Candice Derman on describing the indescribable

By Theresa Mallinson 6 December 2010

“Indescribable: It's Easy To Keep a Bad Secret” is Candice Derman's first book – about how her stepfather abused her from the ages of eight to 14. It's a difficult book to read, but – especially given the child porn scandal that broke in Pretoria last week – it's a book from which people should not shy away. By THERESA MALLINSON.

Candice Derman’s book opens with a dictionary entry as an epigraph:

too unusual, extreme, or indefinite to be adequately described”

In one sense, Derman’s experience of being abused and raped by her stepfather – the man she called Dad – from age eight to 14, is “too extreme to be adequately described”; words can never convey the sheer horror of her suffering. But, once you actually start reading, it doesn’t take long to realise that the book is a devastating rejoinder to the epigraph.

In her task of describing the indescribable, Derman writes in a childlike voice, rather than in the tone of an adult looking back. This isn’t a stylistic device that Derman deliberately employs; it’s just how the writing came out. “There was no conscious thought,” says Derman. “I  absolutely started writing what felt organic, and just continued to write.” 

The innocence of her childlike tone contrasts disturbingly with the subject matter of her book. “Things I learned at eight,” she writes:

  1. Happiness comes and goes.
  2. How to kiss with the tongue.
  3. Sums.
  4. Girls aren’t allowed to go to Cubs.
  5. A man’s thing can go hard.
  6. I’m pretty and can get attention.
  7. I love to act and want to be famous.
  8. I can leave my body and be nowhere.
  9. I can keep secrets.
  10. I know how to miss someone.
  11. I can get on with life.
  12. My body can become an object.”

The adult Derman says she has always written for herself, but wrote this account knowing it was going to be published. “I always think it’s good for a writer to get their first book out there, (the one) that’s so inside of them.” But she hasn’t focused on other people’s reaction to her book, but rather on the empowerment it has brought her. “I’m never looking at (another person’s) response, I’m always looking at my own,” she says. “It brings me a sense of strength, because I’m not hiding behind anything; this is me, this is what I’ve gone through.

“When you have a story to tell and its inside of you, I think it’s very important to do it one day,” Derman says. “I always felt I couldn’t ignore my past, although my present is so fantastic. I also wanted to let people know that it (abuse) can happen. I didn’t want to be idle, and just live a good life, and not do something that, for me, was really important.”

Watch: Candice Derman reading from “Indescribable”

Derman says she’s read other stories of child abuse and, although while she was writing she didn’t feel this reading had influenced her, perhaps, on reflection, it had after all. “Maybe subconsciously, I was looking for my book, I just had to write it. It’s not only about abuse – I’ve always been very interested in women who’ve survived things, and survived well. I had to write my story to get the book I wanted, but I didn’t know while I was writing it.”

“Indescribable” is a difficult book to read, although one is a ever mindful of the fact that reading it isn’t nearly as difficult as writing it must have been – not to mention living it. While Derman doesn’t shy away from graphic descriptions of the sexual abuse she suffered, the book also sheds light on the psychological abuse that accompanied it. One of the book’s many uncomfortable moments is when Derman describes her dad not speaking to her for a week. The only way the nine-year-old Derman knows how to “sort out the bad with Dad” is to “stand naked and cold in front of Dad and make him happy”.

As the adult Derman points out: “Any abuse victim, who has been groomed, and who’s being abused by a parent figure, is going to be horribly manipulated, and the psychological effects have been shocking. You can’t hide away from those things either; it’s a very scary place for a child to be at.”

Derman says that she’s been in and out of therapy, but that her best therapy has been working on herself. “Writing the book wasn’t as cathartic as one would imagine,” she says. “As a person I’m very introspective. I always gone within; I’m always trying to survive. Those were my techniques – being able to live in the moment or eat an ice cream – there was always something rescuing me.”

One of the ironies in reading the book, is that the material is clearly too adult to expose a young child to, and yet the child who was living through the experience was very young herself. As Derman describes it: “I lived two lives: one was incredibly frightening and dark; and one was as an eight year old and filled with sunshine and light.”

And, within the context above, she gives some advice for parents trying to work out how to talk to their children about sex. “I’m not saying an eight-year-old (child) can read this book, but a 14-year-old (one) can. I think it’s very important to try to find a safe place to talk to your child about sex.”

Derman’s “dad” received a mere two years in jail for his crime. Derman says her focus has been not to dwell on this, but rather on managing her own healing process. “It became a desperate thing for me to be the person I want to be,” she says. However, she adds: “I think the sentencing then was shocking. I’m not sure of it now: I think they are starting to get stricter, which is incredibly important to me. I would love longer sentences.

“We hear about (paedophilia) so often, but we don’t hear about what it looks like. I think it’s really important for people to be faced with it,” she says. “In my book, I’m showing the horror of abuse, which is very important to me. Abuse is horrific; it’s horrific what happens to a child, and I wasn’t going to run away from it.” With Indescribable, Derman has written a book that challenges society to follow her own journey, and not to shrink away from facing the ugly reality of abuse. DM


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