Unraveling Trauma and Title IX: An Interview with Sarah Cheshire

INTERVIEW BY MANDY SHUNNARAH

I don’t know what the other entrants’ chapbooks in the 2017 Etchings Press Chapbook Contest were like, but I know Sarah Cheshire’s win for Unravelings was well-deserved.

After becoming romantically involved with a trusted creative writing professor and mentor, “Jane Doe” is forced to recount the details of the relationship––including its varied manipulations and abuses of power––for a Title IX investigation. Unravelings is a fictionalized memoir in the sense that names, locations, and other identifying information has been obscured for privacy reasons, though the Title IX proceedings Unravelings describes mirror what Cheshire herself experienced as an undergraduate.

At only 51 pages, Unravelings is the epitome of “though she be but little, she is fierce.” Through primary source documents like texts, emails, and Title IX reports, as well as lyrical verse and prose poetry, Unravelings guides the reader into the complicated truths between confidant and abuser, victim and survivor.

As a cord of twine unravels, it becomes frayed––so too does this story as it progresses. Paragraphs lead to speculation and ask unanswerable questions that boil down to how did we get here? Each time, the reader is brought back to center through vibrant repetition and verse––almost like a prayer for understanding in the labyrinth of institutional bureaucracy that oversees even the most intimate matters.

In this way, the chapbook is both a literal and metaphorical unraveling––one that resolutely echoes the thought patterns and stages of grief felt when healing from trauma.

I talked to Sarah about the writing and healing process.

Mandy Shunnarah: I appreciate the use of screenshots––like the texts, Facebook messages, and emails––and the official-looking Title IX documents. Tell me about your decision to add in those elements rather than making the chapbook text-only.

Sarah Cheshire: As a part of my writing process, I spent a lot of time re-reading old emails and text exchanges between myself, Professor X, and others implicated in the story, trying to reconstruct what happened and how it felt. I was really just trying to jog my memory, but found that these documents in and of themselves told a story.

Much like the experience itself, the social media exchanges were fragmented and nonlinear; oscillating rapidly between moments of clarity and moments where logic seemed to be suspended. There was a frenetic, yet poetic quality to them that conveyed the state I was in that year almost perfectly. I also think that, as collected “evidence,” these screenshots provide a bridge between Doe’s memories and the story the institution is trying to tell. They were the last thing I included, but ultimately I think they are what ties the piece together.

MS: What challenges did you face in the writing process?

SC: Going into my M.F.A. program, the situation I wrote about in Unravelings was still very fresh in my conscious. Whenever I would sit down to write, I would still feel like I was writing under the critical eye of the man who evaluated my creative work throughout college; whose mentorship both sculpted my creative voice and ultimately undermined the confidence I held in that voice.

This might sound melodramatic, but throughout my process of writing Unravelings I kept thinking of a line in one of Virginia Woolf’s essays: “Killing the Angel in the house [is] part of the occupation of a woman writer.” To Virginia Woolf, the Angel in the House represented the pressure women writers face to write the versions of themselves that men want to read, rather than their true selves. To me, the Angel in the House was the looming feeling that I was still writing to appease my college mentor’s toxic gaze. I knew that I needed to, metaphorically speaking, “kill” this gaze in order to reclaim my own voice.

Unravelings was the first piece I completed as a graduate student. It was a very hard piece to write, partially because the events of that year still felt so convoluted in my mind. Basically, I wrote it because I felt I wouldn’t be able tell other stories until I’d fully unraveled this one.

MS: I found it interesting how, despite Professor X taking advantage of Doe, she protects him in the Title IX proceedings. Statements that might identify him are redacted at her request and she requests an informal investigation, rather than a formal one. Often trauma victims’ actions are misunderstood––can you talk more about that element of the story?

SC: Well, this was a man who dragged me through the mud, but who I was also in love with. He was coming from an incredibly traumatic past, which he shared with me privately (in retrospect this was also a violation of boundaries) and which added an extra layer of nuance to my perceptions of him.

I included redacted moments (which, in the text, mainly consist of striked-out but still legible details about his past) because, rationally, I knew that his past shouldn’t excuse his behavior but, in the moments where I was asked to hold him accountable for this behavior, I still felt an emotive need to contextualize it. I knew that he really fucked up, but we had also seen each other in incredibly vulnerable moments and I still felt a sort of convoluted tenderness towards him.

