Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings From the #MeToo Movement

Shelly Oria

You know the beginning: In October 2017, a major newspaper broke a story about a famous producer—a serial predator, a man who wears his ugly on his skin—and our communal ether filled with women’s voices sharing private horrors, amplifying and echoing one another’s words, all stamped with a hashtag. I’d recently finished writing a short story about a woman who murders men, a tale about the potential consequences of sexual harassment, and I e-mailed Kristina Kearns, then executive director of McSweeney’s, asking if she’d like to publish it. I used the words quick and soon. I used the word timeliness. I thought, “How many news cycles do we have left?” I assumed that in a week the hashtag would stop trending and the world would resume its collective lack of interest in everything it revealed. I spent those early days of #MeToo feeling devastated in advance.

Sometimes I laugh at my 2017 self for her fear. Here we are two years later and that news cycle still hasn’t ended; it birthed a global movement. But most of the time I’m still scared—that we’ll stop trying to change the reality we exposed or that we’ll keep trying and ultimately fail. That our country will keep electing presidents and confirming Supreme Court judges who have abused women.

My e-mail to Kristina initiated a long exchange between us about the role art and literature should play in a crucial cultural moment. What is the point of being a publisher or editor, Kristina asked me, if one isn’t responding to—and deepening—the conversation? We need a book, she said. When she asked me to be the editor, I could not have been more thrilled.

Books invite concentrated focus and offer an immersive experience. Kristina and I both believed that giving physical form to a revolution that lived predominantly on the Internet would be a meaningful act.

At that time, the end of 2017, the stories of beautiful actresses, most of whom were white and straight, dominated the forming narrative (even though a Black woman, Tarana Burke, founded the #MeToo movement in 2006). It felt essential to me—as a queer woman, as a writer who immigrated to this country at age twenty-five, and also as a person aware of her own privilege—to start the work of compiling this book by reaching out to writers of various backgrounds. I wanted to hear from Black writers, Latinx writers, Asian writers. I wanted to hear from writers who identify as queer and writers who identify as trans. I also wanted to hear from writers who were adults before I was born, who could offer a broader perspective.

Which is to say that I wanted these sentences from contributor Honor Moore: “I remember the beginning of Women’s Liberation. I don’t remember particular conversations, but I remember the feeling I got when a woman declared she didn’t need any movement.” And this one, from contributor Gabrielle Bellot: “I had read too many stories of trans women who went to the police after men harassed them and were told by the cops that it was their own fault; what do you expect, the officers asked, when you dress like a woman?” And this one, from contributor Syreeta McFadden: “I know to expect the requisite bullshit that comes with being a Black woman in the world. I know wrong is not my name.”

I wanted all these words before they were written, before they landed on the pages of this anthology. So I e-mailed writers and artists, people whose work had made me gasp in the past. I asked how they were doing, and I asked if they’d be willing to write about how they were doing, or if perhaps they already had. And in my e-mail I said: Give me essays, stories, poems, anything. It felt imperative to not limit the scope of this book to one genre. When collective pain and trauma yield art, our job as a society is to receive that art in all the forms it takes, in all its different garbs.

In September 2018, as I assembled these artistic testimonies, Christine Blasey Ford took the stand and shared the details of her trauma with the world. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” she said of the men who victimized her. That one of those men was subsequently confirmed as a judge on the highest court in our land is proof like no other that, to borrow Quito Ziegler’s words from these pages, “we’re at the early stages of a reckoning.” Our fight has only just begun.

Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings From the Me Too Movement will be released by McSweeney’s Publishing in September. As the anthology’s publication date was approaching, I invited four of the book’s contributors—Karissa Chen, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Lynn Melnick, and Elissa Schappell—to discuss some of their thoughts on the current state of the #MeToo movement and their experience writing on this topic.

Oria: Had you written “#MeToo pieces” before—whether framed that way or otherwise—or was this your first time writing about this topic?

Greenidge: I think this is the first time I’m publishing a piece on this topic, but I’ve certainly written about it before and thought about it often. Writing about the aftermath of sexual violence and sexual abuse was always something that interested me, from a pretty young age. I came to the subject from the intense public discussions around familial sexual abuse and workplace sexual harassment in the 1990s. For me, #MeToo is less a revolutionary moment and more a continuation of that discussion that happened very publicly and very intensely for much of the ’90s. I distinctly remember the cultural shift, when gatekeepers kind of decided “that’s enough of that,” and the horror and destruction of sexual violence was ignored again. It was so jarring, and I think many people forget that when they talk about the trajectory of #MeToo. 

