Laura Davis is the author of seven non-fiction books, including The Courage to Heal, The Courage to Heal Workbook, Allies in Healing, Beginning to Heal, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be and I Thought We’d Never Speak Again. Not only have her groundbreaking books sold more than 1.8 million copies worldwide but she also leads weekly writing groups and memoir writing retreats
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Tell us about your journey as a writer.
A: Well, when I was in my twenties and thirties and maybe even into early forties, it wasn’t always easy to see the through line. I’ve always been such a maverick and I’ve never been one to follow a traditional path. But looking back now, I can see the connecting threads clearly.
I’ve always been deeply committed to writing—both as a tool for my own understanding of myself and as a means to communicate with others. I have always been able to be more honest on the page than I can be face-to-face. The page is the place where I discover what I think, what I feel, what I yearn for, what I need to say to somebody. The page is the place I come to a decision when I’m standing in the crossroads, and life is kicking me in the butt, screaming: “Move!”
On the other hand, I’ve never written just for me. I love the interplay of author and audience, writer and reader. I published my first book, The Courage to Heal, in 1988, and it unexpectedly (to me anyway) became a huge best-seller, catapulting me into a level of notoriety I wasn’t prepared for. That book was about healing from child sexual abuse, and it was the first book of its kind. My co-author, Ellen Bass, and I laid out the roadmap for healing in a simple, compelling way that just hadn’t been done before. It became the groundbreaking book in the field, the one that has made a huge difference in the lives of generations of women (and men) who had been abused. And it was through The Courage to Heal that I learned the power of the printed word and the awesome, humbling responsibility of being an author with, literally, the lives of your readers in your hands.
Q: You became famous because of the most painful thing that ever happened to you – incest with your grandfather. How did the challenges inherent with this constant exposure in the spotlight ever allow you to heal emotionally?
A: You have to realize, The Courage to Heal came out when I was only 31 years old. I was so young! For a number of years, I was the poster child for incest. Every TV interview I did, every radio appearance, every time I stood on a stage and spoke out to a thousand women who’d lined up around the block to hear me, all I had to work with was my own story, my connection to a power greater than myself, and the determination to reach out to the women in that room, telling them, yes, healing is possible. You can do this.
Because I was so young, and because I was so consumed by my own healing process, incest was my whole life at that time. It was as if the letters I-N-C-E-S-T were just screaming at me from my living room. They followed me everywhere. So for a time, what I was doing and what I was living were in synch. But as the years went by and I healed from my own abuse and began to move on, I no longer wanted to be known as the “incest queen.” I no longer wanted to meet people because of the worst thing that had ever happened to them. I wanted to meet them in a different playground, in a field where the past no longer had such a hold.
Q: Referring back to your desire to meet people in a venue other than than of victim survival, how did you reinvent your sense of purpose?
A: Once I had earned the scary right to create my own life, not one predetermined by trauma, I knew my work had to move on, too. And so I quit the lecture circuit and quit writing about sexual abuse. I moved to Santa Cruz, California (where I live now), met my partner, and started a family.
My books moved in new directions, too. A couple of years after my son, Eli, was born, I teamed up with a wonderful parent educator, Janis Keyser, and we wrote Becoming the Parent You Want to Be.
As I began to heal a long, very painful estrangement from my mother, I started researching, and eventually wrote, I Thought We’d Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation.
Clearly, my books track my interests in life. Right now, I’m writing a memoir about my relationship with my mother and the unexpected, amazing journey we’ve been on together.
When I look at my body of work as a whole, all my books have a similar theme: growth, change, human evolution, healing. Since I’ve always been fascinated with peoples’ stories, all of my books include a lot of those as well – varied, gritty, real, honest, deep, human stories.
Q: “Forgive and forget” is advice that’s commonly dispensed but, in the case of truly heinous acts, is it universally practical, especially if the offender has no remorse nor seeks redemption?
