Tag Archives: sexual abuse

the fissures will crumble the wall someday

graffiti image of a young white girl in a pink dress frisking a male soldier (who has his hands up against the wall, his back to the girl)The fog has baked off already — it’s just a cottony grey rim along the coast. The birds have finally discovered the feeders I put out a couple of weeks ago, and they’re jockeying for position, seniority, the most seeds.

I watched the movie Spotlight this weekend with my sweetheart’s brother’s family. Her cousin was one of the members of the Spotlight team who investigated and finally brought the story of long-term church cover-up of abuse and pedophilia in the Boston diocese, by Cardinal Law and others. After it was over, my sweetheart said, “Do you think it’s still going on, that sort of covering-up?” Someone else asked another question immediately or made another comment and the conversation went in another direction. I’d sat there in silence for a moment after she asked anyway. I couldn’t imagine that she really believed that maybe it wasn’t just the same all over the world. My immediate answer would have been loud and definitive, maybe discomfortingly so, the way I can get: Of course it’s still going on–in the church, in private homes, in other places of worship, in just about any institution you can imagine in which adults have power over the bodies of others, adults are abusing that power and then pretending like they didn’t do anything wrong or calling the children crazy or engaging in wishful thinking when the children try to tell someone what’s been done to them, or acting like it’s their right to take whatever they want whenever they want, like, say, our troll-in-chief has a habit of doing.

But there was something else that got me thinking after the movie was over. There were people, those higher up at the Globe and those working for or still supporting the church, who were worried about interrupting the work of the church, worried about this story somehow breaking the church in the eyes of the people. But that didn’t happen. Not in Boston, where it was found that some hundreds of priests had been sexually abusing children throughout the city for decades while the church did nothing but move those priests around and try and keep the victims quiet (sometimes, like in the case of Cardinal Law, moving the offending protectors to the Vatican itself), not anywhere else around the world where the church has engaged in systematic despoiling of a community’s or parish’s children.  The church survives, continues with its “work.”

Back in the early 90s, I agonized about whether or not I should go to the authorities about what my stepfather had done to my sister and me. Should I go to the police? Will they even believe me? And what about all his patients? Won’t I be harming them if he’s not allowed to practice anymore? I had the idea that maybe the good he (ostensibly) was doing elsewhere should mean more than the harm he did at home. I was a good victim, and a good woman — I was more worried about the well-being of others, had been well-groomed not just by my stepfather but by a society that trains us to put the good of the many above the good of the few. Sure, we say, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves — but does that really have to undermine his message of equality and democracy??

We’re raised with this kind of cognitive dissonance. We are trained to worry about the well-being of the abusers. We are afraid that maybe something bad will happen to them if we tell about what they did to us. A good friend wrote about this recently — we needn’t worry. The abusers almost always land on their feet, often even in the house of what used to be the president.  No one has stopped watching Woody Allen movies, or Roman fucking Polanski. Feminists aplenty stood with, stand with, Bill Clinton. Plenty of people still go to the Catholic church, still listen to the music of James Brown, John Mayer, still read the books of …

I trail off here and my heart gets thick and watery and I lose track of what I want to say. Do I really mean to say that the abusers always win, so we shouldn’t feel bad for them? Even if we tell. Even if they get held “accountable.” It’s disheartening (um, to say the least) to know that, more often than not, people are going to stand with the abuser, or abusers. It’s the way we are raised as Americans, certainly.

But beyond that, maybe the message I want to hold this morning is that we ought to tell, early and often and loudly. Tell and tell and tell. The abuser is going to tell his(*) side, and plenty of people will stand with him, whether they believe in him or not.

I watch an ex of mine being lauded in a community he claims to have been participating in for nearly a decade (never mind that we were together for part of that time, and he never once went to any event or  gathering of theirs during that time) – he’s being raised up as a leader, turned to for spiritual guidance, given opportunities to lead others during times of great tenderness, fear, vulnerability. In the years since we split up, and of course while we were still together, I was afraid to tell about the difficulties in our relationship. I was ashamed of being under someone’s control the way I was with him, feared his response if he found that I had talked about him or us, and believed that others wouldn’t believe me if I told them what he was like in private or that they wouldn’t care. Just last year, after we’d been apart for more than four years, I shared a tiny piece of our relationship on Facebook after I read an interview in which he claimed that we’d broken up because I couldn’t support his transition to male. I’d been astonished to read this — his transition had had exactly nothing to do with why I finally left him. But even then, all those years later, I was afraid to tell my truth about him. That interview was in the SF Bay Times because he’d been chosen as a grand marshal for the Pride parade. What if someone saw what I wrote and asked him about what I’d said. What if it embarrassed him?!? I was still more worried about him than about myself. And I needn’t have worried. No one asked him about the little bit I shared on Facebook. Nothing stood in the way of him being celebrated as a community leader at the front of our pride parade. He’s doing just fine.

Of course, worry about the well-being of the ones who hurt us isn’t the only consideration when we think about telling our stories of trauma and abuse, but often it’s one piece of our fear. What if we laid that part down?

It’s going to take many, many of us telling, over and over again, for this system that is thousands of years old to begin to change fundamentally, foundationally. And in the meantime, maybe we don’t need to worry so much about the well-being of the people who harmed us. We can tell. We can tell ourselves in private, we can tell our notebooks, we can tell our therapists. We can tell friends, community members, we can write it in poems, into songs, into stories, into memoir, we can tell our own truths, we can tell the truth about our lives. Muriel Rukeyser said the world will split open if we do. I once thought she meant that literally, wanted it to be a literal breaking open, the world coming apart at the seams when women, when all survivors of abuse and trauma and violence and oppression, came forth with the realities of their lives. But it’s a smaller breaking apart — fissures in the facade we are meant to live within, the facade of white supremacy, of male supremacy. Enough little fissures and cracks can bring a wall down. Keep telling in all the many ways that you tell. It makes a difference — in our hearts and bodies, in the bodies of those who hold the truth with us, in the bodies of those yet to be born.


* (I’m using his here in the specific and the general — specifically to mean men, to mean male, understanding that the vast majority of abusers are male-gendered, and in the old way, when he was meant to stand in for all of humankind, understanding that abusers come in all genders.)

turning the inside out: re-viewing our coming out stories

Do you remember what it was like when you first came out? What about what it was like when you had to come out all over again?

(How many different times do we come out in our lives? I’ve come out as queer, as bi, as an incest survivor, as genderqueer, as femme, as gay, as a porn writer… what are the areas identity that we can keep in the closet, or that our communities want us to keep hidden? Aren’t those the parts of ourselves that require outing?)

