Rarely does a book come along that impresses me so much I end up doing a book review and a Q & A both, but The Unbreakable Child by Kim Michele Richardson is one such book. I did a brief review on April 16 that you can read here.
And now for a short Q & A with Kim:
P&P: First of all, Kim, thanks for agreeing to a few questions for my blog interview. I am honored. I’ll start by asking which came first, the law suit against the order of Catholic nuns at the orphanage where you and 44 others were abused in the 1960s, or your desire to write the book? How did one influence the other?
KMR: The lawsuit. And to get me through the lawsuit I started writing about the legal proceedings as well as writing about my childhood and then I gave it to the attorney, William F. McMurry as my gift to him for being the voice for so many and to show him his own self-worth.
P&P: The phrase that kept popping up throughout the book that intrigued me was this: “Who wears the face of God?” I’m wondering when that question first came to your mind—was it during the years you spent at the orphanage, or later, as an adult reflecting back, or even during the process of writing the book? At one point in the book you say that your attorney, William F. McMurry, knew who wore the face of God. And later you say that “only the innocent child could wear the face of God.” Can you share a little bit more about this with us?
KMR: “Who wears the face of God?” is a question that has always been in my mind and I can not remember at any one point when it was not? But, I would have to say it became more prevalent — in need of an urgent answer during the phases of the lawsuit.
I say: William knew who wore the face of God because it became apparent that William was the champion and voice for so many without voice. And the innate goodness of this man showed he knew that only the innocent child could wear the face of God. Thus in a way; reclaiming the innocence and lost voice of former abused children by using his own.
And the metaphoric question is indeed a “target shooting missile” throughout The Unbreakable Child making connection and reference to those who wore the “face of God and hid behind His veil to mask their evil deeds.”
An interesting fact about The Unbreakable Child: my agent understood the need of my question, loved this question and in fact renamed it to The Face of God, which I loved. But for marketability and fear of profiling it as a religion genre only, it was changed to The Unbreakable Child.
P&P: It’s so common for victims of abuse to turn to addictive behaviors. How have you avoided using alcohol and drugs to numb your pain? In the book you talk about how your sister Pamela had chosen these as her weapons to fight her childhood monsters, but that you steered clear of them. Where have you found strength to face down your painful past?
KMR: The studies and stats are pretty clear on the effects child abuse plays on victims as they age … one in three girls and one in six boys will be abused, causing depression, emotional trauma etc. and debilitating effects well into adulthood, interrupting adult lives at various intervals. But this is certainly not set in stone. And now more than ever the opportunity exists for healing with education, information, awareness groups and child care vigilantes and legals.
Some of my strengths came from educating (education being a powerful weapon) myself at a young adult age on child abuse, alcoholism, addictions etc. and its effects, and even more so: I find strength through gratefulness and forgiveness and with my greatest gift—my family.
P&P: I imagine that some of your readers have a hard time understanding that you hadn’t told your husband about the abuse for all those years of your marriage, and yet you spoke of it first in the deposition, right? Was it less threatening to speak of it in an impersonal setting first?
KMR: One of the scars of child abuse is silence. It was in fact in the initial interview with the attorney, William that I first spoke of it. And no, the fact that he was a stranger did not make it any easier. It was hard and more so harder to accept if I told him I was an abused child, then I could easily be labeled—profiled as a dysfunctional adult. And I’ve always been a firm believer that labels are not suitable for anything other than cans. : )
P&P: You write with compassion for the nuns themselves, at one point referring to “the dysfunction of these innocents.” Is that because you believe they themselves were possibly abused, which led to their abusive behavior? Did the letter from Sister Ann-Marie Borgess confirm your feelings about this? How has the letter affected you? (See end of post for a copy of the letter.)
KMR: Yes, I make this clear in my own mind in The Unbreakable Child. For me, understanding — exploring the whys of a person’s dysfunctions gives a somewhat knowledgeable (a good step for healing as well) if not satisfying balm to understanding their actions.
Sister Ann-Marie’s letter is very powerful. And she gets “who wears the face of God”. This important letter is the much needed balm—the final step for healing and closure for so many who suffered.
P&P: Where do you go from here? Will you be involved in your attorney’s ongoing work to, as he said in the afterword, “look beyond the cloak of secrecy of any institution responsible for the protection of children”? Are you involved in his Vatican Case in any way? I noticed the helpful links on your web site and your strong encouragement to readers who might be abuse victims to seek help immediately. Do you also plan a speaking tour on the topic?
KMR: I receive and try to personally address hundreds of emails in a timely manner from clergy abuse victims as well as clergy who have been victims, non-clergy related child abuse victims and family members of former abused children whom have been traumatized by the effects. So at any given time I’m working with victims.
And on an on-going basis I work with two strong advocate groups, Family and Children’s First and SNAP and I am available for speaking. Additionally, I stay busy with interviews and promoting The Unbreakable Child. Also, I have several writing projects on the side, as well, and I’m always playing “laundry queen” to my family and helping out by slinging a hammer for the organization, Habitat for Humanity.
P&P: Finally, a question for my readers who are also writers, especially writers of creative nonfiction, such as your memoir. How did you write The Unbreakable Child? Did you write scenes first, and then add the narrative later? When/how did you come up with the idea to shift back and forth between the orphanage scenes and the present? (I thought it worked well, by the way!) And, although you’ve been gracious with your time in discussing my own memoir-in-progress with me personally, I wonder if you have any tips, in general, for other memoir writers?
*smiles* There was no rhyme, reason or rule to my writing, I just plunged in and worried about revisions, drafts etc. after. And there were many afters.
But, I began my writing, shifting from past to present as I was engaged in the lawsuit. So it easily ended up this way.
I would say to those who wish to tell their story: Read in the genre you are writing. I wished I had, to avoid timely and costly mistakes. But do allow for mistakes. Mistakes are life lessons for moving forward instead of backward.
And my most important: Be the little engine that could— keep chugging and remember rules are nothing more than just guidelines. Don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone.
P&P: Thanks so much for taking time to “chat” with us today, Kim!
Here’s the letter from Sister Anne-Marie Borgess, which can also be found on Kim’s website:
April 26, 2009 5:54 p
After reading The Unbreakable Child, I am heartsick at the horrific abuses you suffered. As a Sister, I am so very sorry that we did not “wear the face of God” for you. That is our deepest call, especially to the innocent and vulnerable. I grieve that it was on our watch and at our hands that you suffered, knowing that the suffering still impacts your life today and to some degree always will. Each of you is a precious child of God. Your experiences were so contrary to that message and to the Gospel. In that, you were failed miserably.
Thank you for your tremendous courage in coming forward and speaking the truth. In your suffering, you wear the face of God for us. I believe that until we (as individuals and as an institutional Church) see in your face the face of the Crucified Jesus and respond with compassion, integrity, and true repentance, healing and freedom will elude us.
I am a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. I stand in solidarity with you in your pain and in hope with you as you heal.”
-Sister Ann-Marie Borgess, SND