Forgiving an abuser
January 15th, 2024
by Stephen McClure
This can’t have been an easy book to write. No Letter in Your Pocket: How a Daughter Chose Love and Forgiveness To Heal From Incest (Guernica Editions $25) describes the long and difficult process by which writer and editor Heather Conn gradually realizes that she was a victim of incest, and how she comes to terms with that awful reality.
Nor is this an easy book to read. Its relentless, hyper-detailed self-analysis can be a bit much. And the subject of incest is obviously an uncomfortable one. While Conn spares the reader most of the disturbing details, her story at times makes for a toe-curlingly intimate account of how her father abused her – physically and emotionally.
But Conn’s soul-baring honesty and extraordinary writing skills compel you to keep reading and keep learning. The arc of her narrative – how she denied and masked her trauma, her attempts to find the human connections and love she needed, and how she was able to deal with the past and get on with her life – is one that anyone with the slightest amount of empathy will be drawn in by.
The first part of No Letter in Your Pocket recounts Conn’s travels through Asia with her father and then solo. She is on a quest for self-knowledge, healing and love. Interspersed throughout her narrative are memories of growing up in a strict household dominated by her sexist, alcoholic, workaholic father, a leading Toronto anesthesiologist. At this stage of her life, Conn is still not consciously aware that her father committed incest with her when she was a child growing up in a comfortable, upper middle-class household, but she is increasingly aware that something in his relationship with her hasn’t been right.
Much of the first section is a travelogue, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Conn artfully weaves her struggle with her inner demons and her search for a romantic partner to whom she can commit with wonderfully evocative descriptions of the people and places she encounters during her time in India, Ladakh and Nepal. Conn is well-read, and her narrative includes many well-chosen quotes (Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is a key source of inspiration for her) and fascinating asides (one about Mahatma Gandhi’s sexual peccadilloes, for example). But this part of the book would not have suffered from a more liberal application of the editorial scalpel.
The second half of the book is titled “Healing at Home.” It describes the long and painful process whereby Conn gradually realizes how she has repressed the memory of being abused by her father, and how she eventually finds the courage to confront him with that painfully acquired knowledge.
“To heal meant releasing my anger,” Conn writes, “but I had no idea how much debilitating grief lay beneath it …. On too many days, I found myself sobbing without prompt.”
Through disciplines such as Hatha Yoga, Conn becomes aware that while her conscious mind was unaware of what her father did to her when she was a child, her body retained those memories on a deep, subconscious level. She quotes Duke University professor Saul Schanberg: “Memory resides nowhere, and in every cell.”
Conn tells a compelling, deeply emotional story – and a controversial one, because she decided that ending the trauma that had plagued her for decades meant forgiving her father. She is inspired by how the Babema tribe of South Africa deals with those have done something that destroys the “delicate social net” that binds the village together by reciting everything the person has done right in their life. That gives them a chance to realize how important they are to the life of the community.
“That wouldn’t work with a sociopath or psychopath,” Conn writes, “but at least it acknowledges the potential for good in someone … by denouncing my dad’s actions, I don’t have to hate or obliterate him…. Although I will never dismiss what he did to me, I can still choose to forgive him for it.”
Too many memoirs are extended diaries in disguise. And while venting and purging can help to heal deep emotional wounds, focusing obsessively on one’s past can all too easily slide into solipsism. No Letter in Your Pocket doesn’t fall into this trap. Like any good journalist, Conn looks at her situation objectively, taking care to include comments and observations from therapists and others she encounters on her long and arduous personal journey. And it’s tempting to think that she has inherited her father’s diagnostic skills, as she subjects herself to self-analysis and tries to make sense of her life. There is much hard-won wisdom in these pages, and Conn has generously shared it by outlining a roadmap toward healing and happiness.
Above all, it is Conn’s skill as a writer that draws you in, creating a deep, empathetic bond between author and reader. Not all of us are victims of incest, but we all have our traumas and psychic wounds, which is why Conn’s book is so engaging and inspiring. ISBN 9781771837873
Stephen McClure is a freelance writer and editor who divides his time between Vancouver and Tokyo.