Content warning: This interview discusses sexual assault and incest.
Anastasia Higginbotham is an author and artist who crafts her books by hand using recycled materials like brown paper bags, cloth, and jewelry. Her children’s series, Ordinary Terrible Things, centers on young characters confronting difficult formative experiences such as death, divorce, abuse, and white supremacy that shape their identities in various ways. Her book about race, Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness (2018), infuriated conservative legislators in Texas who recently tried to censor it as part of the growing white anxiety around critical race theory in the state. The author is also a self-defense instructor based in New York City.
Her latest book, You Ruined It: A Book About Boundaries (out on April 5 from Dottir Press), tells the story of Dawn, an 11-year-old girl who is sexually assaulted by her older cousin. Dawn struggles in the aftermath of this violence and eventually discloses the abuse to her mother and older sibling as she begins to pick up the pieces of her life. Unlike many other books dealing with difficult, traumatic subjects, Higginbotham’s work offers no advice, punishment, or easy answers. Instead, You Ruined It is a book about care—and the way that care may invite healing rather than demand it. Higginbotham talked to Bitch about her approach to these topics and how she reaches audiences of all ages.
Talk me through your process for a new book. What comes to you first? And what draws you to collage?
Conflict comes first, followed by visions or how I imagine telling the story with artwork, and then the words come last. The words then become the guide for what gets made. The art depends on what I find in magazines, catalogs, and papers I’ve collected. I’d been gathering images for You Ruined It ever since I made the first book about divorce in 2014. I saved sexual abuse for last because I needed to be well enough and more experienced to take it on. The other books healed and prepared me to be able to handle this one.
I work in collage because that’s how I’m able to give my art the depth, warmth, and life that I want it to have. I like how collages look real—all I want is to show how beautiful the regular world is to me. I’ve always loved playing with dolls. Disturbing stuff came out as I played. So I’m still doing that.
You Ruined It follows Dawn’s perspective and pays close attention to her body as she talks about the assault and confronts what happened. When she gets too overwhelmed, Dawn accesses her superpowers to become her alter-ego, Ghost. Clearly, Dawn is dissociating. At the start of the book, you write: “Our bodies know. Our bodies know the truth.” Tell me about why the body is so important to Dawn’s character and, more generally, to narratives about abuse.
You know how in Thelma & Louise, Louise won’t talk about Texas? The first time I saw the movie, I thought, well, maybe she’ll tell us later on, or someone will. Then Thelma tries to get the details one too many times, and Louise pulls over. They’re driving 125 miles per hour toward Mexico and Louise slows to a stop on the side of the road to grab Thelma by the lapels and says once more and finally, “I’m not talkin’ about that, you hear?”
Louise’s rock-solid clarity about there being nothing but torture for her in revisiting that narrative is why the body is so important. Who did it? What’d they do? What’d you do? Why’d you do that? Did they get away with it? These questions are no fun to answer, and impossible if the abuse happened in early childhood.
But questions like: Are you feeling pain or numbness or what? Where do you feel it? Do you recall what was happening right before you sensed it? Focusing on our bodies now lets us cope with, learn from, and maybe even release some of what happened without dragging ourselves back through it—plus, it’s hardly ever one thing that happened one time. Sexual abuse is cumulative and snowball-y. One thing leads to another, and another, and you feel like you must have a sign on your back that says “Please molest me.” It can go from being what happened to being what happens.
I was struck by the complexity and layers of Dawn’s family life. Dawn lives with her mother and older sibling, Billie, who is genderqueer. Dawn’s father lives in another state with his “new family.” The mother had previous experiences with incest. Because of this, each family member has distinct reactions to Dawn’s assault. Walk me through these different characters and their motivations. Why did you feel it necessary to show the family’s varied reactions to sexual abuse?
They’re all me. [Laughs.] But they’re themselves, too. It was important to show a range of reactions to validate what so many of us experience after we disclose an event where we were tricked or robbed of our power the way Dawn was. What happens next can determine whether we will be traumatized by the experience or treated in a way that sets us up to heal from it, however long [that] may take.
