Q&A: Nancy Rue (The Merciful Scar)
In a co-author project titled The Merciful Scar (Thomas Nelson), Rebecca St. James and Nancy Rue teamed up to tell a timely and provocative story of a young girl struggling with an addition to self-injury. Nancy talked to us about their creative collaboration and the experience of writing about such a painful topic.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THAT ISSUE FOR THE TOPIC OF THIS BOOK?
When Rebecca and I decided to write fiction for the New Adult audience, I asked her what issues came up most often in her work with the young women in this age group. She immediately came back with self-injury as one of them. I hadn’t gotten far into my research before I realized what a deep-seated and pervasive problem self-harm is, which validated some guidance toward healing as a felt need. But what really solidified it for me was that when I asked on my teen blog for anyone who would like to help me with the project from the standpoint of personal experience, 6 of the 20 or so regulars on the blog contacted me. All of them had experience with purposely hurting themselves. My other two interviews were with women over fifty who, though they no longer practiced cutting, still struggled with the urge from time to time. All 8 of them bore not only physical scars but emotional ones as well. We didn’t need any more encouragement for the writing this book than that.
WHAT DO YOU THINK READERS WILL SEE IN KRISTEN'S STORY?
We hope they’ll see several things. (A) That self-injury is not a suicidal behavior nor is it evidence that a young woman (or guy) is mentally ill or trying to get attention or is just “weird.” We want understanding about self-harm: these are people who are suffering from deep inner pain they can’t seem to release in any other way, and the physical pain makes more sense to them than the angst they can’t even name. (B) That if they struggle with any kind of behavior that attempts to control pain – PTSD, an eating disorder, self-injury, drug addiction, alcohol abuse – there is help. (C) That no matter what we face in our lives, we can and need to be still and hear the still small voice of God.
The scene where Kristen wakes up in the hospital is brutal. She feels confused, betrayed, and misunderstood. It's such heart-wrenching part of the book. What was it like to get inside of Kristen's despair and write about it?
I love that you know that it IS necessary to get inside the character’s despair. It was painful because I was echoing the thoughts and feelings and experiences of young women I care about. I drew on some scenarios a health care professional shared with me (heart-breaking in itself) and from my own experience in the past with depression and an eating disorder, back when those things were as poorly understood as self-injury is now. I think that was the scene where I really bonded with Kirsten.
WHAT SORT OF RESEARCH DID YOU CONDUCT IN ORDER TO GET INSIDE THE MIND OF SOMEONE WHO CUTS?
As I’ve said, in addition to some great books which are listed in the acknowledgements I interviewed 8 women (16 to 50) by phone or in person. They were so transparent and so brave. That experience made me want to get it right, you know?
Why do you feel self-harm is such a prevalent issue for girls? It seems every girl in her twenties has known or knows someone with this struggle.
I think the first thing to realize is that this behavior has been going on for decades and I’m not sure it’s more prevalent – it’s just more publicized. Then of course when something becomes public, girls who are struggling may think, “That sounds so good to me right now.” I don’t think it’s the power of suggestion so much as the power of “solution”, at least in their minds. Since self-injury usually arises from deep emotional pain, I think we have to look there for the specific reasons: more pressure to be perfect, more awareness of universal pain because of social media, less support from society to be genuine, a recession that has led to more anger in adults, which leads to more abuse. But I think most of all it’s a lack of the sense that God is here and loves them. In several of the girls I talked to there was a feeling that they had somehow failed God because they couldn’t adhere to an ultra-conservative set of expectations. In terms of why SI [self-injury] is more commonly practiced by girls than boys, studies have shown (I can’t quote them; sorry) that boys usually internalize less and have more outlets for expressing anger. It’s more “okay” for them to “go off” than it is for girls, even now.
HOW DID THIS BOOK CHANGE YOU THROUGH THE PROCESS OF WRITING IT?
Another great question. Obviously I have a far deeper understanding of self-injury and it has made me even more compassionate about the plight of all New Women (girls in the New Adult audience) and the world they face. Going even deeper than that, spending time with the passage from Isaiah was profound, and I actually spend more time in Centering Prayer than I did before writing The Merciful Scar. And of course, my week at the sheep ranch in Montana was amazing and brought me closer to God’s creation. You can’t bottle-feed a struggling lamb (they named her “Little Nancy”) for that long, watch her become healthy, and not be changed in some way you can’t name. Most of all, I want to embody the wisdom God gave me for Sister Frankie. I want to be her when I grow up!
HOW WAS IT WRITING THIS AS A CO-AUTHOR PROJECT? WHAT DID EACH AUTHOR BRING TO THE TABLE?
As I’ve mentioned, Rebecca came up with the ideas the books (there are three of them, actually) are centered around. Then I came up with the basic story concept and what we call a “skinny draft”; she reviewed it carefully and made superb suggestions that I incorporated. Then as I wrote, I sent her chunks to review which she did beautifully. Let me just say that Rebecca St. James is the real deal. I think we wonder that sometimes about Christian celebrities: is this genuine, what’s she like when she isn’t on stage, that kind of thing. Rebecca is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside – which is saying something! – and Christ shines from her in an almost unearthly way. While Rebecca’s main job in our partnership is to get the word out about the book, I think her more important role has been prayer, encouragement, spiritual support. I count on her honesty and integrity, as well as her love for young women and for God. It really is an honor to work with her. Must be a God-thing.