Podcast

Mothers, Daughters and the Evolution of Healing From Trauma

On today’s episode, we welcome Laura Davis bestselling author of “The Courage To Heal,” her seminal book about healing from sexual trauma. She waxes philosophical on a variety of topics, including her new memoir, “The Burning Light Of Two Stars,” (which I cannot recommend enough). We talk about the relationship between reader and author, how life experience changes our perception of the past, and having a parent who refuses your reality. We end with an exercise on forgiveness.

photograph courtesy of .

Show Notes

Welcome to the laid open Podcast. I’m so happy to have you tuning in with me today. I’m Charna cosell. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified master somatic coach who specialize in working with trauma, sexuality, and embodiment.

I’m so excited because my guest today is Laura Davis, whom I personally take in writing workshops with and gotten to see how seamlessly and skillfully, she creates safe space for people to connect and to write from a really deep place. Laura is a sixth time best selling author. Her books include the courage to heal, and I thought we’d never speak again

and had been translated into 11 languages and sold 1.8 million copies.

Lauren leads writing workshops in the US and internationally that focus on writing as a tool for healing and transformation. Her new book is a memoir about the tumultuous twists and turns of Mother Daughter love the burning light of two stars. You can learn more at www dot Laura Davis dotnet.

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please welcome Laura Davis. Yeah, it’s such a pleasure to be here and to see you and I’m so glad we’re going to have this conversation. Yeah, I really enjoyed reading your book and felt like there was it was, it was tender. And surreal, because there were so many surprising parallels around growing up with Jewish Jersey ancestry. And speak it Mike, my grandmother was a Yiddish speaker. And so there were so many times when the page came alive. And I could hear and see my own grandmother as your as your mother was speaking. And there were so many themes, which we don’t want to get too much into, because I let the reader to get to discover it while they read. But I was really impressed with the the timelines, all the different flipping between present and past and childhood, and you know, the future and the way that you were able to carry the reader in a really thoughtful way, in a way that felt like I could follow it. And I was on the edge of my seat and super curious about what was going to happen. So I just, I appreciated it on so many levels as a writer, as a child that’s healed male relationship to my mother, you know, what I love about what you said is that I think one of my favorite things about being an author is that when you put a book out in the world, it’s it’s a relationship between the reader and the author, you know, that, that I brought my life experience corded into this book, and that each reader who comes to the page is bringing their own life experience. So they’re gonna each experience the story in a different way, just like what you just said, like it brought up brought up memories of your family and your childhood and where you grew up. And for someone else, that would be something else that would just really, you know, touch them, or impact them, or would start them thinking about their own lives, which is what I love it a piece of writing is that it it really has an impact, not just as an entertaining story, or a compelling story, but that it really makes people think and feel.

Yeah, 100%. And you know, even the same person at a different phase of life,

is going to have a completely different way that they receive your book, because you touch so much over time, you know, at a different phase of healing with my own mother, it’s going to provoke different things. Right? So let’s dive in you and your mom. We’re both very compelling, honest characters, and it’s one of the things I love most is when I’m reading a story. And

the protagonist and antagonist are not, you know, perfectly. One thing, right? Like there’s ways that you’re like, you’re, at times maybe fortified by the humanity of each character, but also fun

On love with them.

And there’s a moment early on where your mother makes you perform.

And your body’s not your own in that moment. And you because you’re a child, you do this beautiful thing of describing dissociation and gaslighting without ever naming it. And I’m one of the things that I’m curious about is your ability to keep finding compassion for your mother, throughout the story. And I’m wondering, what were some of the practices or healing modalities that helped you with this process? Wow, that is a big question. You know, I mean, I,

I first started, I first started actually writing about my mother 40 years ago, and and, you know, writing has definitely been a huge modality, for me, probably the strongest, you know, I’ve done a lot of therapy too. And I never could have gotten to where I got to, and I certainly couldn’t have written the story with the kind of compassion you’re talking about, if I didn’t do a lot of therapy, both talk therapy and some embodied practices. But I think for me, writing was really incredibly important. And it took me 10 years to complete writing the story. And, in part, you know, like the, in the early drafts, the early things I wrote, and particularly things I wrote, When I was younger, that maybe were the antecedents to some of the scenes in this book today. You know, I was the hero and my mother was the villain, you know, and that’s how I wrote it. Because, you know, when I was a lot younger, that’s how I saw it, it was, my thinking was much more black and white. And I didn’t have the capacity for that kind of really nuanced, historical perspective, you know, which I think it takes many of us a long time to get there with our parents, because especially parents who have betrayed us in one way or another, to really get the much bigger picture of who they are. So for me, writing really, really helped and learning about my mother’s history, when she was 80 years old, I made a couple of books and celebration of her she was my mother was hugely social, and had, you know, friends in a zillion different categories and was involved in so many different organizations and activities. And so she knew a ton of people at plus relatives, and I contacted everyone I could and had them, either I interviewed them, or they sent me stories and photos. And I created these tribute books for her. And in the process of gathering that history, it was just another thing that really helped me see her more fully, not just from the lens of a child looking at a parent, even an adult child looking at it an elderly parent. So I think, you know, those those things helped. I interviewed her once for StoryCorps in a little van and Salinas and she told me a lot about her life story, that some of which I knew, and some of which I’d never heard before. And there was something about me being the interviewer that I think enabled her to be more intimate and open than if I was just her daughter. So you know, just, I think opening up to who she was in a in a bigger win, I think, for me, also a huge healing experiences, you know, I have three children, and three grandchildren. And so I, I know what it’s like on the other side, and how easy it is to really screw up as a parent, and I, you know, I’ve really tried to avoid the mistakes she made. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t make other serious mistakes. Right, right. You know, and it’s really not about not making mistakes, I feel like it’s about how we mend them and how we’re open to hearing them.