A: “Forgive and forget” is one of worst things you can say to someone who is suffering after being grievously hurt. It isolates people and tells them that shutting down and smoothing things over is preferable to acknowledging and working through the hurt. I would never give that advice to anyone, and I challenge anyone who does. “Forgive and forget” is like slapping a band-aid on a festering wound. I don’t believe we can “make ourselves forgive.” The anger and unresolved feelings just go underground. True forgiveness, if it comes, only arises naturally at the end of a very long, committed process of healing.
Forgiveness is a personal choice on a religious, ethical and moral basis. I have always maintained that for trauma survivors, it is not a necessary part of the healing process. I’ve seen people live through terrible trauma and go on to live productive, positive lives without forgiving their perpetrators. Ultimately, we have to move beyond the injury, let go of our grief and rage – as well as our identification with being a victim, but whether that moving on ultimately includes forgiveness is an individual matter each of us must come to terms with on our own. How can anyone dictate another person’s spiritual evolution?
Personally, I have forgiven my grandfather, the man who abused me. But it wasn’t anything I tried to achieve. That feeling of forgiveness arose naturally and spontaneously after many years of healing, when I’d finally earned the right to put the incest to rest. I had released my grandfather long before that – letting go of my anger and neutralizing his impact on my life. The added forgiveness was a gift, but it was not something I consciously sought or created.
Q: What intrigues you the most about human transformation?
A: I’m fascinated with human evolution – how we carve away all the things that were laid on us or expected of us – in order to become the people we were meant to be. Not all of us make it all the way to the core, but I’m a cheerleader for that true self – for the true expression exists in each of us if only we can get out of the way.
That’s why I love teaching long-term writing groups, because often, students come in thinking they’re going to be working on one thing, and they do, often quite successfully. But then, over the course of months and years, they sometimes peel that initial goal back and something deeper, that they were really meant to write, comes bubbling up to the surface. Before that moment, they didn’t feel ready or safe enough; they never had the proper conditions and support to make telling that story possible. It doesn’t matter if it’s memoir or fiction; the process is the same. And then one day, they’re ready, and the real work begins.
Q: What do you love the most about your work?
A: It isn’t when a writer shares a beautiful sentence (though I can swoon over a well-turned phrase); it’s when a writer tells the real truth. It’s watching people crack open. I love watching my students find their strength, their voices, their own direction. One of my favorite students, Bonnie Harris, once said to me, “Laura, you say you teach writing, but you don’t really teach writing. You teach transformation.” It’s not exactly the kind of thing you go around saying about yourself, but it’s absolutely true.
Q: If your philosophy of life were printed on a tee-shirt, what would it say?
A: It’s the challenges in life that teach us the most.
Q: Tell us about the classes you’ve been teaching in Santa Cruz as well as the ways you’re creatively expanding beyond your own community.
A: I teach ongoing weekly classes in both writing practice (a “finding your voice” class) and feedback classes where people working on projects at home bring their work in to be critiqued. I love my weekly students and the intimate community that builds up in those classes.
To expand my geographical range, I’ve also started a free online community, The Writer’s Journey Roadmap, where I send out weekly writing prompts and people can post their responses on line. Over the past two years, that’s developed into a lovely online space for people who want to share their work in a safe, encouraging community. (http://www.lauradavis.net/roadmap)
Q: What’s your favorite thing that you’re doing now?
I love retreat teaching because of the intensity, because we’re all unplugged from life at home, coming together with one purpose – to write our brains out and go deep into our writing. People often arrive the first night of a retreat, looking tense and afraid, and then by the time they’re hugging everyone goodbye, their faces are cracked wide open and they look deeply refreshed. And it’s not just a quick high that fades. I’ve watched people make profound changes in their lives because of something they experienced on a retreat with me.
I’ve been teaching an annual retreat in Bolinas, California, right on the high cliffs of the Pacific for a week every July–and I’ve been doing that for years. Last year, for the first time, in part because my children are getting ready to leave the nest, I also led an international retreat to Bali. My partner taught yoga and I taught writing, and we teamed up with a wonderful local eco-tour company who kept us in small, local hotels and introduced us to amazing artisans, dancers, shamans, and all kinds of incredible adventures. We used our writing time to document our travels and to dive deeper into the descriptive world. And starting our day with yoga was just divine. I fell deeply in love with Bali and the Balinese people. I can’t wait to go back this June (June 21st-July 5th) with another group of writers (http://www.lauradavis.net/cometobali).
