Tag Archives: telling our stories

book snippet: who asks us?

(Good morning, good morning! While I’m away, I wanted to share with you some pieces from my book, Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma, which is coming out next month! I’ll post one of these a week, on Friday mornings. Be easy with you, ok? And please keep writing…)

Cover of Writing Ourselves Whole book, the view of a small island from a wooden deck, you can see the edge of the deck, water, and a green island in the distance. The title reads Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma, Jen Cross.From the section “who asks to hear your story?”:

“What happened to you? What was your childhood like? Want to tell me what brings you in today? How are you doing? Why don’t you like me to touch you there? Why are you so quiet/loud/scared/angry/sad all the time? How come you have so much sex? Why don’t you like surprises? How come you won’t have sex with me? What happened that night? Why don’t you want to talk about it? Do you want to tell me what happened to you?”

To be asked to “tell your story,” one of your core-being stories, is to be asked for a piece of your heart, a chunk of your Real Self. When someone says to me, I want to hear your story, my belly tightens with hope and anxiety. Sharing my history of sexual abuse and how I’ve lived since is a wildly vulnerable act. What if they can’t take it? I worry. What if they can’t really hear me? And, maybe even scarier to consider: What if they can?

Who asks to hear traumas stories—I mean, really hear them? And how long does it take to believe that someone really wants to hear us?
Cops ask some of us. Parents ask. Sometimes a friend will ask. Sometimes lovers ask. Therapists, of course. That’s not very many people. Most of the people we spend our lives around don’t ask and don’t want to know. They want a pop song, a poster, a bumper sticker. They don’t want the sticky sweet rot of our true details. That messes up the cool ocean breeze and gently swaying grasses of their triumphant sunset cinematic fantasies of Everything Is All Better Now.

This sounds cynical. I understand the triumphant sunset cinematic fantasy, of course I do. I carry it, too. It’s a great place to visit, but a hard place to be expected to live.


Of course, a powerful draw of therapy is that someone to listen to our whole story with compassion and empathy and non-judgment (at least, ideally). The bounds of the therapeutic relationship mean that our telling is contained and confined, which we often need.
Consider what it takes for us to unravel our full story for those who share the rest of our lives. What a risk, to allow ourselves to be more fully beheld.

We believe no one will love us if they know who we really are, what we carry, what we’ve done, what’s been done to us—and the more we don’t expose ourselves to those we love, the more certain we are of the old story of our unlovablity.

And then what if they can’t hold it? We are afraid that our stories, that we ourselves, are “too much”—and given that our story has probably frightened or overwhelmed friends, that we’ve had family ignore or discount what we told them, this fear doesn’t arise out of nowhere.

The page asks for your story. In writing, we can be free to say just what we want to say, to tell the story however we want to tell it, without editing ourselves based on how our listener reacts. A workshop participant once described to me a difference she appreciated between a traditional support group and the survivors writing group: in the support group, she spent a lot of the session rehearsing what it was she wanted to say, or editing it based on the group’s energy, so she couldn’t focus well on the folks who shared before her. In our writing group, though, we all wrote together, and when it was time to share, because her story was already crafted, she could give more attention to the other stories being shared in the circle—and trusted that she had the full attention of others in the room as well.

Just because someone has asked for our story doesn’t mean we should tell them, doesn’t mean they can hold us, doesn’t mean they’re safe. We listen to our instincts. We know when someone is interested, really interested, in hearing more, when someone has shut down or slipped into overwhelm. We expand or pull back in, accordingly. We don’t want to slip the sticky heartbeat of our stories into hands that cannot hold them, into ears that have turned to stone—or worse, to negative judgment or disbelief. We employ the skill (likely developed during our abuse) to redirect attention away from ourselves. Sometimes we tell those wrong folks anyway, because we are hopeful and lonely, because we want to believe they’re good for us (no matter what our intuition says), and sometimes because we believe or feel like we have no other choice.
I have had ridiculous responses to my stories. Someone once asked, “Did you like what you did with your sister?” Someone else asked, “Do you think about doing it again when you see her now?” Others have believed that now they understood, after having heard some part of my history, why I was queer, or why I was feminist. Some listeners have cut me off with the sincere appellation “brave,” when what I wanted was to be understood as so much more complicated than that.