My dearest Kathleen tells me to remind you that, though you might not know this, I’m gay. It’s June, which means it’s gay pride month (thanks, Stonewall), and I’m living in the greater (supposed) Big Gay Mecca area. I’ve had no plans to participate in much of the plethora of queer events happening this month (like, say, NQAF, Frameline), except maybe for the Dyke March and hopefully the Queer Women of Color Film Festival (which is tremendous and which you should attend for sure!).

I watched Desert Hearts yesterday, for the first time in many, many years, and today I’m remembering what it was like when I was first coming out to myself and into the world. Today I live a life that’s queer at its core and yet not always visibly so. I don’t know if I feel jaded, exactly, but, having been out so long, I feel less drawn to participate in a public performance and proclamation of queerness (or survivorship) on a regular basis.

So why am I so glad that it’s Pride month? I feel a little swell in my belly, that thickening that says excited, says yes, says I get to be with my people. It’s the same feeling I got when I’d drive down to Boston every year for their Pride March, held usually right after graduation festivities in my college town. I’d look at all the other cars going south on I-93 and assume that every single one of them was headed for Boylston Street and the gathering of queers. We couldn’t ever get there fast enough — I wanted to get my body there, in the middle of the queerfolks, on a day when everyone you saw was assumed queer, at least for a few hours. It was a day when we got to be the norm, the regular, the majority. It felt like we took over the whole city, with our rainbows and glitter and feathers and leather and candy and mardi gras beads and streamers and flyers and palm cards and sweat and sex and need. Pride Day turned me inside out, let me wear all my joy on the outside, gave me a public space for what lived around the ache I usually bore.

The story I tell is that gay wasn’t a site of trauma for me; I didn’t struggle over it, didn’t fall into the well of loneliness, didn’t get washed through with shame or guilt. I liked girls; that was nothing compared to the trauma that was my homelife. When people asked what my family thought, I laughed: my queerness is the least of our issues, I’d say. My story was that queer was good and fine, a place of blessing and joy that rose up like a surprise blossom in the middle of the devastation that was my traumatized sexuality.

In Desert Hearts, there’s a scene toward the end of the film, when the two main characters go out to a bar for a meal after the first time they’ve had sex. One woman has been out for awhile, at least to herself, and sort of tacitly to her community; the other woman is only just discovering that she could love a woman, is terrified and exhilarated – she can’t sit still, she fusses whenever her lover looks at her or touches her hand, she alternates between smiling lovingly and appearing to want to crawl under the table.

Watching this, I remembered going out for a (very) late breakfast the afternoon after the first time I slept with a woman — which was also the afternoon after the first time I kissed a woman, after the evening when I first realized that what I’d been doing with this new friend of mine all night wasn’t just teasing, it was flirting. We ordered cafe mocha grandees and waffles loaded with strawberries and whipped cream, and I was certain that we had neon signs over us flashing Lesbian! Lesbian! Lesbian! Every time I lifted my coffee cup to my mouth I could smell on my hands what we’d spent the morning doing. I wouldn’t let her touch me (except when I reached for her hands surreptitiously), and I didn’t want her to flirt — what if people saw us?

And what would they have seen? Two young women, obviously delighting in each other. Maybe they would see new lovers. Maybe they would see good friends. Maybe they wouldn’t see us at all. Our waitress, a tall, rangy, old-school dyke, surely knew who she was serving. We left her a big tip, and I wouldn’t meet her eyes.

Here’s what was true: I was still being abused by my stepfather at the time, even though I was twenty years old and away at college. I wanted to go back to my new friend’s room, climb back into her body, and I wanted to avoid my own room, where my phone lived, and the phone was his mouth, his face, an appendage that could at any moment call out and demand my full attention. I was terrified of him finding out what I’d done, because he would take it away or use it for his own ends. Or both. But I couldn’t tell this woman that — no one knew what my stepfather was doing to my family. This thing that had happened between us became another secret for me to wear.

To this first woman I loved, at least those early days, I must have been just another straight girl freaking out because she’d had sex with a woman. Of course I wanted to keep us secret. They all did. And she did her best (despite my sneaking into her room at night and making all that noise).

In my life, homophobia had the face of my stepfather, a psychotherapist who was raping his daughters and yet had the audacity and authority to demonize homosexual with the standard 1970s DSM story: underdeveloped; domineering mother, absent father; narcissistic; suicidal; selfish, and obsessed with sex and the death drive.

His was the story I had to swim through if I wanted to live — and his was the embodiment of psychoanalytic homophobia. And so I learned to breath that belief even as I was trying to justify sanctify regulate reconcile it with the complicated, beautiful, kind, generous, catty, smart queer-spectrum folks I was beginning to get to know. It was one thing to have internalized the idea that I was narcissistic and selfish, and another to not see that in this community I had found (at least, no more so than in any other group of people).

So, it’s not exactly true to say that my coming out was unfraught. It was actually terrifying, woven as it was into the life I was living as this man’s stepdaughter.We tell and retell our coming out stories; they take on a shape and a structure for us, they organize (as does any narrative) what is a disorganized and explosive/implosive experience. I am grateful to get to revisit my own well-told stories, to reach into and underneath them, to write them again, to find the slippery and scared parts, the parts that haven’t been told yet.

Coming out is ongoing, everpresent. What did coming out look like for you? What does it look like now?

Thank you for the way you continue to look inside the petals of your stories, to find what new life there is to discover there. Thank you for your words.

in the now and also in the Then

graffiti: red heart and the words (faint): the way is in the heart

"the way is in the heart"

(A bit of this morning’s post gets into some specific details around sexual trauma — just be easy with yourselves as you read, ok? xox, -Jen)

It’s a wet Saturday morning here in NorCal — puppy is learning to handle wet feet.

There are things I want to say today about a deep kind of patience, a hollow place called faith that opens in the body and hurts like hell, present and ready to be filled with successes and joys.

There are some stories that feel the most terrible, that ride in us like nausea and hunger, that carry our guilt and shame in stony lodgings all over our body. There is a story I want to tell you. I have told you a little about my first dog, how do I tell this story, I have been trying to understand the overwhelming anxiety I’ve been feeling since first falling in love with our Sophie at the shelter two weeks ago (has it really only been two weeks?). It’s been thick and constant in me, totally out of place for this situation — too much — clearly older than now. Do you know that feeling, the dual-body feeling that happens when you’re triggered, when you’re in the now and also very much in the Then?

