The Source of All Things: Boulder-based author Tracy Ross on her harrowing journey from sexual abuse victim to survivor
In 2009, Tracy Ross, senior editor for Backpacker Magazine, won a National Magazine Award for her December 2007 essay The Source of All Things, a story quite unlike any of the tales of outdoor adventure she'd previously written. The essay centered on a hike she took as an adult with her stepfather to Redfish Lake in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains, where she would confront him with questions about the sexual abuse that began there when she was a child and continued until she was a teenager. That essay has now evolved into a full-length memoir that hits bookstores today; Ross will read from and sign copies of The Source of All Things on Wednesday, March 16, at the Tattered Cover LoDo. We caught up with the Boulder-based author to ask about the unbearable weight she's been carrying on her back through her life's many adventures.
Westword: Wilderness, nature and your own experiences with outdoor adventure have helped you move through some of the trauma of your early life, even though those same experiences were tangled up in early memories of your stepfather. How have the outdoors come to define you and give you strength?
Tracy Ross: From the time I was a small girl, the elements, the real natural world, the things that were tangible, and frigid, and super hot, and windy, you know... wide open sweeping places always spoke to me, from the very beginning and before any of the abuse began. I was on that trajectory when I was young and this was my world... and then it was so abruptly cut off from me when the abuse first happened to me. In those middle years we didn't go camping, we didn't do the things that we'd loved to do. It became tied together for me: The beginning of the abuse meant that I was cut off from everything that I loved. So, to not only go through such emotional trauma and confusion, but also to be cut off from what I loved...
There's a moment I write about in the book, after I've gone off to boarding school, where I ski out into the woods. That was a real awakening like, "Oh, yeah, here I am again. This is this feeling of potential and energy and cleanliness and beauty. This is my place. This is where I belong." From that point on, that became my anchor. And the manifestation of working through the abuse has always been super-physical for me, this feeling like I could shed so much of it physically by being lean and strong and losing weight, as if I could shed all the toxins by doing all these physical things out in nature, rock climbing, skiing, having awesome experiences that were so immediate and visceral that all the other stuff faded into the background a little bit.
The immediacy of the moment, whether it was hiking in grizzly country or doing search-and-rescue looking for dead people...all this stuff was like right now and had a purpose and felt important. People keep focusing on the relationship and the abuse, which is the most important center of the book, but for me the bigger story is in how I found a place for myself in this big, complicated world, after and because of everything that had happened to me.
WW: I don't imagine it's any easier to talk about this book than it was to write it. How much closure did you get from finishing it, and now doing interviews and appearances like the one at the Tattered Cover?
TR: It's actually getting easier for me to talk about it, because I'm partnering with the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which is the oldest child-abuse charity in the world. The more time I spend with them working together, the more I realize that the reach of my book goes far beyond my story. That has helped me. I just gave up all the worst moments in my life for the world to judge, all the hardest moments, in the hopes that it will be transformative in some larger way. But I won't pretend that I'm not terrified to give that talk at Tattered Cover: Writing about my abuse and getting up in front of a crowd of people to talk about it are two very different things.
WW: What do you hope others take away from your story?
TR: If they've been through this, or something like it, I hope they take away the idea that your abuse and the things that happened in the past don't have to define you. There's always an opportunity to create whatever life you want outside of the abuse. In sort of a twisted way, I feel like I came out of everything that happened to me with some strength, with an extra gift of empathy and a deeper ability to feel the whole spectrum of emotions that has helped me as a writer. As cliché as it sounds, going into the darkness can help you appreciate the other side so much more.
And then on the other hand, I really hope this book falls not only into the hands of victims and survivors, but also parents and caregivers and relatives, and that it will make them more aware of, first of all, just listening to children, really hearing them and observing them and watching what's going on. And then to take the next step and believe them: Resist the urge to assume that kids are storytellers. I think it's critical to take what they're saying at face value until proven otherwise.
WW: You've built a successful career out of telling other people's stories. At what point did it become important to you tell your own story?
TR: I actually had not had this burning desire to tell this story at all. Quite the contrary: I've felt resistance to telling it in myself forever. It's been hard for me even to sort what has been real and not real in my own life and my perception of the world, so I didn't even trust myself to be able to tell it. I struggle constantly with my ability to trust my own perception, and that's a huge problem as a writer if you're trying to write accurately and factually about what you see in the world. But I knew that there was a link between the lies that I had been living as a result of abuse and my whole family covering it up, and me not being able to understand or trust myself.
