Tag Archives: language

calling ourselves

graffiti of a woman, facing left, with a word bubble before her, "Who am I?"A dark morning with a bright moon outside, and I’m collected up on the couch with my little candle light and cup of mint-dandelion-green tea. Outside the moonlight is bright through the trees, lightening up the cloudful sky.


Sometimes I feel like I want this blog to be even more of a resource for those who are survivors of sexual trauma. And then I wrangle with that identity, with even the language there: for us, survivors. When I say survivor, I mean people who have experienced sexual abuse. Other people mean someone who has experienced domestic violence, or someone who has experienced cancer, someone who has had a relative die, someone who lived through a car crash. Survivor means ‘one who lives through affliction’ or ‘one who remains alive or in existence,’ ‘to persist after,’ ‘to remain functional or usable’…

So here’s where I’m torn: between wanting to be a useful resource for survivors of sexual trauma, and not wanting to further that identity category at all, because once we ‘own’ that label, we step into its language, we are shaped by it. And I want us to be bigger than survivor, bigger than thriver, bigger than these experiences. I don’t know that I want to use the phrase incest survivor to define myself all the time anymore. Sometimes, yes, and it’s not a thing I’m going to deny or remove from my bio. But does it have to be the first line, the first thing people know about me? This isn’t about shame, but about how I shape myself, what I think is possible and knowable myself. The language we use for ourselves defines us for ourselves, as well as for others.

Maybe for the first time in my life, I am feeling this way. I used to get super annoyed with people who would talk that way, assume that they were completely in denial. Didn’t they get it? If you experienced this, you are this. It’s the way things are.

I don’t want us to rid ourselves of these categories, because we categorize, we humans; it’s what our brains do. What I want are different words — instead of using the word survivor, I might use the phrase, people who experienced sexual violence. First of all, it’s more precise, and more people will understand what I mean right away. Second, this language defines us first as people, rather than as incest or child sexual abuse, which “survivor” can do.

Sometimes we need that place in us forefronted. I know I have. I have needed people to meet me and my work through that lens, and it’s a frightening thing now to want to find a different lens, different language. If I am not only, or first and foremost, incest, then what am I? I have said, in the not so distant past, maybe even here in this blog, that Incest is the main lens that I see life through, that I meet every experience through, that shapes and colors everything. Am I wanting to take those glasses off? Can I? Is that allowed, or possible? Maybe that’s some of this nausea, too, that queasiness, that question, this blurred, new vision.

How we call ourselves matters, because it determines how we define ourselves, what we understand ourselves capable of; every word, every label, every identity category has its attendant, often unspoken, rules and regulations, guidelines, boundaries.

If we use different language, playful language, even, to define ourselves, can we call out different parts of ourselves?


An interesting write can be to take 10 minutes, open your notebook, and write down all the identities you (or your character) walk with: mother, daughter, sister, brother, queer, straight, worker, boss, left-handed, trans, man, woman, genderqueer, midwestern, new yorker, survivor… write down as many as you can think of. Notice which ones seem to be at odds with one another, and why that might be. Which ones are most important to your life right now? Which ones have been most important to your life in the past? Are these identities you have chosen, or that you were born with, that someone else determines? Choose one, or more, of these identities, if you want, and write your history with it, write its story: when you knew that you were identified as such, and what it meant. Are there different words for this identity, either communally shared or that you have made up for yourself?

As always, follow your writing wherever it seems to want to go.


Thank you for your broad vision this morning, for the ways you can look around the edges of the boundaries that someone else set for you. Thank you for your resilience and new and playful languaging, for your gorgeous words.

still learning the muscles required

graffiti of silhouette standing beneath a raincloud, and another silhouette offering that person an umbrellaI’m just beginning the first of many re-reads of Annie G. Roger’s A Shining Affliction — I want to tell you about it, but I don’t know if my words are far enough away from the story to really get into the details yet this morning. I can’t do a book report or a review yet, although I’d like to. I do know that it’s re-sparked my curiosity about and interest in Lacanian psychoanalysis (which got fully opened when I first read another of her books, The Unsayable: The hidden language of trauma, a couple of years ago, and has been lingering and touching my terror of it ever since).

this morning I have story after story I want to tell you, and I am too scared and stuck to open my mouth

What are the languagings for that experience? I’m aware of being badly in need of help, and not knowing why anyone would help me, and, while I’m feeling all this, experiencing, too, that self above the self that watches and is curious about it all: where does that certainty of not being help-able, not being worth helping, come from?

I want you to read her work and then talk with me about it — I want to go to where she is and study with her. This feels too exposed, writing this, naming my desire for a teacher. This is all so layered, in a culture that values (the myth of) individualism and sees any request for help as a sign of weakness.