I’m gonna borrow a line from [my 2016 book] Death Is Stupid here: “Even the people who love you may not know what to say.” I portrayed the range of reactions to keep it real and show which reactions offer ease and relief, which further alienate or frighten Dawn, and which are [meant to be noticed] and then [ignored].
Some readers [may] right now [be] experiencing abuse by someone [whom] they may love, hate, be dependent on, feel terrified of, or all the above. I tried to make a book that could behold and hold that reader, too, imaginatively, through the danger, telling, aftermath, self-recrimination, remorse, grief—being believed, blamed and disbelieved all at once, and surviving it. Some readers may have no option to tell or to stop what’s happening to them right now. Like all of the books I’ve made, You Ruined It is an effort to give [through] fantasy what I cannot give in reality. I want the reader to feel the embrace when Mom holds them and they all cry.
My other hope is that children who [experience sexual abuse] will either feel understood or permitted to discover more deeply what it’s been like for them.
The book is deeply moving. It was very intense for me to read, even as a fully adult woman. Immediately, I wanted the other adults in my life to read You Ruined It, too. Talk to me about how You Ruined It bridges the gap between storytelling for young and mature audiences.
I wonder if this book will be harder for adults to read than it is for children, who have mostly not yet experienced this kind of abuse or seen their friends go through it. In this way, it’s a little like [my 2018 book] Not My Idea, which disturbs plenty of white adults but inspires and stirs up curiosity and a strong sense of responsibility in their children. I guess I don’t know the answer.
I am an adult listening to my child self tell me about the deep-down heart of something I had no way to know or say back then. But I do now. My hope is that children who read it before something like this has happened to them or to their friends will be on the lookout, and they will be better friends and more compassionate with themselves when bad things happen. They might even be prepared to interrupt something before it happens. My other hope is that children who [experience sexual abuse] will either feel understood or permitted to discover more deeply what it’s been like for them.
I think children’s books—especially ones that deal with trauma and grief—have the very special ability to touch the inner child of adults and blur the line between art/literature for “kids only” and art/literature for anyone who needs it. Who did you write You Ruined It for? Who needs it?
I wrote it for me and a bunch of my friends, but I think everyone needs it. I love reading good children’s books; they always feel like they’re for me. Corduroy is written for me. Drummer Hoff is for me. The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes is for me. Stevie is for me. The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush is for me. I didn’t read any of those books growing up. My kids and I discovered those books together at just the right time.
I think survivors need this book, and we need it so we can share it with our families and friends and partners so it becomes easier, maybe, to talk about what we’ve experienced or why we’re like this—whatever “this” is. If they’re open to it, our friends and loved ones might understand us better. I think we all need to read it and bring compassion for what everybody in the story is going through and stands to lose, and what they stand to gain, too, if they can open up to the gift of it, the way it aligns them and draws them close in a process of healing and becoming more fully alive in themselves and in their desire to care for one another.
You Ruined It also questions the solutions that we typically offer survivors: reporting to the police, demanding punishment, and ultimately incarcerating the perpetrator. Dawn resists these avenues. When Billie expresses their fury towards Dawn’s assaulter, Dawn says: “Don’t kill him because that’s my job. Well, not to kill him but to decide what he deserves. Doesn’t a person who made a mistake deserve a chance to apologize and be forgiven? Do they or don’t they? I believe my cousin does and that we all do.”
You avoid wholly demonizing Dawn’s assaulter. It’s clear that he may have been abused as well and that “something happened” when he was in the army. How did you decide to write the cousin character? How did you decide to represent justice?
When I wrote in the book “justice is: everybody gets what they need,” I freed myself from needing to hurt people who have caused hurt. I also freed myself from needing to absolve them. Justice comes in real, small, and quiet moments in my experience; whereas injustice clangs and makes me sick. To tune into and create small moments of justice amid the clamor of injustice around us is careful work and worth doing. It’s clear to me that everybody deserves it.
