Hong Kong (AFP) – Bestselling author Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir “Wild” was turned into an Oscar-nominated film about her recovery from trauma, says listening more is key to healing wounds between men and women in the age of #MeToo.
Published in 2012, “Wild” — which recounted Strayed’s gruelling 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in America at the age of 26 — was a smash hit that prompted Oprah Winfrey to resurrect her book club. Two years later, the film starring Reese Witherspoon catapulted US author Strayed to fame.
The three-month long hike emerged out of Strayed’s struggle to recover from her mother’s untimely death, a loss which sparked the breakdown of her marriage and sent her into a self-destructive spiral of sex and drugs.
Now 50, Strayed says that while she is no stranger to trauma — she has told of suffering sexual abuse at the hands of her paternal grandfather when she was just three years old — the #MeToo movement has made her “rethink the meaning of consent”.
Speaking to AFP on the sidelines of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, Strayed — long a campaigner for women’s rights — recounts how her high-school boyfriend once ripped off her top and exposed her breasts in front of a male classmate before both boys ran away laughing.
“What kills me is that as upset as I was, I just brushed it off and I didn’t break up with him,” she says.
“There was no place to say: ‘this is wrong and he should be held to account’.”
Yet, even as Strayed applauds the way in which the #MeToo movement has helped dissolve a culture of silence concerning sexual harassment, she says it is vital for men to join the conversation.
Any prospects for lasting change depend on whether people are able to accept the fact that “a lot of good men have done very bad things” and been allowed to get away with it because of social norms that have traditionally blamed victims rather than perpetrators of harassment, she says.
“I don’t blame men for learning the lessons, I blame them for failing to unlearn the lessons,” that encourage them to mistreat women, she says.
“Healing is absolutely possible, but it’s only possible if we are willing…to listen and to speak.”
– ‘Born ambitious’ –
Strayed says she was “born ambitious” and first encountered gender discrimination as a child at home when her maternal grandfather made a dismissive comment saying it was a shame that she, not her brother, was the brainy one.
“I was crushed by that,” she says of the incident which found its way into her debut novel “Torch”, published in 2006 when she was still a little-known author.
Describing herself as a feminist since the age of six, Strayed has organised protests, lobbied politicians to back feminist policies and contributed funds towards tackling issues ranging from reproductive rights to aiding incarcerated women.
But even as she devotes time and money to supporting feminist causes, she says storytelling has been her strongest weapon in the fight for gender equality.
“My furthest and most radical reach is via the books I have written,” she says, describing writing as “a deeply political act”.
“Reading with an open mind and an open heart is transformative.”
– ‘Outside the comfort zone’ –
Although fiction remains her first love, it was non-fiction that vaulted Strayed into the ranks of literary superstardom.
Her memoir inspired hordes of women to strap on their backpacks and follow in her footsteps, in a trend nicknamed “The Wild Effect”.
Her third and fourth books — a compilation of advice columns from her time as an anonymous agony aunt “Dear Sugar” and a collection of inspirational quotes — have burnished her reputation as a writer who many of her readers see as a mentor of sorts.
A fifth book is on the way, she says — a memoir about travel.
There are no clues as to what it will be titled, though she has previously joked about simply calling it: “Mild”.
Looking back to the book that changed her life and won her an enduring readership, Strayed says its title reflects “that wild place that we all have within, where anything is possible, where any thought can roam within our bodies and minds”.
“I love the wonder inherent in that word.”