Saturday, July 25, 2020

Book Spotlight: Helplessly Hoping by Douglas Kent

Title: Helplessly Hoping
Author: Douglas Kent
Publication Date: May 7th 2020
Print Length: 392 pages
Genre: Memoir
High school sweethearts Mara and Douglas are young and in love, but they’re about to discover that the nightmares of the past have a way of haunting us in the present. Together they will face the demons of Mara’s childhood…but will either of them get out alive?

A true and hauntingly candid look into the tragedy of sexual abuse and mental illness, and the struggle to stay afloat when everything seems hopeless.

Born in Danbury, CT, Douglas Kent now makes his home in the Dallas, TX area. While he still dabbles in fiction and satire, his published works have focused on personal experiences in the form of memoirs.

He is also an avid supporter of independent film and music, and a lifelong animal lover.

Allan Sherman once brilliantly sang “good advice costs nothing, and it’s worth the price.” Giving advice, and getting advice, can be a bit of a minefield. There’s a fine line between being honest and being hurtful. Sometimes the advice we get isn’t what we want to hear, but it’s something we need to know. Other times we give platitudes that serve no real purpose, afraid of offending someone or of starting an argument. I suppose it’s not just a question of what advice we give or receive, but also how we choose to take that advice. There are so many variables; being told something at one moment instead of another moment can drastically change our reaction.

I’ve gotten a lot of advice in my life. Some of it was good, some bad. And some I wish I’d listened to; things might have worked out a lot better if I had. I know that the adage is true: I am the sum of all my experiences, and if I changed anything I’ve been through, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. But that doesn’t mean there are a lot of things I wish I’d been able to avoid, and a lot of mistakes I wish I never made.

But some of the advice I’ve gotten has been bad. Or hurtful. Or both. In regards to my books, the worst advice I’ve received has been simple discouragement. While I worked on my most recent memoir, a few family members read over sample chapters and told me they thought it would be better if I abandoned the project entirely. One said it was the most depressing thing they’d ever read, and that nobody in their right mind would be interested. That hurt, even though I know they felt they were simply being honest with me. And I did appreciate their honesty. But I decided I would keep going, and in the process, I tried to put their advice in perspective. They’re negative reaction to my book was still, in the end, just their opinion, the opinion of two people. And I realized that they had very specific and unique points on view. For one, I understood some of their distaste was because they didn’t like to be reminded of the pain and unhappiness I’d been through. And for the other, I discovered that a good portion of their opinion was caused from my book conflicting with the memories they had of Mara (my first wife). They remembered Mara as a happy, sociable, fun person. And I guess that’s how they wanted to remember her.

Later, as I accumulated enough material to show a draft to a few friends, I got much more positive feedback. Of course they had suggestions and criticisms too, which is exactly what I asked for. But they had a different point of view than my family members, and I was told the found the history of our relationship enthralling. One friend told me she read it in 36 hours, barely putting it down. If I’d listened to the well-intentioned but negative feedback my family had given me, I’d never have finished the book at all. Certainly this memoir isn’t going to be a road to riches for me, but that’s not why I wrote it in the first place. I set out with two goals: tell the true story of what Mara and I went through together, and help Mara achieve something she’d always longed for – to be understood.

Sometimes though, advice can be truly painful, even when it isn’t intended to be. The most hurtful advice I ever got was from my 6th grade teacher. I can still remember the day, the room, and how my whole world shifted for me in just a few moments. My family had moved from Connecticut to New Jersey that summer. I didn’t have too many close friends in our old town, but I had a few. And I felt accepted there. Our entire class felt like a big family. We’d all known each other for years, went to each other’s birthday parties, played games together during recess. With a few exceptions, it seemed like we all liked each other and supported each other. Maybe that would have changed in a few years; cliques are more clearly defined as you become a teenager. But while my family life was a huge source of anxiety and unrest, school was actually somewhere I looked forward to going.

When we moved to New Jersey I had the typical “new kid” jitters, but mostly I just jumped in and tried to get to know everyone. The elementary school I went to housed grades 1 through 6, so just like in Connecticut, most of these kids had grown up together. I made some friends who lived nearby, and tried my best to adjust to my new surroundings. I’d always loved to laugh, and our classroom was always filled with laughter. Sometimes we directed our jokes at each other, but it was “give as good as you get” so I didn’t mind.

One day, a girl names Liz walked in the classroom. She stopped and made a face. “Ugh, it smells in here” she said. I piped up quickly, “Well it didn’t smell until you walked in, so….” And I laughed, along with a few other people. But not my teacher. She stood up and yelled at me. “Douglas, come out in the hall! Now!” And I did, while the class made the usual “ooooohhhhhh” noise that kids make when someone is in trouble.

And it was here that my teacher gave me the most hurtful advice I’ve ever been given. And the fact is she didn’t mean to hurt me. She was trying to be helpful, and to instill more consideration in me. Little did she know the impact her words would carry. She was angry, and she clenched her teeth a bit as she spoke to me. “I’ve got a piece of advice for you, Douglas. If you’re smart, you’ll knock the jokes off and stop making fun of people. You’ve been the brunt of a lot of jokes and teasing since you moved here, and I’ve always stood up for you. I would think that you’d give the same consideration to everyone else.”

I apologized to her, and said I would do as she suggested. And I walked back into the classroom, took my seat, and the day’s lessons resumed. Everything was back to the way it had been before. Except for me. For me, my entire world had just crumbled and been rebuilt with a devastating new outlook. I didn’t show it, I didn’t flinch or put my head down or anything else. Nobody had a clue.

So what changed inside of me in that moment? Everything. It was as if I’d made a scientific discovery that altered my perspective on life and the basis of the universe. It was a chain of logical thoughts, one following the other, but it all happened in an instant. While I’d spent the last few months joking with my classmates and having fun, they hadn’t been laughing with me. They’d been laughing at me. I wasn’t part of the gang, and I wasn’t even a face in the crowd. I was an outsider, the object of ridicule. Maybe not with everyone, but with most of them. Pieces fell into place, things said weeks earlier took on new meaning. I understood in that instant how I didn’t fit in with this new society, and how I wasn’t surrounded by friends. I was alone, helpless to the point that my teacher had been defending me when I was out of earshot. My brain was busily checking off boxes comparing me to the other kids, and I was coming up short on just about every measure possible. For that matter, so was my family.

I’ve often considered that moment as my epiphany of self-realization. From that moment onward, I’ve been very introspective. I’ve learned to recognize what I am thinking and feeling, and why. Unfortunately, a lot of that has included periods of depression, isolation, and desperate loneliness. And I realize my issues with self-loathing and unhappiness were probably inevitable. It’s only natural that as you grow up, you learn to understand the world that surrounds you better and better, and we all know how painful the awkward years of adolescence can be. But none of that can change the powerful affect my teacher’s advice had on me. That one moment, and that one piece of advice, had a profound impact that has never left me.

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