In The Butterfly Girl, Rene Denfeld’s third novel, twelve-year-old Celia is sexually abused by her stepfather and makes the “mistake of telling.” After her family and the courts label her “Celia the liar,” she ends up on the streets of Portland, Oregon sleeping beneath a freeway ramp, rooting out food from garbage bins—and relying on the butterflies who follow her to act as guardians and guides. 

Enter Naomi Cottle, the guarded and intuitive private investigator from Denfeld’s bestselling second novel The Child Finder. While searching for her own lost younger sister, Naomi is drawn into an investigation of Portland’s runaway girls, who keep turning up dead. It’s not long before she crosses Celia’s path and they recognize themselves in one another.

Abuse, murder, and psychological distress are Denfeld’s stomping grounds. Her first novel, The Enchanted, brought readers into the hearts and minds of death row prisoners. In The Child Finder, Denfeld not only introduced us to Naomi and the missing girl she sought, she opened a door into the haunted psyche of the child’s captor and showed us his humanity. 

In her own life, Denfeld is no stranger to trauma. She was raised in poverty, and her mother abused alcohol when she was young. Her stepfather was a registered predatory sex offender and a pimp, and her home became a revolving door of pedophiles. Like Celia, when Denfeld reported her own abuse she was not believed, and by the time she was fifteen she was sleeping on Portland’s park benches, with newspapers as a blanket. Later, she became the Chief Investigator at a public defender’s office in Portland, with a penchant for death row cases. She has adopted three children from foster care and fostered others, including teens. Her poetic writing has been praised by Margaret Atwood as “astonishing,” and she has been honored with literary awards including the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger, and listings from the American Library Association and for the Andrew Carnegie Medal.

The Butterfly Girl is edge-of-your-seat taut, balanced with impossibly tender insights. Denfeld’s prose is like water: smooth, cool, fluid. While the story itself is painful, it’s also brimming with hope and healing. In Denfeld’s world, no matter the suffering, there is always love.

Jane Ratcliffe for Guernica

Guernica: Imagination plays a potent role in The Butterfly Girl. Before she’s on the streets, Celia’s teacher says to her, “Your imagination can save you.” What’s the link between imagination and survival?

Rene Denfeld: I live surrounded with trauma. I had a severely traumatic childhood. In addition to that, I’m a therapeutic foster mother. Over a decade ago, I got licensed as an investigator and went to work for public defenders. I’ve worked hundreds of cases, a lot of death row cases; I’ve also worked with rape and trafficking victims, doing indigent defense investigation. I feel like I’m taking my own hardships and using them to help other people. I’m not frightened of trauma. So a lot of my fiction explores these themes. And one thing I’ve found is that the people who survive—the people who end up thriving, even—are the people who have the power of imagination. 

If you think about it, imagination is actually a radical act. Because if you have an imagination, you can imagine yourself in a different future. A child who’s suffering severe trauma can imagine themselves in a different family. They can imagine themselves escaping. They can imagine themselves going to college or getting a job. People in prisons can imagine themselves going on and doing something else after their release. It isn’t just the future we imagine. We tell ourselves a better story about who we are. 

Guernica: Early in the story, Naomi is searching for her missing sister while also looking into the deaths of these Portland street girls. Her only friend says, “I hope this all works out,” to which her husband responds, “Hope is enough.” Later in the story, when Celia is running from bullies, the butterflies admonish her “to believe her cells had hope.” It sounds like you’re saying imagination is the precursor to hope.

Denfeld: Yes, exactly. If we have an imagination, we’re saying that we have the right to exist. You need to have a sense of self before you can begin the act of hope or self-creation. 

Life is a story that we’re telling ourselves. The kind of story we tell ourselves, and each other, is profoundly important. We can tell ourselves a story of optimism, or we can tell ourselves a story of hopelessness and anger and cruelty—which is what our country is doing right now, and has been doing for some time. There’s another part of the book where the butterflies are telling Celia that the most radical act of all is to believe she has the right to live. We live in this society where our culture is trying to disempower people. Our culture is trying to eradicate the belief that we deserve to live. We’re doing it to thousands of children in detention centers. We do it to millions of people in prison. So anytime we embody the act of imagination, we’re pushing back against that message that our lives don’t matter. 

Guernica: Is it enough just to have imagination and hope, or do we also have to put those into action?

Denfeld: We do. As white women, you and I have been raised by a culture that wants us to believe a certain story. We’re specifically told the story of fear. We’re supposed to be afraid all the time. And we’re told the answer is to lock up all the black people, to lock up the immigrant children, to have mass incarceration, to have a police state, to elect somebody like Trump. We’re being manipulated by these stories. The story that I choose to believe is that I have the ability to actually change our world. We all do. 

Guernica: Does it have to be a marching-in-the-streets sort of thing? Or can the actions be small and quiet?

Denfeld: I don’t believe there’s a hierarchy of activism. If you look at successful movements, what you see is a variety of people doing all sorts of different actions. You have people out on the streets, but you also have lawyers fighting in the courtrooms. You have people quietly making change in their community. You have people volunteering or helping a refugee family, and people trying to live lives of integrity. I don’t think any of those actions [is] better than any other. We get caught up sometimes in the activism that is very visible to us, like protest activism, but we all have different strengths.

