On Eli Hastings’ first day as a graduate teaching fellow at the University of North Carolina, a student turned in an essay that, looking back now, may have changed Hastings’ life.
In it, the student described how he had been repeatedly raped by a family member over the course of years.
Hastings met with the student and told him he didn’t know what to make of the piece. He didn’t know what to do with it. It was so personal, so painful.
“All I want is to make this the strongest it can be,” the student told him. He wanted to make something beautiful, a work of art, from an ugly and haunting experience.
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“He wanted to write to heal,” Hastings recalled recently. “And I never looked back from that moment. I realized that the compassion I had for justice could be done through teaching and writing and healing.”
Hastings has done that for himself, with his second book, “Clearly Now, the Rain,” published last May by ECW Press.
Part memoir, part elegy, “Clearly” stands out for its raw, lyrical take on a confusing and unpredictable friendship with Serala, a beguiling young woman in the throes of drug addiction. Kirkus Reviews compared it to “Leaving Las Vegas,” calling it “as elemental, lyrical and cringe-inducing a love story as they come.”
The story begins with their meeting in college. She is dating a friend of his, and they set upon each other, friends first, sometimes lovers, surrounded by a swirl of smoke and words, both poetic and pained. Over months and miles, she disappears into depression, drugs and suicidal thoughts. He struggles to keep her focused and alive. She is deeply depressed, but prone — as many addicts and troubled souls are — to moments of note-perfect honesty, clarity and humor.
“I know that there is nothing to do,” Hastings writes. “I know that it won’t help to break anything. Besides, I find that I am not the least bit angry, just sort of wrecked inside. So I climb back into bed and pack pillows over my head and stare into their blackness and try to cry until sleep comes again — some sort of tribute to Serala, I guess.”
And so it went, until Serala came to Seattle to spend the holidays in 2004. One night, “She went to score and turned up dead in a Belltown alley,” Hastings said.
Hastings, who used to tell Serala, “You know, when you die, I’m gonna write a book about you,” did just that.
One month after her death, he took a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. He sat at a plywood desk, “stared at the screen for an hour and then wrote 385 pages in 11 or 12 days.
“When I wrote this book, I wrote it to save my own life and to process the drama and the grief, and to get closure,” he explained. “There are things that (Serala) taught me that I needed to share with the world.”
In that sense, Hastings’ struggles are having a positive ripple effect that could stretch well beyond his writing.
He has worked as a teen leader with the Pongo Teen Writing program, which tends to kids in juvenile detention and psychiatric hospitals.
And he has made healing his life’s work: He is about the graduate from Antioch University with a master’s degree in psychology, focusing on youth and family therapy.
“I finally figured out that writing and healing is what my personal life and my professional life is about,” Hastings said. “I’ve seen the transformation, the power of writing, but also how narrative can heal trauma.”
Hastings, 36, was born in Boulder, Colo. and moved to Seattle with his parents and younger brother when he was three. His parents divorced three years later, and Hastings spent alternate weeks with each parent, stuffing all off his possessions into duffel bags every time.
He lived, for the most part, in Ravenna, and attended Garfield High School, where he first started writing.
“Purple prose,” he called it one recent morning. “Faux philosophical thoughts.”
He filled the fracture of his parents’ split with drugs and hell-raising, surrounded with a like-minded motley crew of kids, gnawing on their own troubles — which were dramatic, and searing.
His first girlfriend nearly died of anorexia. His best friend went from being “popular to paranoid,” a condition diagnosed as schizophrenia.
“His psychotic break happened right in front of me,” Hastings remembered.
At Pitzer College, he answered “the siren song of writing,” and met Serala, who gave him purpose, support, understanding and no small measure of drama — and a tragic inspiration for his art.
After college, Hastings applied to M.F.A. writing programs around the country and then took off, traveling through Latin America and Europe with his brother, and across the U.S. with Serala.
But all of the pain and drifting had also given Hastings an acute understanding of the restorative power of writing.
So, it may have been fate working the day an acquaintance recommended he call Pongo founder Richard Gold.
Hastings got back into his car after his meeting and turned on the radio — only to hear Gold being interviewed about his work.
Hastings became a volunteer, working with juveniles in detention and psychiatric hospitals, then a team leader for other writing mentors.
“What was obvious from the beginning is Eli’s passion and his intelligence and his creativity,” Gold said. “He completely immersed himself in the process.”
Hastings barely blinked listening to kids talk about losing their mother to drugs or father to suicide. He was able to help them capture their feelings about being locked in a room until social services showed up.
“The biggest challenge comes when we listen to people who are hurting and act as containers of their stories,” Gold said, “when we can feel the experience with them and not run away from it. Eli is the perfect exemplar of that.”
Hastings understands the pain — especially for high-school-aged kids. He had been there.
“You’re trying to get across this chasm,” he said. “Eating disorders. Sexual identity. Group violence. Date rape.”
Writing could soothe it all.
In that sense, Gold said, Hastings has much to offer the world. He listens with his heart, “feeling and creating and sharing a moment” with students, and now with his clients and readers of his work.
“Eli is just so perfect at it,” Gold said. “He has made it a passion and he believes in the role. That’s only going to get more important, as society is rougher and rougher. Eli is ready to advocate for the kids, and will do more of that as a therapist, and as he progresses with his own writing.”
A feeling of integration
The Elliott Bay Book Company was packed on the summer night, three months ago, when Hastings read from “Clearly Now, the Rain.”
There were students from Hastings’ classes at Hugo House. Friends from the neighborhood. Co-mentors from Pongo. People who had known Hastings’ late father.
The person who wasn’t there was Serala — although she was there in spirit, if anyone ever could be.
The woman at the center of the room, though, was Hastings’ wife, Lili Sperry, who he met 17 years ago during a visit to Barcelona to see his brother.
They had connected over her desire to work in psychiatry (there was a history of mental disorders in her family) and his to help kids in trouble.
“We had one conversation, but it was one of those like-minded conversations,” Sperry, 34, recalled recently. They never lost touch.
She made her first visit to Seattle just two months after Serala’s death, but Hastings was in no shape to connect with anyone.
“Eli was guarded and withdrawn, but I was unafraid to ask about her and how he was doing,” said Sperry, a former Doctors Without Borders physician now in private practice. “I was forward with it, but in a sensitive way. He said he felt for the first time that his head was coming out of the water.”
At the end of that year, Hastings moved to Barcelona, and they married, eventually moving back here in 2008 as a couple. They now have a 3-year-old son named Pax.
For a while after their marriage, Hastings continued to mourn Serala. On her birthday, he would light candles, ready her letters “and let himself be flooded with pain,” Sperry said. She tried to honor her husband’s loss by grieving with him.
But then she had had enough. While she didn’t feel threatened by the space Serala had in her husband’s heart, she did feel the grief was his alone.
“I told him, ‘This story is between you and her, and I should not be part of it.’ Now when he is triggered, I let him be.”
Said Hastings: “When I finished this book, I let (Serala) rest, as much as I could. She’s too intertwined in my psyche to ever really rest. Trauma is always there in the brain.”
But looking out at the crowd at Elliott Bay that night — surrounded by his family, his friends and colleagues — was a balm.
“It was an intersection of people that brought a feeling of integration,” Hastings recalled. “And recovering from grief requires integration.
“I wrote the book to save myself,” Hastings said. “And it did the trick.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org