The Power of Story: Telling the Truth, Channeling Tolstoy, and Surviving Rape

 

This past week I had the honor of talking and emceeing at TEDxXavierUniversity. But before last Thursday night's main event, for the past few weeks or so, I've have had the opportunity to work with the students at Xavier University to help the other six speakers prepare for their own talks and develop their own stories. I was asked to listen, respond, and ultimately weave together a common thread between the six talks, which all centered around the theme of decoding deception, or to look at things a bit more positively, the search for truth.

This post is, though by not any means complete, an account of my brief introduction and discussion of the truth before the talk. (Full disclosure: I usually black out during public speaking. And by black out, I mean, my mouth moves, words come out, but I have no idea what I am saying or doing. And at TEDx I was especially nervous to speak this time because it's 1) Not every day that your every word is recorded and 2) I don't usually talk about my experience as a rape survivor at work.

Now I am not secretive about it. In fact, for the past several years I have spoken about it to groups of women on various occasions. I mostly talk about its impact on my health, mental health, and life. However, getting up in front of colleagues, students, and yes, even one of my bosses, and telling them about the time I was raped, was not easy, but necessary. Absolutely necessary, because as I listened to the six speakers practice and encouraged each one of them to "tell a story," a real and truthful story, I realized I needed to as well. In short, I needed to, because story and my quest for the truth saved my life. And I believe story has the power to change other lives as well--maybe even save them.

Without further intro, I'll just share what I hoped to say at TEDxXavierUniversity, but probably didn't, because I have no idea what actually came out of this mouth (wouldn't be the first time):

I suppose the students asked me to speak because of what I do for a living. As a writer, my essential quest is the search for truth. The vehicle I use to get there is story.

But, the truth, as we all know, is a complex thing. We don't all get there in the same way. In fact, some of us many never arrive in the same place at all. In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy said this about truth: 

“No truth presents itself to two people in the same way.”

I want you to chew on this for a minute with me:  

No truth presents itself to two people in the same way.

No truth presents itself to two people in the same way.

Tolstoy's not saying there is no truth, he's saying it's difficult for two people, no matter how aligned, similar, or for that fact, living in the same house, working in the same office, going to the same church, or driving on the same road, to experience anything in the same way. We all have our own biases, our own experiences, our blind spots, our own versions of the story.  It's the fundamental crux of humanity: Not one of us sees things exactly the same way. Our own point of view, our own blinders, our own perceptions, our own lack of understanding, our own motives, and even, our own imperfect memories, muck everything up.

So, then, can truth ever be attained?

I believe as a writer, it is precisely through storytelling, we find the essential truths. It's through storytelling, we discover our own humanity. We learn to see from another's point of view. I even believe in the power of the untrue stories we tell ourselves as much as I am of the true ones. Because I believe the stories we tell ourselves have power and truth in them--even if they're lies at first.

I should know. I've used story to save my life on more than one occasion. 

When I was twenty-two, like most young people, I thought the whole world mine for the taking. I got in my turquoise boat of Mercury Sable and headed west to get my fully funded Masters Degree from the University of Nebraska. My music was cranking the cassette tape of the Dixie Chicks. Natalie Maines and I were singing "Wide Open Spaces" at the top of our lungs together as I drove down 1-80 at a cool 85 miles per hour.

That was until, of course,  my car broke down in a remote town in Illinois--as a car is apt to do hauling a thousand pounds of books. Lucky for me, a man offered to help arrange to get my car fixed and rent me a car so I could get to my first day of class. He seemed kind and was definitely good looking. A Midwestern, blonde, blue-eyed charmer, he said smooth lines, like Baby, you can trust me.

The day I returned the rental car to his office and picked up my now fixed car, he took me out for a bite to eat. One beer later, I had no idea what I was saying, where I was. And before I knew it or fully understood what was happening, I was in a house, far away from home, in the middle of nowhere, in a town that I didn’t the name of, in a place I had never been. It was dark and I couldn’t see—save for a few cracks of light that came through the blinds. In and out of consciousness, I realized at some point, perhaps when he was telling me what a whore I was, that I deserved it, that I wanted it, and all sorts of other vile things, that he was raping me.

I didn’t know it then, but story would save my life that day. I went inside myself. I imagined I was not there. I told myself a series of stories--lies--if you will. 

And eventually, I told myself I was strong, even though I didn’t feel it.

I told myself he would not break me, even though it felt like I was already broken.

I told myself he would not win, even though I felt like a loser.

The more I told myself these things, the more resolute, the more awake, and more determined I was to escape, to run, to get far away, and to get help.

And all the while I told myself: You will not destroy me. You will not.

That story got me through that day. And the story I told myself over and over again, day after day night after night, year after year ultimately shaped who I am.

Because the moment you tell yourself that you alone are responsible for your own story, your own truth, not anyone else, nothing can touch you. No pain. No heartache. No rapist. No oppressor. No sexist comment. No malicious or selfish behavior.

No lie. No deception.

All of us--right now--are telling ourselves a story of our own. We tell others stories about ourselves, and sometimes we tell them so often that we believe them.

Stories are powerful. Stories tell the truth of our lives, because what we tell ourselves and others manifests itself.

Story has the power to change and transform.

So what is the story you're telling yourself? What do you believe to be true? What if you could change your story?  

I can't wait to share with you the stories of these amazing 6 speakers. Each one has their own version of what they know to be true. 

(As soon as their videos goes live, I will post here.) 

The amazing Xavier University TEdx team and all the 6 speakers who shared their stories and "ideas worth spreading" with us.

The amazing Xavier University TEdx team and all the 6 speakers who shared their stories and "ideas worth spreading" with us.