Breaking the Silence: A Memoir by Nancy King
Nancy King interview on the Richard Eeds radio show, October 14, 2020
(Interview begins at -12:18 mark.)
About the Book
“Dad, there are things about my childhood I’d like to know.”
“I don’t want to talk about it. It would only hurt your mother.”
“But Dad, you’re the only one who can tell me.”
“I don’t want to talk about it. It would only hurt your mother.”
Secrets. Lies. Silences. Stories told by parents and families to protect themselves. A father who defends his wife at the expense of his daughter’s health and welfare. A mother, shielded by her husband, who perpetuates murderous acts of violence on the daughter, and keeps secret her husband’s sexual “play” with the young girl.
And yet . . . Nancy King, determined to learn the truth of her childhood and the heartbreaking effects it has had on her adult life, uncovers the secrets. Sees through the lies. Breaks the silence.
Empowered by the stories she told herself as a child, she learns to use stories as part of her work as a university professor teaching theater, drama, world literature, and creative expression. Gradually, with the help of bodywork and therapy, she finds her voice. Says no to abuse and abusers. Reclaims her self and life. Writes a memoir.
She climbs mountains. Weaves tapestries. Writes books. Makes friends. Creates a meaningful life.
This is her story.
After writing five novels, I gave up trying to do fiction and began writing down the stories of my life, but I felt conflicted. Although I told myself the world didn’t need another memoir of childhood atrocities that resulted in a damaged adult who made bad choices despite knowing they were bad, I kept writing. While struggling with my memoir difficulties, I was contacted by a former student who thanked me for the autobiographical pieces I have been writing for www.yourlifeisatrip.com, an online experiential travel site. She wanted to know more about my current writing. When I shared some of my memoir and doubts about writing it, she wrote back: “It seems you’re finding your way out of the darkness, but I’m still struggling through a really painful dark time. I’m sure your writing would help me to start writing. Please!” Her words made me wonder if my stories could help others.
The stories in this memoir, chronological yet separate, reflect my struggles to heal from the trauma and abuse of the past, to free myself from the emotional prison in which I lived. Not all the stories are about abuse—some reveal ways in which I dealt with difficult or challenging situations. All are about healing. Knowing at least part of the truth of my childhood and its subsequent effect on my adult life has freed my memory. I now know that the stories told about me from parents and other family members were told by people who refused to acknowledge what they had done, or seen, who did not protect me, who chose to blame me rather than confront those who harmed me.
It has taken me almost eighty years to uncover some of what happened in my early life. My truth is painful and difficult to write. How I managed to survive and thrive despite all the trauma and negative inner and outer messages defies easy explanations. I often think about the words of two psychics, who didn’t know each other, who both began sessions with me in 1985 with the same exact words: “You were a child of light born into a family of darkness. They tried to extinguish your light. They almost succeeded.”
For most of my life, I had no safe person or place. No one protected me from my mother’s murderous violence or my father’s and uncle’s sexual abuse and torture. I learned to be highly vigilant, to read people’s bodies and body language, and to quickly sense if there was danger for me in their presence. I learned to go inside myself until the violence stopped, until the sexual molestation stopped, until the torture stopped. I taught myself not to feel, not to speak, not to hope for protection. My grandmother recognized that something was wrong when she told my father’s brothers, “The child is a stone,” then asked, “What have they done to her?” The brothers didn’t answer.
The coping mechanisms that served me well as a child crippled me as an adult. For most of my life, I didn’t know what I felt, if anything. There was no connection between what I knew and what I felt. I accepted the anger and abuse of others as my due.
I have spent a lifetime as an emotional archeologist digging deeply into memory, trying to uncover the truth of my life, learning to pay attention to the lifelong images and memories that never changed, which refused to disappear or fade, despite negation, denial, ridicule, and blame by my parents, sister, son, and other family members. Although I have chosen not to write about therapeutic sessions, for the past few years, I have been working with a therapist and two energy healers who have helped me to process flashbacks and challenging interpersonal relationships. They made it possible to understand secrets revealed by body memories—stories I have been unable to tell until now. They taught me how to feel safe within myself as I remembered more about my early life. I have learned that it is never too late to reclaim one’s life story, to be the self one truly is. These last two years have been the best years of my life. I look forward to whatever time I have left with the knowledge that I am living the life I choose to live.