Chen: I had written a short piece for the Rumpus a couple of months before McSweeney’s approached me, and at first I hoped to just republish that story. Although that piece was, in part, about someone close to me who’d been assaulted, it was a piece that I managed to keep a bit more distant from myself, less personal and more grounded in my views on the topic. When approached by McSweeney’s, I had a sense of “I don’t think I have anything else to say about this,” which in retrospect was more, “I don’t know if I can handle saying anything else about this.” But when you and the other editors asked me to consider writing a new piece, I decided to try to push myself to write about a personal experience I’d avoided discussing because I wasn’t sure it “counted.” It turned out to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever written—so hard that the act of writing became the anchor. I’m so glad I did it.

Schappell: I think in some way I’m always pushing back against the subjugation of women in my work, whether it be in fiction or nonfiction. I’m angry. Writing allows me to let my anger off the leash.

Melnick: From the time I began writing as a teenager, most of what I’ve written about has been rape culture, in all of its many terrifying forms. From the time I was a kid, my life and experience was so steeped in toxic masculinity and violence that there was sort of no way to write literally any experience outside of that lens. I mean, that’s our world.

Oria: If you’d written about this topic prior to October 2017—pre-Harvey—did the experience feel different in any way? Did your prepublication thoughts or concerns differ, regarding the reception of the work, back then compared with now?

Melnick: Oddly enough, my second book, Landscape With Sex and Violence, about rape culture as I lived it inside 1980s Los Angeles, came out ten days after the New York Times ran its Harvey Weinstein piece and literally the day that Alyssa Milano tried to claim the #MeToo hashtag, and then the slogan was everywhere. As I mentioned, I’ve been battling this topic on the page my entire writing life, and I can tell you for certain that my work and these subjects weren’t terribly popular for most of that time. One editor of a major poetry press called my book “crass.” And then suddenly I was a “#MeToo poet” and Landscape was a “#MeToo book,” and it felt very strange. It also helped sales, which I refuse to complain about or downplay because I’m proud of my work and want people to read it. But I was also horribly trolled. People accused me of exploiting my own trauma, and Amazon even recategorized my book into the “adult” section, which made it unfindable in most searches for a while. I mean, there’s definitely a lot of sex in the book, because it turns out that women who have been victims of violence can also enjoy sex. That’s a tough one for a lot of people to understand. But all of this is what happens when a woman tries to reclaim her body for herself, I suppose. In any case, I think a lot about what Tarana Burke said to the Los Angeles Times the day after the #MeToo hashtag had blown up in 2017: “Somebody asked me, does this [campaign] amplify your work? And it does in a certain way, but also when this hashtag dies down, and people stop thinking about it, I’ll still be doing the work.” That is pretty much how I felt, and feel. 

Oria: I’ve been thinking a lot about the role books like Indelible can play, both in readers’ and writers’ lives, in shaping the conversation we’re having at crucial cultural moments. Were you already working on the piece you contributed to Indelible when I reached out to you, or did the solicitation from McSweeney’s inspire the work?

Schappell: I had been trying for months to write a short story that would capture the tension that exists between women who have chosen different ways to deal with having been raped. Not all women experience trauma the same way. That was important to me. But I couldn’t do it. The characters weren’t talking to each other; the form was wrong. So I chose to write an essay, but the essay was terrible. And after watching Dr. Ford’s testimony, it felt cheap and dishonest. In fact, I think now, maybe I wanted it to be rejected, but it wasnt, which made everything worse. I really wanted to write the story I’d started. It’s one of the most challenging stories I’ve ever written. It kept evolving, changing, and surprising me, and that’s the piece that appears in Indelible. I could never have done it without support from you and the other editors. 

Chen: It was only because McSweeney’s really preferred a new piece to something I’d already written that I tried to take this on. And it was hard. I spent weeks tossing out first lines and first paragraphs. As an essayist, I wanted to state more than just the facts. I wanted to give more than an account of a thing that happened, a thing I was also terrified of being judged for. To me, I think every personal essay I write is a way to reckon with something that’s happened; I think of each as a letter to another version of myself, the self that doesn’t yet have the benefit of space or time. The essay I ended up with became a way to be honest about all the things I had been running away from while acknowledging that I didn’t have any answers on what to do with those things now that I’d turned my gaze toward them. I always hope that if I can be vulnerable and honest—if I can allow space for the uncertainty that says, “I don’t have all the answers, but here’s what I do have”—then an audience will see a way in that space to reckon with their own questions, traumas, fears, hopes, and courage.

