Wide Open is harrowing, and the year’s must-read memoir

Books | by Stephen Whitworth

Book Launch: Wide Open
McNally Robinson
Wednesday 1

I met D.M. Ditson perhaps a decade ago when she studied journalism in the same class as one of my best friends. I recall she was quiet — pretty normal in my introverted circles — but unusually reserved, cautious and alert. Ditson seemed a bit like a scared stray cat who wasn’t quite sure how to safely make friends.

After reading Ditson’s first book, Wide Open (Coteau Books), which will be launched at events in Regina and Saskatoon this spring, I have a better understanding of her then-caution around people she didn’t know well.

Especially men.

D.M. Ditson is a rape survivor who suffered severe post-traumatic stress disorder caused by her attack. After years of therapy and treatment she’s doing well, but her experiences remain harrowing. In Wide Open she’s recorded them as she remembers them, directly and without artifice, in an unforgettable page-turner of a memoir.

It’s an important and, yes, brave story that could help a lot of other sexual assault survivors, and it was an honour to interview her in advance of her book launch.

This interview was conducted by text message and has been moderately edited for length and clarity.

You use a concise and matter-of-fact approach, with a lot of artfulness in the non-linear way you order events. What went into writing this?

It took three years to write my story. The first draft was in chronological order, which was how it made sense to me, but it didn’t make for a very compelling story. So I pulled the story apart, spread the pages on the floor and started shuffling them into a new order. The new structure shows how trauma moves through time, and how something that happened in the present could shoot me back into the past.

It’s very compelling.

Thank you! I had some incredible writing coaches along the way who looked at my drafts, and were pretty frank about where I was going wrong and what I could do to improve the story.

Can you tell me about any responsibility you felt to your story?

I couldn’t find anything like Wide Open when I was at the depths of my illness. I kept reading survivor memoirs to learn how others moved from darkness to light, but found that the recovery portion of their stories was very minimal. I felt like I needed to share what I had learned through my experiences to offer others a detailed look at how I dug myself out.

I also wanted to share why I was so vulnerable to assault in the first place. It’s regrettably easy to blame a victim or blame someone who isn’t capable of advocating for herself, so I wanted to show very clearly how and why I was such an easy target. Having been raised as a fundamentalist Christian, I was very naive when I lost my faith at 17. From there, it was easy for men to take advantage of me. And then when I developed PTSD, I would literally freeze when I was with other men. Sometimes they felt my paralysis meant they could do whatever they wanted.

It was a dreadful place to be in, and I hope to build empathy for others who happen to be extraordinarily vulnerable to those who would cause them harm.

Has this book helped you connect to others with similar experiences?

I gave a few talks about PTSD and recovery while I was writing it. One woman came up to me after I spoke, and said I made her realize she wasn’t crazy. That moment alone was worth all of the awkwardness I sometimes feel about having so much of my personal life on display.

I wrote Wide Open for survivors, but also for the people who love them. I think it can be challenging to relate to someone who has PTSD — and a full 30 per cent of women who are raped develop it — so I wanted to give them a glimpse into my experience in hopes they might be better able to empathize with their loved ones.

Sexual assault is common. Should it be discussed more openly?

If someone wants to share her story, that would be a wonderful and worthy contribution. But there’s so much shame around being hurt in such an intimate and private way. And there is so much judgement around it. The police asked me if I was sure I meant “no” because I didn’t scream. I certainly spent a great deal of time blaming myself for what happened to me. And I fully support anyone who doesn’t want to share the gritty details of what happened to them. That’s part of why I offered so much of myself in my story: so those who don’t want to speak can still have these issues raised on their behalf.

It’s the big sister in me — I’ll do anything I can to help others feel safer in the world.

It’s frustrating that victims feel shame and attackers often do not.

Yeah, it sucks. With #metoo and all the current cultural talk about sexual assault, we’ve definitely come a long way since I started writing my book. But now that we know so many women and girls have been hurt, we need to make sure they have the resources and support to heal. And we need to talk to men and boys about affirmative consent, because we know that people who are traumatized can freeze and become incapable of using their words or fighting back.

PTSD seems very poorly understood.

My recovery was excruciating. I took more than three years making it my top priority. First I used up all my holiday time at work, then I dropped down to working 20 hours a week and then I quit my job altogether. I pulled out a chunk of my pension (not recommended!) and used it so I could go 14 months without working. I took loads of therapy, did a ton of meditation and practiced being really kind to myself. Things were so hard in those days that I would give myself a sticker on my calendar every time I went outside or ate a vegetable or phoned a friend.

What were your symptoms?

An awful lot of convulsions. My body shook like Old Testament demonic possession every single day for more than three years. Sometimes it was mercifully brief but other times it lasted hours and possibly entire nights. My body was stuck in the past, so I would physically relive the worst things that happened to me over and over and over. To pull myself out, I would repeat the current date and my current age to try to assure myself that I was okay now.

It was wild and chaotic and so messy.

But you made it!

I thought it would never end, but it did. I popped right out the other side and have spent the last two years happier and healthier than ever. Every second of dealing with my past was so worth it because of the new healthy life I get to have now.