When more than 150 women testified in 2018 to the sexual abuse inflicted on them by Dr. Larry Nassar when they were young, competitive gymnasts, they exposed and transformed the conditions that shielded their violation, including the testimonial disadvantages that cluster at the site of gender, youth, and race. In Witnessing Girlhood, Leigh Gilmore and Elizabeth Marshall argue that they also joined a long tradition of autobiographical writing led by women of color in which adults use the figure and narrative of child witness to expose harm and seek justice. Witnessing Girlhood charts a history of how women use life narrative to transform conditions of suffering, silencing, and injustice into accounts that enjoin ethical response. Drawing on a deep and diverse archive of self-representational forms—slave narratives, testimonio, memoir, comics, and picture books—Gilmore and Marshall attend to how authors return to a narrative of traumatized and silenced girlhood and the figure of the child witness in order to offer public testimony. Emerging within these accounts are key scenes and figures that link a range of texts and forms from the mid–nineteenth century to the contemporary period. Gilmore and Marshall offer a genealogy of the reverberations across timelines, self-representational acts, and jurisdictions of the child witness in life writing. Reconstructing these historical and theoretical trajectories restores an intersectional testimonial history of writing by women of color about sexual and racist violence to the center of life writing and, in so doing, furthers our capacity to engage ethically with representations of vulnerability, childhood, and collective witness.
Leigh Gilmore (Author)
Leigh Gilmore is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College. She is the author of several books, including most recently Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives.
Elizabeth Marshall (Author)
Elizabeth Marshall is Associate Professor of Education at Simon Fraser University. She is the author of Graphic Girlhoods: Visualizing Education and Violence.
Witnessing Girlhood is a tour de force: demanding and authoritative. Gilmore and Marshall articulate a powerful analysis of representations of girls and women on the fraught subjects of domestic violence, rape culture, survivor and victim identity, and persistent concerns about intrinsic female vulnerability. Here is a necessary and eloquent feminist affirmation on issues of gender and violence.
Witnessing Girlhood brilliantly analyzes the role of childhood to trauma narrative and reader empathy. Working against the cliché of the sentimentalized child, Gilmore and Marshall demonstrate with clarity and determination that the ‘white savior’ trope in life writing about trauma is not the ascendant mode. This book’s depth and quality emerge from the authors' profound, long-standing investment in trauma studies and childhood.
Through their analyses of multiple texts, the authors challenge the fusion of whiteness with childhood innocence and underscore how these narratives portray the vulnerable child’s accompaniment by her adult-survivor self in order to offset white-savior fantasies of empathy and use the affective power of child witnesses to promote political action... Highly recommended.