Interview with....LEA TONIN by Rachelle Allen
Story of the Month contest entry
In case you’ve been on vacation or hibernating since the summer, LEA TONIN is the woman behind the book “GHOST, THE STORY OF THREE CHILDREN RUNNING AWAY.” It is a true –and harrowing—account of her survival in a household comprised of a vacant, self-absorbed mother, the sadist her mother married, Lea and her two younger sisters.
More, though, it is a story of survival and grit, life lessons and triumph.
Lea envisions it as a trilogy and joins us today, having just completed Book One.
So, tell us, Lea, my new, amazing writer-friend, how does it feel to have conquered the first leg of this journey?
It’s a very freeing sensation. Light –as if I were made of helium. There seems to be room in my head now where there wasn’t any before. And there’s room for new feelings --positive ones-- instead of the constant worry my life had become.
You were SO impressively tenacious with the way you cranked out two full chapters every single day and posted them for us. What created that level of ambition and drive?
I would like to say it was a choice I made, when really, it was the pace my mind wanted to go. I would fidget and twiddle my thumbs until I sat down and wrote both chapters. It was a commitment I made to myself and to my mind so that I could rest at night.
The torture you endured throughout your young life was simply incomprehensible to all of us who’ve read this book. The Jewish Mommie in me thinks about how horrible it had to have been initially, when you actually experienced these horrors, and wonders what was it like as you experienced it again, this time in the form of words you were physically writing down. It had to have been so painful to re-stoke those memories, dredge up those times, and then commit them to paper. Tell us about that process.
It was a process, really, kind of like warming up for a hockey game or stretching before running. But the preparation was for the mind, instead of the body. It had to be done to achieve an equilibrium. I had to be able to provide enough emotion for the story at the time, yet not go so far down that rabbit hole that I was unable to function for the rest of my day-to-day life. I’m not going to say it was a perfect process.
I cried a lot as I felt the pain and rage of those days. It never really goes away. It just sort of changes form. When I was done writing for the day, I would be alone for awhile to shift my brain back to the current day.
Were you ever worried that you’d made a mistake undertaking it?
When I wrote the first chapter, I was really concerned that it wouldn’t do very well or would cause a bad reaction. This was the way I felt so often, growing up. But the biggest part for me was to be believed. So, again, there was that balance between writing from the heart and just delivering cold, hard facts. I honestly didn’t know how it would do or if I should continue. Finally, though, I took up my pen again and dived into Chapter Two.
Was there a point at which it felt cathartic?
I want to say the word “revelation.” But even that doesn’t seem powerful enough to describe the moment when writing the chapters entitled “The Fury, Part 1, 2 and 3.” The big battle between myself and my stepfather was cathartic in a very huge way.
Please take us through an “average” day with those people –your mother and stepfather.
During the week, it was get up, make coffee, bring them their coffee, wash, go to school, then run home, trying to evade the bullies at school. Then it was chores. More chores than you can imagine. I did the bulk of them because I was the oldest.
My parents didn’t have to do anything. We did it all. If the water wasn’t hot enough or if we used more soap than my stepfather liked or there was anything out of the control of his OCD ways, that earned us a punch in the head or a kick to the gut or a belt buckle across our back and butt.
Usually, more often than not, we were awakened in the middle of the night because they found a dish that was dirty. So, my stepfather would empty the entire contents of the cupboards into the sink, and we would have to wash them all. And we’d better do them right, or we would get more of the same punishment. Our daily hope was that we might get to eat that day.
After a particularly terrifying standoff with your stepfather (which your mother watched and did nothing about…), you ran away when you were just fourteen years old and actually lived in the nearby forest…FOR SEVERAL MONTHS! Tell those not familiar with your story why getting the police –or, more to the point, Social Services—involved was not an option.
Two higher-ups in the social services department, then called “Child Welfare” or “Zenith 1234,” failed us twice, and the reason for that is because they were directly related to me: my grandmother and an uncle.
When we would complain to adults we trusted about being mistreated, my mother would call my grandmother, who would talk to Social Services, or, as it’s called today, “The Ministry.” The workers there would see to it that documents were intercepted and that our processing within the system was stopped and re-directed back to my grandmother, as a favor to her.
We would then be taken to my grandmother’s house, where she would keep us for a time, then send us back to my mother and stepfather…until we complained again. Then my mother would call my grandmother again, and she would put a stop to any documents being generated from the complaint. And once again, she’d have us delivered to her house, and after a time, we’d be sent back home yet again.
My family members and my mother were very much involved in having everyone who came to my grandmother’s home be told that we three girls were mentally disturbed and that everything we said was a false memory. They were told not to pay attention to us. This we didn’t learn until we were no longer children. Back then, we had no idea what was going on behind the scenes or the machine that was in place to assure my family’s job security.
So, our relatives failed us twice: by not calling the police because of how it would re-involve Social Services, and by allowing us to get caught up in the vicious circle that turned us into sacrificial lambs.
Regarding the layout of your story, I know I am not alone when I say that what intrigued me the most, in the way you’ve presented your book, is how each chapter begins with your chatting with us, your readers, cleverly using small, “cozy” font, and sharing how you’re feeling, what you’re seeing as you type, what the weather’s like where you are, and what we’re about to experience.
