Two years ago I was lucky enough to have book published: The Railroad. While it is fiction, I have a more personal connection to the story than might be apparent to anyone who reads it. The story was inspired by 911 or, more specifically, my experiences on September 11, 2001. I am a New Yorker and was working a few blocks south of the Twin Towers back then. I found myself in the subway only a block and a half from the World Trade Center as the towers went down. I emerged into a false night as the dust covered lower Manhattan. Eventually I was fortunate enough to walk north to my home in Chelsea, cheating the death that had met so many that day.
The memory of 911 is fading, something that is disturbing but something I consider to be part of the healing process. There are things left to remind us of what happened: positive things like the the new World Trade Center and negative things like first responders who have succumbed to respiratory illnesses that our government is just beginning to admit are a result of breathing in the toxic soup that came out of 911. If there are true heroes of 911, the police, fire, and medical rescue workers are certainly the best examples.
It’s hard to explain the sense of loss that followed that day; an oppressive hopelessness on a surreal stage. In the months that followed I thought about loss and pain and transformation. Out of that came the book, “The Railroad”. The book incorporates child abuse as a theme, something that fit, in my mind, with the experience of watching the world fall apart. I have found that, as time has passed, I have spent less time trying to sell the book and have used it more as a platform for making people aware of child abuse and domestic abuse. I am still working in that direction and have not marketed the book in the traditional way.
One of the realities of writing is that you often don’t know why you’ve added certain elements to a story. In “The Railroad” the book touches both on 911 and more substantially on the issue of child abuse. I had to ask myself why both these topics became part of the book, almost as if they were connected. There is nothing necessarily profound about writing. An author has incidents and issues jumbled up in his or her head and often connections appear between things that may not seem obvious on the surface.
911 and child abuse? It was the horrific shootings in Colorado that made me understand why these two things seemed connected to me. The issue is theft.
We are all given so many resources: so many years of life in an unknown quantity, so many opportunities to make our dreams a reality, so many chances to form relationships that are important in our lives. In the weeks after 911 I had to grapple with what I’d lost. Fortunately it wasn’t the loss any loved ones or even acquaintances. In the end it was the loss of my home town .Of course, New York didn’t disappear that day; the area affected by 911 was geographically small.
It might be hard for all of you to believe a New Yorker would see his or her city as the same safe haven that someone in a small town would. Certainly there is more danger in day to day life in New York. But I never would have thought that my city, large and imposing as it is, could be as vulnerable as it was on 911.
I remember telling someone only days after 911 that I thought that someone had stolen my city. In the wake of the destruction, the predatory news crews from all over the world, the disconcerting break in our routines, I felt more like a freak in a sideshow than I did a New Yorker.
Child abuse, physical and sexual, is a theft of another kind. For victims of child abuse, there is often no safe haven to lose in the first place and the assumptions of trust that act as a foundation to being human are ripped away. The aftermath of child abuse can be even bleaker than the original theft of trust at the hands of abusers. The issue here is the slow, insidious way that the dysfunction of child abuse leeches the sense of purpose out of life. It separates us from our fellow men and shrinks our view of the world until we can only see a few feet in front of us. Every person I’ve known or people I’ve seen interviewed who were victims of abuse always talk about the parts of themselves they have lost. While some people have taken the awful lemons of abuse and made lemonade by helping other victims and telling their own stories, there are many more who suffer in silence, who may never learn to be dancers, musicians, teachers. Whatever dreams they might have normally pursued are barred to them in ways that even they can’t understand. This is theft in its most basic form; it’s a theft that is built into the fabric of someone’s life and it can make loss and failure seem inevitable. For many abuse victims, their problems become a moving target that often defies both understanding and healing.
Is it so hard to understand why some people are so zealous about removing the blight of child abuse from our society? All of us carry fears from our childhood that make us less than we could be. For a victim of child abuse those fears and constraints become constant companions limiting the scope of what they can do. Our prisons are filled with victims of child abuse and medicating the beasts that live within us has become a thriving industry.
The loss to our society is incalculable and it’s one that I believe we have been willing to bear because a solution seems so far out of reach. It shouldn’t be surprising that there are dozens of agencies and organizations dedicated to attacking the issues surrounding child abuse, domestic violence, bullying and countless other social problems. I have come to believe that avoiding these issues will cripple our society in ways that we can’t imagine.
People have expressed these ideas far more eloquently than I can. This quote comes from a poem, “Maud Muller”, by John Greenleaf Whittier: For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: “It might have been”. If we take these words to heart the awful consequences of child abuse of any kind becomes all the more tragic.