Lamp, Lifeboat, Ladder
By Teresa, Founder
Shrinking the Monster: Healing the Wounds of Our Abuse
By Norbert Krapf
Chicago, Illinois: ACTA Publications, In Extenso Press imprint, 2016
Shrinking the Monster: Healing the Wounds of Our Abuse is, by author Norbert Krapf’s description, a prose memoir about writing Catholic Boy Blues, which is a selection of 130 poems which the author drew from over 300 poems he crafted during a period in his adult life when he felt the burden of his abuse and suffering lost its grip on his psyche as he began to give it a voice in his writing.
In giving voice to what had been unspoken and unreleased, Mr. Krapf’s memoir of remembering shares seminal experiences of survivors of abuse. For example, there is the critical moment as his mother is dying when he, as an adult, discovers a photo his abuser took of him as a child. The photo works like a key to open up memories and a transformational connection with his long-forgotten state of mind. There is also the memory of the child’s escape into the woods hunting with his father—an escape characterized by an adjective meaningful to child victims, “safe.” There is the intrusion of the abuser even into that space, but also the lesser known experience of many child victims of transitioning out of being the chosen prey. In Mr. Krapf’s memoir of remembering there are other realities we survivors share, such as a keen distinction between knowing or sharing the fact that one has been abused and, at some later date, dedicating time to caring for the unattended wounds inside until they lose their power over our adult lives.
As I read this memoir, I was struck by how a priest and nun (and several bishops) played key roles in shrinking Mr. Krapf’s monster. This is a very common experience many survivors describe. For example, Mr. Krapf recounts his emotional anxiety over meeting with a “good pastor” in whom he first confides being abused by clergy. As with many survivors with whom I speak, such a dialogue is of critical importance and has a lasting impact. For Mr. Krapf, unlike for many, it is positive if awkward. It includes an explicit discussion of how the priest, too, has been wounded. Except where a priest sadly often drives a survivor away, what results from these tentative first efforts can be a spiritual companionship that, also, re-knits something profoundly wounded between survivor and Church. As I read the chapter about “the good pastor” and the related poem in Catholic Boy Blues, I had my stubborn hope that the Church could support how both survivors and priests, if they are prepared for this exchange, can re-knit the Church in mutual healing.
The parallels continue. When Mr. Krapf suddenly felt compelled to seek spiritual guidance with a nun at a retreat center, he, like we survivors often do, relied on a nun “tested” by wife and friend. He relies on his wife to see the powerful revelations in his poems sometimes even before he is able to do so, and he chose a massage therapist who had been tried and tested by wife and friends when he began to understand the importance of body and tissue memory. We survivors lean more on others than we know, in our efforts to maintain our defenses.
Just as we survivors find helpers as we stagger toward being more trusting as we recall and endure our traumatic times, Mr. Krapf ventured to share with his massage therapist, perhaps by disclaimer like I did, that he had been abused as a child. What he received in return for his not-easy revelation was learning from the massage therapist she had been a social worker specializing in child abuse prevention. And, so, we learn to re-knit our connections as adults to a world that taught us first of its feral brutality when we were children. God sends us helpers.
There is something quite distinct about Mr. Krapf and his memoir of remembering and healing through poetry. He has engaged his monster with the power of his craft, exerting the aesthetic of words, the measure of cadence, and the wistful detail of the poet’s eye. And he has done much more. He has courageously given voice to more experience that his own, permitting us to see as he is willing to see—through the eyes of others. Among the voices in which Mr. Krapf speaks through his poems, he consents, not without some discomfort at first, to letting even his abuser speak. In doing so, Mr. Krapf, to his own amazement, permits his abuser to be humanized and even understood in some degree. His monster shrinks in significant increments in the process. That’s a tall order for any of us survivors to follow, and maybe that’s why it is well that a life-long writer and poet cuts the first path through this psychic thicket for other survivors to consider, explore and follow.
Mr. Krapf does not test limits without paying some price himself. A former poet laureate of Indiana, long-time published poet and literature teacher, Mr. Krapf recalls the pushback against the poems in Catholic Boy Blues as being quite intense as he perseveres in his quest to publish his collection of poems. As I read about the resistance to his work, I was struck by how Catholic Boy Blues comprised his witness to the complexity and hope that comes from surviving abuse in particular by clergy, and so it is also our witness in faith and reconciliation. The rejections Mr. Krapf receives echo the rejections many of us know. A small literary press publisher dismisses the appeal of our witness as “niche.” Another publisher compliments the work but eschews the risky topic, perhaps fearing donor or customer reactions. The poetry editor at an important Catholic literary publication is even less positive, disdaining poetry that seeks to heal while rejecting a review of Catholic Boy Blues as failing to “rise to great art.”
This unique story of remembering is a personal memoir that is universally true for healing in the lives of all survivors—as a string of pearls, one defining encounter after another, many junctures revealing a tenacity of spirit in the survivor, some with pain, all shrinking the monster that otherwise can dominate our lives and personalities. This is a story of remembering in which profound faith is activated in a flood of grace. God sent helpers and supporters whom Mr. Krapf has praised in writing this memoir.
For my part, what is particularly memorable is how Mr. Krapf, who has mastered his monster with an exquisite mastery of language, imagery and cadence, ends with an acknowledgment of the limits on his own abilities to erase his monster. How striking to find a memoir giving voice to long-silenced grief as a way to heal in this admission: “Sometimes silence can only be listened to, can’t be converted into song that illuminates or a healing of ourselves and others for which we have yearned” (page 124). Like all of our stories, the end of this memoir of remembering culminates in a tamed monster who is still there. In the author’s humble acceptance, there is no full resolution. In the end, I am reminded that, after some point, we have to let go and let God handle the rest.
To close, I would like to highlight an epigraph with which Mr. Krapf opens an early chapter in the book. It is by the thirteenth-century Sufi poet Rumi: “Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder. Help someone’s soul heal.” Truly Norbert Krapf has taken his own counsel and done just that with Shrinking the Monster and Catholic Boy Blues.
Norbert Krapf, former Indiana Poet Laureate, was born and grew up in a small German-American town in southern Indiana. He is the author of twenty-six books, including Catholic Boy Blues: A Poet’s Journal of Healing, his eleventh full-length poetry collection. Krapf has received the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Glick Indiana Author Award for the body of his work, including Catholic Boy Blues, and a Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts Council of Indianapolis.For more information about Krapf and his work with survivors, see www.KrapfPoetry.com.