Almost 30 years ago, Kathleen Cecilia Nesbitt started a novel when she was an undergraduate at Columbia College in Chicago studying creative writing and photography. “I didn’t know what it was,” she says of that early draft. “It wasn’t until I stopped writing it and went back to get my MFA that I realized what it was about.” She remembers an adviser asking her repeatedly, “What’s the plot? What’s the plot?”

The difficult part for Nesbitt was trying to write about painful experiences—namely, the sexual trauma she survived growing up. “I thought I would try, as best I could, to let the reader be saturated in the experience,” she says. She recalls being frustrated with the questions people asked her: “Why didn’t you just leave? Why are you so fucked up?” But she also wanted to capture the frustration of watching someone try to deny a traumatic past. “I want the reader to be frustrated with June,” she says about her novel’s protagonist. Nesbitt didn’t want June to be a normal or easily likable character. “This is not normal,” she says. “This is trauma. We’re working through trauma.”

The novel is Sentencing Silence, a finalist for the National Indie Excellence Awards in Literary Fiction, a book Kirkus calls “a Joycean tapestry” of “evocative and sensual” writing. It’s an ambitious, lyrical work that follows one woman as she moves through multiple relationships, various phases of life, and changing personas—a woman who weathers countless trials en route to a reckoning with her past. 

That woman is June, a housewife; Reni, a prostitute; and Sandy, an alcoholic—all the same person under different masks. Each persona gets its own section in the novel, and each section has its own stage of grief: denial, anger, acceptance. “The whole novel goes through the Kübler-Ross grief stages,” says Nesbitt. “I wanted to let people try and feel that with the narrator.”

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Not only survivors of trauma adopt personas, though. “A persona is a mask,” says Nesbitt. “We all have them. But we all have to be really careful about how strong our masks are.” June, for instance, a housewife married to the abusive Cam, suffocates from trying to appear happy and in control. “She gets tired of that,” says Nesbitt. “She’s going through denial.”June leaves Cam and even leaves June behind, too. She becomes Reni. “Reni is angry and bitter,” says Nesbitt. “But also vulnerable. So she puts on an even stronger mask.” In the third section, Reni turns into Sandy, a woman in a loving relationship who thinks she can forget about the past. She hopes love and denial can bring her peace—but as Nesbitt shows, that’s not how it works. “Sandy is drunk as shit,” she says. “Intoxicated, depressed. Her mask is suffocating her, too.”

Despite the often grim subject matter, Nesbitt’s prose is lush and vivid. She composes images with a painter’s care. In fact, she populates her novel with paintings—works by Rivera, Chagall, Parrish, Kahlo. In the novel’s third section, Sandy meets Coolly—an artist who becomes her lover—in a gallery of paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago. Together they study the painting The Two Fridas. Nesbitt describes it reverently: 

The locket was attached to a vein that twisted up her arm like a phone line to her heart, seated red on top of the Mexican peasant blouse. The vein continued across the clouds behind her, behind the other Fridas neck to another heart sliced in half underneath the torn Victorian dress, and on to her other hand where she held a forceps to stop the blood from dripping onto her white skirt.

“The novel has everything to do with language,” Nesbitt says, “and finding your own language—the words to express what’s happened to you.”

Due to the personal and painful nature of its content, the book almost didn’t happen. It was taking a toll on Nesbitt, and she’d had enough. “I dropped writing the novel because it was becoming so hard to continue to live all of those emotional experiences,” she says. “I got sick of writing it. I got physically sick. So I put it away.” The 2016 presidential election prompted her to revisit Sentencing Silence. The book became a priority. “Quite honestly, Trump got elected, and I thought, I have to work on that novel,” Nesbitt says. 

It wasn’t easy, but Nesbitt was determined. But another development almost derailed her efforts: the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. “I was working on the edits prior to and during the Kavanaugh hearings,” she says. “The book became increasingly disturbing for me. Watching and going through the Kavanaugh hearings was really upsetting, but it was also an impetus for me to try, somehow, to get at what I’m trying to say as a survivor.”

Nesbitt wrote the book in part for survivors like herself. “For survivors it’s been very impactful,” she says. Over the years she’s worked to assist survivors of incest and domestic abuse and others who might be experiencing PTSD. She tries to teach others how writing can help them come to terms with, and begin to heal from, traumatic experiences. “You have to sentence the silence,” she says. “Just put it into words, speak it out, let it out. Tell it.”

But she hopes the book reaches a broader audience. “I wrote it for both communities. I really wanted to try to describe it for those who don’t understand trauma—those who go, what the hell’s wrong with you? Why don’t you just pick yourself up by the bootstraps? But trauma doesn’t work that way.”

Nesbitt is generous and patient with those who might not understand. She knows it’s not easy. She’s still figuring it out herself. “The trauma is lifelong,” she says. “The main thing that I’ve done is figure out my coping mechanisms rather than run free and clear.”

Walker Rutter-Bowman is a writer and teacher living in Washington, D.C.

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