What I want to tell is the truth, to burst the bubble of that sunset fantasy. What I want is to download it all so that I don’t have to tell it again, even though I will never stop telling it. What I want is to get it right so that you can see the land I live in and what I look like inside, so that I don’t have to be alone there anymore.

(Thank you for reading, and for your words today…)

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.)

extra:ordinary – the story of a normal girl

(This week, I’m offering my own contribution to the extra:ordinary project (stories of everyday survival and resilience) — what does it mean to have to try and find your way back into a humanity you are afraid doesn’t want you, or that you don’t deserve, after you escape from trauma or violence? How many of us are living that question right now?

Be easy with you as you read; I talk somewhat explicitly about sexual violence and psychological manipulations in this piece.)


The story of a normal girl

It happened again the other day. Over dinner, some friends started talking about their teenage years, sharing sexual coming of age stories.  Normal stuff: how old they were when they first touched themselves or touched someone else, parents who were clueless about who they were fooling around with, what kind of sex they were having and how young. They told the stories of how regular girls try on on these experiences of being grown up – how they learn to flirt or play or shut someone down.

Women bond over these stories: how we negotiated the travails of adolescence, learned to navigate the nuances of adult womanhood, learned to relate to sex, men, boys, our bodies, femininity, other women.

I sipped my tea, quiet, disappearing. I did not participate in the conversation. I never participate in these conversations unless I know I am with other sexual abuse survivors. I listen and wonder. It’s like eavesdropping on people who were raised in another country or maybe on another planet. They speak a foreign language, one I lost the grammar for when I was fifteen years old. I know some of the vocabulary, enough to make it sound like I am a native speaker.

I can pass myself off as one of them for a little while when I need to. It’s not that I don’t have my own stories of awkward early sexual fumblings in the back seats of cars with boys – it’s that behind and around and beneath those fumblings was my stepfather’s mouth, telling me what to do, how far to go, when to stop, and then, after, demanding that I tell him in detail about every erotic encounter so that he could put his hands in his pants at the thought of it.

I had few casual sexual explorings. I learned sex at the hands of my stepfather, who undertook my/our education and indoctrination when I was a young teenager. (At least I had the great good fortune of an unmolested childhood, save for the sexual harassment by strangers and from elementary school classmates, but doesn’t every girl deal with those?)

As a teenager, I understood that my family was different from my classmates’ families. I assumed—as I assumed about the woman friends in conversation the other day—that the other girls in my class did not spend parts of their weekends watching sex films with their stepdad at his psychotherapy office while he encouraged them to masturbate or let him touch them. I assumed other girls weren’t studying oral sex techniques in porn movies, weren’t being instructed to practice on their stepfather’s bodies, weren’t having to pretend to enjoy their stepfather’s oral and digital and genital attentions.

I know now that many of them were being abused, too; not because any of them told me—simply because of statistics.


My stepfather wanted to be the leader of a cult, I think, but he was not charismatic enough to draw throngs of followers to him. He instead preyed on his wives and, in our case, their children. He used the tactics of cult leaders, though: controlling our worldview and cutting off outside contact from family or other influences; using sex as a training device, control mechanism, punishment or “reward” that we were supposed to strive for; sleep deprivation; demanding that we learn and obey his strict rules, then changing the rules without warning and punishing us for not knowing the new rules; indoctrinating us into the behaviors and beliefs he said would help us to evolve to a higher state of consciousness while flouting those rules whenever he wanted to. (When I read through this checklist of cult characteristics, every single one is familiar to me.) He trained my sister and I to bring other followers/victims to him – I succumbed to that training. The person I brought him got away, though not unscathed. I got away, too, not long after. It took me about ten years to really believe that I was not a rapist or perpetrator, and that I deserved to be alive.