I first began to have an inkling of the truth of my life in the late 1970s and early 1980s when I wrote what I call popping-out stories—stories written with no prior thought or planning that emerged as I typed. Much to my annoyance, every story contained sexual abuse, emotional cruelty, and/or murderous violence. When I tried to change events or actions, the stories stopped. Only when I typed what came to mind could I continue writing.
In 1989, as part of my Ph.D. program, I explored the power of stories and dreams as ways of knowing. In one dream, I tried to go to the island of Osiris but couldn’t reach it. When I told my Jungian therapist about the dream, he suggested I write a story about going to Osiris. What I wrote popped out, just like previous stories, but this time, I did not change what emerged. This time, I was no longer able to dismiss it as “just another boring story of abuse and violence.” And yet, even though the words on the page came unplanned and felt truthful, there was no connection between what I knew in my mind and what I was able to feel.
The Osiris story, in which the protagonist battles with her mother, father, and uncle, remained etched in my mind. I reread it when I doubted my truth, and it became a kind of anchor, enabling me to begin this memoir. Later, after I had written most of the stories, another Osiris story emerged, and it too felt important to include in this memoir because it revealed an important truth as I was struggling to move past troubling relationships.
Stories matter. The stories people tell about us are their stories, not ours. I share my stories with you in the hope that they help you find the courage and determination to reclaim your stories, your truth. It is more than time to tell our stories. It is more than time to be who we truly are.
About the Author
Nancy King, Ph.D., is a writer and playwright whose nonfiction, plays, and novels have won numerous awards. Her novel, The Stones Speak, has been optioned for a movie. She facilitates workshops in creative expression, playmaking, and world literature in the U.S. and abroad.
Living in Santa Fe, N.M., she finds inspiration in storytelling, weaving, writing, and hiking in the mountains.
Praise for Breaking the Silence
Breaking the Silence is a gift, sometimes wrapped in brightly colored paper with a sparkly bow, other times a heart-wrenching lump of coal. It is powerful, positive, creative, spunky, and painful, but not pitiful. There are sad secrets unmasked. It is not for the faint of heart. It is instead an illusion shattered but not defeated. Read it with a glass of wine, if you dare!
Breaking the Silence weaves together still-relevant stories from the deep past with Nancy King’s own struggle to understand and overcome the trauma of her early life. Her words in this memoir offer the possibility of healing and renewal.
—William Abrashkin, author, retired judge
Nancy King’s new book, Breaking the Silence, also breaks new ground for the author. An acclaimed novelist and professor of storytelling, she mines the treacherous cavern of abuse, lies, and silence that trapped her for much of her life. This is a powerful memoir of pain—and ultimately empowerment—as King develops the tools to shatter the silence and learn the truth of her life.
—Judith Fein, author of How to Communicate With the Dead
Not only is it amazing that Nancy King survived her traumatic childhood but also that she is still creating a rich and varied life year by year, decade by decade. In this book, she creatively shapes the reality of a traumatic childhood into a work of art. Yet there is joy in her memoir too; it is full of love because it is full of stories. In the Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam—repairing the world—Nancy works toward repairing the world of her childhood.
—Claudia M. Reder, author of How to Disappear
Nancy King’s compelling new memoir skillfully reaches into the hidden depths of a lifetime lived with childhood trauma. We see how the wounds inflicted on her when she was young and vulnerable led to a lifetime of struggle but also how she created a life of incredible adventure, inquiry, and connection as she found her way home.
A riveting memoir about the conspiracy of silence hiding the horrors of violence and sexual abuse Nancy King suffered at the hands of family members, resulting in physical and emotional scars that filled her with shame and confusion. She learned not to feel, not to talk about what had happened. For years, she endured self-doubt and traumatic flashbacks, but through it all, she found her voice, and helped others to find their voices as well. Breaking the Silence is a powerful and engaging account of one woman’s struggle to live a meaningful and joy-filled life.
—David M. Pody, playwright
Nancy King demonstrated incredible courage in surviving the abusive childhood she describes in Breaking the Silence. The fact that she also thrived as an accomplished educator and writer is remarkable—as is Nancy herself! The first time I read her memoir, I was swiftly carried through by her astonishing personal experiences. The second time, I slowed down, savoring her stunning creativity.
—Cheryl Gill, teacher
An extraordinary memoir. Hopefully it will encourage others to write or speak out about their past and let the healing process continue.
Nancy King is a powerful storyteller who presents her memoir in a strong and masterful way. Her words are deeply touching on an emotional level and invite readers to go inside themselves and explore their inner truths.
—Barbara Radov, MSW, LCSW
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