The Source of All Things: Boulder-based author Tracy Ross on her harrowing journey from sexual abuse victim to survivor
In 2009, Tracy Ross, senior editor for Backpacker Magazine, won a National Magazine Award for her December 2007 essay The Source of All Things, a story quite unlike any of the tales of outdoor adventure she'd previously written. The essay centered on a hike she took as an adult with her stepfather to Redfish Lake in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains, where she would confront him with questions about the sexual abuse that began there when she was a child and continued until she was a teenager. That essay has now evolved into a full-length memoir that hits bookstores today; Ross will read from and sign copies of The Source of All Things on Wednesday, March 16, at the Tattered Cover LoDo. We caught up with the Boulder-based author to ask about the unbearable weight she's been carrying on her back through her life's many adventures.
Westword: Wilderness, nature and your own experiences with outdoor adventure have helped you move through some of the trauma of your early life, even though those same experiences were tangled up in early memories of your stepfather. How have the outdoors come to define you and give you strength?
Tracy Ross: From the time I was a small girl, the elements, the real natural world, the things that were tangible, and frigid, and super hot, and windy, you know... wide open sweeping places always spoke to me, from the very beginning and before any of the abuse began. I was on that trajectory when I was young and this was my world... and then it was so abruptly cut off from me when the abuse first happened to me. In those middle years we didn't go camping, we didn't do the things that we'd loved to do. It became tied together for me: The beginning of the abuse meant that I was cut off from everything that I loved. So, to not only go through such emotional trauma and confusion, but also to be cut off from what I loved...
There's a moment I write about in the book, after I've gone off to boarding school, where I ski out into the woods. That was a real awakening like, "Oh, yeah, here I am again. This is this feeling of potential and energy and cleanliness and beauty. This is my place. This is where I belong." From that point on, that became my anchor. And the manifestation of working through the abuse has always been super-physical for me, this feeling like I could shed so much of it physically by being lean and strong and losing weight, as if I could shed all the toxins by doing all these physical things out in nature, rock climbing, skiing, having awesome experiences that were so immediate and visceral that all the other stuff faded into the background a little bit.
The immediacy of the moment, whether it was hiking in grizzly country or doing search-and-rescue looking for dead people...all this stuff was like right now and had a purpose and felt important. People keep focusing on the relationship and the abuse, which is the most important center of the book, but for me the bigger story is in how I found a place for myself in this big, complicated world, after and because of everything that had happened to me.
WW: I don't imagine it's any easier to talk about this book than it was to write it. How much closure did you get from finishing it, and now doing interviews and appearances like the one at the Tattered Cover?
Author photo by Julia Vandenoever, courtesy Simon & Schuster Boulder-based author Tracy Ross will read from and sign copies of The Source of All Things at the Tattered Cover LoDo on Wednesday, March 16.
TR: It's actually getting easier for me to talk about it, because I'm partnering with the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which is the oldest child-abuse charity in the world. The more time I spend with them working together, the more I realize that the reach of my book goes far beyond my story. That has helped me. I just gave up all the worst moments in my life for the world to judge, all the hardest moments, in the hopes that it will be transformative in some larger way. But I won't pretend that I'm not terrified to give that talk at Tattered Cover: Writing about my abuse and getting up in front of a crowd of people to talk about it are two very different things.