The Transformative Power of Trauma: True Stories Hidden in Popular Fiction

Evelyn lives in the Pacific Northwest where she enjoys birding by the Puget Sound, working on her Fiat 500, and spending time with other people's dogs and children. She recently relocated from New York City, where her work appeared in Time Out New York, Travel + Leisure, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency, among others.

Antique_Book_Letters_400When author Jessica Knoll wrote a courageously detailed and emotionally vulnerable essay about her rape in Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter, she joined a notable group of artists who have acknowledged and grieved a traumatic experience by incorporating it into their work. In Knoll’s case, the circumstances were particularly horrifying: She was gang-raped as a teenager at a party, then bullied and victim-blamed for years.

Knoll was so conditioned to think that no one would believe her that even as an adult she was unable to tell anyone about it, except a therapist and her book agent. Everyone else accepted her lie, that there was no connection between herself and the protagonist Ani in Luckiest Girl Alive. The fearless act of publicly telling her story demonstrated not only her strength and grit, but also how real life infiltrates art, even when the truth is trauma that the author wishes had never happened.

Many contemporary authors have found the transformative power of survival made them create some of the most memorable stories of our time. Alice Sebold recounted the story of her brutal rape in the 1999 memoir Lucky. A few years later, her debut novel The Lovely Bones was a critical and commercial success. It’s a story exploring the complexities of trauma and grief, told from the point of view of a deceased young woman who is raped and murdered. Sebold’s novel contains the emotional wisdom gained as a result of her own personal trauma, expressed in the form of fiction.

Not all real-life traumatic events translate into survivor novels. Stephen King wrote Lisey’s Story after being hit by a van while taking a walk. He sustained multiple injuries, including a shattered leg and broken hip, and his life was changed forever—even after he had healed from the accident, he could only sit in a chair 40 minutes at a time before the pain was too much to bear. King has noted that visualizing his empty office in the event of his own death helped portray a scene of the deceased writer in the book.

Tyler Perry has made an empire out of his comedic plays and movies, but his life began on a different path. His father was emotionally and physically abusive; in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Perry recounted the time his father beat him up so badly that Perry was knocked unconscious for three days. His first play, “I Know I’ve Been Changed,” touched on issues of domestic violence, but also forgiveness and community. After years of struggle as a playwright in Atlanta, he achieved commercial success using those same themes. When he was able to acknowledge his past and use the emotional intelligence he had gained from forgiveness in his work, he was able to connect with his audience on a deep level, even through lighthearted comedy.

It is only through bravery and tenacity that these authors were able to talk about their tragedy, and in turn, tell their story. It is a testament to the strength and the power of the human spirit, and the creation of art as an act of heroism.

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