Oria: I believe that it’s our responsibility as a society in times of crisis to encourage and receive art in all the forms it takes, and yet often our immediate literary response focuses almost solely on creative nonfiction. That’s why Indelible features short stories and poems in addition to essays; for me this is a form of inclusivity as well as a way to expand the conversation beyond what creative nonfiction invites and allows. And yet this isn’t something I hear discussed often, so I wonder if anyone else has thoughts on this issue.

Schappell: Fiction is a deep dive into dark waters, and that’s what I wanted to do here. That’s where I wanted to go. I couldn’t tell the truth of my experience without lying about it. I always find other peoples’ lives much more interesting than my own. 

Melnick: As a poet I really appreciate that this anthology includes poetry because there are places poetry can reach that other genres can’t, and yet it’s often excluded from projects like this. I’ve occasionally written a memory or experience in poetry and then in prose, and each genre just gets to a different kind of truth, comes at it from a different angle and place, and perhaps reaches different readers—or the same reader differently—because of it. We need it all, is what I’m trying to say. And we definitely need poetry; it’s not shocking that, during these dire Trump years, the readership for poetry is way up.

Oria: Speaking of inclusivity. Indelible features a significant array of voices and backgrounds; at the time I started assembling the artistic testimonies that would become this book, this felt not just crucial, as it always does, but urgent, since we were hearing predominantly from white, straight, beautiful actresses. How do you feel about the inclusivity of the #MeToo conversation in 2019? And would you say we’ve successfully shifted the cultural perception that appearance affects whether or not a woman gets harassed or abused?

Greenidge: I mean, #MeToo was started by a Black woman activist and rose from her work with mostly Black women who had experienced this. As with all political movements, it mutated and changed as it reached different communities. I think the documentary about R. Kelly has more recently shifted the conversation back to including Black women and girls. I think what is both exhilarating and frustrating about #MeToo is that we are all entering this conversation from different points in our processing of assault. Some of us are at the “fuck my abuser, lock him up for life, burn it all down” point—the stage of “my pain is unique and unlike anyone else’s on earth.” This is a necessary part of healing. Some of us will grapple there forever. Some of us get to a point when we are ready to ask “how does what happened to me fit into larger societal patterns, and how can we punish the perpetrators?” And still others are at the point of wondering “what would restitution and healing and actual societal change look like? What if we centered survivors’ healing instead of just focusing on punishment?” 

Certain voices and certain phases, as performed by certain types of women who are deemed more sympathetic or their pain more beautiful, dominated the debate at first. But I hope, through the works of writers like Mariame Kaba and also the movement’s founder, Tarana Burke, that we can collectively move to the question of healing for survivors, first and foremost. 

Chen: I love Kaitlyn’s thoughts on the different points of processing. I feel like this is also a form of diversity—acknowledging how messy and imperfect reckoning with misogyny and patriarchy is, on both a personal and systemic level, and part of that is hearing the multitude of voices. I don’t know if we’re getting better, per se, about inclusivity. For instance I think trans issues are often talked about separately from the #MeToo movement, but I think it’s impossible to talk about #MeToo and not think about the deadly consequences trans folk face due to patriarchy and misogyny. Race and class, of course, also affect everything. Last year I moderated a roundtable with several Asian American writers, and one of the things that came up was how painful it was when assault happened within the community. People often felt conflicted, in part wanting to protect their powerful, influential men; the fight for visibility in a white-dominated world is a difficult one, and taking down someone with a foothold in that world can feel like hurting your community. These nuances complicate the conversation; acknowledging the different intersections is essential to making the environment safe for discussion. I do hope we are moving in that direction. 

Melnick: I also really appreciate Kaitlyn’s thoughts on processing, because it’s crucial to remember we are all going to do so differently, and I worry that gets forgotten. With my own work, I’m mostly writing about experiences that happened to me two decades ago and which took me a very long to write about because I needed all that time to process. I am often asked at Q&As about my own survival, and I think it’s important for me in situations like that to continually point out the amount of privilege I have as a white, middle-class, straight-presenting ciswoman in regards to going through various systems as a victim of violence. I get frustrated by certain white women acting as spokespeople for survivors. Alyssa Milano? Come on! But also in the literary community, if we give victims any attention at all, we seem to favor our victims—listen to them, champion them—when they are young, cis, able-bodied, white, and “conventionally” attractive. We need to keep thinking about who we believe and why. As Karissa suggests, these conversations around rape culture are complicated and nuanced, and we don’t even know all the questions let alone the answers. This shit is hard but, like Karissa, I have hope we are headed in the right direction. 

Oria: While most of the pieces in the anthology were assembled prior to the Kavanaugh hearings, we chose a title that nods to that time, and to Dr. Ford’s bravery. What was the significance for you of witnessing the Kavanaugh hearings and their outcome? Has your view of the #MeToo movement changed as a result?

