Tag Archives: incest survivor

questioning the broken story

patterns-closeIn Tuesday’s post, I said: How we tell our stories matters. The words we use for our stories matters. The metaphors and symbolic language, the imagery – all matter, all influence how we perceive ourselves, our bodies, our physical being, our agency, our history and our possibility.

For instance, consider the story inside the word broken as it gets applied to survivors of violence. Broken is commonly incorporated as a metaphor into survivor stories – he left me broken. He ruined me. She left me in pieces. He tore apart my soul.

I climbed into this fragmented narrative, this narrative of fragmentation, when I began to identify as an incest survivor. Identity is a story: we don’t just take on a label when we identify as something, we take on the narratives that accompany that identity – we have to interact with that identity’s story. The incest/trauma survivor story contained these: “broken, ruined, dead.”

These are powerful phrasings, necessary to use to describe how the body feels, how the victim feels, how the raped child feels when she is violated by someone neat to be a protector, when she is physically and psychically assaulted, then silenced, shamed and threatened, then psychologically tortured so that she will comply with the abuser’s demands of silent complicity. We need a brutal narrative to match the brutality of our inner experience. We need a story that will wake people up, we need a story that will make standers-by understand why we need help. We are attempting to counteract and supplant the other, deeply entrenched stories: the child is the parent’s possession to do with as the parent wishes; children often lie and are not to be believed when they say their parents or other adults are hurting them; child abuse is a family problem and outsiders should not intervene; children often invite sexual acts; America puts women and children first – those stories hold powerful sway, culturally. It makes sense that with the rise of an Incest Survivor advocacy community, we would reach for language as incendiary as the experiences and silencings we suffered through: he might as well have killed me; he left me for dead; I felt like a ghost; I didn’t exist anymore.

As I came into an Incest identity, I latched onto the story of broken: And the more I told the story of how broken I felt, the more the story of broken is what I inhabited.

Broken was big enough to explain how I felt. Broken was also irreversible. A shattered vase might get glued back together but you can always see the cracks, the scars – and that vase was now weaker, easier to break the next time. We were broken and proud of it. Fuck you, we said. We might get better, but we were never going to be the same. He ruined us. He broke us. He stole our childhood. He stole my adolescence. He broke my sex and now I would never be normal.

These stories express our extreme disenfranchisement from our own agency. And we tell them over and over and over – and, each time we tell the story, we deepen its neuronal pathway inside us, making it easier and faster for us to tell again the next time.

Just a few years ago, I began to question: What if that story was a lens that I was looking at my experience through? Certainly I’m using broken metaphorically, to express my sense of internal fragmentation, and of not being a normal and regular (which, my necessity, means unbroken and whole) woman. Aren’t I?

What if there was another story, another lens I could look at my experience through? What if broken didn’t have to be my name? What if I am whole, my sex is whole, my complexity is whole? What if I struggle, still have questions, but am whole, intact?

 What if I could tell a different story?

“The truth about stories is that they’re all we are.”

Taking a stand against a cultural story and meta-narrative is resistance work, builds muscle.

In learning to live outside the lens or silo of Broken, I am flung (if I’m not careful) headlong into the relentlessly cheerful Gratitude story: whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

What if I didn’t want a cultural narrative, a grant application anecdote, a Hallmark card, a cup of soup for my soul? What if I was ready for a less-than-simple story, something more complex, more complicated, more real; something less pithy, less easily told?

In our survivors writing groups, this is what we hold open room and hold out hope for – the messy story, the fragmented telling, the rape story with jokes and laughter in it, the story of the loving parent who put his hands inside his child, the story of turning still for support to the mother who abandoned you – the stories that friends, surveys, some therapists, family, nonprofits, social workers, activists and advocates have a hard time hearing (literally comprehending) and holding because these stories don’t match the language we have acquiesced to as a culture: ruin, devastation, dismal, hopeless, broken.

Our human, lived stories are more complicated than one lens can reveal.

Outside of one story are a hundred other stories. Outside of Broken is frightening, still – I feel uncontained, sprawling. I also experience myself as having greater agency. Not broken or unbroken, intact and imperfect. Wounded, sore, struggling, whole. Human, like all the rest of the humans around me struggling with something.

