Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Healthy Habits: Novelist and Abuse survivor Gary Maynard On Redefining Abuse

How do we, as a society, define child abuse? Ask anyone who’s been abused as a child and they can surely offer their own definition. It can be a controversial, complex subject, certain to arouse all sorts of emotions by its mere mention. 

Author and survivor Gary Maynard observes that the definition of abuse has grown broader since the 1970's, the setting of his new novel, Plumbelly. And this is a good thing, helping protect many innocent children.

Plumbelly, a work of fiction about young people who set sail from Polynesia to flee abusive parents, explores forms of child abuse that were often passively accepted as a form of discipline, even in "idyllic" settings.

In addition to overt, physical abuse, Plumbelly mines a deeper truth that is relevant today: abuse can and should be seen as any behavior from a parent that is less than nurturing.

Maynard’s main character’s mercurial and physically frightening father is an echo of his own dad. Another of the character’s traditionally loving yet oppressive (and ultimately abusive) homes will resonate with others.

Plumbelly challenges our expectations of an abuse narrative, laying bare the complex spectrum of abuse in our culture, ultimately bending towards hope and triumph.

I had a chance to interview Gary to learn more.

Why did you decide to write this book?

When I was growing up, it always seemed that there was a mystifying disconnect between how our family, and other families I knew, presented to the outside world versus the reality of their inner workings. It took me years of adulthood, as well as years of successes and failures parenting my own children, to gain the perspective I now have on my childhood.

Some experts now consider that “anything less than nurturing behavior on the part of a caregiver is abuse.” This is a far cry from what was recognized as acceptable parenting back in the 1970’s, the setting for my book. At that time, parenting was considered a family’s private business and even real violence was effectively condoned through silence on the part of the larger community. I will never forget the screams of my friend drifting across the night harbor as his father beat him. I was a young teenager and remained silent and watched my parents as they did nothing. This experience informed one of my crucial characters.

I knew I had a story to tell and I knew it would be both a sea story and also a story of survival. In the end my characters stood up for themselves in a way I was never able to do and in some way that was healing for me. They were able to grow up in a matter of months and move on, at least some of them.

Why is it important for people to recognize that there's a broader definition of abuse than they may realize?

The culture of childrearing is changing and we now know the lasting effects of trauma on a person’s psyche, but we are a nation plagued with depression and anxiety, where suicide is a leading cause of death among young people. Why not openly discuss what we do to our children and acknowledge the root causes of these societal ills? At least corporal punishment is no longer acceptable in most circles, but shame, hostility, fear, intimidation and ridicule take their own toll. Unpredictability in parental behavior also has profound effects. I think an open, honest and vulnerable dialogue is critical for continuing societal change.

How can fiction books raise awareness of this issue?

Fiction is one way of getting at Truth quicker and deeper than the mere recital of fact. The story can be richer, the characters denser and events closer together than perhaps might occur over the course of a life. Americans can be obsessed with the “True Story,” but sometimes the writer must reach beyond the “facts” to bring the reader to the desired destination. What’s important is that the reader engage with the story and feel the truth of the characters and find some meaning there. Stories are a way of seeing and sharing our common humanity.

How can people get involved in raising awareness of abuse or helping those who are or have been in abusive situations?

I think the journey always begins with one’s own story. Being honest and vulnerable, exploring and examining one’s own history and one’s own behavior are the start to any authentic engagement with the problem of childhood abuse. Of course, this must be done within safe boundaries with safe listeners.

It is also important not to be a bystander, but to be an advocate for those who need help. To ignore is to be complicit. That doesn’t necessarily mean calling Child Protective Services at the drop of a hat, but it does mean asking questions, listening and being present. Many adults along the way helped my central character to learn and grow along his voyage. The adults were critical to his survival on many levels.

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