All These Quiet Places was written by Christopher Krzeminski/Jennifer August. You can reach out to Chris on twitter: @CEKBooks, or by email at email@example.com
What follows are my own thoughts on this book, as I’ve read it. I’ve no vested interest in the story other than that as a reader. These opinions and words are my own. It’s not a review, endorsement or advertisement. Just go buy it and read it for yourself ~Jess
Accountability is a word that is often used in our culture, but it generally has caveats. We stress the need for it, or at least pay lip service to it, but it rarely translates as a personal commitment to change those aspects of ourselves that are least attractive and beneficial. Instead, we like to live in a world of blame. I blame the government, or society, or my ex husband for things which I may staunchly insist are out of my control. It’s a mantle of victimhood that many wear like an old, familiar coat. Victimhood is comfortable, because it removes from the individual any need to be personally accountable for certain, unpleasant aspects of character or circumstances.
It is possible to be victimized. It is more than possible and we see it every day. People are cheated, swindled out of retirements promised by unscrupulous financial institutions. People are robbed, beaten, and murdered, daily. There are verifiable accounts of citizens being attacked and even killed by those in power. We see it in the highest forms of government all the way down to the most intimate violence that can be perpetrated on the weakest in society by those meant to protect them. Parents do unspeakable things to children. Spouses inflict the most horrific trauma on partners, and every heinous act from greatest to the smallest, all throughout the spectrum.
Is it is the fault of the victim? Never. Was anyone really ever “asking for it?” Certainly not. But these events occur and the worst happens. What, then, happens after? What is the aftermath of such brutality and pain? For those able to cling to life after such devastation—we call them survivors. They survived. But what happens to them after? After the headlines, and the sympathetic clucking of tongues quiet down—when the articles stop circulating off raw story and the shares stop on facebook and twitter—what happens then?
Some people pick up the tatters of their lives and try to reshape them into something resembling existence. And it’s an extremely individual process.
I’m not writing today to address the larger issues of society, or to discuss in general terms, the way that we treat those whom have been treated at best unfairly, or at worst, been deprived of life. I’m just writing about a book. A single book. One account of a person’s story, written by an author attempting to record and understand what is, in the end, a very personal journey.
Jen August and I have been following each other on twitter for a long time. We’ve had a lot of interaction, and sometimes we agree with each other and sometimes we don’t. Even in the virtual world of twitter, this is nothing dissimilar to how people interact in daily life. I think one thing Jen and I agree on, though, is choice. That you make choices every day which shape the reality of your life, inasmuch as you can. Some choices, of course, are not choices consciously made, but framed by the external forces over which an individual has no control. Simply put, you didn’t choose the people who birthed you. If you are working for a paycheck, you can choose to tell your boss to go fuck himself, but you probably won’t have that job by the end of the day. You may have been born into an extremely advantaged circumstance, or you may have been born into extreme poverty—those aren’t choices you make.
But, at some point, even within the framework of the life you find yourself living, you will be faced with choices you CAN make. And, when most people try to examine someone else’s life, they seem to focus on the series of choices a person makes and total them up into a ledger that might, on the balance, give a picture of that individual. This to say, we are judged by the choices we make. And this book, while recounting a harrowing tale of abuse, loss and ultimately, survival, is not written so much to give a prurient look into a life or horror, but as to illustrate that a person, this person, chose a path of personal accountability to effect a change in her life so substantial as to overcome the horror of what happened to her, and…indeed the further horror of those who might have liked to keep her there.
Whoa, you say, reading that last sentence. NO ONE, you shout at me, in his or her right mind, would ever want another person to exist in that same non-space, a continual cycle of horror and pain.
Yeah, except socially, we kinda do.
Oh yes, I expect to be blasted for this. But, I’m not afraid of criticism, so here goes.
When horrible events happen, and the victims are identified, as a society, I would suggest, that we like keeping those victims there. It gives us a way to define people. I used to see this all the time in nursing, when people stopped being recognized as individuals and started to be known by whatever terminal or debilitating condition they were managing. So, when someone is abused, we say, “They were the victim, it’s not their fault.”
That is absolutely true.
Then, as that person struggles to process what happens, maybe working with a therapist, or in their own head, we continue to say, “They are a victim…they are a victim.” In the active present tense—meaning that victimization is now going on forever, stuffing the individual into a perpetual loop from which there really is no escape. That person WAS victimized, bet your ass…and then, by continuing to slap that label on them in the present, we keep them there—comfortably pigeonholed in a never ending cycle that keeps the individual right where the initial perpetrator wants them: in an unceasing chaotic hell.
Part of what happens, as anyone whose suffered domestic abuse can tell you, is that over the passage of time you cease to be a person to the abuser, if indeed your humanity was ever acknowledged, but far worse is that you cease to be a person to yourself. You generate coping skills, rarely healthy, that allow you to survive the acute assaults, but the fear and overwhelming isolation combine in order to slowly erase who you were, or who you might have been. Once you lose your ability to identify self, and accept the unacceptable as normal, it is more than difficult to get that back. And I’m not sure that we help.
I think what happens is that we tell victims that we want them to move on with their lives, but we only partially mean it. So, we condition the person to accept a perpetual mantle of victimhood, and then, when we arbitrarily decide enough time has passed, we then say, “How long are you going to allow this to define you? What the fuck’s the matter with you? Get over it, already.”
We placed them firmly on the rug of special-status victimhood, then yank it out from under them. Surprise! You’ve been fucked again!
So, how are you, the person who suffered, going to overcome that? The road is broad and there are any number of forks, on that path to recover and for the individual it’s going to come down to choice.