Schappell: Like the majority of the writers, I’d turned in my piece before the Kavanaugh hearings. Shortly after the #MeToo movement started gaining traction I’d started working on a short story in the form of a conversation, in Track Changes, between an editor and a writer who is trying to write “her rape story.” I’d tried to write my way into the story, but the formatting was too taxing, so I’d abandoned it. Then the Kavanaugh hearings happened and suddenly everything was different. I wanted to pull my piece and ask if you and the other editors would consider the short story I’d been working on.

I didn’t want to watch the hearings. I remember thinking, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to watch this, but I don’t want her to be alone.” 

That was the thing, I wanted to bear witness. I wanted, as the Quakers say, to hold her in the light. So, I sat perched on the arm of our sofa watching Dr. Ford determined to tell her story. I just kept thinking, “Someone please help her: Fix her hair, clean her glasses, get her a glass of water.” 

It’s not that what Dr. Ford was describing was shocking; it was familiar. It felt, well, ordinary—and that was the problem. I started to weep, then sob, but that wasn’t me rocking back and forth; that girl there on my sofa was someone else. Of course I wanted to push Dr. Ford’s hair back from her face, and clean her glasses, and get her a glass of water. Dr. Ford was not alone; there were two of us. 

If there was any question in your mind about whether or not Dr. Ford had been assaulted, the transformation she underwent when asked to relive that fateful afternoon should have dispelled it. She was back in that room with Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge, alone and terrified.

I remember the Anita Hill hearings. I remember watching those white men interrogating Hill, forcing her to describe the pornography Clarence Thomas liked, the “pubic hair” on the Coke can incident—and I knew the moment Thomas angrily proclaimed, “This is a high-tech lynching,” that it was over. That he was daring these white men to refuse him, despite the fact that, until Brett Kavanaugh, he was the most under-qualified judge to be appointed to the Supreme Court. And similarly, when Brett Kavanaugh angrily proclaimed, “I like beer!” and none of the Republicans laughed, I knew it was over.

Even if those men did believe Anita Hill, what was she to them? Even if they believed Dr. Ford, what was she to them?

When Senator Dianne Feinstein asked how it was possible for Dr. Ford to remember some details but forget others, Dr. Ford, a psychology professor, explained it was a simple memory function. When a person experiences a traumatic event, their neurotransmitters code the memory on the hippocampus; they bank it. The inconsequential details, like the name of a street in your neighborhood, cease to exist, but that traumatic experience is fixed in memory. That made sense to me. It echoed my own experience.  

In the middle of the hearing I received a message from a woman who had been one of my best friends as a girl, and throughout high school. I hadn’t heard from her in years. She wrote, “Do you ever wonder if those guys think about what they did to us?” 

A few years ago I’d have said no. Now, in the era of #MeToo, I think, yes. I think some of them wonder if maybe what they did crossed the line. 

Oria: I think so too, although I’ve also come across very different reactions from some cis men. A writer friend recently shared with me that her husband, who’s otherwise wonderful, often doesn’t really “get it” when she or her friends refer to their #MeToo experiences—especially the more “minor” everyday ones. She expressed her hope that he might read Indelible, since as a writer he might be intrigued. Have you struggled with the cis men in your life—partners, family members, close friends—in this context? Do you believe pieces like the one you contributed and books like Indelible can make a difference in terms of cis men’s experience of the conversation? Do you care? 

Greenidge: I am not close with many cis, straight men. This isn’t an accident. My experience with abuse led me, at first, to seek out companionship with and interaction primarily with women and queer people.

In my twenties I consciously decided to befriend cis straight men but, probably because of my own unprocessed understanding of the abuse around me as a child, I tended to befriend misogynists. The price of such friendship was high—it was a continual denial of the emotional truths and logic that I knew dictated my world. These were all very smart, very sensitive, well-read, extremely talented, brilliant boys. It was very seductive to think myself one of them. It was also very lonely, and seeing the depths of their misogyny was frightening. 

I think sometimes when men say “I don’t get it,” what they mean is “I don’t want to get it and I’m not going to do the labor to understand.” In that case, no art can reach them. And we probably shouldn’t try. We reach each other, talk to each other, and in that way, do the work to save ourselves. 

Men have their own reckoning to do—both in their complicity in sexual violence and in the number of men who have also experienced sexual assault and are denied, because of patriarchy, the language and framing to even put their experiences into a cogent narrative. It isn’t an accident that some of the misogynists I befriended and loved and dated in my twenties later confided in me stories of the sexual abuse they experienced. 