And that’s one of the pieces. That’s a theme in your book, which was really profound to me, you know, as a therapist, and someone who has a lot of clients who deal with narcissistic or borderline parents, that there are labels that were not put in your book. And then there’s these experiences that as a reader, I wanted to protect you as a child, I was able to, you know, and I felt so much compassion for you. But then what also was really profound was this mother who may be one person could look at if you take a certain incident, and you could label her a narcissist, her willingness to keep coming back and mend your relationship. And that, that willingness to fight to even go to the point where it’s like, right, the edge before her reality might crack too much. Right? Exactly. She did. She went right up to that edge and I I have a lot of admiration. I mean, you know, she’s been dead now for seven years, but I have a lot of admiration. I feel like she went as far as she was capable of going in terms of trying to meet me and trying to know that one of the hugest rifts between us was that my grandfather, her father, sexually abused me as a child.

And she didn’t believe that happened. She was not capable of believing it happened. I could say that now. But, you know, I for years, we didn’t speak because I wanted her acknowledgement. And she wanted me to recant. And not only did I say that I wrote a best selling book about it the courage to heal, you know, which, which, as she would have said, you know, your broadcasting lies on national TV, you know, that’s the way she would have, she would have played it. I feel like she she tried, she really did as much as she could. And not only that, but I think the other thing I realized is that I had the courage to face things. Were I was the only person in my family who had the courage to do it. And I have a pretty large extended family. And, and I feel like I had the strength to do it. Because she gave me that strength. So there’s like a weird, yeah, dichotomy that that some of the strongest characteristics I have, in terms of my capacity to heal my capacity to face the truth, my capacity to tell it like it is, a lot of that came from her, even though she couldn’t follow me. Right? Right, you’re like, I am your daughter in the, you know, you’ve formed me in this, this level of strength and conviction to speak. You know, it is wild in that way. What essential elements make reconciliation with someone who’s betrayed you or not protected you possible or impossible? You know, I think when we, when we say the word reconciliation, I think people often have this

kind of fantasy, ideal of a magic thing, you know, this kind of like movie deathbed reconciliation scene where everything is spoken, and there’s a huge apology, and there’s this, you know, rushing of emotion. And, you know, I pictured the violins in the background. And, you know, some people get to have that level of healing, and really coming together, but it’s actually pretty rare for that to happen. But there are a lot of different levels of reconciliation. And my mother and I experienced quite a few of them. I mean, one, one is just, we had, we had this huge, I guess, you could say, you know, the elephant in the room, in our case was, was the incest. And at certain point, we agreed to disagree. You know, after after being at war about this, and trying to convince each other trying to get something the other person was never going to give, you know, I was never going to recant. And she was not capable of saying, you know, honey, I believe you, I know, this happened to you, we went through a long period where we just set it aside, and I was only able to do that, because I’ve done a ton of work, you know, it was no longer

predominant in my psyche, it was now had receded kind of into the background of this as part of what shaped me, but I have moved on in my life. And when I got to that point, I didn’t really need anything from her anymore. I didn’t need validation. And I, I assessed for myself, that there were aspects of our relationship worth keeping in work that I valued. And she absolutely felt the same. I think a lot of it had to do with when I had my first son, I was 36 years old. And I think I really wanted her as a grandmother, she really wanted to be a grandmother. And, you know, I had seen I have a niece who’s older. And I’d seen that she actually was a really good grandmother, and that I wanted that she wanted, I think it motivated both of us. So in our instance, both people really wanted to find a way back toward each other. It took years and years, and there was a lot of trial and error. In the beginning, there had to be a zillion rules, mostly my rules, you know, all boundaries, setting boundaries, which is so essential for anyone who has a trauma background. So I set all these boundaries, and she would grumble about them. And sometimes she would obey them. And sometimes she wouldn’t. But, you know, I just, I needed a lot of control in the relationship for a long time. But as as the years went by, we started to build some new relationships, some new, new threads of connection that didn’t have to do with the 20 years of crap between us. You know, I’d say there were probably 20 years where our relationship was awful or non existent. Well, that that, you know, that’s, that’s not really true. It was never non existent. You know, I think, I think, for most people, probably who were estranged from someone who’s been pivotal in their life, even when you’re not speaking to that person, or they’re still a relationship going on, you know, in holding that person at bay. And I never would have admitted it for many years. But you know, inside there was part of me that was really longing that someday I would be able to have connection with her again. So you know, took both of us it took it took a lot of trial and error. There were a lot of times when we would retreat to our corners, you know, and sulk or you know, I complain bitterly about her and she probably was doing the same about me and then time would go by and we would have some other fun

worry of trying to connect, one of the things that worked for us is that we wrote letters to each other. And that’s one of the threads in the book are these letters because I think, you know, this was before the internet, it was before email. And we’ve lost so much in losing handwritten letters. But when she died, I found a shoebox full of all the letters I had ever sent to her. And many drafts of letter she had written to me and never sent. And I had all the letters I had ever written to her and drafts I had never sent and I sat down and put those together. And it was like a really thick file folder, probably like, I don’t know, a foot deep of letters. And I sat down and read them, I just wept. I wept, I dissociated, I would fall deep asleep. It was, it was enlightening and painful to read those letters, in part, because what was in the letters didn’t always jive with my memory. And with my story, my storyline about our relationship. So I had to face some difficult things in reading those letters, and to realize that our relationship was far more complex and multifaceted that I wanted to give credit for I just wanted for a long time, she was the enemy she was, she was the person that I had to push against, in order to establish a separate identity. And I think the other thing that the one of the things I really wanted to tell a story I wanted to tell

