Five Questions with Dan Martin on Memoir and Survival

Daniel J. Martin lives in Kansas City, Missouri and writes memoir and creative nonfiction, often focused on nature and the environment. Dan teaches literature and nonfiction writing at Rockhurst University, where he is a professor of English.

We caught up with him in March 2022 to ask about his partially-TR-funded project, Writing is Surviving: Memoir as a Response to Clergy Sexual Abuse.

1) TR: There’s a lot of writing on clerical sexual abuse by people who haven’t been directly affected — journalism, grand jury reports and “national reports” like the John Jay report and recent reports from Australia, Chile, Germany, France, academic writing by psychologists, historians, theologians, sociologists, criminologists, and so on. What do you think memoir brings to the table that is distinct from all of those things?

DM: From my reading of memoirs, I see great value in the particularity of experience and the reflection on that experience. While there are informative patterns across cases of clergy sexual abuse, it is also true that every experience, every trauma is unique, and each survivor responds in their own way.  When we read a survivor’s account, we watch the story unfold in an actual time and place, and we have an opportunity to understand it from the survivor’s perspective, which can make for challenging and enlightening reading. But I think the most poignant contribution of memoir is in the reflection on the experience, how the writer tries to understand it now and how the writer situates the experience within a life’s journey. The energy and the insight of memoir is found in the tension between the past and the present, the reflecting self in contact with an earlier experiencing self. As a writer, I know this but often come up short. It is one thing to tell a story, and it is quite another to invest it with enduring meaning.

2) A question that’s the other side of the coin: can you mention one or two specific things you’ve learned from academic or journalistic work on the abuse crisis that have shaped your memoir?


DM: Some of the earliest research I read was by Richard Sipe on celibacy and power. I found Myra L. Hidalgo’s Sexual Abuse and the Culture of Catholicism to be a careful exploration of the abuse behavior by priests and nuns. Additional psychological research based on surveys and interviews with victims has been eye-opening, particularly in identifying patterns of grooming and in documenting the lasting mental health damage experienced by victims. I am still reading Dyan Elliot’s The Corrupter of Boys, and it is a fascinating work of historical research that uncovers patterns in the way the early and medieval church treated the sexual transgressions of priests, suggesting that what we have experienced in the recent crisis has systemic, historical roots. Emerging research projects supported by the Taking Responsibility initiative continue to open my eyes. I’m thinking of the projects that are focusing on clergy sexual abuse within indigenous communities and communities of color, where the legacies of racism and abuse merge into unthinkable horrors. Finally, the research projects on clericalism and moral injury coming out of the Taking Responsibility initiative have offered me new insights into the institutional context of the crisis and provide a more nuanced understanding of how people are harmed.

3) Your title refers to Ishmael Reed’s Writin’ is Fightin’. Can you tell us a little bit about that work and what’s important about it to you and perhaps your students, as well?

DM: Honestly, “Writing is Surviving” was first about the sound, but then I found that it made sense. I felt that writing as an action, a process, was central to my project, and at some point, the empowered noun survivor became the empowering verb surviving.  Ever since I heard Reed give a lecture years ago, I have always appreciated his assertion that “writin’ is fightin’,” and it has remained a compelling notion in my head. It is not only the title of his book of essays, but it is also an epigraph attributed to the great wordsmith and heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. Reed’s essay “Boxing on Paper” outlines a life of activism, duking it out not with fists but with words, adopting early on what he calls a “pungent writing style.” For Reed fighting is a metaphor for his style, but writing is also the means of fighting. That is how writing as surviving also makes sense to me. It is the act of writing, particularly the telling of my story, that allows me to exert some agency over this experience and, at least to some degree, shape how it affects my life. Writing is not therapy, but both use the power narrative. For victims and survivors generally, “Writing is Surviving” captures the relationship between surviving and telling one’s story. This telling might be shared with a trusted friend, a therapist, an officer taking down a police report, an audience of other survivors on the path toward self-authorship.

4) You are now pretty open about being a survivor of clerical sexual abuse — which makes you rare among professors at Jesuit institutions. As you became more open about this, what’s one response your colleagues have had that was helpful, and one that was not so helpful?

DM: I don’t have any distinct memory of an unhelpful response from a colleague. In general, the least helpful responses happen when someone is so uncomfortable with the topic and with me that they are searching for a way to change the subject, but this response is totally understandable, and I get it. A typical conversation for me begins with a person asking me what I am writing, and I mention the memoir, and they say, oh, cool, what’s it about. That’s the moment where I know certain people will just not be ready to hear that I am writing about having been sexually abused by a priest. Depending on who I am talking with, I might divert the conversation or ease into the abuse topic, more because I feel bad for shocking the person and less because of my discomfort—although those two concerns may be part of the same difficulty. Colleagues here at Rockhurst have been really supportive, often thanking me for my work on this topic or offering to read parts of the memoir. The most helpful response was when a colleague received an email I distributed about the Taking Responsibility initiative and emailed me back saying he wanted to talk. We met on my patio over a glass of wine. I told him my story and he told me his. I think it made us both feel less alone.

5) The title of our project is Taking Responsibility. Can you reflect a little bit about what that title says to you? I’ll leave this question very broad so that you can truly free associate!

DM: One other epigraph in Reed’s book is from Larry Holmes: “Don’t bite your tongue about it.” It took me a while before I could talk about the abuse. In fact, I had actively put it out of memory for a long time. I first told my sisters and my spouse. When the Kansas City Star published accusations against the priest who abused me, I told my parents and a couple of friends. I remained otherwise silent, while admiring the courage of those who had spoken out. As our common abuser repeatedly denied their stories, I wanted to add my voice to the voices of his other victims, and I eventually contacted the diocese and was able to share my whole story in an official way. Gradually I built on that by making a police report and working on the memoir. These steps happened over a number of years. I want to be careful to say that every survivor must abide by their own readiness and tell their story, if at all, in their own time. For me, telling my story was a way to share in this taking of responsibility. In one sense, for a survivor it is taking responsibility for yourself, a path toward self-care, but it is also a collective responsibility in which survivors support one another and even help heal the wider community which has been harmed by this crisis.