Women’s stories, the reality of our lives too often appears to have no value to the reading public, who it seems don’t want to read such boring, painful stuff. Really? We can dismiss the reality of women’s lives so easily? Unless there is a major groundswell of women’s and children’s stories that are taken seriously in all sectors of society, I can’t see how we will make any progress defeating the excesses of patriarchy and all that this means in women’s lives.
—Elly Danica, September 2014
In 1988, after years of distance from a childhood of vicious abuse, Elly Danica published Don’t at the age of forty-one. It is a lean, tight memoir written in a jagged prose poetry style—her first book, and the result of many years of journaling about her father’s relentless physical, sexual, and verbal assaults. “I decided when I was nine years old that I would try to find a way to tell the story of what happened to me, so that someone would know,” she writes via email from her present home in Nova Scotia. “It took me until my late 30’s to find my voice, but the promise I made to my nine year old self was the driving force all those years.” Though largely forgotten, the end result of that promise Danica made to her young self is arguably one of the finest memoirs in Canadian literature.
“Until the book was published the story dominated my every waking moment,” she goes on to tell me. “The decade prior to publication I spent as a hermit, writing everyday, trying to find a way to write…in a way that would incorporate the pain of the events. I isolated myself so I could figure this out, both in terms of my personal story and then as a writer.”
As a product of that journaling, Don’t is necessarily impressionistic and lyrical, honouring a memory filtered by the feelings and fears of a victimized child who became a traumatized woman. Yet it’s also a searing feminist document that highlights, as Nicole Brossard so aptly puts it in the introduction, how sexual violence is “not only a repeated assassination of our dignity and our creativity, but also a way for men to occupy our lives, in the same way one occupies a country.” The book examines not only what it’s like to be personally violated, but how that trauma resonates throughout a life and the culture that sanctions it.
“The spring I am nine years old I learn I am a thing,” Danica writes in the book. “I learn girls cannot act. Somebody might save me. If I am lucky. I know I can’t save myself.” The repeated rape Danica endures at the hands of her father and her father’s friends is relayed in compact, disjointed paragraph sections, mimicking the thoughts and questions of a child learning “why is the world this way?” We see all too acutely her acknowledgment of victimhood unfold, the failure of adults and institutions to intervene, and the systems in place that demand Danica believe she is damaged, “crazy,” and worthless. We feel the risk inherent in her honesty, and the punishments she endures for telling the truth. She becomes “the one who can no longer smile,” always yearning for escape and made to feel like she is wrong not only for speaking the reality of her experience, but for her later adult need to sever herself from the control of men. What adds to the brutality of Danica’s story is that the abuse she endured was ignored and even sanctioned by her mother, and subsequently disbelieved by her family.
“Don’t you think I might have a reason to hate men?” Danica asks her sister. “Don’t you think somebody taught me to hate?” The answer she receives to this question is always no, that there is something wrong with her, and even that she is a lying “manhater.” It is a common response for so many among us who have been dehumanized by male violence, and ultimately Don’t was a book that resonated with many.
“It became for a brief few months, a sensation in Canada,” Danica writes on her blog of the book’s initial success. “Primarily because of an interview I did with broadcaster Peter Gzowski which was aired on CBC.” Gzowski eventually won an ACTRA award for that interview, and the exposure prompted the book to be published in England, Ireland and the US, and translated into German, Dutch and French. Danica toured Canada for close to two years, doings talks, readings, and interviews, and becoming a conduit for other people’s grief.
“I got to travel, throughout Canada and also in Europe. For a brief time I had a bit of money. I spent several glorious summers in PEI. Pretty good for someone who’d spent the previous decade and a half living in the basement of an old prairie church, scratching for money and sometimes for food.”
But there was consequence to Danica’s telling of the unbearable, and a continuous grief that her success obscured. “The reception took me by surprise in the sense that I wanted to change people’s perceptions about the issue of child sexual abuse, wanted to have it taken seriously, wanted to make the extent of the impact of such experiences clear—it is never just an event, but so much more. Primarily I wanted it stopped, want children and women to be safe and feel safe. Instead I became as one journalist described me: ‘Canada’s most famous victim.’”
Danica further tells me the window of interest for her story was a very narrow one, and that in the space of a mere eighteen months post-publication she went from responding to the upset reactions to incidents in the book, to having to defend her memories, and then to accusations that her memories were ‘false.’ In her follow-up memoir, Beyond Don’t, published eight years later, she frankly discloses the toll the publication took on her, that though an exercise in recovery, it was merely a first step. “I had underestimated both how long it would take to get there and what I would have to come to terms with to make a better life possible,” she writes. “I began to abuse drugs and alcohol. At the time I could not explain to myself or to anyone else why I was in so much pain, and so focused on walking oblivion or suicide.”
