1. The sell sheet for No Letter In Your Pocket states that your memoir avoids “predictable recovery rhetoric and insular victimhood.” What does this mean to you?
There are a lot of lingo and labels in healing and recovery language and books. For instance, there's Adult Children of Alcoholics, which I am one of, and they use that phrase “Don't talk, don't feel.” Things like that. And even “dysfunctional family” — there are so many terms and labels like that. If you're a writer, it would be lazy to just fall back on those familiar terms. You're trying to get below the surface level to deeper meaning, not just relying on a label. They [the labels] serve a valuable function, but it can sometimes limit you in how you see somebody. You're not seeing the whole person.
In terms of insular victimhood, it's very easy for somebody to latch onto being a victim as a primary identity. They can build a whole world around that, and that can become their focus for the rest of their life. I do think it is important to acknowledge victimization, but at some point, ideally, if you're consciously healing and becoming more self-aware, that's going to shift to being a survivor. The other thing is, it's easy to get caught up in what's going on just in your own family and thinking that's the only reality rather than stepping back and being able to see that there are many other people going through what you're going through. It’s important to be aware of other cultures and BIPOC stories and to realize that yours is only one little piece in that whole big picture. As writers, it's our job to connect the personal with the universal. I think sometimes people's writing can get a bit too self-indulgent, and they don't do that universal piece. They stay solely within the personal.
I also think we are still oriented to labeling abusers as evil monsters. Culturally, we don’t try to understand their behavior or where the roots of it come from. I don’t want to let abusers off the hook but by automatically jumping into an us-versus-them stance, we can miss the opportunity to seek understanding and to see the woundedness that needs healing in someone else. This goes back to a perspective of Oneness or inter-being, seeing people as interconnected, as defined by the late Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, rather than coming from a distancing stance of judgment and hatred.
2. You were able to forgive your father for how he harmed you, and your mother, for her silence. Could you share a little bit about how you were able to arrive at forgiveness, and what that journey entailed?
It wasn't an easy process, because I am not a naturally forgiving person. It took decades. In fact, I thought that one of the rejection letters I got from a feminist publisher was ironic. They said, “We found it discouraging how long your healing took.” I thought, “Wow, that's coming from a supposed ally.” I was inspired by my Buddhist beliefs and the concepts of compassion and forgiveness, which I was exposed to in India. I just felt I wanted to walk the talk if I'm going to be serious about this path. I really want to acknowledge that I needed to go through all the other stages like the rage and the venting, the anger, and all that stuff. I didn't just naturally get there. I realized that initially, when I thought I had reached forgiveness, it was more as an abstract kind of intellectual concept. In the book, I describe watching this 1946 movie The Stranger, and I couldn't understand why I kept getting more and more angry as I was watching it. It was about a man who was an Orson Welles character, and people were seeing him as an admirable figure, but the secret reality of who he was [a former Second World War Nazi] was something else. When I watched that and saw the response I was having to it, I realized, “Okay, there's more there than I thought. I obviously haven't worked through this.” I kept dealing with that through counseling, meditation, yoga, and therapy. I felt like I needed to bring forgiveness into my body and actually embody it.
3. You shared with me that solo travel in India, where half your memoir takes place, was instrumental in beginning your healing from incest. As a woman, I know that solo travel can feel both freeing yet at times constraining and dangerous. Did you ever experience these sorts of paradoxical feelings about your time in India?
I definitely felt it was constrained. It was very clear in the guidebook that you had to cover any bare skin, and I was told seriously that I should dye my hair black, because otherwise I would draw attention to myself. I didn't go out at night by myself. In one case, when I was on a train in Bihar, we were stopped at a station, and all these men just came and crowded around and looked at me through the window of the train. I sat there thinking, “Now I know what a zoo animal feels like.” Sometimes when I would try to find a place to go to the bathroom, I would have this entourage following me. I got some sense of what a celebrity must feel like being surrounded by paparazzi.
The danger aspect wasn't necessarily a big piece of it. However, I was very aware that as a woman traveling on my own, I may have seemed somewhat free and available to a lot of the men. At the time [1990-91], they had a lot of bootleg copies of books like My Secret Garden, which was a groundbreaking book in the seventies about Western women talking about their sexual dreams. So, I ended up feeling like I was embodying this sort of temptation to many Indian men. I'd have total strangers walk up to me and ask me really inappropriate, intimate questions. Unfortunately, that was a fairly regular part of my experience. Therefore, I felt I held a kind of dual status whereby, as a Western woman, I was seen as “one of the guys”; they would talk with me about topics they couldn’t with women in their own culture. Yet, at the same time, they viewed me sexually and objectified me.
4. Even in the wake of the MeToo movement, it seems that victim/survivors are damned if we do, damned if we don’t: if we don’t forgive, we are accused of being “self-victimizing,” and if we do choose forgiveness, we are accused of minimizing the severity of abuse. How have you approached discussing forgiveness with people who don’t understand your choice to do so?