Then, in bigger font, you re-start your terrifying story, exactly where you left off with us in the previous chapter.
I find that an absolutely BRILLIANT approach, because, just as it’s a traumatic tale for you, it is for us, too, as we grow to care about you more and more with each completed chapter. You begin to matter to us on a seriously deep level. And then, in typical Lea Tonin fashion, you care for us right back, by extricating us from the mire and reminding us that that was then, and this is now, and don’t the flowers in your yard smell so beautiful and feel that warm sun today.
You are the ANTITHESIS of your own mother, Lea. You are gracious and sweet and sentient and full of compassion and love. You’re the kind of person everyone would feel lucky to have in his or her life.
So kind of you to say that. Thank you very much.
Give us a little taste of what’s coming up in your second book in this trilogy: SPECTRE.
SPECTRE covers the next fifteen years of my life and how I was so wholly unprepared for the world: the many mistakes I made, how I found myself, once again, in the trap of abuse, and how I escaped with my children.
I was the perfect example of “from the frying pan to the fire” because, honestly, given my upbringing, I just didn’t know better. But I learned…the hard way.
Not surprisingly, given the nature of these people, after they discovered you were writing this book, they began doling out backlash in EPIC proportions. Please share with us what they’ve put you through recently, even at this early stage of your book’s life.
My mother, who spent most of her life being dishonest and narcissistic and, often, emotionally cruel, continues to do what she did all through my life: paint me with a brush that isn’t my own. She tells lies to anyone who will listen, in an effort to discredit me, and ruin my reputation as a decent, hard-working human being. She’s called my uncle, my former employer, and my youngest sister’s family members on both sides to tell them terrible stories. Some have called me and said, “You should be ashamed of yourself for putting your mother in danger.” Others have said, “Your mother is such a sweet lady. How could you do these things to her?” One even said, “You should kill yourself.”
She called the uncle I live with (not the one high in the ranks at Social Services) to ask how it was going with me. He said, “She does her thing, and I do mine.” My mother said, “Watch out for her. She’s doing her thing again. She’s dangerous.” It was pretty much the same conversation she had with my ex-employer, but, to him, she added that I take drugs. She has accused me of sending friends to attack her, and she tells everyone who will listen that I am an idiot.
Her boyfriend of one year told me that he’s “very disappointed” in me and that I don’t know my mother very well.
The number of people I can rely on is dwindling because she’s done her work very well. She’s even drawn a rift between my younger son and me.
All this because she doesn’t want her shameful past behavior to be revealed.
Wow. That’s just unconscionable. I’m so sorry this is still such an active emotional sore for you.
Finally, let’s talk a bit about your writing talents. I know you’re a gifted artist. Some of the pictures that grace your chapters were painted by you. You’re also a jewelry maker. But writing is a new genre for you in the creative arts, right?
Yes! Actually, I joined FanStory just over a year ago. I like words, so I just thought I’d throw in something just to see what would happen. It was kind of like a joke, never thinking that anyone would like it or respond to it. I was very happy to be wrong!
Tell us about that aspect of your creativity.
In poetry, I like abstracts and rhyme, too. I like smashing words together. Words that mean the opposite of each other, like, “silent scream” or “cold heat.” Things that are opposite make really cool sentences.
What I especially admire about you, Lea, is your appreciative attitude toward all the reviewers on here who’ve been both generous –and TENDER—as they help you hone your innate storytelling prowess. You’re very welcoming to their critiques, and I’m convinced that that’s why your style has continued to blossom so beautifully.
In closing, I just want to say to you, Lea, that I’ve come to consider you THE most extraordinary person I’ve ever known –NO hyperbole. Despite all the horrors of your childhood and what you’re being put through still, you are such a loving, considerate, POSITIVE bright light in this world. I absolutely love and feel tremendously enriched by our burgeoning friendship and am so looking forward to the day when you receive the letter of acceptance from an international publishing house for the rights to your book.
No matter WHERE your first book-signing is, I will be there at the front of the line, with a hundred copies for you to sign. (Yes, I am THAT selfish), and I will be telling everyone behind me, “This amazing woman and PUBLISHED AUTHOR is my friend. I KNOW her! She’s AWESOME!”
I have grateful tears on my face now. Grateful because the world is not as I thought it would be: everyone being deceptive and cruel. I know this on an intellectual level, but my “conditioning” still reminds me to always watch out.
But I don’t have to do that anymore. You showed me that door. You became my mentor and friend. You spear-headed this whole project and kept me going through writing all of it.
Your story is very important, Lea, and I live by the mantra that goes: Everyone is just one caring person away from a better life. You were given a lot of bad situations to contend with throughout your life; there’s no two ways about that. But you were also given talent and HEART and ambition and tenacity…and the support of so many of your fellow members here on this FanStory site.
To you and the many others on FanStory who have held me up in the same way, I offer my deepest and most humble “Thank you!” You shall never, EVER be forgotten by me.
Right back atcha, Sweet Lea. xoxo
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