As I got older, into high school and college, the disconnect between my real self (who I was at home with my stepdad) and the self I pretended to be out in the world became an unbridgeable crevasse. I had to work harder and harder to look like someone normal, given what was expected of me when I got home after school and on the weekends and, later, on breaks from college. I felt wholly separated from everyone else I knew, even after I got away, even after I began to connect with other survivors, even after I learned how common, how normal, the experience of sexual abuse is.

I know now that this experience of disconnect from other people, this profound isolation and sense of monstrousness, is also normal.


I broke away, finally, from my stepdad’s control at the age of 21. I lived under his control and domination until I was a senior at Dartmouth College, an ostensibly smart, supposedly take-no-shit college girl. How many victims do you know who have phone sex with their rapists? I certainly didn’t know any. How could I call myself a victim when I had an orgasm every time he raped me – because he would not stop until I did? How could I call myself a victim when I had to say “yes” every time he “asked’ if I wanted to have sex? How could I call myself a victim if I had convinced others to do what he wanted them to do, if I acted as his mouth and hands, if I’d become his emissary, puppet, and clone?

And if I couldn’t claim victim, how could I call myself survivor?


For me, it has been a manifestation of resilience that I stayed alive and wanted to have any relationships with anyone else at all, ever. I had every reason not to want to be around people, build relationships, be expected to trust others. I let myself not have those relationships for awhile. And then, when I found the loneliness too much to bear, I started to teach myself, and let other people teach me, how to be in human company.

 If I’d participated authentically in that casual conversation a few days ago about sexual “explorations,” I would have said something like this:

I first got to third base with my stepdad when I was in 8th grade, or before, maybe, I can’t remember.”


Yeah, we didn’t have instagram or digital selfies when I was a kid, but my stepdad had his Polaroid that he used to document me and my sister, and that worked just fine for him to record our naked bodies.”

For me to participate in these conversation is to introduce the story of trauma into what was supposed to be something sweet and light and fun. My story comes in like an anvil. Sometimes I choose to drop the anvil in, though, because keeping silent just reminds me of all those years I acted like a regular, non-molested girl.

Sometimes folks are uncomfortable when I share these stories. More often than not, though, it’s an opening for others to share their own secreted-away stories of violation and violence, an invitation to break the silence. And I remember—I realize, all over again—that I was regular — just your normal, average, sexually-traumatized girl who has had to refind her place in human community.


I want you to imagine with me what it would take for a 21-year old young woman, who has been controlled and manipulated since she was 12 or younger, to decide that she deserves to be free. She lives across the country from the place where she grew up. Even after leaving home, she continues to obey to every one of her stepfather’s demands. She tells him everything she does. He has convinced her that he can read her thoughts and that he has spies watching her—he already knows what she’s doing and so it will behoove her to come clean, to prove she is trustworthy. He has convinced her that he will kill her and anyone she loves if she attempts to leave him. She is smart, naive, brainwashed, and terrified. She tells no one about her life, about the things her stepdad makes her do, about how afraid she is that he will make her do these things for the rest of her life. She has relationships with young men her age; her stepfather wants to hear the details of their sexual encounters. When he is bored with them, or when he thinks she and the boy have grown too close, he will demand that she break up with him.

Forget getting free. I want you to imagine what it would take for her to get up in the morning and decide to go to class.

This is a girl, I would say now, who fucking well deserved to go dancing, who sure as hell deserved to get drunk. Those were two of the practices that saved me, that got me through. Other practices include (but are not limited to!): endless hours of writing, taking care of pets, therapy (eventually), lots of crying, long and meandering walks, getting involved in work that was of service to others and politically relevant, eating too much, isolating, getting overly involved in organizing work, fantasizing, reading, having sex, and playing around with BDSM.

