On Writing The Clara Ann Burns Story
Heidi Ann Smith
The Clara Ann Burns Story is based on my own experiences with prolonged sexual, mental and physical abuse while growing up in the Chicago area during the 1960s and 1970s. The names and the details have been altered so as to not incriminate anyone, but the basic thrust of the story is reflective of my own life. As I began to write the story I decided to stop writing and read the memoirs of holocaust survivors. This was something I had been putting off for a long time. The events that occurred during World War I and World War II were not distant memories in the minds of family friends and relatives. My Great Grandmother told me that my Great Grandfather fought in the trenches during WWI. He went without food for prolonged periods of time, lived in filth and watched many men die. My Great Grandfather would not tell me about his war experiences. He smoked Camel cigarettes, was a skilled poker player and pulled coins out of my ears. One time he lifted up his shirt to show me how his hospital treatments had turned his skin pink and clearly outlined each rib. He died when I was eight years old. My Great Grandmother saved my Great Grandfather's war memorabilia on a shelf in her walk-in pantry. When I stayed overnight at her home, in helping her prepare breakfast, I made the toast. While I waited for the toast to pop-up I traced my fingers over my Great Grandfather's helmet, his medals and his bullet. I wondered what the difference was between WWI and WWII. I heard many stories about WWII and The Great Depression. All of the stories focused on suffering. My maternal grandfather claimed that since his family was German some of my cousins, aunts and uncles were Nazis. During the 1960s I had a reoccurring dream. I was inside of a train with slats like a cattle car. When the doors opened a man in a uniform grabbed me from my mother's arms. I screamed. The scream woke me up. The idea of being taken away from my family after the cattle car doors rumbled open was not something I had read about or had seen on television. Someone probably told me about the trains taking people to the Nazi concentration camps but I cannot recall someone telling me about it. It wasn't until I was a teenage that I realized the relationship between my reoccurring dream and the Nazi concentration camps. I put off exploring the details of what happened in the holocaust for fear of having this dream progress. In high school I read Anne Frank. Anne Frank's story is about a loving Jewish family and group of friends who were in hiding from the Nazis but Anne Frank's story does not detail what happened in the concentration camps. When I read Filip Muller's account of working in the crematoriums I began to understand why I had been so afraid. While I read Muller's account I could not eat for fear of retching. Muller's story informed my writing The Clara Burns Story by reconfirming what I already knew which is that there is no reprieve when one lives in an abusive situation nor is there a fairy-tale 'happy-ever-after ending' after someone is exposed to abuse over a prolonged period of time. After I completed large portions of The Clara Ann Burns Story a professor suggested I should 'lighten the over all mood of the story.' Reading the Muller text and other survivor's accounts galvanized my belief that the overall mood in any abusive situation is 'dread' but, at the same time, radiance emanates even from the most horrific details. One story Muller recounts is that mothers and fathers were crushed at the bottom of the piles of the bodies in an attempt to shield a child while others climb on top of them while trying to open the gas chamber door. My aim in writing The Clara Ann Burns Story was to expose the aesthetic nature that exists even in the most tragic experiences. Life is ephemeral - tragedy is a part of the human experience. Recently another suggested that some people argue that no one can fully believe an Auschwitz survivor's account since in order to survive he or she must have looked out for themselves to the detriment of the lives of others. The purpose of Auschwitz was to kill. There was not enough food, blankets or clean water for everyone. If someone had enough food this meant someone else had to do without. Muller's story, I suggest, is far too detailed for it to be completely fabricated. When I write allow the details to tell the story. While the protagonist in my book, Clara, was not subjected to the horrors of Auschwitz she did suffer from the abusive acts acted out by her own family members. I am wondering what it means if we choose to disbelieve a story told by a survivor? What did he or she do wrong? Tell their story? Survive?
About Heidi Ann Smith:
Heidi Ann Smith grew up in the Chicago area and began publishing poems as a child. At a young age, she won various local and academic awards for her writing; based on her writing abilities, she was awarded a scholarship to private high school and attended college courses during her high school years. After high school she began raising a family and was taken away from her writing, but soon returned to complete a bachelor of Arts from Eastern Illinois University. She then earned a Master of Arts in Humanities from California State University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Goddard College. Several of her poems recently found homes in various journals, and she published a scholarly thesis on the German artist George Grosz. Heidi is currently a PhD student studying Creative Writing at Middlesex University in London, England. The Clara Ann Burns Story is her first novel.
You can visit the website at www.monkeypuzzlepress.com.
About The Clara Ann Burns StoryIn Heidi Ann Smith’s short novel THE CLARA ANN BURNS STORY, a woman who suffered child abuse looks back over her turbulent life as she approaches her fifties. Smith describes it as “a story of a young girl, Clara Ann Burns, who was tortured, abused and neglected by her family. When she was old enough to go out on her own, she got herself into situations that were not always the best. But in the end she raises her own family and holds onto the hope of healing and living without fear.”
Smith explains that the story “is based on some of my life experiences,” which included sexual abuse. “I needed to write this book–and I needed to have the right and the freedom to bring together different events.”
Rather than creating a traditional narrative text from start to finish, in THE CLARA ANN BURNS STORY, Smith–who holds one master’s degree in fine arts in creative writing, another in humanities, and is a PhD student in creative writing–chose to express child abuse and loss by experimenting with literary genre. The result is that the protagonist, Clara Ann Burns, tells her story through written memories (short stories, lists, poems, one-minute plays) and memorabilia (hospital records, photographs, personal records). All are presented without explanation: a grandmother cooks breakfast while she speaks to her deceased husband; a mother scalds her child in a bathtub; the funeral processions of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the death of a child’s father; and the rape of a stepdaughter. This multi-genre approach, Smith feels, more accurately conveys “the impossibility of piecing together this story, and reflects the inconsistencies of an abuse victim’s memories that tend to jump from one instance of abuse to the next, rather than flowing through, perhaps, what might be considered the normal ups and downs of life.”
In addition, Smith points out, “These isolated memories of abuse that flash through Clara’s mind are what it means to have post-traumatic stress disorder. I suggest further that these isolated incidents also represent the perplexity of healing from prolonged neglect and abuse, since a constant state of fear is what is most familiar to Clara since she was abused by family members and friends for many years. If a child believes his or her own family is not adverse to his or her own torture, neglect, or rape, the child cannot survive as emotionally or psychologically intact. In Clara’s case, the abuse is pervasive, there is no relief for many years, nor hope of relief until she is an older woman and capable of looking at what happened to her objectively through the instantiation of the events as presented in the text.”
Despite the personal inspiration behind THE CLARA ANN BURNS STORY, Smith’s academic and scholarly understanding of both creative writing and fine art informs the book’s power. She likens writing to fine art: “All the great artists I studied reflected their life; in a great work of art, you cannot extricate the artist’s life from their work. When you look at a work of art by Van Gogh or Caravaggio you see some truth about their life. For me, the truth does not necessarily read like a biography; there are details that are blurred from your view. When I was engaged in the writing process, some things that were hidden from my view came out–which may grab the reader because it hit me as well.”
Smith hopes that readers who can identify with THE CLARA ANN BURNS STORY will find some comfort in it. “When I was a little girl I was very sick and I didn’t have a happy home life. I started reading poetry, and I felt some kind of resonance and a kindred spirit with the other writer’s work. I hope my work will reach someone and that they will also know that they are not alone.” And, she adds, “I also hope the work is received as a work of literature.”