Silken Laumann’s shocking secret

The Olympian opens up about her dark childhood: anorexia, cutting and her troubled abusive mother

Photograph by Brian Howell

Silken Laumann is one of Canada’s most decorated rowers, a multiple medallist whose leg was ripped apart in a devastating boat collision in 1992. She famously came back just 10 weeks and multiple operations later to win a bronze medal for Canada at the Barcelona Olympics. After retiring from the sport, she’s built a successful career as a writer and motivational speaker. But her uplifting message of overcoming obstacles with positive thinking, mental strength and courage hid a darker truth. Her middle-class childhood in Mississauga, Ont., was ravaged by a poisonous and abusive relationship with a beautiful, mercurial mother. Seigrid Seideman Laumann’s unpredictable rages, her daughter believes, were rooted in the trauma of her childhood in wartime Germany. Silken’s life was filled with fear, anger and self-loathing, manifested in depression, anorexia and other forms of self-harm­­—damage that carried into adulthood. She chronicles the hard road to a happy, healthier life for herself and her family in Unsinkable, her frank new memoir. The cover photo shows her sleek, muscular and confident, the indented scar on her right leg in prominent display. This is the “whole truth”—scars and all—she told Maclean’s in an interview at her waterfront home outside Victoria.

Q: This book shatters the aura of invincibility that’s always surrounded you. Why would you write it?

A: I felt I couldn’t do anything else in my life until I wrote this book. I’ve spent 12, 15 years speaking about my life, about my experiences. Parts of my past were starting to leak out in the right situation. Suddenly, I was saying a little bit more than I was ready to say. That really prompted me to understand that I needed to tell my story—to process my story by telling it.

Q: When we look at your childhood, your father’s assertions aside, it was not normal at all. It’s one thing to dredge through that in the sanctuary of your therapist’s office; it’s quite another thing to put it on paper. What was that process like?

A: Opening up my life in order to share my experiences and help other people, encourage other people, has been something that I’ve done before. As I went through therapy, I went through the process of discovering how my past was affecting my actions today, who I was as a parent. It was happening in a parallel way to the therapy I was going through. Saying that, the writing process was not only therapeutic, but it brought resolution to certain things. The book took me a long time to write. I was constantly thinking about other people’s feelings, how this would affect this relationship and that relationship. I finally got to a place with it where I just had to write it. I have to have the freedom to just put it out there.

Q: You believe the Second World War scarred your parents—your mother, especially. It leaked into your generation, too, obviously.

A: Many people my age have parents who survived the war, saw and were part of terrible, terrible things. Neither of my parents talked much about the war. My mom’s memory would come out sporadically. I was never quite sure where reality, and memories that were kind of altered and maybe not quite accurate, came together. So it was always hard to distill the accurate storyline of her life.

Q: Your body, your physiology, is exceptional, yet you’ve starved it and you’ve cut it and you’ve failed to appreciate it in a lot of ways. But it’s never failed you. Are you at peace with your body now?

A: Yes, it’s been an enormously long journey, but yes, I am at peace with who I am, what I look like?.?.?.?I don’t worry about the long-term effects of that excessive dieting. I think I was very lucky. A lot of girls and women who have dieted and starved themselves can’t bear children. They have osteoporosis by the time they’re my age. I was very fortunate that sport came along when it did. And actually that rowing came along when it did. The worst of my anorexia was in my running years. By the time I got into rowing [as a teen], it looked more like disordered eating, an unhealthy relationship with food, but I wasn’t constantly starving myself.

Q: I’ve sometimes thought that the training for Olympic rowers was almost a sanctioned form of physical abuse. Is that another way of punishing your body?

A: I think, for me, sport was a way of getting all that energy out. That intensity needed to have a channel. In my very darkest moments as a teenager, where I literally felt like I was going to implode with so much intensity, so much self-loathing turned inward, sport was the outward movement, this burst of intensity and energy that was totally healthy—kind of. Sort of. Maybe. [Laughs.] Looking back, as a 49-year-old, that probably kept me in some sort of balance. I was very good at hurting myself. I was very good at pushing beyond.

Q: Has your family read the book?

A: They all have received the book. Whether they’ve read it or not, I can’t say. But I’ve had conversations with each member of my family, my brother, my sister, my mom and my dad.

