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The Art of Survival
by Joan Givner

How Elly Danica's groundbreaking memoir of child abuse has changed her life

THAT BOOK WAS PAIN RELIEF," SAYS Elly Danica of Don't, her memoir of child abuse and incest. "I had to write it or die." It was published in 1988 by Gynergy Books, and word of its power spread from survivor to survivor. Then it came to the attention of Peter Gzowski, whose coverage on "Morningside" brought wider circulation. Eventually, Don't gained international recognition and ran to eight editions, worldwide. Now, six years later, the initial furore has subsided, the book has attained the stature of a classic, and Elly Danica's life has changed forever.

When we talk by phone about a meeting, Danica offers to come to Regina, I to travel to Moose Jaw. We choose the latter because I want to see her in her own place, which is so intimately a part of who she is. It is a kind of pilgrimage, and not without danger.

Although the journey from Regina to Moose Jaw takes less than an hour, travel even for short distances can be hazardous in Saskatchewan in winter. On the appointed day, a weather advisory predicts near-blizzard conditions and warns against travel on the highway. I wake before dawn because the buses between the two Prairie cities run infrequently. As I set out in darkness there is no snow yet, only fierce cold and a biting wind.

The route is along the trans-Canada highway and day breaks as we enter the town, flanked by oil refineries and the urban sprawl of gas stations. By the time we reach the Moose Jaw bus station, it is snowing steadily. Although the streets are deserted and there is little traffic about, I wait dutifully at the intersections until the sign gives me permission to cross. I reach Grandma Lee's restaurant and ask at the counter if it's self-service.

"Your first time here, isn't it?"

"Where do you come from?"

"What brings you here?"

Responding to this catechism, I explain that I have come to interview Elly Danica.

My interlocutor says he knows her very well, points me to a table and says he'll join me. Because of the cold and the early hour (it is not yet eight o'clock) there are few customers, and when he brings my plate he slides into the booth. I am eager to gather impressions of Danica's family, and we talk while the radio in the background croons "Love me tender, love me true."

"The father? He was a really nice little guy," he says in answer to my question.


"About your height." (I'm five feet, two inches.) I adjust my mental picture because I'd imagined a large, powerfully built man.

"He was really friendly, a well-respected businessman who had a camera store just over there." He gestures to the main street outside the window. I know, of course, about the camera store and the sideline of producing pornographic photographs.

His words recall a conversation of the previous evening in the restaurant where a group of us meets on Friday night. A friend who grew up in Moose Jaw told me of working in a law office run by Danica's mother, whom she described as a very elegant lady, beautifully dressed, with exquisite silver jewelry, which she made herself.

"A very cultured family, very European," my present companion tells me, reinforcing the impression of the night before. "Good manners, strict discipline, love of music..."

I have difficulty matching these images with my preconceptions. Am I naive in expecting the mother of 10 abused children to look abject, the family to bear the visible stigmata of violence? Although I know that such horrors are shrouded in secrecy, surely there must have been some tell-tale sign.

He tells me that the community was equally shocked and incredulous; that after the book, the father was ostracized, even spat upon, and eventually had to leave town.

I ask questions I will hesitate to ask Danica herself, fearful of causing pain. I am accustomed to the role of interviewer but her vulnerability is disarming. This assignment makes me tremulous because I learned long ago that to probe the secrets of another human heart never leaves the investigator unscathed.

But my friend scoffs at the idea of Danica's fragility.

"She's one tough bird," he assures me. "There's a social event, the men downstairs drinking and one makes a sexist remark, some women would let it pass but not Elly, she gives it right back. She's a fighter and she's smart. The school of quick wit. Gutsy." Does this toughness, I wonder, explain her survival?

As business picks up, he returns to the grill and I pick my way over icy sidewalks to the supermarket and the wine store, gathering provisions for lunch and dinner. I hoped to take Danica out, but her allergies complicate restaurant meals. After the shopping, somewhat heavily laden, I head for the library. Here we are to meet for the drive to the church in which she made a nest 15 years ago and has lived alone ever since.

"A nice soft place to go crazy," she told Peter Gzowski.

Dotted all over the Prairies are the remains of once-thriving towns, now dying as their populations drift to the cities. It is to one of these that we head, a half-hour journey down country roads with the snow whipping across them. It is a dead time of year; the fields are drained of colour, barren under a layer of sparse snow, all signs of life snuffed out by the searing wind.

I believe I know what to expect from Gzowski's preface to the mass paperback edition of Don't. He describes finding her in the basement of a clapboard church with the wind flapping the plastic window coverings. From the outside, the building still looks dilapidated, but it is no longer the rundown place he describes, and Danica has moved upstairs. I ask lightly if the ascension to the main floor signifies a rise from the ashes of despair.

"I had to live in the basement until I realized what it was about the basement that I didn't want to remember," she says seriously. It was in the basement of her home, when she was 11, that her father supervised her rape, for a fee, by three local men a doctor, a lawyer, and a judge.

