Last Tuesday I joined a Los Angeles book club for a dinner discussion of She Can Fly. The host, Jean, selected the book for their reading list after a talk I gave to Martha Fuller's memoir writing class at Otis College of Art and Design. Instead of relying on a set presentation, I prefer to let the group's feedback and questions guide these conversations. Memoir is a deeply personal form and reactions vary widely from one reader to the next. To assume one single perspective - the author's - could fully illuminate the nuances of Kerry's story would do a terrible disservice to the universal relatability we intended in sharing this cautionary tale.
Still, familiar waves of anxiousness radiated from my stomach as I drove through the dark curves of Topanga Canyon. My car's radio lost reception and I wondered if these women had found resonance in the writing. Could they actually relate to Kerry? Or did they find her a passive, unsympathetic protagonist? She Can Fly is a true story, but it is also just that, a story, and the usual trappings of characterization and narrative arc apply. Without knowing Kerry as intimately as I do, it's hard to tell what aspects of her life will shine through and what will get lost on the page.
"Thank you for being here," one woman said as soon I walked through the door. "I have to tell you though, I had to put the book down... It was too hard to read, too emotional."
I nodded in understanding. "Some people have trouble with it."
"But I picked it back up and finished it," she said. "And I'm glad I did."
The rest of the club had similarly visceral reactions to the story, and I explained that careful thought went into toeing the line between not minimizing Kerry's ordeal and not allowing the reader to give up on her.
The ensuing discussion called to mind a fascinating interview I recently heard with Lisa Cron about the science of storytelling. In her own book, Wired for Story, Cron uses recent breakthroughs in neuroscience to explain that the success or failure of a narrative lies in its ability to tap into the reader's own experiences, thereby grabbing their interest and igniting "the brain's hardwired desire to learn what happens next." Otherwise its just pretty words on a page.
I think anyone would be hard-pressed to call She Can Fly a "pretty" story. But it has been called "gripping." It's gripping because of the strangle-hold domestic violence takes on Kerry's life. And it's gripping because you need to find out what happens to her. How exactly does she escape the abuse? This a survival story after all.
Without taking a reader down to the depths of Kerry's struggle, you can't expect them to be invested in her eventual triumph. You can't expect them to close the book with a sense of how desperate stories like Kerry's are, and how we can create a world in which women don't need to be pulled out of these destructive cycles. Without that resonance, you can't even expect readers to open the book in the first place.
So I'm glad this wonderful group of women did open She Can Fly. And I'm glad they followed Kerry's memoir to its hopeful conclusion. There are now eight more people in the world who have not only read her story, but also understand it. Only with understanding can we expect change.
*Thank you to Jean and the members of her book club. Speaking to you was an honor and left me with an elevated understanding of the storytelling process.
If you'd like me to speak at YOUR next book club or writing group meeting, please reach out HERE. It would be my pleasure to join you in person or via phone / Skype.