T is for Thesen (and Gallant) – The Wig-Maker – A Remarkable Collaboration – Truth-Telling, Poetry, Healing

Canadian author and wig-maker Janet Gallant

from The Neighbour

My dad was such a liar.
      It was all about perception, I had to be a refined lady
            I never carried myself like a slut, not even nail polish.
I was perfect.
      I fooled them all, to the point where I fooled myself.
            I was fictitious. I wore nice suits.

By the time you’re six, you’re a double agent.

In a world that feels this way, the soul knows something is wrong.
The moan is the vibration of the soul.

Since I could never speak my truths, how could I sing them?
I never felt worthy. I felt like a fraud.

The truth is in music. The truth is in the moan. Billy’s moan.
The moan on the slave ships.

Everything that is wrong is in this story.

Janet Gallant and Sharon Thesen from The Wig-Maker, New Star Books, 2021

Out of two fires comes the book The Wig-Maker, from which this poem excerpt can be found. From the fire of drastic physical and sexual abuse in childhood and a literal wildfire that threatened the city of Kelowna in the B.C. interior in 2017.

It was during one evening during the worst of that fire around Kelowna that turned two neighbours (celebrated writer and teacher Sharon Thesen and wig-maker Janet Gallant) with little previous contact into intimate collaborators. It was then with the help of some wine that Janet began to tell her story which, through many follow up meetings and artistic collaboration, created the words that make up almost all of  this book. It tells a life-giving story of self-discovery and claiming her black ancestory, a name and birthright. How Janet McCrate (her birth name), became Janet Cliff (her married name) and now Janet Gallant (her birth-father’s name).

This book. So much more than a collection of poems. Something, dare I say, of the sacred enters in, when a survivor braves all resistance and shares their story within the compressed marvel that is a poem. And when I think of the results of doing this I think of the words of American poet Greg Orr who suffered the huge trauma of killing his brother in a hunting accident when just a boy:

When you suffer trauma, you mostly do that passively, as a victim. But when you translate that experience into words and shape it, you become active. You are no longer a passive endurer of experience, but an active shaper of it. You’ve redeemed something from that chaos. Writing a poem can save your life, and reading a poem can show you that you are not alone. “Someone else felt this. Someone else went through what you are going through and they survived, even triumphed.The poem is the proof of that survival and triumph.

Gregory Orr from Image Journal, Winter 2013

This book, yes, difficult, forged within the container of an unspeakably difficult life. This book proof, as Gregory Orr says, of triumph and survival. And because of this I feel it is so important that this huge small book get as large a readership as possible. To remind all of us of the possibility of surviving the large and even small challenges in our lives. To know we, too, can survive “the moan” what ever form it takes in our lives.

In her endorsement of The Wig-Maker on its back cover, Griifin Prize winner, Eve Joseph captures so well the power of truth-telling in this book: The work of repair does not deny the original wound. In fact, it cannot happen without it. A fealty to the truth creates a kinds of shimmer. Impossible to miss that fitful, tremulous light in what can only be called a work of heart-breaking brilliance.

Abandoned by her mother and abused by her father who, in the course of the creation of this book, was discovered not to be her biological father, Janet through Sharon’s poetry, using Janet’s words, brings to life the hidden horrors of such an upbringing. And how chilling this understanding of a stolen childhood: By the time you’re six you’re a double agent. And then the bald truth: Everything that is wrong is in this story.

So many wrongs; abandonment, abuse. The not knowing until later in her childhood she was the daughter of a black mother (with her own awful history and struggle with mental illness). Losing her brother Billy when he was fourteen to suicide after being grounded for smoking by his father. Then losing her sister Penny to drugs and prostitution before Janet found her again after Penny had lived half her life on the streets. Penny died with Janet a year later at forty.

But this huge and healing right: Janet finding her voice and through Sharon bringing all its dark and light on to the page! Janet finding the truth of the healing nature of words. Her ability as she said at the book’s launch to find her singing. To celebrate the astounding fact of her survival. And to tell that survival story in an unflinching way without shame. And in the process of telling that story finding out so much more of her life and her biological families.

And Janet’s voice. Not the voice of a victim. If you listen to it in her interview with American poet Paul Nelson from last month you can hear its vitality. Its strength. (And here is Paul’s interview with Sharon.) And I wonder if the healing power of what she has created with Sharon has added to its life-giving vibrancy. I ask this because the power of a writing as a healing and therapeutic tool is widely known. Listen to this vibrancy from the last poem in the book, and now I’m found,  when Janet discovers her “true” biological family:

I feel like I’m home, finally.
      It’s so powerful.
            I haven’t been this excited about the future.

I have awesome cousins.
      I no longer need my Gallant half-sibling’s permission
            to be me,

                  Janet Gallant

The healing power of writing one’s story has been clinically established through numerous studies beginning in the 1940’s. But the research that seems to have put expressive writing as a healing technology on the map was John Pennebaker’s studies back in the 1980’s at Texas A & M. In 1986 he published results from his first research that showed expressive writing focusing on feelings around a difficult or traumatic event had a healing effect. Since then hundreds of expressive writing experiments have been conducted that have shown how writing can have a healing impact. In Pennebaker’s most recent book published in collaboration with researcher Joshua Smyth in 2016 they say: Expressive writing has been used to treat a variety of physical health problems as well as mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder. 