Imagine that girl who was 21 went dancing in jeans and a tank top, flannel shirt tied around her waist. Imagine she suddenly wasn’t trying to be anybody’s video vixen, she learned to bounce, spin, and sweat. I mean, sweat. This girl—who developed asthma at 10 years old, who was divested of her physical agency, who stopped doing all sports, who had stopped moving except when and how her stepfather told her to—she remembered how to sweat.

Imagine it’s 1993 and “Everybody’s Free!” is pounding through the flashing lights and the awfulness from the smoke machine and she is drenched. She is not yet free but she is dancing, and her body is sweating,  teaching her how to get free. Her body is teaching her. Soon, she will listen to her body, and she will walk away. She will not be afraid to die. She will not die. She will get free.

That is her resilience, dripping shimmering her face, dripping over her neck and down her back. That, there, what you said girls aren’t supposed to do: that’s her resilience.

extra:ordinary – the cracks are filled with hard culled gold

(This week’s contribution to the extra:ordinary project (stories of everyday resilience and survival) comes from Jenni M. In her piece, Jenni gives us insight into what it’s like to be a child of a military family, as well as another side of military abuse. So many thanks, Jenni, for your fierce words of survival, recovery, vulnerability and strength.)

The military is wide-open space for children being abused. It’s already Government-sanctioned and employs people specifically  to be violent, and for the military-raised children, there is no protection, as the military keeps its own secrets. I am a military brat and I learned early on that child abuse was something to be hushed up, not told about, and never reported. I learned this when my best friend came to school with bruises on her  face and I told my own parents, one who was a  dad doctor and one mom teacher, about what I saw and they said, that’s a family problem we don’t  get involved. They would be legally mandated to report the abuse then, and now, yet no matter what physical signs there were on my friend that they would physically see, they never reported anything as it was well known that the offender would just get a talking to by his commander and then he  would go home and beat his family more for causing problems within a military career. This saturated me to the bigger realization that whatever was happening in our own household, this was of no consequence to anyone else either. And there was a lot going on.

I survived my parents craziness, their divorce, their hostility, anger, inability to communicate, and then I became a teenager, then was quickly sexualized by society and my mother.

My mother was  then remarried. This man that came into her life quickly then started grooming me to accept his inappropriate advances and tell no one. I was already conditioned  not to say anything as my previous experience saying the truth only brought me trouble and never the other person to consequence. He would push me against the wall, even before he married my mother, while we were both drunk and drunkenly kiss me. I felt that as a 17-year-old  I had a right to drink as I was so European, but now I realize I was just a young  alcoholic. I also was taught that when people drink things happen and it doesn’t really matter because you’re drunk.

The night before he married my mother, he followed  me into my 17-year-old bed single, the only male ever in my bedroom until that moment, he lying next to me  masturbated until he came on me. My mom outside and my aunts who can come for the wedding the next day were just 20 feet away on the sunken patio.  I was in the room just inside on the first floor with the window half-raised above the  patio. No one could see in as I tried to pretend I was asleep. I still hear my mom and my aunt’s voices  in the back talking about the next day and they were drunk also, it’s a family trait.

I had never been taught that I could say no to any adult touching me. Stating boundaries was considered rude and I was taught I should politely just extricate myself from the situation as that’s what Nice girls do. This would’ve worked except he was drunk and I was drunk and my mother was outside and I was frozen as the circumstances themselves were so Otherworldly.