Essentially, I think I defended him because I was having a hard time reconciling his abuses of power with the tender moments that we shared, both in intimate spaces and in our writing. I am told this is common amongst survivors. Sadly, I think many survivors end up justifying the actions of abusers because they have seen the goodness in these people and want to believe that this goodness still exists, even when it’s being shrouded by anger or violence or manipulative behaviors. I believe that trust and emotional sensitivity—the ability to, as Rihanna would say, “find love in a hopeless place”––are beautiful, radical qualities that a lot of survivors possess.

In the feminist utopia of my dreams, these qualities would be celebrated. It’s only when others exploit them, and we find ourselves searching for ways to love those who continue to hurt us, that they become curses. Ultimately, I think this was my problem; why I ended up protecting him. I truly believed that he was better than his actions and he just needed more time to prove it. I believed this until his actions subsumed me, and my own story got lost inside of his.

MS: As I read Unravelings, I got the impression that formal proceedings like Title IX ask things of abuse survivors that are often difficult or impossible to give––such as linear memories and externally identifiable examples of gaslighting, for example. Based on your own personal experiences and the research you did for Unravelings, do you think Title IX effectively seeks justice for victims?

SC: This is a complicated question; one that I actually find myself grappling with often when thinking about Title IX, as well as the court systems, the police, and other forces survivors are told to appeal to when seeking justice.

Over the course of my four years in college, Title IX saw many positive reformations. I witnessed huge strides in the extent to which survivors have been able to access certain forms of justice through the institutional apparatuses in place, mainly due to the tireless activism of campus survivors and the founding of advocacy organizations such as KnowYourIX. This it is not to say there isn’t a huge amount of work left to be done; I find it nauseating that, in the year 2017, we are still seeing cases of women dropping out of school and even taking their own lives because the system has failed them.

In my case, however, I actually felt like the Title IX system was working to the best of its ability—I was treated with humanity and validation by the officers involved, and for the most part, felt agency over how the process played out. My issue isn’t with Title IX per se, but with the task that it holds people to; the task of creating clarity in narrative, when stories, trauma, and people themselves are innately so very messy.

Something I thought about a lot while writing the book was the notion of grey matter; the spaces between black and white, right and wrong, good and bad. In my opinion, the most genuine stories come out of these grey spaces. These are the spaces of nuance. The whole purpose of a formal Title IX process is to weigh evidence and determine which side of a story is “right” and which side is “wrong.” This need for clear delineations of truth inherently puts survivors of trauma at a disadvantage because in moments of trauma, it is common for linear memory to become disrupted.

I also think that the way that these systems box people up in their individual sides of a story can inhibit perpetrators from engaging in the deep critical self-reflection necessary to truly hold themselves accountable for their actions––and, ultimately, to rectify and change. But I’m less concerned about them.

I think justice means different things for different people. I, personally, don’t feel like justice, on a fundamental level, would have been served simply as the result of him “getting in trouble” for his actions. Maybe this is because of some lingering twisted desire to protect him, or because, if I’m being completely honest, I partially blamed myself for how everything unfolded (and still do, which I’m working on). But I like to think that I feel this way because something in me resents the notion that the messiness of stories and human emotions can be resolved simply by weighing facts and legislating right and wrong.

I think that Title IX is necessary in that it holds institutions accountable to survivors and is effective when implemented correctly and compassionately. But I also think punitive models of justice have their limitations. If we’re ever going to see shifts in sexist paradigms, we need to find additional ways to hold people accountable for their actions, ways that give space for healing, restoration, and consciousness-raising rather than just punishment and deterrent.

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Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though Birmingham, Alabama, will always have her heart. Her creative nonfiction essays and book reviews have appeared in The Citron Review, The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, and The New Southerner Magazine. You can read more of her work at her website, OffTheBeatenShelf.com.

[REVIEW] A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us, by Caleb Curtiss

 taxonomy

 

Black Lawrence Press

37 pages, $8.95

 

Review by Katie Schmid

 

Caleb Curtiss’ first chapbook is a chronicle of a sister’s death in a car accident; it is the story of the moment of the death and the moments after. These poems are also poems of memory, as the speaker here watches the past become inflected with (and infected by) the knowledge of the loss that is to come, as in “Self-Portrait With My Dead Sister” where the speaker reflects on a day at the beach with his sister when they were young,

one will grow up and keep on being real,

while the other will grow up and be dead.

