Thank you very much to Grace at Quartet Books, for my gifted copy of Indescribable to read and provide an honest review. And a sincere thank you to Candice for agreeing to answer my questions.
Indescribable is the story of Candice’s experience of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather. It’s true, it’s gritty, it’s shocking. Make no mistake about it. If you are sensitive to stories of abuse, please take this as a trigger warning, not a spoiler. The book makes no bones about what it is. I sat and thought about even doing this review for a while, as I too am a survivor of sexual abuse – would it bring memories back for me, that I would rather leave stuffed away in the compartmentalised boxes in my brain? I knew I connected with themes like this, so I proceeded with caution. But it was worth it.
AN IMPORTANT AND HARROWING MEMOIR OF SEXUAL ABUSE
Indescribable is the chilling story of the abuse Candice Derman suffered at the hands of her step-father, the man she called ‘Dad.’
‘Joe touches me down there. I hold my breath and move his thick hand away. The early morning is silent except for the sound of distant chanting coming from the church where the Indian people pray. I listen to my mom and Joe breathing. I hear my heart beating in my head. A few seconds later his hand comes back and I move it away. It comes back and I move it away. It comes back and I leave it…’
Told entirely from the perspective of her childhood self, Candice explores her traumatic past and opens our eyes to the complexities of sexual abuse and how easy it is for a secret to go unseen. Indescribable gives important insight into the mind of a victim of sexual abuse and should be compulsory reading worldwide.
‘Candice Derman’s writing debut is harrowing, occasionally horrible, and an object lesson in unflinching honesty’ Business Day, South Africa
‘With Indescribable, Derman has written a book that challenges society to follow her own journey, and not to shrink away from facing the ugly reality of abuse’ Daily Maverick, South Africa
The story is told in the first person, starting with 8 year old Candice witnessing the breakup of her parent’s marriage, and Joe the new man quickly moving in. I was quite surprised how swiftly the story shoved her biological father out of the picture, but the book needs the space for what comes next…
“I’m a different girl from the one I was the day before. Something’s changed. I’m the same but different. There was a space in my head that used to be filled with the Muppets and Strawberry Shortcake. They’ve moved out and left a vacant spot that darkness has taken over.”
What starts with secret touching, moves onto full blown sexual encounters with the man that throughout the story, Candice calls Dad. She’s been manipulated to believe that this is a religious act of love, that God ‘wants this to happen’ – but it needs to be a secret because everyone else couldn’t possibly understand their love. It is classic abuser behaviour.
There is a graphic, harrowing, description of the first time that Candice and Dad have full sex. It is a difficult and shocking piece to read. There is something about the innocence of the child narrator that sends chills down the spine, and caused an internal conflict for a while about how I should react. Was the description too much, did I really need to read about what happened?
But, after thinking about it, I realised that this was pure authentic voice, it was the child, uncensored. It’s raw, but it’s honest, and it’s true – I understand that now. When you read this story, remember in your mind that this is not some novel, some work of fiction… you can’t just turn around and go ‘eww, that’s too crude, no need!’ because you are then censoring the voice of a victim, and a survivor.
It’s mixed with tales of sweets, games, childhood holidays, but then the abuse smacks you round the face, unflinchingly. This is Candice’s experience, her truth… and it shouldn’t have happened. But you have to appreciate her bravery in telling this story.
She loves her ‘Dad’, coerced into believing that this is right, but at the same time throwing other rules out of the window because ‘girls forced to have sex’ shouldn’t have to conform to normal childhood rules elsewhere. She’s aware she’s different, and she’s starting to dread the encounters as her mindset changes. But for the while, she succumbs, believing it’s a normal expression of love.
Throughout this story the mother pops up, completely oblivious to the abuse that her child is suffering, refusing to see anything but this perfect image of her new man. But I understand, my family had no idea of what happened to me until I spelled it out for them.
Candice covers the discussion between family members with exceptional tact, how they handle the situation, from an emotional, legal and health perspective. This for me, was a really pivotal and important part – the realisation, the recognition, the shame, the denial, and the way in which families can come together and heal.