in the book is just that, you know, the book starts with my birth and ends with her death. And that that was 57 years, and that a lot can change in 57 years. And that get in the way, these really core relationships can shift over a lifetime, or even after someone has passed, sometimes, it’s not even safe for someone to work on the relationship to the person who’s no longer there. And then a certain kind of healing could happen even after the person has died. One of the things that I’m remembering that you mentioned in your book is you got tired of this identity of survivor, and you wanted to build relationships based on words and vibrance and beauty and writing. And that seems like that was one of the turning points in terms of shifting the possibility of a present time relationship with your mom. And then the next was like, you know, grandchildren. Yeah, I think that period, no, because I had identified so intensely with being an incest survivor, you know, I mean, I think most people, when they’re really going through the healing process, it is right in your face all the time, you know, and it’s hard to think about anything else. But on top of that, which is just my own healing process, I was writing a book about it, I was interviewing, you know, couple 100. Women in depth, like, these interviews would go on for like, I do two, three hour interviews with each person. So we’re talking about hundreds of hours of interviewing people about their stories of healing and sexual abuse, it was so it was my whole life revolved around it for a long time. And then I and then after the book came out, I was speaking about it, you know, I was, it became my profession, I was like, a professional, survivor, you know, a role model. And I only could do that for so many years before I was like, I don’t, this is not who I am anymore. Like, I don’t want my professional identity, or my personal identity to be tied to trauma. And, you know, for some people, I think there’s a lot of therapists, a lot of people who continue doing work around trauma for their whole career, and it just keeps evolving in different ways. But for me, I needed to step away from it, I think, in some ways, that did help with my mother, but I didn’t do it. For that reason, it just was a natural evolution. For me, I remember there was a certain period where it was scary to give up that identity. You know, it was it was difficult to not have the sexual abuse I experienced as a child be the reason for all the problems in my life. And for me to say, you know, this is my life now. And I’m taking responsibility for all the ways I’m still a screwed up human being or the way, you know, my heart is not open, or my body is not open, or whatever it was, I was struggling with compulsive behaviors, like I have to deal with these things on my own. And not because this thing happened to me. I felt raw, you don’t like this, this raw being out in the world? Who would I be? If my identity wasn’t wrapped up in this terrible thing that had happened? You know, and when I look at it now, I would I would actually say that for me, the incest with my grandfather was absolutely significant. But my relationship with my mother, way more significant, right? Way more significant in terms of something I had to work through and something that has influenced me for so many decades.

So I’m writing a book and one of the things I’m doing in it is I’m redefining what sexual

trauma is I’m broadening the definition to include basically anything but that our nervous system gets too overwhelmed to manage and has to shut down and lifeforce. Right? So things like growing up with a mentally ill, or a drug addicted parents, and all the ways that we have to kind of squeezed out on our lifeforce in order to be safe, and then how that impacts our sexual self expression. And so in reading this, it’s like, I know that it’s hard to parse out to peel apart like, Okay, here’s the incest and then here’s mom’s behavior. And here, you know, here’s birth trauma, which is also something that I share with you all of the above. And, and then, you know, like, what, what shaped us or what am impacted us? So what are your thoughts on how

those more nuanced, subtler versus more direct forms of sexual trauma impacted your sexual self expression in the world?

Well, I love what you’re doing, I just, you know, in terms of, I can’t wait for your book to be finished and out, because I think it’s, it’s a really, really important addition to the literature to have that idea out in the world. I don’t think I could parse it out. Because, you know, it all just affected me together. But I definitely don’t think it was just, you know, I definitely learned to dissociate with my grandfather, but I probably did with my mother earlier, you know, and I probably learned it from watching her because she, she could be like, hyper present, and very, very intense and then checked out. So, you know, where did I get these things from? With? I think it’s a combination. And it’s easy to just, you know, I just think it’s, it’s an early stage of healing to keep things simplistic. I think sins are incredibly complicated. In terms of how we’re shaped, you know, there’s so many forces, there’s,

there’s the ones you mentioned, and I could probably mention, 20, more, no, and, and also the ones that gave me strength, and I think of myself as a purely functional person, my whole life. And so there were a lot of there were a lot of strength, I was given a tremendous amount of strengths in my childhood as well, you know, creativity and incredible love of nature, and appreciation of the theater, I got that from my mother, you know, celebration of food, and family. And, you know, although my parents messed up in a lot of ways, in some aspects, they were excellent parents. And I tried to embody those qualities, I don’t think teasing it out is Yeah, possible. And I’m not sure how much it helps, because we just deal with what we’re dealing with, you know, I think identifying traumas, you know, at the beginning, it’s really important to be able to name and claim and, you know, break silence and say, This is what happened. And that’s really essential. But at a certain point, that’s not the most important thing, the most important thing is okay, what am I going to do with my life now, you, you really succeeded, and the complexity of the book, as I was saying to you earlier, there’s so many layers and so many thread lines, that I, you know, that I wanted to sub like, like hours and hours of a conversation with you around, and one of the things that I loved the most is your honest voice. And I don’t want to give too much away. And so I’m speaking very vaguely, but there are these moments where you were, you’re fuming. And we do hear your, your inner monologue of what you’re actually experiencing. And then there is this capacity to regulate yourself and say something very different to your mother who might be having her own meltdown. I’m a big believer in healing through practices, like rewiring the brain through the body using meditation using a variety of practices. And I wondered about that around just this tension between your mother’s dysregulation and your dysregulation, and what did you do to build that capacity and yourself and to keep and to have the patience in those moments? I mean, in some ways, I think you’re giving me a lot more credit. And I think I just heard