There was another literal fire in Janet’s life when she burned much of what tied her to her past including some of her brother Billy’s hair she cut after he died. She describes this in this excerpt from the poem the burning:

After I lost Penny I couldn't handle it so I wrote a letter to my father
      asking him  to take responsibility. " You kids turned out great."
            I couldn't handle it. I lost all faith. 

I was reading my own diaries.
      I needed to get this energy out of my world.
            What I didn't burn I threw in the garbage.

I believed that getting that stuff out of my house my office my
      would get it out of my life.
            But it didn't.
                  Everything just got worse.
            I thought this burning ritual would cleanse my mind
but it didn't.

It strikes me that instead of finding peace and resolution by trying to burn her past  she stumbled on a much more efficacious approach in the two and half years of telling her story to Sharon and concurrently researching her history and finding through a DNA test her paternal biological family and their name that she has now taken as hers – Gallant. Through this she was able to come to a much more healing resolution. The healing in the telling not a hiding. To name the pain. The power of that, beyond even what modern medicine can do as British depression survivor and author Jay Griffiths says:

I was also taking psychiatric medication, but in medicine I saw the science of pain, whereas in poetry I saw pain’s art. Medicine has an anesthetic relationship to pain – it wants to rid the patient of it. Poetry’s relationship is aesthetic – it wants pain to speak.

Jay Griffiths from The Guardian, June 18th, 2016

Canadian poet, teacher and author Sharon Thesen

And as Sharon tells it in the book’s afterword they had no idea what was in store once she began typing what Janet was saying. It was only months later after deciding to create a book manuscript  that they decided “Janet’s telling was going to  compose the entirety of the text – her telling processed through my ears, my heart, my hands. The text became a long poem in Janet’s voice, lineated in triadic stepped-line stanzas – loosely speaking. (In the final version Sharon writes quite a few prose out-takes expanding and clarifying events in the poems that make up the book’s so-called long poem.)

Sharon is clear that they did not take on this project for therapeutic purposes. They wanted to express instead the sound of the story they had made together – “the moan” – the moan of a soul, the moan of her feelings, her brother Billy’s moan, and at times my own quiet moaning while my hands were moving over the keyboard.” But in leaning into that “moan” it seems hard to avoid therapeutic outcomes. And I think of the great healer and teacher Rachel Naomi Remen who in the quote below captures what I imagine was happening during this remarkable undertaking between Janet and Sharon:

Writing poetry together heals loneliness. What is true for someone on the deepest level is often true for us all. Reading a poem aloud and listening to the poems of others can heal the alienation which is so much a part of our world…..Poetry wears no mask. In taking off the masks we have worn to be safe, to protect ourselves, to win approval, we become less vulnerable. Less alone. Our pain becomes just pain. It is no longer suffering.”

Rachel Naomi Remen M.D. from Kitchen Table Wisdom –  Stories That Heal, Riverhead Books, 1996

And in what seems like one of life’s extraordinary reversals it was Janet’s stress in her life including the unexpected death of her former husband, who had remained close with his family, that led to an unexpected positive outcome. Janet’s curly black hair fell out twice and her need for wigs led her to become the eponymous wig-maker of her book’s title! She tells part of this story from this excerpt from the poem named after the condition that led to her hair loss):

from alopecia

That's when my hair started falling out.

Just when i thought " I've made it, emotionally and professionally."
Emotionally, past the pain: and professionally able to provide
                                                    for my kids.
But the universe said, "not so fast, you need to deal with this".

I think I had to go bald to see myself, to lose my hair to start
at myself, my physical health and emotional health.

I couldn't see the Gallant side of me until all my African curly hair
                                                              fell out.
This whole journey is about recognizing myself.

I don't see Janet McCrate when I look in the mirror any more.
I haven't felt like a McCrate for decades.

It will be easier to take care of myself when my brain stops
                                           spinning with all this shit.

Telling a true and intimate story. Writing it down. A way to help  a brain stop “spinning with all this shit.” And in the poem that follows Janet says:

The physical act of making wigs forced me to be by myself for hours
      and start laying out what went down
            I had to lose my hair and be at home making wigs
so that for the first time in my life
      I could see my universe more clearly.

This making of wigs, this telling of Janet’s story and seeing it come back to her in the shape of poems making one lomg poem of her life. This order created by Sharon out of the disorder of important parts of Janet’s life. And in that ordering a life comes into a healing focus. And I as a reader can leave this order with a renewed sense of hope in spite of the suffering in a life. I give huge thanks for Janet, her courage to tell her story and to Sharon for being the necessary witness and scribe. And I give a last word to the American physcian, poet and healer Rafael Campo who sums up for me the healing nature of this remarkable enterprise between Janet and Sharon:

“I have witnessed first hand the power of writing poetry in abetting healing -poetry is able to name when the diagnosis eludes us, it calls us into community when symptoms makes us feel isolated or alone or even silenced, it engenders empathy when the doctor would distance himself – it even allows us to transcend our mortality by creating something that endures on the page long after we’re gone…… If my patients have taught me anything, it is that healing is just as important as curing – sometimes, even more so – and it is poetry that can help us bridge these two distinct responses to……suffering.”

Rafael Campo M.D. , (a celebrated poet and non-fiction writer who practices medicine in the Boston area and is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard), from Poem-A Day on Poets.Org, 2014


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