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‘It’s a kind of moral coming-of-age’: Debora Harding on Memory, Trauma, and Recovery

Trigger Warning: This article includes discussion of emotional abuse and physical and sexual assault.

Debora Harding’s writing operates with the reader in mind. This is no more evident in her debut book, Dancing with the Octopus, than in the lines, ‘I will now tell you about my childhood. Do not be scared’. They sit in solitude on the centre of page 17, acting as a door between the reader and the remainder of her memoir. They represent a kind of contract, in which the author is offering a hand (or, perhaps, a narrative tentacle) by which to lead you through the story of her life.

Dancing with the Octopus is a sharp, compelling recollection of abuse, gaslighting, and the process of trauma. It modulates between the sardonic tone of its telling and the tragedy of its content. It is a collection of (in Harding’s words) ‘vignettes’, that seem to step between moments in time and memory as if they were paving stones. The motion is effortless, revealing how the narrative absence of chronology acts as positive force. Dancing with the Octopus implies a psychological landscape in which events of 1978 and 2003 sit neatly next to each other in the mind of the person recalling them.

The book is a true crime, but it is a unique one. The story tells of how a fourteen-year-old girl was abducted at knifepoint, raped, and ransomed, before being left to die. But it does not end there. Dancing with the Octopus is not a true crime in the sensationalist sense—the resolution of the trauma is just as pivotal to the story as the experience of sexual and psychological abuse. Dancing with the Octopus is a victim-centered narrative, and one which demonstrates that assault is not limited to the time or place of stranger-on-stranger crimes. The aftershocks continue, bleeding into every area of life.

But why? This is a tangled question Harding wrestles; and we with her. In Dancing with the Octopus we are led by Harding as narrator, but follow the intimate path of her experience over the course of the decades before.

This compelling journey guides us back to Harding’s home—to a mother who denies her daughter’s right to the truth of her own narrative, and a father who sits somewhere between ignorant and complicit in this state of emotional and psychological affairs.

Ultimately, Dancing with the Octopus is a book about telling and the power of retelling—an act carried out with wit, grace and humour by an author of her own narrative truth.

Was the fragmented final version a reflection of how it was originally written down or was it edited to construct a more suspenseful narrative?

At the time of writing the first draft, it would be safe to say I had been attempting what felt like a futile exercise—to bring shape and meaning to my life, after the shattering and sudden loss of my fourteen-year-old son, Kadian. The voice and style naturally evolved from that traumatic state. I was reading Montaigne’s Essays, which is where the inspiration for the titles of each of the vignettes came. The titles helped focus my thoughts, at a time when I was having problems with concentration.

The draft I submitted to my U.S. agent Anna Stein, included half the story—my life leading up to the age of eighteen. I was hoping that just writing a quirky book would be enough. She loved the voice and style, but said I had left too many questions for the reader. When I shared with her the rest of the story—that I went back to Lincoln twenty-five years later to meet my offender—she didn’t understand why I hadn’t included it. I didn’t think I had the strength. So much of the story was dark, and it needed to be paced. So that’s when I started playing with moving the pieces around.

Your own sense of humour is central to the way your story is told. What role does it play in the narrative?

As a victim of a severe crime, I felt like I was doing something almost taboo by allowing my humour to naturally emerge. At first, I was worried about being judged for dodging the hard emotions. But I really wanted the story to cast the spell of fiction; I wanted to lay the experience out, so the reader was able to reflect on what emotions it brought up for them. I actually went back and researched the psychology of humour, reading Max Eastman’s Enjoyment of Laughter (1937). I realised the use of understatement was pretty crucial to creating space for the reader’s emotion.

I took comfort in the fact that good comedians use dark humour to deliver hard-hitting social commentary all the time. Chris Rock’s Netflix special Tamborine (2018) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag (2016–2019) are great examples of this. Michaela Coel, in her Netflix series, I May Destroy You (2020) has taken traumedy to a whole new level. She’s the super-hero model of the empowered victim — but she always keeps the trauma and violence real.

Some works of the true crime genre have been criticised for seeking commercial gain from the suffering and trauma experienced by others, but you are both the survivor and author of this account. This book is a memoir and testament as well as true crime—why choose that title?

