I first met award-winning writer and journalist Dorri Olds through Susan Shapiro’s essay writing class. I was overcome by her positivity in contexualizing her recovery process through her work, which has become required reading for a Victimology course at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. In our interview below, she discusses her unexpected path to healing and its influence on her approach to writing.
Were you always creative as a child?
Yes, there’s a lot of artistic talent in my family. It’s in the genes. When I was little I had a really fat belly and my mother said when I ran out of paper, I would draw on my stomach.
That’s probably the cutest story I’ve ever heard.
Art was celebrated in my house. We had paintings everywhere. My mother was a nonfiction writer and my father was in radio. He’d started out on a radio soap and the first TV soap as well. A friend got him five lines per show for the higher pay scale. He was a DJ and newscaster but realized he was best at management and made that sacrifice to support us.
In your essay “Defriending My Rapist,” you discussed being drawn to an “edgy” crowd at a young age. Looking back, why do you think that was?
Part of it was rebellion. I was also a thrill-seeker drawn to a hedonistic group of kids from blue collar backgrounds. They seemed carefree and did what they wanted to. I had a romanticized image of them, like James Dean or something, but had no idea they’d be violent.
Was art an outlet for you to process your childhood?
It kept me alive. In my piece “5 Ways David Bowie Songs Kept Me Alive During Addiction,” I talk about how music, writing and drawing kept me out of the psych ward. I was on the edge and poured myself into creativity. It saved what sanity I had.
When Facebook suggested I friend my rapist in 2009, seeing that guy’s face made me finally mad enough to deal with the pain. Since that happened, all the things I kept inside surfaced.
Even before the rape, I had anxiety and there were other depressed and suicidal family members. My father was a U.S. Army Captain in WWII who had decorative Nazi swords taken from a captured German soldier. They looked like daggers and were called Third Reich Hunting Hirschfangers. My father kept one on the mantel. I knew it was a weapon from overhearing war stories. When I was five, my mother yelled at me. Her mood was a light switch; everything would be fine and then she’d suddenly be furious. I was so traumatized that I stormed out of the room, climbed on top of a chair and grabbed the sword. I don’t know how I got this idea but I was going to plunge it through my heart and then she’d be sorry.
If I’d gotten the sheath off, I doubt I would’ve killed myself, but it’s odd a child would think of that. My suicidal tendencies stayed with me and got stronger at age 12.
I heard you’d die if you stepped on the third rail, so I tried it. It didn’t work. A train station worker saw me and yelled, “Get away from there kid. You could get yourself killed.” So I tried it again. I found out later it was because I was wearing sneakers—they don’t conduct electricity. Maybe suicidal tendencies are as simple as brain chemistry.
My parents loved me but they weren’t equipped emotionally. They generously provided financially and were supportive. They came to every art show or gymnastics meet or music lesson but emotionally, there was a disconnect. My parents weren’t raised to talk about certain feelings. When they were upset I felt responsible for their moods.
What was the response to the Times piece?
It was life changing. I got an outpouring of support. After 200-plus comments, the Times cut it off or I think people would’ve kept commenting. There were a couple of Internet critics saying, “You should’ve told sooner because you’re responsible if any other girls were raped.” But come on, I was only 13. I got hundreds of E-mails and phone calls. It felt like my whole hometown contacted me. People who I barely remembered were supportive. One former classmate lashed out on Facebook and accused me of making up stories. I have no idea why—I hadn’t talked to her in at least 30 years.
Did your rapist ever respond to your Facebook message?
There were five guys. When Facebook suggested one of them I thought Facebook was cruel; I didn’t realize it was just a database and the rapist and I had friends in common. I lost my breath when I saw his face. Out of curiosity and wanting revenge I clicked “add friend.” He accepted right away. We wrote a couple of private messages. When I confirmed it was really him, I wrote, “I hope that night has haunted you. I was naïve and a virgin. I see you have a teenage daughter now. Better keep her safe from guys like you.” He never contacted me again.
After that, I found two more rapists. One was my friend who’d lured me over by saying he needed a girl’s advice. Happy to help, I skipped over. He grabbed me and threw me to the ground and pinned me. Four guys pounced from behind a tree. I wrote to him and we exchanged a few posts. Then I typed, “Do you remember what you did?” I wrote a few more times but he didn’t write back. Here was a chance for redemption. They all could’ve apologized. I guess that’s what I wanted. I found a third guy and sent private messages but he never responded. A fourth guy wasn’t on Facebook. Someone from my hometown said he got brain damage from a car accident. He was the meanest of them all so it was nice to think it was karma.
I wanted revenge but realized it was never satisfying. It’s a nice fantasy but the pleasure lasts only seconds, and then you just feel dirty.
What has helped you in dealing with this trauma?
