This is the first in an ongoing series highlighting literature and other resources on healing, trauma, dissociation and dissociative identity disorder. Periodically over the next year I will share books, articles and other resources I find. I also welcome you to share what you have read on these topics as well. This month's selection is the novel Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation by Christine Stark.
I came across this novel early last year, around the time I was finishing up The Sum of My Parts. I was asked to review the manuscript called by Christine Stark. At the time, what I knew about Chris largely came from her work as an activist to end violence against women and children. We had bumped into each other at conferences and compared notes about survivors working together in the movement.
I also knew she had published poems and short stories, including the amazing "Run" and was excited to hear that she was working on a full-length novel whose material was so close to my experience.
The novel tells the story of Little Miss So-and-So, a biracial girl whom we meet at the age of five and follow at intervals until she is twenty-five. The prose poetry's rhythmic quality, with scattered real-time thoughts pinging here and there, felt intimately familiar. I found myself captivated by the main character, surprised to find such a perfect illustration of dissociative identity disorder (DID) from the inside out. Chris' words clearly captured what it felt like in my head to be divided.
With our book releases occurring so close to each other, Chris and I teamed up to do a series of readings throughout the Midwest. During these joint events, as Chris read aloud portions of her book, I was drawn into the book more and more. The beauty of her novel is the skillful way she illustrates the mind divided by alternate aspects of consciousness of varying ages.
Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation is a Lambda Literary Award Finalist.
After our most recent reading in Madison, Wisconsin, I sat down with Chris to ask her about her novel and her insight into dissociation and dissociative identity disorder.
Question: Why a novel about dissociation?
Answer: Writing a novel about dissociation interested me as a survivor, activist, and writer. I wanted to put dissociation at the center of a novel about sexual violence because I want people to get in their gut what it is like to survive chronic trauma and I want people to have insight into what it is like to live with the psychological aftermath. Over two decades of activism, my experience is that whatever kind of sexual exploitation a person has gone through, understanding dissociation is crucial for healing. It's also crucial for advocates, friends, and loved ones to understand the psychological and emotional impact of sexual violence. Also, I wanted to convey that despite the fractured sense of self the protagonist suffers from, she experiences joy, friendship, love, humor, and success in school and athletics.
Question: I noticed that Little Miss So-and-So has a complicated relationship to her culture, just as I did growing up.
Right. Little Miss So-and-So's grandmother, who is American Indian, nurtures love and kindness in the girl, which carries over into her adulthood. Despite the girl's love for her grandmother, she must mostly hide her racial identity while growing up. Yet, in the end, having Indian heritage is one of the things that saves her.
Question: Was there something that you wanted to accomplish with this novel?
Answer: From a writer's perspective, I wanted to write this book because it posed an interesting challenge: how to convey via words on a page the multiple perspectives of a child and young adult with DID in terms of punctuation usage, prose poem/stream-of-consciousness narration, and overall structure. It was a challenge to convey the disjointed consciousness of the protagonist while holding together a sustained narrative.
From a social justice perspective, I wrote the book because I want to give voice to those who have not had a voice. I want to nurture empathy for survivors.
Question: You so keenly show what it sounds like in someone's head when they dissociate or have DID. How did you gain such keen insight into the mind of the protagonist?
Answer: Little Miss So-and-So is a fictional composite character drawn from my own survival of chronic rape, PTSD, and dissociation along with snippets of other survivors' experiences. I have many friends and acquaintances who are survivors and we talk a lot about dissociative thinking. The protagonist is not me, she is fictional, but her survival is authentic. In some ways the fictional protagonist is more revealing than when I write about my own survival, because as a writer it is actually easier to go into more depth, more truth-telling, when writing fiction than it is when writing memoir.
Question: How was it to write this kind of novel?
Answer: Every time I sat down to write Nickels I opened my imagination and my heart to this character and her experiences. It was like sitting down and making music. The keyboard was a piano and I let the character sing, release her voices, with the hope that people who are not DID will better understand what it is like and those with DID (although, of course, everyone is unique) will find a place of honor.
Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation is available at many independent bookstores and at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and as an e-book.
Visit www.chistinestark.com to learn more about Christine Stark and her work.
Visit www.olgatrujillo.com to learn more about Olga Trujillo and New Harbinger Publications to find out more about her memoir, The Sum of My Parts: A Survivor Story of Dissociative Identity Disorder.