Interview with Emily Samuelson, PhD: Q4 Creative Nonfiction Runner Up

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Congratulations to runner up Emily Samuelson and everyone who participated in our WOW! Women on Writing Q4 2018 Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest!

Emily’s Bio:

Emily Samuelson, PhD, is the author of Soaring Above the Ashes: Thriving Beyond Childhood Sexual Abuse, a series of stories from interviews of men and women who have built joyful and empowered lives after experiencing abuse. Between their stories are essays about her own healing journey. Her photos of the storytellers have been exhibited at The National Press Club, the Dirksen Senate Building, Drexel University, Goucher College, Baltimore City Hall, and the Grant Gallery in New York.

Currently, consults, lectures, and provides writing workshops for survivors. Dr. Samuelson maintains a private practice with adolescents and adults in Towson, Maryland. She can be contacted at SoaringAboveTheAshes.

If you haven't done so already, check out Emily's moving and empowering story  My Body was a Weapon and then return here for a chat with the author.

WOW: Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for advocating for yourself and others. Congratulations on being one of our runners up for the Q4 contest. I don't even know where to begin - I have so many questions. Let's just jump in.

What prompted you to move forward with all you do helping others?

Emily: I’ve always stood up for the underdog, even as a little girl. It’s probably connected to my own experience of being powerless as a child. I took on the savior role. I’ve always pushed back against bullies, at anyone who uses their power to hurt others. Bullies trigger my righteous indignation. I worked for many years as a therapist for traumatized children. All I wanted was to have them see themselves as I saw them: worthy of love and protection, pure.

I love my work as a therapist, seeing my clients with compassion, encouraging them, supporting their first steps on wobbly legs. I’ve always had this belief that there is light inside everyone. If someone is willing to do the work to heal, they can. They can find that light inside.

Now it’s important to me to do whatever I can to help abused children and the adults they become. I want to take action beyond the boundaries of my office. I have a voice and I want to use it.

WOW: Thank you for all you do - you've certainly found your calling! You're an advocate and a hero - but that begs me to ask: What can an everyday ordinary person do to help those who have experienced abuse?

Emily: Survivors of child sexual abuse need people to listen to their stories and their feelings. They need to be heard. As children, most of us were too terrified or ashamed to speak. We were often threatened by our abuser with actual threats or inherently by the power they had over us.
We need to be seen for the courageous survivors we are, for the grit and determination we have. Compassion is nourishing, but pity makes us feel seen as small and weak—and we certainly aren’t weak! The fact that we are still standing gives testament to our strength.

If you want to help, remember the horrific stats on sexual abuse: one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the age of 18. Gather more information. Share what you’ve learned. Be a part of shattering the denial in our society.

WOW: Such great advice - thank you. Sometimes when people share it can make the listener feel uncomfortable. It's good to hear from someone like yourself when you say it's helpful to listen. 

Tell us more about your writing craft - what does your writing space look like? 

Emily: When it comes to writing, it doesn’t really matter where I am. I wrote my book in so many different places—in my local library, hoping the vibes of all those books would push my start button when I was stuck; alone in a cabin in the woods of Pennsylvania that I rented for a week; at my kitchen table; in writing workshops and retreats; in a B&B in New Jersey with my dear friend, Donna Jenson, who was also writing a book about her healing from incest; in my bed in the middle of the night after waking from a nightmare; in journals in Baltimore, Worcester, Philly, London, North Carolina. What I have to do is turn my focus inside to descend the staircase that takes me to my core self. Then I can explore the landscape inside.

WOW: Focus inside - great advice!

I love this particular line: "I learned to notice my experience without directing or judging it" - when you wrote that line and My Body was a Weapon - did you give thought to what you might do with it beyond the contest? How might this be used as an opportunity to advocate?

Emily: It’s not easy to accept myself sometimes. I can be very quick to judge myself, harshly. At least I used to. I’ve worked a long time to just “be” with what is inside. I’m made up of so many different parts that feel all different kinds of things, often at the same time. I believe that’s true of all of us. My judgmental part, my internal critic, has been trying to protect me from pain, to whip me into shape so I’ll be perfect, safe. As I’ve gotten to know that part better and to understand its intent, it’s eased up a bit. I can better accept my flawed self, my petty parts, my envy, my inner bitch. So now I just try to notice whatever is going on inside of me because it gives me information about who I am. When I let things unfold inside without trying to direct them, I learn so much more. I get images and song lyrics and see scenes play out that help me understand myself better, help me heal.

