Tracy Ross confronts her step-father while hiking in Redfish Lake, Idaho, with a tape recorder, demanding a confession. The crime: her own sexual abuse by the very man she had cared for and loved since she was a little girl. The Source of All Things is a memoir about Tracy’s struggle to understand the childhood abuse she suffered at the hands of her step-father and how she finds salvation in the raw, natural world. This is a story of the resiliency of the human spirit, our capacity to love, and ultimately, our ability to forgive.
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The role of a “father figure” in Tracy’s life has always been missing: “How long have I been searching for a father? Nearly as long as I have breathed air.” (p. 10) How has this void affected Tracy’s life from the start?
2. Donnie comes into the Ross family with “the kind of light only a man in need of a new family can shine.” (p. 24) Everything, at first, is perfect. He loves nature, teaches Tracy about the grandeur and beauty of the wilderness, and is exactly what this slightly battered family needed. But soon, strange traits in his parenting style appear. The day before she turns seven, Tracy believes her birthday will not be complete without first losing a tooth. Donnie agrees to help and actually tries to take out her tooth with pliers. What, already, does this say about Donnie as a parent?
3. On a family outing to the Nat-Soo-Pah hot springs, Tracy learns that Donnie’s baby sister, Debbie, had drowned when she was three years old—a fact that he had always kept secret. How do you think Debbie’s early death affected Donnie and his treatment of Tracy? Is there a connection between Debbie’s death and his unnatural closeness with Tracy?
4. As many young girls develop, the changes they go through can often lead to low self-esteem and body image issues. But for Tracy, in the mountains there was no judgment of how her newly developing body looked. “In the mountains, my size was matched only by my desire to fish, hunt, hike, and swim. It helped me that there were no mirrors for me to judge myself in.” (p. 43) Discuss other reasons for Tracy’s early love of the forest and mountains. What are some of the attributes Tracy gives Nature?
5. Right after the first instance of abuse, Tracy is overwhelmed with an onslaught of emotions. She writes, “I knew that my dad had done something bad to me. But if my parents were so sure I’d been mistaken, I must have made myself believe them. Who was I to question the people who fed, clothed, and protected me from things like Bigfoot and monsters under the bed? If there was a God, to me, they were It. I had no business refuting their version of reality.” (p. 51) How can a child deal with this conflict in reality? How does this affect Tracy’s relationships with others throughout her life? How does the abuse impact both her marriages?
6. Tracy takes to writing poetry to help cope with her abuse. She begins to give these poems to her mother as a cry for help. How does her mother react to these poetic secret messages? Why does her mother respond the way she does?
7. Tracy recalls how she felt guilty about the abuse she suffered, writing, “I tortured myself with stories. I told myself my abuse couldn’t have been as bad as I remembered.” (p. 85) Why do you think victims react like this? Why might they defend the actions of their abusers?
8. A person describes Tracy’s situation years later: “If you’re a kid and you get hit by a car in a crosswalk, people visit you with balloons and well-wishes. If you’re a kid who gets hit in the crossroad of life by sexual molestation, nobody will even talk about it. They expect you to brush it under the carpet.” (p. 92) Do you agree with this statement? If so, why is this reaction to sexual abuse prevalent in the mainstream populace? Why is there a stigma attached to the victim?
9. After child services removes Tracy from her home, her mother tries to reason with Tracy about what Donnie had done: “What if it was the devil and not Dad who hurt you?” (p. 101) Why do you think her mother tries to defend her obviously guilty husband?
10. Tracy’s mother leans heavily on her daughter for emotional support. “Seeing her like that—keening and wild-eyed, like a character out of a Greek tragedy—had the opposite effect on me of the one I believed she was going for. Her hysteria had drained my compassion and filled me with disgust, making me vow to become emotionless.” (pp. 108-109) Why did her mother’s response create this reaction in Tracy, and how does her vow to become emotionless impact the rest of her life? Does it?
11. After returning from a brief stay at her aunt’s home outside of Portland, Oregon, Tracy resumes living with her parents under a court order outlining rules for how Donnie must behave. What was your reaction to this turn of events? What were your feelings when you read the regulations set by the State to “protect” Tracy? Were you surprised that Tracy and her stepfather were allowed to live under the same roof?
12. One of the great conflicts Tracy experiences is the duality of her feelings for her dad. “I hated the way he harmed me, and never wanted to go through it again, but even that couldn’t change the fact that he was still my dad.” (p. 126) How does this make you feel? Can you understand Tracy’s separate and distinct emotions regarding Donnie?
13. After escaping to art school, Tracy discovers the restorative and healing power of art. “At Interlochen I found a world that was clean, crisp, and unblemished, and filled with people who were dedicated to a higher power. The power was art. And in its reflection, I saw me.” (p. 141) What is this power Tracy discovers? How can the practice of art lead to a more healthy and fulfilling life? Is there an essential healing power in creativity?