what you read as a story about my life was actually what it was like to live it, you know, and I think, I think, you know, when you tell a story, you lean into certain moments more than other moments and other things, you let dissolve away because you can’t tell everything and you will want to have a good story. So, you know, it’s not everything. There may not be literally exactly what happened, you know, although close enough and really represents what it all felt like to me. What did I do, I would often you know, just like just really simple things like feeling my feet on the ground, and just imagining that or taking the palms of my hands and just opening like, opening my palms, just really simple little things, you know, or just sitting in the chair and just feeling my back, my buttocks, my legs against the chair. It’s you know, when I’m listening to I’m in class or teaching a workshop and someone’s reading something we

really emotionally intense, I’m doing the same thing. And, you know, I think probably as a therapist, you do the same thing, you know, it’s how do I stay grounded, while someone else is having really intense emotions, you know, and sometimes I had to, you know, I, I, sometimes I had to walk away or Storm Away, and then and then I had to go out in nature. So, you know, I different things at different times, and sometimes I was more successful than others. And I, you know, I like, for instance, I think my mother and I both recognized, that we could not live together. And, you know, we had the privilege of not being forced into that situation, you know, my mother had, was an incredibly frugal person, she was a social worker. So, you know, she certainly was not wealthy by any means, but she never spent money, she invested money, you know, she, she had a house, she, she earned money through property, that she, she just was super careful. And at the end of her life, she had enough money to be able to afford to, like live in an assisted living place and have her own separate space, which I was very, very grateful for, because I just didn’t think I could have that kind of proximity to her. You know, it just was, it did, you know, our relationship worked for many years because of a buffer between us. And for a lot of years, I kept a 3000 mile buffer between us and, you know, the open, this book opens with a call from my mother saying, I’m moving to your town. And suddenly that, that was that’s the inciting incident, she is, you know, almost 80 years old, and failing. And she’s, she’s coming to my town for the rest of her life. And, and I have to deal with it and so that that safe buffer I have created suddenly is gone. And that, that, that instigates the rest of the story, which is you know, what happened for the rest of her life and, and her arrival, you know, it brought up a lot of things that I thought were resolved. But they were only papered over. And a lot a lot came up, because, you know, we had, we had worked things out to some extent, but only to a certain extent. And that became very apparent when she arrived. Right? Well, there are just, you know, I feel like not only does healing happen in a spiral, but forgiveness happens in the same way. And there are just so many different layers and, and moments to revisit the process of forgiving, which is something I would like to talk with you about. But I also want to acknowledge that, yes, this massive buffer was gone, but you still manage to and I kept waiting for that moment where she was going to move into your house, and it didn’t happen. And so you still held that boundary, you know, and so that, to me is just always an interesting thing. One of the things I do with clients is help them develop embodied boundaries, and talk about the range of kinds of boundaries we need with ourselves and other people. And you gave so much of yourself in the relationship in the in that last period of time with her. But you still did hold that boundary. Yeah, as I said, you know, I had the privilege to do so. And if I if I hadn’t, then it would have been a different situation as it is for aliens and millions of families, we then you have to deal with it in a different way. And I you know, so I was grateful that I was able to keep that distance, I felt like it enabled me to care for her have more compassion there. Well, I guess we’re talking about forgiveness. And the process of forgiveness, you know, for forgiveness, like healing happens in a spiral. And at different times, there’s different phases of forgiveness, right? We think we’ve forgiven perhaps, or we think we’re at a certain place, and then something else arises and comes to the surface to be worked through. And I’m curious if you could talk more about your process of forgiveness with your mom.

Yeah, you know, for me, forgiveness is it’s something I’ve written about a lot. And I think because when we were writing courage to heal, you know, one of the things that many survivors reported and that I certainly experienced myself, was everyone else urging us to forgive. You know, like, you know, let bygones be bygones. You know, even if it did happen, it was 30 years ago, why are you dwelling on this, you know, basically, this, this idea of just like, brush it under the rug and forgive and forget and move on. And forgiveness is much more complicated than that. And then there’s, you know, there’s all the religious injunctions to forgive. And often those injunctions are like shut up and stop talking about it. So I’ve always really wanted to tell people you don’t have to forgive you know that the only essential forgiveness is for yourself for any way that you are holding yourself responsible or accountable for the abuse for any way you’re, you know, hating yourself for what you did to cope. And that kind of forgiveness for self is really essential. You know, my experience of forgiveness is it’s a amazing and remarkable experience. For me, it was always a byproduct of the

