Monday, March 11, 2013

Kati Standefer on the Mysterious Leslie Ryan and the Structure of a Trauma Narrative

You have not heard of Leslie Ryan. Because you have not heard of her, I would like to hand you a book of her razor-sharp prose: maybe a prickly memoir, maybe a collection of essays reeking of creosote and mud.

But you have not heard of her for a reason. It is this: as far as I can tell, there is only one published essay by Leslie Ryan. So you must lean very close. Listen very carefully. The essay is called “The Other Side of Fire.” To find it, dig up an anthology published in 2001—Circle of Women: An Anthology of Contemporary Western Women Writers, edited by Mary Clearman Blew and Kim Barnes—or perhaps get a photocopy from a friend who read it once years ago, in college. It is the kind of essay people remember from college, but it will mean something else now. After all, the body changes—and so, too, how we draw our power. This essay is about both.

So many essays have been written about terrible things: rape, abuse, teeth-grinding poverty, drugs, abandoned children. These stories climb up the spine, demanding telling; and yet there comes a point when we, as readers, reach saturation. It is possible to become so deadened by a story that one cannot climb back out of the darkness. Here lives Ryan’s brilliance: without flinching, she both tells us these stories, and spares us. “The Other Side of Fire” includes every one of the experiences listed above, and yet it is structured to offer a ladder back out.

Here is how the essay does not begin: “When I was twelve, my younger brothers and I were abandoned for over a year in an apartment on the southside of Richmond, Virginia.”

If the essay were to begin there, we might, as readers, believe that this is the point: that this thing happened. “The Other Side of Fire,” though, is not about the fact of the happening. It is about something bigger—where our power comes from. So Ryan starts big. In her opening, she writes, “For most women the body, like the story, is not a simple thing. It’s a battlefield where lies and truths about power go at it.” It’s such an authoritative opening that we know she will have to back it up—and that’s her next move, transitioning us into story.

She takes us into the south Idaho desert, where she once worked as a wilderness therapy guide for troubled youth. “The idea was that direct contact with the natural world could help students gain a more healthy sense of identity and empowerment,” she writes. She describes the tattooed teenagers, “[wearing] the tales of their crimes like dog-tags,” even though “beneath it they seemed to writhe like grubs set down in unfamiliar terrain.”

It isn’t until page three, then—when we’re already thinking about the teens’ power and survival—that Ryan descends us into her own experience: “When I was twelve, my younger brothers and I were abandoned for over a year in an apartment on the southside of Richmond, Virginia.” By now, the framing lets us know we are dipping into Ryan’s own experiences for a specific reason. Though the story is told in such tight, exquisite prose that we might want to stay there, we do not. We learn how Ryan used her body to survive—we see father’s Playboys beneath the mattress, Ryan examining her curves in the bathroom mirror and whispering You have one thing, the drug dealer beating her—and we get out. We go back to the desert. We see Ryan’s own process reflected in the experience of one of her students, Dawn.

Each one of these stories says something additive about power and the body, until suddenly—after all this framing—the essay becomes an orchestra, its different levels and themes sputtering with sound and meaning, the prose sharpening under cold and basalt: “Dawn wasn’t moving; she was fenced into one of those partial truths that quickly become lies. The pornographic therapist told her to separate her mind and body and peddle the body part; her role as a victim told her that power lay as much in being scarred as in scarring. Both lies make battlefields of women’s bodies: they require that we keep hurting our bodies somehow, because our power and our identities depend on it. But these lies are based on an incomplete assumption: that strength lies only in our having power over ourselves or others.”

Thus, the structure of the essay builds one of its primary points: while victimhood is a kind of power, it is one to be moved through. It is not the end point. The apartment in Richmond is important, but not more important than the desert, where Ryan discovered that “a mind that wanders far from the body can land a person in strange territories, far from water or cover. If I stopped listening to my body and to my lived experience at any time, I might become lost. I found myself realizing that power does come from my body, after all, but in a very different way.”

Whenever I finish reading “The Other Side of Fire,” I find myself lit with an understanding about trauma: A thing never happens once. A thing happens all the time, is still happening right this instant—to us or to other people. And the thing turns into other things, transmutes, burns up, reappears. Ryan’s life is her students’ lives, and in ways it is my life too, all of us complicit, and the structure of an essay can take this into account, widening its considerations through framing and pacing. As a writer, the essay challenges me not to allow the trauma narrative its weak single arc, but to hitch it up to something bigger—to move through it. To go into the darkness, yes, but to build a staircase back out as well.

Now that you have heard of Leslie Ryan, you should read her: the one essay, ropey with calluses, lacy garter belts, pale spiderwebs of scars, bright serviceberries and sage. See what your body says about it. And if you find her, tell her I want a book.


Kati Standefer is an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona, where she writes about the body, consent, and medical technology. She has a yard full of gravel and Gambel's quail. She prefers cowboy boots.


  1. What a find! Thanks for sharing and for meditating on it for us.

  2. Thank you for bringing this essay into light!