The books shown on the left are by Dayna Hester. Click on the cover to order.
This interview was conducted by Douglas R. Cobb on July 26, 2011.
Today I am interviewing the talented author Dayna Hester. Her new book, Speaking Truths,
is a powerful and poignant account of a teen (Landon Starker) who was kidnapped and abused over a period of several years. He came to accept that the only "truth" there was in his life was the "truth" that his abductor, whom he generally called Bob, told him was the truth. Landon (whose birth name was Tyler Roberts,) came to think that Bob abused him because he deserved it, that if he didn't do stupid things, he wouldn't get beaten up or otherwise abused. Dayna realistically portrays through the first-person POV of Landon/Tyler, how he acts up in high school and lashes out at the students and teachers around him, taking out his anger on them. Even when the FBI eventually rescues Landon, he has been so conditioned over the years by Bob that he finds it difficult to accept that the truth is far different from the pack of lies that Bob has been filling his head up with for almost as long as he can remember.
Speaking Truths is a fascinating account of Landon's eventual acceptance of the fact that his parents never stopped loving him, contrary to the lies Bob has been telling him, and had never given up hope of one day finding him and getting him back. I'm honored to have the chance to interview the author of this excellent book. Without any further ado, let's get on to the questions!
Douglas R. Cobb: Dayna, what first gave you the idea to write about someone like Landon, a victim of kidnapping and abuse? How long did it take you to write it?
Dayna Hester: The twist wherein Landon is fingerprinted and that fingerprint is the catalyst for his recovery was the glimpse in my mind that expanded into the novel. From there, I set out to research what would Landon be like if we met him in his current emotional state. I found that the irony of so many people that encounter intense trauma is that they’re seen as unsympathetic, which in a sad way isolates them. In addition, it is the case that when a kidnapped child is recovered (majority of which are from parental abductions) there is no psychological evaluation as to the level of trauma that the child has experienced. In fact, in my research, kidnapped individuals oftentimes describe the recovery process as a “re-kidnapping.” In short, to answer your question, I wanted to give these trauma survivors a voice. To research and write the book, it took me nine months. To revise, edit, edit, edit, blah, blah, blah … it took close to an additional eight months.
Douglas R. Cobb: The inner jacket flap of the cover of Speaking Truths compares Landon to Holden Caulfield of Catcher In the Rye. Would you say that is an apt comparison? If so, in what ways?
Dayna Hester: On the surface, in terms of theme—a teenager drowning in his unclaimed trauma—yes, I think you could say it’s an apt comparison. In terms of being an apt comparison to J.D. Salinger’s brilliant prose, no, I wouldn’t be able to go there. Salinger gave a character where oftentimes I believe the reader thinks, “Jeez, Holden, just go home, would you?” And then of course when the book comes to a close, you’re left with a profound sense, “Oh, that’s why,” and involuntarily—just like Holden—you get a sense of what it’s like to have the mind do everything but confront the trauma and try to win the battle.
Douglas R. Cobb: Why does Landon find it difficult to accept that the parents of other classmates at his high school care for their teens? Why does he think of their showing up at parent/teacher nights as a sham, and that to believe otherwise is stupid?
Dayna Hester: This is an example where Landon has created a reality in his mind so that he doesn’t have to confront a deeper internal sadness. If Landon acknowledged that parents actually do care for their children, he would be constantly reminded of what he felt was his reality, which is that his parents didn’t want him. What’s easier to do is to “soften” this reality and generalize. He creates a mindset that says “most parents are bad parents and don’t love their children. I had bad parents” versus “most parents love their children but my parents didn’t love me.”
Douglas R. Cobb: How does Landon's driving his friend, Sam, to buy some pot late one night in Bob's van (without Bob's knowing about it) lead to his being rescued by the FBI?