I wasn’t sure what genre I was writing in for a long time. Early on I thought it was a coming-of-age book. I decided my own moral coming-of-age was important to include, as I was looking at violence through a 360 lens. It also had elements of a love story; my relationship with my husband was central to the events unfolding. When I finalised the structure, I realised it had the components of a psychological thriller there too—a kind of pathological who-dunnit. Actually, I would have been most happy to call it Modern Americana Fiction. In the end, it became clear it would only be called victim memoir—no matter how many times I wanted to argue it wasn’t. So why not call it true crime? I showed the same humanity toward my kidnapper that Truman Capote showed toward Perry Smith in his classic In Cold Blood (1968). Why not signal it? I didn’t get the choice of being a victim. At least I can claim my role in the story. That feels empowering, like a political act.

One of the main topics running through Dancing with the Octopus is the nature of memory and its (appropriately) tangled relationship with time and place. Did writing this book make you consider your perception of time and events?

If you ask my family, they’ll tell you I spent less than a year writing the book; then five years moving pieces of paper around. They teased me endlessly for how long it was taking. But I wanted to make sure each vignette was connected and had a reason for being exactly in the order that followed. That meant small tweaks, like adding a sentence or two or changing a title to refocus the passage. I practised the method I learned in years of bibliotherapy—specifically Ira Progroff’s method of dream journaling. I looked for emotional triggers between past and present, not logical ones. I think that’s why the story unfolds in a surprisingly linear way. It’s an emotional logic.

I mentioned that I originally wrote the last third of the book—about mediation and restorative justice—after I submitted the first draft to my agent. I was hoping I’d get away with just tacking the story on. But the tension collapsed. I had to work on how I could incorporate the evidence I’d been looking at—the police reports and witness statements. I realised, if I can stomach it, the way to do it would be to adopt Goodwin’s point of view. And then I had to go back in and interweave it with my story—looking for the links, making those unconscious connections. I was nauseous for about four months while I was writing it. But I’m glad I went there, because it gave the whole book a different sort of energy—lifted it to a new space.

You’ve discussed the topic of ‘forgiveness’ in relation to your experiences of abuse and violent assault, noting you do not take the ‘unconditional pardon’ stance in relation to perpetrators. Do you think discussions around the effects of trauma need to have a more nuanced understanding of how people process their experiences?

I think the empowerment narrative that suggests unresolved anger is a sign of being stuck can be damaging. It’s far too simplistic to try and deal with this emotional reaction in a purely psychological context. It needs to be thought about in a philosophical sense—for this I’d rate Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness (2016) alongside Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958). Charles Griswold, also a philosopher, argues in Forgiveness (2007), that you can’t separate it from justice. I attempted to have a relationship with my mother after leaving home for twenty years. But the dynamics that allowed for the psychological abuse when I was a child, were all still at play as an adult. It wasn’t just her denial of past events—the gaslighting. It was her ability to control the narrative we continued to operate in as a family. Often, the onus is on the victim to fix things. But if the oppressor is still holding the power in the relationship; the psychological abuse is still happening.

You’ve said you decided to begin writing this book after seeing Christine Blasey Ford testifying against Brett Kavanaugh when he was nominated to the supreme court. How do you feel about these events, especially following the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsberg?

Devastated. Watching Christine Ford’s testimony was like witnessing the gaslighting of a victim happen on a national stage. You couldn’t have asked for a more reliable witness than a professional psychologist with an impeccable reputation. Rapists rarely admit to the violence they’ve used against their victims, because it’s part of the pathology. Whether he was guilty or not, Brett Kavanaugh displays of outrage clearly demonstrated he was not of suitable temperament to serve on the Supreme Court.

Today’s conservative Supreme Court is the culmination of a thirty-year strategy by the Republican Party to stack judicial appointments at state and local levels in the US, as well. Women’s legal rights are under attack there too. I was involved in presidential politics for ten years. In the 1980s the starting point for conversations with voters was ‘who do you think you might support?’ Nowadays, the starting point is ‘how can I convince you to vote?’ This apathy is deeply concerning.

All artwork by Amber Hyams


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