Intersection Column | The Stories We Live and the Stories We Write
by Erin Bartels
When I was nine years old, a friend’s older brother molested me, the last in a string of uncomfortable encounters with him where I was watched, cornered, trapped, grabbed at, whispered to and otherwise harassed. And after the last, worst incident, I didn’t really come around my friend much anymore. I’m sure you can understand why.
Thing is, I don’t think she did. Because I never told her. And now I can’t.
She died in 2015 after what I surmise was a long-term battle with substance abuse. Soon after I heard the news, I started writing The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water, the story of a woman headed for a reckoning with her past and ultimately gets one—though not in the way she thought she would.
In the book, Kendra Brennan is a young author who based her first novel on something that happened to her in her real life, though she thought she’d been careful to change enough details so no one would know. She receives a critical letter from an anonymous Very Disappointed Reader who claims to know the truth—and takes the antagonist’s side in the story. Kendra must travel to the small cabin on a private lake in Northern Michigan where it all happened to prove to herself that it transpired as she remembered. But as she begins to peel back the layers of time and memory, she discovers that things were far more complicated than she realized then.
I started writing this novel in the shower, where all good ideas are birthed. I was thinking of my one-time friend and wondering if what happened to me at her house might have happened to other friends of hers. What if I wasn’t the only one to abandon that friend without explanation? What if she’d lost a number of friends to her brother’s abuses, but she never knew the reason, so she deduced she was the reason. That people just didn’t like to be around her. What if her loneliness led to self-destructive attempts to fill the void?
From that seed of What if? this novel grew—into a story about broken people who sometimes love each other, sometimes hurt each other and sometimes have trouble telling the difference. It became a story about the nature of truth, the reliability of memory and the restrictions we put on ourselves when we think of ourselves only as victims. It became a story about how we can learn to love with abandon even when we’ve been hurt.
I’ve seen my friend’s brother a number of times since I stopped going to their house. When I was in high school and he was in college, we actually talked about what happened. At the time, I asked him the question that anyone would ask of someone who had treated her so badly: Why? Why did you do those things to me? He didn’t have an answer. But later on, when I was drafting this story and I was finally revealing to my sister and an old friend what had happened thirty years prior, I realized I was asking the wrong question.
When I told these women my story, they both said, “I wonder what happened to him.”
It had never occurred to me to ask that question. I couldn’t see further than my own experience: my own anger at him specifically, my own resentment and bitterness toward men more generally. It had never entered my mind that something might have, must have, happened to him. That behavior had to have been modeled.
I have my suspicions, given some of my town’s history and the years and ages involved. I may never know for sure, not unless I see him again and ask the right question. But even considering the possibility that the story was more complicated than I’d allowed it to be was a turning point for me. And for my writing.
I don’t think of myself as a victim anymore. I am not angry—not at him specifically or men more generally. I’m not telling anyone else who has been hurt in that way how to feel about what happened to them. I’m just telling how I feel.
Feeling helpless and alone and oppressed when I was a nine-year-old girl is part of my history, and it is part of how I became the strong, confident, competitive, not-going-to-be-underestimated woman I am today. And I know what man means for evil, God can use for good.
The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water is not a thinly veiled story about what happened to me. But it’s the story I could only write because of what happened to me.
About the Author
Erin Bartels is the award-winning author of We Hope for Better Things, The Words between Us, All That We Carried and The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water. She lives in the capital city of a state that is 40% water. Find her on Facebook @ErinBartelsAuthor and on Instagram @erinbartelswrites.
When novelist Kendra Brennan moves into her grandfather’s old cabin on Hidden Lake, she plans to confront Tyler, her childhood best friend’s brother, and prove that she told the truth about what happened during those long-ago summers. But what she discovers as she delves into the murky past is not what she expected.
Did You Know?
Ancient Israelites highly valued ancestry records. In early Israel, some genealogies were written and others were transmitted orally. Israelites told these stories of their generations as they worked, as they ate and as they rested. Reciting the genealogies made them personal, and they became part of the fabric of their daily lives. Here are three things about ancient Israel’s genealogical records you may not know:
- They served useful purposes. Linear genealogies established claims to the throne, identified those qualified to serve as priests, proved family kinship and determined important matters like marriage, inheritance and social obligations.
- The Old Testament contains about 25 genealogical lists. The Jews depended heavily on these lists. For instance, genealogy records were vital during the post-exilic period when God’s people resettled Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. Without them, they could not determine who could serve as priests and Levites at the newly rebuilt temple or the ancestral towns where the returned people should live.
- The New Testament includes two separate genealogies for Jesus. Matthew shows that Jesus descended from King David, fulfilling God’s promise of an eternal King (Matthew 1:6). Luke traces Jesus’ line all the way back to Adam, connecting Jesus with the entire human race.
Genealogies are not dry lists, but exciting road maps. They record history, tell family stories and memorialize abiding faith. Don’t skip these rich treasures in the Bible. And take time to mine them from your own family history as well.
Why I LOVE My Local Christian Bookstore
“I like shopping in bookstores because I get to see and touch the items on the shelves. I sometimes discover new things I didn’t know about too, and that is always fun. But my favorite part about shopping in a bookstore is supporting a brick and mortar business.”