Based on an article from The Guardian, I decided to discuss the issues brought up by the review of the controversial and best selling memoir Tiger, Tiger. I’m discussing issues raised in the review, not the book itself, as I have not yet read it. When we read a review, we are assessing whether we want to read the book, so I posted the link and some questions on Facebook to get a sense of how people were reacting to the article.

The title and introductory paragraph to the article “Tiger, Tiger: What is the point of reading this memoir of abuse?

Tiger, Tiger, the graphic account of an abused child’s relationship with a 51-year-old pedophile, is already being hyped as the most controversial book of the year. A writer, a psychologist and a survivor give their verdict.”

As the article continues, it offers several points of view about writing prurient, explicit sexual abuse as three people weigh in on the memoir asking questions such as what is the focus of the book? Who does it help, if it does help? Who is the audience for the book?

As a therapist, I have worked with abuse victims for over thirty years and have observed various stages that must be passed through on the way to being healed. It’s hard to know when reading someone’s book what stage they were when they wrote it. I thought the article posed some pithy questions, and I added some of my own.

  • Will this kind of writing about abuse help to inform the public and create change or transformation?
  • Can writing about abuse change the world? If so, what kind of writing helps the most?
  • Which is better– subjectivity or objectivity — to shift a factual work into an artistically written piece?
  • After reading the review, would you read this book?

I received a range of different responses from people on Facebook, from thinking the book sounded like porn, to hoping that writing such a book would heal the writer, and that if it’s true, we can and should write our experiences. But the biggest questions were: what will it deliver to the reader? Will we be transformed by the book somehow; will it add to our body of knowledge, awareness, and consciousness in some significant way? Of course, what one person might enjoy, or feel they need to read, will be different from another’s reading preferences, but are there principles in writing memoir—true—stories that we should pay attention to?

Writing about sexual abuse is particularly dicey—because of political issues—for many people. If the book is prurient, if it’s the kind of text that’s a turn on, it could be viewed as a way to continue the pattern of abuse. We would need to look at what the subtext is about abuse between the lines of such a text.  And, we might wonder if a woman who’s been abused has a balanced  attitude about sexuality, perhaps unaware that she might be contributing to the very thing she’s fighting against in the book—the mistreatment of women and misuse of power. Or is the book more of a “this is what happened to me” story, rather than one that takes the reader to a new place of understanding? I think it’s safe to say that most people don’t think that abusing little children is acceptable, and without reading the book they would agree to that. So will there be new insights, new knowledge gleaned, and if so about what?

Unless we decide that we want to read the book, we won’t know the answers to some of these questions. As memoir writers, asking these kinds of questions can be important to decide how we angle our narrative when we write personal stories, especially those that are about abuse. I know that writers worry about how many details about physical acts of abuse to include, and rightly so. In my workshops, we discuss how language can be used to elucidate truth and make truths more clear, and also how language can be use to suggest reality without being in your face, as if filming a scene through a gauze curtain.

There is no one right way to write about abuse, but each writer needs to wrestle with issues of how much detail, what kind of truth is being revealed, and if the writing exposes personal privacy issues that puts them in legal jeopardy. There may be other legal issues to keep in mind as well.

I know that some of my clients won’t be reading this book because it will trigger their own bad memories or their PTSD, but some people may indeed find redeeming value in reading it. Perhaps it can be a teaching how about a little girl can be brainwashed and that without protective adults, how easy it might be to do this. Perhaps the author is naming and showing significant issues about how a girl in that situation thinks and feels. The only way to know for sure is to read the book. Do you want to read it? If so, why? If not, why not?