Dianne and I sat in a soiled room where dust motes spun in the sunbeams that hammered down on midday Nairobi. I sat across from her, our knees nearly touching.
"And then," she said quietly. "And
She had gone back there. To the room where Congolese rebels had raped her sister and slaughtered her mother. I couldn't see what flashed in front of the dark marbles of her eyes as she stared ahead at her mother's violent demise, but I could see that Dianne had entered the "trauma space." She wasn't there with me; she was elsewhere. She broke down crying, unable to form words.
"I'm so sorry," I said softy. "Can I hold your hand?"
She nodded. Dianne had been the first member to tell the Survival Girls, my new girls-only art group for refugees, about the gang rape she had suffered, which changed the tone of the group and cemented its closeness. It was an extraordinarily brave thing for her to do, as in her community (among many the world over, including America) rape is a point of shame, a dirtying cultural curse rendering her unfit for marriage if people found out. As she sobbed that day in a rickety chair at St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church, I heard the sounds of boys playing ball in the church compound's small lawn outside.
Dianne, who was a dancer as a child, is one of the most delicate-looking girls I have ever seen. Her ski-jump nose and shy smile belie a baritone singing voice I was surprised to hear bellowing out of her the first time she harmonized with the other girls in our group. That day she spent some time crying, and the dust still spun about us, catching light. I spoke softly to her, keeping my touch firm and consistent. I told Dianne that I believed her mother was loving her every moment, and that every moment that Dianne could say "I love you" to herself, she could picture her mother saying it to her, or the God from which she drew great strength saying it to her. I had brought her into the trauma space; it was my responsibility to bring her back. I knew that to end our one-on-one time while she was like that—in that other place—would do her grievous damage.
"I'm going to tap you," I said, "and ask you a few questions to bring you back into the room."
I gently tapped her fingertips. "What day is it?" I asked.
"Tuesday," she sniffled.
I tapped the soft spot between her lips and nose. She smiled a little. I did, too; there's nothing for how goofy any variation on the Emotional Freedom Technique looks, no matter the time or place.
"What's your name?" I continued.
"What's my name?" I asked.
I tapped her temples. "What is the weather like outside today?"
I tapped her chin. "And what year is it?"
I tapped her knees. "What month?"
We smiled at each other. She was pretty much back.
There are different kinds of trauma. I will spare you the details of my own, in New York. After a breakdown of sorts ("profound relational trauma") and a lot of health care, I boarded a plane, two years later, to Kenya for the summer. And when the Survival Girls began to tell me, one by one, sobbing into my shoulder, that they couldn't stop thinking about what had happened, couldn't get out of the self-hatred spiral, I told them: "I can't imagine what you've been through. But I do think I understand what you mean about feeling so far away from your body and afraid of your mind, afraid you've lost control of it. I learned a few things about healing, and I can share them with you in case it might help."
The definition of an empath is someone who feels bodily what someone else is going through. Fiction writers know this; their job is to inhabit and convey the emotional interiority of a character until it's one that can be invested in by a reader. It's not that the Survival Girls project was successful because I "felt their pain," which would be a very problematic statement to make. It's because I felt my own pain enough to identify which behaviors in others had prompted it, and consciously work not to enact those dynamics with people in the trauma space themselves. My experience in New York was the only thing that could have bridged the gap between me and the girls in Kenya.
This is where the writer, the integrity of whose work depends upon the cultivation of empathy requisite to creating and narrating the adventures of their characters, emerges as an essential actor in the human community. Writers, along with actors, are integral vanguards of empathy. They are its gatekeepers; they cultivate it within themselves to create what they do, and they cultivate it in their readers and viewers.
"You'll be delighted to meet the Survival Girls, turning their stories of abuse into empowerment in a Nairobi slum."
—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, USAID Frontiers in Development