One Omaha winter day in November 1978, when Debora Harding was just fourteen, she was abducted at knife-point from a church parking lot. She was thrown into a van, assaulted, held for ransom, and then left to die as an ice storm descended over the city.
Debora survived. She identified her attacker to the police and then returned to her teenage life in a dysfunctional home where she was expected to simply move on. Denial became the family coping strategy offered by her fun-loving, conflicted father and her cruelly resentful mother.
It wasn’t until decades later – when beset by the symptoms of PTSD – that Debora undertook a radical project: she met her childhood attacker face-to-face in prison and began to reconsider and reimagine his complex story. This was a quest for the truth that would threaten the lie at the heart of her family and with it the sacred bond that once saved her.
Dexterously shifting between the past and present, Debora Harding untangles the incident of her kidnapping and escape from unexpected angles, offering a vivid, intimate portrait of one family’s disintegration in the 1970s Midwest.
Written with dark humor and the pacing of a thriller, Dancing with the Octopus: A Memoir of a Crime is a literary tour de force and a groundbreaking narrative of reckoning, recovery, and the inexhaustible strength it takes to survive. (Book information from Bloomsbury)
About the Author: Debora Harding has had varied professional experiences including work in national U.S. politics for ten years, co-founding the UK’s first local terrestrial television station, and management of a bicycle business. She sits on the Advisory Board for the Hart Center for Public Service. Her work has been published in The Guardian, The Daily Mail and Unbound, as well as other publications. She spent her childhood in Nebraska and Iowa, and lives in Hampshire with her husband, the writer Thomas Harding. She is the mother of two children, Kadian and Sam. Find her online at DeboraHarding.com
Lara Lillibridge: What inspired you to write this book?
Debora Harding: In 2011, my family experienced a catastrophic loss, when we lost my fourteen-year-old son Kadian, in a sudden bicycle accident. As you can imagine, it devastated not only our family but deeply affected our friends as well. I was working in the U.S. but living in the U.K. and lost my job overnight. It took me over a year and a half to get the stage where I could think about doing anything that required a focus. That’s when I picked up a book that had been on my shelf for years that I hadn’t ever really engaged with – Michel d’Montaigne’s Essays.
I fell in love with his style. His spirit breathed on the page. And he wasn’t unfamiliar with grief, in fact, he was suffering the loss of a few key relationships in his life. Yet he had a sense of humour and lightness. And he made a strength out of the fact that he couldn’t keep a focus. He intermixed the personal and the philosophical. It was his essays that inspired the title structure in my book and gave me the focus I needed to stick to a subject. While I began the process of writing these ‘vignettes’, our nation’s psychological landscape changed almost overnight with the election of Donald Trump. And that lent an urgency to the storytelling–the theme of violence and malevolence playing out on the national stage had so many familiarities to those that had shaped my childhood and my home. Believe it or not, my mother and Donald Trump share similar personality traits. So, you might say this story had been knocking at my door for a long time, and the writing of it, a renewal of my contract with life. Light, huh?
LL: Your husband wrote about Kadian in a memoir of his own called Kadian Journal, which just came out a few years ago. One thing I am really curious about is what it is like to be married to a writer. Were you both writing at the same time?
DH: You might say we both started writing at the same time, when we fell in love. Thomas is British and we met in our early twenties on a bicycle ride across America. It was a summer romance that was meant to end but didn’t. Because he was in England and I was in D.C., and it was before the internet, we had to wait ten days to receive a letter, so our correspondence ended up quite lengthy. I then started developing my creative writing in my twenties, while Thomas was pursuing his journalism – mainly through documentary film-making. But I never gave up my paying career in politics, nor did he in journalism. We needed income. We were raising children. It wasn’t a sacrifice – I just wasn’t ready to tether myself to a desk. During those years, I wrote a couple of bad books — as I hadn’t yet found my voice. Thomas’ writing success came in 2012, twenty years after we married, with his first published book, Hanns and Rudolf. He then wrote the Kadian Journal about four months after we lost our son. He shared it with my daughter and I after he completed it, and we knew it was something special. By the time I started writing again, he was well into his third book, House by the Lake.
LL: Do you read each other’s work and work on drafts together? Or are you more private until it is at a certain point?
DH: We read to each other all the time and give each other feedback, but we both rely on other people as well.
LL: Tell me about the title of your book.
DH: The inspiration came from this imaginary octopus my Dad conjured up when my sisters and I were kids. He had a charming way of denying frightful events, of bringing humor and lightness to our childhood. But it was also his way to evade the truth of the violence we were navigating at home. So the image is both positive and negative. An octopus can be playful, but it can be a very dark and life-threatening creature as well. Dancing with the Octopus is a metaphor for the multiple layers of violent trauma I had to contend with, and the complexities of learning how to not get sucked into the clutches of its long-term reach.
LL: You do have these moments of humor in the book. Not jokes, but more like moments of air. There is a single page with the words, “I will now tell you about my childhood. Do not be scared.” Or, when you’re in the van, you wrote:
“He yelled louder, “Shut the fuck up before I kill you,’ which was completely unnecessary, as he’d just said this and it didn’t help the situation at all.”
