Lots of Threads: The Unravelling, by Donna Besel

Content warning: The Unravelling is a powerful book. It deals with sexual and physical abuse, incest, and emotional trauma, and may be disturbing to readers. I also mention those subjects in my brief discussion of the book, below, which may also be disturbing. 

“Violation is violation is violation.”

“What did I want? To tell and be believed; to see remorse and change. Was this realistic?”

The Unravelling, by Winnipeg writer Donna Besel, is courageous, insightful, eye-opening, consequential, sobering—this list could continue. Donna writes in stark prose, often poetic, about her family’s experience of reporting the sexual abuse her father perpetrated on her sisters and herself.

Her story has so much to offer, not the least of which is the unrelenting presence of abuse in the lives of its victims. Attorneys go home, neighbours exchange gossip then change the subject, family alliances shift and shatter, but always, ALWAYS, the memory of the abuse is there for those who experienced it. Even—or perhaps especially—for those who “just want to put it in the past.”

It must have been tempting to lapse into denial or politeness to maintain relationships with family members who wanted to pretend it never happened or wasn’t so bad. Instead, Donna chose to directly face the legacy of the abuse, getting through it using physical activity, journaling, writing, therapy, active and thoughtful parenting, and connections with groups of friends. 

She walked a difficult path, and I hope it’s been ultimately fulfilling for her. Certainly, her openness about the wrenching dailiness of confronting the years of violation and gaslighting can help other victims know they’re not alone if they can’t “just get over it.”

Here’s a passage about halfway through the book, when she’s sitting by a lake at a retreat. 

The water’s surface remained unbroken. Without the refraction of waves, I could look into its depths; stones rubbed smooth by waves sat on the lake bottom, waiting for me to examine them. The ice had already candled, breaking up slowly, hissing and popping as pieces dropped into the lake. The morning light blazed through the ice, imparting a turquoise glow. The groaning mass moved slowly, eaten by sun and water. I stared into the water and the pile of ice transformed into a metaphor. Quietly, slowly, it was changing.

Another insight from this book: how toothless the legal (not justice) system can be. It took three years, endless advocacy from Donna on her own behalf and on the behalf of other victims, and steadfast courage in the face of conflicting demands to bring her father into a thrown-together court setting. And still, up until the sentencing and beyond, the system catered to him and his “needs,” without adequately hearing from the victims or the greater community, where he also routinely groped women and exposed himself.

Among the many other parts of the book I admire is the laser focus on the victims and their families, especially their choices in the face of acknowledged (and unacknowledged) abuse. There’s little background on the abuser—and why should there be? As Donna points out, either abusing children is okay, or it isn’t. Asking “why?” is less helpful than asking “how can we stop them,” and then doing that.

Something I hadn’t thought about is how people would respond to the knowledge of the abuse once the family began to discuss it. Like some people Donna mentions, I would have thought, “If she wants me to know, she’ll tell me. If she wants to talk about it, she’ll bring it up.” It wouldn’t have occurred to me that this leaves the burden—an emotional burden with heavy, physical consequences—on her.

I’d tell one friend, hoping I’d be spared the energy it took to tell the other. … Barb said that people believed it was malicious to tell. I explained to her how it felt like I had been carrying a huge bag of stones all my life. Now, every person I told got a rock. If they accepted it, they could choose what they wanted to do with it—throw it at the offender, or throw it away. It made my load lighter.

Today, if I knew someone was handling something difficult, I’d try to check in with the person to see what their preference is.

This book says so much. That so many losses simply can never be redeemed. That "justice" doesn't bring "closure" (and what even is closure, really, except being told yet again that "you should be over it" "why can't you get over it" "get over it, already"). And that people around us are carrying with them more than we know.