I couldn’t tell because I wasn’t stupid. He never had to make a threat. He was a dimpled charmer, and I had a flat affect. I was so negative I was so Negative after all those years being made his sieve I was the place he poured his rage I was the place where his
de/s/ire collected I was on the surface mostly a blank, blank place so far inside myself gone I could barely talk at all you could ask me anything and back I’d stare I didn’t want to give anyone else anything that might come from all my many mouths Not even the truth or my supposedly valuable voice All I wanted was to be left alone, alone. All I wanted was a pile of portals to anyone else’s worlds All I wanted was a locked door and a bed full of books and maybe a tesseract. I didn’t tell because I didn’t want to disturb the known world because I knew if I did, I’d be left to sift myself (into what?) and because I always knew how very small it was to be a girl and because all my mother had wanted was family and I thought my brothers needed a father Because after I told there would be a sheriff who’d ask my mother what she’d done to deprive a man so he’d turn his need on me and everybody everybody would shake so much blame on her, my dear mother who’d known nothing my dear mother who was slivered as much as any of us by the truth and that sheriff would badger “are you sure?”—was I sure I was really that young, was I sure because it seemed Odd my story didn’t match his story because clearly if there were a liar the small girl must be the liar she must have motives that snarling pinchfaced girl must have something up her pantsleeves and no matter what he did she must be at least exaggerating let’s not bother imagining the unimaginable the unimaginable being yes, a grown man would, and did, and knew damn well what he was doing because power is being able to give favor to whomever's mind we can most easily map to our own, and that sheriff had power until he didn’t, until the dear Assistant DA had those tapes thrown out, and new tapes made, new statements, but still that sheriff would come sit in my section at Waffle House after work and grin, the point being if I thought I could get off my knees, he’d make sure I served standing and there would a newsprint article and reporters always fuck up the facts and there would be the constant of being told what a minor, Minor Child could not do (have a place to live without adult supervision, as if adult supervision had worked so well all those years) and it would be so funny when The Boys filled my computer with kiddie porn just to fuck with me because GOD COULD YOU LIGHTEN UP but no, neither I nor God, far as I could tell, could lighten up and because all the others he’d touched/ raped/ somehow harmed would scramble to whisper their support oh my truth but they wouldn’t dare say it out loud in a courtroom who knows why, maybe it was his family’s money (Did all those quiet girls with his family name kept their inheritance lines?) but I oh how lucky never had his family name or maybe it was pure plain cowardice that kept them clamped (I lied, too, terrified, at the start) but no other Victims showed a voice in court, and I was alone But I told because when I was sixteen Kathleen called me her most beautiful poet then she told for me I told because my most favorite Girl and I together showed ourselves how glorious real sex was I told because my most favorite Boy and I together showed ourselves how glorious real sex was and he told for me Because the guidance counselor asked, “how are you going to feel if you let him get off and there are others?” And because I had always been writing I had been writing everything before I even knew letters I’d been writing and so when the time came I handed over the handwritten, dated pages which detailed the whole history of all he had done which I had always been writing because the written world had always been more real to me than reality, my small self had decided to write the reality (as preservation of my sanity) So finally he fell to a child’s journal. I never had to take the stand— he took the plea and after me, there never was another. No matter what I still carry, I broke the broken legacy and that is enough. Go here if you missed the introduction to the "Beyond Survival" posts.
Back in May, I came across this article from the Women in the World section of the New York Times: http://nytlive.nytimes.com/womenintheworld/2016/05/12/dutch-victim-of-childhood-sex-abuse-suffering-from-ptsd-allowed-euthanasia/
“There was no prospect of hope for her.” All summer, I’ve held this phrase under my tongue, let it rattle like a marble against my teeth. I think now it’s begun to dissolve. I do believe her death was humane, and am not interested in sidelining my subject with concerns over euthanasia as a practice. My need to stare down her decision is personal.
The years she endured (ages 5-15) closly overlap the years I endured (ages 6-16). Of course, I don’t know the particulars of what happened to her, beyond the shorthand given in the article.
