Issue #60, Summer 2016
True Empathy or Understanding Is Rare
A conversation with Judith Barrington
True Empathy or Understanding Is Rare
Judith Barrington is the winner of Creative Nonfiction’s $1,000 “Childhood” essay contest. Her story “The Walk Home,” selected from more than 800 submissions, recalls her daily walk between the bus stop and home. At eleven years old, in a new neighborhood, Barrington passes a house, outside which a man sits and yells and watches her. She writes, “I didn’t figure out until much later that Roy suffered from cerebral palsy; adults, including my mother, referred to him as ‘a spastic.’” Roy and Barrington develop a rather unusual—and for readers, perhaps, unsettling—relationship, and in the essay, Barrington walks back and forth from childhood to adulthood to explore themes of innocence and ignorance.
Judith Barrington is the author of Lifesaving: A Memoir, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, and four collections of poetry. She has been a faculty member in the low-residency MFA program at University of Alaska Anchorage and teaches workshops around the United States, as well as in Britain and Spain.
CNF: Did anything help you put the past onto the page? Did you take any trips to your hometown to spark memories, or do you have childhood journals to tap into your eleven-year-old voice, or anything like that?
Barrington: I have visited Brighton many times over the years although rarely that particular street. I do have very brief diaries from that era, but did not use them. I doubt I would have written down anything about these events at the time anyway. Some places and events from long ago seem to etch themselves into memory and stay there.
CNF: Do you find childhood fuels your writing often?
Barrington: Quite often in my poetry. Rarely in memoir, though I have a few beginnings of pieces that use childhood memories interspersed with more recent events.
CNF: Was it difficult to write these memories, to enter the past, to ask questions?
Barrington: Yes. It was very difficult. I had started to write about this incident several times and then abandoned it, being at a loss for language in which to describe it, as well as not being able, until now, to separate how I experienced it then from how I understand it now in retrospect.
CNF: Your essay recounts sexual encounters between a child—you—and a man with cerebral palsy, your neighbor Roy. Are you nervous about people’s reactions to such an intense and complicated subject?
CNF: You spend a lot of time on setting—Roy’s house, Tongdean Lane, the two neighborhoods you lived in as a child. Why did you put such a strong emphasis on place in this piece?
Barrington: I needed to ground myself as well as the story. The location functioned as a kind of boundary—somewhat in the same way that a strict form might become a boundary in a risky poem—making it feel safer to write. And of course, remembering the details of the street, the tunnel, the atmosphere of a winter walk home in that particular place, all helped to bring the memory to life.
CNF: The majority of this story exists during your walks from the bus stop to your childhood home, an unsupervised trek. Parents—yours and Roy’s—barely appear in this essay. How do you view this independence? Do you feel like it’s a crucial part of childhood?
Barrington: In my childhood, I went places alone by bus or by bike, and also went riding on my pony alone. My parents often didn’t know where I was. My friends and I took this for granted and I am grateful for it, since I needed that independence later when both my parents died and I was still a teenager. But even without that, I feel sad for some of the young people now who never experience being alone
CNF: Roy was part of your life five decades ago. What finally made it the right time to write about him?
Barrington: I am actually older than you think! Part of what made me able to write this now is that I am now officially a disabled person myself. I have a genetic, neuro-muscular disease that affects my mobility, and, in addition, I had brain surgery two years ago for a brain bleed, and had a very long period of rehabilitation. It is always easier to write about people in a disadvantaged group if one is, oneself, part of the group or at least close enough to avoid objectifying them.
CNF: You say you don’t know what happened to Roy. Do you worry about his family reading this piece?
Barrington: No. It seems very unlikely and in any case, I don’t think I’ve revealed anything to bother them this much later. I would think his mother must be long gone, and he, too, probably. It seems much less worrying than for instance MY family reading it (though that has never stopped me).
CNF: You mention the stigma that existed in the 1950s toward disabled people. Do you still feel remnants of this shame? Or what are some ways you find people becoming more aware and supportive of people with disabilities?
Barrington: The shame I felt around Roy was more about the sexual component than his disability, though when I first met him, I did feel an odd kind of shame on his behalf. People now are more accustomed to speaking of disability whereas back then nobody in the neighborhood wanted to mention him. How supportive people really are is more debatable: things such as accessibility have certainly improved, but true empathy or understanding is rarer. As a person who has struggled for the past few years with mobility and chronic pain, I have been blessed with supportive friends and a wonderful partner. But I am aware that many people with disabilities are alone or without the right kind of help.
CNF: In the essay, you share, "It bothers me now that I failed until much later to consider Roy’s life." Do you feel like writing about Roy helps with this guilt?
Barrington: Not really. Even though I wish I had thought about him and his life back then, I don’t experience that as guilt now. One of the things I like about writing memoir is that it allows the adult writer to forgive her younger self for being young! There would be much too much to feel guilty about if we were stuck with all our old mistakes.
Brianna Snow was an intern at the Creative Nonfiction Foundation. She received her masters degree in creative writing from Chatham... read more
One morning some years ago I found myself in the office of a dermatologist who, while tearing into my Plantar's wart on my right foot,... read more
We didn't question. Or complain. It wouldn’t have occurred to us, and it wouldn’t have helped. I was eight. Julie was ten... read more