Q: I’d say, of all those, you’d be most apprehensive about your mother’s reaction?

A: Actually, I was most apprehensive about my dad’s [response]. Things have been so extreme with my mom. I think my mom has an awareness that, mentally, she hasn’t always been 100 per cent there. She recognizes the kind of behaviour that she had when we were growing up. I think my dad’s role in the family dynamics was holding it all together. Part of that—it’s partly generational—was keeping the secrets, keeping it all on the down-low. So his version of reality was very tightly held. Speaking to him about it has been the hardest.

Q: And you have a stronger relationship with your father.

A: He was much more in my life. My mom left fairly early. She’s lived her life quite independently. I talk to my dad every week. My mom, in five years, I’d say she’s probably called me two times. I call her. We reach out to her, but she’s gone on and done what she needs to do to be as happy as she can possibly be. That was moving away.

Q: Is your father fine with the book?

A: No, he’s really struggled with it. We have had some really intense, painful conversations about it. I think one of my biggest fears was hurting my dad by writing this book, and yet [there was] my need to tell the story: my need to not pretend, to be completely authentic to who I was and be able to get up in front of 250 people and, if it was appropriate, to talk about mental illness, if it was appropriate to talk about depression, if it was appropriate to talk about the bumps and bruises I’ve had that helped make me who I am today, the person that I’m proud to be. That need overrode any short-term damage; I really have felt that the damage to the relationship is short-term. I know my dad loves me. He tells me he loves me every time we speak. We’ve had many conversations since some of the tough conversations we’ve had about the book.

Q: What will you do with this new perception of you? Aren’t you going to feel naked when you stand at the podium?

A: That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure I can answer it yet, because I’ve just started talking about it. I know that the prospect of speaking about it has been very liberating.

Q: What is the central message of this book?

A: We all have our bumps and bruises, the things that we’re hiding. I’m here to tell you that asking for help, being more open with your experiences, seeking support, is worth it. The quality of my life today, the quality of my relationships, the peace that I have within myself, is all a direct result of that hard work of unravelling the past. There is so much pain in the world, so many people living in fear, hiding their past, feeling shame. If I can encourage one person to reach out and say, “Hey, you know what? I need a little help here,” then I think it’s been worth it to write the book.

An Excerpt from Unsinkable by Silken Laumann

One scene from my childhood remains indelibly etched in my mind. I am standing, age six, at the top of the stairs in our house on Narva Court in Mississauga, Ont., carrying a beautiful pale blue dress with a navy sash that cascades to the floor. My dad gave the dress to me for my uncle Rolf’s wedding, and I utterly love it.

My mom looks angry. I feel confused. I’m so excited about this fairy-tale dress, but my mom’s face frightens me. Later, when we’re alone, she slaps me. “You’re always trying to get your dad to spoil you,” she scolds.

I’m ashamed. I know I must have done something wrong, but I don’t know what. I want Mom to know what she’s saying isn’t true, but now doubt has crept in. Maybe I am bad. Maybe I am trying to steal Dad’s attention, like she always says.

I remember another scene, this time on the day of Uncle Rolf’s wedding. My mom poses with one hand on a birdbath and the other on her hip. She is wearing a lovely white, flower-embossed gown with a long, light blue train draped around her. On her blond head she wears a sheer blue veil. Today, not even Uncle Rolf’s bride can escape my mom’s need to be in the spotlight.

My mom smacked me many times while simultaneously pummelling me with her words. Her attacks left me convinced that I was a devious, bad person. Her special weapon was a wooden spoon, but the scariest part of her attacks was their randomness. Since her rules felt arbitrary, she was always catching us off-guard. If I dared say something to her that was unpleasant but true, she would give me a puppy-dog expression of, “I am so hurt.” If I didn’t back down, she would tell me how mean and selfish and ridiculous I was, then taunt me about my hairstyle, or my friends, or my teachers—anything she knew I was sensitive about—until I was in tears. Then she would either become sympathetic or accuse me of being hysterical. I had nowhere to turn to legitimize my feelings, and no one to tell me this wasn’t okay.

When I was 10, [my older sister] Daniele was given permission to ride the city bus to the mall with a friend. Desperately wanting to go with her, I made a huge fuss about how unfair it was to have to stay behind. After shouting at me to smarten up, my mom dragged me inside, then beat me with a boot. I was crying and she was screaming. I don’t remember how badly it hurt, but I do remember the shame I felt about my behaviour, and how afraid I was that my sister was now old enough to leave the house on her own—she was becoming independent and I was left behind. When Daniele was gone, my mom’s focus was on me—and I didn’t want any more of her negative attention.