Dayna Hester: By way of background, when my children were elementary-age, the school offered to have them fingerprinted for purposes of identity in case of an emergency. One company that does this service is AMERITEK ID; they keep the database of fingerprints and when an emergency arises, they provide law enforcement the fingerprints. This is a fact. Now back to the novel. It would be my hope that when Landon takes Bob’s van to drive Sam to a drug dealer, that as the reader you don’t find it too much out of character for the two teens. After all, you just witnessed Landon getting kicked out of school, smoking and bullying his classmates. What really is going on, though, is that it’s one of those moments in a person’s life where small incidences click and life reroutes (some term it fate intervenes). Landon is arrested, fingerprinted and released—average teenage arrest. In the next 24 hours, however, the fingerprints get ran through the database of missing and exploited children, and while Landon goes to bed the evening of being released, the FBI are in the area preparing to converge on the property and perform a rescue of what they now know is an abducted child.
Douglas R. Cobb: Dayna, would you please tell our readers who the character K.C. is in Speaking Truths, why K.C. is important to Landon, and what happens to him?
Dayna Hester: In my opinion, people do not recover from extreme trauma unless there was at least one redeeming soul within arm’s reach at some point during the journey. K.C. was this for Landon. As Landon would tell you, “When Bob would do his stuff , it’s like you gotta leave your heart somewhere. You can’t keep it with you, or it fills up with anger and hatred because everything around you is too ugly. You don’t want to end up that way too, you know. And that’s how it worked with K.C. and me. I’d keep that part of him safe, and he did the
same for me. It didn’t matter what happened to us, because we knew that between the two of us we could make things okay for one another. That’s why there’s a part of me that’s still okay inside.” What happened to K.C. is that way before we meet Landon, he was killed. And how this occurred, I think it’s best left unsaid, and can easily be found out in the last chapter.
Douglas R. Cobb: Where do the FBI agents take Landon? Why, at first, does he think they took him away?
Dayna Hester: The FBI take Landon to their Omaha satellite office. Landon at this point is in the throes of confusion, somewhat, and because the FBI seize him on the heels of the arrest the night before, Landon starts to reason out that possibly/probably he’s with the FBI because there was a gun found in Sam’s backpack at the time of the arrest, and what makes sense in the moment is that the gun must have been involved in an FBI crime. What’s also happening is that Landon is scrambling for control of his surroundings even though the thoughts are somewhat illogical—the illogical part is that if the FBI have in you in their possession, you’re not going to simply just walk out the door.
Douglas R. Cobb: Why does Landon get panicky and want the FBI (Agent Drysdale) to take him back to the trailer?
Dayna Hester: When I mentioned that I wanted to give a voice to the victims of abductions (by the way, Takeroot.org is a great source for understanding abduction trauma), part of what I wanted to make clear in the book is that it’s naïve to think you can physically remove individuals from trauma and think that the mind automatically follows. And the mind, in this instance you are referring to, is not saying things like, “Get the FBI to take you back to the trailer so Bob will not be mad.” Instead, panic rises and the fight or flight senses kick in. For Landon, the best way he can think of to have some control over what his existence is, is to keep Bob close … to get back to the trailer.
Douglas R. Cobb: Who is Tracie Lodin, and could you go into how she tries to help Landon establish the truth as differentiated from the lies Bob's been telling him over the years?
Dayna Hester: Tracie Lodin is a psychologist that specializes in treating children who have been through traumatic experiences. Interestingly, I started to develop Tracie with a stronger voice, a person that points out things directly. But the problem with approaching Landon this way is that it’s not Landon that would be listening to Tracie, it would be Bob’s conditioning in Landon’s mind that would be fighting against Tracie. Instead, based on my research (and I must thank Dave Ziegler, PhD), the recognition that you’ve been abused and the effects of that abuse on how you perceive reality have to come from your own awareness, they have to be voluntarily explored by yourself. To this end, Tracie takes the approach that we should learn about ourselves and learn to question why we think the way we think about things.
Douglas R. Cobb: Landon has a hard time initially believing that Agent Drysdale, the main FBI agent who deals with his case, is right about what he tells Landon about Bob. What is the reasoning Landon uses to explain to himself why Drysdale must be wrong?
