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Debut Memoirist Explores Her Parents' Secrets, And Her Own

Most journalists don’t write much about themselves. Neither did Brittany Hailer.

The North Carolina native and graduate of Chatham University’s writing program practiced what she calls “literary journalism” (sometimes known as "creative nonfiction") and later began covering addiction and incarceration issues for outlets like Pittsburgh-based nonprofit news site Public Source. (She has also reported for 90.5 WESA.)

But her first book is a memoir. Animal You’ll Surely Become (Tolsun Books) confronts her upbringing as the child of two addicts, as well as her own sexual traumas as an adult.

Hailer says she began writing about her life as a consequence of helping others do the same.

It was 2013, and she was starting grad school at Chatham. Her father, who was still in active addiction, phoned her the night before her first day. “He kind of went crazy and called me and told me things that weren't true, and I wasn't sure what was happening,” Hailer says. “So I walked onto campus feeling like this kid-with-a-secret kind of thing.”

“The director of the program noticed that I was upset and she took me into her office and told me about Words Without Walls, which was this program where Chatham students teach creative writing to people in rehab,” Hailer continues. “So I started going to Sojourner House and teaching poetry and nonfiction, and realized that I was asking these women to be vulnerable in ways that I wasn't. So I started writing alongside them.

“A lot of the first iterations of this book started in a rehab center literally writing alongside students.”

Animal You’ll Surely Become, a blend of memoir and prose poetry, is just 121 pages long, but Hailer covers a lot of ground.

Here’s how she frames her childhood:

I was born to two alcoholics a mother and father in their early 20s who sang lullabies to their babies. We lived on the mainland of a mile long island called Solomons. My mother a dark-skinned Italian woman with eyes like espresso. My father a blond blue eyed American mutt, tall and skinny as a rail. Back then everyone knew my father was a drunk and my mother left him. They knew my mother succumbed to addiction as well. An awareness of my family system, how they interacted with the community and my identity, bubbled up at an early age. I learned to hide and run away as consequence.

In another chapter, Hailer describes “meeting” her father for the first time at age 25, when he revealed to her that as a boy he was sexually abused by Catholic priests.

“My dad and I had just [seen] Spotlight at the Manor in Squirrel Hill and he was weeping,” she says. “So I was like, ‘Oh, my God, something is happening here.’”

Me and Dad ducked into a nearby bar on Forbes. I asked him if he was going to be okay. He said being around other drinkers didn’t bother him anymore. We ordered coffee. He told me the priest's name. There were other boys. Lots of them. My dad spoke evenly. He sat up straight. He seemed lighter. He seemed for the first time at ease. The only image he gave me was this: his boyhood clothes and a lump on the floor and him naked picking them up afterwards while the priest watched. When he was 11 my father told his mother about his abuse. She didn't believe him. A devout Catholic, she told him to keep it to himself. She signed him up for more spiritual counseling with the priest. She pushed him into the fire. Another reporter says in Spotlight that if it takes a village to raise a child it takes a village to abuse them. Dad kept repeating that line all night.

Hailer says this emotionally harrowing episode was another “trigger” for the book.

After her father told her about his abuse, “I started writing these really strange prose poems about deer and realized that I was writing about my own sexual trauma,” she says. “It was sort of making it more magical or distancing myself from it in some ways. So the book kind of vacillates between this very strange, weird, short prose poems that are about deer or magic, somehow, but also sexual trauma, and then these longer essays that are kind of more to the point in saying, ‘This is what happened.’”

Hailer says her experience teaching the women in rehab at Words Without Walls was a key in writing about her own life.

“I was able to forgive my family because of these women,” she says. “I was teaching these women who had failed their children in a lot of ways and were trying really hard to get back to their kids. And I forgave them and felt empathy for them but didn't feel that for my own dad, you know. So it helped me heal and see him in a different way. But in terms of my own sexual trauma, as well, I would say every student I had had been sexually assaulted at some point. So that was coming up a lot in their work, too.”

Indeed, it was her teaching experience that permitted her to deal with this difficult material at all.

“Before I ever wrote any of the poems that are in this book, I could only write a black circle on the back on the side of a page,” she says. “So any time like I was triggered or remembered something that had happened to me, I literally couldn't write it down. I would draw a black circle. So if you look back at my notes from Sojourner House, there's black circles all over my notes from that class. So [the students] totally are the reason this book exists in a lot of ways.”

The book launch is Saturday at a private residence; here’s the Facebook event page. Hailer’s next book event is a Nov. 16 reading at the Black Cat, in Lawrenceville, where she’ll appear with local poets Dakota Garilli and Dani Janae.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: bodriscoll@wesa.fm
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