Sunday, October 11, 2015

Writing Physical Abuse Survival into Your Plot Line with Teresa Watson

At the time that I was writing this blog post, I was in the middle of reading and enjoying Death Vetoes the Chairman by Teresa Watson. But it's a tough story line. 

Teresa, Can you give folks an over view so we have a point of reference as we chat?

Teresa - 
Basically, the main character, Lizzie, meets an old friend of Jake's, who appears charming at first. But as the evening goes on, he manages to get her alone, and tries to take advantage of her. He's not a man who is used to taking no for an answer. So despite his bruised ego, a sore cheek and taking a knee to a sensitive area, he tries to go after Lizzie again a few days later in her office. This shakes her down to her core, because she's never been in this situation before. She's a pretty tough woman, but she doesn't know how to handle this.

But when he ends up dead, and they start investigating his past, they learn that this is a pattern of behavior that has gone on for a long time. It makes the suspect list very long. So they're trying to find his killer, and she's trying to deal with her emotions over what has happened to her.

Was there something that made you want to write this novel? It's not your usual funny fair.

Teresa -
I didn't mean for this to turn into such a serious book. But as I started writing, it went in that direction. When I sent the first few chapters to my editors, one of them told me that they had gone through this in their life, and suddenly, I felt it was a story that had to be told. That's one of the reasons why it took so long to write this book. I wanted to make sure that I got things right, as far as Lizzie's reactions to the attacks and the harassment, as well as the reactions from her family and friends. I checked with my friend every step of the way, and she kept telling me that I nailed everything right. She didn't make me change anything. And since the book has come out, another friend, who works for a women's shelter, told me it was a very good book, and that I had gotten everything right. So to have two people who would know tell me that I had represented the situations correctly was a good feeling. This is just way too serious to get something wrong.

Fiona - 
Just to be clear, this is not something in your history, correct?

Teresa - 

Oh no, I personally have never experienced anything like this in my life. 

Fiona - 
What kinds of things surprised you as your were researching your book?

Teresa - 

  • The statistics are staggering. According to on average, there are 293,066 (age 12 and older) who are victims of rape and sexual assaults each year. That's 1 every 107 seconds. 
  • 68% of sexual assaults are never reported. 
  • 98% of rapists never spend any time in jail or prison. Just those little things right there should be a major signal that there is something seriously wrong with our judicial system.
Also, this is not limited to women. Men are also victims of domestic violence. A lot of people do not realize that. People usually assume that it is the men who are the abusers, because they are bigger and stronger than a woman. But men are just as likely to be a victim as a women, but they will not report it. It's not a stigma that men want known, that they were beaten by a woman. But it does happen.

When the police show up, they see the injuries on a woman, and sometimes assume that the man was the aggressor. But those are from the man trying to defend themselves from a woman who is coming after them with some kind of weapon, etc.

Fiona - 
Those are staggering details. 

As I think through my friends, there are very few of my women friends who have not experienced some kind of physical assault. 

Writing this book correctly must have felt daunting. How did you check to make sure you had the reactions correct? (Recognizing that reactions are individual and any survivor's response is absolutely correct and does not need to fit into a box.)

Teresa -
I knew that one of my editors had been in an abusive relationship, so I did give her a head's up. But I did not realize the extent of her situation until she told me. Having never been in this situation myself, I had no idea how I would react. So I tried to think of it through Lizzie's eyes, and I would think: "Okay, so if this was happening to me, how would I react?" I was really just feeling my way through it. 

I would ask my friend if I wasn't sure, and she would tell me that was exactly how she had reacted. So I knew I was on the right track. I've never been through this myself, as I said, but just writing these scenes would leave me an emotional wreck. I would literally be sitting at my desk, crying. This book is way more emotional than the other Lizzie books, not just because of the subject matter, but because of my personal life. I lost my grandmother on January 29th, and very unexpectedly, my dad on February 4th. So there was a lot of grief on my end, and I poured that into the book.

Fiona - 
I'm sorry for your losses, and hope the writing was cathartic - it certainly rings true as I read.

