Kate Niles made a living digging up secrets of the past. As an archaeologist, she spent hours unearthing shards of pottery and other remnants of civilizations in attempt to reconstruct history. It was on just such an expedition when she learned some secrets from her own past. Host Steve Curwood talks with her about her new novel The Basketmaker, and about her own experience with sexual child abuse.
CURWOOD: Stone tools, pottery shards and other clues of ancient cultures are the stuff Kate Niles immersed herself in for years as an archaeologist. Her job was to unearth the secrets of the past, and find meaning in the surviving remnants. As she describes it, “the art and science of archaeology is about tracing memory.”
But Kate Niles had a secret that she herself didn't realize until she started digging into her own past. What she found was a string of memories leading her back to her sexual abuse by her father. Now she's penned a novel based on her experiences. It's called “The Basket Maker,” and Ms. Niles joins me now from Ignacio, Colorado. Kate, hello.
CURWOOD: I have to say that you've written an unusual book.
CURWOOD: You go from incest, to nature, to archeology, Native American history and culture, all in one grand sweep. How do they connect?
NILES: Well, for me, when I first debated writing this - I always knew I had to write a book, and there are lots of good incest memoirs out there, they're non-fiction. And I realize that what saved my life was, what felt like at that time, my imagination. I was very enamored of Native American culture. I lived in this absolutely stunning part of the world that, you know, I could find trees under which to sit, and there was something about their wisdom that really rubbed off on me.
And then, as I started to really pick apart what was happening to me, and what had happened to me, I realized that my parents in some ways have really been kind of walking Cartesian splits in that they were brilliant from the head up and absolutely clueless from the head down. And so, the mind/body split was being personified in them. And, as a result, I really came to realize if you're in a situation where you are not allowed to own the experiences that are happening to you, however terrible, it's like telling a tree that you can only show the rings where the good years happened, where it was moist and there was lots of growth. And that you really aren't allowed to show the drought rings that are really tight and skinny and show that it was a really rough year.
Now, a tree can't do that. And to ask a tree to do that is to ask it to not be itself, and to cut out part of its memory. You do that to a human being, you are doing exactly the same thing. And so you end up with a split person, or a person who's barely functioning - a tree that can't stand on its own. And so, in order to get back to that, both at the individual, internal level - you have to own what is natural, what happened to that self, the bad years as well as the good years, the bad experiences as well as the good experiences.
CURWOOD: Now, there are few central characters in your book. And you know what? I can't help but wonder if they mirror characters in your own life. So first, can you tell me a little about Sarah Graves, and who she resembles from your own life?
NILES: Sarah resembles me as a child, I think, and she certainly is the most autobiographically- based character in the book. Her experience growing up as an abused child was my experience, and so that story was the story I needed to tell.
CURWOOD: Now, many of the people who have been the targets of sexual abuse tend to block out memories of those events for a long time.
CURWOOD: Typically, they're well into adulthood, they could be in their 20s, 30s, 40s, whatever.
CURWOOD: And I'm wondering if you did the same, and if so, when it all came flooding back to you?
NILES: Well, yes, I did the same. Although now that I've really put myself back together I see so many things that I did that were in response to the abuse that I never thought of that way until I got back in touch with those memories. But, I was 29 years old when I kind of fell through the rabbit hole, I guess is what it felt like. I went to Europe that summer. I was 29, I was married, I was bored out of my mind. Basically, I was dead. A lot of people who kind of talk about having traumatic experiences, as soon as they try to get in touch with their emotions - I mean, they numb out a lot of things. So, of course, I was bored because I was numb.
Anyway, I went to Europe, and I was part of an archeological team digging Paleolithic sites. Really old stuff like Neanderthal sites and early human sites and things like that. And something happened there. I think I got far enough away from home. And I was in a place where the continuity of history was huge - in other words, it could hold memory. I could sit there on a bench that had been built in the 1300s. There was a lot to Europe that was about memory, and being able to live with those memories, good and bad - which I don't think America does as well.
Anyway, I was there. And I had an aunt that summer. She was 56 years old and she had been single all her life, and she was dying of colon cancer. And I just knew that, you know, that would be me unless I dealt with whatever was in me. And I had no idea what that was but I knew that if I didn't get out whatever was within me, what was in me was going to destroy me.
CURWOOD: Kate Niles, in your novel “The Basket Maker” there are many references to digging up the past. And, of course, you've actually done that professionally as an archeologist. So tell me, what was it like for you to dig back emotionally for these memories while you were writing your book?