14. Even when she is in a loving marriage, Tracy worries about starting a family: “I knew that if I had kids I would just screw them up. . . . Having babies and caring for them was for someone loving and stable . . . [and] that someone was not me.” (p. 215) Through everything we have learned about Tracy, do we feel she is ready to become a fully functional and loving parent? Is anyone really prepared for children?
15. Tracy realizes that her adult life cannot continue until she faces her demons and her feelings of betrayal: “Dad had created the lie, but Mom and Chris let me carry it for our entire family. Never once did either of them ask me what had happened during all of those years I’d been abused. In some ways, their refusal to ask was more painful to me than the actual abuse.” (p. 235) Do you think Tracy is right to be upset with her mother and brother? How has her relationship to them been damaged by the abuse?
16. Tracy finally confronts her step-father at Redfish Lake. What were your feelings as you read Donnie’s confession? Do you believe that he understands the depth of the damage he did to Tracy? Is there some kind of penance for his crime? What was accomplished at Redfish Lake?
17. At the end of the book, Tracy is still unsure of what kind of future her relationship with Donnie will have. Do you think they will be able to find common ground again? Is reconciliation possible? Will Tracy ever truly be free from her ghosts?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Tracy’s life is bound by her love of the raw and natural wilderness. Her passion for the natural world is, at times, what saves her from the brink of madness. To experience another woman’s affection for nature, pick up Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Written in 1971, this fantastic book details Dillard’s spiritual experience with nature after she nearly died from pneumonia. This Pulitzer Prize-winning book is an essential bookend to The Source of All Things.
2. Tracy Ross is a contributing editor at Backpacker magazine, based in Boulder, Colorado. Visit www.backpacker.com and read some of the articles about exciting hikes throughout the country and specialized gear for any backpacker needs, along with featured editorials from in-the-field adventurers like Tracy Ross and others.
3. Memoirs like Tracy’s fit into a very interesting and helpful category called bibliotherapy—a specialized area of literature that acts not only as a confessional of one’s own experience but provides healing through the reading about the trials and tribulations of difficult experiences, such as child molestation. Check out sites like www.healingstory.org or www.silencespeaks.org to read other stories that act as a catalyst for healing.
A CONVERSATION WITH TRACY ROSS
What sort of feelings did you experience as you undertook this poignant survey into your past and your struggle?
This obviously was not an easy book to write, and I approached it with incredible trepidation. Yet as I wrote, I tried to view myself as a character, and like any character I write about, I tried to have compassion for myself and my story. I had to keep telling myself that the truth is what matters and that I wasn’t writing out of revenge or anger. There was no vendetta; I just wanted to share my unique story. I thought about other young girls who are experiencing the same thing but have no outlet, creative or otherwise, for their hurt, confusion, and anger. It helped that both of my parents were behind me; throughout the process they continually said, “This is your story. Tell it as you see fit.” That freed me to write from the heart without concern about their stories or their feelings. But I will say that once the writing was flowing, that was the easy part. Managing my own fear, doubt, worry, lack of confidence: that took the bulk of my energy.
Your style is lyrically blunt and rich with philosophical insights. What influences, as a writer, did you draw from in the creation of this emotive literary journey?
I draw inspiration from a wide range of writers, but this book benefitted most from four: Dave Eggers, for his pacing, and rule breaking; Julia Scheeres for her clear, approachable writing; Nick Flynn for his beauty and eloquence; and Mary Karr for her incredible ability to bring scenes and people to life. Of course there are dozens of other writers whose works float along the surface of my subconscious always—from Wallace Stegner to Joan Didion to Chris Cleave—but when I needed inspiration, or got stuck and needed a literary jumpstart, I turned to the first four I mentioned.
As a child you were drawn to the honest and clean world of the wilderness, a place that held “no mirrors” to you. This is the eventual place you hold court for your father. Why did you choose this setting?
I went back to Redfish Lake because it was both literally and metaphorically “the source of all things.” It was both the location where the abuse first started and the place where I first learned to love wilderness. As a writer I’m drawn to such intersections, where beauty and tragedy collide, creating their own form of strange magic. I’m not religious but I find spiritual strength in wilderness. I knew in the Sawtooths that I would feel closer to whatever God is and that he or it was watching over me as I asked my dad these terrible, painful questions.
The way you write about nature brings to mind the works of Annie Dillard and Louise Erdrich. Did these authors influence your writing? Do you feel a connection with these authors for their shared passion of not only the written word, but of the natural world?