Like the worshippers of an earlier time, we use the main door under the cupola, pausing in the vestibule where a stook of dried bulrushes suggests a recent harvest festival. When we enter, instead of the angular lines of an aisle intersecting rows of pews, a barrier between nave and chancel, there is unbroken space. The one room resembles the studio of a painter, or rather of several artists all practising different skills, for many projects seem to be in progress. There are drafting tables covered with delicate paintings (she is preparing a show), enough books for a scholar's library, a large loom, and a spinning wheel. A group of woven baskets, recently made, explains the collection of bulrushes in the outside hall.

The various work areas flow freely into each other, giving an impression under the high ceilings of airy space, light, and intense vitality. Every section bespeaks creative activity, someone busy working, reading, producing things of beauty.

Among the tables and looms there is also the furniture of everyday living -- a bed surrounded by bookshelves, a sitting room with sofa and overstuffed chairs, an antique dining table with candlesticks on an exquisite oriental rug (a gift from a friend), an office with an unexpectedly modem computer equipped to transmit faxes and e-mail.

Where formerly the altar stood, in the east, there is a long narrow kitchen with easy chairs at one end to catch the morning sun. A tiny black-and-white television set is tucked away in a comer. The place is not quite of this century, not quite of another, but a merging of both. It transcends the boundaries of time, just as the room transcends the usual divisions of working and living space. It is absolutely personal, original, timeless, unaffected by custom or precedent.

I am reminded of other women who have created unique dwelling-places in striking contrast to the conventions of domestic architecture -- Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst, Virginia Woolf's Monk's House, Gertrude Stein's atelier, even Marie Antoinette's hameau in a corner of the great park of Versailles. The comparisons are absurd in a way, for these Europeans were rich. Danica bought her abandoned United Church for a mere $250, borrowing money from friends for the small down payment. Money, then as always, was a major problem.

Danica has arranged every place she sits to provide pleasant vistas. "Everywhere I look it has to be pleasing to my eye or it drives me crazy and I have to go fix it."

Looking up at the vaulted ceilings and the freshly painted white arches of the kitchen-altar, I take pleasure in them too. A good stereo (bought with a cash award from a magazine) plays subdued classical music that sounds faintly ecclesiastical.

While we talk, Danica busies herself with the special bread she bakes because of her allergies, but also, I feel, because she is a purist and prefers the hand-made and the organic. There are modem appliances -- a microwave oven, a dishwasher, and a freezer downstairs in the basement. But her water supply is trucked in, and when I go to the bathroom I am careful not to flush wastefully and use the water that is acquired so laboriously. The old-fashioned and the modem, the mass-produced and the hand-made, go side by side here.

The questions I ask are not only my own. All week I have been reading Don't with my students, and I am the bearer of their questions. In class we have discussed what it means that someone elects to live in a church. We have speculated that the refuge we think of as home represents no safe haven for her, having roughly the associations of a torture chamber. There, her innermost privacy was laid open, made public, photographed, violated. As a result, her sense of private and public have been reversed.

On the subject of religion Danica is deeply ambivalent. She sees the church as complicit in her abuse, for when she appealed for help to the nuns and priests, they counselled obedience to her father's authority; she never willingly enters a Catholic church. Yet, she often crept into the nearby church for sanctuary in the worst times. A little Hummel statue of Virgin and Child, sent by her grandmother to mark her first communion, became an icon, her beacon of hope. And Catholicism profoundly shapes her personal mythology. Even the description in Don't of her immolation in the basement is presented as a grotesque inversion of the nativity scene, a parodic grouping of Mary, Joseph, and the Magi. Danica clearly yearns to fill the emptiness left by the institution that failed her. In a sense, she has found it in the women who hailed her book and brought it into print, and in the multitude of women worldwide who have devoured it.

I ask about her powers of survival, knowing how many others fall victim to drugs, suicide, multiple personality disorders, and self-abuse of all kinds. She explains: if one person believes in you, believes your story, tells you that what is happening to you is wrong, it is enough to keep hope alive.

She found that person in her maternal grandmother. In Holland, where the abuse began when she was four, the grandmother, learning of it, warned the father and told Elly to come to her if it happened again. But the intervention of her Oma precipitated the father's decision to move the family to Canada. Once there, as recent immigrants, they were isolated under his absolute power and tyranny, cut off from all outside help. The father completed her isolation by forbidding Danica to speak Dutch so that she was unable to communicate with her Oma. She grieves for her younger sisters who had no such person, and especially for the sister who died by her own hand.

Yet, the hope planted in the four-year-old was not extinguished. When Nicht, the Dutch translation of Don't, was published in Holland, she took a copy to her Oma, then 95. Time, failing memory, and language barriers prevented the visit from being anything more than a symbolic gesture, yet it was important to Danica. It gave her a sense of something coming full circle and she celebrated by giving herself the gift of a Mont Blanc fountain pen. She does much of her writing by hand, filling copious diaries and notebooks.

