An Interview with Chelsea Rooney

By andrea bennett

Chelsea Rooney holds a BFA and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Her debut novel, Pedal, recounts the story of 25-year-old counselling psychology student Julia Hoop. Hoop’s in-progress master’s thesis explores the stories of women who experienced childhood sexual abuse, with the goal of reframing narratives of victimhood and trauma—a goal that makes her thesis supervisor deeply uncomfortable. After Julia’s boyfriend and thesis advisor break up with her on the same day, she sets out on a bike tour in search of her estranged, abusive father, Dirtbag. Her last-minute bike tour partner, Smirks, is a good-looking athlete who also happens to have a complicated sexual past.

andrea bennett: In a recent interview with Doretta Lau, you said that you had experienced the same kind of abuse as the narrator, Julia, in Pedal. You also said that there were other similarities in terms of certain self-destructive behaviours you had in common with Julia in your early-to-mid twenties. Did the process of writing Pedal—of writing Julia’s narrative—affect your own narrative, your own conception of abuse and its aftermath?

Chelsea Rooney: The abuse in Pedal isn’t what most people think of when they hear “sexual abuse.” It is a non-physically painful molestation, with no penetration of any sort, and no fear on behalf of the child. It’s a sort of molestation that is difficult to define. If it wasn’t scary, and it wasn’t painful, and it felt good, and I enjoyed it, was it abuse? Of course, it was. But I didn’t realize it until much later. Imagine the bewildering confusion that ensued. I started writing Pedal at the age of 26.

Writing Pedal forced two revelations on me: how narcissistic I am, and how much shame I carry because of my abuse.

The term “narcissist” has a negative connotation, but I don’t really use it as a pejorative. For me, narcissism describes a tendency to imagine myself at the centre. To imagine that the people in my life are doing things to me, and events are occurring because of me. As a child, this narcissistic point of view probably saved my butt a few times. I had a rage-filled, alcoholic father who beat and raped our mother in front of us. We spent several nights in women’s shelters, in fear of our lives. It isn’t surprising that children who experience abuse grow up scanning their horizons for threats. As adults, however, we no longer need to scan. In fact, scanning screws up our lives. If you’re constantly looking for danger, you’ll find it everywhere. It’s a terrible way to live. I still scan for threats, but more and more I catch myself doing it. I remind myself: you’re safe, and what’s more, you can relax now. This continues to change my moment-to-moment existence immeasurably.

As for shame, oh boy, it’s a biggie. Folks who experienced sexual abuse as children feel shame for so many reasons, and I believe the main reason is stigma. We’re not supposed to talk about our experiences, because it makes people uncomfortable. Writing Pedal helped me see that idea—that certain topics shouldn’t be mentioned in polite company—is a load of crap. It’s another way to keep women quiet. When Didion says, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” she’s talking about more than just our instinct to impose order on chaos. She’s saying we are our stories, and we live by sharing them.

ab: What are the feminist implications of rethinking sexual abuse and sexual assault narratives? Where do you think recent branches of feminism have faltered, and what can we do better?

CR: Rethinking my abuse narrative helped me, but I don’t push it on others. For me, understanding my abuser and letting go of my anger allowed me to live more peacefully. For others, especially people who experienced violent abuse and assault, anger keeps them alive. Feminism fails when we say, “What’s right for me is right for you,” or “What’s wrong for me is wrong for you.” I’ve always felt that putting up barriers around different kinds of feminism, and only accepting in women who meet certain requirements, is extremely counter to the goal of a safe existence for all.

As a feminist, I falter every time I police a woman’s behaviour and choices. From the obvious ones: getting married, having children, remaining single, going childless. To the nuanced ones: how does this woman respond to her abuse? Is she a victim, a survivor, or neither? Why is she dressed like that, talking like that, getting so drunk, becoming so thin, so fat, so successful, talented, lazy, negative? Any time I spend a moment concerned with the behaviour of a woman, I have failed as a feminist. When we have the impulse to shame someone for her choices, we can look inward and examine that shame.

As a straight cisgender white woman, I have a lot of privilege. One is a sort of bird’s eye, somewhat detached view of communities that are worlds more embattled than mine. These include but are not limited to queer and trans communities, people of colour, people from sex positive and fat acceptance movements, etcetera. I have learned a lot about intersectional feminism by very quietly observing hashtags like #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen and reading blogs like Feminist Killjoys. I have tried to become more aware of my expectations: when I expect someone to teach me something simply because it’s outside my experience and I want access to it. I try to read as widely as possible and teach myself this way.

There are all sorts of things male feminists can do too. Look at your bookshelves: whom are you reading? Look at your iTunes: whom are you listening to? Look at your colleagues: whom are you working with? When you have an aversion to an idea, whose idea is it? Some men shut down when I start talking about my experiences of being abused, and how that abuse impacted my life. Most women have been abused or assaulted at some point in their lives, and we make up half the population. We all need to get comfortable with words like “trauma,” “trigger,” “shame” and “misogyny.” They’re not going away, they contain wisdom, and they affect us all though they may lie outside the realm of your experience.

