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Excavating a Moment’s Truth

by Kerry Cohen

Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity took five months to write, but I spent almost ten years figuring out what this book was really about. To be honest, I spent almost ten years working on a single scene – the first full scene in the book. I rewrote that scene again and again, each time knowing I had not gotten it right. I knew there was something about this scene, something more meaningful than what I was getting at, something more profound. I tried writing it as an essay. I tried workshopping it in groups. I was told, “Keep writing.” So I did. I pulled up that same file on my computer and delved inside it yet again, trying to find what there was to find, knowing I had not gotten to its bottom yet.

The scene is from when I was twelve years old and living in New Jersey. Two friends and I ventured into Manhattan by ourselves one night to meet up with boys we didn’t know, and we wound up leaving in the early morning hours because one of my friends had an argument with one of the boys. We took the subway up to the Port Authority near the George Washington Bridge and then took a bus from there to get back home. Because of the hour, though, the bus only went to a town about ten miles from my home, so we were stuck.

We found an all-night gas station where two attendants promised to drive us home at the end of their shift. They did, and in the car, one of those men slid his hand up my leg and grabbed my crotch. I knew from the first time I wrote this scene that it was about danger, about three girls going into the city at night seeking danger of some sort and, in the end, finding it. For a long time, I thought of myself in this scene as a victim because that man molested me. This was certainly a part of the truth, but it wasn’t the whole truth. I rewrote the scene and the moment when he molested me at least fifteen times. And then, one day, I was able to write a truth about that moment that I had been too ashamed, too frightened, to admit before:

I squirm, but it’s no use. His coarse fingers worm up to my underwear, scratching and grabbing as I try to pull away. They’re my best underwear, lavender in color, and he traces the edges with his fingertips. I put them on that evening with the thought that just maybe I would get to third base with one of the boys from the city. It seems a long time ago that we were in my house, full of expectation, getting ready for the night. Now he holds his fingers against my crotch – not inside, just against – letting me know he is there. I clench my body, my eyes turned to the window. I want to scream, to push his hand away, but I’m too afraid. Too afraid if I don’t give in, he won’t let me go at all. But there’s something else, too, something growing inside me, something I don’t really want to admit: There’s another part that’s not afraid at all. I almost like it. I know what’s happening isn’t right. But his touch is an inevitable result of the evening. It is my greatest hope – to be wanted. And here, with this repulsive older man, I am getting that. He holds his hand there like he owns me, but really, silently, I’m the one who owns him.

The day I wrote this version of that moment, the truest version of that moment, is the day I started writing Loose Girl. This theme in my life, this terrible, shameful theme – that I would take attention from men any way I could because it made me feel in control and loved – is the theme that would drive my memoir forward. I wrote the rest of the book swiftly, with no difficulty. The words poured forth like water.

Many times, when writers attempt to write their stories, they aren’t willing to look closely. Too much pain, or shame, or fear stands like a guard at the door. But if you can relax into those feelings, if you can sit with your flawed, imperfect self, silence your internal judge, and allow yourself to write toward meaning, you just might locate the truth that holds the key to your entire book.

Kerry Cohen is the author of Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity, as well as four young adult novels. Her essays and fiction have been featured in many journals and anthologies, including The New York Times and Best Sex Writing 2010. She teaches memoir writing through Gotham Writers’ Workshops and the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.