Author empowered by shedding light on family secrets

Donna Besel doesn’t consider herself brave for telling the truth.

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This article was published 27/11/2021 (256 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Donna Besel doesn’t consider herself brave for telling the truth.

“This is a necessity,” says the Manitoba author, her voice cracking. “It’s important for my kids to know that it can be told — my husband died because he wouldn’t talk about it.”

For a decade, beginning when she was about six years old, Besel was repeatedly molested by her father, John Tod, whom everyone called Jock. He would eventually face charges for sexually and physically abusing many of his 11 children, but first, the family’s shared trauma had to be pulled from the shadows.

Manitoba author Donna Besel has published a memoir detailing her father's sexual and physical abuse and the process of holding him accountable. (Kristin Sawatzky photo)

Besel, 67, was in her late 30s when what she calls the “incest bomb” was detonated following a sister’s wedding. The ramifications were immediate and irreversible. Wrestling with new information and painful memories, the siblings broke into factions and the facade of a happy, functioning family was torn asunder.

Therapy and journalling helped Besel process the fallout. Nearly 20 years later, she has published a memoir, titled The Unravelling: Incest and the Destruction of a Family, with the hope that her story will embolden others to share their truth.

“Being able to tell your story is quite revolutionary,” she says. “It’s scary but it helps. And for people who don’t know anything about (incest), it’s going to help them understand.”

The Unravelling: Incest and the Destruction of a Family was published by University of Regina Press in November.

Besel grew up in West Hawk Lake and has spent most of her life next to various bodies of water in eastern Manitoba. She worked as a language arts teacher and, later, as a stay-at-home mother for her two children. Her husband, Warren, was a lawyer. In 1999, he died by suicide.

“In his family, there’s a similar history of sexual dysfunction,” she says. “There’s a lot of collateral damage and it’s such a huge cost, right? Hence people don’t report and hence it doesn’t get stopped.

The Unravelling is Besel’s second book — Lessons from a Nude Man, a collection of short stories, came out in 2015 and her work has received accolades from Prairie Fire, CBC and the Manitoba Book Awards. In May, she was awarded the Manitoba Arts Council’s Rural Recognition Prize.

Her memoir is an unapologetic look at the inner and external turmoil that comes with holding abusers to account. Its publication has been a long time coming.

“I wrote it, actually, not that long after (my father’s) court case,” she says. “It was much bigger; I cut it from 200,000 words down to 90,000.”

After years of shopping it around to different publishers, Besel found a home with the University of Regina Press. If writing was an outlet, editing provided empowerment.

“Strangely, because so many publishers rejected it and I went through it so many times, it became less and less emotional,” she says. “It became, ‘Well, this is a pretty interesting story and I should share it.’”

In the book, Besel describes the feeling of opening up about her trauma to friends, family and strangers like offloading a heavy bag of stones one by one. It still feels like that — if not a tad overwhelming to have her deepest wounds printed, bound and shipped to bookstores across the country.

“It’s a little bit scary, but the response has been really positive and supportive and heartfelt,” she says, adding that one Facebook comment in particular has stuck with her.

“It (read), ‘I’m 50 years old, my mother doesn’t know — what do I do now?’ Like, holy crap, it’s everywhere; it’s rampant.”

Besel points to the statistics about childhood sexual abuse as another reason for writing her book. According to Statistics Canada, family members, friends and acquaintances commit the majority of sexual offences against children and young people.

“It’s much easier to be afraid of the bogeyman in the park,” she says. “We’re very invested in the family structure and that blows it apart.”

While friends, neighbours and the public have been supportive of the book, Besel isn’t sure of her family’s reaction. At the time of writing, she sent the manuscript to her siblings — some corroborated the events, others didn’t respond. She is now estranged from most of her relatives.

“Once they disavowed me, or whatever you want to call it, it gave me the liberty to just write whatever the hell I wanted,” she says, adding that she used pseudonyms early on, but replaced them with real names at the urging of a writing instructor.

“She was very adamant that I tell the real story, not make up a fictionalized version of it, because it’s really important that people know this really happened.”

Besel has been warned that telling her story will hurt those around her. “Well, the other stuff hurt people too,” she says. “So much is destroyed. It’s vandalism of children.”

The Unravelling is available at McNally Robinson and most major booksellers.

Twitter: @evawasney

Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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