Author Interview: Carolyn Lehman on Strong at Heart: True Stories of Healing from Sexual Abuse

Carolyn Lehman on Carolyn Lehman: “I was born in Berkeley, California, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. At a very young age, I fell in love with words and books. My grandmother had a wonderful collection of children’s books from the turn of the last century, illustrated by artists like Arthur Rackham, Jessica Wilcox Smith, and Howard Pyle. Inspired by these greats, I majored in Fine Arts in college.

“Just before I graduating from U. C. Berkeley, I realized that I was really a writer and had been all along. I got my writing education on the job, taking photographs and writing feature stories for small newspapers. I continue to write for periodicals, mostly about family issues, children, and books.

“Highlights of my life include meeting Peter, my husband-to-be, on a wilderness canoe trip, living and working on a cattle ranch in the eastern High Sierra, being a California Arts Council writer-in-the-schools, and the birth of our two sons, both of whom have become writers, too.

“Our family spent a year in Boston while I finished up graduate school at Simmon’s College with a degree in Children’s Literature. That opened the door for me to teach college classes and to work as a children’s literature specialist. I advise on collection development and work with Native American organizations on cultural accuracy in children’s books.

“My second children’s book, Promise Not to Tell (Human Sciences Press, 1985; Beach Tree Books, 1997, o. p.)[published under maiden name “Carolyn Polese”], explores a young girl’s struggle to tell about sexual abuse. I wrote it because I’d been abused myself as a child and had never seen this experience portrayed in any of the children’s books I’d read. It was one of the very first children’s novels to address this experience and I received a Christopher Award for it in 1986.

“After it was published, I found I had more personal work to do on my own childhood. For adult readers, I wrote about facing and overcoming the legacy of sexual abuse, while I continued to teach and review children’s books.

“In my own healing I learned so much that I wish I had known as a young person. In 1999 I began the photography-and-interview project that would become Strong At the Heart.”

See also Carolyn’s blog.

Congratulations on the release of Strong at Heart: How It Feels to Heal from Sexual Abuse (FSG/Melanie Kroupa Books, 2005). What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

Thank you! I am so happy that it is published and in the hands of readers.

It is exactly the book I wish I could have read as a teenager. The model for it, though, came from an eleven-year-old girl who was in a nonfiction writing workshop I taught in a public school.

In the middle of our discussion, this girl raised her hand and asked, “Can we talk about your book Promise Not to Tell?”

“Sure. What’s on your mind?”

“I want to tell you I’m a hero like Megan. My mother’s boyfriend molested me, and I made it stop.”

Every head in the room swiveled to face her.

“What did you do?” one boy asked.

“I told my mother but she didn’t believe me so I told my aunt.”

In answer to her classmate’s questions, she explained that she lived with her aunt for a while, that her mother finally believed her and reported the offender, and that she and her mother were now in counseling together.

It was one of those moments you want to bottle and share with the world. This young survivor was confident and secure. She had not taken on the shame and secrecy so often associated with sexual victimization. And her personal story showed every child in the room that they, too, could face adversity and come through with flying colors.

When you consider that nearly a quarter of our children experience sexual abuse or rape, and that the consequences of unaddressed trauma can be devastating, what this girl gave her classmates was a incredible gift.

When I decided to write a book for young adults on healing, that girl was right there in my memory reminding me that nothing is so powerful as looking into the face of a real person and hearing her story in her own words.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

That workshop happened almost fifteen years ago! It took five years from the first interview I recorded until the book was launched, so there were many major events on the way.

Finding a publisher was a big one. No one else had ever done this, published true stories of sexual abuse for young readers using real names and photographs. Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief at Horn Book Magazine, was very supportive. He told me, “You’ll have to find a courageous and autonomous editor.”

At ALA, one eminent YA editor told me to my face, “You can’t do this!”

But when Melanie Kroupa read my proposal, she asked, “Why hasn’t something like this been done already?” She loved the photographs and stories, and she saw the immense need for the book. I was so lucky to have found my courageous editor in her.

All of the people in the children’s division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux have been extraordinarily encouraging and positive, every step of the way.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

I had to learn how to do this–interview teens and adults, edit hours of transcripts, and capture on film the inner light I saw as they told these powerful stories. I used traditional black-and-white photography and natural lighting, which is a challenge because you don’t know how the film will turn out until you develop it. But I wanted that intimate look.

While I was working on the book, a study came out that showed an especially high incidence of sexual abuse among Latino and Asian boys. So, of course, I wanted to interview a male survivor from one of those communities.

But at every social service agency I contacted, I was told the same thing: “What you are asking for is a cultural impossibility.” No one, they said, would talk about this, let alone allow me to publish their name and photograph.

It took over a year to find Arturo. He’s the only person in the book who expressed doubts about whether to go forward to publication. Then he saw a talk show interview with Carlos Santana, who had just won a stack of Grammies, and Santana disclosed that he’d been sexually abused as a boy. Arturo called me to say, “If Carlos can do it, so can I.”

Recently, at a book event, a young Latino man came up to me after everyone else had left the room. “Thank you for telling Arturo’s story,” he said. “It’s my story, too.”

Now Arturo has been invited to speak in a school program for Latino youth. It is amazing the impact one person can have when he takes the risk to tell his truth.

I appreciated the emphasis on diversity in your featured survivors and their experiences. Could you tell us how you framed your approach and why this was so important to you?

