on the segues between trauma and memoir

Seven years. That’s how long it has taken me to write the eight-sentence segue that opens my Kalahari and Namib tracking memoir. Nestled between two bookends—a hair-raising encounter with a puff adder near the end of our journey abroad (an incident I opened with to help readers begin to think about sensory perceptions and the blindspots involved in rational thought early on) and the day we left the U.S. to get there (the year before)—this little segment has to carry all the weight of a trauma- and celebration-riddled spring season from long ago. Has to hold so many things for which I struggle to find words that are not over-wrought: children abducted with the assistance of both a sitting judge and a church and that not the worst of it, for what came next nearly broke us, worse in many ways than outright battering or stalking, and then my graduation from college complete with turning out a disastrous thesis but being elected to Phi Beta Kappa anyway despite spending way too much of my final semester at the DA’s office trying to secure my children’s safety, and then being offered and accepting a Thomas J. Watson Foundation fellowship to study tracking in Africa and Australia: memorable to the bone, it was truly not a spring I ever wanted to remember. In my first book, I whipped through all that like a racehorse on steroids to heaven, no thought for tomorrow or today. But life had other plans.

I’ve written all around this segue for years, the tracking manuscript long overdue because it was always in pieces. I could not weave those vicious personal strands into the narrative without triggering the waking nightmares that signal a trauma lived well and fully, even beautifully through during any crisis, but not yet dealt with in the tag-along mind or heart. The body does trauma like a champion. The soul carries trauma around like a toolkit for omnipotence. The spirit treats trauma like a moon-kissed, migrating butterfly bound for the sun or bust. The mind, the heart, the fibers of being unnamed? These stumble on broken bones and cut tendons and the words intended to control and kill; they insist that you seek reasons for the madness and, in the doing, re-take the hits again and again, just when you least expect them, too, so there’s no ready prepping for the lot. No wonder so many of us do as I did in my first book, Point Last Seen: we clean it up, leave it out, zip through the bloody ugly and haul out the concisions of prose to tell the damn rest and move on.

But if you tell a true story and leave out its meanest underbelly, you’re doing worse than lying to yourself: you’re guaranteeing that someone else will have to struggle down the same path with the same terrible results and just as alone as you did. I’ve had my one pass to ‘clean all this up’ for readers and reasonable reasons for that decision: Point Last Seen has done and is still doing its work in the world. But I’ve known from the moment I picked up my pen for its sequel that this book requires more: now it’s time for me to walk through the fire and name as well as I can its colors, its sizzle, its devouring hold, because only then can readers come to terms with what it means to track in a place far from home, safe in the world for a moment, just long enough to realize that suffering has a universal, multiversal face and that triumphs are strewn will-nilly amidst it? Wholly human. Deserving of its story.

I couldn’t get this part on paper, though, even though it strode through the other events as my children and I lived them—the nightmares of relapsing fever and typhoid and malaria, of seeing women and children battered and hungry and not being able to help, of understanding that social and economic systems the world over are set up to ensure that our own memorable spring is the norm and not the exception. I couldn’t stop the reliving either, not even now, despite a full and productive life: it comes unbidden when I am well and thoroughly safe myself. Despite expert help and long spells of being too harried to feel safe (which means that the waking nightmares have no space to function), I cannot sidestep them when all is reasonably well. I handle the trauma better than fine, have learned to function right through it and to speak of it in words on a page, which helps me to get a grip on the next rung of the ladder out of despair, but I can’t stop it from coming. When it does, I deal with my daily responsibilities better than usual, but then I retreat to a space where the visceral terrors cannot be seen by anyone but me: alone I wrestle with my demons. Once upon a time I sought to vanquish them, sure it could be done if I could just will myself to press on, but now I have learned better. Now I seek simply to coexist with them, without either of us tearing the other apart.

Writing is my best tool. Telling the truest stories I can is how I manage. Distant family members—people who have never been present for one whit of the hell, nor anything passing for something equivalent in their own lives—have made fun of me for this, pointing out that some people handle trauma well enough not to speak of it again while others (me included apparently) just “wallow there.” Such attacks were, of course, not just unkind, but deeply inhumane, deeply out of touch with the reality that PTSD is for those of us who work our way through it without ever sharing our darkest times. My books don’t dwell on trauma, but they also do not deny it. Readers—strangers from all over—have been gracious enough to let me know that they have found succor in what I’ve shared. I’d never planned to publish anything, but once it happened, even I was surprised to find that this work was a hand in proverbial glove for my singleminded life goal: to do whatever necessary to take all the horrible things that have happened to me within myself deeply enough that I can forge them into something of value that will help someone else. Horror and wonder walk apace in the world I inhabit: writing is a way of smithing them so that they can be touched, endured, survived, loved even, and not just now but long beyond.

This book on tracking is a natural next project, filled with adventures and beings (both human and not) who surprise, delight, disgust, or simply traipse off the page into the world we all live in because that’s where I first met them myself. I composed most of the narrative right after things happened, in copious field notes that are fun even for me to revisit. The book’s been promised to my agent for seven years now. I’ve worked on it most of that time. But I couldn’t get anywhere near this critical segue—which lets readers sail over all the traumas that set up our trip and get to the easier, more palatable, merely skin-tingling and mind-blowing adventures—until now. I’d get to that point and the waking nightmares would take over again: pouring over me in waves, rendering my words toothless and my body no sensation at all beyond stumbling along an ocean floor miles below the surface, suffocating again just as surely as I did when my first husband placed his hands around my throat and tightened them until I could no longer breathe. Or see or hear. Or know myself as still present in the world. I was never supposed to wake up from being choked unconscious, but I did. Every time. I woke up, I got up, I carried on and made a good life anyway.

No one has choked me like that in 28 years. Anybody else that plans on trying it had better show up bullet-proof and wearing a tank and hit me graveyard dead on the first run, too, because I have had my fill of being battered and won’t stand for it anymore (my vows of nonviolence not having served me at all well in those previous rounds). A good deal of this stance I learned in the Kalahari Desert among people who are way better trackers than I’ll ever be. It’s a story worth telling, and I’m finally ready to do it. Complete with the eight-sentence segue I just wrote to help make a bridge between our long-ago spring and what came after it.

Now that the losses are permanent and no salvation is to be had, I finally understand that the triggers for my kind of PTSD are all over the blessed place and cannot be sidestepped. Out of stubbornness, I press on every day. Failing as often as not at the things I attempt in my efforts to bring stability and safety into my life or my children’s. They are, of course, fully grown now, both in their fourth decades of life (30s) instead of the adolescents who made this journey with me. They no longer need me at all. Writing at this point is not for us. It won’t help us or make us whole. Writing is bearing witness, breathing and taking note of the wonder of that and all that exists—trauma and beauty alike. Writing is human. It is my message in a bottle, released from where I stand on the sandy floor of these oceans above. Little segues contain whole worlds.

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