Rest of the healing I did. You know, it’s not, it’s not something I thought now I’m going to try to forgive. It was something that kind of spontaneously arose because of, you know, all the work I did that all the times I expressed my rage I named my abuse, I grieved, I set boundaries, all the things I had to do. I did all of that. And after that there was space for this other feeling to arise. And for me, it was almost always a surprise, a plus a very wonderful surprise. And yeah, I think I think it happened in layers, you know, some of it is what I was mentioning before about getting perspective on someone else’s life, and not just their personal history. But like, you know, I come from this Russian Jewish stock and all the trauma, the Jewish trauma going back generations, you know, like my grandparents fled Russia, you know, so there’s a lot of other trauma laid upon that, that leads to other kinds of trauma. And I think understanding all of that helps. It’s not enough, it certainly doesn’t excuse someone being an abuser. It’s like when I was at the beginning of my healing process, I was right up next to all this. And then as the years went by, it’s like, I started to have a much more, almost like I was out in outer space. And I was looking down and my perspective was so much more vast. And I think that’s where Forgiveness Is Possible. Is, is when it becomes you know, there’s, there’s a section in the, in the book where I talk about it is quite late in the book, I talk about my daughter taking my daughter to college, her second year of college and, and how I felt really free, instead of like grieving the loss of her, not living with me and not being with us, which is how I felt the first year. The second year, it was like she was she was our youngest. So we were empty nesters. It was like, Whoa, you know, I have a whole different life now. And I was a year into that life. And I didn’t feel sad when I dropped her off. And I think I started to realize, at that point that my mother

was so much more than just my mother. I mean, it sounds kind of stupid almost to say it. But intellectually I understood, you know, but I think I got it on a body level, that she had a life completely separate from being my mother. And she was so admired and loved. And I had so many people say to me, Oh, I wish she could be my mother. I heard that so many times, because of how she presented in the world. You know, when when it wasn’t the most intimate, not between mother and daughter, you know, it’s I think she functioned well, at a certain distance. Also, you know, and when it got more intimate than that, and when her own core needs were triggered, you know, she turned into another person, really, that’s what it felt like me, I think having that that distance, that perspective deepened my

forgiveness of her. And it felt really, really good. But I felt like I earned it over a lot of years of doing a lot of work. And it feels good not to be

blaming someone or feeling really angry at them all the time. Or we’re having to create distance or, you know, I ultimately got to the point where I could maybe not fully, but I could relax around her. One of the ways that I think about forgiveness is just bringing all of your energy and self into present time. And then you get to rehab, you know, reclaim your wholeness. Yeah, I like that. That’s really nicely really beautifully said. Thank you. The other thing you know, you’re talking about lucid, really interesting is like this zooming out, yeah, back out into outer space and having perspective in that way. And I often when I’m sitting with clients, you know, get the image of either like standing at the base of a mountain, and being like, Oh, shit, look at all of this is all that I have to do. I have to, you know, this is this is the healing process of versus being on top of the mountain and seeing the VISTA and having that bigger perspective. And, you know, it has me think about memory, and how memory works. And how we can have these rigid ideas of opinion on something, especially with trauma can be crystallized in your memory. And then each time you tell the story, it’s like you’re reinforcing that you’re reinforcing it. But then the thing that was so interesting to me, you know, it’s like in your book, with time with life experience, you have a different perspective, right with reading letters and, and going like, wait a second, I remembered it this way. But this is what she’s saying in this is you know how that all shifts your perspective and allow something else to unfold? Yeah, there’s a there’s a quote I have in the you know, I like to have like an epigraph and there’s a quote in the front by a woman named Deborah who is an author, and the quote was, every time I look in the rearview mirror, the past has changed.

And you know, that’s so much. I mean, that’s, that was my experience putting together the story is that you know how over the many years, my perspective just kept changing, and shifting. And I absolutely did not want to write a story where there was a villain and a hero. You know, I really wanted a story about two very human flawed people. This goes back to something you were saying at the beginning, as I have a writing coach, I have a really good friend, Susan Brown, who was a creative writing professor for about 30 years. And she read an early draft of some of this material. And she was pretty brutal in her critique. That’s just her style. She is not someone who cuddles her writers, you know, and so I had to really recover from my feedback from her. But the thing she said that was so influential, she said, Laura, this is not the courage to heel, it is the courage to reveal. Ooh, and I, you know, I didn’t speak to her. I mean, because she said a lot of other things about, you know, how terrible the book was at that point. But it probably was, you know, but, but it was so harsh. But I left the book at that point, I was like, so devastated by what she had said, and how could I ever do what she was telling me, and really show up, and, and when I came back to it, I put her words on my wall. It’s not the courage to heal, it’s the courage to reveal. And what she said is that, you know, you are making yourself into the hero, and you’re not showing your real personality, you’re not showing your underbelly, you’re not being vulnerable. And she said, and your mother is like a cardboard character, you know. And so I, I took that as a challenge. And it took me some years, to really get to the point of what you said, you know, that there’s these two complicated, nuanced characters. And when people started to say, you know, on this page, I loved your mother and hated you. And on this page, I hated your mother and loved you. I was like, Okay, I’m finished. Yes, and I got there, I finally got there. Well, I want to go back to the scene in the car, because it’s one of the scenes that I really appreciate it. And I’d had my own version of that with my mom. And we’re the truth telling stopped the minute week, she was suddenly, like, pulled over to get gas, and that it was like, a new day, like, we hadn’t been talking about anything we started talking about. It was like a reset, like gas and bathroom reset. But there’s something that feels so universal, about two people sitting in a car, it’s like feels like the setting of multiple plays or something, right? Two people sitting in there. It’s more like they’re your ally, right? Because you’re not sitting across from them there. It’s not an interrogation. That’s right, right, you’re like, Okay, if we’re side by side, and it’s often even, in speaking to a client about shame, something where there’s a lot of shame, sitting where they don’t have to look at me, is something that can be really useful, right? Because they don’t have to face themselves by looking at you looking at them. So I think that there’s some piece about that. Is there anything else you want to add?

