Cheryl Strayed knows the power of a story and that repetition ups the voltage.
Strayed is best known for her 2012 memoir “Wild” — made into a movie of the same name — about her solo hike up the West Coast of the United States, and her more recent advice column and podcast “Dear Sugar.”
Speaking engagements are a natural extension of Strayed’s writing, and she speaks to the same audiences she writes to: environmental groups, outdoor and wilderness groups, grief groups, and those who advocate for survivors of domestic violence.
Speaking to shelters for abused women is especially personal; none existed in the early 1970s when her mother needed a safe place.
“When my mother tried to escape my father’s violence, she would gather us up and we would just drive around,” she says.
Strayed retells the story of her mother for a Kansas City audience on October 24.
Deborah DeBusk, director of special events at the domestic violence shelter Safehome, says Strayed’s appearance is the first in a series of fundraisers titled “Write Your Story,” each of which will feature an influential speaker encouraging audience members to take charge of their lives.
Repeating such a story is important, Strayed told me, because it says: “Hey, remember. Remember what a difference it makes when we extend a hand to somebody who needs that hand. Remember the strength it takes to take that hand.”
KNIGGENDORF: Very early on in “Wild,” you introduce the fact that your father was abusive. You write that: “He broke her nose. He broke her dishes. He skinned her knees dragging her down a sidewalk in broad daylight by her hair. But he didn’t break her.”
Why was this an important part of the story you were telling about hiking the 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail after her death when you were grieving?
STRAYED: I wrote those words a long time ago, I’ve read them over and over again. That experience I chronicled in those sentences happened many years ago, and yet still when you read them, tears came into my eyes.
I remembered, I remembered the image of my mom being dragged like that and that’s part of me. It still hurts my heart. And so, it’s essential to any story I tell: Those are my beginnings. And fortunately, what I did have was the mother who wasn’t broken, the mother who loved me so deeply and so well, the way that we want our mothers and fathers to love us. So, he didn’t break her; he hurt her. He harmed her. But in the end, she stood up and walked away from him, and that has made all the difference in my life.
KNIGGENDORF: When you speak specifically about intimate partner violence or domestic violence, what is it that you tell the audience?
STRAYED: I almost always begin with the story of my mother who had a sort of typical experience, when it comes to experiencing domestic violence. My mother was told by family and police officers and various others around her, “Just don’t make him mad. Make him what he wants for dinner.” There really is so much misogyny and sexism embedded in the way that we think often about intimate partner violence.
Obviously, times have changed, but there are still threads of that message that we have — a lot of people blame themselves when they’re in a situation where they’re being abused. And, so often we think divorce is terrible for children, and of course, the best case scenario is your parents love each other and are happy together, but for me I think my parents’ divorce is one of the great blessings of my life because my mother was not just leaving a relationship that was not just going to destroy her, but was going to destroy her children as well.
KNIGGENDORF: Do you see much happening toward addressing the behavior itself from men?
STRAYED: I’ve been a feminist since I learned the word when I was six. Feminism is as good for men as it is for women. And I think that the shift that needs to happen is that we need to really redefine what it means to be a man; we need to really expand our notions about what a man is.
Part of what patriarchy does in oppressing women is it also really limits what men get to do in the emotional realm. The only safe emotion, when it comes to men, is to be angry and to be tough. I think masculinity and femininity and our ideas about those gender roles are really embedded in, essentially, the domestic violence narrative: “He’s abusing you because you’re not behaving the way a woman is supposed to behave.” And so, I think that on a deeper level all of those narratives around gender need to be revised, and men are a big part of that. We can’t do it without them.
KNIGGENDORF: Do you talk to people about healing also, since that was so much about what “Wild” was about? Do people look to you for statements and for suggestions about healing from something like that?
STRAYED: Of course. And especially, not just “Wild” but my work as Dear Sugar. My book “Tiny, Beautiful Things” is really full of letters from people asking me for advice and I give it.
Healing, in all its many variations and varieties, the many things we have to heal and the many things we have to recover from, what they have in common is at the outset it seems impossible. It seems like we’re trapped: The sorrow will never end, the situation will never end, we’re not capable of making change, whether it be escaping a violent relationship or stopping using alcohol or drugs or any number of things we grapple with. They always have that in common: it feels impossible.
The message I want to give is that that’s just part of what it feels like to heal. That’s the beginning part, the part where you think you can’t do it. And then what happens is, if you take one step, and then another one, and another one after that, what you realize is that you were wrong, that it’s always possible to change, it’s always possible to find a happier, healthier, more whole life. And there’s nothing but optimism in my mind when I think about people in that moment who say: “It’s time. This has got to end. I can’t live this way.”