Sunday, May 20, 2012

NICKELS...A Tale of Dissociation

Dissociation - A psychological defense mechanism in which specific, anxiety-provoking thoughts, emotions or physical sensations are separated from the rest of the psyche. (Mental Health America)

Have you ever wondered what goes through a young girls' mind when her father is on top of her raping her? Have you ever wondered what effect incest has on a girl as she grows older?

In her new book, NICKELS - A Tale of Dissociation, Christine Stark gives insight into what goes on in the mind of a child, who is a victim of incest. NICKELS tells the story of a young girl, Little Miss So and So, who endures sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, at the hands of her father, on a daily basis, while her mother, who I believe is aware of some of the abuse, chooses to ignore it.  Her father buys her a small pink purse and forces Little Miss So and So to wear it around her neck, where he places a nickel, as a form of  "payment", every time he has sex with her.  The story follows Little Miss So and So through the age of 26.  Although it was a difficult journey, she finally finds peace, with the help of friends, her artwork, and her loving grandmother.

After I read the first chapter (one and a half pages), I stopped and thought, "what is this?", but I continued to read.  After reading a few more pages, I was thinking "this makes no sense".  So I decided to go back and read the Introduction.  (I'll admit I usually skip over the introduction and prologue of a book, and jump right into the first chapter.) After reading the Introduction, I read the first chapter again, and this time, I couldn't stop was horrible, and I stayed on the verge of tears. (By "horrible", I mean what was happening to this child.)  After reading the Introduction, I realized the story is being told in first person, but it is the thoughts that Little Miss So and So is having (in her mind). Nickels tells the story of Little Miss So and So's survival through dissociation.

Excerpt: "mad dad's snake rises up it sticks me in the stomach he huffs n puffs pushes my head down so I can't see pigtail girl huff puff huff puff whish whish the head board did it butt hurts bad mad dad's thing pokes me in the stomach dad whips one more time grabs my neck n legs n pushes on me his thing in my stomach so hard can't breathe..."

After I finished reading this novel, I was speechless, with a dozen questions running through my head.  I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Stark, via e-mail, but I decided to limit the questions to five:

When I first started reading Nickels, I thought it was a true story, until I went to your website and read differently, but were you a victim of incest?  

I am glad that it reads as a true story as that was my goals with the book-that it reads as authentic. In many ways, fiction can tell and hold truth more broadly and deeply than nonfiction can. Yes, I am a survivor, but Nickels is fictive. 

If so, I know you said this book wasn't about your life, but were some of the thoughts and feelings that Miss So and So had, also thoughts and feelings you have had? 

It is common if not the rule that fiction writers knowingly or unknowingly create characters that  partially reflect aspects of the writer's personality, so some aspects of my personality are present in the protagonist, and in Cricket, but neither are me. They do and say things I would not do and say if I were in the same situation.

I suffered a severe head injury, so reading and comprehension are difficult for me, so reading your book was very challenging (not in a negative way), why did you choose this format to write Nickels? 

The stream of consciousness, prose poem form, came to me while I was in a writing class at Hamline University, but it was influenced by House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. After I wrote a few prose poems in the protagonist's voice, I realized it was going to be a book and I went for it. Writing, for me, is an experience of getting in touch with the characters and their story, and then retrieving them, getting them down on paper. The stream-of-consciousness, prose poem style allowed me to access the thoughts of the character in an organic manner so that the reader can get an inside look at how it can be to live with a consciousness fragmented by trauma. I created a style that fit and reflected the protagonist and her story rather than trying to squeeze herself and story into a traditional format. The style allowed me to stay truer to a child's way of perceiving, and that was actually a lot of fun for me as a writer. 

I won't claim to understand the gay/lesbian lifestyle.  I know some say they were born that way.  I have a cousin who is lesbian, and at an early age, you could see the masculine traits in her.  I also have a niece who was married with three boys, and two years ago walked away from them, because she decided she was lesbian.  I hope you don't mind my asking, but if you had not suffered the sexual violence, do you think your sexual orientation would be different? I was just wondering how big of a role men play - by being abusive - in some women choosing the lesbian lifestyle. 

I have never met anyone who is a lesbian because they were abused by men. As you know, some lesbians will say they choose to be lesbians while others say they were born that way. It is my belief that lesbians who say they choose to be lesbian are basically bisexual and therefore it is a choice for them. The protagonist in Nickels does not concern herself with why she is a lesbian, which she knew at peers and family for being a lesbian does harm her, and she internalizes that to a degree. But that is very different from her questioning why. When I first came out some people screamed homopha young age, and the lack of inquiry into why she is a lesbian is quite healthy. Since there is nothing wrong with being a lesbian, the question of why does not concern her. But the ways she is abused by her obic epithets at me. Some would no longer talk to me. Most met my lesbianism with silence and denial. One person said, “Congratulations.” That affirmation is what everyone should be met with when coming out. 

I cannot answer for every lesbian, but my  experience of  self-acceptance, which is part of the coming out process, was like coming home. Coming out meant I was finally able to be who I am, who I always was, who I was meant to be. I knew I was “different” since I was four years old, and after many years of being battered and “othered” in a variety of ways for being “different”, coming out as a teenager was an enormously loving, freeing, joyous experience. It had nothing to do with being abused.

My daughter was raped at 14 (by a friend) and he threatened her, so she didn't tell anyone until several days later and because of that couldn't file any charges, so she didn't receive "closure". She tried cutting and drugs, and she was diagnosed as bipolar and borderline personality disorder. (She is one of the reasons I started by website.)  She is doing better now, but still suffers from severe anxiety. How were you able to move past the abuse (I know you never forget it)?  I know some of my readers may have been in the same or similar situation, do you have any tips you can give that would help them? 