What happened to me all those years, in legal shorthand: Rape and Sodomy of a Minor Child, first and second degrees. That’s to the point, alright. But they only charged him on three counts when there should’ve been a couple thousand. I am not being hyperbolic.
In therapists’ shorthand: childhood sexual abuse. I happen to hate this phrase, not because of what it describes, rather because of how. It’s so full of lolling l’s and oooohs that it sounds like a taunt, especially when it lands on the softness, the sinisterness of the s. I want what happened to sound a hard stop. I want it curt and finite.
In literary shorthand: reader, I am Lolita. Or at least I was once. It should go without saying that you can’t trust Humbert’s version of events, and if you take him at his face you’re a fool. I don’t care if you think he was a genius: Kubrick’s movie sucked. The 90’s remake was even worse.
My Humbert died in prison over a decade ago. I am 18 years now removed from him, and on the front of things I’m nothing like the tragedy I was expected to be.
I’m nothing like the tragedy I was expected to be. All the old scars are barely audible anymore. I have a life that I truly like. My children are half-grown, brilliant and bright, and they know their skin as their own. They know themselves as their own. I wasn’t the first girl my Humbert hurt, but I was the last. And my life may still be under poverty lines, but it is wholly mine.
Recently, one of my loves asked, “What saved you?” and that phrase has twined with the other, “There was no prospect of hope for her.”
What saved me. What saved me. The what’s and who’s are too many and too long to encompass here for now, although of course I take stock and keep the list running. And often I don’t feel particularly saved, though I so often meet the phrase “you look great!” I say I believe her death was humane because I know, no matter how great I look or how much I love my life, my head is often still a nest of terrors. What I’ve done is learned to carry my nest of terrors in ways that it can’t hobble me or bring the world more hurt.
Of course I’ve already said all of this. I’ve said it part-way already on this blog, which I keep leaving vacant for months, sometimes years, because I keep losing my nerve to speak. I’ve said it in therapist’s offices and group therapy rooms and I’ve said it in hospitals and I’ve said it in court rooms and lawyers’ offices and twelve-step rooms and I’ve said it on the phone with friends and mentors and across the table in restaurants and bars and I’ve said it in classrooms and I’ve said it from podiums, said it and said it and I’m sick of hearing myself say it and I’m sick of all the language—the survival and the salvage and the wreckage and the damage and the redemption and the healing, whatever that means, and all these words I’ve received to explain myself, most of none of which are mine.
And yet, when I stare down the figment of that Dutch girl, that now-dead girl, and the so many others of us there have been, it doesn’t so much matter how sick I am of my own story. It doesn’t so much matter, either, how sick you are—those of you who aren’t survivors, or those of you (survivor or not) who don’t want to sit with other people’s pain, those of you who think it’s oh so blasé when people show their vulnerable seams.
If you don’t want to read this, I’m not writing it for you. But here’s what I’m about to do—I ordered the old weekly workbook I used in group therapy well over a decade ago, Beyond Survival: A Writing Journey for Healing Childhood Sexual Abuse . And for the next year, I’m going to retrace my steps through it here, every week, publicly. Looking through these pages, now even the headings make me cringe. I’m not going to give you the headings or the chapters. If you want those, go track the book down yourself. It’s out of print but you can find it used. The chapters are full of twelve-step truisms and presumptions and language vague enough to land in a horoscope column. It’s a pretty rudimentary map, definitely not literary writing. But still I’m so glad Maureen Brady doubled back through herself and made that map for me, because there was a time that I badly needed the particular trail it cut. Now, I’m going to double back and tamp that ground again with my own feet. For the dead Dutch girl. For me. For whoever else needs to know there are ways out.
And this isn’t meant to be literary writing. This is immediate raw draft, hit send, then let it go writing. Therapeutic writing. Who knows what the hell will come out of it. The prompts are three parts. Part one typically goes: complete the sentence that’s been started for at least twenty minutes. I’ll start that sentence and write, then erase the words that started me which weren’t mine. Then come parts two and three: the vision and the action. I’ll show you how I work those each week, too. Starting now.
