The meeting space was standing-room-only at the Carnegie Library branch in East Liberty at Monday’s launch of Pittsburgh’s Human Library project.
A library is, essentially, a collection of information and stories that live inside books, on tape or via DVD. In a human library, the stories are told aloud by the people who lived them. The idea started in Denmark in 2000, as a way to break down stereotypes and has since made its way around the world.
Dan Schlegel, 67, of McKeesport was one of the storytellers at Monday’s event. The audience was rapt as he recounted how he nearly lost his life on his 21st birthday, three weeks after deploying to Vietnam. He was in the outhouse, feeling sorry for himself that he’d have no cake or candles that year.
“Then all of a sudden I hear [a whistling sound], I know it’s a rocket, I hit the floor, next thing I know, the whole outhouse blows up on top of me, I’m shaking but I can feel fingers and toes and my nose, and I’m like ‘Well, I’m still alive,’” Schlegel said.
It was the first of many experiences that all added up to leave Schlegel with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The best description I can give is when I came home from Vietnam, my body came back, but I felt like my mind was in hold baggage. It didn’t show up for close to a year,” he said.
Evalynn Farkas, 21, a senior at Chatham University, said she also suffers from PTSD.
“Sometimes I tell my friends I feel like a ghost,” Farkas said. “Not existing inside this world or outside of it. That’s the best way I know to describe it.”
She said growing up in an abusive home and surviving multiple rapes and sexual assaults has caused her to experience memory loss, panic attacks, anxiety and nightmares. But she said the library and academic have been her solace, and despite the challenges she faces she holds four jobs and is on track to graduate in May. She said she hopes to build a career helping other women who have experienced trauma.
“You are here, you will heal,” Farkas said. “Be gentle to yourself. “
Jayme Lynn McIntyre, 57, of East Liberty, said after living as a man for more than 50 years, surviving sexual assault, and struggling with addiction, she became depressed and suicidal.
“I can be in a really big room like this and we can all be laughing and talking, and meanwhile I’m thinking ‘I’d love to get up on that damn steeple and just swan dive off and end it, you know, just end it,’” McIntyre said.
She credited the behavioral health and social services available in Pittsburgh with saving her life. And though it took her decades to start living as her authentic self, she said it’s better late than never.
“I want you all to know that it’s never too late to [join] the party … just show the hell up,” she said.
Organizers said this week’s event was only a launch, and that they expect more Human Library events to pop up around the city exploring different topics in a variety of settings in the coming months.
Groups and individuals interested in hosting a Human Library event can get in touch with Kali Stull at the Consumer Health Coalition.