Chantal V. Johnson on Childhood Abuse and Disclosure ‹ Literary Center

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Chantal V. Johnson is the guest. Her first novel, Posttraumaticis now out of Little, Brown.

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From the episode:

Chantal V. Johnson: I grew up in a very violent family when I was a child. It was physically violent. It was sexually violent. It was sadistic and humiliating. From an early age, I knew that I was hated and despised for reasons unknown to me. Eventually I escaped this situation, and one of the first things I did was to start telling the little girls what I had been through. The first time I did this, I remember it was at night. It was on my porch. I had just moved to a new city and made some new girlfriends. I told them about the violent situation we had just escaped from, and no one confessed to me that night. But later, when I was telling the story to other little girls, they started telling me that they had experienced something similar.

I have a horrible memory in many ways, but I remember every admission of abuse I’ve ever heard in my entire life, and I felt like I was collecting. I felt like I had this secret knowledge of these things that happen to little children. It made me feel like I was part of something bigger than myself, which was great for me. It’s a wonderful way to begin the process of contextualizing and later politicizing what happened to you, while downplaying what happened to you, making it less personal. It becomes something that happens to more people, so you have this sense of connection with other people who are all connected by this thing.

Much of this book comes from this collection of stories. It’s like I’ve been absorbing all of your stories this whole time, and now I have to give them back to everyone. I have to make sure that I do it in an aesthetically interesting, maybe philosophically interesting way. Not self-pity, not overly sentimental. The language must be right. No haunting, no ghosts, no wounds, no havoc, no scars. The only scars my character has are literal scars on her body. She is not haunted by the scars of the ravages of wounds from her traumatic past. Stop. Can we stop with this language? So I did. I felt that sense of obligation to survivors that I had known throughout my life.

Brad Listi: As you speak, the phrase that came to mind was to collect testimonials. Which corresponds to your profession as a lawyer. The other thing that strikes me is that as a child you were prone to divulge. At least from what I understand personally and from the culture, a lot of kids don’t disclose. Something like that happens, and they lock it up because they don’t have a language for it. They feel shame or fear. Often there is fear of what will happen if they divulge. They don’t want to disrupt their family structure or get a parent or family member in legal trouble. You have taken the opposite course. You were ready to talk right away. It’s interesting to me.

Chantal V. Johnson: Yeah. To be clear, I wasn’t speaking right away. It was talking afterwards. But I think about it a lot when I think about myself and my personality. Personality and temperament are things I really believe in. As someone who has experienced a lot of violence and abuse in my life, I have often questioned and asked, what is authentically me? What am I? Is everything just one answer to that? What is me? But these moments of storytelling, it’s as if it were me. Because, like you said, not everyone does that.

The other thing that looks like me, that’s in the book, is that kind of challenge sequence. I was sometimes quite openly defiant of people who abused me. It was not good for me. But I did it anyway. It’s like it was me.

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Chantal V Johnson is a tenant lawyer and writer. A graduate of Stanford Law School and a 2018 Fellow of the Center for Fiction Emerging Writers, she lives in New York.


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