In July 2015, Gemma Hickey set out from Port aux Basques to walk across the island, via the Trans-Canada Highway. Their goal was to raise funds for and awareness of Pathways, which Hickey had founded to help survivors of clergy sexual abuse. Hickey publicized their efforts through a steady stream of events and interviews along the route, as well as continual interactions with passers- and drivers-by (the reason Hickey took the road and not the shorter but less-accessible railway bed).
“There was no confessional in the world big enough to hold what I heard. The stories were easier to carry while I was moving. But when I lay still in my bed at night, they haunted my dreams.” (Because so much of the material is very sensitive, Hickey doesn’t name many people in the book, not even their former spouse.)
“One woman, who was driving home from the mainland with her daughter for a visit, told me the nuns abused her at Belvedere Orphanage in St. John’s. Even though she had been living in Ontario for some time, I could still hear her Newfoundland accent …
“’Music and Friends,’ by the Newfoundland folk duo Simani, was playing in the background on the car stereo. ‘Let’s have a dance, sure, myself and you,’ I said, as I playfully winked at her daughter.
“Within two seconds, she was out of the car and in my arms. We kicked up the dust waltzing on the shoulders of the Trans-Canada Highway.”
The expedition was paced over 30 days, broken into three, then two, intervals of walking 10 to 15 kilometres at a stretch. But before many days passed, another, more private, goal soon emerged. The saying in Latin is “Solvitur ambulando”: it is solved by walking. There is therapy to that kind of movement. It opens a lot of mental space for processing. Hickey took step after step toward their objective, journeying through their own past: being raised Roman Catholic; wrestling with being gay right to the edge of suicide; the trauma of abuse.
And leavened with these facts are many wonderful memories of their complex, remarkable family.
“My great-grandmother set up a tea room for additional income, serving coffee, tea, and desserts. But when her husband died in 1931, the family had to move out of the house provided by the church. My great-grandmother quickly found an apartment on Duckworth Street, across from where the Modern Shoe Hospital is now located, and set up another tea room. She refused the dole during the Great Depression out of pride. She took in boarders, and knit blankets, sweaters, mittens, and socks. She provided hot meals for soldiers when prosperity returned to the island during the Second World War.”
Part travelogue, part family essay; “Almost Feral” charts Hickey’s physical struggle with the walk.
“When I woke up the next day, the pain in my feet was unbearable. I hobbled around the trailer to get ready for the road. My mother had to help me get dressed because I had trouble balancing. I wrapped my feet in duct tape to give them more stability after I changed my bandages. It was pointless to try to squeeze into my sneakers. I decided to give my Crocs a try instead.”
Insect bites, bad weather, allergic reactions and sheer fatigue are also obstacles.
There’s also the insistent pull and surge of memory.
“My lawyer’s office was located on Church Hill, directly across from the Anglican Cathedral’s oldest cemetery. The big bay window in his third-floor office framed the ancient trees that jutted upwards, their leaves exploding like green fireworks into the sky above the street below. Too painful in the moment, my eyes focused on those trees as my lawyer transcribed, word for word, everything I said. He and my stepfather were good friends, so he agreed to represent me against the priest and the archdiocese.”
Witty, frank and insightful, Hickey’s writing is also passionate and thorough in defining and defending sexual orientation and same sex or transgender rights. (And don’t bother getting in a racket with them about Leviticus or whatever — Hickey has a degree in religious studies.)
As well it is a thorough exploration of identities, how they are framed, imposed and self-constructed.
There are a few missed copyedits — “peaked” for “piqued,” and “Queen Victoria I” instead of “Queen Elizabeth I.” These glitches aside, “Almost Feral” is a layered, revealing and rewarding memoir (and nicely designed, too; love those landscape-imprinted pages).
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.