The Aftermath of Abuse: An Exquisite, Transformational Upheaval: Elizabeth Strauss Friedman on Alicia Elkort’s A Map of Every Undoing

I’ve written reviews about three other books on the topic of childhood sexual abuse over the years, and each time the author, the approach, and the aftermath all look and feel foreign to one another. There’s no such thing as a uniform reaction to child abuse. For some, it’s a seismic shift or break in the trajectory of their development. For others, it’s one aspect of many in their formation as full selves. In Alicia Elkort’s new remarkable book A Map of Every Undoing, the shadow of suffering is persistent and insistent, caustic but ultimately contextualized. As readers, we start the book with an understanding that the narrator is far along on her healing path, looking at her past through the lenses of both destruction and renewal. Because a tear down and a rebuild have already occurred, the narrator presents herself as something grander and more complex than when she started her self-exploration. She’s a person who knows how to bear open wounds and continually re-contextualize the crimes committed against her. A Map of Every Undoing is a beautifully rendered road map for us as readers.

The book begins with the poem “In Praise of a Broken Sidewalk”: “Now I accept your jagged dandelion / flowers, taken root in the detritus.” This is our signal from jump that the narrator has traveled quite a long way before bringing us into the story.  Flowers now grow through the broken concrete of her life. Beauty blossoms even in the tender areas. After this initial pronouncement of her present tense, the book reads like an evidence board in a police investigation, where each new clue connects back with strings to several others, such that the board is eventually completely covered in red strands, endlessly intertwined. We are left with a likeness of the complicated survivor underneath. “The world is at least 51% good, 53% on a clear, sunny day,” Elkort writes of the aftermath. Her early self-destructive behavior like cutting is behind her as she comes to accept that she doesn’t deserve it. She’s done no wrong, and so deserves no punishment. “I have no need for the knife, anymore. / Alchemy has turned metal // into something malleable, soft,” she promises. “Before the train crash, before the bus / brakes, before the red wrists, / before the hanged heads, I hand / each and every girl my knife.” The narrator has laid her weapons down.

So what happens to the raw edges of such pain? Like the robes of monks that over centuries rub smooth the stone doorway to the church they attend in Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, the memories imprinted on the narrator soften over time, widen, and glaze into something like peace. “We were rocks hewed by river / and flood,” Elkort writes, gazing back on her abuse with some distance and life experience.  And while at times the narrator questions herself ­­—  “Who am I to speak of beauty? / Who am I not to?” — she ultimately understands that “ / is an inside job,” a message that most people who have not suffered the abuse she did have trouble wrapping their minds around. All reconciliation requires an inside out approach; life’s pull keeps us outside ourselves, challenges our efforts to find our souls. Do those who suffer childhood abuse understand this more acutely than the rest of us? Are the coping mechanisms they develop a guide for their future inner lives? There’s a wisdom that comes with wreckage, a connection to the ground that develops through trauma. Of course, this type (or any type) of hell is not worth its lessons, but oh what they allow for. What they teach. What they pass along to the world.

Ultimately, the narrator finds her way to pleasure, to a body that belongs exclusively to and for her own desires. In “After An Exhaustive Study of the Girdle of Venus,” Elkort writes of sexual yearning, of finding herself within the confines of intimacy for its own sake and for her own ends: “I follow, eyes closed & the warmth of fire / as we coalesce, two oceans against tide. / I praise this love. I think heaven...” This act of consent also serves as an act of defiance against what childhood sexual abuse intends. It intends to shut down development, to take advantage of innocence, to stunt growth. By writing of the freedom of her sexual experiences, the author wrests the narrative from her abuser, and from a society that insists she fit into a neat category of lasting damage, of endless suffering. Only she can and must define herself. By the collection’s conclusion the narrator seems steady in her skin. Even though we can never forget that open wounds need tending once the infection seeps through, the narrator has learned how to clean the everlasting injury, to bandage it up, and to live. In “Grandmothers, what I want to know” Elkort exclaims, “...this body not a prison / but a home, a root-bearing / blossom.” This book is an exquisite, transformational upheaval. So well worth the read.

Elizabeth Strauss Friedman is the author of the poetry books The Lost Positive (BlazeVOX [books], 2023), The Eggshell Skull Rule (Kelsay Books, 2018), and the prose/poetry chapbook Gathered Bones are Known to Wander (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016). Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and her work has appeared in PleiadesRust + MothThe Rumpus, et al. Elizabeth’s work can be found at