novel, particularly in regard to Celia’s story. Celia often daydreams about a flutter of butterflies which protect her in a cocoon from her harsh reality. In many ways, her mental strength and survival depend upon the butterflies’ existence.
Celia’s butterflies are not just visions; they are as real to her as the people in her life. She talks to them. She is terrified that the butterflies may abandon her one day. This takes on a different meaning when we remember that Celia’s mother wanted to be a lepidopterist before life decided otherwise. Thus, every butterfly carries a memory of her mother. There’s this beautiful passage:
Celia could swear that she had learned about butterflies deep within her mother’s womb. Her mother had fed them to Celia with her own blood, and when she was born, the sack was pulsating with them, so the doctor stood back, astounded as she erupted, covered with wings.
Celia’s obsession and self-identification with butterflies is so complex and multidirectional. Here we have this symbol of explosive transformation, which is ultimately tied to a significant person from Celia’s past. Can you speak about the butterflies’ arrival to this narrative? How did the butterflies find you in the writing process?
Denfeld: I was a homeless child myself and, like Celia, I escaped into a world of imagination to survive. At first I tried to write this story using the fantasies I used to survive. But that was too close. I wanted Celia to be her own person. Characters must have autonomy. Then the butterflies came to me. They seemed so natural to Celia that now I cannot remember when they came, they must have simply arrived with her one day.
My characters become real people to me. I chat with them. Celia would take car rides with me, and accompany me on my walks. I would tuck her into bed at night. I lived with her during the entire time I was writing this book. So the butterflies became very real to me, too. I think that is one of the greatest joys I’ve had as a foster adoptive mom—every child that has come into my home has brought a gift with them. They’ve shared their pain with me, and their own hopes. There really isn’t a bigger honor than that. I think books serve the same function in our lives. Every book we read is the author sharing their own secrets with us.
I love how you say explosive transformation. Isn’t transformation glorious? Celia is a young girl on the dawn of her life. Everything is before her. She lives in a society that says twelve-year-old street girls with predator stepfathers and histories of abuse cannot amount to anything. But I am here to tell you otherwise. I was also a street child with a predator stepdad and a history of abuse. My kids from foster care had traumatic pasts. Many of us do. We are all worthy in the kingdom of joy. We all deserve butterflies.
Rumpus: Celia tells Naomi that one day she will go to the butterfly museum—a skylit conservatory filled with rainbow-colored butterflies. There, she says, is where she will “know,” though Celia doesn’t go on to explain what she means by the word “know.” What’s your butterfly museum—that iridescent, invincible place your mind can go when it needs a respite from reality? A place where you can “know” without having to explain yourself further?
Denfeld: I love how you picked up on that. How can we embrace knowingness as an expansive place instead of a cold, hard prison? The truth is that reality shifts and changes, and sometimes I think of it more as the air between the facts than the facts themselves. Our memories shift and change, too.
My imagination is my butterfly museum. It’s the place I can go anytime to save myself. I think imagination is the true resiliency. Imagination can be a radical act. It’s a way of saying, “I deserve to exist.” This is very provocative to our culture because our society wants to keep many of us feeling powerless. This is why we ridicule imaginative works of art. It’s why older people mock the younger generation, because they have found ways to exercise their imagination through something as small as their phones. They are creating videos, music, art, you name it, all on their phones. They may live in neighborhoods where police beat and shoot them, where mass incarceration has destroyed their communities, where there are no art classes or places to play music, but they have found a way to use their imaginations. The idea that people can escape imprisonment—real or figurative—through imagination really chaps the hide of many. It’s dangerous to the power structure because a person who imagines might imagine challenging the way things are.
Rumpus: The director of the women’s shelter tells Naomi that maybe it’s easier for cities “to just pretend [the kids] don’t exist. Maybe we’re afraid to admit they’re there.”
Your novel is pushing against this very idea of invisibility. You are making these kids known. Your powerful words point to the exact issues that cities continue to sweep under the rug. What else can we do as citizens to help homeless children, if cities plan to keep up this pretending act?
Denfeld: Honestly what we really need is more foster parents like myself that take in teens. Children should not live in shelters. A far better alternative would be to recruit and support more families to take in these children. This could easily be done if we were willing to spend the money, which is a tiny drop in the bucket compared to what we spend on other government services. The usual subsidy for a foster parent is just a few hundred a month. If we increase that a bit and get out there and break down the myths about fostering, if we support foster parents as they help children, we could find a lot more safe, loving homes for such kids.
Rumpus: Sadly, I think there are many myths about homelessness, too. Society so often tries to frame homeless people as hopeless victims of their own “poor” choices. Of course, readers of The Butterfly Girl know that this is far from the truth. While you certainly don’t sugarcoat the pain and hardships of a life lived on the streets, each of your characters holds on to their own version of hope. Were there aspects of writing about homelessness and hopefulness that surprised you?
Denfeld: As I mentioned, I came from a background of poverty and abuse, and lived on the streets. I was expecting that those painful memories would come flooding back when I wrote this novel, and they did.
But I was surprised at how many memories of hope came back, too. I remember being in the public library, reading, while rain streamed down the window. I remember wandering the streets, the soles of my shoes worn paper thin so I could feel every pebble and seam of the sidewalk. I remember waking under overpasses and watching the sun outside. I remember feeling such hope, despite all the despair. The world was magic and I was part of it. I was never going to let anyone deny that.
We talk about choices in our culture in the most disingenuous ways. First we deny choices. We deny the choice of a safe childhood. We deny decent medical or dental care. We deny educational choices. We deny a criminal justice system that actually protects victims. And then when we reap the harvest of our own cruelty, we blame the victims. We say they made bad choices.
I was never a bad choice. Homeless kids like me were never the problem. Neither are other homeless people, or the poor, or people of color. The problem is our system and what we do to each other. The problem is our own unwillingness to make change, and for me that is both the saddest and most hopeful message of all. All this could be so different. It’s up to us to tell a different story, with a different ending.
Photograph of Rene Denfeld by Owen Carey.