Chen: I feel like the cis, straight men in my life—or elsewhere—who might read this and be changed by it are the ones who already care enough to try to listen, empathize, and understand. They’re the ones who are already willing to do the work; I hope that a book like Indelible can push them further toward the understanding they’re pursuing. But the ones who might benefit from listening the most are probably the ones who don’t care to do the work and would never pick up a book like this anyway. Call me cynical, but I don’t have a lot of hope, nor do I have enough patience for men like that. Some of them are in my life because they’re family or longtime friends turned acquaintances, and to be honest, the idea of them reading my piece makes me a little ill. I’m certain they would find some way to judge and blame me. I don’t know if any work we do can make a difference—I often feel that for men like that, the only people they’ll listen to are other cis, straight men—and that even then, what first needs to be addressed are the ways in which patriarchy negatively impacts them, how it isolates them, puts pressure on them to be physical and sexual achievers, how it doesn’t allow room for vulnerability, emotions, and closeness. Not to mention what Kaitlyn said—the space to confide about their own sexual assaults. Perhaps those are the necessary first steps for cis, straight men, so they can let their walls down and finally be ready to hear about what others are experiencing. 

Melnick: I’m married to a cis, straight man who is deeply aware of the horrors of rape culture and its many terrifying forms, and yet certain lived experiences are still a thing he just can’t know. Like, I’m going to walk to the subway in a bit, and it’s a beautiful day in New York City, and I’m quite possibly going to be called after and otherwise street-harassed and it’s going to make me anxious and fearful and unable to enjoy the beautiful day—and as much as my husband can understand of how terrible this is, he doesn’t know the particular bodily experience of it. So a leap has to be taken sometimes, and a book like Indelible can go a long way toward helping cis men to take that leap. Or, in some cases, even to know that these situations exist! I’ve been on panels and given talks about rape culture and toxic masculinity, and many men are truly shocked that any of it exists, even as they are often complicit—or even active—in it. Rape culture is designed to keep cis men from having to interrogate their own actions and to make the rest of us do complicated acrobatics trying to convince anyone that our experience is real.

The introduction to this conversation was adapted from the foreword to Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings From the Me Too Movement (McSweeney’s Publishing, 2019). 

Shelly Oria is the author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) and the collaborative digital novella CLEAN, commissioned by WeTransfer and McSweeney’s, which received two Lovie Awards from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. Her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review and elsewhere. She is the editor of Indelible in the Hippocampus (McSweeney’s, 2019), an anthology of #MeToo fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her website is

#MeToo: Crafting Our Most Difficult True Stories


Tracy Strauss


Five years ago I published an essay in this magazine called “A Topic Too Risky.” It was about the process of writing my story of childhood sexual abuse, a subject that agents, editors, and other publishing professionals had told me was taboo. I didn’t share their viewpoint. “Writing about trauma,” I wrote, “is more than simply documenting experience…. It’s about transforming tragedy into art, and hoping that somehow that piece of art may help someone else who’s gone through something unbearable and who doesn’t yet see that there truly is a light at the end of the dark tunnel.” 

In today’s #MeToo era, of course, the writing and publishing of personal narratives about sexual abuse, assault, and harassment has proliferated. Even more, it has become a force for social change. Yet many people still respond with aversion to such stories. Some refuse to believe #MeToo accounts or respond with misogyny, criticism, or inflammatory attacks. Reading about traumatic events can also cause victims to shut down and witnesses to turn away in fear. Without the protective veil of fiction to mitigate such experiences, essayists and memoirists face the challenge of crafting personal stories that engage, educate, and empower readers.

It’s important to remember that, as writers with #MeToo stories to tell, we don’t owe anyone anything. For many survivors the important thing is to simply get the story on the page, to break the silence, and, perhaps in the process, allow other survivors with similar experiences to do the same. But for writers it’s also true that we want our most deeply personal stories to make the greatest impact. When we write our #MeToo stories, we want our pieces to be as strong as we can make them in the hopes that they might reach, and resonate with, as many people as possible. 

We can accomplish this goal by using several tools of craft, style, and form—techniques we employ in any other piece of writing—to illuminate our audience and keep them reading. First, a combination of reflection and instruction can guide readers through emotionally challenging subject matter. In her memoir Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Harper, 2017), Roxane Gay guides the reader into the story of her rape by stating up front how difficult it is for her to talk about it. After reflecting on her own complicated feelings about the story she is about to share, she then tells her readers what to expect. She tells them what she wants. She also tells them what she doesn’t want: 

I don’t know how to talk about rape and sexual violence when it comes to my own story. It is easier to say, “Something terrible happened.”

