Fictionalizing Real Trauma as a Means of Healing

When I was nineteen and a college junior, I spent what was supposed to be an exotic, sultry, educational summer semester in Madrid. But my long-term boyfriend back home and I had recently broken up, and instead of being excited by my new surroundings, I was miserable. All I wanted to do was to talk to him. If I could just hear his voice, I told anyone who’d listen. If I could tell him I loved him, and hear him say the same in return, everything would be okay.

This was in 1989, before cell phones were ubiquitous, and that summer every one of the Telefónica de España’s public pay phones I tried were out of order. One night toward the end of our trip, some classmates and I found ourselves at a terraza somewhere in the central district. We dragged our chairs into a circle, drank cold beer, and talked. Night descended and the circle grew wider as more people joined us. Everyone was friendly and animated. Everyone but me, that is. I was droning to my friend Kelly about wanting to call this boy back home.

“I know how you can make a phone call.” I swiveled to my right, and a man I didn’t know smiled at me. “We can go now if you want. It’s like a two-minute walk.”

Kelly put a warning hand on my arm. “It’ll be fine,” I said to her, too eager to worry.

I followed Michael—that was his name, he introduced himself as we threaded through the other chairs–out to the street. He was a few paces ahead; I was floating behind, lost in preparation for the call I was about to make. Then he stopped at a car parked on the street and unlocked it. “Get in,” he said.

Wait. “I thought you said we could walk.”

He shrugged. “I underestimated.” He sounded tired. “If you want to go, get in. It’ll be faster this way.” I remembered that it was I who was putting him out, not the other way around. I got in.

As he pushed a button to lock the doors, he looked intently at me. He was sweating and his eyes were dilated, and I knew: I’d made a terrible, terrible mistake.

He squealed out of the parking space and began a high-speed race out of downtown Madrid, dodging cars and running lights. It was strangely quiet: he didn’t honk or turn on the stereo or speak. I could hear my heart banging inside my head. Untold minutes later, he exited the freeway and pulled into an abandoned-looking warehouse district. There was graffiti on metal shutters, trashcans, broken lights above entryways. He parked in front of one of the buildings and killed the ignition.

I turned to Michael, ready to plead for my life, but as soon as I did, he flashed a switchblade and pressed its flat side against my throat. He licked his lips and said, “Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to slit your pretty neck and then fuck you in it. And when I’m good and done, I’m going to leave you here to die. Nobody will find you. And nobody will find me.”

What happened next was a blur fueled by my determination not to let him kill me. I kicked, slapped, hit, screamed. He did the same to me. I have no idea how long it lasted, but somehow—miraculously—I eventually got away from him with only a few cuts and bruises, a ripped shirt, and a nightmare that would last the rest of my life. That I made it back to Madrid from such a godforsaken episode is another miracle. When I did, I told only one person: Kelly, the friend I’d been with earlier that night. Not the police, not the school, not my mother, nobody.

The one bag I didn’t unpack after returning to Houston a few days later was the one that contained the memory of my attack. I stashed it in the recesses of my mind and did my best to forget about it. I was so intent on burying the terror, shame, pain, and humiliation associated with that night, in fact, that I also forgot where and with whom I’d lived in Spain, what classes I’d taken, the name of that terraza, even Kelly’s surname.

But although I thought I’d hidden the truth from myself—and others—something as traumatic as that doesn’t just magically disappear. It’s the kind of story that lives deep inside your bones. The kind that will surface on occasion, without preamble, until you can stuff it back down again. If you can stuff it back down.

In May 2021, I’d just completed the manuscript that would become A Gracious Neighbor and was waiting, as I do, for the Universe to deliver my next book idea. My daughter was nineteen, the same age I was when I was attacked, and was preparing to drive cross-country to come home for the summer. My suppressed memory returned and refused to be ignored.

I thought about how strong and capable, and yet how vulnerable and exposed my precious girl would be during her trip. I couldn’t stop thinking about the vagaries of violence and victimhood, safety and security, guilt and grief—mine, of course, and others’. It was time, the Universe and I decided, to deal with Madrid in the most therapeutic way I know: by fictionalizing it.

The psychic burden would’ve been too great if I’d written the story as memoir. Besides, the gaps in my memory would’ve made it impossible. The thought of telling it in the first person POV made me nauseated, as did the idea of bringing in too many familiar details. I needed some emotional distance from those traumatic hours, and so I gave them to a character named Paula. All she and I share is a birthday, a home state, and one really shitty night in 1989.

I wrote the hardest part first. I’m not typically precious about where and how I work, but in this case, I wanted my family to be home but not likely to interrupt me, to be outside in case I needed to suddenly run for my life, and to be a little drunk. Once my cocktail kicked in, I opened a new document on my laptop and, with trembling hands, put Paula through absolute hell. To my surprise, reimagining the events of that night through her perspective wasn’t as harrowing as I’d expected. In fact, it was liberating.

Not only did seeing it on the page diminish some of its shadowy power, I felt great tenderness toward Paula. She felt, as I always had, liable for what her assailant did to her. She’d ignored her friend’s concern and gone willingly to her own would-be execution. But, thirty-two years later, as a mother and a self-defense instructor, I knew what happened to Paula was not her fault. And if she wasn’t responsible for her attack, then…I wasn’t responsible for mine.

Once the manuscript was finished, I decided to find my friend Kelly. I may have forgotten her last name, but I never forgot that she’d worried about me that night, that she’d waited at that terraza for me for hours. I wanted to thank her for that kindness, because when I finally made it back, seeing her made me believe that somehow, I was going to be okay.

After many dead ends, a clever friend suggested I go through my alma mater’s online yearbooks and do a search on “Kelly.” And there she was, with her big 80s hair and even bigger smile. I found her social media profile; she’s now married with two young adult children, her hair streaked with gray, her smile as great as ever. My desire to hug her was overwhelming. When we finally got to talk on the phone, she said very gently, “I knew right away why you reached out to me. That night has stayed with me, too.”

The aphorism “sunlight is the best antiseptic” is apropos to this story. Writing The Young of Other Animals and then talking about it with Kelly felt like I’d dragged a heavy trunk out of my mental attic, pried the lid open, and let the sunlight do its thing. I can’t say that I wish I’d done it decades earlier; if I’d talked about it from the beginning, I don’t know if I’d have become a fighter—figuratively and literally—or taught hundreds of women how to protect themselves from similar situations.

In our post Me Too era, it may seem like it’s easier for assault survivors to share their stories, that authorities are less likely to blame the preyed-upon for the predation against them. Yet statistics suggest otherwise: while one in six American will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, only 25 out of every 1,000 rapists will end up in prison—in part because many victims fear retribution or shaming.

Even if nobody were to read The Young of Other Animals, the book that grew out of this story, releasing myself from the negative feelings I’d held onto for three decades made the writing of it entirely worthwhile. Yet I do hope others will read it, and that they will find it worthwhile, too. And if they’re bearing a great psychic burden for trespasses against them, perhaps they’ll be inspired to tell someone—anyone—so they don’t have to carry it alone.


The Young and Other Animals

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