Teaching writer and assault trauma advocate Jenifer DeBellis, M.F.A., is the founding director of aRIFT+ Warrior Project and director of the Detroit Writers' Guild and edits Pink Panther Magazine. When she's not editing or writing for others, she sneaks in time for her own craft, which was nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize and appears in AWP's Festival Writer, CALYX, the Good Men Project, Literary Orphans, Solstice, and other fine journals. A former Meadow Brook Writing Project fellow, JDB facilitates workshops for Oakland University's MBWP Writing Camps as well as teaches writing and literature for Saginaw Valley State University and Macomb Community College.
Jenifer is the author of Library Tales Publishing's newest book, Warrior Sister, Cut Yourself Free from Your Assault (Coming Nov. 15th, 2021)
Can you tell us about yourself?
I have rocked many hats over my lifetime and most of them are centered on working in some way with teen girls and young women. From coaching cheer and dance teams to youth and young adult ministry, from raising three daughters (and many of their friends) to teaching at the college level and editing a women’s magazine, one theme has emerged repeatedly. Young women experience a lot of bodily harm, often assaulted by those entrusted with their care and safety. Over the years, regardless of my primary role in these young ladies’ lives, I have often been invited into their trauma struggles. They are so desperate to tell someone who won’t judge them or betray their confidences. The most enigmatic thing is that most of them don’t even know how much we have in common when they open up to me, only that they feel safe telling me. Over the years, my heart to help survivors move beyond their suffering has grown to the point it feels like it might explode. I can’t sit idly and watch these girls struggle to find their way. It’s just not in my nature to not help people, especially when I know what they can do to fix their situation. Though, I don’t want to swoop in and fix things for them. The teacher in me wants to equip them with tools and knowledge to fix their own situation so they can become their own hero and save their own lost world.
Speaking of struggling, I wrestled with my memories to get my first book, Blood Sisters, onto the page. I started that project in grad school when a couple peers and a mentor encouraged me to write about a few timely topics—my date rape being one of these. Prior to this project, I considered myself more of a fiction writer and eye-witness poet. Other people’s stories and experiences were far more interesting than my own, I rationed. I was NOT a creative nonfiction writer, that much I knew. Then, my CNF poetry collection was accepted for publication, even though I had two other less personal collections out to prospective presses. Fast forward to my next CNF project—aRIFT+ Warrior Project and its companion book—and suddenly I am very much a nonfiction writer. My forthcoming book—Warrior Sister, Cut Yourself Free from Your Assault—is founded on the survivor’s journey to self-restoration and understanding assault trauma to overcome its hold on you. I believe we learn a lot about ourselves when we work through trauma and, in doing so, uncover deep personal connections that comfort and empower us. My perpetual student side cleaves to this quest to keep learning and uncovering deep personal connections to the world we cohabit and how I fit into it. More than a comfort and source of empowerment, this practice is my true center. It inspires my inner rhythms and informs my motives and the actions that follow these. This quest to keep learning and uncovering deeper connections also drives me to keep growing into a better version of myself. While many people resist and resent change, I crave and seek it because I understand it’s a necessary part of healthy growth and attaining a fulfilling life.
In this book, writing from personal experience, you challenge survivors of assault to take back their power. What was the moment that you knew you had to make a change if you wanted to get your life back?
To be honest, my own journey is filled with so much backtracking, losing my way, struggling to find my way, repressing trauma for periods of time, and recognizing my own need to take back my power as I coached others with the same advice. And isn’t this last one so often how it works—how we see what we personally need to do as we walk another person through the thinking? I talk about these things in the book and emphasize how I wrote the book so others could benefit from strategies and understandings I wish I had to guide me through my own trauma experiences. Though there are many small moments my teenage self experienced that provoked me to get my life back, there was one powerful time in my life that I had just had enough—enough junk relationships with the wrong guys because I thought those were all I deserved and enough not having my own back in situations. I just woke up one day and decided I deserved better. I broke things off with a guy that treated me like a side chick. I turned down invites to parties and outings where I didn’t feel in safe company. I switched jobs. Made new friends. Changed my outward environment so my inward one could refresh, heal, and flourish.
How did this book come to be?
The twofold answer is this. Many parts of Warrior Sister, Cut Yourself Free from Your Assault have formed over three decades of working through my own trauma and coaching countless others in their own recovery journeys. Realization that this topic needed to become a self-help book didn’t strike until I was on book tour with my first book, Blood Sisters. This poetry collection includes my coming-of-age stories and touches on instances of physical and sexual assault. Reading after reading, young women—often teens—approached me to say how inspired they were that I wrote and was brave enough to share my assault experiences. Then, after a reading event at the Detroit Public Library, a fifteen-year-old girl shared with me how much my poems spoke to her. She went on to tell me she had survived several sexual assaults and just got out of the hospital after her third suicide attempt. She said what struck her most was how put together, upbeat, and confident I was despite my history with repeated assault. I couldn’t stop thinking or praying about my encounter with her, my heart breaking more and more as I considered how many young ladies suffer from assault trauma and have no idea how to move through and beyond it. This inspired me to develop an outreach that would offer assault recovery initiatives, resources, and community support. Then, in the winter of 2019 I was blessed with the gift of time to develop the companion self-help book, which I presently cannot wait to share with struggling survivors and the professionals who serve them.
If you could say something to yourself—years ago, when trauma had its most debilitating effects—what would it be?
If given the chance to empower my younger self, I would tell her it’s okay to grieve these horrible things she experienced, that her healing is rooted to moving through this grief journey. Then I would hold her chin in my hands so we’re eye-to-eye when I remind her that she is precious and her assault does not define or ruin her.
What do you want readers to come away with once they’ve read Warrior Sister: Cut Yourself Free from Your Assault?
I want readers to be filled with hope and renewed confidence in their self-worth and total well-being. I also want readers to feel a sense of connection to a sisterhood within which they will always belong and be accepted as they are in every stage of their recovery journey.
What are you working on next?
I have several projects in the works at different stages. One of my currently finished books, New Wilderness, is a poetry collection that chronicles a mother’s eyewitness of her daughter’s brain cancer experiences as well as what it was like raising a spirited child with mental illness. I also have a hybrid collection of short stories, vignettes, and poems entitled Stubborn Silence, which explores the silences women are forced, encouraged, or choose to keep. One work in progress in this self-help series is Warrior Sister, Let’s Talk GIRL CODE. In these cancel culture times, it’s time for young girls and women to come together and rewrite SISTER CODE. Let’s Talk GIRL CODE explores girl-on-girl bullying, gaslighting, cancel culture, and the bystander effect and how these interactions are dividing teens and young women during moments in their journey they need their sisterhood most. I also have another warrior sister work in progress: Warrior Sisters, Go Back for the Girl. This book is inspired by my work with survivors of sex-trafficking and sexual exploitation. It’s focused on understanding how trafficking and exploitation really happen and in reducing acts of violence and exploitation committed against young girls and women in more commercialized instances. As the name suggests, I’m provoking a movement to become informed warriors who take actions to help our fellow sisters who are enslaved to sexual violence and/or exploitation escape their captivity.