I lost a close friendship over this issue. A friend sent me two really vicious letters over this. She felt that by forgiving my father and accepting his apology, I was minimizing what happened and letting him off the hook. She felt that I hadn't fully explored my anger. She was really judging my beliefs and criticizing them. I think you can tell when someone is so locked into dogma or ideology that they will paint you as someone and not be able to see you in any other way. I lost that friendship because I thought, “You're not willing to hear my perspective.” It was as if she had decided what my motivations were, and wasn’t even going to confirm or verify anything with me.
However, while I had envisioned all kinds of horrendous things happening to me as a result of releasing my book, thankfully, that hasn't happened. I've actually had quite a few people, even people I know in my own community, email me or tell me how much the book has meant to them. Some have even shared their own abuse situations, which I would never have probably known about otherwise. That's been very gratifying.
5. I have occasionally seen victim-blaming beliefs shared by other women, which is disappointing. You note that this points to how embedded misogynistic and patriarchal beliefs are. Can you expand on this perspective? How do you approach these beliefs from other women?
Sexual violence is still, to a certain degree, a hidden issue for the average woman. The MeToo Movement has been predominantly embodied by very privileged white women. I think it's wrong that it was a Black woman who came out with the term, and yet nobody paid any attention until high-profile white women started discussing it. This [incest] is still considered a shameful secret.
Even the responses of some libraries have been interesting. In a few cases, it seems like they're trying to do everything they can not to have me speak. In one case, where they usually have people attending book talks via Zoom, they said they couldn’t have Zoom be involved because if someone were watching at home, heard me, and was triggered or did something, they might be liable, (though they didn’t use the term “liability”). So, I'm just thinking, “Wow, this is interesting.” It [incest] is still a subject that people in general are not comfortable with. I had one woman say to me, “Why did you put incest in your title? I thought that was between brothers and sisters.” I thought, “If that's the level of awareness we're dealing with…” I've had people I know in my local community mention that they didn’t experience assault while solo traveling, so then the implication is it must have been something that I did.
I was also very shocked that the whole Johnny Depp/Amber Heard case involved horrible, vicious vitriol targeted at Amber. That's the other thing: When we create these cultural heroes, people do not want to hear anything negative about them. They're so locked into seeing a person a certain way that they can't accept that he could possibly be abusive. Also, all the Internet trolls and all the hatred that was targeted at Amber was distressing, and the fact that those two camps were set up right away. It was this idea that “Johnny Depp can do no wrong because I really liked him in all these movies, and she's just a gold digger and a liar.” I found it really disturbing. You don't want to admit that your hero is tarnished because then you'd have to look at yourself and question your own judgments. People don't want to do that so it's easier to project your venom onto someone else.
6. In the past several months, I’ve heard from numerous other women that they feel misogyny is becoming worse, while other women have suggested that it’s not necessarily getting worse, but rather more public due to ever-increasing time spent on social media and the proliferation of “men’s rights activism” online. What is your view on this, especially as a woman who has been quite vocal online about rape and sexual assault?
I think misogyny is both getting worse and it’s becoming more public. I hold Donald Trump responsible for a huge part of that, because he basically normalized, and continues to normalize, both sexism and racism. He has not been held accountable for anything he has said about women or done towards women. I think both he and Covid set the tone for a lot of what has happened since then. As you know, during Covid a lot of women who were in physically abusive relationships were unfortunately stuck with their abuser at home, and it has been shown that gender-based violence has increased globally during the pandemic. I would say misogyny is definitely getting worse and goes hand-in-hand with the proliferation of racism.
We've also seen the erosion of so many things like Roe vs. Wade. That's something so many women fought for for decades, and that's gone. And even the MeToo Movement. It's easy to pay lip service and just show up to the events. But are you really challenging your own patriarchal views? We all internalize them whether we like it or not, because if you're raised in a culture that has those values, it's pretty hard not to internalize them, even if not consciously. It takes a lot of awareness and commitment to see how that's coming out in your own life and respond differently.
7. Also fairly recently, I’ve seen more and more discussion online about the term “toxic masculinity.” Some say the term only reinforces stigma and shame and therefore drives men deeper into misogynistic attitudes and beliefs, while others say it’s useful to contrast toxic masculinity with healthy masculinity. Do you side with either of these perspectives, or do you hold another view entirely?
Well, I use the term myself. In fact, in advertising one of my talks next week, I use that term repeatedly. That's one of the subjects I will be addressing. I think it’s important to call a spade a spade. It's a label, but I think it's important. I was involved in a group, Mentors in Violence Prevention, which was started in the US. You have high school youth, and you look at all the gender stereotypes they are raised within, the beliefs around masculinity, femininity, etc. They even have a documentary about toxic masculinity. I think it's really valuable to delineate that. If you have toxic masculinity, what does healthy masculinity look like? Patriarchy is so entrenched in our culture, it's mind blowing. I think that “toxic masculinity” is a very valuable term. In the Mentors in Violence Prevention program, we talk about how those values surpass gender, how they affect all of us when we grow up with those beliefs around power, and what supposed success looks like.