“At first I was appalled by people’s reactions to Don’t,” she continues. “People hurt and cried reading what I had written, which made me feel wretched. Instead of closing a chapter of my life, I was burdening others with it.” Danica goes on to detail how she would be stared at and whispered about, approached by people disclosing horrific details of their own sexual abuse, and how she took their pain on. The experience exhausted her, again made her insular and reclusive, and fostered a belief that she didn’t have an identity apart from the book, apart from her victimhood.
“In Moose Jaw, Regina or Saskatoon I was stopped in the grocery store, restaurants, public washrooms, as other child sexual abuse survivors latched on to me to share their stories,” she tells me. “How does one say no to that? These were survivors who had carried the burden of their stories for years, never having anyone believe them, and there I was, someone who knew they were telling their truths.”
In talking about survivor memoirs penned by women, we often use words like “therapeutic” and “courageous.” We discuss how these books have touched the lives of others, have done a great deal of good by igniting conversation, by promoting healing, or by shedding light on an issue. While all of these things are true, and are things I myself have said, in treating them this way we unfairly compartmentalize them, make them serve a specific function during a specific time for a specific group, rather than allowing them to become the iconic, permanent literature they so richly deserve to be. Danica is, of course, indisputably brave, but she’s also a skilled writer who hasn’t been able to find a traditional publisher or agent interested in her work over the last decade. It seems Don’t was paradoxically hugely popular and doomed to obscurity, downgraded to the outskirts of “self-help” or “women’s narratives,” or on an obligatory reading list for survivors and women’s studies scholars. Presently it is a difficult book to find, listed as out of stock or unavailable on many prominent book websites, my own copy sourced from a used book vendor.
Danica articulates the reason for this phenomenon well when she frankly describes to me her take on the media’s immediate reception to the book. “Some interviews were down right creepy. One interviewer kept baiting me, trying to make me out as a man-hater, putting forth statements about how I hated all men and that was what the book was about. Another interviewer groped me under the desk as he was asking questions about the book on live television. Another newspaper interviewer said I vomited the book. There was initially very little about the actual writing of the book, let alone that I was a feminist. To most media I was a nice salacious victim. There were also, later, a number of wonderful reviews, people who ‘got it’ and who were very eloquent about the book and the issues, but they were far outnumbered by the victim stories.”
When we say the rape memoir is “important,” we actually mean—perhaps wrongly—something entirely different than your standard analysis of what importance is. We rarely scrutinize the book’s literary performance, or its aesthetic value, because it feels enough that it simply exists. The rape narrative, regardless of how “well-written” it is, falls outside the literary norm and its methods of inquiry because we can’t yet admit to ourselves that gender based violence is, in fact, our cultural norm. Perhaps it is because it is hard to use a critical literary lens on a book about how a girl’s father prostituted her repeatedly and violently to his friends? And do we subsequently believe that if it is too difficult to use a critical lens, can it, in fact, be literature?
When I ask Danica whether or not she believes that women’s memoirs especially those dealing with rape trauma, are taken seriously as literature, she agrees that they’re cordoned off into niche or feminist sections our collective reading list. “I occasionally get requests from memoir writers and abuse survivors asking me to suggest publishers then can contact. What few independent publishers we have left in this country seem to be saying (is) we did that in the eighties, there’s no call for that kind of book now. Or worse, it’s no longer an issue,” she says. “So no, I don’t think women’s memoirs are taken as seriously as they ought to be.”
“This is so you’ll learn you are a woman,” Danica’s father says before he callously violates her one of many times. The line—like many in the book—is horrific and devastating, but also a lesson so many women have been taught throughout their lives in myriad ways. To believe the lesson in subjugation is rare, and that belongs in a separate literary category is inherently flawed. We like to believe the canon is a product of human experience, yet rape—in all its pervasiveness—rarely finds itself there, especially when told in the authentic, non-appropriated voice of the survivor. Yes, Don’t is brave, candid, and healing, but it is also a vital literary text in a culture that so often excludes or assumes the experience of the victim.
There is a reason young Elly Danica, who is raped multiple times by multiple men for their amusement, yearns to be a boy; “Justice. How can I believe? He is free. I carry chains. He killed all that was beautiful in me. He is free.” If we cast out “women’s books” like Danica’s to an oft-forgotten therapeutic or feminist corner, we fail, culturally, to understand their collective insight into who we are and how we live. We want to believe that her story is isolated and extreme, that rapists are simply inhuman monsters, but the truths she conjures are universally applicable. And sadly, they are just as true now as they were in the over twenty years since Don’t’s publication.
Today Danica continues to have conflicted feelings about the book, its success, and the effect it had on her life. “Looking back on it now I love and honour what the book was able to do. I also hate the book in the sense that it never seems to let me go or move on. Hate it for how grueling it was to travel with it and connect with so many heartbreaking and horrific stories each it seemed more wretched than the last,” she tells me of the sacrifice. “When I saw what the book was doing and could do, I made a commitment to do whatever I could, not of course knowing what the cost might be to my health. I still think it was worth it. And that’s why I love my little book: so many people told me it had changed their lives.”
This article was published in The Toast