Down on Bay Minette Creek
Biting horseflies and yellowjackets down the point that stretched into the creekbend. Skinny dipping, I am old enough to be embarassed when the boat passes. I can’t tell how much of me the passengers can see. Their motor rips a current through the water, cold and tea-black. Beneath my feet, sogged leaves. The passengers (how many?) I can hardly remember. I remember their metallic cans, lettered in red, and their sun-umbered shoulders, and the unconcerned corners of their mouths.
He leans into the shelf of earth and roots above the point’s small sandbar beach, stands there in his polo shirt. His jean shorts, a moderate blue, a reasonable blue, a no-hysterics-here blue. He waves at the passengers, smiles genuine and easy.
I shift my feet underwater, and new weight on the leaves sends up methane around me. Bubbles, minnows bristle my bare skin. All my skin is bare. It doesn’t matter if I want an audience. It doesn’t matter if I want clothes at all. If I get out of the water, the horseflies and yellow jackets will swarm to welt my skin.
It doesn’t matter if I want to want or want not to want. It doesn’t matter if I want the attention—I happen to hate attention. I want to melt into foam on the creek. But I know I will be centrifugal until I figure out how to break myself.
The only way out was to break myself. He wanted me his and whole and his.
I carved hypocrisy beneath my breasts for him to find. This is not a metaphor. I carved the word, “hypocrisy.” I carved others on my thighs, ankles, torso, for him to find. I wanted him to find me being mine. I needed to see it, too, for me. I used a straight razor.
I did not want “the attention.” I was trying to break his gaze. I was trying to force him to look away. I was trying to find a way to make my form mine, and cutting lettered lines in my skin wasn’t shit compared to what all else I’d endured.
I hacked my hair in the bathroom mirror. I bleached out the gold he coveted and made it run manic panic red—red as stop signs, red as women’s blood, acapella red as Tori Amos singing but I haven’t seen Barbados, so I must get out of this.
And by the time I started breaking open and breaking out, I did not give a fuck what you thought of how I carried that pain.
This summer, I toned my hair back to match my original dark ash/gold roots, something I’ve tried and tried over the years to do and keep, but can’t seem to manage to do for too long, because facing my face, framed like it was when I was still his, triggers all manner of flashbacks and dissociative spells. My brain sees my face framed in dark gold, and suddenly it’s set back in a past it thinks I need protection from. This pisses me off. Forcrissakes, it’s hair. And it’s mine. I should be able to do whateverthefuck I want to do with it, without it being some outsized ordeal.
Vision: I want to be able to face my own face in a way that’s daily and mundane. I want to be able to wear my own damn hair however I please without my brain sending out its terror patrols. It’s not so much that it matters to me what color it is. I’m not attached to a particular way of having my hair. What I want is to break the trigger.
Action: For this year (and maybe longer, maybe), I’m going to let my hair continue to grow back to its natural state. I’m going to let it be as it is, dark ash and gold with silver branching in, without frying it at the roots, until the trigger is broken.
Recently, I let a friend read some pages of my memoir-in-progress, and when we got together to talk that progression, they said, “Right now much of this is Things Happening to You, but so much of you isn’t here. In particular, what’s missing is your sweetness.” I’ve been turning this over and over, and arrived at thinking: those pages have no sweetness because every scene, there’s something got me bucking, somehow trapped.
It’s easy to be sweet in the dim lamp light, isn’t it? Easy to be sweet after long talks and intimacy, when it’s known that there’s no need for promises or shared drudgeries.
Not so long ago, after years of playing single, which followed years in two failed marriages, I tried my hand at being someone’s girlfriend again. We tried for nearly a year. It helped that we stayed mostly states away, with me entrenched in parenting and doctoral studies, and him back home sharing space with roommates and friends. I don’t think I made a very good girlfriend. As a friend, I can let people be. As a friend, I can keep a soothing ear for the people I love, and only require that they be whoever the fuck they need to be, honestly.