People who commit sexual violence are also made up of parts. I’m so tired of hearing that the priest, the Boy Scout leader, the jolly man down the street who loves kids, the pillar of the community couldn’t possibly have abused those children. They’re not cardboard cut-outs! They’re multi-faceted humans. So, yes, they might be brilliant or charismatic or kind, and they also can be abusive. We have to be able to see the complexity of people to be able to hold them accountable and help them stop abusing.

WOW: I admire your ability to humanize those who commit sexual violence. That's a testament to your strength.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment and why?

Emily: Of everything I have done in my life—getting my doctorate, owning a home as a single woman, healing myself, being of service to so many broken-hearted people, writing a book—I am proudest of how I mothered my child. She helped me discover what a loving mother is. I was able to give her so much of what I needed and longed for as a child—deep listening, empathy, encouragement, reasonable limits, playfulness, and respect. I’m so blessed to have her as my daughter and friend.

As I wrote in my book, “She has the wisdom of an ancient, a heart with a wide open door, and the humor of Groucho.”

My book is my second greatest accomplishment. It actually took me over 20 years from start to finish. I had to find thriving survivors who were willing to speak and be seen (especially 20 years ago when survivors were hiding out of shame), travel around the country interviewing them, learn how to use a camera so I could take their portraits, edit their interviews into first-person narratives that kept their voices, and, to “come out” as a survivor myself. I kept putting on the brakes with my writing because I was so afraid of what would happen if I told my truth out in the world. That was and is a big one. No one in my family believed me. When they found out I was going to write about my own abuse, I was shunned by all of them— sisters, cousins on both sides of the family, my niece and nephew. It was excruciating. Still is. But I refuse to be silent to protect anyone from the truth. I have to speak truth to power.

WOW Thank you again Emily for all you do and all you are and especially for your time today - such a lovely chat and very moving story. We hope to hear more from you in the future!

Interviewed by Crystal Otto who just keeps on keeping on!

Check out the latest Contests:


Sioux Roslawski said...

Crystal--Thanks for doing this interview.

Emily--You have broken it and you have broken through. You've broken the cycle. Most of us raise children the way we were raised. You broke the cycle of abuse. That takes an incredibly strong and determined person.

You've also broken through to the other side. The other side of healing. The other side of survival. The other side of wholeness.

To have your family not believe you, to shun you? How horrid. How heinous. But ultimately, it's their loss. They are missing out on a fierce and phenomenal family member.

I used to work in a residential facility for abused and neglected kids. (I worked with the infants.) I saw mostly physical abuse, but there were a few who had been sexually abused. As a teacher, I saw (and reported on) physical abuse, but the two siblings who haunt me the most--Charles and his sister--were sexually abused. Their mother's boyfriend made them do unspeakable things when they were in the 3rd and 1st grade. Charles WAS finally strong enough to speak of what they were going through. His mother kicked the boyfriend out... only to later choose the boyfriend over her children.

Charles' story still haunts me...

Emily--if you send me your home address or an office address or an address of a friend (and I can send it "in care of"), I have something to send you. My email address is

I was moved by your story. I loved how your body--and its use/abuse--evolved.

Continue your mission and your healing and your writing. They all are intertwined.

Unknown said...

Dear Sioux,

Thank you for your support and acknowledgement! I don't know where I got the strength to keep pushing on, but I've always been driven to figure out who I really am underneath all the fear and projections and distorted beliefs about myself, to be my true self (whatever that means!)

I spent over 15 years working with sexually abused children. It was the most wrenching work I ever did. Much of the work was before I had any memories of my own abuse. Seeing their vulnerability connected me to my own.

You really "get" how my writing and healing are connected. Writing has been the winding path into my deepest self. It's also guided me on my path back out again.

Thanks again for your comment!

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