As a child, I took the Biblical teaching “love your enemy” to mean exactly that. But think how dangerous that is when we’re being groomed by our families, our culture, and our religious institutions to bare our throats to those who would feed on us. The fictional cousin in this story has my whole heart. He’s been messed with by his patriarchal family, by his church, by white [culture]’s version of a “God” he should definitely fear, [and] by [his] superiors in the military. Does that mean he should be allowed to rape people or seduce a child? No.
And I wish that the child he tried to bury his desire and disappointment inside of had been prepared to recognize his advances and block him in the moment, using clear, direct language and real violence. He may have come to his senses if she had. That said, I am Billie in this story, too, and I want to choke the breath out of him and watch him turn all the way blue. But like me, Billie doesn’t really want to have to do that. And like Dawn, they just wish it hadn’t happened. Dawn’s instincts are solid and Billie knows it.
While reading, I was reminded of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. In the book, she stops speaking after her uncles kill her abuser. Angelou believes her words can literally kill people and she goes mute for three years. What’s the relationship between punishment and death for survivors? For their abusers?
Maya Angelou was on my mind as I made this book. I thought about the power of her telling, the swift vengeance by her aggrieved family, and the muteness that followed. Here’s why I love the cousin: people, in general, cannot bear the truth of a child being raped. We then act out and act on that inability, our incapacity. Can’t bear it leads to can’t believe it; can’t believe it leads to you made it up, [which] leads to you don’t know and that way leads to madness. Survivors know this territory well.
Can’t bear it also leads to must kill it. But “it” is a person. When we cannot bear that a human did this, we turn them into a monster, and we’ve decided as a culture that we get to kill monsters. Now who’s making shit up? The child who has been harmed can still sense their attacker’s humanity, especially when there was a bond. We delude ourselves into believing harm will sever the relationship when, instead, it damages trust and severs instinct. How many of us were hurt or verbally attacked as children by our beloved parents, caregivers, or teachers? We go on bonding with them because that’s what kids do.
Last thing—if you are the perpetrator who can’t bear the truth of your own actions, your thoughts may be I can’t have done this, therefore I did not do this. If I had done this, I would need to be killed, and I want to live, therefore I did not do this. Look where that leaves survivors. By allowing everyone’s humanity—bearing it—we care better for survivors.
Toward the end of the book, you write, “This book is not a how-to anything: cope, tell, parent, prevent, survive, or speak out against rape and abuse. It’s a way for me to show some things I’ve wanted to show for a long time about what sexual violation by a trusted someone can do to a kid. Our ability to thrive and experience beauty, peace, and connection in spite of an experience like this only proves our radiance and resilience.”
Tell me why a book that gives space—not solutions—for survivors of assault, childhood sexual abuse, or incest is so important. Why publish a book of care versus a book of advice?
Advice has caused me so much harm. My resentment about receiving advice rather than care inflames the harm. All inflamed, I become a sea of self-doubt, and when a person’s pattern is to doubt and mistrust themselves, they really are in danger. Care interrupts that cycle.
Care brings ease and clarity. Right before Dawn says she’s going to throw up, she and Billie are in conflict, but at the moment Dawn fills with nausea, Billie grabs her hand and rushes her to the bathroom just in time. Billie holds her hair. Billie washes her face. Yes, this child was raped; yes, she grieves this strange, warped love relationship she didn’t know she was having, and now, her body merges danger and terror-induced dissociation with sexual pleasure. Dawn will be sorting that out for a long time. But the “best big sister” is now smiling gently at her and cooling her forehead with a blue washcloth. Those moments of care from Billie will help Dawn bear being alive for her entire life.
Care is forever and has nothing to do with being right—which is what advice tries to be. None of this is all right, but Dawn will be. My only job as the creator of this book was to write it so that Dawn will always try to stay alive, even when she doesn’t want to be. So will Billie and so will Mom. That’s what care does.