First, I want to say I am sorry to hear that your daughter was raped and I am glad that you are doing this work. Everyone is different, and needs different things at different times, so I don't want to give anyone any advice. But I will say that for me, as a survivor of extreme childhood trauma that lasted throughout my teen years as well, what I needed most during the time I was being abused was for someone to stand up for me and get me away from my parents. That did not happen, but there were people in my life who were kind to me, loved me, and stood up for me in small ways, and even though I needed much, much more than that, it was enough for me to survive the abuse.

Once I got away from the perpetrators, I needed money to survive, a place to live, and adequate help that did not stigmatize me as “mentally ill”, but rather met the issues and needs I had as a survivor, which changed tremendously over time. People can and do “recover” from abuse. It does not have to be a lifetime sentence, but healing is phenomenally hard work. Persistence and stubbornness got me through many difficult years of anxiety and depression and PTSD. Eventually, I developed the ability to manage the overwhelm of the emotions and knowledge of what was done to me, and what is done to so many. Also, I have never thought of myself or referred to myself as “mentally ill.” Instead, I thought of myself and other survivors as strong and smart, even though there were many, many times when I could barely cope. Other, very practical things that helped me overcome anxiety and depression were exercise and eating well. Much of my anxiety was created by a poor diet of caffeine, sugar, and low protein. Adjusting my eating habits made an enormous difference in my moods. 

Another thing that I needed in order to heal, to feel and actually be an honored part of society, is social justice. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of social justice for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. We are relegated to a closet of silence and shame and self blame, when we should be honored and believed and listened to. That is why I do this work. That is why I wrote this book.

If I had to sum it up, I would say I always wanted to win and I wanted what I saw others had--a life--more than I wanted to self-destruct, which is like a siren call for women who have been abused. Resist self-destruction. It's what the abusers want. It's not what someone who has had the wherewithal to survive deserves.

The one thing I kept thinking while reading this book is that there are fathers, who are sexually abusing their children (and not just girls) everyday.  

And we just close our eyes to it.  If we don't see it, it doesn't happen. But we need to open our eyes, because it happens everyday.  And you may be thinking, "it's not my responsibility", but we need to take responsibility, because a lot of times the mother is also caught up in abuse, and she's helpless to do anything to stop it.  And like Ms. Stark said above, she needed someone to stand up for her and get her away from the abuse.

I would recommend that you read Nickels if for no other reason than to obtain a better understanding of what incest does to a child...but have a box of Kleenex nearby.

Thank you, Ms. Stark, for shining a much needed light on a topic that everyone wants to avoid.

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Christine Stark is an award-winning writer, visual artist,and public speaker. She is a coauthor of the groundbreaking report “Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota.” She is also a coeditor of Not for Sale, an international anthology about sexual violence. Her poem, “Momma’s Song”, was recorded by Fred Ho and the Afro Asian Ensemble and released as a double CD/manga. Her novel, Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation, was recently released. Christine has won awards for her writing, including a Pushcart nomination, a McKnight Award, and a Loft Mentor Series in creative nonfiction, along with others.  Christine’s art work has been shown in solo and juried shows across the United States. Her drawings have also been published as cover art for literary journals and other publications. She won a McKnight Award for her visual art and one of her drawings is in the permanent collection at Waage Gallery.

Christine has been speaking about sexual exploitation and other social justice issues at law schools, national and international conferences, rallies, Take Back the Nights, universities, shelters, and rape crisis centers for over twenty years. She has also appeared on NPR’s Justice Talking and numerous radio and television shows. Christine teaches writing at Metropolitan State University in the Twin Cities where she lives with her partner and their animals. Visit her at

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of NICKELS - A Tale of Dissociation for review.  I did not receive monetary compensation for writing a positive review.  This is my personal opinion.


Small Kucing said...

sound pretty interesting. Will mark it to be read in my goodreads

Hezzi-D said...

This book sounds seriously intense. As a teacher I'm fairly certain my students have suffered sexual abuse of some type though not necessarily incest. I think reading this might help me better understand what they've gone through.

Audra Michelle said...

Oh my goodness. Part of me wants to read this. The other part is cringing in horror at what these children must go through. Thanks for sharing.

Momfever said...

I cringe when I hear about tales of incest… I once read Sybil, who has about 20 personalities. It's just too awful.

Unknown said...

Laura thank you for sharing Christine's very powerful work with us. I found the excerpt so powerful, especially since Christine chose to use the stream of conscious style. I weep for children who have to endure this type of abuse. Christine I'm so glad you found healing through writing. Thank you both for shedding light on something so personal and important for families to be made aware of. No child should ever have to suffer such abuse.

Anonymous said...

THAT is a powerful book I hope more victims of sexual abuse get to read. It sounds like it is more for the victims than the people that may champion victim's rights and that is pleasantly surprising. We rarely hear such a vivid recount. Thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...

This is such a tough topic to tackle and I really admire your bravery, Laura. So many little girls need a voice and this piece of fiction has given them one. Thanks for highlighting it!

Jennifer Hall said...

New follower from Divas Blog Hop!

Ann Jones said...

Sounds like an intense book! I love when books are based on topics that are often avoided.

Chatty Crone said...

I don't know how you found me - but glad you did.

I was a victim of child abuse - not sexual abuse ,however I have not much of memory before the age of 15.

I know how important a good sense of self esteem is too.


Unknown said...

Oh my goodness. Part of me wants to read this. The other part is cringing in horror at what these children must go through. Thanks for sharing.

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