Tether me to future, though, and the anxiety sets in. All the old haunts and past betrayals creep around my ears. Keep me as a friend, and I will respect your privacy. I will recognize your space and believe what you need me to believe. Try to keep me as your one-and-only, and I might read all the letters in your bedside drawer, might go through your text messages while you shower, might scour you for any hint that you may not be who you’ve posited yourself to be. I hate myself in those moments, but I’m that terrified of winding up trapped in other people’s lies.
When I was a wife, I stayed up with my anxiety, listening to my children breathe, submerged in memories: creaking hallways, my stepfather’s hulking steps, all my mother’s unknown variables. As a wife, I was terrified at every turn, and over and over again encountered the reality that I plain couldn’t let myself fully go in love.
As a wife, too, I had plenty of reason not to trust, but for the sake of love and hope I stretched myself–trying, trying anything I could manage to prevent more trauma, to stave off any other heartbreaks.
When my most recent partner called last month to tell me we were done, I feigned nonchalance on the phone. Then I hung up and sobbed more or less for a week, less out of loss (we still have friendship and care) and more out of the sense that I’m wholly incapable of serious partnership. Then the grief broke, and I texted him in thanks for setting me free.
Truth is, I never want to be a wife again. I never want to have my livelihood entwined with another adult’s. My life is not lacking in love. It doesn’t bother me anymore that I might not be fit to share the daily grinds–bills, shared space, bartering over finances, time, and chores, and all the myriad regularities that come with a marriage. I’m more and more okay with knowing that what I need at the end of my days is not anyone else’s waiting arms, but my own bed and my own mess and my own cup of tea. I like knowing that my children are safe, and there’s no one in our home I’ll ever need to protect them from. I like settling into solitude after they’ve gone to bed.
Years ago, one of my partners said to me, “Damn. You don’t need anyone, do you?” I think it was considered a deficiency, my lack of need, but I don’t see it so anymore. No, I don’t need anyone. But everyone I have, I cherish on our own particular terms. And then, as time suggests, we keep our love but let each other free.
I can be sweet when my relationships don’t need serious compromise. I can be sweet when I’m free to give without needing to self-efface. I always thought Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater was the most horrific nursery rhyme. Let me be, and I’ll be sweet, but I can’t be sweetly kept.
The stardust and ash have hardly settled, but already social media is sending out missives to discredit David Bowie’s legacy. He sexually assaulted a child, they say, referring to a tell-all article where Lori Mattix gushes over her days as a teenaged groupie to rock stars like Bowie and Jimmy Page.
To the question, “In retrospect, do you think he might have exploited you?” Mattix responds, “No. I feel blessed. I feel like I was protected rather than exploited. I feel like I was very present.”
I’m left wondering, after reading Mattix’s account, where and how do we decide how to draw our consent lines? The age of legal consent varies widely by geography, and common recent understandings hold that someone cannot consent to a sexual relationship if there are age or power imbalances. This makes sense, particularly given how often predators lure and coerce, rather than force, and also given how unfortunately viable the “victim wanted it” argument remains.
Also unnerving, however, is the notion that teenagers are incapable of sexual agency. Roughly half the teenagers in the United States are sexually active, and it’s dangerous to perpetuate the message that they are inherently unable to make decisions about their own bodies.
Setting aside issues of age, it should be obvious that there’s a huge distinction to be made between fucking for pleasure and sexual assault, shouldn’t it? The problem is, obviously, that those distinctions aren’t always immediate or obvious. It’s possible to be sexually abused gently. It’s possible for the body to have a pleasurable response, including orgasm, during an assault that nevertheless does lasting psychological damage. On the other hand, it’s more than possible to have consensual sex that leaves its participants in undesired pain or shame. And plenty of people prefer their consensual sex intermingled with some variation of power play, pain, constraint, or shame exchange.