In this story, the character (Yes, based on a real person and real events) chooses in slow, incremental steps, to rigorously examine what decisions brought her to that initial place from the beginning and makes further choices to change parts of her character that lead her there in the first place. Acknowledging a sense of personal accountability is not the same as saying “This was my fault.” It does, however, give you the ability to say, “That was me then, but it isn’t me now…and from here, I can and will be different.”
When you begin to define yourself in your own terms and not allow anyone else to make your decisions for you, there is a small flicker—a spark of freedom that can, if nurtured, grow into a fulsome sense of self.
On twitter, long before this book was written, Jen would refer to herself as (and here I’m smiling) “the motherfucking boss.” And so she is. It was the reaction to that which most interested me in the early days of our acquaintance. How other people took that statement fascinated me. There were people who cheered her on and said, “Yeah! You are!” And some, clearly took it as though her words should be some kind of guide for others, or themselves, and with an almost sycophantic groveling would chime in and give themselves up to the power of that phrase. I’ve always imagined Jen shaking her head a bit in response to that. Because of this: I’d read those phrases and think, “Fucking right you are. You’re your own motherfucking boss…but not mine. I’m my boss. I belong to me.”
I think that is the best take-away from this. It takes strength and an unflinching ability to put yourself first in your own life…not selfishly, not aggressively…but to say, without apology, that I, as an individual, will be responsible for the things I do and say. I will be responsible for how I allow other people treat me and I will not be boxed into a set of labels that conveniently define me so as to make my existence more comfortable for you. I will not be “put in my place.” I will seek out and find my own place—and if you want to know me, if you want to be around me, you’ll learn to respect the place I’ve earned for myself.
This is why accountability is empowering.
Like all good books, it’s not just the story that should attract a reader, but the ability of the story to cause a reaction within the reader that makes it personal. Brings it home. As I sit on my own back porch this morning, and write this, I’m struck again by how profoundly good my life actually is.
What seems a lifetime ago, now, I was in a marriage that shared some similarities to the one described in the book, though certainly not all. When I eventually left, with my children, my own family began the well-meant litany of “You were the victim. It isn’t your fault.” And in the acute events, that was true. But as I took back myself, and began to determine the courses my own life would take, there were things I vociferously demanded. I refused to ignore my part in what happened, and I have always said, “No one held a gun to my head and forced me to marry him. And during that marriage, even in the worst times, there were things that I did, decisions I made, that I’m not proud of and treatment I meted out that was unworthy of who I consider myself to be.” I did those things. No one else. And I’m responsible for them. I was lucky. I got out. I’ve had unending support and assistance from those who love me, but, now, I rarely think of those times and honestly only deal with my ex-husband in reference to our children, and as they grow older, my need to interact with him decreases. Do I hate him? Nah. I don’t have time or energy for that. I have my own real and present problems which demand my attention.
But, had I not accepted my part in what happened, and what I did, I would not be married to my present husband. My husband is the joy of my life and my family, the four of us, is something I guard with happy ferocity.
This year, having been diagnosed with a chronic condition, I’ve been faced again with that repeated litany of “It’s not your fault.” Well, of course it fucking isn’t. But, what happens now, what choices I make and how I choose to move forward with that information is all on me. There are things I can’t control, but I am firmly in control of my responses . Am I worried and scared? Often. Do I have dark days—Sure. A lot of them. But, I’m still here, still bulling ahead. Ive made commitments and honoring them is part of how I define myself.
And that means I’m careful. I’m careful about who I let in my life and when a relationship becomes toxic to me, I’ve learned to recognize it fairly quickly and while it is painful, sometimes I let people go because I have to make sure that I’m taking care of me. When I take care of myself, when I’m unapologetically my own boss, then I can take care of the people who depend on me. Perhaps this is why this book resonated strongly with me. You can and should have empathy for others. You can and should assimilate the strength another person shows in sharing such a story, but you do this character a disservice if all you do is feel sorry for her. She’s not asking for that. And you’ll understand it better if you read it yourself.
My path to recovery was different than Jen’s. I’m not Jen and she isn’t me. That seems basic but it is important to remember. And I’m not you. I’m not responsible for you, and I resist anyone else’s efforts to be responsible for me. Autonomy. Accountability. Compassion. They matter.
As I end this, I’ll take a moment to recognize the assumption of responsibility Chris assumed in undertaking the task of writing someone else’s story. It’s very clear in the introduction how he processed the information and fashioned a story which is the work of a writer. There was a time I made my own living with writing, and it may happen again, so I’m cognizant of the skill it takes to bring a story to fruition. He treats the subject matter with honesty and without apology—this is more than just the regurgitation of someone else’s facts. As you read it, you may be uncomfortable. You should be. You would do the author as well as the subject a grave disservice if you focus on the idea of fictionalization. Just because it is written as it is should in no way detract from the account. And if you say to yourself, “Well there’s no way all that could happen.” Recognize that is just your own discomfort talking. There’s no way it SHOULD happen, but it does, every day.
Is it a cautionary tale? Not really, although if it makes you examine your own life, that’s not a bad thing. Is it an uplifting story? Not in the details, but if we are, any of us, unable to rejoice in the ability of one person to take a hard look at their life and say “No, I deserve and will have better,” then there’s something wrong—an essential lack of character that should warrant closer introspection. One of the things that I often repeat on twitter is my firm belief that we’re all in this life together, and how we treat one another matters. I feel strongly that it starts with respect. And it starts with respecting yourself first. If you don’t respect yourself, I don’t think it’s possible to respect anyone else.
That said, go and read it. All These Quiet Places might make you angry. It might make you sad. It might make you despair for the working of the world. One thing I feel confident in saying is this: The subject of the book won’t care if you read it or not. She lived it. She doesn’t think you owe her anything, including reading her story. She’s busy living her life. She’s already moved on.