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A debut novel finds the truth in writing fiction

Published April 30, 2012 10:00 am

Writing a young adult novel, author makes sense of her life.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When Melanie Thorne was 14, her mother decided she'd rather be married to a sex offender than parent her two daughters.

"The first thing I felt was shock," said Thorne, 30, the former Utah resident whose young adult novel Hand Me Down, was released this month by Dutton. The novel fictionalizes — although only slightly — the heartbreak, desperation and confusion Thorne experienced when her mother "asked" her to leave the California apartment she grew up in so her new stepfather could stay.

"I started clutching my stomach and asking 'Why are you picking him?' just like my character Liz does in the story," Thorne says. "I felt so abandoned, so betrayed. Because it wasn't just that she wasn't choosing me. It was that she was choosing this disgusting pervert over me. I couldn't understand why."

Part of the novel is set in Salt Lake City, where Thorne lived with her aunt in the Avenues for several years in the late 1990s. Thorne will be in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 3, for a reading at The King's English Bookshop.

The process of writing Hand Me Down allowed the writer to finally piece together the experience of moving from house to house — often from bad situation to worse — while at same time trying to protect her little sister from both their violent, alcoholic father and their mother's new husband.

It's a process Thorne began five years ago while working toward a creative writing master's degree at the University of California-Davis. It's also a process that health experts say can help someone who has experienced an emotional trauma — such as Thorne — begin to heal.

Medical research studies have, in fact, found that both adolescents and adults suffering from depression, anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and even asthma and rheumatoid arthritis can benefit from putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

"Writing can be a great therapeutic tool," said D. Richard Martini, M.D., pediatric behavioral health division chief at the University of Utah School of Medicine. "For pretty much any patient who's experienced a trauma, the goal of therapy is to help the patient accurately see, and piece together, what they actually experienced, rather than the distorted or fragmented version their brain might have created as a protective mechanism. A person has to see a situation as it actually occurred before they can begin to accept it, heal and move on. And putting a story into words, on paper, where it can be analyzed with at least a bit of objectivity, can help do just that."

Reading stories like Thorne's that deal with difficult, real-life scenarios also offer people a window to see, and opportunity to examine, their own experiences and lives.

"It's through stories that we connect with other people and ourselves," said Martini, who also serves as psychiatry and behavioral health director at Primary Children's Medical Center. "What better way to learn or express ourselves than through narrative, through stories?"

For Thorne, however, writing about the time she and her sister had to talk their drunken father out of buying a beer from a gas station on their way to Christmas Eve dinner, or the afternoon her new stepfather trapped her between his body and a bar booth wall, wasn't as much a choice as it was a necessity.

"The stories just kept bubbling up," said Thorne, 30, from her home in Petaluma, Calif. "My mother's choice to kick out me and my sister was this huge defining moment, yet 11 years later, when I was in grad school, I still hadn't figured out what it meant or why it happened. But then I started writing, and writing gave me the ability to not just see what the whole experience looked liked from beginning to end, but to look at it from a more detached perspective and try to figure out why my mother did what she did and, more importantly, if I could ever forgive her."

Although Thorne's writing resulted in a novel, a book shouldn't be the goal of cathartic writing. "Write to figure out how you feel," Martini said. "Write to see how the parts of your life fit together."

Thorne said she began missing that process almost as soon as she finished Hand Me Down, so much so that once the novel went to print, she decided to find a therapist.

"Writing the book helped me let go of so much anger," Thorne said. "But when it was done, I felt like my major support had disappeared. I'll continue to write. I've always journaled and had a diary, but I want to make sure I keep talking about my story and figuring out what it means to me. It's admitting to the hard truths, and not being ashamed, that helps us grow."

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Melanie Thorne reading at King's English

The author and former Salt Lake City resident will read from her debut novel Hand Me Down at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 3, at The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City.