Photo credit: Isaiah Mailhot
Heart Berries: A Memoir
is the book I wrote from pain. For most of my life, I tried to tell the truth of my experiences and make people see
me. My story was maltreated, every time. As a child, I told my mother the way she spoke to me hurt. She always thought it was an unfair indictment. She’d counter by telling me the reasons why she wasn’t who I needed her to be. She’d talk about all the men who had abandoned us to fend for ourselves, how hard it was to be a mother, and it left me feeling resigned. It left her feeling resigned as well. I was a reminder of her failings, because she neglected me, rejected me, and it was written in my face. Every time she tried to reach out to hold me, I wanted to remind her that I wasn’t only her child when it was convenient. When I became a woman, men would often ask me to tell them about myself, and they were never prepared for the truth. They wanted a soundbite I couldn’t provide, one that encapsulated me so fully that they knew what kind of girl they were dealing with. They either heard about the small Indian reservation I came from and saw poverty, or they heard I was a single mother and saw drama –– or I was bold enough to say I was profoundly lonely, and often too busy raising my boy to think of what I wanted for myself, and they took advantage of that vulnerability. My story was maltreated. I decided my work would save me, nothing else.
I couldn’t rely on my mother, who passed away before I could accept her for the profoundly striking and faulty woman she was. I couldn’t rely on men to save me, because they were wholly incapable of understanding the art of my being. They often reduced me down to nothing. They didn’t regard me as intelligent. I started to write what I thought would be a novel about a protagonist who didn’t care about being gluttonous, or sexually explicit –– and she didn’t care how men received her or how they tried to hurt her. She took what she wanted from the world, and, if men exploited her, she exploited them worse. Wielding the story of someone brighter and harder than I could ever be empowered me. The first story from that work was published in Carve Magazine
, a story titled, “Heart Berries.”
The closer I came to rendering art from my pain, the more powerful I felt.
I started writing these stories, and people were struck by their brutality. I heard people call my work “raw” and “powerful.” Often, people had never seen a Native woman write like that, with such guilelessness. The stories themselves were morally ambiguous, and there was always a dark thought or image at the end of them, where I couldn’t identify why the protagonist was so broken — and so unwilling to state explicitly what happened to her. And then I was holding a cup in Starbucks and remembered something I had held in the recesses of my mind. The memory was visceral; it sickened me. I staggered outside and couldn’t breathe, and I could barely speak. I was broken by something I had been willing myself to forget for years: My father had molested me. For so long I had convinced myself I was the only one he never touched. I slowly began to write the truth of that experience.
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My ability to write a protagonist full of bravado was gone. My work didn’t fail because of it, but every word seemed to support some larger thesis: I had survived the things my family couldn’t talk about, and I wanted to talk about them. I began writing my way out of that pain, and the more I articulated the truth of what happened to me, the more fulfilled I felt. I loved deeper once I learned to live with the truth, and the closer I came to rendering art from my pain, the more powerful I felt. Everyone should do this. Whether it’s crafting something that expresses your nature, or writing in a journal to articulate things that have been hidden for so long, or literally just crying openly about a thing that won’t be contained any longer — everyone should have that. It’s what I believe in. It saved me. And now, I look at my book in hardback: the truth of my life is written in its pages. I knew that writing it would change the trajectory of my life, even if nobody read it. Speaking my story saved me. There is something profound in the idea that the only person who could witness me, truly, and see me, articulate me, and behold me was me
. Everyone should have this, I think.
Before I really became an author, I searched blogs, magazines, and books for someone like myself, who was profoundly neglected by the world, exploited whenever she was vulnerable. I know that there is someone reading this who needs to hear that there is a power in vulnerability. There will be a time when you must speak your story, or ply your craft –– something solely for yourself, for the sake of its creation –– because we all have a true power. And I will say that there is no power like truth — it makes the world fall away, whether it’s allowing yourself to remember something you hid away, or realizing that your mother truly loved you, as much as she could know love. I only hope that everyone has a moment like this, where the world falls away, and nothing matters except that you’ve done something for yourself, finally. I don’t miss the fictionalized version of my story — the girl with bravado, who took what she wanted from the world. I’ve cultivated something from my pain that feels more honest and powerful than anything I have ever felt before, living in the lie that I was not broken. Somehow, writing about the things that broke me let me see the pain for what it was, and pull together a self who is ultimately stronger, more self-aware, and self-reliant. How many times can I say, everyone should have this?
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Terese Marie Mailhot
graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts with an MFA in fiction. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Carve Magazine
, The Offing, The Toast, Yellow Medicine Review
, and elsewhere. The recipient of several fellowships — SWAIA Discovery Fellowship, Vermont Studio Center Fellowship, Writing by Writers Fellowship, and the Elk Writer's Workshop Fellowship — she was recently named the Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue University. Heart Berries
is her first book.