So then, how do we define consent? And what happens to our definition of sexual assault when we put a sexual encounter–which was presumably mutually enjoyed and is positively recollected–on the same plane as child abuse, which has lifelong ramifications?
The final lines in the interview with Lori Mattix are sweet and swooning. Now she’s middle-aged and says, “Who cares what people said about me? I feel like I was very present. I saw the greatest music ever. I got to hang out with some of the most amazing, most beautiful, most charismatic men in the world. I went to concerts in limos with police escorts. Am I going to regret this? No.”
Another day, we can have a conversation about the sort of world which grants women power via their sexuality more readily than it does via their own skills or accomplishments.
Another day, we can talk about how the hell to hold the legacies of artists whose personal affronts seem at odds with their cultural impacts.
For now, though, I think the narratives with which we house our lives are nearly as important as the bodies we use to move through them, and I think it matters that Lori Mattix has not consented to the narrative that she was assaulted.
I’ve been home for the holidays and spending a fair amount of time downtown. Every time I come home, I see a slew of old faces, faces I adore attached to necks I love and hug. We are a handsy culture, and I am used to moving through my hometown full of hugs and winks and unassuming love.
Twice this week, though, I have had to pry men’s hands from me. These are men I know, men I love, men I typically let swing me around when we greet.
But for now, I’m done.
The night before Christmas Eve, a man I’ve known for years, whom I’ve sat with many nights at coffee shops, a man I consider my friend and greet with huge hugs, cornered me in my hometown bar. I was coming out of the bathroom when he trapped me in the hallway. Minutes before, I’d introduced him to my boyfriend–who he already knows, for years has known, though he didn’t know we were together. It shouldn’t have mattered. It shouldn’t have mattered whether I was at the bar alone, with friends, or with another man, but still as I’ve often done, my go to sentence came: “I’m spoken for.”
“I’m spoken for,” I said as I pried his hands off my hips, pushed back against his chest, felt my shoulder blades smack square against the wall. I pulled back, he grabbed my arms and yanked me closer. “I need to talk to you,” he kept saying. “About what?” “I need to talk to you.” “I don’t see what there is to talk about.” Each time I squirmed from his grip, he grabbed again, again, until finally I twisted and ducked and wrested myself away into the crowd. Then I did the regular, easy thing: I ran to tell my boyfriend, and he went to intercede. I camped at the bar and the dear man next to me said, “Maybe you shouldn’t let (boyfriend) speak for you right now.” “I know,” I responded, “But if I go back over I’m going to make a scene. I might just knock a motherfucker flat.”
I eyed my mirrored reflection across the bar, and for a moment hated my black rimmed lashes, my bright dark lips, the bold lace peeking from my neckline. I thought how I never dress for exposure, even then my skirt grazing my ankles, my sleeves down to my wrists, my shoes nearly always chosen for their sensibility and easy removal if I need to run. For another moment I hated my friend, who over my shoulder kept making humbled/explaining gestures at my boyfriend. I watched him apologize, repeatedly, not to me, but to the man he felt he’d disrespected. I hated myself for making and being a scene.
A single apology came my way, beneath his breath, as my friend ducked his eyes out the door.
As I walked the oak-lined street to the car, I thought next time a man puts his hands on me and doesn’t accept my no, I will not halt before I throw a fist.
But I don’t want to throw fists. That’s mere fury, and I want more. I want desire to need mutuality, and I want it to recede at the first hint of no. I want crossing a boundary with me to be understood as a sign of disrespect not to my significant other, but to me. Most of all, though? I want for once to move through the world without regretting my own beauty.
My significant other likes the idea of sleeping in separate bedrooms. This is not so much a concern that affects us, yet, as we do not share living space, but the first time it came up my reaction surprised me. It’s not that I mind distance in my love, even.
But the thought of having my own bedroom is panic inducing.