My first dog, back in secondary school, she was not my best friend or companion, she was the only one. We would take endless walks around the neighborhood together: It was my escape from the house with my mother and stepfather. I would walk as long as I thought I could get away with, would talk to Katja, and would talk to the air. This was about trying to be free, about getting free, about taking the air back into my lungs — as soon as I walked into the house again, the air got removed, this is no time for the passive voice, he, my mother’s husband, took the air back from my lungs for himself. I’m not sure if that’s a metaphor.  Katja was a solid black lab-husky mix who scared every boyfriend that walked through our front door with her barking. She was barely trained and unspayed, eventually getting pregnant — my mother’s husband said he took the puppies to a farm, and I allow myself to continue to believe that was true. (Every one of these sentences is its own story.) Her coat held most of my tears and many of my wishes, dreams — the ones I would let myself say out loud, I would say to her. I’d wanted a dog my whole life, and now here she was, my heart’s only companion. I distinctly remember a time (when I was home from college, it must have been, maybe freshman year) that he wanted to rape/have sex, and I couldn’t talk my way out of it and Katja was in the room. We were all on the floor. At this time, the room that had been my bedroom through high school was now the business office for our family company — the one that ostensibly paid our way through college — the girls’ bedroom was by then down in the basement, far from where my mother slept. The carpet was light colored, there was computer equipment all around. Katja whined and growled at him — she wanted him off me, like I wanted him off me. I don’t think I told her to stop. I hope I didn’t. My heartbeat didn’t tell her No, like it isn’t now. I want to say that he got up and shut her out of the room, but there’s a good chance he made me do that. What I hold on to is how she held on to my breath, was the growl that I couldn’t make, was part of the body of my resistance.

When I was a sophomore in college, home again on vacation, he demanded that I take her to the pound. She was 8 years old. After my sister and I were both gone from the home, my dog spent nearly her whole life down in the basement, away from any natural light, away from people. He was mad because she was pissing and shitting in the house, mad that she barked, mad that she was a dog and that I loved her.  I lived in the dorms and couldn’t bring her back to school with me. My sister drove me to the animal shelter because at 19 or 20, I still hadn’t been allowed to get my driver’s license yet. The woman at the pound was honest with me, forthright, she’ll have a week here to get adopted. I was trying to keep a straight face, to kill the thing in me that was screaming, that looked at my dog’s face and had to leave her in that fenced concrete horror. I said I understood. I understood. I asked if she thought it was possible that Katja could be adopted. She tried to be kind and clear with me at the same time. In the concrete parking lot, bright sun blaring off ever car and window, I fell apart. My sister tried to comfort me, but there wasn’t any way to comfort the place in me that broke. I’m still wailing there in that place. Just a few months later — fewer than 6, I think — I moved out of the dorms and into an apartment. I repeated to myself and to friends: she could have come with me. I could have brought her here.

There are reasons I haven’t wanted to love another dog, reasons that I’m terrified, reasons to want to do it right. I breathe deep into those ancient aches, that horror of shame that craws still up the inside of my skin, I take her muzzle in my face and apologize and ask forgiveness and ask for help now.

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

There are the old stories that ache to be written and shared, and are terrible to write and share. Is there one you are thinking of now? You can take it in small pieces. 10 minutes, let the words and tears and/or rage come out onto the page, breathe it true, and then let yourself do something completely different — make an amazingly delicious breakfast, take a good hot bath, go for a run, watch a fantastically-terrible movie. This is about positive reinforcement: we can do the hard work, and get rewarded for it.

I am grateful for the ways you carry your history, your old and true loves,  in and on and under your skin, even and especially those you, we, have betrayed. Thank you for their stories, for all of your words.

is it too much? wrangling with trauma memoir

stencil graffiti of a green butterflyGood morning! Bay Area folks, are you soaking up this amazing sunshine? You know how fickle our weather is here — get yourself out in it before it’s gone! Take a notebook, even better, and let the words flow while you sit somewhere outside; let the people, the growing things, the small birds around you be your prompts!

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(A bit of this morning’s post gets into some specific details around sexual trauma — just be easy with yourselves as you read, ok? xox, -Jen)

I want to write a bit about the controversy around a book called Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso, which is a memoir written by a woman about her experience/’relationship’ with a pedophile who began abusing her when she was 7 years old.  I’ve read a number of reviews of this book, including one that calls her a ‘real life Lolita unapologetic for affair‘ (and this article, too, rather than including a photo of the author or her book, includes a photo of a book entitled “the Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure,” which was recently banned by Amazon — what?).

Reviews question whether the author showed good taste in going into as much detail as she did in her scenes portraying her abuse, and they call her a ‘willing victim’ (at 7, or 10, or…). Too, they say there’s no way she could have recalled as much as she did about conversations she had with her father: how could she recollect a whole long diatribe of his, and even remember when he stopped and took a sip of his beer, asks the NPR reviewer. But isn’t this what we do with memoir? Isn’t this the landscape that memoir occupies, the place of truth that is furnished with fiction’s gift of plot development, scene crafting, narrative structure? Do we ask this question of all memoir-ists? I feel this way every time I read a memoir: how could they possibly remember that? It brings me to despair sometimes, thinking that I’ll never be able to write my own memoir or some of my stories, because I don’t remember the specificity of conversation, I can’t remember everything he said, how he said it, what he sounded like when he did. My memories of my adolescence are fuzzier, sometimes devastatingly clear, sometimes ghostly. This author is pulling from her journals, and memoir also, I’m going to venture, gives some leniency around details: yes, it happened this way, or close to it. Memoir is a crafted thing, it’s structured, it’s not autobiography, it’s a work of literature. Memoir rides close to fiction, and we call it memoir, I think, when we are conscious of working to keep most of the work on this side of the line between fact and fiction.

And then there’s the fact that folks have a hard time with the descriptions of the sex, the scenes of abuse. Why would anyone read this book? some reviewers ask. And then I wonder why I’m working at all on some of my writing projects — who will want to read them? The readers ask, why go into so much detail during those sex scenes, those scenes of abuse? Couldn’t we have just gotten the point with some more obfuscation, with metaphor, with hints? Are these scenes the reason that the author is called ‘unapologetic’?

I haven’t read the book, though I will eventually. What I will say is that these scenes, in my own case, are an essential part of the story. They are a part of the making of the character, the narrator, that this memoir is seeking to reveal. We as a society, of course, have this split-personality when it comes to sex in our art: We are fascinated by it and repelled. We understand, intellectually, that people are sexual creatures — but we wonder if it’s really polite to talk about it matter-of-factly. Scenes depicting the realities of sexual violence, in all its forms, particularly in its more insidious forms, the ways it can look like seduction and play, are necessary for us to represent and for us to allow ourselves to read. Sexual violence isn’t always brute force, it often isn’t brute force. It much more often, I think, would look to an outside viewer as though the child/young person/partner being abused was a ‘willing victim.’ If we don’t look at this reality, we as a society don’t change — we, as a society, will continue to make space for more children to be sexually abused, because we won’t want to see how people continue to use sexual manipulation and coercion to their own ends.

Yesterday in my journal I wrote, What sort of rape victim uses a vibrator during her assaults? This one. That’s a terrible line to write, and I feel apologetic even in the middle of it. If I don’t include this caveat, though, I am also the unapologetic victim. In my writing about my own experience of sexual violence, I slip easily and consistently between the language of rape and the language of having sex. I would never have said that he was raping me, when I was a teenager — it took years for me to come to that word as an option for me, because his force wasn’t physical, it was psychological and insidious.