Something terrible happened. That something terrible broke me. I wish I could leave it at that, but this is a memoir of my body so I need to tell you what happened to my body. I was young and I took my body for granted and then I learned about the terrible things that could happen to a girl body and everything changed.

Something terrible happened, and I wish I could leave it at that because as a writer who is also a woman, I don’t want to be defined by the worst thing that has happened to me.… At the same time, I don’t want to be silent.… If I must share my story, I want to do so on my terms, without the attention that inevitably follows. I do not want pity or appreciation or advice. I am not brave or heroic. I am not strong. I am not special. I am one woman who has experienced something countless women have experienced. I am a victim who survived. It could have been worse, so much worse. That’s what matters and is even more a travesty here, that having this kind of story is utterly common. I hope that by sharing my story, by joining a chorus of women and men who share their stories too, more people can become appropriately horrified by how much suffering is born of sexual violence, how far-reaching the repercussions can be. 

Gay provides parameters for reading and responding to the details of the assault that she hasn’t yet depicted. By sharing both her own perspective and her wishes for how her story is received, Gay provides a disclosure road map, an emotional “safety net” for not only the narrator but also the reader, as they both venture deeper into trauma’s terrain.

Sometimes the adage “less is more” is key. Showering readers with graphic details can flood their minds; it can feel like too much to bear, too painful or horrifying to read further. That’s not to say one should write around or avoid the truth. Rather, just like any good piece of writing, metaphor and pacing can be important and useful tools. For example, in one of my essays for HuffPost, “Leaving My Abusive World,” I portray a #MeToo scenario without mentioning blow-by-blow specifics: 

I sat next to my father on his side of the bed he and my mother shared, beside the mahogany bureau where the checkbooks were located. As I stared at the scratched gold-colored handle of the closed drawer, my father bent forward, leaning his tanned arms across his thighs and folding his hands between his knees. He said he’d dispense the funds, but I had to give him something in exchange.

I agreed.

In this passage I employ a fairly traditional craft technique to create an intensely traumatic scene: I draw attention to my father’s gestures, creating tone and tension through description, bringing the focus to his thighs. In the last two sentences of the passage, I mention the tit-for-tat expectation, creating a euphemism to convey briefly but plainly the coercion and sexual favors around which the exchange is based. I don’t linger there, but as a reader you know what follows. Less, I trust the reader will agree, is more.

Another craft tool, the epistolary form, can cultivate intimacy between the writer and her readers while revealing a #MeToo story, effectively taking readers into the writer’s confidence. I employ this technique in my forthcoming book, I Just Haven’t Met You Yet, a #MeToo-themed work of nonfiction that is structured as an open love letter to my future life partner. In it I share my innermost thoughts and reflections about dating experiences, overcoming personal struggles, and the lessons I learned along the way; each epistolary passage speaks to the content of the ongoing narrative and is written to “you,” my future partner—which, by extension, becomes an address to each, and all, of my readers. 

Another useful tool is thematic threading, which can also provide a backdrop or a second story of resonance that runs parallel to the main story. Richard Hoffman’s memoir, Half the House (New Rivers Press, 1995), for example, intertwines the story of the deaths of his brothers and mother with his loss of innocence from childhood sexual abuse. In The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir (Flatiron Books, 2017), Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich also employs braided story lines—the author’s uncovering of a murder and her own story of sexual abuse—as well as flashback, a tool that makes past trauma come alive and simultaneously portrays the post-traumatic effects of sexual abuse on a survivor: 

Where does the mind go in these moments, while the body trembles? For me it is a white-hot slipstream blank-out, the nothingness of no time and nowhere and no one. It used to be a feeling, a single concentrated excruciating feeling: the smooth hot texture of my grandfather’s penis against my hand, for example, or the specific purple-pink color his penis had, a color that still makes me uncomfortable no matter where I see it, though the discomfort is vague now, the signal no longer traced back to its origin, with only the effect felt. But as the years have blotted the origin out (I am grateful), they have blotted the sensations, too, as though the film reel of the memory has been played so many times it has gone torn and blotched. Now I have only to ride the panicked blankness. “Oh, fuck,” I say when the wave of sensation starts to break over me, inside me, and then I breathe to keep up with the panicked race swell of my body, the heartbeat and the breath. The wave builds and builds, it crests and breaks.

The flashback, which Marzano-Lesnevich says was written to “illustrate some of the consequences of abuse,” focuses on vivid sensory information while also conveying the “blotted-out” sense of experiencing a flashback many years after the trauma.

