Content warning: This issue of Memoir Magazine and this review repeatedly reference sexual assault.
For weeks, the stories trickled across our social media feeds: defiantly and triumphantly smiling selfies with captions that held the hashtag, Twitter threads that detailed the experience, Facebook posts sometimes just two simple words long. #MeToo. In waves we watched and listened as our friends and family told their truths and we told each other “I believe you.” Memoir Magazine continues this wave with the publication of their #MeToo Essay Prize winners.
First place winner Emily Finn in “It Starts with Blood” discusses trauma and the weight of family ties. Her mother survived abuse by Finn’s grandfather’s hands, the grandfather Finn was once close to as a child, and Finn weaves together family history with her own sexual assault. As she writes, she breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader. In parts, the piece reads almost like a self-aware academic essay, dissecting her story, her own word choices, even analyzing this writing choice:
You have been patient while I have stuttered over words and structure in my retelling. I cannot write on sexual assault in a traditional format because I refuse to accept what has happened and what continues to happen to every woman I know as tradition.
Finn’s creativity eases us in and out of tension as she hops from one moment in time to another, finally landing in a place of power: “I no longer feel powerless but a responsibility: to speak out until I have done my part to shatter a structure that silences.”
At the end of the piece and the second place winner’s essay, readers can find a list of discussion questions from the editors, giving readers a guide to work through the trauma we’ve just read, a way to ground our thoughts.
While Finn uses her family’s story and her own to explore her experience, second place winner Megan Baxter uses therapy and bread in “Rise.” As Baxter attempts to find some reconciliation after her rape, years after it happens, she fills her time with baking and with visits to the Julie B Valentine Center where she eventually undergoes EDMR therapy in an attempt to remember the night she was drugged and assaulted. The honesty in which Baxter writes is admirable and relatable. She's not perfect: she can't help noticing some of the other women at the center can't read, and the center itself is a depressing and rundown place, a place she feels she doesn't really belong. She struggles. She fails sometimes, like when she attempts to cultivate yeast in her baking journey but doesn’t succeed. But it’s these failures that show where she has succeeded:
I tell myself this would have stopped me cold a few months ago, that I would have ended up in the bathroom, on the floor weeping for the life of my yeast that had left mysteriously in the night, crying like a woman who finds her cat crushed on the road, crying like a woman whose emotions are strange powers, not of her own control.
Even the way the essay ends isn’t as perfect as may want. She goes home and she cries. Things still aren’t perfect or magically fixed, but they’re getting there. With an ability to hold readers rapt with her honest prose, and with a new book, The Coolest Monsters, forthcoming this fall from Texas Review Press, Baxter is a writer to keep an eye on.
This issue shows just how innovative each writer is. Each piece reveals something unique and compelling about their writing and the way they choose to convey their stories. In “Seeing Red,” Shannon Tsonis pens vignettes centered on the color red and violence, specifically her mother’s murder and her own assault by a driving instructor. Tsonis writes masterfully, the use of color not too heavy-handed, and she makes the color be more than just a tool to loosely link the stories together—she builds her conclusion on it:
It is then that I realize we do not see the same colors. These are the things I cannot teach him no matter how many times he takes notes along the collars. We aren’t absorbing the same reflected light. I cannot make him understand Red; it’s a color he will never have to know.
Tsonis ends in a way that illustrates how important the #MeToo movement has been for a lot of people. We’re finding out others can see the same reflected light—they know the same colors and experiences we do. We aren’t alone.
Andrea Gallagher and Tori Weston both reveal their stories, which are heartbreaking in their similarities and their innocence, both very young when they were assaulted. Gallagher writes of learning to be an expert at counting to ten before school even starts as she tries to cope her way through being abused by her grandfather, repeatedly counting to ten. Weston is just about to turn thirteen, imagining her grown-up birthday cake she’ll have at her birthday party the next day. She clings to innocent images of school dances and decorating cakes as she’s assaulted, presumably by a relative. Her piece ends in a childlike assertion as she attempts to take power back: “Tomorrow when I turn thirteen I will tell her that he can’t come to my party. I will tell her he can’t have any birthday cake.”
This issue is a powerful display of what the #MeToo movement has brought more awareness to, an insistent reminder that we are not alone, and that this violence needs to stop. As Finn says, the writers in this issue and those that have shared their stories on social media continue to speak out as we “shatter a structure that silences.” As Memoir Magazine continues to post the fifteen selected essays, take in the stories, believe them, and keep shouting and shattering the silence.