As much as I respect Annie Dillard and Louise Erdrich, I don’t connect with them as much as I do some other writers. I don’t think of myself as a “nature writer” but more of an adventure writer or a writer who uses place as a background for powerful stories. My heroes are mostly men—men with heart and vulnerability. I’m thinking of Wallace Stegner and Cormac McCarthy, Jim Harrison, or Tobias Wolff. I love these writers because their focus isn’t “place” or “nature” and yet the natural world defines their books. Spiritually speaking, I have always loved the great outdoor poets, whom I can’t help but viewing as my spiritual mentors. When I need a break from prose, and need to hear the music of wilderness in writing, I’ll flip open Axe Handles by Gary Snyder, or The Mad Farmer Poems by Wendell Berry, and lose myself in their music. Harrison affects me the same way, as well as Mary Oliver, who is so good at putting the barest amount of words together for the greatest emotional affect.
One of the most revealing lines about your development as a woman and as an artist was in reference to leaving the football games, the school dances, and the “Antichrists” behind: “How could I return to that after delving in Dostoyevsky?” (p. 141) Could you elaborate on this particular change you experienced?
This is in reference to my year at Interlochen Arts Academy, where I sent myself when I realized I was either going to kill myself or end up in jail if I stayed in Twin Falls. Interlochen was the first place I ever went where I felt truly valued, both as an intellectual and an artist. What’s funny is that once I got there, I was much more drawn to the professors and students in the creative writing department. As much as I thought I wanted to be an actress, what I really wanted was to learn the craft of writing. Even now, if I could go back to Interlochen and study writing, I would. I mean, Jim Harrison would come to the campus and give readings and lectures. He might not do that now, but I’m sure other writers of his caliber must. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll be that writer.
You confess how the art of poetry and short stories came into your life in a positive way. Do you see artistic expression as a method of healing? How have you found the creation of poetry and art help victims of abuse and other traumatic experiences?
This is tricky, because for me “healing” is much more synonymous with physical adventure than it has been with creating art. I’m a really physical person, which is why I spend so much time doing things like skiing, hiking, rafting, and mountain biking—all things that take me out of my head and put me squarely in my body. The paradox, obviously, is that writing is purely mental. I love writing and other forms of artistic expression, but they are by no means my main methods of healing. The perfect mix for me is to go outside and do something really taxing and physical--hill sprints on a steep mountain trail, maybe—and then come inside and write poetry or work on a story. That’s why I’m such a fan and supporter of programs like Outward Bound, NOLS, and Big City Mountaineers, which take kids into the wilderness, walk or hike them to a place of raw openness, and then facilitate them in sitting down and experiencing their feelings. There’s something about being so spent, so “flushed out” from extreme physical exertion that lets people feel their feelings without their normal judgment. So for me, it’s not art alone that creates healing, but art mixed with some sort of physical output or adventure.
Programs that involve intense immersion in nature for troubled teens seem as though they have as many benefits as they do drawbacks. Do you think the Challenger experience helped any of the kids you met? Do you think it’s the right approach for helping them heal?
Because I haven’t kept in touch with those kids, I honestly can’t say whether Challenger helped them or not. But based on what I witnessed, it seemed only to make the kids angrier and more resentful. That’s not to say that different wilderness programs don’t work. An organization called Big City Mountaineers in Denver, for instance, mentors under-resourced urban teens by taking them into the mountains and teaching them skills like navigation and other survival techniques. What they’re really doing is teaching kids self-awareness, responsibility, and communication, of course, but through one-on-one interaction with adults in really awe-inspiring locations. If you have a troubled kid, or know someone who does, though, I’d be really careful about where you send him or her. In the Challenger era, at least, there were several wilderness rehabilitation companies that let kids become seriously dehydrated and/or malnourished. A few even died.
Chronic abuse in early childhood often results in many dissociative symptoms in relation to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Could you discuss any symptoms you may have experienced in your life and how you overcame these horrible effects of abuse?
I think I will always be in a state of overcoming the effects of abuse. Recent studies show that children who are abused experience nerve damage that lasts throughout their lifetimes. For me, it comes down to two major side effects: hatred of my body and the inability to trust my own thoughts, memories, and perceptions about things. I can’t remember a time when I haven’t fought my own body—either with food issues like early anorexia or exercise addiction which is becoming more and more prevalent in all women. But the hardest part of living for me is never being able to trust my own instincts. As a writer, I have to work every day to both believe my own perception and to believe in myself!
Do you have any other plans for your next work? Can we have a hint as to what we may expect?
I’m currently working on three big magazine feature stories: one about my relationship with my husband and our shared love of outdoor adventure; one about predator (as in wolves, grizzlies, and black bears) politics in Alaska in the post-Palin era, and one fun story in which two of my Denali ranger girlfriends and I will take the last backpacker bus into Denali National Park and do a big trip after the summer crowds have retreated.