Dayna Hester: You know, I think the best way to describe this is that it’s very painful to allow our mind to fragment, fall apart, tear into pieces the reality that we have created for ourselves. This is even true when—like in Landon’s case—you are removed from a bad situation and being offered to go into a positive situation. When people undergo intense abuse, as odd as it may be to think, they learn that they can live with the abuse, survive under it, in a weird way, because they know what to expect, it’s easier to live with it (hopefully temporarily until they turn 18 they may think). In short, Landon “emphatically knows” that Drysdale is wrong because deep down he’s scared that he’s right, and it’s just better to stay with what he knows to be his reality, because after all he’s lived with that so far and he’s still living.
Douglas R. Cobb: Who is Palmer, and why does Landon/Tyler Roberts like him?
Dayna Hester: Palmer is a stranger who sincerely cares. And, it’s not that he specifically cares about Landon. He’s a caring person in general. It’s this latter statement that allows Landon/Tyler to feel—in the strongest sense of the word—warmth towards Palmer. And also because Palmer comes in and out of the picture without strings attached, he’s a safe person for Landon/Tyler to care about, and it allows Landon/Tyler the opportunity to explore that part of him that enjoys caring for people.
Douglas R. Cobb: What does Landon/Tyler learn/remember about the place he had thought was a shelter, that Bob had supposedly "rescued" him from?
Dayna Hester: I really tried to flesh out this memory for Landon in a profound way. Landon was never really told that this place he remembers was a shelter—he concluded this in his own mind. What really occurred is that when he was abducted, Bob took him to his sister’s ranch (it was vacant at the time), and the room—in Landon’s memory—looked like what he would call a shelter. In this room, Landon was viciously beat, and beaten so much that he started hoping that his abuser would be his savior, which in a twisted way is what happened. Bob stopped beating Landon/Tyler and told him he’d be his family from that point on. Landon’s mind made the safest choice: be thankful that Bob stopped beating him, accept his offer to save him, and redefine the setting as a shelter, not a torture chamber. That redefining soon turned into a false truth that lived in his recessed mind. He needed this false truth to be able to live with Bob day in and day out, and still maintain a sense of sanity.
Douglas R. Cobb: Why does Landon/Tyler feel he must desperately hold onto his ideas of what the "truth" is? Would you say that this sort of behavior is fairly typical of people who experience abuse?
Dayna Hester: In my understanding of abuse, this is very typical. The interesting thing is to pay attention to how easy it is to challenge the “truths.” For Landon, any time he gets close to having a “truth” challenged, a part of him reacts in a very defensive way. And it doesn’t react in a way that reasons out with words in his mind, such as “what is about to happen is you are going to be forced out of a denial, and like a dominoes reaction chain, you’ll have to learn to adapt to one new truth after another … so be strong, you’ll get through it.” Instead the pain gets defensive, guarded, anxiety ridden, anger imbues your character, and so on. And I believe—in some weird way—we hold on to these “truths” because we know we can handle the abuse we’re going through, so why not just bear through it until you can get out. And that’s what Landon’s state of mind is through almost half of the book. I mean, he’d tell you that he only had two more years in his hell hole, and then he’d be out doing his own thing.
Douglas R. Cobb: Why is it so difficult for Landon/Tyler to meet his birth parents? What has Bob told him about his mom?
Dayna Hester: Bob has told Landon that he found Landon after his parents gave him up; Landon was seven years old at the time. (And this is where Bob’s manipulation really shines). Bob tells Landon that he will go to his parents and try to get them to take him back; they of course don’t want to take him back, Bob claims. But to insure that he may have a chance to get back to his parents, it’s important that Landon/Tyler not get the police involved because if the police find out, they will not allow his parents to have him because you can’t giveaway your child—it’s against the law, and as Bob would say to the seven-year-old Landon/Tyler, “Now, you don’t want to get your parents arrested, right?” Landon/Tyler over time converts this manipulative reasoning to a reality. The saddest consequence of this, however, is the fear of trust that develops. And I think the word “fear” doesn’t really justify the thought. The fear to develop a closeness with another human being—his birth parents, for example—is better phrased as it’s safer to remain alone and not love anyone.