Thank you for the stories that have carried you this far, and for the stories you are beginning to question and upend. Thank you for that risking. Thank you for your words.

unsolicited advice for a survivor

Rockridge HeartsThis is what I want to say: It won’t end. You won’t get fixed. You won’t reach a place where you name is Healed and incest doesn’t feed you breakfast anymore. The people who tell you You’ll get over it don’t know what they’re talking about, because they live in their own closed cage of denial. You have been transformed. You are not the same as you were Before. And you will never not also be who you were Before — but it may be some years before these layerings of yourselves can sit in the same room with you and have coffee in the morning. There is no such thing as getting over it. There is the business of living through. There is learning to breathe again, there is learning you are worthy of the air you breathe, there is having to breathe when you know you are not worthy. There is you, just breathing. You will have years called Night and years called Drunk and years called Weep and years called Frozen and years called Broken and Fuck. You look at this and think you can’t bear so many years of pain — but what’s true is that all those years are also called Freedom.

You will not always be in pain. Your heart will harden and soften at the same time. You will forget all the names you ever had, you will climb into a skin so different from the one you were fucked into that not even your mother — especially not your mother — will be able to recognize you. This may or may not be a cocoon. It might just actually be the true face of your new eyes. Every stage of healing is a phase, like this breath you are taking is a phase, like this heartbeat is a phase, like a single kiss is a phase is an instant an instantiation of your personhood. Phase means nothing except you are still alive. Ignore them when they tell you that whatever you’re experiencing now is just a phase. Ignore their relief, if it comes, when you enter a different phase. They do not sing with all the tendons of your body and they can’t speak the truth of your soul. Sit with the people who can hold your surfaces and your undersides.

One day you will say yes to your skin, yes to sex, yes to the feel of your body alive and inhabitable. The next day you will wrench up with No again. There will be years like this. There will be two yes hours in a row. There will be days when you don’t say his name, nights when the dreams in which you cannot move begin to stretch and taffy in your psyche, one day inside you will take the knife he brandishes and turn it on him. That will be a good day.

Know that this that you’re in right now will change. Be with people who can hold the shimmer of insurrection that is the space between who you were raped to be and who you are becoming. Be with those who can open their hands out to rage, who are imperfect in their holding, who want to fix it, who understand that there is nothing to fix. Understand that you will emerge from broke, that broken is a necessity, that no human passes through life whole, that none of us are anything other than whole. Believe that broken is necessary if one wants to see all sides of a thing. Know that you are because of and in spite of, you are of and not of, you are welcome in this human family, you have never been outside its true skin. We are just a people who has forgotten how to open our hands to those who need our receiving, who deserve a welcome, a yes, an apology. Know that the platitudes people offer you exist so that you can climb inside something together, that they are a doorway that you can meet each other through when the words don’t work anymore. Know that words will fail you but you will keep trying to unwrap them to find what lives inside, because for all the pain there you will never stop wanting to know and to share what lives truly inside yourself.

(A write from last night’s Write Whole survivor’s writing group meeting.)

story & cognitive dissonance

poster graffiti -- a padlock with the words, 'You are the key'The words are quiet in me right now. Lots of possibility pushing its way around toward manifesting, which means commitment, which means change.

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The foghorns are lowing all around us; blue sky above but the Golden Gate is thick and grey. Did you see any fireworks last night? From the little church that sits above our apt building, we could see some from Sausalito as well as the ones over in San Francisco. Sophie wasn’t sure what to do with the loud noises, with the strange noisy mechanical birds that were flying low overhead. Still, though, she was more interested in the dog that another family had brought up with them.

It’s hard for me to take fireworks uncritically anymore — the fact that they’re meant to represent bomb explosions lives in me, and I think about the people who don’t celebrate such explosions, who live in terror of those particular noises. I have never had to experience that terror, which is a tremendous privilege. And so it’s with cognitive dissonance that I watch any fireworks display. Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve had lots of experience with cognitive dissonance (as have most Americans, I would hazard, and certainly all survivors of trauma), and so it doesn’t throw me completely: I can appreciate some of the beauty and color, the pyrotechnic work. What sort of study does a person have to undertake to be able to create a firework that explodes into the shape of a heart, or a smiley face?

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Here’s something I wrote last Friday:

What are the stories that we as a society tell ourselves and each other about sexual violence, how we build and undermine the myths around where rape and incest come from? As a culture, we say we don’t support incest, that we don’t support child sexual abuse — don’t condone it. How do we, as a culture, walk with that cognitive dissonance, when we know how many people are sexually violated every day? How do we  story that wreckage for ourselves — that our society says it cares for us and wants to protect the children and then turns not a blind eye but a wide open and indifferent eye to the number of children raped in their homes every day.

