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Gemma Hickey trekked across Newfoundland — and found their purpose on the other side

The St. John's writer and activist wrote Almost Feral, a memoir of the 908-kilometre cross-Newfoundland journey that changed their life.
Gemma Hickey is an author and social activist based in St. John's. (Breakwater Books, Submitted by Gemma Hickey)
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Gemma Hickey is a writer and activist based in St. John's. As a child, Hickey was sexually abused by a Roman Catholic priest. There was a lingering feeling of loneliness and emotional trauma as a result.  

A few years ago, Hickey did a 908-kilometre walk across the island of Newfoundland. They did it to raise awareness and money for survivors of institutional religious abuse.

Their memoir, Almost Feral, describes that journey and the equally hard road of coming to terms with their identity throughout the journey — digging into the good and bad in their past along the way with an eye on motivating others to accept themselves and what they stand for. CBC Books named Hickey a 2020 writer to watch.

Hickey spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Almost Feral.

How I was brought up

"I was raised in a family of devout Irish Roman Catholics, so faith was a constant in my life since I was born. I went to Mass every day. Everything revolved around church and God for me. It was a very big part of my life for a long time.

"My late grandmother used to say to me, 'That got nothin' to do with God. All that sexual abuse, that got nothing to do with God.' And I really believe that. It didn't necessarily change my relationship with my spirituality as such, it affected how I was with the institution of the church and with this particular priest.

When you are abused by someone who represents God, you never really recover from that.

"When you are abused by someone who represents God, you never really recover from that. Sexual abuse is hard enough as it is, but there's so many layers to it. On top of that, there's spiritual abuse on top of the sexual abuse and emotional abuse. And Indigenous people who went to residential schools suffered cultural abuse.

"But for me, it's something that you work through every day. I was committed to the therapy and I worked that therapy. I use my trauma to help others where I can because that helps me heal as well."

Gemma Hickey of Newfoundland and Labrador was among those attending a conference on abuse against minors in the Catholic Church. 5:14

Made whole again

"I never really understood why these boys were picking on me. But it felt like it had to do with my gender because I was the only girl. One day, it clicked in my little brain and I started to dress like them. I took off my shirt and I paraded around the neighborhood bare-chested. I put my ponytail through the back of my baseball cap and I felt so empowered. 

"I never understood it, but they left me alone after that. I'm not sure if it was because there was some kind of recognition within myself that I had my own kind of agency, that I could take care of myself, I could be myself — or that I blended in. But it's that feeling of blending in that followed me for the rest of my life — trying to be normal so to speak — trying to blend in and fit in.

I am who I am and I fully embraced myself, good and bad.

"I got to a point on the road when I spent those long hours of solitude on the shoulder of the Trans Canada Highway where I thought I've had enough of that. I am who I am and I fully embraced myself, good and bad. 

"I felt so incredibly whole again. It was as if I walked from one side of the island to the other side of myself. It was an incredible journey."

Gemma HIckey's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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