No, but I love I love what you said about that working in the therapy room, too. It makes me wonder about like doing zoom therapy, where

I mean, like, sometimes maybe it’d be better to turn your camera off. You know, there’s something about just voice like, I’m just closing my eyes right now, at this moment. Yeah, and I just entered a totally different space, just hearing your voice without looking at you. Well, a lot. Along the lines of what you just said about not being able to see somebody, there’s it’s really important because, you know, I,

I work somatically I do physical practices, I do body work, some people I just sit and talk with. But I remember having a client and this was a turning point, in our relationship where we did a phone session, a couple of people this has happened, where, because things can be so intense, and if someone has a dysregulated nervous system, being just in the same space with another person can be a lot for them. So being over a phone, there is a very different way that you can let someone in and there that can be like, Oh, this can feel more connected and more intimate than be face to face with somebody. And yeah, I think I mean, I think that’s why

some of those letters between my mother and I, there were there was when you write a letter, you have so much control over what you say, and you don’t have to deal with someone else’s immediate reaction. And so it creates this boundary. I think it’s very much the same. Yeah, there was there was a woman I interviewed for the courage to heal this. So this is like 35 years ago, and she would see her mother and every time they would visit they would have a horrible visit. Like it might go well for a short honeymoon period. And then everything would fall apart and and you know, it would be just a disaster and she’d have to go back and basically spend months putting herself back together. And then she and her mother would start writing letters to each other again, and they wrote really beautiful letters to each other and you know,

Another six months or a year would go by of writing letters, and she’d think, oh, maybe I was exaggerating, maybe it really wasn’t so bad. I guess I’ll go see my mother, you know, and she would go back in the same cycle would repeat. And this went on for years and years and years. And she said, One day, she just woke up, and she realized, I have a mother and letters. That’s the level at which we could have a relationship. I’m not gonna go see her anymore. But it took her a really long time to learn that lesson. Well, and I think that that’s part of what we figure out as we get older, right? It’s like, okay, so what are the parameters? I know, for me to see my dad, I’m like, I have to be well fed, well rested and not have time constraints, because he tends to be sometimes hours late. So it’s like, if I take all of those things are going to make me disgruntled, then I have much more space for him. Right? Right. I love that, you know,

our little tricks, one of the things that, that I love what you shared about your kids coming to your writing class, and you’re in a different role. And one of the things seems that I loved in the book was your mother coming to your writing class. And you know, what, what I appreciate about you are your very firm boundaries in your writing workshops, because it creates more safety and structure. And so your mom was

that seen several people just when I was the book at one point was like, 120,000 words, which is way too long. Yeah, and I are even more 140,000 words, and I cut 50,000 words out of it, you know, we have to make it more manageable. But a lot of people want to be to cut that scene, because it’s not much happens in it. But actually, a lot happens in it. Because, to me, that was a huge turning point. And I feel fine sharing this particular story that she, you know, I was teaching I think a one day workshop, like six hours at the local community college, like an introductory writing class, no big deal. It wasn’t like, you know, particularly deep wasn’t like a week long workshop or something like that. And I just on a whim, she was visiting.

From New Jersey, she was in California, and she was staying at her own place for the winter for a couple months. And I said, Do you want to come with me to the class, I’m not sure what possessed me to invite her I’d never invited her to anything, where I had to be on because it was just unpredictable how I would react to being around her. And she came to the class and she, I gave all the rules. And she just blew through every one of my rules. And, and no one in the class knew that she was my mother. And I had said, you know, if anyone breaks these rules, which was basically don’t critique, don’t give advice, don’t praise, just say thank you, you know, she, people started coming up and said that woman over there.

And that woman over there was by mother and they didn’t know. And then I went to credit, you know, lunchtime, I went over to her and I’m like, whispering with other people around, like, you broke the rules. That’s against the rules. This is what she says like, Laurie, it’s so stupid. Like, why should I, you know, it’s a stupid rule. And it was she was incorrigible. And I knew that I had driven with her, I had to get through the afternoon of the class, I couldn’t be, you know, upset with her. And I just, instead of my habitual response, which would have been to harden, and to curse her out, and to, you know, be resentful and feel superior. I just started laughing.

I just started laughing. And I just thought she is incorrigible, and instead of my habitual response to her behavior, I responded differently. So even though it’s a very simple little story, it was really a big turning point for me, when I could bring humor into the relationship. Right, right. I mean, that’s, first of all, just on an energetic level, what I’ve learned is that if there is something that stagnant, whether it’s grief or resentment, laughter diffuses it, it shifts your state, right. So like, even as a teenager, my mom and I had a safe word. And it was arugula. So anytime my mom’s tone, or my tone was like, you know, I would say arugula. And then we would start laughing. And we could reset. So I love that you that you were able to do that. And I saw it as a very significant scene, because, you know, I’m tracking one of the themes is boundaries, right? There’s the theme of boundaries through the whole book, and how you negotiate those and, and that you were able to bring laughter into it as a significant piece. You know, it’s interesting, I’m so glad you brought that up about the, you know, this thread because one of the things that I teach my students and that I had to do for this book is come up with what’s called narrative threads. And they were like, certain themes that we’re going to weave through the whole book, because you know, when you write a book you write, you know, hundreds and hundreds of pages, probably 1000s of pages, and you write these separate discrete chunks, and then put that’s No, you cannot just line them up at half a book. How do you weave that together?