Douglas R. Cobb: Who does Landon/Tyler's birth mother, Cathy, tell him that Evan is, and why does she seem kind of disappointed when Landon/Tyler doesn't act thrilled?
Dayna Hester: Landon was abducted for seven years. While he was abducted, his birth parents had another child. I developed this part of the story to add more dimensions to what was happening in those seven years outside of Landon’s purview. It also allowed for opportunities to explore the notion of family make-ups shift and redefine. Most importantly, I wanted to give a realistic portrayal; It is my belief that in most situations there is no such thing as a perfect and seamless resolution. However, we all want perfect and seamless resolutions, and this is what explains Cathy’s disappointment. What Cathy’s reaction also indicates is that when a traumatic experience takes place, everyone involved is affected. There of course is the victim that is most severely affected, but there are also those on the periphery, such as Cathy and Dale in this story. And what I believe, is that when it comes time to heal, the process doesn’t work chronologically or in some sort of a hierarchical fashion. In other words, it’s not always the victim that everyone makes sure is healed sufficiently and then all others set out to become healed. Instead, everyone sets out—to a certain degree—to look out for their own best interest, whether they recognize this or not is a different story.
Douglas R. Cobb: Who's Henry Shlick, and how does he help Landon/Tyler?
Dayna Hester: Henry Shlick is a counselor that Landon/Tyler starts to see after he leaves Tracie Lodin at the Emily York Trauma Center. Henry helps Landon/Tyler in that he takes the counseling down to lower level, for lack of a better way to phrase it. It’s not an intense, residential treatment program. Instead, Landon/Tyler sees Henry as a person/therapist that validates his frustrations, reinforces to himself that he’s on track as a teenager/young adult, that his thought patterns are relatable to another human. Most importantly, he shows Landon/Tyler that trust is able to be developed between two people.
Douglas R. Cobb: I just have a couple more questions to go, Dayna! During Bob's trial, what explanation does K.C.'s mother give for having allowed her son stay with Bob, though she knew Bob was mistreating K.C.?
Dayna Hester: I really wanted the reason why K.C. ended up with Bob to be a strong element of fiction--it’s not. These situations happen in real life every day. K.C.’s mother’s only concern was herself. She always felt judged by her family for her drug usage, and she so desperately wanted to prove them wrong, she essentially sacrificed her son’s well-being instead of turning to her family and at the very least allowing them to care for K.C. while she turned back to her dependency on drugs. K.C.’s mother was a prime example of a parent that cares only about themselves, and only cares about their child when it’s in their own best interest. She knew Bob was sexually abusing her son but she was convinced life could be worse—what that worse was, as an author of the character, I’m not sure. I’m angry at this character.
Douglas R. Cobb: Speaking Truths is such a great book, Dayna, that after having read it, I felt I would really like to read more from you in the future. Are you currently writing another book, or do you have plans to write one anytime soon? If you are working on one, could you please give our readers an idea of what it's about?
Dayna Hester: Thank you for the confidence-building statement. I have three storylines for three separate books: another 15-year-old narrative, a love story, or a vampire novel. I’d love some suggestions! At this point, though, I’m going with the vampire story. I hate to just let it hang out there like that, but I will say this: I’m working very diligently on blurring the lines of fiction and fact so much so that I hope if you give me the opportunity, you will wonder “Is this story non-fiction but for some reason they’ve categorized it as fiction? But it’s a vampire story so it must be fiction … or is there such a thing as vampires?”
As I say good-bye, I’d like to thank you for this exposure and the opportunity to discuss Speaking Truths. It’s been very rewarding to be a part of this process, and it allowed me an opportunity to reflect on a creative journey that I thoroughly poured my heart and soul into.
Douglas R. Cobb: Thanks once again, Dayna, for graciously agreeing to do this interview with me! Speaking Truths is a wonderful, powerful book that made me sad and angry at times, at the terrible treatment child abuse victims like Landon are forced by their abductors to suffer. It's an important book that needed to be written, and I hope that it reaches a wide audience and that you continue to have much happiness and success during the coming years!
Read Our Review of Speaking Truths by Dayna Hester
Visit Dayna Hester's Website