Ellyn Bell and Stacey Bell are co-authors of a new book, Singing with the Sirens: Overcoming the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Sexual Exploitation. The women drew on their own experiences and years of working with domestic and sexual abuse survivors to address the long term complex trauma that results from the sexual abuse and exploitation of girls and young women.
They recently answered interview questions for Rose City Reader.
How did you come to write Singing with the Sirens?
We decided to write this book after concluding our first round of 12 week process group sessions with girls in detention. We realized the commonality of their challenges and stories, and we recognized how our own troubled pasts had led us to challenges, unfortunate relationships, and feelings of defeat. We knew firsthand what a difficult and tumultuous journey it is to become whole and emotionally healthy. We wanted to provide hope to other women on the journey and to girls and young women. We were attempting to create solidarity through the common threads that bind us.
All that said, we began writing in the fall of 2011— and the way just gently unfolded to us through conversation and dreams. We decided to write from a practical standpoint, but with a poetic quality that infuses both of our writing styles. It is the power of myth and poetry that truly spoke to us and informed the book.
What is your work background and how did it lead to writing this book?
We have both worked with youth throughout our careers in the fields of social services and education. We have both been especially fortunate to work with young people who have learned to use resilience and strength to overcome substantial challenges, or to learn to cope with difficulties as they present themselves.
Both of us have worked in and out of the classroom with youth, counseled youth and adults, and been involved in the administration of programs that assist youth and adults who have suffered abuse, neglect, homelessness and violence.
Your book is about the complex trauma early abuse in girls’ lives, but you include much about your personal stories. Did you have any qualms about sharing so much?
We were both very clear from the beginning that we were not setting out to write a memoir. There are numerous memoirs on exploitation and abuse that are available, and that was never our goal. However, we did recognize that story is an effective means of conveying concepts that are relatable to people and yet not completely personal. So we decided to use anonymous stories from the outset, and although many of them are our own, we tried to make them relatable to the experiences of others through the emotional tenor of the story telling. We both have found much healing in our own lives through the writing of story, and use of theater, art, and poetry.
So in some way, I think we felt vulnerable to a degree, as we are both introverted people. But that experience of vulnerability was mitigated by turning the realities of lived life to story and using myth, dreamlike creatures, and the beauty of transformation to counter the harshness of the topic and promote a feeling of strength from within — which we wanted to do for ourselves and our readers.
Who is your intended audience and what do you hope your readers will gain from your book?
We wrote this book for women of all ages and backgrounds who have experienced sexual trauma as children or youth, and for women who consider themselves “survivors” of sexual abuse or exploitation. We also wrote it for students of social work, women’s studies, and social sciences, as well as practitioners of social work, child welfare, public health, education, and psychology. We think it could be beneficial to both those who have experienced sexual abuse and trauma and those who work with survivors of sexual abuse and trauma. There is such a common thread that runs through stories of sexual and emotional trauma in women's lives, and we wanted to help people find that link and not feel alone.
Since writing this book, we have been approached by a number of men who have identified with information in the book as well as men who want to understand and stand with women that they love.
One common theme is “how do we become the heroines of our own lives?” and that theme is important for all women in our world. It is the learning to live in our own power and not in the definitions of a culture or a time that defines us.
Can you recommend any other books about healing after child abuse?
We both love the work of Judith Herman and Peter Levine for understanding and dealing with trauma. Iyanla Vanzant and Clarissa Pinkola Estes, as well as the stories and poetry of Adrienne Rich and Alice Walker were particularly useful to us in finding a healing process.
There are several good books that address healing from abuse; however, we thought it important to address the outcomes on adult women’s lives and how we find or lose our power in our chosen work, relationships, family, etc. And how this repeats itself in cycles until we can gain understanding in the imprinted patterns of our lives.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
I think we both learned far more that we are even aware of at present. So much material came to us through our dreams and our discussions with each other. But we kind of lived the journey as we went a through the writing. Sometimes we would say to each other things like, “ooo, I’m in the hunger now. I’m really feeling it and it is out of control!” or “Well, I’m definitely putting up a fortress now and it is no longer helpful!”
We lived the concepts of each chapter and we re-lived them in new ways as we wrote the book. Finally saying to ourselves — well let’s finish this book and move on with our lives and stop re-living these old traumas!
What has most surprised us in general is that after completely being in the thick of it and exploring it; we have both been able to get a very new perspective on living with strength and grace despite everything.
You are named as co-authors. Can you describe your process of writing the book together?
We had a unique writing process that worked for us. In the beginning, I think we both lacked the confidence that we could write a book, but the process of writing together was a kind of encouragement and a commitment at the same time. In the beginning, we outlined the chapters and the concepts that we wanted to discuss. Then we took turns writing and contributing to each chapter — such as Ellyn started the first chapter and Stacey the second and after 2 weeks we switched and Ellyn worked on chapter two and Stacey on first chapter. We did this throughout fourteen chapters and then wrote the last chapter in three days together lounging around on the floor of Ellyn’s apartment. We traded our computers back and forth and added to each other’s work. We were so surprised to see how on the same page we were in terms of content and thought! Eventually, we edited and consolidated information and story.
What resources would you recommend for survivors of child sexual abuse? How about for their loved ones and supporters?
It’s a somewhat complex question to answer as there are many additional issues that survivors face in adulthood. They may not be able to comprehend or deal with the abuse they suffered as children that may be the root causes of other disturbances that are more predominant in their adult lives. Such as for some it may be addictions or anxiety or depression, and for others it may be an emotionally or physically abusive partner or relationship, an eating disorder or challenges with their own children. It’s important to deal with the presenting issue at hand and then address the underlying causes. There are numerous resources for addressing old trauma; many of which we discuss in the book. Sometimes once the connection is made, then the issues can be dealt with simultaneously.
What can friends and family of abuse victims do to support them?
They can read and study information on trauma and trauma bonds, and try to gain understanding on the issues that face their loved one. They can come to see the linkages of the challenges faced by their friend or family member by gaining an understanding of the issue.
They can also support them in finding healing groups or resources.
What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as someone working to help abuse survivors?
Listen to them. Believe them.
Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?
We’ve had a few since the book was published in May, but expect there to be more as time goes on and the book gains more momentum.
What’s next? Are you working on new projects?
Yes, Stacey is working on her PhD. And all that is required of her.
Ellyn is working on some articles, wrote a speech for a “take back the night” rally for a friend, and is looking at doing some additional writing projects.
THANKS ELLYN & STACEY!
SINGING WITH THE SIRENS IS PUBLISHED BY SHE WRITES PRESS AND IS AVAILABLE ONLINE FROM POWELL'S OR AMAZON, OR ASK YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE TO ORDER IT!