T Kira Madden is a writer, photographer, and amateur magician living in New York City. Her essay “The Feels of Love” is a powerful story of her adolescence, assault, and survival at age 12. The Tempest sat down with her to talk about what kind of reactions she received, and her process for writing vulnerable personal stories.
The Tempest: I noticed that you used to publish more fiction, and that your more recent work is more creative non-fiction. You’re currently working on a memoir. Is there a difference in your process between the two genres?
T Kira Madden: With fiction, I focus on closeness. A closeness to the body, the mind of the character, the point of telling. I think very technically about direct and indirect discourse. I spend days at a time on a sentence. I focus on precision and mechanics. In nonfiction, I think more about distance. What do I know now that I didn’t know then? How do I block my current consciousness from leaking into the story I’m trying to tell about being 8, or 16, or 25 years old? How do I remove the excess details that may be important to my own self-story but less important to a reader? What is the narrative pact I am creating between lived experience and that which I share with an audience?
You’ve described yourself as “an introvert with a severe anxiety disorder.” As an introvert, do you find it easy to write about yourself?
It’s interesting, people read my tweets and social media posts or my stories and essays online, and they have this impression that I’ll have a certain garrulity in person. I’ll be opinionated and talkative and maybe even, sometimes, funny. In reality, I often cry when I speak because my own voice scares me. I’m known to offer an overly-enthusiastic, childish wave when I recognize someone before skittering away into the darkest corner of a room. I speak softly, and slowly; I jumble my words. I have no posture—both literally and figuratively—and I once spit up on myself when I met Eileen Myles.
In writing, I can be bold…The written word is a superpower for the timid, though timidity is not the same as weakness—some people just scream more quietly.
Your piece, “The Feels of Love”, describes your experience of sexual assault and survival in such a vivid, vulnerable way. What kind of reactions did you see, on Twitter and elsewhere?
I received a great bounty of kindness and understanding, for which I will feel eternally grateful. I received messages from victims all over the world, victims of the same perps and victims of experiences completely different than my own… I’m so humbly appreciative of every kind word and new person I’ve met because of it.
That being said, I think it’s important to be honest about what publishing a piece like The Feels actually meant for my life. It meant reopening trauma that was (truly) long closed. It meant hearing from “Chad” [the pseudonym of her rapist in the piece] again, who stalked and harassed me in every way one would imagine. It meant leaving the safety of a writing residency (twice) to fly cross-country to appear in court for a bill of protection. It meant listening to the gurgling stomachs in the court waiting room when none of us women had eaten. It meant other women using my body, quite literally, as a shield from their own rapists in the hall of that courthouse. It meant exponential attorney bills. It means keeping a folded wad of paper, a wad of paper that is supposed to protect my life, on my person at all times.
It meant asking my editors to send cruel comments and messages directly to my girlfriend when I couldn’t read any more. It meant someone in my immediate family, a man, saying “I don’t believe her.” It meant other people in my family, all women, saying, “People will never believe us.” It meant receiving a video of a girl being hacked by a chainsaw on my Facebook page. It means checking under the bed, and in my closet, and behind the shower curtain, every time I come home. It means being told maybe I’m just gay because men once violated me. It means being told “what happened to you wasn’t real rape.” It means receiving hundreds of messages detailing how survivors have survived various violences; how they’ve been drugged and dragged across bathroom tiles and strangled with their own underwear. It means responding to each and every one of these messages because I get it—I understand what it means to have no one to talk to. To have no one believe your own story. To feel that if you speak up, you will only be served with more violence.
If you’re a woman, or a survivor, you understand what I’m talking about. There is a way in which telling the story of what it means to live inside your own body becomes a target itself. The words of your story will balloon into punching bags. In four words, “I don’t believe you,” people will try to strip you of your very body-hood. Don’t let them. Be louder.
How did you deal with inhabiting the memories of traumatic events when you write? Do you have a self-care routine?
There’s something rather lovely about giving shape to your fears, or organizing your experiences and traumas. I try to think of writing that way. I’ve spent most of my life feeling out of control, or without voice, and writing is my way of containment. The fact that I am writing the scenes means I survived them, and that fact alone brings comfort. I can’t change what happened in the writing of the happening, but I can change the shadows in the room. I can supplant knowledge and tenderness where fear once lived. I can write the moment my father died, or the night my mother suffered a violent beating, and I can pause that scene; I can suspend each character or person in my mind and offer some speck of new faith.
Regarding self-care: Movie theaters. Hot sex with my woman. A terrific therapist. Japanese food.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.