Processing the trauma of surviving sexual assault at a young age, quitting your unfulfilling day job, and having a baby at home might not seem like an obvious topic pairing, but for writer Corbin Lewars, the real-life experiences were inextricably intertwined.
In her new memoir, Creating a Life: The Memoir of a Writer and Mom in the Making, she explains how the biggest components of her life came to a head all at once. Originally driven to make some serious decisions because of her obsession with having a baby, her preoccupation with pregnancy often overshadowed other issues in her life that needed to be handled—ones that came to light as she tried to navigate fertility complications and a miscarriage.
At around 12 years old, Lewars survived being raped at a party by a boy from her school. But it wasn’t until her early thirties that she started to fully deal with the emotional fallout from the experience. Undoing years of self-blame took a lot of work, but Lewars explains that after miscarrying her first child early in her pregnancy, she began the process of unraveling her own abusive. Like many survivors of sexual assault and abuse, control was a central theme in her life, and only in taking charge of the things she could—and letting go of the rest—did she begin the process of truly healing. Determined to be the best parent to her unborn child, she knew she had to battle her own demons before becoming responsible for an additional life.
Lewars began counseling, quit a dead-end day job to pursue her passion for writing and editing, and eventually, she became pregnant again. As part of her quest to regain control over her body and her emotional relationship with herself, as well as to avoid an institutionalized medical system that had never seemed particularly right for her, she chose to have her baby at home. Convincing her family about her decision was sometimes tricky, but perhaps due to her strong conviction to do what was right for herself and her baby, she was able to surround herself with a supportive birthing team that helped her deal with the complex emotions of giving birth while still processing her own difficult past.
Like any journey through therapy and life-changing events such as career change and pregnancy, Lewars’ story doesn’t fit into a tidy package. While she covers several complex themes, her life’s story—so far, anyway—is linear and deeply engaging. Her life has changed a lot since her first child was born several years ago, and in the interim period, she got divorced, started working from home full time, and launched the Reality Mom zine. Corbin Lewars recently spoke to me about her journey.
There are a number of times in the book in which you describe blaming yourself—for being a rape victim, for not seeking counseling sooner, for your miscarriage. How do those feelings manifest today?
Starting therapy helped my brain understand that it wasn’t my fault, but I didn’t feel a shift until my body accepted that truth. Saying you’re not at fault is entirely different than believing you’re not at fault. One of the first things that helped that shift was reading Phyllis’ intro to my book, where she claims many children that are sexually abused don’t have an understanding of what is happening to them, as was true in my case. If I didn’t understand I was being raped, how could I blame myself?
My therapist explained to me that I went into shock and remained there for years. Combine that with the fact that in my family, I was often the person who felt and saw things that no one else wanted to see. So after years of being told I was “wrong,” I stopped trusting my gut, and my brain, and therefore blamed myself unnecessarily for thing I “knew” but didn’t believe. The difference now is I am not in shock, I surround myself with people who “see” and discuss emotionally vulnerable topics, and I constantly check in with myself.
Right before I started my book tour I took a couple of days to ask that little girl inside of me what she needed. She needed to be seen. And by taking care of myself before the tour, I am not only able to be seen and heard in a healthy way, I am serving as a catalyst for other people to share their stories with me as well. So they can be heard and seen as well.
You mention that in your younger single years, you always took responsibility for birth control. Why do you think you didn’t expect men to participate in the decision to have protected, safe sex?
I didn’t have the courage to ask them to. Even worse, I didn’t even have the language or skills to ask them to use condoms, so I only protected myself against pregnancy, not diseases. This surprises people who know me now, as a feisty opinionated person, but as a child I didn’t have any role models of women who asked for what they wanted/needed. Saying no to a man or asking him to do something for me was a language I not only never spoke, I never heard, so couldn’t even begin to emulate.
In my mid-twenties I started to befriend older, wise, strong women, Lori (mentioned in the book) being one of the dearest. And through them, I finally started to understand women have a voice and a say.
For a lot of women who have survived abuse and assault—myself one of them—it can seem easier to hide by repressing your feelings. In the book, you detail your significant progress in therapy. How would you explain the benefits of working through your pain to those who have yet to do it?
Therapy gave me a whole new life—a life I fantasized about, but didn’t know how to achieve. My depression lifted, my creativity and sexuality peaked, and I have more energy than I have had in years. It was worth going through and reliving and feeling for the first time the pain of the rape and other parts of my childhood to get to where I am now: living an authentic life where I feel things deeply, take risks, and constantly assess myself and my goals.
So when people say, “Does therapy help?” I say, “Immensely. But only if you want it to.” A lot of people don’t want to unpack and face their demons, so they could go to therapy for twenty years and not change anything. Therapy is not the cure all; you have to be willing to do the work outside of the office as well.
How was your partnership with your husband different after you remembered and began working through the memories of your rape? Do you think it would be different if you had recalled what happened the assault at an earlier stage in your relationship?
I never “forgot” the assault; I just never called it a rape. So when I told him what happened, about midway through our relationship, I was vague about it and didn’t offer details. Even while writing the book, we didn’t address the rape.