Here’s a line that saved me recently: In Tara Hardy‘s chapbook, Shoulder Strap Slip, in the piece, “Being (This) Femme Means,” she writes: “Being a femme means knowing that just because you’re cumming doesn’t mean you’re not being raped.” That’s it. I closed the book when I read that line, grateful, devastated, seen. I don’t know how Tara felt when she wrote that line, if she felt embarrassed or worried or scared or knowing and sure of herself — I closed the book when I read that line. I was on public transportation, I think. I looked out the window, I said, Yes yes yes, and held something in my heart open to witness.

There are stories we have to tell that many people won’t want to read. That’s ok. There are others who will need to read those stories. This is what I remind myself, when I am feeling the most ashamed in my own work. I need to get back to that work now, for at least a little bit.

They will want to (continue to) make us ashamed for our words. We don’t need to give them our shame by putting down our pens and shutting up, by feeding the part that wants to write the stories down with alcohol or too much food or too much partying or too much facebook. We can give that part of ourselves the gift of 20 minutes or even an hour of writing time, we can open the notebook, offer the pen, say, Here, I love you, we made it, let’s go.

Want to do that now? Take 20 minutes, take your morning coffee break, take your lunchtime, with your notebook and a small part of the story that you most want to tell. The story that’s most important to you, right now, to be able to write. Start with the line, “This is what I wanted to tell  you…” and use it over and over, if you want, even for thirty sentences in a row — it’s ok! Let the raw material out onto the page — that’s the clay you use to craft your literature.

Thank you for your honesty, for the ways you have lied to hold truth safe, for the ways you have saved your good and broken heart, for your gorgeous and necessary words.

use everything

graffiti of a short haired woman raising her fists, next to the words 'Tu ne perds rien pour m'attendre'(Some explicit language of sexual abuse in here: so you know it. Be easy with you. xox, Jen)

He was in my dreams last night (the memory of him, the shadow of reaction and response to him that still lives in my neocortex, my hypothalamus, my frontal lobes and hind brain both the same), but I can’t quite remember what was going on. He was in my bedroom, or I was in his, I had been in the house alone, he’d been kept late at work, at a training. He said, They kept us late, with a kind of wistfulness, like if he’d been there sooner, he could have joined me in my nap, or in the bath, he talked to me like he was my lover, again he was talking to me that way, just now it was in my dreams. The room was soft, full of shadows, afternoon moving into evening and I was going to have to talk my way out of having sex with him — or was it too late for that, and so what was under the surface of his speech was that layer of disappointment that I was supposed to collude with: too bad we didn’t have enough time. I wake up not quite remembering, but just feeling lost, gone, over.

I was in their old house, but all I’m left with now is the oily, gentle, sure way that he’d smiled, like everything about him was greased inside,  like he was butter-soft and kind, like he thought I was stupid, like he thought I had no memory — like I would believe his pooling gentility the way that people in the outside world did. Like I didn’t remember how vicious he could be, like I didn’t remember the names he could call me, like I had forgotten his violence, like I didn’t have that hold on my own consciousness. Because what he wanted was control over my very consciousness — not just body and actions, but how I viewed and engaged with the world.

I want to have more of the dream to hold on to–even though I wake up feeling nausea and foreboding–because it’s material. I mean it when I tell people, about any shitty or frustrating or terrible thing they’re going through (although, sometimes I hold my tongue about it until much later): It’s all material. You can use all of this in your writing, your work.

All of it. The money troubles, the awful housemate, the boyfriend that stalked you, the girlfriend who told lies about you to everyone you knew, the car accident, the abusive parents, the abortion, the recovery, the everything — it’s all yours and you can use it however you want in your work.

So all of my history, like all my experiences: that’s my material, it’s my raw dirt, it’s my topsoil and my seeds and how it grows is by pushing it through these fingers onto the page. And that’s really damn hard work. My conscious self doesn’t always (ever) want those memories back — I’ve spent so many years working to sift myself away from them. The dreams help me remember the details. And now I have two writing projects that ask me to remember, to give those memories and experiences, in varying forms, to other people. I need to be able to show you that gentle-surfaced ominous smile, so that you can feel the foreboding — that’s my job as a writer. I need you to see the worried fold in his pale forehead, dashed with a few stray greying hairs, that looked like he was worried about me but actually indicated the work he was doing to figure out how to convince me to go back into the bed and take my clothes off without having to force me to do so. I need you to hear the strain in his chuckle, the way his moustache would furrow up, the places where his pretense frayed. See him there in his canvas pants and shirt, a big man pretending to be young, cradling books in his arms, moving just slightly in the room, against my movements, so that he blocks the door.

I don’t want my characters to have gone through what I’m understanding that they’ve gone through. And yet, there they are in front of me, asking that I comprehend and communicate their story. Which means pushing back into my own, not because our stories are exactly the same, but because it’s through my own experience that I empathize with theirs, because it’s through my experiences that I have the language for what they’ve gone through, are going through.

And then, after I push this writing out (in different ways for different projects), I treat myself. Today it might be a cardamom-laced decaf from Philz, or a long walk. Sometimes I have to take a long break from the writing, to let myself move through the guilt and shame and pride of being able to tell.

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Writing prompt for today: Let yourself or your characters be dangerous. Read this poem (aloud, if you can) and then write however you are drawn in response. Grab one of the lines, if you’d like; begin with, “I’d like to be a danger,” or “I’m a danger only to…”

I gave this prompt during MedEd Writers last month, and this was my response:

Jocelyn gets tired — some days, just now and again and maybe mostly during the handful of days before she starts to bleed every month — she gets tired of being everyone’s safe space, being the political-minded but nonjudgmental friend, being the one with statistics to explain why one more woman’s inability to save her child from the people harming them isn’t that woman’s fault, being the comforter, the peace-keeper, the mediator — she gets tired of holding the net beneath everyone’s crumbling, being the one with the band-aids in her pocket, the gum in her backpack, an extra 50 cents for the bus, an extra hour to help a coworker process one more weird and drawn-out interpersonal drama.

Her friend Jonas calls and needs her to listen, again, to his telling, again, about one more boy who is walking all over him and borrowing his clothes and money without returning anything, ever — oh, and sleeping with other men even though they said they were being monogamous — it breaks her heart with rage when he calls with these stories.

Jocelyn hears someone (is that her voice?) interrupting to say, “Jonas, what the fuck did you expect?”

Then there’s silence on the line.

“Jo, you told me this exact story, word for word, three months ago, with Tommy, and before that, with Kyle. Mark stole your weed, Jesse wouldn’t ever le you go out alone, David called and texted so often that you had to cancel your service.”