Guernica: Like you, Naomi had a traumatic childhood that she doesn’t remember. “Terror had wiped her memory clean,” you write. Are there any benefits to forgetting abuse?

Denfeld: That’s a good question, isn’t it? I don’t remember substantial portions of my childhood. My stepdad was a registered predatory sex offender. I have months—even as much as a year or so—of my childhood I just can’t remember. But even if we don’t have an actual picture, we have an emotional memory. I do believe that trauma gets stored that way.

Guernica: Do you mean in the body or in the mind?

Denfeld: In the mind and the body. Unfortunately, we have a culture that wants to treat trauma like it’s a court of law. We want to nail down the facts. We feel like we have to prove the case; we’re applying some sort of judicial lens to trauma—like, if you don’t remember exactly what happened, it must not have occurred. But we don’t have to actually know the facts to know the truth. Things happened to me, even though I don’t remember them. And actually, there’s a comfort in that.

Guernica: Comfort?

Denfeld: It’s given me a very solid base when I’m working with victims and traumatized children, because I’m not going to try to adjudicate their reality either. They don’t have to prove a damn thing to me. I start from a place of honoring people and their experiences.

Guernica: One of Celia’s friends, Rich, is a foster kid who ends up on the streets after he runs away from his group home. You’re a foster mom. Do you have any insight into how often foster kids end up on the streets and what it’s like for them?

Denfeld: You’ve hit on something I’m very passionate about. Statistics for foster kids in the foster system are terrible. The vast majority of them end up homeless, on the streets. We have a nation that’s brutal to a lot of children. Attachment is the most important gift we can give each other. And we have far too many children growing up unattached, untethered, living in fear and chaos. I’ve fostered for reunification, and worked with other moms so that they can get their babies back, too. Being involved in the act of helping children heal is the most miraculous, beautiful thing. I just can’t explain how wonderful it is.

Guernica: One of the things I admire about your writing is that it’s inherently about social activism and justice activism, yet it’s not didactic.

Denfeld: Like most writers, I’m a voracious reader. I don’t like to feel that someone is jerking my chain. You know when you’re reading a book and you’re just like, Oh my gosh, okay, I get it: you’re trying to convince me? It doesn’t feel authentic to me. I think the best stories are these open channels between the author and the reader. I want to capture what I think is this incredibly beautiful, complex humanity. I want to invite them into this story with me, and we can hold hands and figure this out together.

Guernica: All three of your novels have characters who are abusive to varying degrees, from street fights to kidnapping to rape to murder. You’re careful to show the traumas of the abuser’s life.

Denfeld: It’s easy to pretend that other people are monsters. But if one of us is a monster, all of us are. We live in this society where there’s such a high degree of defensiveness. We can’t take accountability. We don’t learn how to say “I screwed up. I made a mistake. I was wrong.”

I deal with people who do unspeakably horrible things. I’ve worked with people like that. I grew up with people like that. And they’re human beings. I think we need to know that, because otherwise it’s a setup. We’ve all been in this position where you love somebody who’s bad for you. It might be your older brother, it might be your dad, it might be your mom, it might be your best friend who keeps getting in trouble, it might be your boyfriend or girlfriend. We don’t learn how to deal with it, because in our society, we have this dichotomy of monsters and angels. If you’re not an angel, you must be a monster. We find ourselves in this terribly complicated position, where we love people and we see their humanity and we can’t figure out why they’re doing these bad things. And we’re left alone to wrestle with it.

I’ve had this experience myself. People said, “Your stepdad must have been a monster.” But what if my experience wasn’t that? How do I reconcile that? What I want to try to do in my novels is show more of the truth about people and how evil is created. We can’t prevent what we don’t understand.

Guernica: Prevent how?

Denfeld: I’ve worked with people who’ve done unspeakable things, and there’s always a point where I’m connecting with the fact that they were once a four- or five-year-old little boy or girl. I’ve never met anybody that was born a monster. I think, as a society, we’re afraid to grapple with that, because it implies the accountability we have to each other. To me, it’s a very hopeful message, because the fact is, we can prevent most crimes. We don’t want to accept that our society is the problem. Children grow up untethered.

If you grow up unattached, it’s hard to grow a conscience. If you don’t believe that you matter, it’s very hard to believe that anyone else does either. We have a duty and a responsibility to children, to give them childhoods where they grow up with values and love and regard and respect.

Guernica: What’s the role of forgiveness in healing from trauma?

Denfeld: I don’t think forgiveness is that necessary. Women, in particular, we’re told to forgive a lot. And usually, when we’re told to forgive, it’s shorthand for shutting up. Women get told to forgive because people want us to shut up about whatever happened to us, and accept it. There are people in my life that I’m not ready to forgive, and that’s okay. When I’m working with my children, I don’t tell them that they should forgive what happened to them, because what’s happened to them is not okay. In fact, the first thing I encourage them to do is to embrace their rage, because when we get angry about what happened to us, that’s a really healthy thing. It’s a very private journey. I think eventually a lot of people decide that they want to forgive for a sense of closure or releasing something, and that’s good. But I also think it’s possible to not forgive and have a completely healthy life.

