Sarah Einstein talks to Sundberg about her Guernica essay, her marriage to an abusive man, and the mixture of love and fear that made up her experience
By arrangement with Brevity
Brevity’s Sarah Einstein sat down with Kelly Sundberg to discuss her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” which appeared in our April 1st issue.
Sarah: The essay has gotten quite a response, particularly on MetaFilter, where it’s currently ranked the second most popular post of the week and has nearly 200 comments. Many of these responses are from women sharing their own stories. Can you talk a little bit about how this essay and your blog Apology Not Accepted, which also talks about surviving an abusive marriage, have impacted how you feel about both your experience and also about what it means to write publicly about that experience?
Kelly: I started writing publicly as a response to what I felt was a lack of accessible stories like mine. A few months after I left my ex-husband, I was running on a treadmill, and a pop song came on with the line “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” I remember feeling a terrible sadness when I realized that I was not stronger. The platitude hadn’t worked out the way it was supposed to for me. I had compulsively searched the internet for stories about domestic violence, but much of it wasn’t recognizable to me. The authors weren’t grappling in the way that I was grappling. They weren’t angry in the way that I was angry. They weren’t grieving in the way that I was grieving. Most of the stories I read were redemptive narratives, and they glossed over what happens when someone leaves an abuser. The journey doesn’t end the day the victim leaves; it only begins. In many ways, my life grew harder in the wake of leaving the relationship. I wanted to try to write an honest account of what I was struggling with because I suspected that I wasn’t the only one. I wrote the first draft of “It Will Look Like a Sunset” while sitting in my bed after my son had gone to sleep. I wrote it in one sitting, and I was crying the entire time, but after I finished it, I slept through the night for the first time in months. I felt unbound, as though I was no longer required to keep his secrets. I was empowered after years of powerlessness. In response to my writing, many people have called me brave, but I don’t feel brave. These words were trapped inside of me, and they needed to be let out.
I learned first-hand that, when it comes to domestic violence, the problems in our legal system are endemic because the people within the system are so disillusioned that they often stop trying to help the victims.
I wrote the blog in much the same way. The blog was a reaction to the failure of the legal system to protect me or get justice on my behalf. When his court case was egregiously mishandled (over a year after he had been arrested), I had to struggle with the same feelings of powerlessness that the abuse had caused. I learned first-hand that, when it comes to domestic violence, the problems in our legal system are endemic because the people within the system are so disillusioned that they often stop trying to help the victims. I was struggling with feelings of powerlessness and anger, and I decided to put a voice to those feelings in a public forum. I didn’t know if anyone would read the blog, but I wanted to assert my agency in that way. It turns out there was a hungry audience for this subject matter. Thousands of people have read the blog.
Sarah: I think every memoirist struggles with what to share and what to hide. It must have been a difficult decision to publish this piece and to begin speaking publicly about abuse on your blog, particularly because you still co-parent with your ex-husband. Can you talk a little bit about that decision-making process and about where you draw support for it and, perhaps, where you have encountered resistance to it?
Kelly: Yes, that has been the hardest part, not because I think I’m doing anything wrong, but because people are very judgmental about mothers, and so, if they are going to choose to condemn a woman, attacking her parenting is an easy target. I think it’s important for people to realize that my son was there. He was the first witness to his father’s violence. He knows what happened. When we moved out, he told me that his predominant memory of us as a family was of “Daddy yelling, and Mommy crying.” He was seven years old and has a memory like a steel trap. There is nothing I can do to protect him from that reality. What I can do is empower myself and empower other women to show him that abuse is never okay. I am fortunate to have many cheerleaders in my life who have encouraged me to keep writing, to keep stripping away the shame of toxic family secrets, and to move on with a life of honesty. I have strong friendships, and I have a writing group on Facebook with some of my best friends from my MFA program (including you, Sarah!) We call ourselves the Dance Fight Writing Group, and the members of that group are always my first and safest readers for any piece. They know how to give me honest feedback without ever criticizing my personal life or decisions.