We give a privileged position in our government and nonprofit industrial complex to an institution like the Catholic Church, which appears to have child sexual abuse integrated into its very fabric, into its institutional structure. How do we reconcile this?

How much storying is layered around these facts, these truths, so that people do not question? What are the stories that cause lies, what are the stories that run us aground, away from the facts? Why do we listen to and integrate some stories and not others?

And how do we, as survivors, as people who have experienced the underside of society’s stories, make sense of our own experience? If one in three women is sexually abused or assaulted in her lifetime and one in six boys/men, can there be anyone in this country not personally affected by sexual violence? Why do we keep pretending like it’s not all around us? Who do we keep believing the stories that it’s about sick or disturbed individuals, that it’s not institutional, that it’s not societal practice?

What are the stories of rape and incest that we as a society prefer, both fiction and nonfiction?  We like the ‘true crime’ narratives, the one-at-a-time bad-men-on-parade, the stories of women who triumph, who “move from victim to suvivor, from survivor to thriver!”

What about the stories that show us that this isn’t an issue of badly-behaving individuals? What about the stories of women and men who don’t triumph? What about the stories of survivors who lie, who behave “badly” themselves?

The case against the former head of the IMF is falling apart because the woman who he assaulted bight also be a liar — she might not only associate with honest people. The only people who can be raped, by law, are the unflawed one– only the honest ones, the inhuman ones. Whether or not this woman, in this case, was raped, the fact is that now we’re publicly tarnishing her character. That’s what we do with rape victims, the very people our criminal justice system, out of the same mouth, will say it wants to protect. Maybe this woman came to the country under false pretenses. Does this mean she can’t be assaulted? Maybe after she was assaulted she found a way to grab for some power herself. Does this mean she couldn’t have been raped?

Very possibly, yes, according to the laws of this country, which present themselves as putting women and children first.  First in the firing line, maybe. The trouble with using legal means to undermine or eradicate sexual violence is playing out on an international scale:  1) it only happens in the aftermath (legal ramifications don’t prevent the rape in the first place); 2) it requires there to have been a theft, and thus an unflawed landscape/crime scene — the law is primarily focused on protecting property. Rape laws are no different — if what was stolen wasn’t of high value, the crime isn’t so bad. The victim is the property, and is always on trial. We know all this already.

We need to change the story about rape and sexual violence. That’s how we change a culture, a cultural practice — we change the story. We change the stories that people tell their children, that men and women share among one another, that police officers listen for, even. What is the current story about rape, about incest — what’s the story that we can hear? What’s the one that we can’t hear yet? (I’m grateful to Ken Plummer’s Telling Sexual Stories for introducing me to this layer of engagement with stories.)

What’s the story about women’s bodies, children’s bodies, weaker bodies being always accessible to more powerful men and women? What’s the story about class, about power and violence? What are the stories that police tell in court, that rape crisis centers tell their funders, that survivors tell in order to be believed? What are the stories they don’t tell?

How do we learn how we’re supposed to react to rape, once it happens to us? (Which, many of us come to understand, it inevitably will — what stories circulate to ensure that? And what about those of us for whom that’s not true?) How do we change the story about children’s power, women’s power, queerfolks’ power, men’s power? About innocence as something that can be stolen (and thus is property), about violence as power, as good, about the ability to take and do violence as a mark of what — of power? Something to be striven for?

What stories can we unearth, unbury — no, what stories can we keep on telling and louder (these are not hidden stories, they are un-listened-to stories) that undermine the dominant narrative, the easier-to-live-with idea that rape happens because this one guy was a drunk or evil?

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Here’s a write: it’s just for you. This is about stepping out of that cognitive dissonance, and telling our own whole truth. What story aren’t you telling, because you think/know folks’ won’t understand it, won’t listen, won’t hear it right? What piece of your story do you keep on lockdown? What about a part of your character’s story? Take 15 minutes, or 20; go to a quiet place (in real life and/or in you, but definitely in you), and bring your tea or coffee. Write it. Hold it there on the page. Just because it can’t be heard and understood yet doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary.