The next day at the wedding I just remember getting more and more drunk. I knew this man was trouble but I knew no one would believe me. And when I did finally tell my mom many many years later that was proved to be right.
He had mean eyes. I would see him drunk and he would do things right in front of my mom to say that this is his household and that we were his domain. Pushing me against hot burning radiators and I would beg  my mom make him stop and she would tell me to not make a fuss, not cause a scene. Her exact statement were I was embarrassing HER at a restaurant. I started having panic attacks whenever I visited her in Turkey, where she lived at that time with him. She was the main breadwinner as a Department of Defense civilian, completely financially independent from him easily, as he had a job as an ESL teacher at a language school but the inequality of income he constantly took out his  frustrations  in mean drunken verbal assaults against her and me. He started physically abusing her and she politely put up with that for a few years, as for her having a second failed marriage was worse than being physically abused until one point he started having affairs with her friends that was for her enough, and it was public, something she would not tolerate.

She left him and I thought this moment would be the time to tell her about what he did to me. I never wanted to say that their marriage broke up because of what he did to me as it was my shame. I felt that wasn’t enough of an assault. But I look back now and see that the  sexual grooming, inappropriate touching, sexual assaults and violence and verbal assaults was abuse.

I survived this time by drinking, blacking out and being on the merry-go-round of “what I did last night drunk ” that was shame ridden, blackout unknown. My alcoholism was very distracting  and time-consuming, yet socially sanctioned by my family. I mired myself in this instead of what happened earlier in life that made me not want to remember or feel my present feelings.

I remember telling my mom after I believe she left him for the last time, and her telling me that it wasn’t that bad and I should’ve said something that night and that, meanly and mainly, I was just imagining it. She also mentioned that I was drunk too so I was also responsible. He was 40 and I was 17.

I now live in the present, I stopped drinking at 26  and started going to therapy all the time. I had a few suicide attempts. Made the rounds of psychiatric hospitals and psychiatric meds, hoping that these doctors knowledge would somehow make these horrible feelings go away.

This went on for a few years and realized that I had to be my own savior. There was no white knight, there is no magic pill, there’s  only the hard work of tears, and anger, group therapy, individual therapy, acupuncture and yoga. And writing.

I  confronted my mom about what he did and she still does not really believe me, She says “words,” these words that make these  sentences. “It was 27 years ago can’t you stop blabbing about it.” But it wasn’t 26 years ago because he still is my mom’s Facebook friend until last year,  six years ago he called in the middle of the night, knowing I was at her house, threatening to kill himself. He still had her number across all these  continents and years. Five years ago he asked to be my Facebook friend finding me under my fake name  looking at pictures under my mom’s Facebook contacts.

I survived both of them, Yet the cost has been very high. I don’t really trust that when I am in distress  or physically in danger that anyone will respond.  I distrust being around people who have had a drink  who are not even alcoholic. The relationship I have with my momster  as I call her is one fraught with anger. She has never accepted  any responsibility for her part in this monster man, and  she felt the need to be Facebook friends with him until I told her that she could have one relationship either him or me. She unfriended him on Facebook in a magnanimous effort of redundancy.

She  has remarried someone with the same mean drunk eyes and demeanor and wonders why I don’t want to visit when he is there or  demand the need for locked doors.

In her mind even today I am over-sensitive and dramatic, she devaluing every emotion that she does not find acceptable, and the only emotions she finds acceptable are pleasant, kind, and polite. The stabbing jobs of womanhood and the expectations that follow.

I have survived, I have two cats, I’ve traveled around the world knowing that as long as I don’t drink (13 years and counting ), I can have great boundaries, see danger, remove myself.  Trusting  my intuition, knowing that the end of the day I keep myself  safe and sane and no one else can do that for me. I completely endeavor myself to the world  of books, movies, crafts,  and photography. I have a wonderfully close friends for over 20 years who help me laugh ,see the absolute absurdity in my past , travel to far-flung places with me, who have seen the arc of my alcoholism my psychiatric destabilizations and my fractures of self  and still love me and support me. I am one that is not exactly whole but the cracks are filled with  hard culled gold and the broken is  continually accepted  by me alone as whole.

(Much gratitude to you, Jenni, for this powerful piece!)