Is she satisfied by what her book has achieved? Not altogether. "The language around child abuse has become not only gender-neutral but neutral, period. What's erased is who does what to whom. Phrases like 'dysfunctional family' and 'domestic violence' take the politics right out of the subject and create a comfort zone for men."

I am curious about her surname, which falls on my ears like the brand name of a camera, that instrument of her humiliation. I have assumed it to be a relic of the disastrous marriage to which she fled in an effort to escape her abusive home. No. Danica is not a patronymic but a Slavic first name; it means "morning star." She named herself, choosing it for the sound, the way it looked on the page.

The hours pass swiftly. Eventually I shut off my recorder and, forgetting this is an interview, we tuck our feet under us in the easy chairs and just chat about books. We actually go back a long way, Elly and 1, having been introduced 14 years ago by a local bookseller who thought we should know each other. As a result, she became my teaching assistant. But we were different people then. It was a year before my first book appeared and eight years before hers. In the intervening years we have exchanged greetings, met briefly at writers' gatherings, run into each other in bookstores.

She has always been an avid book-buyer in spite of the poverty, which literary success has not changed. She notes ruefully that if she had a dollar for every copy of Don't sold, she would be tolerably well off, but she earns only 23 cents on each copy of the trade paperback.

Our discussion turns to her work and the long waiting period before she found the right voice for what she had to tell. She reads a little of the novel she has just finished, and we talk about the possibility of another autobiographical work fleshing out the spare lines of Don't. We speculate about her father and what produces such viciousness. Did something happen to him as a teenager in that sub-basement where he spent the war years in fear and hiding'? We know well that the devastation of war goes far beyond the battlefield. But to answer that question would require funds for research and travel. It is really about her mother and grandmother that she longs to write more, to explore the substance of their letters over the decades. She is tempted to reconstruct that correspondence, curious about its veiled nature, since no letter ever went out without the father's permission.

I begin to understand that her deepest pain comes not from having been raped by her father and his friends, but from the ruptured relationship with her mother. "I was an adult at four," she has written, noting that she never played games like other children. She was an orphan, too, for from that time she was virtually motherless and her deep incurable yearning is for her lost mother. She says that yesterday was the anniversary of her mother's death and speaks of her long recovery from that event, which ended forever her hope of reconciliation with her mother. The publication of Don't (she included her mother in the dedication) deepened the rift and she was excluded from her mother's funeral.

I believe the Hummel figurine represents for her not an image of Mary and Jesus, but of the nurturing, protective mother she lacked. A photograph by her bed shows Danica as an infant on her mother's lap. And the female deity she invokes in Don't is the Sumerian goddess Inanna, whose name echoes that of her own mother -- Anna.

I ask about her literary foremothers and, predictably, we discuss Virginia Woolf (she prefers her diaries and letters) and Louise deSalvo's book about the impact of sexual abuse on Woolf's life and work.

The book that was instrumental in inspiring Danica, though, was The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1899 account of mental breakdown and her treatment at the hands of her husband, a physician, and the medical men he consulted. I know the book, which William Dean Howells described as a story "to freeze ... the blood," and I feel that I should have made the connection. Darrica says, "It showed me how powerful a short book could be."

When the light fades, she prepares dinner and we sit in the candlelight, drinking wine sparingly, aware of imminent departure and the drive along the roads now treacherous with black ice. The blizzard intensifies with the darkness as we head back to Moose Jaw. We make it to the brightly lit city streets, already festooned for Christmas, but I worry about her journey back.

As my bus speeds through the night, the windows give back only my own reflection. I wonder if Elly Danica's story has such resonance because so many of us, if we are women, yearn for that lost mother of our early childhood. I think about the ugliness of her ruined childhood. She can never altogether escape its scars and its legacy of physical afflictions; yet through the healing process of her art, she has become more whole, more centred, more integrated than almost anyone I know.

A friend to whom I spoke of my planned expedition said, "Do we need any more stories of victims?" Perhaps not, but Danica's lesson is not one of victimization but of survival and heroism, and the lives of many who listen to her have been changed. Most often, it's her courage that is evoked; but I am moved, above all, by her integrity as an artist, her commitment to honest truthtelling. How many writers work with her concentration, biding their time in solitude and silence until the moment comes to give birth to a work of overwhelming power? Her monastic existence provides a stark contrast to most of our lives, filled with excessive socializing, myriad distractions, and pointless time-wasting.

When I return to the high-rise apartment that is my temporary home, I look at it with new eyes. I feel like a different person from the one who set out a mere 10 hours earlier, and the large television set that dominates the living room looms like a reproach.

I should like to return again to that country church, to see it in a green and growing season, but that is unlikely, for already I have commitments elsewhere. I suspect that Elly and I shall not meet again soon. But she will be with me for a long time, for no serious person can easily shed her influence.

Meanwhile, I have one of her watercolours, a landscape of mountains and water, done in the delicate colours of a newborn's nursery. What makes it distinctive is its mood of such unnatural serenity and stillness as to be almost sinister. And in the sky above is Elly Danica's personal symbol -- the full moon, round and white and whole.


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