Jonas is still quiet on the other end of the phone, and Jocelyn isn’t entirely sure what the someone in her throat will say next. She opens her mouth and waits a moment. Then it erupts: “You do this over and over and just want me to listen to how bad these boys are to you — but, let’s be honest, I can’t just listen anymore. What’s the common denominator?”

Jonas is holding his breath — Jocelyn checks and sees, yes, he’s still there, the call’s still live.

“Tell him no, Jo, god. Tell him to fuck off. Do something different.” Jocelyn listens to her friend exhale. She holds her breath and waits.

Thank you for your patience, and for the ways you let impatience drive you to take new risks. Thank you for the ways that you care so much, so hard, so fierce for the ones you love. Thank you for your tellings, your honesties, your words.

crime scenes and containers of consciousness

body in gas mask and rubber gloves -- graffitiNote: this morning’s write contains info about my personal sex life, and stuff about incest. Just a heads-up. xox, Jen

I woke up this morning coming.  It keeps repeating in my head, that phrase, those words, over and over. (Maybe I won’t post this, but I still need to write it.  I want to learn to use the computer like I use my notebook, writing without editing, writing just as fast, writing like my heart and life depended on it, writing honest and alongside fear.)

I woke up this morning coming.  I’d been awake not long before that, I think. It was 4:29, realized I could get up if I wanted to, could get up and have even more dark good time here at my writing desk.  But I closed my eyes, also realizing I could sleep more. And what happened then was I woke up with a strange sensation in my body, like something letting lose, something clamping down, something weird.  I didn’t know what it was at first.

I would like to tell you my history with orgasms but it’s an unpleasant one. What I will say is that they’ve grown out of incest, they come up through that soil, even now. Maybe now that earth (and by that I mean my body) is not quite so toxic, orgasms are some levels layers generations removed from the ones I had at 20, those awful tight frantic releases still living inside incest’s –what– its constraints and formations—not like the ones I have now, although still nearly every time I have sex (has there been a time when this hasn’t happened? Do I really get to use that nearly so casually?), I have to wash through some memory, some bodily sense, some understanding of my self, my sexual self, as having been shaped by that time. Maybe I’m reminded by some fantasy that I embedded 20 years ago or more, to save myself. Maybe reminded by an actual memory of him, his physical presence, his face up in my face. Maybe just reminded by my very own smell, the fact of my own body, being, for me, an artifact of incest.  (our bodies being the sites of our trauma, being the crime scenes)

But it’s not like I haven’t had many many (many) consensual orgasms—it’s just that they’re nearly all brought about by my own hand, my agency, my intervention.

So this morning there was the contracting, the restricting, the thing just centralized deep down, no radiating emotion or nerves. That localization is what fooled me: what’s going on? I hadn’t been dreaming about sex. In fact, I’d been having pretty intricate dreams about a couple different groups of friends involved in some sort of criminal activity for which we were now going to be hounded by police—righteous criminal activity, I’m sure—in the last one, at first, I’d thought I’d have to walk home, hundreds of miles, maybe more, then I realized I could take a plane.

I want to say more about the dreams, but they’ve faded, fragmented, shredded enough in my consciousness that I can’t grab them—clouds, you know, like clouds, gone rent in the wind, that high up wind you can’t feel, you can just see its aftereffects

And so this strange early morning orgasm – I realized, maybe partway through (and let’s recognize that it went on, what, some 30 seconds?) what was happening: oh. Oh! And I felt glad, surprised but not shocked, and could sort of just experience it.  Thinking back on it now (though I wasn’t aware of this while it was going on), I was somewhat detached: there was the part of me experiencing these contractions, and the part of me trying to figure out what was going on, and I have a real sense of disconnect about them now, a split. Once I figured out what was going on, I kept on observing for a moment, but then sort of reconnected, came back together, felt my own self.  Felt my whole self. And then I think I slept some more.

The thing is, I don’t come un-manually very often (this is maybe too personal to share – but it feels important to me). I didn’t come with lovers at all for a long time, while my stepfather was still abusing me and after – orgasms were things that I had to do with him.  They were a space of deep dissociation, deep split for me.  A place of just awful disconnect, where I had to both be absolutely be in my body (in order to do this thing, in order to come) and where I worked to be as out of my body as possible (through fantasy, being as fully in some imaginary other people’s experience) at the same time. Coming wasn’t something I wanted to do with my lovers, because I wanted to stay in the room with them.  So I didn’t fake it exactly – I just didn’t do what I had to do to come.  It took a lot of years of reorienting myself, and I don’t want to get into all that here, but what I do want to say is that I did have some self-hate for awhile that the only person I ‘came’ with was the man who was raping me – and so I wanted that to change.

I get it that coming is a physiological process: I get it that it’s kind of mechanical, in terms of this bundle of nerves, stimulated enough, sets off this series of contractions.  I also get it that it’s psychological; our minds are heavily involved. I get it that I have the capacity to come under someone’s ministrations, without having to use my own hands, without doing it myself.  I’ve had that experience maybe five times in my life. It always surprises and sort of unnerves me when it happens, whether it’s in/via a dream or during partner sex. And when it’s with a lover that I experience this non-manual orgasm, this orgasm that I didn’t minister to with my own fingers, that I didn’t have to tend and knead to life (along with help, let’s say, from my lover), I feel proud, out of control, ashamed and dirty, and a great deal of pressure to do it again.  If I could just stop at those first two on the list, maybe it’d be easier to have it happen more often – but the out of control thing is a tough one.  It’s just not something I’m all that happy about in sex.  Being out of control in sex scares the hell out of me, to be honest with you.

So, here’s the sort of erotic writing I’m doing these days – some of the writing I needed to read when I was first coming out as an incest survivor, as someone who wanted to have sex still, have a lot of sex, someone who adored sex-positive folks and who also felt altogether crazy in those communities because those folks just seemed to be having such a good goddamn time all the time and never had any issues with sex, didn’t get triggered or scared or upset—or didn’t talk about how they dealt with those triggers, if they did experience them. And here I was, both sex positive and triggered every single time I had sex.  I find community through books, find shared experience, find a decreased solitude through reading others’ experiences – I wanted to read about other survivors, other people who’d had awful things happen to them via sex, folks who’d found a way through, who’d navigated this stunning(ly) awful road of sex, who’d found ways to survive in their erotic bodies, these crimes scenes that trap us inside and are at the same time the sites of the most extraordinary release, this container of consciousness and joy.

The little orgasm didn’t last that long this morning, a handful of contractions, a sense of awareness and awe that my body had this capacity when there was nothing sexual happening to me: no sex dreams, no nothing (at least that I’m conscious of now). I felt grateful toward my strange body, toward this cunt that really only knows its work, doesn’t know about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ orgasms, just knows about stimulation and response, physiological chains of events. It was a little orgasm, as my orgasms go, and was, too, quite percussive, rippling in its impact. I’m still feeling its aftereffects, still a bit electrified, still grateful and here.