Another practical thing for men (and women) to try is to start noticing when you’re expecting individual recognition for your good deeds. Straight white men are accustomed to unfettered access to opportunity, recognition, praise and authority. Of course it’s scary and strange if this starts to go away or is called into question. Just notice your reaction to that experience.

ab: What has the reader response to Pedal been like? Did you anticipate—and have you experienced—any backlash, based on the themes you explored? Have people approached you with their stories?

CR: At my book launch in my hometown in Nova Scotia, a friend who is a poet read with me. Before she read, she came out to the audience as having been sexually assaulted twice. My asking her to read encouraged her to finally tell her mother and close friends about rapes that had left a profound impact on her ability to be close with others. Giving up her shame and sharing her story has changed her life in many ways, she’s told me. I’ve gotten countless emails from readers telling me that Pedal has inspired conversations they’d always avoided having with family around past abuse, sexual and otherwise. I’ve been present to a dozen heated discussions amongst educated adults struggling to open their minds and accept points of view that feel threatening to their own. It’s been a thrilling few months. I’ve also had many women come to me and tell me their rape stories, and how they were counselled from various fronts not to press charges. This of course is not news to most women, but I’ve found it is for some men. Perhaps the inherent trust of some in the criminal system (police, courts) to handle violence against women will erode more quickly with cases like Cindy Gladue’s.

So far, the only backlash I’ve experienced personally is from people who have not read the book and have read only reviews. They won’t read it because it contains a sympathetic portrait of a person who is attracted to children. I think those people confuse the terms “child molester” and “pedophile,” and imagine the book to apologize for predators. I don’t worry too much about people who protest books they haven’t read. I imagine these are the same kinds of people who try to ban books. There has been silence from certain communities, and I’m sure there’s been backlash that hasn’t reached my ears. I would like to hear it! I wrote Pedal to challenge beliefs. I think all fiction should.

ab: Last year, after Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl came out, there was a backlash in conservative communities and some feminist circles with regards to two incidents in the book—Dunham examining her infant sister’s vagina as a seven-year-old, and Dunham masturbating while she shared a bed with her sister as a teenager. You tweeted about it, saying that there was a lesson to learn from the outrage around these incidents: “we have a very difficult time looking at child sexuality.” I’m wondering if you can expand on this: Why is it so uncomfortable for adults to be confronted by child sexuality? How do you think different currents in feminism have helped or hindered these conversations?

CR: This question about our discomfort around child sexuality drove a huge phase of my research that led to Pedal. As a child, I was having orgasms at the age of three and four. I taught my friends to masturbate at age five. Of course, at that age I didn’t understand sexuality. I just knew it felt good and helped me sleep. At age seven, I learned masturbation was shameful when a parent walked in on my friend and me. We were yelled at, told not to do that, and very shortly after forbidden to spend time together. After that, I cried every time I masturbated. My diaries of those times are filled with dizzying shame. I lived in terror of being caught. I think this had more of a negative impact on me than the molestation I experienced. I’ve had many people tell me I’m wrong about this. My question is, how could they know? I have a pretty unique vantage point when it comes to sexuality, one that began with my father when I was at the age of three or four and evolved from there. I know healthy sexuality, and I also know how we use it to punish. I think denying children their sexuality is a form of punishment, so when we shame Lena Dunham for her behaviour (that her sister by the way has publicly laughed off) who are we giving authority to? The people who had the experience, or the people making up what Rebecca Solnit refers to as the Volunteer Police Force?

Pedal’s research began with investigating historical conversations around child sexuality and trying to pinpoint the moment we equated “childhood” with “innocence” and “innocence” with “sexual purity.” What’s interesting (and terrible) is that in the early nineteenth century in western societies, children, namely little girls, were blamed outright for flirting, provoking and encouraging the abuse of adult men. Of course, that conversation developed and shifted until the 1960s, when second-wave feminists who’d been molested reclaimed their experiences and pronounced sexual abuse a function of the patriarchy. The issue of consent became front and centre, as it should, and children were recast as powerless, which they are. However, powerless does not mean sexless. Children masturbate. They can climax at very young ages. We don’t like to acknowledge this because it complicates our simple stories. She was pure and now, because her father touched her, she’s tainted. That’s such a damaging narrative (not to mention untrue) for people to carry for their lives. Since that narrative keeps us disempowered and ashamed, I have to believe that no matter who’s espousing it, man or woman, it’s a function of the patriarchy.

ab: On the subject of Dunham’s memoir: you and I both read it before this interview—mostly, I think, to be able to better contextualize the reaction to the two incidents described above. After reading it, I found myself less uncomfortable with those passages (which I’d read excerpted, context-free, elsewhere), but more uncomfortable with some of her other admissions—she is flippant about race and queerness at times, for example questioning her college roommate’s decision to start dating women instead of men, because she’s Asian and feminine and, like, wore a floral dress just yesterday (I’m paraphrasing here). So now that we’re talking about Dunham, I’m wondering if you’d like to expand on your own reactions to the book, and perhaps Dunham’s prominence as a young feminist icon?