Clockwise from upper left: Marisa Siegel, Roxane Gay, Sue William Silverman, Tracy Strauss, Sam Brighton, Elissa Washuta, and Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (Credit: Gay: Jay Grabiec; Silverman: Angie Chen; Marzano-Lesnevich: Nina Subin; Washuta: Amber Cortes; Brighton: Michael Edrington)

During sexual assault or abuse, many victims experience dissociation, a coping mechanism of detachment or psychological escape from an unbearable, threatening reality. For survivors and nonsurvivors alike, a common response to reading about or otherwise being exposed to traumatic content is to similarly dissociate, to “go somewhere else” in their minds. (Some believe that trigger warnings can be a useful way to avoid this reaction, while others think that such disclaimers promote silencing and shelter people from a reality that is necessary to fully see and know in order to stop our societal tolerance for such violence.) A craft technique that can help combat the dissociative response is to ground readers in a specific time and place. When setting is at the forefront, the reader enters the space of the narrator’s experience. Placing oneself in a well-defined space can help a reader feel more stable and safer to proceed with the story. In her essay “2 Corinthians 65:14,” which she published in ENOUGH, a weekly series of #MeToo essays at the Rumpus, Sam Brighton focuses on the setting of a church hall and the facts of a sacred space—along with irony and dark humor for levity—leading up to a memory of sexual abuse:

For about sixteen hundred dollars, at the hall named after a child molester, a newlywed couple may boogie down with four hundred and ninety friends to celebrate their holy heterosexual matrimony. Specifically, the hall is for heterosexual couples. Even if we wanted to, my wife and I couldn’t rent the hall to gather our people—our families, our friends, the gender-benders with buzz cuts and wing-tips and wives—to slow-dance the night away to k. d. lang—even if otherwise we fulfilled the contract and followed the facility rules….

The hall charges a six-dollar corking fee, which makes me want to write jokes about when Jesus and his mom attended the Wedding at Cana and Jesus converted water into wine, did the venue charge Jesus a corking fee?…

From the pictures posted on the website, the dance floor is constructed from blond, narrow wood resembling a bowling lane. The walls are simple, decorated only with windows and fire extinguishers—no statues of crucified bodies to turn one’s appetite away from wedding cake. The windows are tall and the carpet inconspicuous. It’s a humble ambiance that someone like Jesus might enjoy—the austere social-justice Jesus, not the bejeweled and super-judgmental Jesus.

Where memories are made. My body, my sacred space, remembers the priest. An accidental touch, because sometimes my wife forgets, because the abuse isn’t just under the surface in every sexual encounter for her like it is for me. A borderline tickle in the wrong place converts pleasure into nausea.

Brighton connects the setting of the sacred space of the hall with the sacred space of her body. The double use of the word sacred accompanies the writer’s double use of convert: Jesus converted water into wine; pleasure converts into nausea. In this way the prose couples the setting with the experience of sexual abuse. 

“The church hall, for me, converges two separate sources of longstanding painful issues—childhood sexual abuse and homophobia,” Brighton says about the piece and her use of setting to tell her story. “The hall gives a tangible quality to something that was once more theoretical or based in assumption. Without the hall, in my adult life, I could assume the church wouldn’t want me using their space to celebrate my same-sex marriage, and I could assume they don’t prioritize the interests or experiences of the sex abuse survivors harmed by their clergy people. And the hall is just a very disappointing confirmation that these ideas are true.” 

Highlighting a concept from an outside source can also be a useful tool to educate, contextualize, and universalize a #MeToo-themed story for readers. In her essay for the ENOUGH series, “A Thousand Stories,” Megan Stielstra, author of The Wrong Way to Save Your Life (Harper Perennial, 2017), quotes an expert on fear, then follows with reflection: 

I’d like to tell you that I spat in his face or kneed him in the balls or staked him through the heart, but I can’t. “At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them,” wrote Gavin de Becker in The Gift of Fear. “While at core, women are afraid men will kill them.” I hate admitting that. I hate knowing how fast and often these moments turn violent. I hate that afterwards I asked the bouncer to walk me to my car. I hate how I still don’t listen to that band. I hate the memories that show up uninvited every time I go out dancing, or park my car on a side street, or swim, or clean the floor, or walk into the stairwell at the college where I worked or the restaurant where I worked or the L or the street between the L and my apartment or the alley where I walk my dog every morning or any of a thousand places. There are a thousand stories. Here’s why I chose this one…

“The quote takes it out of the anecdotal and into the universal,” Stielstra says about crafting her essay. “That’s the challenge of writing the personal essay: moving from why does this matter to me to why does this matter?

