Conducted by Meggie Royer, Founder & Editor-in-Chief
1. Your book Goodbye, Sweet Girl has touched many readers, and your Goodreads page is filled with testimonials from fellow survivors of intimate partner violence and those who love them. One professor shared that she teaches your work in her composition class and receives frequent comments from students that your writing empowered them to tell their stories. Do you have any words of advice for survivors who are considering penning an essay or book about their experiences?
I would encourage survivors not to think of the writing as therapy. I had a friend who asked me if it was cathartic or like, “picking at a scab,” and my answer was that it was cathartic because that was the answer that was expected of me if he was going to validate my choice. The truth is that writing the memoir was more complex than either of those options. It wasn’t like picking a scab because I hadn’t healed enough to have a scab, and though, it was cathartic, I didn’t feel better afterwards. I can’t know how much I would have healed by now if I hadn’t written my memoir, but I know that, on the other side of the book, I am not yet healed. Therapy has been important part of my healing process, and writing the book has been a meaningful and vital part of my life satisfaction, but I wouldn’t say that the two overlap.
2. In a Guernica interview, you shared that in a writing workshop with Joy Castro you were asked to write about the most painful thing anyone has ever said to you, and you thought of your abuser and your father, both of whom were featured in Goodbye, Sweet Girl. What was your coping process like when you were finished writing a book filled with some of those most painful words and memories, if there was a process at all?
I was disassociated during much of the book’s creation, so when I finished writing it, that was when the gravity of everything hit me. The year after the book was published was the worst year of my life because I was touring and reliving things constantly. Still, I think it is a rare opportunity that a survivor gets to step back from their own story and add shape and structure to it. Having that opportunity to observe my story, as though from an outsider’s perspective, gave me a lot more control over the narrative that I told myself. Telling my story helped to exorcise my abuser’s voice from my head. If there was a “process,” it’s not a formula that I can identify and offer to others (I wish I could). I just kept living like we all keep living.
3. Many survivors of intimate partner violence speak of the gaslighting they endure - minimization, denial, and blame. Did you ever feel like your abuser’s twisting of reality made it difficult for you to write your truth, or trust your truth?
My abuser’s twisting of reality very much affected how much I trusted my truth. I had to reach out to a lot of people and ask for reassurance that things were as bad as I had thought they were. I received that reassurance in sometimes unexpected ways, like from students who remembered seeing bruises, or an MFA colleague who remembered me being afraid in her office.
But then, there were people who doubted my story, and that doubt contributed to the gaslighting that he had done to me. After my book was published, he briefly released a public statement where he accused me of lying and of being the abusive one. In classic abuser form, he actually took things that he had done to me and said that I had done them to him. He then wrote, “Kelly is an extremely talented writer of fiction.”
Reading that, this small gaslit part of me thought, “Is it possible that I’m so ‘crazy’ that I made this all up somehow?” Still, even that wouldn’t have meant that I wrote “fiction.” My rational side knew that I was telling the truth and was able to remind the gaslit core that lived inside of me that I was telling the truth. His abuse was crazymaking, but I was not crazy, and I balk at that word entirely now, because I know how often it gets used against women as a means of painting us as responsible for our own mistreatment.
Thank goodness, the public response to his statement was so negative that he took it down within twenty-four hours, and that was validating, but as validating as it was, it didn’t take the hurt of his words away. What I hadn’t realized before that statement was that, though I was so strong on the outside, my soul deeply craved an acknowledgment and apology from him. Reading his statement broke my heart because I knew that I would never get that.
4. As a survivor of intimate partner sexual violence within a very small community, I have often felt both restricted and released by social media. You have spoken frequently of your relationship to social media and the pain of seeing acquaintances or colleagues remain friends with your abuser online. How do you grapple with such a betrayal while also working in a field that encourages or requires a strong social media presence?
The first thing that I did was cut connections to everyone who chose to remain connected to my abuser, whether they were real friends to him or just social media friends. I had people get angry at me about that decision and tell me that I didn’t have the right to dictate who they were friends with, and my response was that, though they were right that I couldn’t dictate who they were friends with, I could dictate if they were friends with me.
One thing I learned from the process of confronting and eliminating ties to a lot of people is just how far victim blaming and abuse rationalizations extend in our culture. Some of the least supportive people were self-proclaimed “feminists.” And I was clear about my boundaries. If someone was famous or could help me professionally, I still cut the ties. I am committed to not living my career in a self-serving way. If that means, that I’m professionally damaged because I’m outspoken, then it is what it is. I’d rather be professionally damaged than a hypocrite.
Ultimately, though, I know that I was always, and still am, a better friend than my abuser, so if folks chose him, then they chose wrong, and that’s their burden to live with now.
5. How do you define healing?
I don’t have a definition for healing, but I know what healing is not. Healing is not forgiveness. Healing is not finding love again. Healing is not triumphing in some way via your tragedy. Healing is not moving on.
I do not forgive him, and I haven’t triumphed through my tragedy. I have found love again (though different kinds of love), I have moved on, and but I did those things in order to survive.
I think it’s very important to note that continuing to write about violence doesn’t mean I haven’t moved on. I hate the implication that folks who write about their hurts haven’t moved on from them. The truth is that we all only have so many stories in us. Some people write about childhood. Some people write about parenting. Some people write about grief. Some people write about war. But when women write about their experiences of violence, we’re accused of not moving on, and that’s representative of a world that still wants to minimize violence against women. I have moved on, but that doesn’t mean that my hurts aren’t there. My hurts just live on in this new version of myself.
I don’t know, maybe I am healed. Maybe healing is just continuing to live and grow in spite of the things that will always hurt.
Kelly Sundberg’s memoir Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival was published in 2018 by HarperCollins. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was anthologized in Best American Essays 2015, and other essays have been listed as notables in the same series. Her essays have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Gay Magazine, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Slice, and other literary magazines. She has been the recipient of fellowships and grants from Vermont Studio Center, A Room of Her Own Foundation, Dickinson House, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Ashland University.
Please also take some time to read Kelly's piece "Every Line is a Scream," which is a part of her work-in-progress.