Thank you for the ways you can hold complexity in others, how you work to be present with your own contradictions and complications: they’re all gorgeous, just like you. Thank you for your wisdom, your honesty, your lies, your words.

our plagues

red ribbon on Twin Peaks to commemorate this 30th year of fighting AIDSAh — there’s the blue morning sky!

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What I meant, yesterday, by it adds up, is that I’ve got at least 100 pages of usable material — and I’m not even through all the backlog yet. 100 pages of writing that will work for these couple of book projects; that doesn’t include the writing that could be worked for creative submissions, poems or short fictions.

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Last night we watched part of Angels in America, the movie — just part one. I am trying to remember that time, late 80s, when everyone was going to die from having sex. Sex became something even more important to avoid. In the 80s I was living in Omaha. Gays had AIDS. People who went to the hospital got AIDS. I lived in Omaha, where no one got AIDS. I didn’t know anyone who was sick — it was on all the magazines, on tv, and of course, les taught us about it. What do I want to say about all this? It seemed removed. It seemed like something that would happen to me. It seemed necessary, having to pay so much attention to sex; we did it all the time. For a long time After, after I broke contact with him, I thought it was a wonder that we didn’t get sick, me and my sister, given that he was having sex with both of us and mom & who knows who else?

AIDS was this defining cultural event for my generation — we already knew to wear condoms because teen pregnancy had already been a big deal. AIDS seemed far away but lurking, too. Possible. Vague. I figured I was in the clear, first because I thought I was straight, then because I was having sex with women. After I went off to college, I got tested regularly. I’m sure I got tested first because I wanted to have sex with some boyfriend,  so we could stop using condoms. Then I went every 6 months for a long time after that. I was fooling around with bi boys — they could get it; that was the story. Bi boys– those were the ones bringing AIDS to the gay male & straight women communities. That’s what the fear and panic was. Biphobia gone ballistic. Did les ever get tested? Why, of all people couldn’t he have died of it?

People were wearing gloves to touch their children in the hospital, they were platsticking up. In college, I participated in safer sex trainings, teaching us how to have hotter sex using plastic wrap, dental dams, condoms. We needed to wrap it up. I didn’t learn about AIDS up close and persoal, just third and fourth-hand. Someone at school maybe got it, maybe killed himself after he was diagnosed. Even in the early 90s, it was a terrible death sentence.

It’s still seen as a gay disease, even thoiugh, the world over, it’s mostly heterosexual acting-and-appearing people who have it now. Regan, the Right Wing, the conservatives — they branded AIDS completely as that fag sickness. Why am I writing about this? I want to remember  — it was just another thing to be afraid of when it came to sex. There was nothing I wasn’t afraid of about sex. Still, that feeling and fear lifts up and around me, it’s present in my body, in my desire, around the longing for dirtiness, for mess; skin-to-skin became a fetish. I’m lost in this. What did les say about AIDS? He’d use it against us, then tell us we had nothing to worry about. That was his way. There was Ryan White, he was normal — not gay. There was how I expected, somewhere underneath, that all my gay male college friends would die. None of them did — we were all protected, isolated. How did that happen? Were we all too scared to get risky?

It feels like a long time ago, and something so far away. When did things shift? In the late 90s? I never knew anyone on the cocktail, didn’t watch anyone die of the disease. Just read about and with those who did. That wasn’t the holocaust I was a part of — I was part of the other one, the one that sang Take Back The Night songs, the one that railed in the night and in small therapy groups holding stuffed animals. I was a part of that epidemic instead. I appreciated having the safer sex community to escape to — we could get angry without shame, could proudly proclaim sex as possible and ours, could talk about safety and latex boundaries, though we didn’t always talk about other boundaries. This wasn’t incest. This was something people gathered in huge numbers to shout about, marched on Washington for, died-in for, demanded change around. People didn’t do that about incest, even though incest and rape killed people, too, and affected almost everyone I knew in one way or another. This was my plague.

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There’s more in here. What do you remember? Where were you during the first part of the AIDS crisis? Where were your characters? Take 10 or 15 minutes and write it out — write the parts you don’t tell all the time, what you were afraid of, what you were proud of, who you loved then, and why.

Thank you for the layers of your survival, for your standing up for others, for your words.

we’re here, we’re queer, we’re surviving

graffiti of a female face, frowning, serious, strong, with the caption 'recuerda! hoy es el dia!'

