Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Grip, A Memoir of Fierce Attractions by Nina Hamberg

"I had to search for my voice.  It was hiding."

Yes, memoir.  It's important to note that because reading this feels much like a novel.  I was turning pages quickly, anxious to see what happened next.  Being that it is nonfiction, however, makes it that much more frightening. 

While the book is focused on violence committed against one woman, specifically, it raises questions about women and violence in general, especially in regard to victimization.  What makes someone a victim?  And does that label mark someone forever?

In the book, Hamberg recounts a childhood that isn't all bad.  Her parents don't get along, but she seems to have the necessities of life.  As she gets older, her parents divorce, and life gets far more complicated.  Yet, that in itself is not unusual either.  What is unusual is the attitudes that surround her life, especially when she seeks help from those most trusted to her and most responsible for her safety.

The first incident is a Peeping Tom outside her bedroom, rattling the windows.  She seeks help from her brother in another room, who ignores her pleas for help.  In the morning, footprints are visible.  Her sense of security was shaken, and the only question asked of her was "are you going to obsess about this all day"?  Not long after, she thought there was an intruder, and the police were called by her mother.  They didn't investigate much, just assuming she was jumpy.  Even her mother regarded her with "the same kind of tight smile she used when I was six and knocked over a glass of milk at the dinner table."

Shortly after this, Hamberg was attacked by a man in her bed who eventually stabbed her and left.  When the police came, they seemed disinterested in investigating the crime--they were sure it was an unhappy boyfriend that was responsible.  The perpetrator has never been caught.

What makes the book so riveting isn't that these crimes occurred-we are all exposed to endless reruns of Law & Order that spill the gory details.  More interesting is how Hamberg's family dealt with her.  Her mother was, for the most part, inconvenienced by her daughter's troubles, and any time they discussed them she either implied that her daughter was imagining things or she would flirt with the police officers who responded.  The attack that left Hamberg scarred turned into a situation where the mother made it all about herself and her own distress.

Hamberg then makes a conscious effort from then on out to protect herself, including becoming trained in self-defense.  Yet even with her physical power increased and her mind practiced on how to recognize and avoid harm, she discovers that those skills aren't enough.  As a film student, she rails against what is essentially a tradition in her classes: exploitation and violence of women as a way to generate interest.  Her classmates attempt to outdo each other in horrific scenes, that all are labeled as art so as to avoid censorship.

Even in her personal life, despite her awful experiences and a world-view that is wise to danger, she finds herself in precarious situations.  So awful that I didn't want to read any further.  I really wanted to put it away, because the nature of evil against women and children is not pleasant.  And I did, for a day or two. Yet I picked it back up, because I think there's a more serious question involved that needs to be evaluated.  Beyond what happened to her on an event by event basis, what about her emotional anchorage?  Where was her family?  Why were they so quick to demean her by ignoring her and minimizing events? 

As a parent, I had to continue to ask myself, why did no one listen?  Is there something I could be doing that is preventing me from hearing what my children are trying to tell me?  Especially mothers of daughters:  how much active listening takes place?  Could it be that our modern lives are so crazy busy and stressful that we tune out anything that could be "bad", just to avoid dealing with it?  Or does the violence we see thrown at us on television (Law & Order again) desensitize us to danger that could be present in the real world?

All the questions raised by this book make me think it would be valuable to use in a school setting.  In today's fractured families, perhaps there is a need for some sort of curriculum to let young women know that they are not crazy, not imagining things, and that they can reach out for help if others let them down.  Most of all, I appreciate that this book gives a former victim a voice: so often perpetrators of violence minimize their actions, or blame someone else (usually the victim), or manipulate the facts to portray themselves differently.  In fact, many criminals manage to use the same tactics as Hamberg's family (disinterest and distraction) to get away with terrible crimes. 

Seeing Hamberg step away from this pattern and how she did it is the takeaway that could be useful to many women. It's not a formula book, there's no "do this and you'll feel better".  But reading how she came through these experiences emotionally stronger makes for powerful reading.

Special thanks to Anna Shay of Route One Press for the Review Copy.

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