NILES: Right. You know, that was one of the things that I didn't understand about my life until I started to work on the memories - what was it about archeology that was so compelling to me? At an emotional level and intellectual level I certainly understood it, because I was not allowed to have my past, and what happened to me as a child did not happen. So, anything to help facilitate memory extraction became a source of great meaning and fascination for me. So, that's where I think a lot of the deeper stuff was around archeology.
And then, in writing the novel - boy, that brought up some things that I don't think can be brought up any other way. And it was extremely healing. One of my mentors once said that part of the purpose of art is to make order out of chaos, and that certainly what I was doing.
CURWOOD: What do you have in mind? What did it allow you to do that you just couldn't do it any other way?
NILES: Well, for instance, the father character, the father/daughter relationship in the book - which in a lot of ways, at a very basic level for me, this book was giving myself permission to have the father/daughter story that I did not get to have as a child. And one of my mentors, at one point during a draft, said, “Well, you have the nasty parts down. Now you need to get at what's special about this relationship.” And he was absolutely right. And I ended up going up into the mountains and sobbing and screaming. Because, ultimately, what's so tragic is that you love your father, you know? That you loved that person and this person was doing terrible harm to you, but also had some good qualities to them. And that in many ways was the part that was far harder to own. You know, recognizing that for purposes of the book, and for purposes of the relationship between the father and the daughter, was absolutely crucial. And I don't think I would have done that work except that I had this higher interest in producing an artful book.
CURWOOD: How have your parents dealt with this?
NILES: Mixed. You know, in some ways better than I would have thought. They still are very much in denial. They do not think this happened. I mean, for my mother to admit this happened is to admit that her 40-some-year marriage is a lie. My father, of course, says he never does things like this and he never would have done anything like this. You know, they haven't given me a whole lot of grief about it because I think in some ways they're afraid, too. They don't really want to drag it up either.
CURWOOD: Well, now you're very public about this.
NILES: Right, right. And I guess they have compartmentalized this so much and put in their own - you know, Primo Levi writes about this for the Holocaust, how could the Nazi's do what they did? And it goes beyond lying to yourself; it goes to a place where you construct a whole different reality that either completely justifies what happens, or says that what happened didn't happen. And it's like building a house of cards. And so, if you were to admit to one little lie, that entire house of cards is going to come down. So, they've constructed this reality for them that does not allow for that to happen.
CURWOOD: Let's talk a bit about the ending of your book. Now, in it you have Sarah's father getting arrested for his crime. He's literally caught in the act by the neighbors…
CURWOOD: And then sent off to jail. In fact, mom gets indicted, too.
CURWOOD: How close is this to the reality of your life? And why did you choose this ending?
NILES: It is not at all close to the reality of my life. One of the reasons I set it in 1973 was because that was be - well, that was when I was growing up - but also, very practically, it was before we had doctors and police and teachers being trained to look for symptoms of abuse. And so, children in those situations are horribly isolated and they're not going to talk about anything that remotely connects to it. You know, again, that's probably the biggest fairy tale part of this is I wanted to take what I know happens more often in modern situations - you know, the 90s and the 2000s - and have it happen in 1973. And they only way that was going to happen, at that point, was for somebody to directly witness it.
CURWOOD: How strongly did you want the police to come and arrest your father?
NILES: Well, at the time, not at all. Because first of all, it was very, I was in denial, and one of the things that happens to children - and I think this was the part that I really needed to work through in the book, and I have places where it is - is that you're very caught. Because the hand that's feeding you is also the hand that's biting you, and it makes for kind of a Stockholm syndrome where you're colluding in the terror because it's the only way that you can survive. And on top of that - and this is the real double-whammy of incest - is that you love your father and you will do anything to please your father. I mean, kids want to please their parents and, you know, of course a good part of your heart, if you have any heart at all, doesn't want that to happen. And in many ways you end up feeling like you'll sacrifice yourself for that to stay intact. So, you know, not at all when I was a kid.
CURWOOD: What's the significance of the title of your book, Kate Niles, “The Basket Maker?” Talk to me about the Indian culture from which this comes.
NILES: Well, the basket makers, themselves, were prehistoric Native American population in this area, and they were hunting and gathering peoples who then began to do agriculture. Once they really go full force into agriculture and start building houses and things like that, they move into what's called Ancestral Puebloan peoples - the old term is Anasazi. So, it comes from that. Ultimately, though, I think the basket is what we have to build for ourselves. A container that will hold everything that we are, and that's big enough to hold all our pain and love and ecstasy and joy and sorrow.
CURWOOD: Kate Niles teaches writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, and is author of the novel “The Basket Maker.” Kate, thanks for speaking with me today.
NILES: Thank you.
[MUSIC: Billy McLaughlin “Breaking of the Shells" Fingerdance (Narada) 1996]
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