(No) good choices: trauma, media madness and survival

(note: there’s talk of sexual violence in this post, and talk about Oscar Grant’s murder…)

De la Fuerza a la Libertad, Javier AzurdiaI have a standing meeting with my friend, Peggy Simmons (of Green Windows Writing Groups) on Thursdays at 4. We talk by phone, sometimes in person, about how our week is going, what’s happening with workshops or recruiting or connecting with organizations about the possibility of offering workshops (Peggy does amazing work with younger writers at The Beat Within, and with an intergenerational group of writers at her monthly writing group at Rock Paper Scissors in Oakland). It’s a time of peer support and “supervision,” for me, when I can be accountable for the work I’ve said I need/want to do with Writing Ourselves Whole, where I can celebrate successes and process what’s rough.

She texted me at about 3:30 to say that the Mehserle verdict was to be read at 4, so we started talking a bit earlier, just to connect, to hear each other. Peggy had followed the trial closer than I had, I think, and she’s still in Oakland, while I spend last night watching the events on TV and via twitter/facebook from my home in the North Bay, instead of being a part of the energy around Lake Merritt. We didn’t talk about work much, of course. We talked about the media’s consistent drum beat over the last week or so about the threat of riots in Oakland when the verdict was read. Over and over you heard it: Please, everyone, be calm. Be calm. Keep the peace. We don’t want any riots. Meanwhile, OPD was, can we say it, circling the wagons, calling in reinforcements, training for riot control. The Oakland government said, at the same time, that it respected the right of folks to gather, and encouraged people to stay home. Organizing messages that got passed along online said that folks should bring earplugs if they came out for the support rally/speakout/protest after the verdict was read: they’d heard there was a sonic control device that OPD was going to “test out.”

I don’t know about you, but when I’m frustrated, sad, disappointed, hurt, angry, and the only thing someone can say to me is, “Calm down, just calm down. Breathe. Just don’t get upset. Are you upset? Calm down. Take a deep breath. No one wants any trouble. Just relax,” over and over and over (when, in point of fact, I may very well be calm at the same time as I am frustrated, sad, disappointed, hurt, angry), I get a little crazy. I have that double-vision that trauma leaves us with, that looking at myself from the outside (wait, am I acting out of order? I’m just feeling angry! Don’t I have the right to be angry?) while also trying to be in my feelings; I feel the need to reassure the person (“No, no, I’m not upset, I’m ok”), to take care of them instead of attending to and dealing with what I’m feeling. So that the loss, the sorrow, the rage, it’s stuck in me while I’m taking care of the person who’s ready for me to fly off the handle — when at no point was I ready to fly off the handle, until they started with their control that looked, on the surface, like concern or worry for my well-being.

This is what I saw last night, have been reading about for many days: how folks locally and nationally were telling the residents of Oakland that, when the verdict came down, people just needed to be peaceful, just stay peaceful, just don’t start any trouble, just relax, whatever the verdict is. Now, first of all, this left me with a terrible sense that a disappointing verdict was almost pre-ordained; why all this preparation for disaster unless there was some expectation that folks would be reasonably furious? And second, that kind of mollifying speech has a crazy-making effect: no one was thinking about violence until you told me not to think about it, and why do I have to reassure you of my peaceful nature right now, when it’s time for me to mourn?

Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter — which means the jury believed (right?) that he was guilty of killing Oscar Grant, but he didn’t do it on purpose, he made a mistake, he mistook his gun for his taser. There was some gratitude that he was found guilty of anything at all, that a white police officer was found to be guilty of killing an unarmed Black man, as so often they are not found to be guilty, found not to be responsible for their clear and obvious actions. But involuntary manslaughter — it feels like a side-step, a slap on the wrist. It’s saying, even though there’s video evidence showing him holding his taser on the platform before he shot Oscar Grant, we the jury think maybe he just mistook his gun for his taser, which he carried on opposite sides of his person. It’s saying, “shit, we have to find him guilty of something, or the folks in Oakland are going to tear the city down, so here’s this little bit.”

What I saw very little of on the news last night, as reporters in and around downtown Oakland went nuts trying to find something to report on as the people gathered, connected with one another, shared their anger and sorrow at the mic (and the reporters said, “nothing is happening yet,” “no violence as of yet,” “nobody’s throwing things at this point,” “the situation here is very tense,” and the like). The reporters asked folks gathering, “Do you want peace here tonight? What do you think, is that going to happen?” They put their mics into prayer circles. They were aching for some riot to report on.

Sometimes, after the afternoons when I had to sexually satisfy my stepfather, he would pick a fight with me later that night, over dinner, about my schoolwork or some chore that I hadn’t done yet, and I had to sit calmly and discuss this fabricated issue while my rage mounted inside, just built and grew like volcanic flow. He’d ask, “Are you feeling angry?” And I’d have to convince him that I wasn’t — that was the game. There was no way for me to express my rage. My mother had no idea, for instance, what he’d demanded that I do that afternoon, and I was never to mention it in front of her. So I had to pretend to be calm, pretend I was all right, and when I showed any signs of anger or deep hurt, he suddenly wanted to talk about my defensiveness, how I couldn’t take criticism, and so on. My very justifiable anger had no outlet; my work, then, was to either press the rage down and go on mollifying him (for my own safety, and at the sake of my sanity) or explode in fury, hitting and digging at him (for the sake of my sanity) until he physically overpowered me (at the expense of my safety). There were no good choices.

There were no good choices last night, either, at least at the sites where the media was focused. They didn’t spend any time at the community gatherings, the open mics, the circles of support all over the city. They spent time putting their mics in the faces of the gathered at 14th and Broadway, wanting to hear only the “we’re here for a peaceful speakout, we just want peace!” and the “you watch, it’s gonna go down tonight” — as soon as someone started with an analysis of racism, started assessing the media’s pre-planned panic over riots as conspiratorial, the reporter dropped the mic, cut the connection. No one asked why literally hundreds of cops in riot gear were necessary, blocking the city streets and containing the ‘protesters.’

I’ve been ‘contained,’ that way, held by force ‘for my own good.’ What I know is how turned on my stepfather got every time he had to use all his physical strength to restrain me, how much he enjoyed the opportunity. The cops in downtown Oakland got what they and the media had been aching and agitating for: a small riot, some protesters who got arrested.

Folks have a right to their rage and sorrow, and have a right to express that loss. Folks have a right to assemble, a right to question our government’s actions, a right not to make others feel more comfortable. We each of us have a right to the full breadth of our emotions — enormous loss, the joy and possibility of connection in community, and then fear and rage. All of it at the same time. Please don’t tell me to shush, to calm down, to be quieter with my feeling.