I’ve also added a second international retreat this year–this time to the Scottish Highlands, near Findhorn. It will be at the end of the summer, (August 14th-28th) and we will be living in a Victorian mansion, a sister center to Findhorn. In addition to exploring the gorgeous Scottish countryside, and diving deep into our writing, we’ll be living in a successful sustainable community and witnessing what that means on a day-to-day basis.
Q: What can students expect to learn from these overseas excursions?
A: When I teach, I like to take my cues from the students who come, but in the trips to Bali and Scotland, we will definitely utilize a lot of what we see, hear and experience each day to develop deeper powers of observation and the capacity to better capture sensory detail. These are useful habits no matter what genre we work in. We will use our writing time to glean every bit of insight we can out of our trip, the community we’re visiting, to help us take full advantage of the kind of change and openness only travel can bring.
Writers at all levels – as well as their non-writing spouses – are welcome to join us. Readers can learn more at http://www.lauradavis.net/cometoscotland.
Q: Over the course of your career, what accomplishment are you the most proud of?
A: Like many parents, my marvelous children come to mind first. They’re amazing young people and I can’t wait to see who they become. I’m very proud to have been a foundational part of their lives.
But when I set them aside and look at my literary work, you might think I’d choose The Courage to Heal, and the three other books I wrote about healing from sexual abuse. Those books have been read and translated all over the world, with more than 2 million copies in print. I still get letters (well now, texts and emails and FB messages) from grateful readers who tell me that the books have literally saved their lives. That is immensely gratifying.
But really, to tell you the truth, the books I feel the most proud of are two books I wrote this past fall – two volumes conceived and completed on a very tight three-month deadline. My brother had convinced me we should do something special for our mother’s 85th birthday. We agreed to have a big family party for her around Thanksgiving because that’s when our relatives gather. He said he’d be in charge of the party and I said I wanted to make a book for her.
I put out a call to all our relatives and all of her old and new friends asking for photographs, tributes and stories. The material started pouring in! In three months, I created two incredibly beautiful books – using everything I knew about constructing and writing a book – and printed two copies through blurb.com, and gave them to her. They were filled with her own writings, pictures of her being crowned campus queen at City College in 1937, photos and reviews from her acting career, stories and photos from everyone she had ever loved. Considering where my mother and I were 30 years ago (she was the prime subject of I Thought We’d Never Speak Again), I have a lot be proud of. My mother does, too. We both worked hard at our reconciliation.
My mother has dementia and these books, A Tribute to Temme – Volume 1 & 2, literally gave her back her life. She lives in assisted living now and her world has shrunk dramatically, but every day she looks at those books and remembers her travels, her friends, her former life and who she used to be. That’s definitely the thing I’m most proud of today.
Readers can learn more about Laura, her books, and her workshop retreats at http://www.lauradavis.net. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fantastic interview! Laura is such an inspiration. “It’s the challenges in life that teach us the most.” I fully agree with this quote. Not only in the moment they are happening, but long after. I loved reading how Laura’s life evolved and how she wrote a book to explore each hurdle. I have a friend who would appreciate The Courage to Heal because she’s gone through the same thing as Laura with her grandfather. And I teared up at the story of Laura’s mother and the book she created for her. Thanks so much for sharing!
The book you made for your mother reminds me of something I did for mine on a much smaller scale. When my father passed away, I invited family and friends to write their memories of him. I collected these and presented them to my mother. Perhaps the most precious was one written by my daughter. She said the best thing anybody had ever done for her was when my father and mother (but it was his idea) flew, then drove, to where my daughter’s kitten was and flew the kitten home. My daughter and I met her at the airport. My dad was an inventor, mechanic and builder–who knew he’d be remembered for bringing a kitten home?