In your book you gave Lizzie a gift when she first told someone that she had been assaulted: people believed her. Can you talk about why this is so important - to Lizzy in the story and also to real life survivors?

Teresa - 
Lizzie is a strong woman who doesn't suffer fools gladly (even though she lets Gladys, her archenemy, get under her skin still). She's also pretty open about how she feels about things. Suddenly, she finds herself in this horrific situation where she's been assaulted twice by the same man, and she doesn't know how she let that happen. She's never been in this situation before. She's humiliated and embarrassed, and she doesn't want to talk to anyone about it. I mean, her mother is on her honeymoon, and Lizzie doesn't call her to tell her what's happening. I think she got to the point where it was just so overwhelming that she was afraid she was standing on that proverbial cliff edge. It was just too much for her, so she opened up to a very unlikely person. Those feelings of not wanting to tell anyone are the same for real life survivors. Often, abuse continues, leaving a victim feeling helpless, vulnerable, and afraid. 

To tell someone is to open yourself up to rejection from your family and friends, because they may not believe you. Sometimes, the only way your family believes that it is actually happening is if they see it for themselves.

Fiona -
I saw that you put a caution statement in the front of your book. Often on my articles, I will give a "trigger warning" where I think it's warranted. What made you decide to do this? Do you think authors should consider doing this for their books, as well?

Teresa -
Sexual assault and sexual harassment are not easy topics to talk about. In today's society, sometimes we take the "if we bury our heads in the sand, we don't see it and we don't know about it" view about these types of situations. I made sure that there weren't any graphic and gory details in the book (my head editor, aka Mom, would make me take it out if it was too graphic!). I didn't want to upset any of my readers that may be going through this right now, or have survived this, without giving them some kind of warning. 

And I do have some readers who are young adults, 19 to 20 years old, who have been reading my Lizzie stories since 2011 (when they were in high school).

Fiona - 
What resources are available for victims who might help a writer write it right?

Teresa - 
There are so many resources available for victims. The problem, believe it or not, is getting that information to them. You have to be careful about getting help, because you don't know if the abuser censors their mail, their emails, their phone calls, etc. But there is:
  •  the National Domestic Violence Hotline,1-800-799-7233 FREE 1-800-787-3224 FREE (TTY)
  • the National Center on Domestic Violence
  • Talk to a local pastor 
  • The police; they have resources available that will help you.
  •  The shelters have all kinds of resources available to victims. They will assign you a victim's advocate, who will help you with the legal process, as well as help you find counseling, a job, a place to live, whatever you need to get out of the situation you find yourself in. But there is help, and there's nothing to be ashamed of. You are a survivor!
Make sure you are in a safe place before you call. Make sure you erase the number from your phone history, or erase the web address from your browser history, so your abuser doesn't know that you are trying to leave.

That is one thing that all of them specify. Be safe when you reach out. And for family and friends, be supportive. Don't push them to leave on YOUR timetable. They have to leave when it's safe for them to do so, and not before. And it may take them several times of trying to leave before they actually do. They need your love, support and understanding. There are things you can do to help them, and that information is on the websites that I provided.

Fiona - 
Thank you. 

At ThrillWriting we're always curious to know the story behind your favorite scar.

Teresa - 
Which one? I have so many! LOL My nickname is Queen Klutz, for crying out loud! I'll pick the first one I got. When I was in the fourth grade, I was playing a game called Swing the Statue with some kids in my grandmother's neighborhood. Basically, you swing a person around by the arm, and let them go. They have to freeze in whatever position they land in, like a statue. Well, I was swinging a girl who was in the 9th grade. When I let go of her, I was the one who fell instead of her. I landed on an uneven section of the concrete sidewalk, broke my arm in two places. I have two small white lines on my arm from where I broke it.

And I'm pretty sure the doctor is still deaf in his left ear after I screamed bloody murder when he set my arm. LOL

Fiona - 
A big thank you to Teresa for sharing her insights. If you want to read Teresa's other ThrillWriting article, it's here: Death Grows in Your Garden

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

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