CR: When Girls debuted, I celebrated unabashedly. Here was a young, smart woman running an HBO show. Yes, she’s white. And privileged. And absolutely, her portrayals of people of colour are problematic and highlight her struggle to understand perspectives other than her own. Is this shocking? She grew up rich in Manhattan. Not unlike many male showrunners. So why so much vitriol spewed at Dunham?

It’s very embarrassing to grow up in public. When Pedal went to print, I panicked. People were going to know about my shameful childhood. People were going to have a peek inside my drinking and anger issues. People were going to read about how I cycled across unceded territory of Indigenous peoples without acknowledging my colonial entitlement. I was humiliated. But what can I do? I can try my best. I can be teachable. I can acknowledge where I’ve failed.

Reading Dunham’s book, there were several moments when I cringed at her actions, waited for her to admit her shortcomings, and felt disappointment when she didn’t. When she outs her sister to her mother. When she calls her boss a bitch. I wanted Dunham to follow up each mistake with an apology. Of course, I shouldn’t have outed my sister. I no longer use the word “bitch” to talk about women. I’ve been told it might be a question of tone. I have a friend who listened to the audiobook and says Dunham expresses her awareness through her tone of voice. Regardless, whether I agree with what Dunham says or not, I don’t feel compelled to shame her for her behaviour or views. She has had to cede access to her Twitter account because of how much abuse she gets online. Other women are just starting to pose as men online so they don’t have to deal with death and rape threats. The volunteer police force is strong.

ab: You host a monthly episode of The Storytelling Show for Co-op Radio in Vancouver, interviewing women about storytelling “in all its variations,” and recognizing a broad, inclusive definition of the term “women.” What have you learned hosting the show? Why is it important to you to give space to women to share their stories?

CR: Getting people to talk about something that excites them always makes for good storytelling. There’s a trend these days toward micro-interviews and bite-sized podcasts, but I know there will always be a need for the long form. I’m a novelist. I like sprawling investigation. There’s so much pressure these days to be pithy. Some people are great at it; I am terrible. I often don’t know how I feel or what I think about a thing until I’ve talked about it for 45 minutes. It can take that long to sort through my biases, triggers, fears, privilege. I suspect as I age this navigation will come quicker. For now, I curate my episodes of The Storytelling Show as an occasion for women to talk about things they are brilliantly good at. Their areas of expertise. When you talk about things you’re good at, it makes you feel good. My guests leave feeling confident, and more often than not get in touch afterward to remark that sharing their stories inspired them to return to or start a new project. Endless wins for all.

ab: You and I are both alums of the MFA in Creative Writing program at UBC, where most of our colleagues were women. It came as a bit of a shock to me to leave the coziness of workshop and head out into the publishing world, which had previously been an opaque place of mystery: I remember taking a close look at mastheads and tables of contents for the first time, and being surprised to find that the balance was opposite to what I’d been used to in class. Did you experience anything similar? What do you think accounts for the discrepancy between gender balance in workshop and in the broader world of writing and publishing?

The patriarchy. But that’s being dismantled, slowly and surely. On this topic, I am an optimist. Media is headed in a direction toward more and more equal representation. We are not nearly close to it, and it will take a very long time—maybe I won’t see it in my lifetime—but we are on that path. Because people cannot un-understand something once they understand it. Once a person sees how historical and systemic structures are keeping entire demographics of our population disenfranchised, and that they are implicated, and that they can work to dismantle it, then they usually will. Of course, there will be people who feel threatened by a loss of “power,” and instead of examining that feeling of fear, they’ll hold on tighter to their “power,” but these types of people probably won’t survive in today’s media atmosphere. In general, people are good and they want fairness for everyone. My partner Taylor Brown-Evans teaches two classes at UBC, and over the years he’s tried harder and harder to find as many women and people of colour to include in his required reading and as guest lecturers. He doesn’t do this as a token gesture of inclusivity. He does this because he wants to hear stories he’s never heard before. He wants to widen his perspective and thus deepen his empathy. I believe everyone wants this, and the Internet makes understanding concepts of structural oppression more accessible than ever. Exciting times.

Chelsea_March2015Chelsea Rooney‘s debut novel Pedal appeared in October 2014 with Caitlin Press. Chelsea is a host of The Storytelling Show on Vancouver Co-op Radio, an English teacher, and an educational writer. She was raised in Nova Scotia and lives in Vancouver.

 

 

 

andrea bennett’s writing has been published by The Atlantic, the Walrus, and Maisonneuve, among others. Her debut poetry book, Canoodlers, came out with Nightwood Editions in spring 2014. Visit her at andreabennett.ca.

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