I wanted young readers to be able to open the book, look directly into the face of someone like themselves, and know that: “He made it. She made it. So can I–and so can the people I care about.”

Sexual abuse is found in every cultural group, every race, every economic and geographic community. I wanted to hold a mirror up to that larger experience, to show what is really happening to kids, who survivors are, and how we do the work of healing.

That meant representing the diversity of abuse experiences, too, including incest, abuse by a trusted adult, and peer sexual assault. I was very careful in the presentation of that material.

Although abduction and rape by a stranger is very rare, I did include Kelly’s story because we all hear about these sensational cases and wonder “what would I do if that happened to me?” Kelly is an amazing hero. At fourteen, she saved her own life and she helped solve the murder of another girl. She talks about what it was like to go back to school after the rape, how she handled making new friends and began dating, and what she did to build trusting relationships.

I was especially curious about the different ways people heal. It isn’t just “go to a counselor and get over it.” Jenner, who was raped at an unsupervised party, uses song writing to get at her strong feelings and express them in a positive way. Jonathan speaks out to help other teens.

Sixteen-year-old Sheena describes how, after she was assaulted by a much older cousin, her friends helped her heal by getting her involved in sports and not letting her give in to her self destructive impulses. Equally important for her are the traditional healing circles held in her Ojibwe community and in her home.

In our correspondence, you mentioned that today teen survivors of sexual abuse often have different experiences and attitudes than older survivors. Could you elaborate on this?

The teens I interviewed are different from the adults in several ways. The most obvious is that they told early on and got help.

These young people are doing their healing while their self image and their sexual selves are still developing. By addressing their abuse histories now, they are avoiding years of silent suffering and the damage that comes from that.

Another way they are different is that they have all turned to other teens—and received great support from at least some of their peers. I find that really hopeful, that kids are able to be there for each other.

As Jonathan says of older survivors, “It’s different for me than for them because there’s so much more support for survivors now. Ten, twenty, thirty years ago…when people spoke out then, no one wanted to believe it.”

What reactions have your received from the book?

I knew these stories had the potential to affect people deeply, but I’ve been profoundly moved by the response to the book.

People have asked me to speak at Harvard University, at child abuse conferences, and at book events in the U. S. and Canada.

When I presented the interviews and photographs at an event in Bend, Oregon, a dozen girls from the juvenile facility earned “good behavior” credits to come hear me speak. As I talked about Jenner numbing out and Jonathan’s involvement in drugs, those girls’ eyes widened with recognition. They slid forward to the edges of their seats when I told how Jenner and Jonathan took back control of their lives.

At that same event, a group of older women from Warm Springs Reservation wanted me to discuss the traditional practices and the restorative justice model that Sheena’s community uses. They also spoke about the generations of abuse Indian children experienced in residential schools and how that legacy plays out today. I think it was the first time that many of their white neighbors heard this.

Afterwards, an elderly man came up to me and said, “I wish you’d written this book when I was a boy.”

It seems that people really hunger for the information embedded in these stories, to be able to speak freely about these things, and to say, “This happened to me, too.”

Have you encountered any resistance from adults worried about exposing young readers to such a sensitive and difficult topic? I’m thinking of those who tend to challenge (or simply shy away from) books in an effort to “protect” kids from real life.

So far so good, although you don’t see the silent censorship, when people don’t even consider a book because the idea of it makes them uncomfortable.

Readers on this project included teens, their parents, and trauma specialists. So I feel confident that, although the stories are tough, they are also appropriate for the age group.

Kids know that rape and abuse happen. Having true stories that show how people come through is, to me, tremendously hopeful and reassuring.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Write. Read. Play with words. Take risks.

Be open to the unexpected. Sometimes your subject just grabs you by the scruff of the neck and insists on being written.

How about those interested in creative non-fiction in particular?

Nonfiction is a very exciting field to be in right now. The sky really is the limit as far as exploring new approaches and subject matter.

But nonfiction still a very, very small part of the young adult market. Many bookstores and even some libraries don’t know what to do with nonfiction for teens.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Teach, read, hike with friends, ride my bike in the hills, blog, volunteer on the board of a local non-profit. Talk about books and writing with my sons and my husband, Peter.

Most summers, we either backpack in the mountains or spend several weeks traveling by canoe on wilderness rivers in Canada or Alaska. Two years ago I learned how to scuba dive, so now I’m getting to explore yet another amazing part of the natural world.

What can your readers look forward to next?

Right this minute I’m working on a digital story about the personal experience of writing Strong at the Heart. It will be a four minute movie that I hope to have up on my website this summer. It’s really fun to work with voiceover, visual images, and music all interwoven through the flow of time. Quite a kick.

I’m also writing an article about the ways sexual abuse survivors are depicted in young adult literature. That should be published in School Library Journal this fall.

I don’t know what my next book project will be. I have several ideas I am playing with. I’ll see where they take me.

Cynsational Notes

Strong at Heart has been recognized via the following: Kentucky Bluegrass Award, 2007 Master List for grades 9-12; National Council for the Social Studies and The Children’s Book Council, Notable Trade Book for Young People; Bank Street College, Children’s Book Committee, Teen List, one of twenty five recommended books for teens in 2006; Skipping Stones Magazine, 2006 Honor Book; New York Public Library, 2006 Books for the Teen Age.