Sarah: One of the things that struck me, and many readers, about the piece is that it remains clear throughout that you loved your husband and many of the descriptions of your time together could still fairly be called loving. That complexity is so difficult for writers to manage, and you’ve done it so well, that I was wondering if you could talk for a minute about the craft issues involved in creating that kind of balanced tension?
Kelly: The common mantra in nonfiction is that writing shouldn’t be therapeutic; the therapy needs to come first. I think that’s generally true, but when I started writing this essay, I hadn’t worked through my issues yet. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to write the essay. I asked a friend, a poet, if he thought I should wait to write about the abuse, and he pointed out to me that I might not want to revisit those feelings later. He was right. I’m glad I started this essay when I still felt disoriented by the abuse because if I wrote this essay now, it would be very different. I don’t love my ex-husband anymore, and I don’t have as much sympathy for him—it would be difficult for me now to render the loving scenes so lovingly—so the first issue in crafting the essay was timing.
The next thing that I knew I needed to do was to segment it. The essay needed a balance of loving affection and brutality. I wanted to portray the see-saw of love/violence that is symptomatic of abusive relationships, as well as the dissociation that accompanies domestic violence. I was existing in two very different realities, and I had convinced myself that only one of those realities was authentic. A fragmented structure was the only possible way for me to write the essay.
I don’t have any plans to revise my book to make the abuse more explicit or acknowledged, because at the time, I didn’t think of it as abuse. If anything, I would think of Demolition as a perfect example of the tension-building stage in the cycle of violence.
The essay went through multiple revisions. My writing group read it, then Dinty W. Moore gave me feedback and encouraged me to add the final scenes from Idaho, and finally, Katherine Dykstra, the nonfiction editor from Guernica, took me through a heavy editing process. The original essay had some more lyrical components that didn’t fit into the revision. They were some of my favorite lines, and I miss them, but they didn’t fit within the context of the new draft. Once the lyrical components, which had been the connective tissue were gone, we actually had to cut and paste the crots in order to re-achieve that balance. It was a big task, and I’m grateful for Katie’s sharp eye and dedication to the final product.
Sarah: I know your current project is a book of linked essays entitled Demolition, and that many of the essays in it cover events during your marriage, but that the abuse is not an overt theme of the work. Could you tell us a little bit about that project, and about how you feel your public revelations about your marriage might impact the revision process, if at all?
Kelly: I wrote Demolition in the three years during my MFA. When I started the book, the abuse was infrequent, and when I finished the book, the abuse was escalating, so I hadn’t even acknowledged to myself that I was being abused. Still, the essays are dominated by latent themes of violence. The title essay is an essay about a Demolition Derby that parallels the destruction going on in the arena to the destruction going on in the interpersonal relationships in the stands. The book itself is modelled after a demolition derby with three sections: The Herby Derby: Small and Volatile, The Powder Puff: Contained Violence, and The Championship Round: Everyone Wins/Everyone Loses. There is a babysitting essay with a thread where a girl role plays with her Barbie’s to show her father punching her mother. Threads of violence, like those ones, extend throughout the entire manuscript.
Even though there are no public revelations about abuse in the book, it is very much a book about loss of innocence, and so I don’t have any plans to revise it to make the abuse more explicit or acknowledged, because at the time, I didn’t think of it as abuse. If anything, I would think of my book Demolition as a perfect example of the tension-building stage in the cycle of violence. Ideally, the book will work in tandem with the project I’ve just undertaken about surviving abuse. I think they can complement each other and give a deeper, richer understanding of the experience of gender violence.
Kelly Sundberg’s nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK, The Collagist, Mid-American Review, Slice Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, Quarterly West, and other journals. A piece of her work was listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays 2013 and she is currently a PhD candidate in creative nonfiction at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, where she lives with her son. She blogs about domestic violence at letterofapology.blogspot.com
Sarah Einstein is Managing Editor at Brevity Magazine