"Remember! Today is the day" (click on the image to see more of LD-'s flickr set)

It’s October — LGBT Awareness month (which includes National Coming Out Day on 10/11) and Domestic Violence Awareness Month. How do these national-anything months affect our lives once we’re out of school, away from the programming groups that have a captive audience? It’s the month for NCOD, Take Back the Night marches, times when we announce who we are, what we’ve experienced, what we want to see change.

National Coming Out Month and Domestic Violence Awareness Month go together, of course, when it comes to queer kids getting beaten, getting harassed, getting assaulted, getting kicked out — We’re here, we’re queer, and we deserve bodily integrity, we deserve health and safe homes, we deserve not to be bullied, not to be harassed, not to bully or harass others.

There’s a campaign that I found to get queer folks to re-associate with their high schools, to be a visible and out alumnus. I wasn’t out, even to myself, in high school.  Instead, I was being regularly sexually assaulted by my mother’s husband, and the only friends I was allowed were the boys who I might date, the boys who my stepfather thought would eventually have sex with me — my entire life revolved around my sexuality, in this hideous and adult-driven way. I had no idea that anything other than heterosexuality and sexual violence could be in store for me. There was no place to explore my own desires or fantasies, to think about how my body worked or why, to consider what brought me joy. Sex wasn’t about joy — it was about endurance and escape. Sometimes there was a moment of connection, and I’m grateful for those — moments that were outside my stepfather’s control, that were about just me and his other person, or even about a momentary wholeness in my body. These were fleeting and sometimes even more painful for my remembering them later, knowing I could never count on them, never get them back.

The It Gets Better campaign wouldn’t have worked for me; that’s not to shut it down or say that it isn’t useful (and click on that link above to see what might have gotten through, though, that message from Aunt Kate) — most of the public awareness campaigns didn’t work for me. We might have a lecture at school about tell someone if someone’s touching you wrong and all of us in the audience would be squirming and embarrassed and cutting our eyes at the kids (the girls) who it was rumored were having to have sex with someone in their family. My stepfather might have given that lecture to our school — he didn’t, but he could have, because that’s the work he did: and he always wanted to be of service. So no one would be cutting their eyes at me, though I’d be looking for it and I was terrified of someone finding out — not because of the shame or embarrassment, but because of his punishment, the way I’d have to repudiate anyone else’s knowledge, the way I’d have to learn how to hide better, more transparently, more in clean sight.

I had no possible sense of a future that didn’t include my stepfather’s control, so there was no place in my life where “it gets better” would have fit. I don’t know what would have worked (except, maybe, for one of his colleagues to have stepped forward, to have paid attention to what they were seeing (my stepfather’s extreme control of his family) and taken action).

Would it have helped if there’d been a campaign specifically aimed at those experiencing sexual violence — for a grown woman to say to a camera somewhere in the world, seeming like she’s looking right at me, somehow more safe for that intimacy of one person speaking to one other person: I never thought I could get away. But I did — finally, I was able to get away from the man/person who was hurting me, and this is how I did it and this is where I got help… Would that have helped me consider my own possible escape? Maybe I would have tucked it away somewhere inside future reference.

I want a hopeful end here, a clear sense of what could work, now, for someone else in my situation. I guess, though, that that’s why I write at all, and why I write under my own name. My survival, my rescue, came incrementally, and it mostly came through reading other people’s stories — it came through a slow awareness that I was not alone, that I wasn’t the only one who’d experienced this kind of isolation and control, that other people went through this and then, later, had a life that they were happy with, that they found pleasure and joy in. It was through reading the coming out stories, the survivor stories, through Dorothy Allison and Maya Angelou, the collections of Take Back the Night readings. Over and over, those voices reached out and caught me, and so I keep on trying to reach out and catch someone else. I needed to know that, yes, something as plain as ‘incest’ and ‘domestic violence’ could be applied to my stepfather’s behavior, that I could find myself and my experiences in that language.

My queerness is entirely interwoven with my incest survivor-ness, and my National Coming Out Day is always inflected with DV Awareness month, so my slogans look like this: We’re here, we’re queer, we’re surviving and We’re loud and raunchy and messy, because finally we can be and Big joyful incest survivor queergrrl.

What does National Coming Out Day look like for you? Do you still have coming out moments? Want to write about one of those as a prompt for today? (Write about whichever one just came to mind when you read that question — share it here if you want)

Or just think about it, and know that I’m grateful for that work you did, are doing, will continue to be a part of today…