J.M. Bergman on the journey of forgiveness and the healing power of fiction
Interview by Ilana Reimer
Q. Could you begin by describing what your exposure to reading and writing was like growing up?
A. When I was a kid my mom would always read my brothers and I bedtime stories from our children’s Bible and children’s books. That’s where I developed a love for story and characters. I always loved writing, even when I was very small.
My mom got me journals when I was eight and I started filling them up with short stories about my toys. When I got older, my reading selections changed to mystery novels. I loved English class because the teacher would give us these creative writing assignments and I was able to flesh out the things I was thinking about through stories.
Q. When did you decide writing was something you wanted to seriously pursue?
A. So, about ten years ago I got really sick. I was hospitalized with debilitating chronic pain. I could barely stand up straight or keep my eyes open. The doctors did every conceivable test and essentially said, “You have an incurable disease called fibromyalgia.”
At that point I wasn’t able to work anymore. Since then, I’ve been predominantly home bound. So, there I was, by myself, when previously I had filled every moment of my life with work or being social.
I was alone with my thoughts, and I realized I had been running to keep my mind occupied since I left home in high school, and there were a lot of things I hadn’t processed. With literally nothing to do—sometimes I couldn’t even get out of bed—I thought, Okay, I have to get these memories out.
And that’s where writing came in. It has been better than any doctor I’ve had on this journey. It still feels really defeating on some days, but I can see now that God had a plan, and I can honestly look back and say I’m thankful.
Q. What did it look like when you began writing as a way of processing?
A. I tried to focus on what my main triggers were. Once I was alone with my thoughts, the panic attacks and anxiety and flashbacks started haunting me like a tsunami. And I realized the main event my body was begging me to deal with was something that happened in high school.
When I was fifteen, a friend from church whom I trusted took me to an isolated place. I was very naive, very vulnerable. Long story short, he molested me and beat me when I tried to escape.
This event filled me with so much shame and resentment towards the hurting inner child inside me. I did everything I could to silence that pain as a way to move forward. Finally, I decided to process these feelings through two novels. I just needed to get it out.
Q. As you processed your past, the story became two novels, Carve Me A Place and Barely Breathing. Could you summarize what they’re about?
A. The stories centre around a man named Ryan Grey. He’s built a career, status, and a reputation, but now his past has come back to haunt him. Through a series of events, he kidnaps two young women who trusted him and hides them underground.
The girls try to reach him and reason with him, but like his own vulnerabilities, he wants nothing to do with their gentle spirits. He basically wants to keep them underground forever.
Throughout the novels, the theme of faith is laced in [Ryan’s] story. I did that because at that time, after being diagnosed with fibromyalgia, I questioned God, and asked Where are you in all of this? Why can’t I leave my past behind? You said you could set me free, so why is the past still haunting me?
Q. Your stories are quite personal. Was it at all scary to publish the novels?
A. When I wrote the books, I didn’t mention myself or my connection to the novels at all. I’ve only been brave enough to talk about that within this past year. The stories—to anybody who read them—were completely fiction. Nobody knew my relation to the events or the character’s struggles. So, in that sense, there was no fear.
Q. What do you hope readers will take away from the books?
A. When I started writing, I was exploring the concept: Is it possible for God to reach into the darkest, darkest places and pull somebody out? Or, if enough bad things have happened to you, are you scarred forever and you just have to accept your fate, like the doctors said to me?
Through exploring the story and the characters and their motives, I realized redemption is possible. That’s what this kidnapper realizes—he can be free. And that’s what inspired me to share them with other people. Because chances are there are others like me who have gone through similar things, and I hoped they could read them and find redemption too.
Q. So is redemption an important theme in your writing?
A. Yes. I’m learning that the “Bible” or “church” version of forgiveness I grew up learning is very shallow. I was taught to believe you just say you forgive them, and you move on. But then you’re still, in my experience, left with all this baggage.
I think the road to full redemption and freedom is one that I’m probably going to be on for a long time yet, but it is possible. The steps are small, but I can see small victories. I guess I want to share that. That even though it’s not easy or quick, it’s still worth it.
Q. How do you view portraying your faith in your writing?
A. In the novels, one of the side characters is full of faith and optimism. She represents the more naïve side of me that was repressed after the sexual assault. I wanted to include that element of faith just to see if there was any validity to it.
I was honestly questioning whether what I believed as a child was real or not. I include faith as a way to explore, answering “what if” questions. Like, what if two girls get kidnapped and abused, and one of them has played with the idea of believing in God—will God show up, and how might He show up?
Q. What are some things that rejuvenate your creative life?
A. Especially when I was writing these books, I listened to Switchfoot, because they talk about overcoming scars and being strong even in the hard times, and so that was very inspiring. And I would do cardio.
In the present, I mostly do non-fiction, like for Love Is Moving. I will listen to podcasts by other authors and read a lot. I think that’s the biggest piece, finding new perspectives.
Q. What drew you to contributing to Love Is Moving, and what’s that experience been like?
A. I was looking for an outlet and I found Love Is Moving on Instagram. I read some of the past articles and thought maybe I could have a place here. It has been a very valuable, encouraging experience to be vulnerable with my writing and my thoughts and to get feedback. And I guess to have a voice—a place that’s safe to speak from.
Q. Are you thinking of writing another book in future?
A. Yeah, I have another mystery novel, psychological thriller, maybe this year, if my health allows me. Another thing I’m working on is a non-fiction book where I want to write about my journey of overcoming trauma and chronic pain, and how writing has been essential to that.
I hope that by coming forward and talking openly about some of the dark things I cover, that perhaps the Church as a whole will be more open to discussing things like that.
I grew up in a Mennonite church where you just do not talk about the things you’re struggling with, or things that are too dark, because nobody’s comfortable with it. And I would like that conversation to change and show that it is safe to come forward and talk about these things. That is when your healing starts—when you give your pain a voice.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.