“Could I share something sacred with you?” the woman asks, pulling a small, folded stack of papers out of her purse.
I contemplate my options. “No” is not among them. She is already pressing the papers into my hand.
Ten minutes ago, I was wrapping up a workshop. Five minutes ago, she approached me to tell me about her confusion, her fear, her goals, her “I’ve got to make this work or my five kids won’t eat” job.
And now, she has pressed her life story into my hands, her most sacred thing, and asked me to read it.
What’s in there is terrible.
There is abandonment- literal, not metaphorical- and abuse, the kind of abuse you can’t imagine living through, the kind you’d find hard to invent even in your primitive brain. There is pregnancy and forced abortion and marriage without love and it is all written in a script that itself feels painful.
I read it straight through and I don’t look up once and as I’m approaching the end, for the whole last paragraph I’m anxious. What can I possibly say to her other than, “Thank you. Thank you for trusting me enough to share this.”
And so that is what I say.
What I’m thinking is, “This would make a great story.”
The “this” is her story, our exchange, all of it.
I can’t stop the narration that’s already unscrolling itself; this is the writer’s strange gift and burden: the inability to turn off the narrative switch.
I feel guilty about this, for as she’s talking, elaborating on what was written on the paper, I am listening but I am also making mental notes, turning her story into a story. Into my story, one I’ve appropriated as a purveyor of other people’s stories … not to sell, necessarily, but to tell, one to tell to evoke a response. One to tell because it is different and, especially, because it is real and I am tired of so many unreal stories in the world.
The whole experience leaves me spooked.
I can tell she doesn’t want to leave–we are sitting in my hotel room now– and I don’t feel I can ask her to go, so we are sitting together in an awkward silence. I would like to know how she feels–is there a relief in sharing her story?– and I consider, briefly, asking her if I can take her story from here and run with it, put it out into the world, with or without her name attached to it, as she wishes, because something about it feels urgent and important.
But I don’t.
And I don’t tell her story until now, and even now only in the most partial of ways, because what I am struggling with, months on, is what right we have to tell others’ stories, for what purpose and to what end.