Guernica: So often we’re told we should forgive because holding on is corrosive.

Denfeld: Deciding to not forgive can be a protective mechanism, a way of keeping a distance between ourselves and the person that hurt us. It’s going to keep us from opening up that relationship again; we will be protected. I’m personally more interested in not embracing bitterness. I try to be very mindful about not being bitter, because life is full of joy and beauty and magic, and I don’t want anybody to take that away from me.

Guernica: Your novels generally have relatively happy endings. Are you healing yourself in some way by allowing your characters to find these literal or figurative safe and loving homes?

Denfeld: Oh, that’s so beautiful. It’s interesting how autobiographical fiction ends up being. I enjoy being on that journey with the characters. That’s important when we’re talking about trauma, because usually in our culture we’re not concerned with the after. All too often, if you read books about violence, the victim is dead. That keeps us from dealing with how we help people heal. I’m really concerned about what happens after the trauma.

Guernica: Celia’s abuser is acquitted. What happens when abusers walk free? What’s that after like for the victim?

Denfeld: That’s such an important question, because the vast majority of reports do not end in conviction. In our society, we’re told, “Oh, just call the police.” And people act like that’s going to fix everything. We get really caught up in revenge and punishment. But even if we report the crime, and the person actually is convicted, what then? There’s still an after; we still have to find out what to do.

Part of my work is an affirmation that there is an after. There can be a very happy life in the after. I’ve experienced really horrifying victimization–and I work with people and I parent people who have as well—and the whole idea is that I’m supposed to be broken because of it? I’m not broken. There is absolutely nothing wrong with me.

The people who hurt me are the broken ones. I want us to think about pushing back against this puritanical kind of narrative that we’re broken. If that’s how someone feels, absolutely. But that doesn’t have to be the end of our story.

Guernica: How do you think you arrived there?

Denfeld: I was lucky enough to keep claiming myself even if it was messy. A lot of it was getting angry and fighting back. I became a boxer. I was one of the first female boxers, actually. I have a ninth-grade formal education. I lived on the streets. Somebody with my background is not supposed to succeed.

But this is the thing, and I hope that you can capture this one truth: I’m not special. There are so many people like me, and like you. The lie that our culture wants us to believe is if you’re a person who has suffered trauma—which is most of us—you are forever condemned to an unhappy, unproductive life. And it’s just not true. But it’s the narrative that is constantly being reinforced through the media and through books and television and movies. So we hide ourselves, we diminish ourselves.

There’s a line in one of my novels: “It’s people like us that the world needs right now.” We are stepping up to make that change. 

Guernica: So many of your characters have negligent or absent moms. You speak quite a bit about what Vanessa Mártir calls “the mother wound.”

Denfeld: We live in this society where we want to pretend that we revere mothers, and we don’t. We set mothers up to fail. We don’t give mothers support. We’re horrible, in our country, about child care and things that mothers need to actually succeed.

My mother is gone now. We had a very difficult relationship. That’s putting it nicely, actually. I have a great relationship with my mom now that she’s gone. Isn’t that sad? To me, my mother is symbolic of how our nation fails women. There are mothers out there who are struggling with addiction; there are mothers out there who are struggling with mental health issues. It’s almost impossible to get in to see a psychiatrist in this country, unless you get arrested. And even then, you’re not going to get any mental-health help. We’re living in a country where so many people are struggling, and we’re asking mothers to raise children in the midst of this lack of support.

I have a significant mother wound. If you grow up without a sense of mother love, it does alter you. It creates a sadness, or a void that’s just there. I spent a lot of my adulthood trying to heal that. One way I tried to heal it was by becoming a foster and adoptive mother. And I didn’t know it at the time, but I was trying to re-parent myself through re-parenting my children.

Guernica: What is it that you have instilled in your children that you didn’t get to have?

Denfeld: Secure attachment. I think the most primary need of any human is to feel that they’re genuinely loved. And I’ve been able to give my children that feeling. That’s the foundation of everything, to feel like you matter. I tell my kids I love them—not despite what they’ve gone through, but including what they’ve gone through.

Guernica: At one point, Naomi says that life is always hard. Do you believe that’s true?

Denfeld: Yes, I think that’s true. But I also believe there is great joy to be found in this struggle. It’s this mixture of what can be tremendous sorrow and pain, and absolute pure joy and beauty. Sometimes the most transcendent moments are during the struggle—not just our own struggle, but helping other people. Those are the moments that can be so incredibly redemptive. But life is hard. And we have to embrace that, and make something out of it.

Jane Ratcliffe

Jane Ratcliffe’s work has appeared in dozens of publications including The Sun, O, The Oprah Magazine, Longreads, The New England Review, Narratively, and Tin House. Her novel The Free Fall (Henry Holt) was listed by the New York Public Library as one of the best books of the year. She’s just finished a second novel about the unpopular peace movement as well as the women’s movement in London during WWII. She holds an MFA from Columbia University.

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