For over three years, I investigated allegations of abuse and neglect of vulnerable children in state’s custody and/or children served by facilities licensed or contracted by the state. One of the tools used to aid me in those investigations was video of the alleged maltreatment. During that time, I watched hours upon hours of children from ages five to seventeen being treated in ways no one—child or adult—deserves to be treated. The secondary trauma—and potential PTSD—I developed as a result of that job became a driving force in the stories that I wrote.
While presenting for a college Comp class recently, one of the students asked me what kind of horror I write. My response was that which focuses on the horrific things that people do to other people because I cannot imagine anything worse. My stories tend toward children who are abused but are able to exact a final revenge of the abuser. Most often this is accomplished through supernatural means, as is the case with my award-winning short story The Great Stone Head, but it can also be real-world revenge, as will be the case in my upcoming piece entitled Tithes.
Now, you may be wondering why anyone would want to write about something as terrible as child abuse. Well, there are many reasons for it. First and foremost is the fact that child abuse, until recently, was something that was either disbelieved or swept under the rug. Children who reported being molested were labeled as liars. They’re still labeled as being promiscuous or slutty, even though they’re usually of an age where sex and sexuality are nowhere near their developmental age. As far as physical abuse, the Bible passage of “spare the rod and spoil the child” was and still is used as an excuse for physical abuse under the guise of godly discipline. The more that these issues are addressed and brought to light, the more people will (hopefully!) believe the victims and stop labeling them as being worse than the perpetrators. Or, even more horrific, describing them as the instigators of the acts.
Another reason these stories need to be told is to be used as a catalyst of healing for either the storyteller or for someone in their life. Without going into great detail, I spent my childhood being the victim of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. The first major piece I wrote—a handwritten novel that will never see the light of day—was my attempt at dealing with the emotions and damage that resulted from that abuse. There are times that my own trauma may spill over into the pieces I write, and that’s okay. It can all be part of the healing process, for both the author and their characters.
One of the potential… dangers, I guess you might say, of writing about child abuse is you never know when a member of the reading audience can be negatively affected by what you’re writing. An early reader/critiquer of The Great Stone Head had a gut-wrenching negative reaction to the piece. It stirred up some of their own abuse as a child. Now, not being one for trigger warning or content warnings, I still felt bad that my piece had caused such an awful response for them.
While writing (or reading) about child abuse is not for everyone, I still believe that it is something that should be done. It poses many pitfalls due to the horrific circumstances, but if it is approached carefully, it can also allow for healing. If nothing else, it progresses the social narrative that will (again, hopefully!) one day allow all victims of abuse to be seen as victims and not labeled as liars or attention seekers.
Shannon Iwanski is the former president of the Tulsa-based writing group Nevermore Edits, a member of Oklahoma Writers' Federation, Inc., and Editor-in-Chief of Inkubus Publishing, LLC. To learn more about him and his plans to turn the world into a dystopian society, check out shannoniwanski.com.