Jess Camilla O’Neal is a cowgirl in the truest sense. As a girl growing up in Wyoming, she had it all. Then in an instant, she lost it.
O’Neal’s new memoir “She Rides Wild Horses” is a raw account of healing through music, horses, and the magic of the West. She published the book in April, and it’s already a best-seller on Amazon. O’Neal is celebrating with a release party at her family’s theater, the Jackson Hole Playhouse, Sunday, June 9 from 4-6 p.m.
O’Neal was just 17 when her life took a dramatic turn. One day, she was homecoming queen with a promising career in musical theater, a recording contract, and a scholarship to the school of her choice. The next, she was lucky to be alive. A traumatic accident left her body and her spirit in shambles.
That’s where the book begins and is the main premise, O’Neal says, but her memoir is really about a whole lifetime of healing.
“I’ve lived a big life in my 38 years,” she says. “There are so many other big experiences that are so valid, in so many women’s lives especially — sexual abuse, trauma, all these things.”
It’s important that her story is set on Wyoming’s stage. Wyoming, O’Neal says, gave her horses. It gave her music. It gave her the freedom to explore and to heal as only a place with its vast, open landscapes could. It also gave her hardship.
“I’m shaped by music, horses, and the land that Wyoming is. That I’m a cowgirl creates a different storyline than most people have. If they don’t have it, they romanticize. it’s romantic, but so much harsher. The reality so much more intense than people know.”
O’Neal admits she isn’t an author by trade, but rather by chance and necessity. Her “day job,” she jokes, is a singer-songwriter, so she does write music. But she had never tried to write anything as big as a book. Still, she has always been a storyteller. Her songs are, for the most part, about her life. It seemed only natural, then, to start writing her stories down in a larger format.
It wasn’t easy. On the contrary, writing about trauma often forces authors to relive it. “I have to live through and actually explain, in major adjectives, what was going on,” O’Neal says.
But in the end, writing her story was exactly what she needed to do. O’Neal literally “closed a chapter” of her life that she needed to let go of. Now that it’s out in the world, rather than trapped inside her, O’Neal feels “a little lighter.”
“I was having a lot of doubts — I’m not a writer, I was feeling really insecure,” she reflects. But she knew her strengths, too. If she could tell her story “super honestly and nobly,” and if somebody could heal as a result of her healing, she’s done all she set out to do.
“I think when you get bare-bones naked vulnerable, it allows space for people to be like ‘I can talk about this because it happened to me, too.’ And if this inspires you to finish your [story], that’s amazing, too.”
Join O’Neal and her family and friends plus local author Jenny Carr at the Playhouse Theater Sunday from 4-6 p.m. O’Neal and Carr will both the signing their books. O’Neal, her siblings, and local musician Isaac Hayden will provide the entertainment, and food and drink will be abundant.
“We’re just gonna celebrate,” O’Neal says. “It’s a family affair.”
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