Photo by Pixabay on

Celebrating the forthcoming release of the new book, The Storyteller, today is Day 5 of the Book Giveaway! Each day for ten days (until October 7), I will post a question and response from the book’s Discussion Guide . Anyone who posts a response with h/her thoughts either on WordPress or Facebook (“Stories That Matter”) will be automatically entered to win a copy of the book when it is released! I will give away 3 copies.

Day 5’s Question

Daphne suffers from nightmares. The memory of her father’s demeaning criticisms compete with Cole’s affirmations. Even in the epilogue, shadows of uncertainty make her ask for physical touch instead of initiating it. Could Daphne be carrying an undiagnosed mental illness? If so, which one(s)?

Discussion Guide

Beginning with this: Daphne is one of my all-time favorite female characters, if not my favorite. She is also one of the strongest. Not because she endured more; she didn’t. If it were true that certain traumas can be “more painful” or “worse” than others (which, for the record, it’s not), Maelea probably endured more. For that matter, Abrielle probably did, too. Both of those characters were sexually abused by multiple people; Maelea was physically tortured, as well, and permanently disfigured. Abrielle was kidnapped, sold to multiple men and basically raised her sister. Neither had a happily-ever-after ending. Again, trying to be very clear: Trauma is trauma; comparing pain to pain only results in more pain. (This deserves its own post; I’m very passionate about this because I did it, and I know the outcome). That being said, as the writer of these books, I can say that, while Daphne is permanently traumatized, she probably didn’t endure the same extent of trauma as either Maelea or Abrielle. So, she’s not my favorite, and she’s not my strongest, because of how traumatic her experience is. She’s my strongest because, despite being afraid, she’s able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s why, when Cole refuses to back down from his ultimatum (either call the police or stay with him where it is safe; returning home with her father there is a not only not an option, it’s also a non-negotiable non-option) despite her panic, she doesn’t outright refuse him. It’s why when he suggests going to see Dusty again, so that she can “say whatever (she) wants” to him, she takes him up on the offer. Daphne is traumatized, but she’s smart, and her desire to move away from the past is greater than paralyzing fear. She simply needed support. (For the record, Maelea relied on herself; she never had a support system. So, in one way, she was stronger. But Maelea never found peace or joy; at the end of the book, she is still surviving).

Really, if truth be known, I haven’t needed, or even necessarily wanted, my characters to be “complex.” I’m supposed to, as an author. My favorite teacher of all time read a book I wrote where a group of teenagers took a trip to the Middle East and found themselves hostages. This teacher suggested I make the captors “human” : abusers are human, and thus, endowed with enviable or, even sometimes, admirable, traits. There are writers I really admire who are able to do this: to make their characters lifelike by blurring the lines so that the readers are never really sure who’s the antagonist and who’s the protagonist. These characters mimic reality, and often remind me of how easy it is for any of us to become the antagonist in our own lives. How often have I been the antagonist in someone else’s story? It’s a worthwhile question (heartbreaking as it is, too), and I admire those who are able to do it well. My stories, on the other hand, aren’t about recreating real people and putting them into books. My stories are about highlighting the effects of behaviors, and how one action can destroy lives. So, then, I’ve never really particularly cared whether my characters were complex or not. I only really cared about whether or not my protagonist survived and, if so, how.

This book, though, is choke full of complicated characters that royally messed me up for over a year. Cole isn’t just the story’s “hero,” he’s also a man haunted by the death of his mother, and a tragic event of his youth. He’s a man who ran away, just like his father did, to escape pain, only to find that he couldn’t. Dusty is a child abuser who brands, regularly rapes, starves and otherwise torments his very young daughter; he’s also a man who was chased around with a knife by his alcoholic, mostly absent father, and he suffers from undiagnosed, but real, schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a complicated, serious illness of which hallucinations and delusions are symptoms; hallucinations and delusions are real to the sufferer, and he can’t tell the difference between reality and delusion. Daphne is a traumatized abuse survivor who flinches when there is unexpected movement, but she is also a woman who fights back when her life is actually threatened. She’s a woman who confronts her abuser, which is something absolutely none of my other characters have even contemplated. She doesn’t know how to read or write, and she doesn’t speak, but she’s resourceful enough to learn new things and to reach out for help when she needs it. These characters, then, may not be Picoult-worthy, but they made me see many important things differently and, for that, I am proud.

Accepting that Daphne may have an illness, then, isn’t a pleasant thought for me. I instinctively reject the notion. She is married to a literal hero, she is counted a friend by Clayton Cunningham and his whole perfect family, and she has found a measure of joy, which is significant since at least half of my characters usually die. Of course she doesn’t have an mental illness because Cole would have enrolled her in therapy and, anyway, doesn’t love conquer all? But, then, something totally unexpected happened. As I wrote the final pages of the epilogue, proudly showcasing how this story, tragic as it may have been, is really a fairy tale in disguise, my perfectly healed Daphne looks at Cole and says:

Can I have a kiss?