In this memory, the speaker’s sister is already dead though she still lives on the beach. The bald truth of a sister whose memory is both alive and dead seems an obvious enough observation about the nature of loss, but in Curtiss’ poems, it becomes a paradox, something that is troubled and fraught, an obsession—Curtiss questions what it means that his sister can be both real and not real, what it means that he dredges up her memory, over and over, to live in these poems, and finally what the space of grief is for. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Navigational Clouds, by Alina Gregorian

th

Monk Books

30 pages, $10

 

Review by Anaïs Duplan

 

 

“apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist”

– Inger Christensen, Alphabet (1981)

It’s difficult to know how to begin to speak about Alina Gregorian’s Navigational Clouds. Each of the thirty poems is, in itself, both a diagram of waking life and a personified map of America. “Unlike the snowstorm in Arkansas, nothing seems wrong with my teeth. But the world is strange” (“Atlas”). Over the course of the collection, Gregorian acts as our cartographer, acutely illustrating what it means to search, perhaps desperately, for some direction, for some sense of purpose in largely uncharted territory. Fragmented, enigmatic and yet logical, Navigational Clouds demands that anyone who dares traverse its landscape learn the lay of the land. In other words, it would seem that the only way to talk about Gregorian’s chapbook would be to mimic the diagrammatic quality of the writing itself.

I. The Cartographer

Gregorian’s speakers are often distanced and aloof, but not for ignorance. Instead, her speakers embody some unnamable coordinate at the epicenter of wisdom, ennui, and skepticism. In “Everything is Happening,” the speaker states, “If everything is the way it could be, then nothing would get done around here.” This particular poem is important. If Navigational Clouds is an ongoing experience of ‘shared attention’ – the readers’ gaze is directed in whichever direction the cartographer chooses – then “Everything is Happening” is pivotal because it widens our focus from a singular incident or place to the global, the universal. A poem like “Untitled,” for example, feels much more microscopic: “You are a daisy pinned to my lapel,” and we spend much of Navigational Clouds reflecting on the minute, just as we do here. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Families Among Us, by Blake Kimzey

families

Black Lawrence Press

40 pages, $8.95

 

 

Review by Thomas Michael Duncan

 

In the first episode of his podcast, The Monthly, Mike Meginnis observes that the chapbook, as a form, appears to be something “people enjoy publishing much more than they enjoy reading.” This struck me as a smart, if generalized, reflection on the medium. Like new literary magazines, a spattering of chapbook publishers appears to sprout from nowhere every few days. This is likely an outcome of the current economic and cultural climate, where it is too expensive for upstart presses to print full-length books when more and more readers gravitate towards digital editions or free online content. The chapbook offers a cost-effective way to put something physical in a reader’s hands, but the ease of production also lends the form to hurried publication and incohesive collections.

Yet when a publisher puts real time and consideration into a chapbook, when a writer tells vibrant stories that bleed into the margins, and when a sharp design meets fitting, fascinating artwork, the result is too great to ignore. In other words, the result is Families Among Us, winner of the 2013 Black Lawrence Press Chapbook Competition. Continue reading

[REVIEW] The Imagination of Lewis Carroll, by William Todd Seabrook

Lewis

Rose Metal Press

Winner of the Eighth Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest

56 pages, $12

 

Review by Caitlin Corrigan

 

In a recent radio interview with Minnesota State University (MNSU), William Todd Seabrook described his latest, prize-winning chapbook, The Imagination of Lewis Carroll as both “magical realist biography” and a kind of “fan fiction of a historical person.” Seabrook, a PANK contributor, is also the author of two other prizewinning chapbooks of biography (on Joan of Arc and J. Robert Oppenheimer, respectively). His work toys with our ideas of cultural mythmaking, while also creating space for Seabrook to bring his own sense of playfulness to lives whose details have already been committed to our cultural memory, for better or worse.

In these two dozen flash vignettes, Seabrook mixes fact and fabulism to bring Lewis Carroll to life using spare, imaginative prose. Writes Michael Martone, judge for the Eight Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest, “Carroll, the logician and mathematician, saw language as an analog calculating machine. Seabrook recalibrates here, bringing to the language a digital elegance, the repeating replication, the algorithmic grace of aughts and ones.” The stories here are tight little delights, but Seabrook doesn’t shy away from probing some of the darker nuances of Carroll’s life. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Mother, Loose by Brandel France de Bravo

mother

Accents Publishing

34 pages, $10.00

 

Review by Hannah Rodabaugh

 

Brandel France de Bravo’s poetry chapbook Mother, Loose combines childhood nursery rhymes and a sense of overwhelming grief into a fascinating, hybrid document. At times, it resembles the humor of the book Politically Correct Bedtime Stories—except this collection is more like its grown-up cousin than its twin. Other times, the collection is intense in its portrayal of the narrator’s dying mother—sometimes similar to Plath’s aesthetic-like immolation of her father. This chapbook’s lush language, its poignant grief, and its imaginative retelling of classic nursery rhymes are a delight to read.

