I grew up watching Sarah Polley’s Canadian indie films, first as an actress, then the three features she wrote and directed (which I adore and highly recommend): Away From Her, Take This Waltz and Stories We Tell.
In this astute book, Polley recounts lifelong trauma, and how she learned, more recently, to “run towards the danger,” to articulate her fears and turn to face the pain. It broke my heart, but also challenged me to think harder about our collective responsibility in the face of trauma.
The subtitle, Confrontations with a Body of Memory, sets the tone. This isn’t a feelgood compendium of hacks by a wellness influencer. This is a painful reckoning between a woman and the serious trauma inflicted upon her, through bad genes, bad luck or adults who should have known better.
These six essays have been brewing in Polley’s head for a while, some for several decades. The weight of each word is carefully considered. They deal with the stresses and dangers she was exposed to as a child actor, stage fright, scoliosis, a life-threatening pregnancy, sexual abuse and suffering from concussion.
Coming to terms with trauma can take years of internal questioning, denial, bargaining, recovering buried memories and, just maybe, finding the strength to confront the danger. Revealing said trauma to the world means venturing – already vulnerable and exhausted - into another minefield: public opinion, denials, discreditation and counteraccusations.
The book is at its most moving when Polley describes “what it felt like to be certain that expressing a fear would make it worse”, the way humiliation at speaking out can outweigh the agony of living alone with one’s fear. It’s at its most uncomfortable when Polley – in a measured but unflinching way – names the perpetrators.
These accusations make for a difficult read. In these passages, I caught myself judging the evidence and while Polley’s pain is undeniable, my sympathy was tested by the harsh tone. But then I began to recoil at my reaction. Isn’t that precisely why victims don’t come forward – that fear of being judged by those who weren’t there? It’s a process, I concluded, that we all must get more comfortable with.