Frances Driscoll and the Power of Words to Heal

by Darick Taylor

Frances Driscoll’s harrowing collection of poetry, The Rape Poems, continues to have a wide reach—including in an Oxford University Press medical text book, a Spanish language class, and a church-based marriage course. The Rape Poems has been adapted into stage productions that have premiered in cities such as New York and San Francisco. People who have experienced trauma, particularly other victims of rape, also reach out to her from all over the world. An Irish law student confided in Frances that she was struggling with substance abuse. A woman in the throes of PTSD found Frances on Facebook and sent her a suicide note—later crediting the poet with saving her life. However, victims of traumatic abuse and experience are not drawn to Frances merely because she herself was raped: it is her personality, performance, and the potency of her work that draws readers, writers, and empathizers to seek her out.

When the topic of the silence all too often forced, whether implicitly or explicitly, on victims of rape is broached, Frances begins to talk of the number of male victims of rape whom she learned about after The Rape Poems was released. “The women love rape support groups, but the men are unwilling to be in a rape support group, because they were raped by a man. And rape centers have no funding or availability to provide one-on-one counselling,” she tells me. Her sympathy for these men is astonishing, given what horrors she was subjected to.

The last poem in The Rape Poems, “The Island of Raped Women,” imagines a safe place away from the rest of the world in which a kind of a pre-modern, almost mythic tribe of women can be reborn in a reality in which rape cannot occur. Her grounded but still incisive compassion for male victims becomes even more poignant when taking that poem into account.

Frances says, “A lot of people’s first response to the book is to say, ‘Now I know that I’m not alone.’” This is, perhaps, as much of a testament to the power of poetry as it is to the capacity for sufferers to commiserate—meaning that her success as a writer is not wholly dependent on the emotional resonance of the terrible abuse she suffered.

It was 1997, ten years after Frances was raped, when The Rape Poems was released. This year, 2016, Frances published a new collection of poems entitled Seaglass Picnic. Frances says that unlike The Rape Poems, which were created very slowly and through thousands of drafts, the poems of Seaglass Picnic flew out of her. Paradoxically, they seem to be more personal in the dimensions of her that they reveal. The Rape Poems, despite their drawn-out creation, are rooted in the immediacy and instant aftermath of the violence perpetrated against Frances. There is no way for an outsider to express the reality of what happened to her that does not seem insipid; only she is capable of articulating that in its totality. However, in spite of the immediacy of their creation, the poems in Seaglass Picnic are more universally illuminating. They depict a life that includes trauma, not one wholly defined by it. Indeed, Frances readily admits that Seaglass is more “personal and private,” though she is more enigmatic and less prosaic in her expressions of why that is.

Frances has been living with the trauma of her abuse for almost 30 years. She is 67—born May 22, 1949, a Gemini she adds. Reading her poems in public has lost some of its luster for her: she often finds it to be exhausting. Yet, that has not taken anything from the power of her performance. And her readings are more than recitations: they are performative. At a recent preview reading for the 2016 JaxbyJax Literary Arts Festival, Frances, unlike most of the other readers, elected not to use the provided microphone, which incidentally caused her audience to have to earnestly focus on her words to hear and process them. This, along with her demonstrative gestures and the sonorous but distinctly feminine quality of her voice, served to create an atmosphere within the relatively small venue of a world away from the world. Those listening were able to lock into the flow of her voice and be carried through pieces of the admittedly heartbreaking story of The Rape Poems.

Frances tells the stories others have shared with her with the same reverence and gravity that she communicates her own story. She explains that after reading “The Island of Raped Women” at a pre-teen rape center in New York, one little girl wanted to know, “Where is the island?” By keeping these narratives alive over the years, Frances gives voice to the voiceless. Another young girl, raped at the age of eight and given The Rape Poems at age 13, said of Frances, “She knows how I felt; she knows how I feel.”

For all of the lives she has saved and made a difference in over the years, Frances is not immune to pain when other people tell her what they have been through. A former student of hers who had been raped at eight years old and struggled with drug and alcohol abuse as a result committed suicide. When she says he was a “brilliant poet and a brilliant person,” it is clear that he will never leave her mind. She feels obligated and eager to listen to their stories, but that does not mean that she loves it. “So many people don’t tell anyone…they tell me. And they need to tell me,” she says. Often people explain that they were raped by saying to Frances, “Something happened to me.” They tell her, “Thank you for saying the words that I could not say.”

Asked if the existence of The Rape Poems at least in part fulfills her perceived obligation to give solace to sufferers, Frances says, “People seem to feel the need to talk with me and have me listen to their story.” That is a lot of weight to carry—not only her post-traumatic stress but the sustained hurt of so many people. Without the outlet of poetry, perhaps there would not be another way for Frances to process her own pain—or at least not one as powerfully effective. In that way, the debt she is repaying is to the art form.

She quotes the poet Bruce Weigl: “I have only a story and my belief in the power of story to save us.” Frances takes this belief to the height of its power. Feminist language theorist, Judith Butler, she explains, says, “We are beings who require language to be.” It is an existential imperative that people share their stories. Indeed, the human experience is contingent upon the interaction of stories. For many, Frances may represent their only hope for catharsis. She acts as a proxy, a conduit for literature’s power to heal.

Frances is more than her trauma; she is more than an eccentric character in Jacksonville, Florida’s burgeoning literary scene—though she is an irreplaceable fixture in the community. Deeply sensitive yet firmly outspoken, Frances is a force of nature in a diminutive frame, a moral barometer, and a fully realized human being who has the uncanny ability to express emotions through writing in a way that most cannot. She elicits the desire both to take care of her and to rely on her. Her work, by its nature, attracts the downtrodden and disenfranchised victims of violent abuse. Perhaps it is time that more people find her to offer encouragement and well-deserved praise to balance out the darkness. There may not be anything wrong with sufferers coming together and identifying with each other, but Frances has more than earned her share of positivity, too.

Presumably, the cycle will continue. Frances’s work will be discovered and rediscovered by those who need it. They will find her, and they will tell their stories. But who is going to listen when she is no longer here? What does her narrative teach us about the responsibility that writers have to their readers? Now that the incoming leader of the free world is an avowed abuser and denigrator of women, and sexual abuse has been tacitly approved of by a purportedly democratic process, the onus on individual citizens to act as healers is possibly greater than at any other time. The pen and the keyboard have become shamanic tools. Society needs more writers, more not less purveyors of the humanities. The survival of our spirits is at risk. To express feeling and genuine human experience is an act of resistance to the increasing mechanization and commodification of our communities. Frances Driscoll is a beacon, an example to be followed in creating a world that is not based in greedy self-interest. Have the generosity and the bravery to write your story. But be prepared for all that act entails. The millions who have been saved by literature of any kind are now obligated to Frances to carry on her legacy.

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