After finishing a #MeToo story, just as with any piece of writing one hopes to publish, paying attention to the submission guidelines and the publication style of prospective outlets is integral for success. Marisa Siegel, owner and editor in chief of the Rumpus, and creator of the ENOUGH series, shares her mission and vision for #MeToo writing. “The descriptive philosophy of the ENOUGH series states that rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence subject matter is timely as well as timeless,” she says. “We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect change. We are looking to publish the strongest writing and to represent a diversity of voices around the issues of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse. We are also looking to feature a variety of styles and genres within the series.”

Just like writers and readers, working with #MeToo pieces can be challenging for editors. “Beyond logistics [of receiving hundreds of submissions a day], it takes an emotional toll to read these pieces,” Siegel says. “In reading these submissions I’ve also had to confront past experiences that perhaps I’d chosen not to label as assault or abuse and have come to realize that those experiences weren’t as okay as I’d let myself believe. This is a powerful but difficult consequence of editing this series.” 

When one’s #MeToo story is declined, it’s hard not to feel discouraged. Elissa Washuta’s memoir, My Body Is a Book of Rules (Red Hen Press, 2014), was rejected by nearly forty editors. But she persisted and found a publisher who “understood my aims completely,” Washuta says, “and accepted the manuscript on the terms it set without wanting it to be anything but what it was.” 

As with any piece of writing, once a work of #MeToo writing is published, the writer faces audience reaction, which has the potential to be both rewarding and challenging. For some writers, having such personal stories in the world may cause a great deal of anxiety. It’s important for writers to have a support system in place—whether a good friend, a writers group, or a professional. 

“The process [of writing and publishing] can be triggering, so it’s good to check in with a therapist regularly,” advises Washuta, who received positive reviews of My Body Is a Book of Rules but also received, as she put it, “some alarming responses.” 

“One man I knew, who ended up stalking me, seemed to be using the book for a sort of manual for how to get into my head,” Washuta says. “Another broke up with me over it because he couldn’t get over how messed up he thought I was. People’s responses to the work have shown me who they really are. Some loved ones have struggled with the contents but really worked at understanding the book and worked to process their reactions without making me do that work for them, which deepened my appreciation and love for them. Strangers have all kinds of negative reactions, which I now ignore.”

Sam Brighton echoes this sentiment: “When publishing anything, personal and vulnerable content suddenly becomes public and available for feedback, helpful or hurtful.” But when she published her ENOUGH essay, Brighton  says, “I was surprised when my social media page bloomed with support.”

For memoirist Sue William Silverman, the author of three books about sexual abuse and a pioneer of the genre, telling her story has been similarly difficult and rewarding. Her first memoir, the AWP Award winner Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You (University of Georgia Press, 1999), was dismissed by some reviewers. While a number of women’s magazines covered the book, mainstream and traditional book-review outlets ignored it—and in some cases declined to cover it based solely on the subject. Silverman’s second memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction (W. W. Norton, 2001), was adapted into a film by the Lifetime television network, which has historically marketed its programming toward women. But she still struggled to get broader coverage, and when she did it was often negative. Even so, Silverman has forged ahead with her work and continues to believe in the importance of telling her stories.

“Readers better understand their own lives by reading how you coped with adversity, and what you learned from it,” she writes in her craft book Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir (University of Georgia Press, 2009). Silverman, who is on the creative nonfiction faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts, admits that it hurts to receive negative reactions, particularly when responses are misogynistic, sexist, or simply ignorant. 

Instead, she has chosen to focus on the positive feedback she receives about her work. For Silverman, this means taking to heart the hundreds of letters she has gotten over the years from readers who have related to her story and the men and women who have approached her at readings and said, in various ways, “Me too.” 


Tracy Strauss, named by Bustle as one of eight women writers with advice to follow, has published #MeToo essays in Ms. magazine, Salon, HuffPost, the Rumpus, Publishers Weekly, and others, including a six-month blog series for Ploughshares called “Writing Trauma: Notes of Transcendence.” She was the 2015 Writers’ Room of Boston Nonfiction Fellow, the 2013–2014 vice president of the Women’s National Book Association Boston Chapter, and was formerly the essays editor of the Rumpus. Her debut #MeToo-themed narrative nonfiction book about relationships, self-growth, and empowerment, I Just Haven’t Met You Yet, will be published in spring 2019 by Skyhorse Publishing. Follow her on Twitter, @TracyS_Writer.

Contributors to Indelible in the Hippocampus include (clockwise from upper left) Elissa Schappell, Karissa Chen, Lynn Melnick, and Kaitlyn Greenidge. (Credit: Schappell: Kevin Larimer; Chen: Judy Natal; Melnick: Timothy Donnelly; Greenidge: Syreeta McFadden)

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  • August 13, 2019