Please keep speaking out. Get to the open mics and the speakouts, write out what’s happening in your heart and share it with others, if that feels right to you. Turn off the tv and the media madness, unless you’re using it for your own creative ends. If deep breathing before you spit your slam piece at the mic is what you need, then do it. If what you need is the thick noise of a thousand birds crackling their waking at sunrise, then find that.

The folks in power have few answers — and what they want is to control the dialogue. I know you know this as intimately as I do. We can step away from them, form our own circles, begin again.

We are flawed and magic

So.

I haven’t been doing that well, lately. I’ve been triggered with loss and sorrow and rage. September does this to me a lot, and at the beginning of this September, I was in New Hampshire and Vermont, the very places where I began the break from my stepfather and his extreme control and abuse, back in 1993.

Somehow, this year, while I was driving back and forth on i-89 from Lebanon, past Hanover, to Plainfield, while the sun rose through the thick early-fall fog sweltering over the crevices in the Green Mountains to make it up for the day’s Power of Words offerings, and then back down south (through the nearly indelible dark) to my friend’s apartment for good if abbrevited conversation and sleep, I managed to drive myself right back into the past – right back into that 21 year old convinced both of the world she’d been trained into and convinced that there was nothing left to her future but utter soul-destruction if she didn’t manage to get away from the man who’d decided to turn her family into his harem; when the man she loved had given her an ultimatum (him or me, her boyfriend said, because that was what it looked like), she chose her boyfriend and was (don’t ask me how – it’s still a kind of miracle to me) able to pick up the telephone and speak into her utter terror: you can’t do this to me anymore.

It began a process of extraction. I realized, during those few days earlier this month back in that countryside, back on those roads (filled still with the echoes of all my sobbing, traced still with the fear that he would send someone to destroy me, thick still with the impossible desire that had begun to bubble in me for a new way of living, for women, for change), that I’m still extracting myself from those old horrors.

1993 is 16 years ago. Sixteen years. Sixteen years. Why am I still in this struggle? Why isn’t it done yet?

This was the sort of question I was tormenting myself with over the last month
(alongside the old sorrow, of course, trying to reach back to that 21-year old and let myself finally forgive her, forgive me, for all that she had to do to get to where she could make the break that her mother couldn’t make, her father hadn’t made, no one had stepped in to make for her. I didn’t have to crawl through a river of shit literally, but I sure did have to drag the people I loved more than myself through it)…

What good does it do to ask why you’re not over it yet? What does that question even mean? It’s not actually get-overable, this history. It’s of me now. Right?

When I’m thick in the sludge of shame and possibly-irreparable damage, depression laced with terror, sorrow that my sister and I still struggle so hard to share space, to be in the same room and really look at each other, what difference does it make why I’m not ‘over it’ yet?

And all the while, I’m trying to be functional. Functional. Show up at my day job. Truly ‘show up’ (heart and all) at the workshops, be available to hold space for us as a group of survivors writing, be open (then) to not being perfect at it. I try to show up for my husband…

And otherwise, I slip out through the thread of things. I leave conversations. I don’t return friend phone calls or emails. I leave Facebook alone, as I don’t want to be reminded of all that I’m missing, all that I’m not accomplishing, all that I’m not I’m not I’m not…

My friend asked me, when I was finally able to reach out, as the deep trance started to break and I felt my heart start to reopen again to the now: “Who can talk to you when you’re in that place?”

What? What a fantastic question, I thought, and told her. Most of the time I’m asked, Who can you talk to when you need support – but she reframed it. And I saw that there were people in my life who could meet me in the mire of shame and self-hate, who could speak kindly and gently into the midst of those old voices. And I felt a little less alone.

I’m not fixed yet. It almost feels like a confession I need to make. Now that I’m feeling better, stronger around all those fragments I still hold of me, I remember that most of us aren’t – that for so many of us, there’s no such thing. There’s learning to maneuver anew, with these scars. There’s laughing anyway. There’s learning new arms for self-care, like with the bunches of rosemary carted to every workspace, just to clear the air.

These are the voices of the depression, the old training, when I’m in the thick of it: I question who I think I am, offering writing workshops for sexual trauma survivors – and then, I think it’s unprofessional to reveal how I’m really doing. I think I can’t possibly tell my friends – they’ll think I’m pathetic, they’ll talk about me to other people, they’ll ask if I found a therapist yet.

Please note: No friend has ever responded to my sorrow this way – it’s the learning of that decade without a close friend, a pre-teen girl taken into the lair of a sociopath and trained away from the sort of socialization we’re supposed to get as teenagers, about how to have intimate relationships with people who aren’t sex partners. I only learned to relate to people through sex. It was the only option I had for intimacy outside of abuse, and I took it.

Here from this place back where my peripheral vision is wider (here, where I can see out into the music and mystery of a hawk floating over Market street, above the Flood Building, signaling to me that we’re still here, we’re still full of possibility), I know that it’s ok not to be ‘fixed.’ I know that we’re all struggling in different ways to stay engaged with this thing called humanity — I know it’s ok to be human. Imperfect.

I want to touch that 21-year old I was, hold her hand in the impossibility of her solitude, remind her it’s ok that she’s human: that she needed an ultimatum from a lover to open the door to that previously-unimaginable action, to pick up a phone, shivering, and say, No. Enough. That it’s ok that she couldn’t just choose herself: she had to choose (for) a lover. Of course, at that time, she’d (I’d) been trained into such a devaluing of self that that was the only option—and she took it. We took it. I took it. And I survived.

We do what we have to do. We are flawed and magic. And we survived. And I am sorry and I am grateful.

‘Resurrecting’ survivor voices

One of the pieces of “survivor” identity that I wrangle with is this idea that we must “recover” our voices. I mean the notion that our voices are lost, have been snatched away from us.

The literal truth for most of us is that our voices were always here – and yet swallowing this concept of “lost voice” (en)forces a deep body collusion with the prevailing myths and metaphors of those in power. We internalize the idea that we’re silenced in order, I think, to break free of the reality in fact that we are/were ignored. That there are those who heard what we said, and then just turned their faces away from ours.

I spent years believing that I was silenced, that I had no voice. The fact is that I was unheard–an important distinction. As is true for most kids, I learned not to tell my complete truth while I was growing up, and then, and, like many millions of children around the world, I was trained in secrecy by a stepfather/rapist who took my (en)forced silence as his birthright, and used it as a weapon against me. How do we who are survivors of abuse (sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse) tell our truths in a culture that doesn’t want to really hear people’s words and meanings? We are not heard by abusers who demand a silence they can interpret as “Yes.” We are not heard by a patriarchal, capitalist society that demands our silence so they can overlay our lives with their image of us. We are not heard by a government that usurps women’s tears in order to justify the killing of other women’s sons and daughters.