My [younger] brother, Joerg, was a cute, mischievous kid who could do no wrong in my parents’ eyes—at least when he was little. My mom used to take him in her arms, stroke his hair and call him her little liebchen, but I came to believe his upbringing might have been the most confusing of all, caught as he was between my mom’s mercurial moods and my dad’s great expectations. When Joerg was eight, he started sleeping with a knife under his pillow. He never needed to use it, but it lay close as he slept. Years later, when I asked him why, he said, “I didn’t trust Mom.”

I believe my mom loved us in her own way, but in her darkest hours, she would say things like, “I could kill you and then kill myself.” What seemed to transform her words into a frightening possibility was the fact that a distraught mother in a nearby neighbourhood had shot her kids, then herself. Another mother had gassed her family while they were sleeping. My mom would get worked into a frenzy—screaming and sobbing and throwing dishes. She would howl that she was going to gas us all. Her threat was that she would kill herself and take us with her. She never did anything to show that she’d go through with it, but I slept with my window open.

My mom later insisted her threats hadn’t been serious, yet I felt that we lived in an unsafe house. It’s hard to convey just how volatile the situation felt. I remember one day, when my father was out trimming the hedges. There was a woman suntanning in a bikini in the yard next door, and my mother was consumed by jealousy—she felt my dad was staring. To punish him, she went into the basement and pulled out the plug from his power cord so that my dad would have to head down to the basement and plug it in again. This was repeated a few times before my father raced to catch my mother on her way into the basement and lock her in there. Up to this point, it was almost silly—the plotline for an episode of I Love Lucy—but my mom’s rage bubbled over. She grabbed an axe from the basement and hacked her way out through the door. For me, every day felt like it could take that kind of unpredictably scary turn. Perhaps Daniele and Joerg felt the same way, as we schemed together about an escape, for which we created a kit with bandages and a flashlight. We also saved getaway cash and planned whose doorstep we would land on if we needed to make a run for it.

* * *

I was 16 the first time I cut myself with a razor. It was a Friday night and I wanted to go out on a date. So did my dad. If we both went out, Joerg would be left home alone. My dad, Daniele and I had already been butting heads over my desire for independence. They thought I was being too bold, attending events in Toronto and sometimes coming home on the midnight GO train. Since I was focused on training for the Olympics and excelling at school, I didn’t think I was being irresponsible, but this one night, it came to a head.

Furious that I was insisting on leaving, my dad demanded, “You can’t leave Joerg alone all the time. You’re being selfish.”

I was angry, but my dad’s approval was still desperately important to me, and I crumpled in shame. I did feel the need to take care of Joerg, and I worried that my wanting to leave made me a bad person. Everything was falling apart. My mom [had moved out] and my dad was out of the house a lot. The pressure on me felt unbearable. Shaking with conflicting emotions, I went out into the yard and sat under a tree with a razor blade I’d grabbed from the bathroom. I had been playing with this razor for quite some time; whenever self-doubt broke through my fragile facade of confidence, I’d fantasized about slitting a vein, just to end my anguish and confusion and self-hate. I would put its edge to my wrist, and its sharpness would feel so good that I wanted to go deeper to release the pressure building inside me so hard and fast that I felt I might explode. Now, with anger boiling through me, I was both desperate enough and ready enough. I didn’t want to slash my wrist in order to kill myself, nor did I want to injure myself so badly that I would have to go to a hospital—that part of my mind was still working. Instead, I cut lightly but deliberately and repeatedly to release some of my anguish so I could survive. It felt good to bleed, providing temporary relief. It also terrified me that I could do this to myself, and that someday I might possibly be tempted to go further.

Razors continued to attract me, and I would arrive at this place again a few more times after this episode. I’d toy with the razor, drawing it across my wrist in order to nick the skin. Even the thought of being able to do this served as a safety valve, making the pressure I felt more bearable. It became my secret, my private shame, never to be revealed to anyone.

Excerpt from Unsinkable by Silken Laumann ©2014. Published by HarperCollins Canada. Reprinted with permission.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.