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The Source of All Things is an emotionally charged memoir by Tracy Ross, detailing her experiences with a sexually abusive stepfather, and her long trek through the raw wilderness to heal herself and reconcile with her abuser.
That’s right. The story opens with Tracy joining her stepfather (always referred to as “Dad” because he is the man she grew up with after the tragic passing of her biological father) on a hike to the place she believes the abuse all began – Redfish Lake, Idaho. They have planned this trip for the two of them, but her reasoning is to confront him and ask those questions that I’m sure thousands of abused children would seek to ask their parents.
The story then moves to the beginning. Or, before the beginning. When Tracy was only seven months old, her real dad went backpacking and an aneurysm exploded in his brain. He died days later, leaving Tracy’s mother emotionally devastated. Eventually, she moves on (although she seems permanently psychologically damaged by this experience) and marries Don. As a young girl, Tracy bonds quickly with her stepfather. They have a wonderful relationship filled with exploration of the wilderness (something Tracy holds on to well into adulthood and beyond). It is almost easy to forget that the reader already knows what evil is lurking in their future.
I find it difficult to write about the abuses Tracy suffered without wanting to explode with rage. It’s the same feeling I had the first time I read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I want to crawl into the book and save these abused children. And then I am further hurt by the fact that these aren’t just stories but these things really happen. I don’t even feel that I can do Tracy’s words justice. The way she talks about her abuse is mature and full of compassion for her abuser. She loves her father, and even states several times that she can’t imagine what it was like for him to be around her when he has these desires that he must understand are inappropriate. It must have been so terrifying for her to love her father so much, but still be so aware of this monster that lived inside of him.
Even between instances of abuse, she still loves him and continues her close relationship. They still go hiking and camping, and when she needs help she goes to him. Her mother, seemingly incapable of doing the right thing for her daughter, even passes off parental responsibilities to Don – even after the abuse has come to light and the family learns what has been going on.
One night, after an encounter with Don, Tracy runs away. She slips on her sneakers and just runs to a friend’s house. She knows that the friend’s mother will help her. And she does. Child Protective Services is involved and Tracy is removed from her family’s house. This is a distressful experience for Tracy, because she loves her family (even her dad) and being away from them is very difficult.
But this experience also puts her out of harm’s way. Don is forced to attend therapy, and a restraining order is taken out. However difficult it might be for a father and daughter as close as them to be so separated, it is in the best interest in all involved – especially Tracy. And Don is knowing and accepting of this. No charges are ever brought again him, but perhaps that is simply a sign of the times. And the ignorance so many had on what abuses children were facing.
As Tracy moves through a few foster homes, ends up living with her mother again, and then eventually moves on to a boarding school, she turns to running and many other activities that keep her outdoors. The influence of Don taking her hiking and camping and hunting is obvious throughout Tracy’s life. She chooses the wilderness as her safe place, the place she always returns to when her life feels out of order or chaotic. She works at a camp for “at risk” teens who have become too out of control for their parents. Instead of making her angry and vengeful, Tracy uses her past to offer empathy and understanding to other teens who have also suffered. Tracy works at rebuilding trails, which pares life down to it’s most basic elements. This returning to nature becomes her therapy.
There is just so much that happens in Tracy’s life between the beginning of the story and ending when she finally confronts her abuser at Redfish Lake, that I feel I can’t even summarize it all here. She has so many adventures, so many things happen to her (good and bad) that help shape the woman she becomes. The entire book is inspiring and encouraging, but the moment of truth is that final confrontation. When she stands at a cliff, pulls out a tape recorder and asks her father those inevitable questions, it’s a moment that just took my breath away. And Don’s response is truthful, even if painfully so, and Tracy transcribes it as it happened so the reader experiences something incredible. To read Don’s pain at his inappropriate feelings towards his stepdaughter is something that I, as a reader, have never experienced. I think it was very brave of Don to be so willing to submit to Tracy’s questioning, and of Tracy to share this experience with the world.
Tracy’s memoir is simply fantastic. She is proof, like the story she hears of the brutal murders in McCarthy, Alaska, that life beyond trauma can continue. Traumatic things happen in our lives, but if we wish to become survivors rather than victims, we must learn how to move forward.
Tracy is a brilliant writer, but I believe I am more impressed with the other things she has done in her life. She is an endlessly adventurous and inspiring woman. I enjoyed reading her memoirs, however heartbreaking it was at times, and I definitely recommend this book.
The Source of All Things was first published as a feature article in BACKPACKER magazine in December 2007. The full-length memoir was published by Free Press Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster in March 2011.
***Disclosure: I received an Advance Reader’s Copy of this book from Free Press Books. No other compensation was given and all opinions are my own***
This review is also available on Associated Content.