Sometimes I am left wondering why I should bother trying to communicate at all, when those in power aren’t listening. When I speak, my sentences often come out broken and peculiar, cut off in the middle with long stretches of silence. I stop writing to stare out the window. I stop typing to play with a candle that doesn’t want to stay lit. I stop. That’s their aim.

My aim though, is to start again. After years of internalizing the directives instructing me to be quiet, be quiet, be quiet, I have begun the work of trusting the true power of my voice. I have come to believe in linguistic border-crossing as a means through which to change the world through a renewed sense of speech, voice, self, embodiment, empowerment. One means through which to enact this change is with a writing practice–a regular, repeated experience of coming to aspects of self through writing, through linguistic risk taking; the placing of self and selves on the page; the attempt to name what cannot be named and what we have been told should not be named. I have used this writing practice to struggle with and against the silences imposed on me, silences I’ve been expected to collude with, to put voice and flesh to experiences and desires–both sexual and not–that were never meant to be articulated.

Sometimes it seems we speak into the wind and feel the craziness of unhearing laying across our face and shoulders like a heavy wet blanket. Our government is at war, killing people for no reason other than money and hatred. Here again is the time and place for our writing, through which we can do difficult work. We are a nation of subjected and silenced people. We are a nation of people trained into the difference of others as reason enough to kill them. Millions of people around the world gathered to declare their opposition to a U.S.-led invasion, and the U.S. invaded anyway. Does this mean that those millions all lost their voices? No–they were ignored.

We are a nation raised on our supremacy–the United States of America is the greatest country in the world!–and so many of us believe it even as we see the leaders stripping away our bedsheets and clothes, snatching the food from our and our children’s mouths, tearing down our homes, thieving the books from our children’s hands and tossing it all on the bonfires of their war, tossing it all into their own furnaces; selling our bodies on the open market to the highest or most connected bidder and pocketing the money themselves.

If we don’t tell our stories, others will tell them for us, and they will get them wrong. (I’m not the first one to articulate this fact; who said that?) The stories that others tell for and about you will be used to build policy and pathology, will be used to build houses to hide you in / used to build walls to close around you / will be used to build stories to their own ends / will be used against you. If we do not tell our stories, the stories told about us will be used to our detriment.

Your voice, however it sounds or doesn’t, has always been in you, with you, of you, you. And what happens in the Writing Ourselves Whole workshops, in most Amherst Writers and Artists workshops, is that your words – that relentless creative speech and possibility – are deeply attended to, not pathologized or ensnared in sin or broken down but opened into all it’s matter-of-factness, heard as beauty and majesty or rage, walked through as a garden full of flowers, a pond lily marshside.

Podcast Answers – Day 6: How do the workshops impact survivors?

A couple weeks ago, I committed to posting longer, more well-thought-out answers to the questions that Britt Bravo posed to me during our Arts and Healing Network podcast conversation. Here’s my answer for day six!

6. What has been the impact of the workshops for survivors of sexual abuse?

metal sculpture of phoenix rising from the ashes
I love this question, and it’s a challenge for me to answer: while I can say what’s been my experience, I can talk about what I think happens for some folks sometimes, but I can’t speak for all the survivors I’ve written with. So I’m going to say some things I think about the workshops can impact or have impacted folks who’ve participated (myself included), but I’d love to hear your thoughts, too!

(Note: there’s a little bit of sexual language in this post — just fyi!)


We have our bodies. We have our hands and feet thighs legs arms eyes noses breasts mouths bellies chests butts foreheads fingers lips toes and yes genitals yes cunts and cocks yes they always are of us. Through [this] writing, I open to the world around me. I walk around heavily awake, I smile more amply, I touch the cats on the ledge with my eyes. I am seen and I see. I am witnessed. I am heard. I am differently present. This is the opposite of dissociation. This is the practice of embodiment.


We can change the world this way, through writing deeply and openly—I mean, with this and other practices of knowing and living ourselves into the vast elemental of art. Don’t ever think that our work, the very practice of writing—the very fact of taking the time to sit down with one’s own thoughts, committing them to paper, doing so in community –is not revolutionary. We undermine and examine the old teachings. We take the old language and turn it inside out. We name our hidden truths. We true our hidden names. We crack through the surface of the advertised world and take hold of the reins of our lives. As long as we keep on writing and knowing each other as constantly changing peers in this process, as long as we are free to tell ourselves and our stories however we choose, as long as we play in the memory and myth of the thickness of metaphoric language, as long as we climb into other writers who speak to us and experience their words viscous with reality (whether those words are published in a collection or read aloud in a writing group), we will walk ourselves, together, into freedom.

stones talk: trust, strength, focus Remember the guidelines of the AWA method writing workshops (as developed by Pat Schneider in her book Writing Alone and With Others):
1) Confidentiality: everything shared here stays here;
2) Exercises are suggestions;
3) Reading aloud is optional;
4) Feedback is positive and treats all new writing as fiction.

We build trust in a space in which we hold ourselves and each other in confidence. Writers have the structure and possibility of exercises offered by someone else, and the freedom of interpretation and play. We can then choose to “perform” (read aloud) our new writing, or not. If and when we choose to share what we’ve written, we know we will receive a warm and strong hearing that focuses on the artistry of our words, our language, our imagery. We ourselves aren’t deconstructed, analyzed or pathologized.

 Many writers in these workshops seem to “break open” right from the beginning. And that power is magnificent. We do it because we can and we are ready. We have a kind of “public performance space” that is also private, confidential. The writing room becomes our stage and our quiet bed. We have the assurance of privacy, which allows for the audacity, bravery, and cojones of recital. We come and write because we know someone will be there to hear us, and that we will be able to construct ourselves in the sight of others and yet not be held or tethered to any one permutation of ourselves. Finally, it’s out in the open, and other people are talking about it. No longer do we as individual (so-called) victims have to remain silent: we have a place where we can receive others’ stories, experiences, recovery, struggle, contradiction while offering our own.

In this space, no one has any authority over another in the realm of experience. How I receive a piece of writing is how I receive it, and how you experience it is how you experience it. What we hear and like might be similar or disparate, but any disconnect in our experiences/hearings does not render one or the other more right or better or more important. Also, each person’s interpretation of an exercise is correct. butterfly heart

For survivors, those of us–so many of us, in so many different ways–trained into wrongness, trained into silence, trained into the invisibility of our language: when I say that the workshops are “transformative,” I mean that we create ourselves a space in which to alter how we have come to know ourselves through words. When we tell newly-re-framed stories and we are heard… how can that not empower and open the heart?

This can take awhile to sink in for writers in the workshops. But you know how it is: Over time, and through hard and serious risk, each person learned the primacy and power of their words, their experience, their interpretation, their artistry. It’s revolution. It’s gorgeous.


Now, it’s y’all’s turn: What about for you? Have you participated in this or another AWA-method workshop? What’s been your experience about how survivors can be impacted by this work?