So before it ever became important to share my story, the first priority was that I had to sort out what was real and what was not real in my own life, in order to go forward and have more confidence in my own abilities as a journalist. And the other part of my answer is, here I am living my version of my dream life, but at the same time I was also living with this undercurrent of depression all the time. I'm a pretty ambitious, happy, vibrant person on the outside, and was just plowing over everything else, like, "Oh, everything's great." I realized I needed to reconcile that conflict within myself to move forward.
WW:How did you come to your title, The Source of All Things?
TR: It ties into a fish metaphor: the salmon returning to Redfish Lake. It's a really special place, and it's the source of life and death, the beginning and end of an incredible journey, 800 to 900 miles, that these fish take. The headwaters of the River of No Return burble up -- literally, just right out of the ground -- with the Sawtooths in the background. Redfish Lake was the setting for the best possible moments I ever had, the most beautiful moments that were defining me as a kid, and that just got completely fucked up in every possible way. And yet it's still such a powerful place for me, and such a draw, and so instructive. I couldn't help but go back there. It's the literal and metaphoric source of everything in my world.
WW: How did this story initially take shape as an article for the magazine?
TR: This story started to come out through a series of conversations with Peter Flax, who was the executive editor at Backpacker at the time. He'd ask me, "What do you want to write about, what's interesting to you, what's pressing at this moment?" That was the door that I needed to open and the gentle shove through it to go and see, "This has merit and there's a reason that I should do this." So I went to Idaho with my stepdad, went through the whole ordeal of confronting him, and came back and wasn't going to go through with writing about it because it was too painful. Knowing the truth was too overwhelming.
But my editor was like, "Just write it. We don't have to publish it. Just write it." Having that freedom to tell it for my own reasons was really inspiring and confidence-building, and it became clear to me as I was writing it that it was a story worth sharing, no matter that it would be difficult for myself and my family. And then to find out that it was nominated for the National Magazine Award, and to win the NMA... It was really validating on so many different levels, both professionally and personally.
WW: The other night, shortly after I had finished reading the opening chapters of your book, I was watching Return of the Jedi with my kids. My daughter turns to me, horrified, and asks, "Why would Luke get onto a spaceship alone with Darth Vader?" So...how in the world did you come to be taking this hike alone with your stepdad to confront him, after everything he'd done to you as a kid and the havoc it wreaked on your life?
TR: Once I'd decided to do this, everybody warned me not to do it. They were like, "That's going to be dangerous, you need to take a witness, what if he stabs you? You should take a weapon." I knew that I was definitely going to be entering really dangerous territory, psychically, emotionally and possibly physically. But I also know my stepfather. The central tension that exists in this whole issue is that I know him to be this terrible, horrible person who did these things to me when I was a kid, but I also know him to be someone who isn't inherently dangerous to me as an adult. And, because my mom never left him and he's still in my life, it wasn't something we could all just move past without confronting head-on.
Once I talked to him about it and told him what I wanted to do, that I wanted to go back to the source with him, to the Sawtooth, to ask him some questions, I felt propelled. I felt like I was on a train that I wasn't going to get off. I've been in other situations that were dangerous: Going to Iran was dangerous. Going heliskiing to do a profile of Dean Cummings in Alaska was dangerous in its own way. Physical danger doesn't scare me so much. And once it was in motion, I just knew that I wasn't going to stop even though it had all these potential pitfalls.
WW: One of your first instincts as a teenager was to run away, which you initially did. It's not all forgiven at the end, but were you surprised to come to the level of reconciliation and forgiveness with him that you did?
TR: That's a complicated side story in itself, because for me forgiveness is a continuum. It's not like a pretty little package that you wrap a bow around and tie a balloon to. In this specific situation, where my kids are involved, I'm in a weird position. I forgive my dad, but it's forgiveness with a whole new set of rules. I forgive him because he's proven to me through this ongoing process that he's willing to go the distance to be forgiven. I mean, on March 10 there's going to be a feature about us in People magazine, and there's going to be a picture of us with his face. That's potentially going to change his life in bad ways, as did the magazine article and now the book, but he's shown that it's important to him to work through this, because it's been important to me.
He's tried to ask for forgiveness over the years in the ways that he could, and it's taken me a long time to be like, "Okay, I'm ready to look at this idea of forgiveness." And now, in the aftermath of the book, which is only just beginning, I see that he's for real. He's not wavering, he's not stepping back. So the forgiveness is happening now. Part of it happened on that hike in the Sawtooths, and part of it has happened since. But there have been subsequent revelations and major setbacks that have come with their own set of stuff to work through, and all is not forgiven. I keep explaining: It's forgiveness with boundaries, and forgiveness can be an evolving thing.
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