So it’s one integrated story. And one of the ways is to have these threads. And I think I had like, maybe eight narrative threads. And one of them was my relationship to touch with my mother. And you know, at the beginning of the book, I’m absolutely repelled by her touch, you know, and it changes over the course of the book. And so I consciously had to go through every scene I wrote and look at the relationship of like, my physicality with her. And I had to make sure that there was an evolution in that I very consciously made sure that wove all the way through the book, you know, and it’s, I think, when a writer, does the kind of deeper work of structuring something, it should, should the reader be invisible? You know, like, most people would not notice that it maybe you noticed it, because this is your, your belly wick has touch and boundaries. And, you know, and so you would notice, but I think most people wouldn’t notice, they would just say, that was a really good book, you know, I couldn’t stop turning the pages, but they don’t know why. There’s actually a lot of skill that goes into showing the evolution of the character through action, instead of talking about it. Right. And, and beginner writers, you know, that’s always the first thing is, you know, show don’t tell and don’t, you know, don’t just, and like, we’re talking about labels, like, you know, this person’s a narcissist, or this person’s an alcoholic, or this person is bipolar, it’s like, no, just show their behavior. You don’t need to label people, it creates a distance, it’s an intellectual thing. We want to react to actual human beings moving through time and space. And because once you have a label, then you’re putting someone in a box with a lot of expectations. And people are much more complex than that. Absolutely. Speaking of boxes, bringing it back to touch.

The very first image isn’t okay, if I share, yeah, the with you in you know, cuz they’re gonna get there very quickly. But you in an incubator, right? So I was very aware of a theme of boxes are being encased and even the thick that goes to the scene where you and your mother are in this bubble, the skull, you know, inside the car. And so that as a theme, but that but one of the things related to that very first image, as you know, a little Bobby in a box is there’s not touch in that moment. Right. I was a preemie, and they didn’t believe at that. Now premiums are held. But this was now 65 years ago, and they didn’t believe in holding or touching premiums. So I was not touched for the first six weeks of my life. And I was never, I never touched anyone. In fact, that was that was a really interesting conversation with my coach, one day, we’re working on that opening scene. And I think the original said something like, you know, no one touched me for six weeks. And he said, and I touched no one. He said, You have to add that. And I thought he was right. I love that you’re bringing up these things that no one else brings up, you know, that your your point of view, your perspective that you’re noticing things that I very consciously did, that are invisible to 99.9% of, of readers, you know, yeah, that box thing. And you know, it’s interesting, because the whole thing about my birth was something I really wanted to include in the book. And I had many editors along the way, just say, you know, you’re doing too much in this book, you’re trying to cover too much just cut that out. And I was very stubborn, I just held on to it. And it became smaller. But I just felt like it was such an essential shaping part of my psychology that set my whole life from that moment of my birth that I felt like it needed to be included. And I against everyone’s advice. I kept it. I’m glad I did it. You know, it’s so I feel, I feel like I could start crying right now. But I feel so moved. And inspired to hear you say that, because it really does. You have to really believe in yourself. And trust yourself in the process of writing a memoir, which is such a vulnerable thing. And to not take all those other people’s advice, but to be like, No, this is actually a really core thread that sets everything up. And I made it man I wasn’t executing it. Well, you know, it’s like, and I think that’s that’s what I loved about Joshua, my coach so much. He never told me what to do. It would be like I would tell him what I wanted to do. And he said, Well, let’s figure out how to do that. Beautiful, which you know, was so different than like, that won’t work. You can’t do that, you know, and he sounds skillful. Very, very skillful, very and really, probably the best listener I’ve ever known in my life just really deep listening to what is the story? What is the what is the creative person trying to express? So Laura, I would really love

If you could choose a passage from the book to share with the listeners.

Okay, I think I know what I want to read just as a setup just to know that the the book alternates, it moves around in time quite a bit. And the main story is from the moment my mother calls and says she’s arriving in my town and she’s, you know, turning at the main stories about the rest of her life. But it goes back and forth through time and this particular chapter takes place when I’m 14 years old.

It’s called dirty old man.

Laura 14, Tammy 43, New York City.

In the summer of 1971, my breasts grew overnight, and I didn’t know what to do with them. I covered them with baggy shirts, but they rose like mountains anyway. When I walked down the street cars slowed and men whistled. I was propositioned all the time.

Two years earlier, I was certain I be flat chested forever. I begged mom to get me one of those white, frilly double A bras that the other undeveloped girls wore, but she didn’t believe in training bras, you’ve got nothing to put in them. You’re flat as a pancake.

Then suddenly, in two months, my breasts ballooned past Triple D, I hunched my shoulders in a vain attempt to hide my chest. My blonde hair, which had always been straight, transformed into a wavy curtain. I parted it in the middle and let it drape straight down to cover my blackheads and the hard tan polka dots of Clearasil that peppered my face.

Midway through the summer, Mom and I drove to New York to see Bobby and Papa. It was just the two of us. Dad was living at project our toe painting giant murals. And Paul was away at the University of Colorado, driving an old hearse. Mom and I arrived at BPN why alone, and that’s the name we gave my grandparents tenement in New York City VPN, why?

14, I still had no conscious memory of my grandfather’s abuse. But other things about him made me dragged my heels that day. I was dreading a ritual that had long been practiced in my family. As all the girls mom, her sisters B and Ruth, and all the girl cousins before me reached adolescence. Papa insisted that they lift their shirts and bear their budding breasts for his inspection. It was a rite of passage, a family tradition.

After Papa unlocked the two dead bolts in the chain, we entered the dark apartment. There were the familiar Sofia photos from the old country, a Yiddish newspaper strewn on a chair. The sizzling smell of lactose. Papa took in my new chest and chuckled with delight. Are they growing yet?

A shrink away from my body until I could no longer feel the sticky summer heat on my skin. Just a cool empty place inside. mom looked at me expectantly. Papa waited for me to comply. Let me see just a little peek. He said it lightly. Wasn’t this all just an amusing little joke.