The first time in my adult life that I had an unshared bedroom, I was newly divorced in a small apartment with my two-year-old son. I took care setting up that room–the cream quilt with embroidered leaves, walls a light forest green, an ecru lampshade with petals dried into the paper. Mosquito netting canopied the bed and gave me a barrier that looked romantic enough to obscure its actual purpose: protect me from the trigger of the doorframe. Still, most nights I slept in a chaise lounge.
Doorframes don’t much bother me in larger, public rooms where there are plenty of exits and space for traffic to move through. In a public room, there is the potential for friendly disruption.
Put me privately in a bedroom, though, and let the house hush? That doorframe will morph. The hinges will crawl like caterpillars up and down, and the memories of old creaks will start down the hallway. Then I’ll see his shadow over the room.
I don’t sleep in a bedroom now, and I haven’t since I split with my most recent ex, with the exception of when my daughter slept in the room with me. Having other people in the room keeps the past out. When I was a child, having a sibling or spend-the-night guest would ward him off.
When I’ve lived with or slept with romantic partners, so long as we shared trust I could sleep in a bedroom with them. Waking up to the scent of someone I love, being able to wrap around that person in the dark, pressing close to skin that’s not his skin–the sensory present dissolves the man at the door, sends away the caterpillars, and leaves in his place a simple frame.
When I sleep alone at night, I prefer a couch or a chaise lounge. Even a recliner or patch of floor will do. Lately I sleep on a twin mattress in the living room, against the wall and between two end tables, couch-like. I’ve been telling myself that my not having a bedroom right now is a matter of economics. Maybe, though, that’s not the whole of it.
If I’m spending the night with friends or relatives, and I’m offered a guest bedroom, I’ll not be able to sleep. When I ask to sleep on the couch, I’m met with, “Are you sure? That doesn’t seem comfortable.” I respond with, “Yes, thank you, I’d prefer it,” and not with, “If I sleep in a bed, the shadows won’t stop. If I sleep in a bed, the caterpillars will come,” because it’s fucking weird to tell polite company that their thoughtfully arranged and comfortable bedroom is a portal to my hellscape.
When I first started therapy all those years ago, I thought (hoped?) that sorting through these things would somehow make me less affected. I hoped I’d be able to lie down alone in a bedroom at night and be able to sleep. Normal people do that. They go to sleep in bedrooms. They don’t stay up all night keeping vigilant over their children’s breaths in the dark. Their door hinges don’t become caterpillars.
In recent years I’ve moved away from hope, lovely as some may find it, and settled into a sort of reckoning. After twenty-plus years of anxiety attacks, flashbacks and dissociative spells, I don’t hope they’ll lessen. I’m not so keen in medicating them away. I don’t even particularly need them to go away, disruptive though they may be, as I’ve learned to fold them into the rest of my day.
But no, darlings, I won’t have a bedroom. I have caterpillars to keep away.
Recently, Claire Vaye Watkins wrote this blog post about the patriarchal modes in which much literary culture still operates: http://www.tinhouse.com/blog/41314/on-pandering.html
I won’t address every point in her essay, but y’all I do want to talk about the canon. I really thought we figured this shit out in the last half century or so.
Yes, every writer needs to find for themself the strands that make for a literary lineage, one that matters far beyond whatever so-and-so tastemaker has decided we should or shouldn’t be reading. But it isn’t enough to develop a personal canon, held close. Even with so much recovery work done in the last fifty-ish years, the female literary tradition is still being taught primarily in women’s studies classes or women’s colleges, and nonwhite writers are still mostly relegated to special ethnic studies classes, while the white male curriculum remains at the core of so many writing and literature programs. We are an elective, optional.
Though personal canons aren’t where this should end, I’ll offer the following list of my foremother writers. I typed off the spines on my shelves, so the order here is arbitrary and the list is in no way exhaustie. Still, it’s some sort of start.
Maxine Hong Kingston
Christine De Pizan
Minnie Bruce Pratt
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Zora Neal Hurston
Joyce Carol Oates
Toni Cade Bambara
Leslie Marmon Silko