What? Memo to Daphne: This is the epilogue, honey, you’re really just fine, remember? Personal story: to the best of my recollection, I’ve never been able to solidly initiate intimacy, even when I’ve wanted to. If I’m really comfortable, I have, on about as many occasions as I have fingers on one hand, been able to ask for a kiss. And that’s only been if I’ve been really sure not only that the answer would be yes, but also that I wouldn’t be tacitly agreeing to more. Distant memories do exist where intimacy was so far away and different than any terrifying, paralyzing memory I may have that I could have been talked into more (but I wasn’t) but, for the most part, it has been a severe challenge for me to reconcile intimacy with what I went through. Even though I might love the person as an adult, all I can think about is this act literally destroyed pieces of me; why in the world would I do this again? When I asked “can I have a kiss,” I was asking a lot more than that simple question. I was also asking, Can I really trust you? I want that kiss again, but I don’t know about anything else, is that okay? I was also saying, It’s stupid, yes, I know, but I can’t just kiss you because I can’t break this promise you know nothing about so can you help me? I was also asking, Physical touch doesn’t have to jump to everything all at once. Right? I was also asking, What I think you’re telling me is true, right? If I ask for a kiss, that’s not bad. I know I’m an adult, but if I participate in this, does this mean I was to blame then, too? Also: If I ask for a kiss, will you see me differently than you do right now afterwards? See, I made a promise to a little girl who I hurt by remaining silent for way too long: a promise never to let her be hurt again. It’s a promise I have sacrificed way, way more than I can say in a blog post to keep. So, for my happy character, who was able to confront her abuser, who was able to get past the hurdle of intimacy, who was able to do all of these amazing things, for her to ask Cole, who she knows for certain adores her, for a kiss, was like an arrow in my heart. I actually deleted the scene three times. Unfortunately, I am 100% character driven. I don’t care as much about a story as I do about what the characters want to say. In this book alone, I can tell you five things that came up that I didn’t even know about until the editing stage, when I re-read it. Clues left in dialogue that I wrote but didn’t catch the significance of because, if I had, I would have deleted it. So, I left the “Can I have a kiss” scene, finished the book and it has been on my mind ever since.

Very seldom, if ever, do survivors of childhood sexual abuse make it throughout without lingering effects. I don’t know and deliberately have not looked up statistics about this because whatever the answer is would probably hurt, but I strongly doubt that anyone ever completely heals without any scars. Healing happens, of course. Joy happens, absolutely. Moving on happens, yes. But, also, there’s probably always remnants that pierce you at random times, that make you feel. Some may call them triggers. Some may call them memories. Whatever, they exist. And prolonged abuse, that occurred over many years, can definitely morph into mental illness (please note: I’m not saying it always does). Thankfully, in Daphne’s case, I can’t say there’s enough textual evidence of a mental disorder. She just asked a question that struck a buried nerve in me. But it did make me wonder about post-traumatic stress disorder . I don’t know that she had enough symptoms, thankfully, to qualify for this, and that’s too broad of a topic to really discuss here. That being said, though, I wonder how many survivors have nightmares or trouble sleeping or negative narratives like if only I had or had not … where the blame is erroneously placed on themselves or external circumstances rather than the abuser. In the book, there is a sentence that says Daphne is receiving counseling. Counseling for what? Depression? PTSD? Or just coping strategies for all she’s been through? I hope it is the last, but I also know that, even if she is being treated for a mental illness, the key is that she’s being treated. Mental illness isn’t something to fear, it isn’t something can’t be lived with. Schizophrenia can be treated and, with counseling and medication, survivors of schizophrenia can live fairly normal lives. Depression and PTSD and all sorts of things are only evidence that we are human; events affect us because we are not robots. We are not meant to or expected to push through without others. And one of the reasons that Daphne is stronger than I is because she is able to recognize and respond to that. It’s also one of the reasons she is one of my favorite characters.

Everyone has a story. Everyone has pain of some sort that has stained their hearts. The common thread of serious pain is that it leads us to believe we are alone when that is not the case. In every, single speaking engagement I’ve ever done, at least one person has come up to me to share her/his story. Every one. Also, once, shortly after The Character was released, a woman I had never met and did not know cornered me in the cafeteria. How she knew about or got her hands on my book I still do not know, but she didn’t say “hello.” Instead, she said, “Did you write ‘The Character’?” Stunned because I didn’t know who this woman was, I nodded. “Yes.” Her voice sounded almost angry as she said, “You couldn’t have written that if it hadn’t happened to you.” My face turned red and, because she sounded almost confrontational and I don’t do confrontations, I started shaking. I didn’t know what to say and before I could think of something, she said, “Did it? Happen to you?” and I just nodded my head. She nodded, too, threw a paper towel in the trash, said, “Yeah. Me, too,” and then walked out of the cafeteria. I asked around, learned her name, and then used my company directory to track down her e-mail. I sent her a note and said something to the effect of inviting her to lunch or to talk. She never responded to the e-mail, and I didn’t see her again. Everyone has a story and, whatever hers was, she clearly felt that mine was similar. Not everyone who experienced abuse in their past currently has a mental illness. Maybe some never do; I hope that is the case. Maybe Daphne doesn’t have PTSD or any other mental illness. But I think, whether a mental illness is at play or not, the important take-away is that awareness and communication and sharing of our stories matters. And if the “can I have a kiss” inspires that conversation or that awareness, then this moment in the epilogue is a weighty and meaningful part of the 653 page book that’s worth waiting for.