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Rene Denfeld's newest novel, 'Sleeping Giants,' hits close to home for her

Rene Denfeld is a novelist based in Oregon and is also a licensed death row investigator and foster parent.

In her newest novel, "Sleeping Giants," she tells the story of a young boy who disappears into the ocean. It's also about his sister, who — 20 years later — discovers she had an older brother who died after he was sent to a “care center” in the foster system. 

It’s a story about reconciling the past that hits close to home for Denfeld.

Full interview

RENE DENFELD: So I live here in Oregon. And the book, the story opens on the Oregon coast, where there's a scene of a little boy who's charging across the sand into this very tumultuous, dangerous ocean. Our oceans here are not places you swim or even wade, they can be just very dangerous. Lots of undertows sneaker waves. And he disappears. And that's kind of the opening scene of the story. From there, we move forward 20 years, when his sister, Amanda, has just recently learned of this little boy's existence and she goes on a hunt to find out what happened to him. And in the process she uncovers a lot of very terrible, awful truths about Dennis' life experience. And I think things that kind of bear importance for the rest of us as well.

LAUREN GILGER: Yeah. And this has to do with the foster system, which I know you have experience in and you're also a foster parent as well. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

DENFELD: Yeah. Sure. So, like a lot of my work is very much inspired by my own experiences. I'm a long time foster and adoptive parent. I've been doing that for over 25 years. I'm also a, my daytime job is in justice work. For decades, I've worked as a licensed investigator for the state of Oregon. I work almost exclusively defense cases, including death row exonerations. So, these stories that I write, you know, in particular "Sleeping Giants," they come out of things that I've personally experienced or witnessed and seen. And so for me, it's a chance to kind of talk about issues that often don't really get discussed.

GILGER: Yeah. Yeah. So tell us a little bit about your writing process. I read the phrase in learning about how you write "trauma informed writing" and I think that's really interesting. Tell us about that.

DENFELD: Well, you know, because I'm writing about difficult things. I write about a lot of trauma, just to be honest. And it's something that I have my own personal experience with as well, like a lot of us. And I think it's very important when we write about trauma that we pay a lot of respect to the victims. They may be fictional victims, but even fictional victims, I think, deserve respect and care and safety and sanctity. So my process when I'm writing about a scene in which somebody perhaps is being hurt or harmed in some way, I like to imagine that I take these pages to that victim, that survivor, and I asked them, 'how do you feel about the way I depicted what happened to you? Are you comfortable with this? Do, does this feel respectful to you?'

And it's kind of my way of making sure that I'm respecting survivors even in fiction. I think it's so important that we not exploit their experiences.

GILGER: That's really interesting. Like, why do you do that? Like why take so many extra steps to make sure that people, even fictional people, are not sort of, I guess, retraumatized by a story?

DENFELD: Well, I think it's so important and I'm, I came about this way of approaching it as a survivor myself. I experienced a lot of trauma as a child. I actually ended up homeless as a young teenager. And I'm a voracious reader. Stories saved my life. I spent in fact, when I was homeless as a teenager, I spent almost all my time in the local downtown library reading books and escaping into books. And one thing I learned early on is unfortunately, victims often are kind of re traumatized or kind of exploited in a lot of fiction. And I think sometimes violence can serve as like a plot device or somebody gets hurt and they're just kind of a trope, they're like a victim exists to kind of be exploited on the page.

And I, I don't relate to that. I want, I want survivors to feel they can read one of my stories and not be traumatized and in fact feel that their experience are being honored and addressed.

GILGER: So I want to talk a little bit about one of the more I guess, traumatizing things in this book. In "Sleeping Giants," which is this idea of holding time, which I know you kind of discovered in your research and, and as part of the story, tell us what this is and, and how, how this is kind of allowed to happen.

DENFELD: Yes. So the story involves this little boy, Dennis, who is sent into a facility on the Oregon coast. It's a basically a modern day orphanage. And these exist. They're often called treatment facilities or care facilities. And because of the crisis shortage of foster parents, a lot of kids get sent in these places. Unfortunately, when Dennis is sent to this place, he ends up experiencing a so-called treatment method, which is called holding time. Holding time is a very gentle kind of term for something that's actually extremely abusive, draconian. It's physical and psychological torture, essentially. This is a real thing. It's still happening today. In fact, there was just an article that came out, I think in the Journal of Child Psychiatry about how this is still happening. And there's been actually several child fatalities associated with this treatment method, which just it's a way basically of completely annihilating and breaking down a child's defenses.

So in this story, I think was a chance to kind of explore how children, in foster care in particular, can be powerless and helpless and experience these kind of draconian methods. But it's also a chance, it was a chance for me as a writer to, I think, look at a bigger theme of the book, which is like how so much harm gets committed by people who think they're doing the right thing.

GILGER: Right. Right. I wanted to ask you about that because it sounds like that's the gray area here for you in the book and maybe in, in real life as well, is that often these kinds of traumas, this kind of harm happens because people are trying to help. They think that this is a good idea.

DENFELD: Yeah, exactly. And it's something that it haunts me in my, my life as a foster parent and also my justice work. I, you know, I see like a child being sent to prison or an innocent person on death row. And I think, who's the bad guy here? You know, I think if we look at even you look at the history of humankind with slavery and the Holocaust and Japanese Americans being sent into internment camps, mass incarceration over and over again, we have so many harms that are perpetuated by people who think they're doing the right thing at the time.

And "Sleeping Giants" was kind of my chance and my opportunity I felt to really dig into this. Like, why do we do this and why do we have such a hard time admitting we were wrong? And instead of just admitting we're wrong and fixing things, we tend to double down, I think. And we become very defensive, which is another part of the book kind of the defensiveness of people that can't atone.

GILGER: So, is this also about accountability or even reconciliation?

DENFELD: Yes, it is. And I think it's, it's kind of part of the story. I'm not very fond of books myself where you feel as a reader, you're kind of being manipulated into a conclusion or beat over the head with a particular issue. But as part of the story, the plot of "Sleeping Giants" is this young woman's search for what happened to her brother. And in the course, she uncovers these horrible historical truths. And I think she's, she's trying to rectify the past. And for me personally, that's kind of the answer to it all. We're not going to have a better future until we really rectify the past and until we become a lot more comfortable, we're just admitting that we are wrong.


DENFELD: And being willing to examine what I think of the real "Sleeping Giants" of the book, which is kind of examining what are our real motivations for doing things.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.