In the #metoo climate, I believe sharing these experiences is invaluable. Most of us are blessed to be sheltered from things like this, believing they won’t happen to us, the people we know, the children we know. But the sad fact is they do. And they’ve been a taboo for too long. I think everyone should read this story, if you possibly can. And no it’s not easy. It opens your eyes to moments that happen behind closed doors, in the shadows. Candice shows how important it is to discuss your experience with your family, no matter how ashamed, or scared you might feel. And I applaud her for it. I really do.
Author Q&A with Candice Derman
Bookworm – What have been the reactions to your story, generally? The best/worst –
and your reactions to them.
Candice – The best reactions are from those who feel they now have a deeper understanding of the devastation and the impact sexual abuse has on a child’s life. The issue is topical, so people express greater empathy and that can only be a good thing.
I haven’t had a bad reaction, maybe I’m privileged that it has fallen into the right hands.
Why did you decide to present the book in the present tense, as 8 yr old Candice, instead of a retrospective look back from an adult viewpoint?
There was no other way for me, I began writing the number 8, it was the first thing I put on to the page. I felt this visceral connection to the child’s voice within me and went with it…..
This is certainly the most heartbreaking and graphic portrayal of abuse I have read – why did you decide to include so much detail about the sexual abuse – were you worried about the reaction, or was it cathartic to get it all out without censoring it?
In telling my story, there was no hiding, no protecting the reader. I don’t feel that censoring the truth helps us understand or deal with the challenge we face in dealing with the issue of child abuse. This is what I’ve been through and, in fact, what is on the page is far less graphic than what actually happened to me as a child.
You say you wrote the book to find answers for yourself (p 165) – what
answers were you looking for and did the book deliver this?
In some way yes and in some way no. I still struggle occasionally with quiet whispers of self-doubt and fear but maybe that’s what my book brought me, an understanding that what I went through will always be ‘glued’ to me, but that I live a good life with my closest people in it.
Were you angry with your mum for not noticing the abuse? She seems
totally oblivious in the story. What is your relationship with your family
like? I hope you have all healed.
In my teen years, I was angry with my mom but I got tired of being angry. Her guilt is hard enough for her to carry. She never meant for this to happen and I forgave her a long time ago. I’m very close to my sister’s, they are my best friends.
Have you suffered any stigma from friends / family / acquaintances
because of your choice to write about your experiences?
My family and friends have been incredible. I have amazing sisters who love and support me and wanted the story to be told. My mum has also been hugely supportive and believes it is an important story to tell. I’ve been smart at choosing the right friends because they are proud of me. My husband is my person so he knows all of me, my childhood story is just a part of what makes me who I am and as a couple, we are so much more.
You were named as one of Oprah’s most influential women – how did that
feel, and did you use this accolade/ recognition to try and help others?
I felt privileged to be recognised as one of Oprah’s most influential woman, with a group of strong, powerful women but I left South Africa soon after to live in Singapore for my Husband’s business and I am now in discussion with an incredible NGO.
What advice would you give:
Your 8-year-old self
Firstly I would say sorry, then well done for holding on to love and that one day you will have a daughter who will teach you how beautiful and smart innocence is.
Anyone who might be suffering
I’m sorry, I wish I could hold your hand. It can end and if you find the courage to speak to someone sooner than later the deepest darkness will end.
Anyone who suspects someone might be the victim of abuse.
Don’t turn a blind eye. Believe in that instinct be unafraid and act on it.
Can you tell me a fun fact about you, that people might not already know, or a greatest achievement, or a random skill, or favourite joke.
My greatest achievement is my family. I feel so blessed to be bringing my daughter Summer up in a house full of joy and for her to witness her parents speaking to each other with love, respect and kindness.
Thanks so much for this Q&A, Candice!
Follow Quartet Books on Twitter @quartetbooks
If you need advice on support on the issues covered within this review and book, here are some (UK based) resources.
The Survivor’s Trust – http://thesurvivorstrust.org/
Childline – https://www.childline.org.uk/