There's also a similar program we call Be More Than a Bystander, which involves our sports teams here in British Columbia. It's the message that if you see anything inappropriate, like bullying, sexist or demeaning acts, jokes or language, happening, doing nothing is not an option. That has a huge impact. I think we tend to minimize the impact that one-on-one dialogue can have. I know that in my own life, just going up to somebody and explaining something in a non-confrontational way can really create change.
It's often really hard for white privileged men to understand the impact of patriarchal values. Decades ago, when I lived in a communal house at university shared with a number of men, I remember explaining to one of them that when I walk home at night by myself in the city, I’m constantly being aware of my surroundings. One of them couldn't believe it. He was dumbstruck. Additionally, male travelers have a lot more freedom when they go traveling. I even had a sort of female feminist mentor of mine give an example from her own life. She was in Italy, and needed to get a ride quickly to the other shore. The only way to do it was to get on this boat. It was with just one other man, and he made a pass at her. Her conclusion was that she should take responsibility because she made the choice to go on that boat with him. That's basically what she was saying to me about my book, that I need to take responsibility because I chose to travel by myself. But why can’t she look at that man and ask why he refuses to control his behavior for the half-hour it took to take her from one shore to the other? Again, it throws everything back at us [women]. We're the ones who have to adjust our behavior. Culturally, we don’t challenge and confront men to change their behaviour; we take it as a given.
8. What made you choose to write your memoir as creative nonfiction rather than solely creative writing, or solely nonfiction? Or do you feel the lines between the two are much more blurry?
I was in a master's creative nonfiction program when I started this book, so that's one reason why I chose this genre. The thing that drew me to creative nonfiction, which is also called literary journalism, is that although I was trained as a journalist, I never felt like that genre fully represented me. I wasn't one of these people who was totally into hard and breaking news every day. I was always sort of more literary, creative. Creative nonfiction allows the joining of those two. You can have all the aspects of factual research and nonfiction, but you can add the creative elements that fiction uses. To me, it's a perfect blend of both. That's basically why I went that route. You're trying to go for emotional storytelling, not autobiography, which is just straight chronology and facts.
Literary journalism is also sometimes called immersion reporting. My memoir is a personal account. It's not reporting, although there are reporting elements in it. Mostly it's a personal narrative.
9. Are there any other questions or topics you would like to discuss?
We're pretty open about talking about rape and sexual assault, but I feel like incest is still a taboo topic. The family is still considered such a core element of our cultural makeup and there's still a strongly held belief that you don't air your dirty laundry, that you keep anything that's going on in the family a secret. When I was doing this book, I was very aware of that, that I was fighting not only my own family's taboos, but sociocultural taboos. I literally felt like these forces were operating on me because I had internalized them. I had this fear of “Am I going to regret this? Am I going to face retaliation like what Amber Heard got?”
That's one of the reasons why I chose to wait until after my father died before having the book come out. He actually said to me a number of times that I had the power to destroy him. I found out years later from my oldest sister that he consulted a lawyer. I didn't know that. I did have concerns. I felt like I was really on my own. I just felt like I had to make that choice [wait until he died], to not have to deal with what repercussions there might be if my dad was still around.
I made the mistake one time of Googling “incest stories” or something, because I wanted to see what other books have been out there. All these porn results came up. I talk about that in the book, too. There's that whole titillation factor that incest is associated with. That's a really gross piece of it, too. I still feel like it's a topic that's in the closet. I consulted a male agent, and he said very dismissively, “Nobody's interested in incest.” Then I met with a male agent in Toronto, and he wanted me to rewrite the whole book as a novel, sort of similar to the book The Kiss, which is about a woman as an adult having a sexual relationship with her father. He was very dismissive and said, basically, if I didn’t do that, my book would be a sort of “how-to” thing and I’d have to self-publish it.
Anyway, I got to have the final satisfaction, because he was at a festival this summer. I took my book, went up to him and said, “Here it is, and it's not self-published, and I got a prominent doctor, Bernie Siegel, who has written the afterword.” He'd never written an afterword for any other book, and I just contacted him as a stranger. I mean, I didn't say it in a taunting way. I just wanted to stay “Here, what you predicted did not happen,” and he said something like, “I'm very happy for you.”
Heather Conn is the author of the 2023 memoir No Letter in Your Pocket (Guernica Editions) and four other books, including two children’s fiction. Her nonfiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and more than 50 publications, including Sierra, The Sun, The Globe and Mail, Vancouver Sun, and Canadian Geographic. She has won writing awards from Southam Communications, the Writers’ Union of Canada, the Federation of B.C. Writers, and others. Heather teaches memoir writing in an online university class and has taught diverse genres at a variety of venues. She also coaches authors one-on-one and works as a freelance editor. A former communications manager for the Ending Violence Association of BC, Heather has a master of fine arts degree in creative nonfiction from Goucher College in Baltimore. Find out more at heatherconn.com.
Learn about Heather's memoir in a four-minute video, purchase her book from Amazon, read reviews and memoir excerpts, and/or listen to her in podcast interviews.