why I wrote Strong at the Heart
(and a little bit about how)
“You should write a book about what you went through,” my sons told me. I had already written professional articles and a children’s novel that addressed sexual abuse and spoken about my own healing at survivor conferences. In some ways I knew the subject of child abuse, especially sexual abuse, in depth. But when it came to writing a new book I wasn’t interested in telling my own story. I knew that already.
What I wanted to learn about was how other people healed. How had they coped? What choices did they make? What did healing mean to them? How did they do it? I wanted to tell the story, not as seen from the outside by psychologists or therapists, but from the point of view of the real experts, the people who live it.
So I began interviewing other survivors about their experiences. I looked for adults and teens who had done a substantial amount of healing and who were ready to speak out. I looked for diversity in abuse experience, in the ways people healed and in their cultural and economic background.
I talked with Akaya who grew up the the shadow of incest, Arturo who overcame drug addiction to deal with childhood molestation by pedophiles, and Kelly who at age fourteen was abducted at knifepoint, survived, and helped the police capture her rapist who had murdered another girl.
Victims of incest and abuse are often portrayed in the media as pitiful or damaged. What I was hearing was an untold story. The individuals I talked with are heroes. They overcame violence, betrayal and hurt to become strong, caring, and vital people. I knew I wanted to show others what I was seeing—the strength, the honesty, the sheer guts of these survivors. I wanted to show the true face of healing.
So I decided to make this a book accessible to both adult and teen readers, and their families and friends. To interview people for the book, I traveled across North America. I talked with survivors in my own hometown, New England and the San Francisco Bay area. A gravel road took me to a Native community in northern Manitoba to interview sixteen–year–old Sheena, who draws strength from her Ojibway culture. In rural New Jersey I got to know seventeen–year–old Jonathan who was molested by the family priest when he was nine and later chose to speak out to help other teens.
I spent hours, often days, with each person interviewing them on tape and photographing their personalities as I came to know them through our deeply personal conversations.
People told me about the hard stuff. They told me how they faced down shame, depression, and fear, how they learned to trust again, how they rebuilt their lives.
Some of what I heard surprised me. Almost everyone had some kind of professional help, but for the most part their stories take place outside of therapy. People told me how their involvement in sports or music, activism or art helped them to heal. Many of them talked about spiritual support. Above all, relationships with family and friends were crucial. A lot has been written about the traits of resilient people, but I found out that resilience can be learned.
My hope is that STRONG AT THE HEART will be a mirror for you. That—whether you’ve been abused or not—when you look into the faces of these strong survivors you will see your own potential to overcome adversity, the courage you have inside you to take charge of your life and make it your own.
Author, educator and advocate, Carolyn Lehman has spoken and written on overcoming trauma for more than twenty years. Her groundbreaking novel for young children PROMISE NOT TO TELL, received a Christopher Award for its sensitive portrayal of a young girl’s struggle to tell about sexual molestation. She is an avid canoeist and wilderness traveler and recently walked 500 miles across northern Spain.