Burn Your Pity and Bury Your Judgement: Reading Helen Knott’s IN MY OWN MOCCASINS
What does it mean to read and write about a book that wasn’t written for you?
This is the question on my mind as I read and write about Helen Knott’s In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience (2019).
A woman of Dane Zaa, Cree, Métis and mixed European descent from northern British Columbia, Knott writes an account that is at once a profoundly personal tale of having her sense of self and her place in the history of her people ripped apart by racism, sexual assault and addiction, and a collective history of Indigenous women in the Americas and the violent legacy of Canadian settler colonialism.
In My Own Moccasins weaves through the singular and plural voice, between “I” and “we”. Unlike the “we” that often figures in public political debate — ostensibly representing a universal human subject, but typically speaking on behalf of a “royal we” — the plural first person in Knott’s memoirs represents specific communities of people with shared experiences: women who have been sexually abused, people struggling with addiction, Indigenous people.
The early parts of the memoir recount Knott’s experiences of sexual assault and her use of drugs to try to dull the searing emotional pain. The chapters filled with nights spent in hotels and bars — “the end-of-the-line kind of bar(s) where you could drink by yourself and not feel out of place” — and the houses of friends and strangers, are long and detailed, grounded in the present with flashes back to Knott’s childhood. The descriptive language captures the repetitiveness and numbness of addiction, and echoes Knott’s accounts of dissociation: “My feelings left my body. My spirit sat outside of me like an unacknowledged apparition”. There are intricate and intimate details of getting and being drunk and high, of brutal comedowns, of the pain and guilt of leaving behind her young son to go on the road to party, of fears she will never be able to get and stay sober.
As the pages pass, the past becomes more present. Memories move in and over the pages. We read about Knott’s parents and grandparents and her own activism, her journeys to Nicaragua to build a school, to the UN in Geneva as an Indigenous Youth Ambassador “hyped on social justice”. We learn how memories torment and torture but also bring strength. Memories are not only personal recollections of past events, but intergenerational memories, spirit memories, blood memories. “That ancient knowledge of those who came before me navigates my veins”, Knott writes.
This is, among other things, a memoir about storytelling. As Knott tells of her own and her family’s history, her struggle with addiction and healing, she is also reflecting on the power of words: how others’ words have wounded and encouraged her; what she has taken from the stories of others; how she has learned to live through sentences and songs and stories, and what it means to pass tales on to others so that they too can live. And to record the stories of those who have not survived, so that they too will be remembered.
Words are not the unambiguous heroes of this memoir. Knott tells too of how stories can become a trap, a way of staying stuck in the same old destructive narrative. As a child she reads about the sins of sex in the Bible and is terrified that she will go to hell: “Words are funny like that. Words were my everything as an avid reader and wannabe writer, but they also had the power to instill crippling beliefs that lasted decades.” Later, when she is in a treatment centre, her therapist tells her to lock away her self-help books: “Without reading my mind ran buck wild. (…) I had to remember the hard moments and challenge their validity to take up so much goddamned space in my head.”
Words have a complex relationship to memory, and to power. At the end of the introduction to In My Own Moccasins, Knott writes:
I was told that this book will be a good tool to educate people who do not understand the impact of violence, racism, and colonialism in Indigenous women’s lives. I was told that there will be people who gain insight from this book. / I did not write this book for you. / I did not write this book so that people can learn how to humanize Indigenous women and gain context for the violence that seems to fill our lives. (…) I understand that your learning will be a by-product of these words, and that is a good thing. We must understand each other in order to change the world. I invite you into this space with an open heart and with the requirement that you burn your pity and bury your judgement.
To be invited to read a book that was not written for you is to be open to an act of generosity. What might it mean for this particular reader to return this generosity, to read generously?
Towards the end of In My Own Moccasins, Knott writes about a moment in therapy:
I was reading a book by Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds. Williams says that a woman is being her true authentic self when she cries. For the next few days after speaking openly to the psychologist, I was as authentic as I’d been for a long damned time.
I long ago gave up any belief I ever may have had of women, myself included, having a “true authentic self.” But who cares? Generous reading means being committed to going beyond insight to writing/action that affects change. Burying my judgement as a white woman writer and reader means being being open to the indeterminacy of the relationship between writing, reading and change, holding on to the ambiguity of words. Burning pity means setting fire to my own pieties.
Near the end of her memoir Knott goes to an International Women’s Day event and reads some of the poetry she has written while in treatment. Other women cry and hug her and thank her for her poems. The final stanza reads:
No more words.
But until there is no more,
there are still words left to say.