One thing that happens with this book (A Shining Affliction, I mean) for me as a reader and a survivor of trauma and a facilitator of healing/transformative spaces with and for others, is that I’m offered the opportunity to be imperfect, un-cured, incompletely healed, as I move forward in my own work. That it is ok to still be wounded and healing (and doing your work around that wounding, of course) when you are working on holding space for others to do their work. I get stuck around that sometimes: I feel I should be entirely well, fixed — and that, if I’m not, I risk doing harm to others, those in my workshops; no, that, in fact, I am harming them, period. That I am harm. (That’s some old stuff.)

Of course, who, in this culture, is entirely well? And, separate from that, isn’t it true that the “healer” who is aware of and working on hir own stuff is providing more safety for the folks ze works with, because ze is more able to see hir triggers and ‘stuff’ as separate from the other person’s stuff? And we know that the isolation of those who experience trauma contributes to this feeling of being both unsafe and unhelpable. (How’s that for distancing language? I mean to say, the ways I was isolated during my adolescence contribute to this sense of having to do for myself, still learning the muscles required to reach out for help.)

I would like to be more articulate about this this morning, but I have to get ready for work.


What would you like help with? In what areas do you feel unhelpable? Can you write out the help you (or your character) would like, in as much detail as possible?


Thank you for the help you provide to others, and the ways you allow yourself to risk letting other people help you. Thank you thank you for your words.


I wrote this in Monday’s workshop, and it’s the beginning of something longer, I think, about how different words are “charged” differently for each of us… xo, Jen

Yesterday at the bookstore I asked the man behind the counter if they had any books by James Pennebaker.

“I don’t know who that is,” he said.

I waited for him to offer to look the name up, but he didn’t. He was quiet, and for a moment I thought that was going to be the end of the conversation.

Then he said, “What does he write about?”

And so I described how Pennebaker writes about the uses of writing to mitigate the aftereffects of trauma. And the young man behind the counter at this Berkely bookstore said, “Oh, well, I don’t know – but if we had anything like that it would be up in self-help popular psychology – you know, we hear the word ‘trauma’ and we just throw it up there.”

Ok. I’d just spent the last hour scanning all the titles in their relatively (at least by today’s bookstore standards) extensive linguistics, psychology and popular psychology sections, and found no books about the uses of writing as a healing or social change craft or practice or tool. But, here, look – I did find this old standby attitude about trauma: It’s not a terribly serious issue, not really, those whiners, put it there next to the What Color is Your Inner Elephant? and How Your Catbox Can Guide You To Enlightenment. I felt that old internalized shame, to be asking for a book about trauma – just one more white woman looking for the language to my loss? What’s this attitude about the struggle and strain for transformative experience?

I mourn the feeling that these words of my life are the loaded curse words: trauma, incest: not dyke or pornographer. Those latter words have no power over me, carry no tethers to my own shame and still these years later I cringe under the gaze of real academics, real literary pursuers, rel social change workers who aren’t so ‘bound by their past’ or who are able to just ‘let things go, move on.’ This is me, moving on, with these words, sanded against my face always, chapping my lips and cheeks, reminding me where I come from. This boy-man behind the counter worked it out on my bald face, his fear of this word, this one of the many loaded words we all carry, and how the word becomes a crematorium to connection or even meaning if we aren’t truly listening to each other.

Some words that are loaded for me to hear: incestuous, traumatized, raped—especially, I’ll tell you, when those words are not used to refer to people and their actions against the bodies of, or experiences at the hands of, other people, and instead used thus: the women’s community here is so incestuous, you know? Or, The people are just being raped by the banking execs, huh? These images don’t work for me.

A loaded word is one that is too heavy for metaphor.

The loaded words I use that are not triggering or difficult for me any more but might still score an anvil-dropping line across another’s ear are: lesbian, gay, dyke, queer, survivor, rebel, survivor, Black, white, fucking…; I say these words with impunity, I spend them freely, I have earned the right to let them fall off my lips in every day conversation, at the credit union or with my father. The folks I’m talking to are not always so similarly prepared, their ears not exercised or stretched out, their eardrums are tensed still, they are accustomed to these words being laden with anger. But in my world, these words are laden with fear – ok, sometimes, sure – but they are laden also with love.

These are the buckets of cold water we offer one another to drink. Sometimes, we have to say the difficult thing, just because we know there’s another someone nearby, maybe also waiting in that bank line, whose ears are parched from all the silences, from all the years of people not saying the words that are too heavy for some people to hold. True, sometimes those words are going to sound like that cold water just got thrown in our face, our eyes pop open wide and we get that shocked look, like we just woke up – hard.

We wake each other up.

Clouding — visualizing our language

I’m playing a bit with tag and word clouds; being, like so many of us, in love with words themselves, I’m particularly partial to art that incorporates words and written language, so these collections of words feel almost like a graphic to me, being that the context is removed from the content, and I just get to be with the words themselves, with a visual of how often the writer has used those words (larger generally equals more frequently repeated).

I wanted to play around some with a piece I wrote in a workshop several months ago: here’s the tag cloud for this piece that tagcrowd.com gave me:

created at TagCrowd.com

And here is the tagCloud generated on the same piece by wordle.com:

facilitator's gratitude word cloud!

I’m very excited about the creative possibilities here…