I fingered the hem of my white peasant shirt. The embroidery on top was turquoise, green and gold. They were looking at me waiting. Papa’s eyes gleamed with anticipation. You know,

the word ignited from somewhere deep inside me. mom’s face hardened. Laurie, what’s the big deal? Do you have to be so unpleasant? We all did it.

I pulled the bottom of my shirt down over my jeans. The words tumbled out of an unfamiliar place. And I don’t want to my mom’s eyes flared with anger and her shoulders squared. Don’t be so uptight. Lorie, it will only take a minute. She looked at me appraising li as she had so many times before. You have a lovely figure, you have nothing to be ashamed of.

That’s where the memory ends. The only thing I know for sure is that I didn’t lift up my shirt, and that I was the only girl in the family ever to refuse.

Sometimes when I think back to this moment, I imagine it happening at another time of year with our whole family crammed into that tiny apartment at a Seder. Maybe in that version, I see my teenage self standing up to all of them. Every one of my aunts and cousins, all the women and girls, the ones from the past and the

ones from the future. All the ROS women, generations of them shouting, why are you making such a big deal about this? We all did it. A whole chorus of shirt lifters clamoring for me to bear my chest. Just one look. Give the dirty old man one luck. But I didn’t listen to any of them. Not the ones who were they’re not the ones in my head. A kernel of resistance rose up inside me. I said, No. It would be years before I’d remembered what had happened with Papa when I was small. But someone fierce woke up inside me that day. She soon dropped back into slumber. But she was there. It’s such a potent scene.

Yeah, I mean, just reading it, I feel it. Yeah, I have shivers it’s it’s one of the things that that resonated with me is in, you know how family under the guise of humor like, like, what’s the big deal and then like the amount of dismissiveness and how your body doesn’t belong to you. And this is one of those examples of you know, there can be these. I it’s beyond a micro assault, or boundary crossing, I would say but these things that inform our sexual self expression later in life. Even if it doesn’t go beyond that. It’s like that’s, what does that teaching you? And the fact that you that you had the capacity, something in you had the capacity to say no is profound. Yeah. And that, that that part of me that said, No, I mean, like I said, she dropped back to slumber. I mean, it was many years before that voice ever asserted herself. To me. That part that said, No, I mean, that’s the power that I have had my whole life. I mean, that the deep strength, it was like it was there. But it was, like, buried by so many layers and not supported, yet supported. Maybe in some areas of my life, I was allowed to be strong, and others I was not, thank you so much. You’re really welcome. It was fun to read it.

So one thing to know listeners is that Laura’s also recorded an audio book. And it sounds like it’s really dynamic, that there are different people reading different characters. And so that’s another way if you don’t have time to read, get the audiobook, stick it in your car, go for a walk, it’s really worth it. Anything else that you want to say before we close, just that, you know, if people want to find me, the best way is to come to my website, Laura davis.net. And you could learn about my writing workshops, writing classes I teach online now. So you know, geography is not an impediment. And also in terms of running light of two stars, which is the book I have posted the first five chapters on my website. So if you want to check out the book, and see if it’s something that you want to buy, you can read, so it’s way longer than an Amazon sample. And you can get to those chapters at Laura davis.net forward slash chapters, and then you could read the opening. Thank you again, Laura. Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure. I’ve loved talking to you. As a teen my mom tried to force me to forgive my stepdad who had been sexually and physically abusive to both of us. I can still recall how clenched and hard and rageful my body felt at the suggestion. It’s no coincidence. I spent decades with inflammatory based health issues related to unexpressed anger. Forgiveness is for you to create more ease and breadth and peace inside your tissue. It’s calling yourself back into present time. Forgiveness does not mean reconciliation. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. But I do hold it as a way to free yourself. So here’s a practice. I call all my energy back to me, you can say that to yourself. Imagine all the moments in time, people and places you habitually returned to out of hurt and anger.

You can call all of your energy back from those moments. Imagine it consolidates around you in a semi permeable bubble of protection, and arm’s length out, side to side, front to back, top to bottom. Like a big golden egg in this bubble strengthens your lifeforce. You can feel it pulsing warm and golden around you. It allows in what feels good, and it allows what no longer serves to be released.

One of the tools that’s been useful to me was taught to me by a teacher named Mira by Debbie and she took this

Ron Howard wills, these forgiveness prayers, and just know that I am not religious and you don’t have to be religious when when you hear the word prayer, it can be triggering for some people think of this as a meditation. But it’s a chant. It’s something that you’re repeating to yourself. In your assertion, right and intention.

You can say, I forgive you, please forgive me. Please, divine light. Thank you divine light.

I forgive you. Please forgive me, please, divine light. Thank you. Divine Light.

Many people may have a reaction to and say to themselves, well, what did I do? What do I need to be forgiven for?

This prayer can be directed at someone else or it can be directed at yourself. And often for sexual trauma survivors or trauma survivors in general, people blame themselves, right? They shame themselves

for the abuse happening. So this can be a practice that frees up old shame and stuck grief and stuck powerlessness, if you directed at yourself.

When I was 16, and looking at the book, the courage to heal for the first time, I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to have a conversation and call Laura Davis, one of my teachers. And so this was an honor. I hope you enjoyed this conversation and that you enjoy her memoir.

You can reach me at laid open podcast@gmail.com If you have additional questions around sex and trauma, you can follow me at laid open podcast on Instagram and Facebook and read more about my work at passionate life.org or late open podcast.com. Until next time, take good care

 

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© 2022 By Charna Cassell, LMFT. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. MFC 51238.

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