Beyond Survival, Week 6: Faith and the Narrative Frame

When I was a child, I believed in the sanctity of sacrifice. My Catholic school was the haven that kept me stacked with books and care and nooks where I could disappear. Sometimes I’d spend grade school recesses alone in the church pews, moving my rosary beads from finger to finger, lost in incantation. The ceilings in that church soared enough to make possibilities feel possible, and if I dared to sing, I knew the walls would bring my voice back to me.Michelangelo's_Pieta_edited.jpg

I believed, back then, in the power of belief itself, the power of faith. I sought and sought out stories that might offer me some useful frame.

Not long ago, one late night on the phone with my best friend from Catholic boarding school, I was recounting one or another of my minor personal dramas, and she said to me, “You know, I wish I had this talent you have for making the story you tell yourself match what you need to believe about a situation.”

She’s right. I retroactively change my narrative frame, again and again, until the story becomes something I can live with, something I can move through.

Soon after that exchange, I was sitting on a stoop with my dearheart, and I found myself telling him, “I know before I tell you how I feel, you’re going to have a perfectly honed rebuttal, some hyper-eloquent narrative that’s going to serve to fade these feelings somehow, but before you start in with the eloquence, I want you to hear me out on these feelings.” After he’d heard me, I waited two beats for his narrative to begin, and there it was–exacting. Perfect. If I were less able to provide a counter-narrative, to keep bouncing the story back and forth between us until it makes sense for us both, his ability to do this would terrify me, but my sense of my own story is solid enough now that I don’t get so easily swept in anyone else’s versions. It’s taken years for me to get here.

When I teach, I strive to make sure my students learn to attune themselves to the ways language is shaping them, as much as they attend to the ways they then shape their language. Only through that critical distance from the stories we tell ourselves and each other, I think, are we able to sort what we want to hold true.

On the phone with another friend, she tells me about a podcast she’s been listening to, and the podcast has been talking about narratives, specifically that narratives are the thing that sets human beings apart from the rest of the animal world. I’m not sure how we know that bats aren’t passing along an oral tradition, or that prairie voles don’t have some system of convincing themselves they should do what prairie voles do–I happen to think we humans give ourselves too much credit any time we start going on about our inherent superiorities–but the point was that our fundamental experiences are, of course, shaped by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

I build and rebuild my narratives so I can maintain some hold on the world, so I can give myself faith in some way. When I was young, I wore my religious narratives so well and so hard that they broke, cascaded off my neck, landed under my saddle oxfords. Before they broke, my childself believed that in accepting abuse I was becoming more Christlike, believed that whatever pain I was absorbing in the things Danny did to me was an offering for the care and containment of my family’s good life. Jesus, who was without sin, died to cleanse the sins from the sinners, right? So I believed my pain would absolve my stepfather, and that my sacrifice would keep my family whole for my mother and siblings. Like so many of us, I had to break the Catholic narrative that self-effacement and self-sacrifice were virtuous, or I was going to wind up letting the world crush me. To get free, I had to first decide that virtue should go fuck itself, and then knit backwards to find my own ethical lines.

And honestly? Every time I have put myself in some system of faith, some cluster of stories that other people have decided to live within and base their choices on, I wear it out. I love stories until the pages fall out. Given the right set of circumstances, I’m sure I could manage to convert to any major or minor religion. Give me a narrative that bonds me to other people, and baby I’m your best cult-follower. Give me some steps to follow, or some disciples, anything to make the hard work of cultivating hope a little less bleak, and I’m there. Ooooh, who’s got the next bandwagon? I’ll jump, I’ll jump.

I’ll jump, and then I’ll jump out, hit a hard roll on some faithless shoulder of some deserted road.

My Catholic school friend also said to me, “All these people want you/love you, but I think it’s because you reflect back to them, like a chameleon. Like a mirror. You show them whatever they want to see.” If I didn’t say, “What I’m reflecting back to you right now is I think your metaphors suck,” I wanted to.

Recently, I happened on an old livejournal, an anonymous one, that I kept when my son’s father first descended into addiction. There’s no voice in this journal; it’s stripped to bare fact, strung with appropriate truisms from the support group I was attending at the time. And my friend’s suck metaphors from the morning came back to me.

I texted my dearheart: “Now after reading that old blog, and seeing how shapeless the narrative self is there, I feel panicked. Formless.”

He texted back: “But I wonder if that reflection comes from manipulation/trauma? Survival mechanism?”

I read Margeaux Fragoso’s memoir, Tiger, Tiger, yesterday, after reading Roxane Gay’s Hunger. Hunger’s narrative frame is clear, direct, and aware, even as it describes so viscerally the disordered eating which Gay is aware sprung from sexual trauma. She knows exactly how she’s framed herself against the trauma, even as her pain clings to its residuals. And though our coping strategies have been different, I recognized deeply the impulse to destroy in oneself what, for a long time, felt like the reasons for my abuse: smallness, femininity, beauty, vulnerability.  I’ve gotten somewhat comfortable being feminine and beautiful and vulnerable, though I don’t feel like those things are reflective at all of my worth, positively or negatively. But I still hate feeling physically small. Like Gay, I went to boarding school, and while I was there I gained enough weight to find myself in a different body from the one which had been so often violated. Most of my adult life, I’ve stayed just overweight enough to be comfortable in a body that’s not the body my perpetrator desired. And when I’ve found myself in life circumstances that brought hunger with them, I’ve slimmed too close to my early, more slender, girl-form. And when that’s happened, it’s been a bitch: my own body, when it’s slim, is a fucking ptsd trigger, just like my natural hair color has been.

I’m nearly a year into growing out my natural hair color, now. That trigger has been broken. Small success, but success nonetheless. Now that I know my hair is no longer kept as a reaction to my trauma, I don’t know what I’ll do with it. Maybe I’ll color it. Maybe not. For now, I’m just glad that my hair is no longer any sort of emblem for me–now my hair is just hair. I’m not sure I care to break the weight trigger any time soon. It still feels safer only being attractive to people who like fuller forms.

But back to Fragoso, back to Tiger, Tiger and formless selves. I hope, for her sake, that before she died this year she found a way to break her perpetrator’s spell. The narrator of Tiger, Tiger seemed still trapped in a mind built for her pedophile’s pleasure. By the time I finished the book, I felt hung on its last line: He loves us very much. He, meaning Peter, the perpetrator, and the afterword describing a new life with Fragoso’s husband and daughter did little to alter my sense that Peter, who jumped to his death off a cliff, was the only one in the story who got free. For a half second, I wanted to jump off my own cliff.

But then I snapped back to my own present-tense: a quiet apartment with clean hardwood floors beneath my bare feet, my dog Betsy curled in the corner, content and sleeping away the afternoon, my tuxedo cat play-swatting in the next room with my dearheart’s calico, my dearheart coming through the front-door, storm-drenched and laughing with an old friend after they’d been out to lunch.

I don’t know much about the sort of faith that’s kept through elaborate, religious structures anymore, and I don’t think stories alone can save any of us. The only faith I can maintain is this: I do not expect the world to be good. I do not expect life to be just. But I know I can build a story I can stand to live in.

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