In a macabre way Facebook was my savior. It took a lot of energy to run from my demons and this made me stop and face them. As a child, I didn’t understand it wasn’t my fault. I’d worn a sexy shirt because I wanted a boyfriend. I also didn’t understand it was rape because there wasn’t penis-to-vagina penetration. I was so traumatized and didn’t know how to process it, so I tried to pretend it never happened.
I’ve been in and out of therapy. Not dealing with the assault snowballed into a lot of other problems. It’s like grief. At first you can’t breathe, you feel like you won’t live through it, but if you face the trauma you can contain it to maybe one bad year. It’s not like grief goes away, but it becomes more manageable. If I’d dealt with this trauma, I could’ve avoided becoming a crazy self-destructive person.
Facebook opened a Pandora’s box. At first it was excruciating to process the emotions, but then it became healing. The rape was finally in the past. It wasn’t this big secret anymore. Some people asked me, “Why would you write something so personal?” Those guys covered my mouth. I literally couldn’t speak and then I was afraid to tell afterwards. But now I can scream about what they did to me and not feel ashamed anymore.
After this healing experience, are there aspects of self-care that remain challenging for you?
To tell you the truth, no. I credit my close friend of 25 years, and my husband. Before my friend helped me and getting together with my husband, I kept picking the same kind of men. It was obvious to everyone but me that none of them would work out. There were warning signs but after breakups I’d blame the guy. There’s an expression—if you’re pointing a finger at someone, you have three fingers pointing back at you. That’s true in this case. It was me that had a problem with relationships. My father once commented on all of my bad boyfriend choices: “They don’t adore you. Be with someone who adores you.“
Therapy has helped. Right before the Times article came out, I told my mother about the rape. She reads the Times every day and I didn’t want her to be blindsided. My mother is strong and a writer. She was very supportive and it felt healing. I wouldn’t have written that article if my father were still alive; it would’ve destroyed him. But I’m glad I did. Because of it, my life got so much more joyful.
How do you juggle multiple careers?
I love working and I lose myself in it. The addict part of me chases creative endeavors. I’m fascinated by making things and I feel safe when I’m doing that.
Is it hard to switch from one type of work to another?
I would say no. Some jobs I take for money. They’re not always as fun, but if I wrote about me all the time, it would be too much. I love interviewing others. I used to be socially awkward, but since I started interviewing and photographing people, it’s much easier to be around them. I hate small talk but love people’s stories.
What are the big misconceptions about sexual abuse and rape survivors?
It seems more people understand what constitutes rape now. Like with Aspen Matis’ book “Girl in the Woods.” You can be manipulated and psychologically pressured and freeze but it’s still rape. In 2012, the legal definition of rape changed and if there’s penetration of any kind to any part of your body without your consent, it is rape. It’s important for young girls to be educated and it’s encouraging that pop culture taught us through characters like Olivia Benson from “Law & Order: SVU.”
What bothers me is when Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are depicted as comical. Alcoholism and drug addiction are a sickness. I’ve learned a lot about addiction and the brain’s neural pathways. Say you’re in an overgrown grass field with no path and you walk a straight line over and over. You create a pathway. When addicts feel stressed, sad or even celebratory, they reach for a drink or drug. It happens so often that it becomes Pavlovian. Some people don’t understand it’s a mental illness. Addiction is a disturbing and demoralizing sickness that’s very difficult to treat. That’s why so many people can’t get or stay clean.
Families really suffer around addicts. My sister was furious with me for years. Addicts become the center of a family, so everyone else—particularly siblings—can really resent you.
What’s the hardest part of being a writer for you?
My writing mentor Susan Shapiro talks about a system so I’m developing one. I wake up with so many things on my mind. I’ll think through a story arc with a beginning, crisis and resolution. When my husband wakes up I’ll kick around stories with him. He tells me, “You should record this!” So I’ve started doing that. It’s all exposition but it gives me an idea which parts can become scenes. Sue says, “Don’t be afraid to suck. Just write.” So that’s what I do. The hardest part is how everything takes longer than expected.
Is this system a way for you to process your thoughts?
Sometimes. I also have to crank essays out to make money. That’s part of it. But I also feel a high when I get attention for my creations. Everybody has an emotional life whether they’re in touch with it or not. Focusing on writing helps me work out what haunts me.
If you saw someone in struggle and wanted to help, what would you say or do?
Chances are what happened to them has happened to a lot of other people so I’d say, “You’re not unique so there’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Everybody has problems. Rich people have rich people problems. Celebrities have celebrity problems. The more open I am, the more I heal. I spent years hating myself but I don’t anymore. It’s amazing how helping others helps me.
Having a really active mind combined with acute sensitivity is like living in a battleground. You feel like a hyper-alert ping pong ball getting whacked around. For me, I take those feelings and pour them into work. It’s my medicine. If I didn’t have outlets, my mind and body wouldn’t have contained the intensity of my feelings. I don’t know how non-creative people survive.
It’s great to have quirks and be eccentric. People want to conform to be socially accepted. It’s a lot better when you think, “Just be yourself.” Adore who you are and find the community that accepts that person.