The title appears to be a sort of intersection: a play on the words “Mother Goose” and “Mother Lose.” This double meaning is intentional as so many of the poems, even the retold nursery rhymes, are about the death of the narrator’s mother (or at least a mother figure) from some form of cancer. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Pattern Exhaustion, by Nate Pritts

 

pattern
Smoking Glue Gun
46 pages, $8

 

Review by Jen Lambert

 

What’s the word for when you’ve been doing something your whole life, like, let’s say walking, and suddenly you become so very aware of how you do it, maybe you put more weight on your left foot or you land on the balls of your feet just so, and now that you know this, you can never, ever walk the same way again? Now, the way you move is altered, and you can feel it with every step you take. What is the word for what this walking has become? This book is full of this word.

Pattern Exhaustion, by Nate Pritts, is everything I fear, the collapse of what I know and expect and the period after, the fumbling, the tripping through, until the new becomes the known. Maybe it’s everything we all fear: a brokenness, an unraveling of the familiar. Pattern Exhaustion is a manifesto on how to learn to be human when you are already human, or maybe it’s a lesson on the recovery of being too human, a nervous breakdown of the mind and the heart, the softening of everything we know until we don’t even recognize our own bodies, until we are empty, until we ask “how do I love when there is no one there?” Continue reading

[REVIEW] Stories After Goya, by Pedro Ponce

Goya

 

Tree Light Books

$8.50

 

Review by Claire Jimenez

Pedro Ponce’s chapbook Stories After Goya is a collection of six vignettes inspired by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes’s “Los Caprichos,” a series of etchings depicting different scenes from Spanish life in the late 18th century. In “Los Caprichos,” Goya incorporated elements of the supernatural that emphasized the greed, hypocrisy, and corruption of Spanish nobility and the Inquisition. In the series, Goya’s clergyman look like trolls, his prostitutes like witches. Like Goya, Ponce also tries to reflect the uglier aspects of contemporary culture and politics in the United States, but this time using story. Ponce, like Goya, also incorporates a vocabulary of otherworldly metaphors to make our own reality look strange. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Pact-Blood, Fever Grass, by Miriam Bird Greenberg

pact blood

Ricochet Editions

31 pages, $10

Review by Chris Caruso

 

Miriam Bird Greenberg has hitchhiked over ten thousand miles, worked as a deckhand on a catamaran, and is a daughter of a goat raising anthropologist. These life experiences freed her from a topography that defines location and self as fixed and static entities. Her second poetry chapbook, Pact-Blood, Fever Grass, reflects on these themes of location that teeters between the familiar and a visionary quest. I had to sacrifice my belief that I understood the methods of self and place. This collection led me to follow Greenberg and enter her covenant, believing in her powers of divination.

Greenberg plays the role of a backwoods witch, her poems acting as premonitions of what is possible when the constraints of defining are removed. Her poems disrupt the cultural constraints brought about by labeling, and there is a haunting between what is known and what could be known, the plausible and the impossible. “A Problem of Taxonomy” lets a wunderkammer create a “problem/with taxonomy, I tell the kids.” The act of naming and placing what is real against what is fictional allows the logic of sleeping “inside /a cougar to stay warm, or sometimes just a goat/though a cougar is warmer” to exist alongside a grandmother who loved to set off fireworks. The wunderkammer is a box of all possibilities occurring, an unshuffled deck of tarot cards, a potion not yet concocted; it is a device that removes the hierarchy of roles and locations. Within it everything is re-envisioned free of the constraints of defining. Continue reading

The Wilhelm Scream, by Jeremy Behreandt (A Review by Sean Ulman)

Plumberries Press

$5

Jeremy Behreandt’s prose chapbook “The Wilhelm Scream,” an elegant set of ten tarot-sized cards, clasped in a tattooed tissue and tucked in a textured envelope that could very well contain an urgent ancient telegram, is aware of itself.

The story concerns three brothers who “circle the abyss like wolves,” prior to each’s maundering or marauding claims for the city throne. The first brother seems the forerunner for he “makes love like a viper” and the description of his power, “best rendered as a slithering shadow unhinging its jaw on a fabrege egg,” provides a metaphor for usurpation as well as strengthening his symbolic comparison to a snake. Continue reading