That to me was a form of distancing and a way to reassure the reader that the narrator was going to be OK by the end of the book. These little moments, little half-smiles I’d call them. Do you think that is the influence of your father, who you say was funny, and your natural manner, or did you tell yourself, ‘I need to make this book a little bit lighter?’
DH: I have to tell you, I struggled with whether it was right to voice this irreverent attitude toward the material. When you write about trauma you’re thinking about your own individual journey with the material, but you’re also thinking about the reader.
I’d come down after I was writing and I’d say, “there’s a humor surfacing in this book!” And my husband and daughter and friends who know me would go, “Deb, there’s nothing funny about your childhood.”
That sort of detachment can be a dodge, but it’s at the base of all humor. It’s what makes comedy so important as an entertainment form. But certainly letting the story breathe and allowing the dark humor to surface, well I spent a lot of time scratching my head and asking myself, ‘is this OK?’
Writing memoir is a truth-telling contract, and I was always taking into account the reader’s sensitivities. My question was, I’m quite a way on this journey—I’m fifty-four—and is this kind of irreverence for the seriousness of the crime, is that going to be difficult for another victim who is so much closer to the experience. Am I being sensitive?
LL: You wrote, “I suppose I hoped that putting the fragments in order, looking at the narrative threads, moving the pieces around, might offer some therapeutic effect. But at times, it felt more like self-harm.”
That to me was exactly what I felt writing my memoir was like—incredibly freeing and yet it did feel like self-harm to put yourself back in the skin of your younger self. Do you have advice for other people writing about trauma that are trying to process it and not be consumed by it?
DH: I’ve thought a lot about this—there’s a real need for a mental health balance, isn’t there; to pace your writing, to know when to call it a day, to get yourself grounded in the moment again. At the same time, I think the difficulty is, that when it hurts that bad, you know you’re close to the material that can be the greatest and you need to stay in it. My pain wasn’t as much as putting myself back into my younger self, as it was writing from a deep place of grief while holding the intensity of the story I was telling.
LL: That’s a great point.
DH: It’s about knowing where that balance is. There were points where I’d be wiped out for a week. Actually, telling the story of the kidnapping was not that difficult for me, given the distance I have from the event, and time spent in therapy. The self-harm feeling was when I stepped into Mr. K’s point of view. There’s no other way to describe it, but awful.
LL: That was a bravery that I’ve never seen anyone willing to get that psychologically close to a perpetrator, and it’s a very powerful aspect of the book. How did that come about?
DH: It would have been easy to portray Mr. K as a monster. He’s wearing a scary mask that doesn’t reveal his identity, his appearance was so sudden it was like he stepped out of thin air. The value of the victim-offender dialogue I was able to partake in, demystified that aspect of him. It empowered me. I wanted to lend the reader a similar experience, so they could directly gain the benefits I did from reading the police reports, the newspaper articles, and my conversation with him.
I should also say, there are two violent perpetrators in the book – he isn’t the only one.
I get tired of the way victims are portrayed in this fascination with true crime. We’re always shown at our most vulnerable, our most emotional. Very rarely do we get to play the main role in these stories, unless we become the avengers.
In the book In Cold Blood, Truman Capote steps into Perry’s point of view. I identified with Nancy Clutter in that story, the sixteen-year-old who was murdered. I always wondered if she was able to read the book, what she might think and feel about it.
LL: My feeling was that it humanized him. Not to the point where I had empathy for him, but you start the book with him trying on jeans, and not being sure if he liked them. It definitely made him a more three-dimensional character.
DH: Thank you. He was one dimensional in my life for so long, that I didn’t want to continue to give him that fairy-tale Big Bad Wolf style power.
LL: In terms of race, I made a note: I didn’t know for sure he was Black until page 255. There’re a few mentions like his friend thought that something was racism, but Mr. K didn’t, that sort of thing, so I assumed he was not white, but you really keep it out, so we judge him by his actions and not his skin color.
DH: Given the times we live in, it was difficult to deal with the issue of his racial identity — especially given that racism is so prevalent and painful and grotesque in its harmful consequences. But because my offender made an issue of his Black identity through his own words, and he operates within a racist society, to deny that would be to deny his personal story. I took my direction after reading Toni Morrison. She suggested that putting the race of a character up front limits their agency by playing on the reader’s stereotypes. And when you are looking into the eyes of a predator who is about to attack, gender and race become insignificant.
I was also raised in a liberal progressive community— and I never heard anyone, including my parents, ever made an issue of Mr. K’s racial identity.
LL: That was one thing I was curious about.
DH: We were living at a time of heightened awareness of racism in the mid-1970s. The civil rights movement had made major gains. Desegregation had just started in Omaha. Roots had just been televised nationally. And the liberal progressive church I was a part of had social justice as part of their ministry. I went for years where I didn’t even bring up the crime, and if I did, I never mentioned his Black identity. Honestly, it was never important to me—not because I was colorblind, but because of all the things that were important in that story, that was the least. That was until I started writing the book and began to grapple with whether to share the story he told people. And it was something to watch people’s reaction to it when I discussed what I was struggling with in the writing.
