Reflections On Why I Wrote the Book, Including Some of my Personal Story

In “Ruby In Paradise,” my Mom’s favorite line is when my character journals, “Where does caring come from?” Mom often reminds me of the tender poignancy of this musing. In my own life, caring pulses from many sources, such as deep reserves of family history (going back to my Pilgrim ancestors, who risked their lives to worship their God, for freedom of assembly, expression, and movement), my personal experiences growing up, and my faith in a loving Creator who cares for us all. When I eventually became willing to share in All That Is Bitter & Sweet some of those experiences growing up, the point was to give some context as to where indeed my deep caring comes from, and to celebrate what my recovery has taught me: In God’s hands, and through a simple and effective design for living based on certain steps, the dark past becomes my greatest asset. I am taught that with it, I can show others who still suffer and want to feel better (we have to choose the recovery every day!) how I have found relief, help, and hope. Bringing secrets (which keep us sick) out of their hiding places corrects distortions in our thinking and beliefs, such as that we are bad, wrong, worthless, that the abuse was our fault, and melts the lie that we cannot recover. We, too, just like the disempowered people worldwide whose stories I share in the book, can absolutely take the beautiful, difficult journey from victim to survivor, from voiceless to leader, from hurting to empowered wounded healer. But in order to start, we must first admit and acknowledge that we have been hurt.

In recovery, it is said that when we share our story, we describe what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. It is very important to make that distinction: When I tell my story about growing up, it is a description ~ not an indictment. Also, It is abusive to point out a problem without highlighting a solution. I described the kind of loneliness in which I was raised to reach out to other lonely lost children (and adults) worldwide, so that if they identify with my journey, they can know they are not alone, and that change is possible for them, too. I am deeply grateful to my entire family for their implicit understanding and acceptance of this formula, for their participation in the healing process, and their graceful dignity in supporting me as I share my story so that it might help others who feel as I once did. It is my hope and prayer that media can now, after a crazy week including uncanny (and maybe even bizarre) media timing that only God could have orchestrated (my book, my mother and sister’s TV show, and Tennie McCarty’s TV show, the woman who introduced me to recovery, all debuting at the same time), place the focus where it belongs: feminist social justice, human rights, and public health. That is what All That Is Bitter & Sweet is about. The brief personal back-story was provided to help explain why I have dedicated so much of my life and soul, sometimes to my own detriment and at great emotional cost, to the welfare of others around the world. I wish I could take the word “memoir” off the cover, for it seems to have given a wildly false impression of the book, and replaced it with “travel diaries,” or something like that. Readers are discovering that, with each page. Hopefully, the media can, too.

About the book:

When Population Services International took a chance on me, inviting me to travel the world to explore their grassroots health programs that empower and protect the lives of the most vulnerable and poor, I was eager, earnest, and wholly unprepared. I wanted nothing more my whole life than both to learn and to make a difference. My first trip was in 2004, to Cambodia and Thailand. Sitting in the notorious brothels of Svay Pak holding recently raped children and adults who would again be raped as soon as I left, walking the slums holding hands of sex slaves, our heads held high as pimps and traffickers looked on, I clearly remember being immediately convicted that this is my life, this is what I was meant to do. During my first public forum representing PSI, at the American Ambassador to Cambodia’s residence, attended by high ranking Khmer government officials (and a few Peace Corps volunteers), in spite of being emotionally shattered and almost paralyzed with exhaustion, I cried out during my remarks, “1 country down, 64 to go!” I was hooked.

What hooked me? What happened that first day in 2004 that has since lead to trips to 13 countries, and the publication of a book based on 650 pages of diaries I have written while receiving the sacred narratives of our brothers and sisters living in slums, brothels, forcibly displaced persons camps, in make shift schools and clinics, or dying in hospices? What did I see in creative, cost-effective, and healing grassroots programs that disrupt cycles of violence and poverty that compelled me to change my life, largely retire from Hollywood, leave our idyllic farm, risk my own sanity, subject myself to ridicule?

Even I can’t quite explain it, except to say it felt as if my own life depended on advocating for those who are oppressed, disempowered, exploited. Who, for reasons that are unjust, infuriating, and tragic, are not allowed to advocate their own best interests on the household, community, national, and international level. They can’t book appointments with government ministers. They aren’t on news media describing first person what it’s like to eat only one meal a day, to lose even those nutrients due to chronic diarrheal disease because unsafe drinking water, to sell a daughter for sex to afford a cow, to have 3 children die from a mosquito bite, to live in constant terror of gang rape, to nearly die, over and over again, from unintended pregnancies, to be denied the right to school, land, work, because of gender.

I am only a surrogate. I am a place holder. I use my voice to carry to you the voices of those who are literally dying to be heard. Who have stories to share, broken hearts and bodies to mend, and, critically, community based solutions to advance that, if implemented with local people’s expertise, can change the world. Helping others, not through charity and pity, but through social justice and empathy, supports them to transform from victims to survivors. The once voiceless become local leaders. It is their resilience, self-efficacy, and empowerment we tap. They are the agents of transformation in their own countries.

My beloved grandmother of choice, Tennie McCarty, often says it is the birth right of every child to be heard. She says, “We all need a good ‘listening to.'” When anyone reads this book, they partake in the sacred act of allowing someone who has been neglected and abused to be heard. They allow themselves, as Bob Kegan puts it, “to be recruited to the welfare of another.” In allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, we take the risk of caring, or remembering there is no “other,” that the heart beats the same under the skin, that what happens to one, happens to all.

I’ll close with a story about my friend Kika. Kika is survivor of gang rape in eastern Congo. I met her at Panzi Clinic in Bukavu. She had crawled there, which took her a month, accompanied by her 11 year old son. She had been raped by armed militia who terrorize much of eastern Congo in order to extract its vast mineral wealth, the minerals in the very computer I am typing on right now. Her rapists bayonetted her brother to death because he would not rape her. Her village forced her to leave because she smelled so vile due to her severe internal injuries. She is an exquisite woman, fierce, broken, disturbed, resilient, tender, far away, determined, hopeful. Whenever she spoke about her brother and his orphaned children, although her face did not change, tears traced down her dark skin. She would imperceptibly bend at the waist, using a kitchen towel to sop them. I asked her, “Kika, how have you endured this?” She responded, in something like an incantation, “When I crawled to Panzi, and was nearly dead, they did not abandon me. When I did not improve after a long time, they did not abandon me. When I could not return home, due to the violence and my own trauma, they did not abandon me. When I was a little better, and they could have turned me out, they gave me work in the kitchen, and did not abandon me.”

I have made a sacred vow to Kika, and the thousands of people worldwide who, however improbably, have entrusted their stories to me. I have allowed myself to be vulnerable enough to be recruited to their welfare. I refuse to abandon them.

I invite you to join me in the bitterness and the sweetness of feminist social justice, human rights, and public health work. Tennie poetically calls it “joy filled pain filled joy filled pain….” and in my experience, that is exactly what it is. When we love, care, cry, rage, and pray together, though, it is the joy that carries us through the pain.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?

Rabbi Hillel