My now ex-husband and I had so many bad patterns—not talking on a deep level being the major one—that we were only able to shift by becoming divorced. We actually separated while I was writing this book. So again, I give therapy credit for this shift. Through therapy, I not only separated from a husband who couldn’t talk about painful subjects with me, but I gained a best friend (the same man) who now can tell me all of the things he couldn’t say while we were married. A few months ago, I told him he never said he was sorry I was raped and that I needed to hear that from him. He started crying, told me how terribly sorry he was, and we hugged for a long time. I told him I needed to hear that not just for my own healing, but to be sure that he would be willing to “see” and acknowledge it if anything ever happened to our daughter or son. And for the first time, I actually believe he will.
A lot of the book focuses on alternative medicine. Why were options like seeing an acupuncturist or using a midwife and doula the best choices for you?
As I explained in the book, I did not have a great track record with traditional doctors. I was also trying to be in control of my life and my choices for the first time, and alternative practitioners are much more likely to include you, your brain, your body, and your opinions into their care, rather than dictate what they think.
It took you a while to warm up to the idea of a home birth, even with information from your midwife. Do you think more women would give birth at home if they understood it as a safe, relatively uncomplicated option?
Absolutely! Unfortunately, doctors tell them the opposite. That it is risky and dangerous, where many studies show that giving birth in a hospital leaves women not only at a much higher risk of having an unnecessary c-section, but also exposed to germs that could lead to infections. Unfortunately, many of the midwives I know can’t afford to practice in the United Sates. They either move to Canada or give up their practice altogether, so who is left to inform women about their choices? You are!
At the conclusion of the book, your son Conor was four months old, and you and your husband were still figuring out the future. What are you working on now, and what happens next?
Many things happened next, including a second child, our daughter Stella, the demise of our marriage, finding an agent, firing an agent, and writing three books amongst other things.
I am not sure what I’ll do with my second book, Swings, which is supposedly fiction, but actually closely narrates the early years of my life with Conor and the thread that started to unravel my marriage. My agent shopped it for a while, but then we parted ways and I found Catalyst Book Press for Creating a Life.
The project I have more enthusiasm about now is another memoir I’m writing called A Year of Pleasures. It’s about my year of exploring all of my desires after separating from my ex-husband Jason. As I said, even our separation was pleasurable and having joint custody of the kids allows me time I haven’t had in seven years to explore what I want, rather than what Corbin the wife or Corbin the mother should do. Along with my single, divorced friends, who I call the Fabulosities—because they are all fabulous, creative women who know and own their power and sexuality—I am now able to go see art shows, listen to bands, watch burlesque performances, eat spicy, delicious food that my kids would turn their noses up at, take professional risks, and of course date. The book not only shows that divorce is not the end of the world for many women; it could even be a gift.
Currently, I am in the midst of a book tour and having my mind blown daily by the amount of women who share a similar story as mine. I received two emails today about “first time sexual encounters that weren’t so great.” Yesterday, during my memoir class, two women broke down sobbing about the sexual abuse they have endured. Everywhere I go, whether I’m talking about my book or not, women and men are sharing their painful stories with me. Much of it revolves around rape, molestation or sexual abuse, and although I could find this depressing, I’m actually inspired by it. Because every time a woman, or man, tells me her story, they are one step closer to removing the blame from themselves. Although they often say, “But I was drunk,” or “But I was wearing a mini-skirt,” I know by sharing their story with me—and of course having me tell them they should be able to wear and drink whatever they want without being sexually assaulted—they are starting to shift the blame off of themselves.
By sharing our stories, we can wake people up to this epidemic—which I believe is occurring to an even larger percentage of people than the reported one-in-four girls—and start teaching our youth some positive sexual education, rather than hoping they will be abstinent if we don’t talk about it. Girls in particular need to learn how to say no or yes to what they want sexually as well as feel free to state their opinions and needs, without fearing ostracism.
I used to only emphasize my daughter’s intelligence, believing too many people emphasize girls’ looks and not their brains. And I’ve given both of my kids many talks about, “Your body is yours and you get to decide who hugs you, kisses you, or whose lap you sit on.” I am confident that both kids trust their intuition in these matters, and feel free with their bodies, yet also only change clothes, hug, or even interact with people that they feel comfortable with.
Instilling in both kids the importance of stating their opinions and never downplaying their intelligence, as well as being comfortable with their bodies has been easy, but I wrestle with “beautiful.” Both of my kids are beautiful, and are often told that, but I want that to mean something more than how it’s often used, as in describing a “beautiful princess.” Beauty holds power, but many fairy tales—let alone the movies, which is why neither of my kids has ever seen a Disney movie—depict beautiful women as needing help and rarely mention her intelligence. What I hope for my kids is to feel comfortable with their beauty and their sexuality when they are older, but for it never to overshadow their intelligence and intuition. I want them to be “seen” as all of who they are and for them to see themselves that was as well, not as only one part. I am only recently allowing myself to be a beautiful, sexually desired woman with many sexual desires of my own, so I am learning myself as I try to teach my kids.