LL: At the end of the book you wrote about how most abused people don’t come out to be abusers. I think sometimes society views people who have been victims as being broken, so that was really important to me. It was a small paragraph, but a powerful part of the whole cycle of abuse that we don’t hear enough about.
DH: I know. You so often hear, ‘well, he must have had a difficult childhood’ or they’ll ask if I know what motivated Mr. K. I think its safe to assert that at least 90% of the people who had the kind of background he came from, do not go on to commit violent crimes. And I believe it’s safe to assert that 90% of people who had my kind of [abusive] childhood do not go on to commit violent crimes. The point is, it may be true that all violent criminals have been victims, but it is not what causes them to hurt other people. It’s a false conclusion, and I can get very angry with that. When you hear it said over and over again, in relation to offenders, it makes it difficult when you’ve been a victim of child abuse and a severe crime, to not feel you have a question mark over your future.
And revealing my childhood in a book has been difficult. I wondered, do I want to deal with it socially? In one of my earlier attempts with the book, where I took an investigative journalist approach to the crime but had none of the family story involved, and I had serious interest from a publisher, but they wanted to change it in ways I wasn’t interested in. And I put it in a drawer because the conversation made me realize I didn’t want to become a poster child for a crime, especially as I was now a mother. That sounds so skeptical and cynical, but at the same time, the crime has never defined me. Yes, I survived, but people survive difficult things every day. I’m no different. I’ve led an incredible life. I don’t want my authorial identity to be built up around the fact that I was the victim of a horrendous crime. And I didn’t want to deal with people’s projections. And you know, another one of my fears is that it will be siloed as a book about sexual assault and child abuse, when I think the literary choices I made are much broader than that. This isn’t just my story — it is a story of four distinctly American characters, trying to contend with the fall-out of horrendously violent acts.
LL: Absolutely. I thought it was very artful—I really admired the craft of it. Many of our readers are writers themselves, so when I read a book, I’m paying attention to the authorial choices the writer makes. We all have the story we are given to work with in memoir—we have only this one life. It’s how you shape it, what you focus on, what you leave out. I think this book as a literary work beyond its dramatic content is worth studying for other writers. You’ve done so much in terms of alternative points of view, but also seamless time-jumps. I was never confused, which is something that honestly happens to me often I will admit. You really braided it beautifully. I can’t imagine at the beginning saying, ‘well, I’m going to jump around in time, and I’m going to take in someone else’s point. of view, and I’m going to make it all work.’ And you did make it work in a way that is wonderful.
And you’re right, there are a lot of other themes. As a mother, I really related to when you were back in the United States with your two beautiful children and being overcome with fears about how your past was going to affect your parenting. Do I have this inside me? That was one of the most emotional points in the book for me, just because I’ve been there.
DH: I have to say that vulnerability on that particular issue was one of the most difficult for me to write. It’s interesting, the draft of the book that was circulated in New York before it was sold, didn’t have that chapter, or it did, but I brushed over the issue. That vulnerability and anxiety of becoming a parent after you’ve been raised by a violent parent is rarely discussed. And I think it affects a great many people. When my mental health was deteriorating, I’d swing from that total bliss of looking at my children’s faces, being completely in love with them, to terror that I was going to lose them, and remember thinking, I can’t let them see that. And the hypervigilance we end up bringing to our parenting, because we know the harm that can be done if we get it wrong, that specifically is a special part of the journey for those of us who didn’t have the role models to give us the confidence. I don’t think we could dream it’s as simple as watching your child’s emotional reactions.
LL: Personally, I’d never seen that addressed in a book before, and I’m glad you took that risk.
DH: Thank you.
LL: What are you working on now? What are you reading now?
DH: I think maybe one of the silver linings of the pandemic is that you have to let go [of expectations]. Our daughter is home from University and I’m starting to think about other projects and potential books, but I haven’t quite had the space to see it yet. At the moment I am reading Rachel Cusk’s fictional trilogy – Outline, Transit, and Kudos, and I’m listening to David Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom, which is excellent.
LL: It is a really hard time to have a book coming out, but I think people need stories now more than ever. What is one thing that is buoying you up?
DH: The book was selected as an Indie’s Choice, which is sponsored by the American Bookseller’s Association, and that was a real boost. It will be on their Summer/Autumn list. And to tell you the truth, it’s just been so lovely to have our daughter home from University. We’re lucky to have a garden, and we live in an area of outstanding beauty. It’s a weird time, but we just went through a total realignment of our lives seven years ago when we lost our son. I wasn’t sure I was ever going to be able to operate again at a professional level, and though the pain of my grief for Kadian is there every day, he is still a source of strength and joy for me. His spirit still buoys me up.
LL: Thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Dancing with the Octopus: A Memoir of a Crime, releases September 22, 2020, with Bloomsbury.