Tag Archives: trauma and language

opening to new stories

Thomas King writes, in The Truth About Stories, “Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous.”

What is a story? It is a rehashing of events, a narrative, an anecdote, a lie, a truth. The dictionary isn’t helping me here, just giving me synonyms. What is a story? It’s a telling or a making up. It’s offering an account of an experience, so someone else can can come to know or understand what happened. It’s a fabrication, a weaving into existence something that wasn’t, that didn’t exist, until we put it into precise words.

 Story is contextual. And who determines a story’s context? “She’s telling stories” is the way some folks call us liars. But we know what truths come from storyteller’s mouths.

 Thomas King also writes, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” He repeats this line throughout his slender book, driving the point home: we create ourselves, we know and understand ourselves, through the stories we tell and/or listen to and believe about ourselves, about those like us, about our communities, society, families, world.

Trauma is a story. Identity is a story. Religion is a story. Sex is a story. The body is a story.

Yes, the body is also bone and tissue, chemical reactions, pulses, electrical leaps. The body is fluid and organ, is emergence and excretion, is breath and heartbeat. The body exists as an object in this precise moment, entirely independent of its context, its historical situation, its experiences. Doesn’t it?

Would this body be what and how it is independent of the stories I have told about it? What is my body without its stories, its histories and herstories? What is yours?

Is my DNA a story? My musculature? What can you learn from the story of my skin, her scars and stretch marks, her stains and curves? What can you read in the complicated interweaving of my neuronal infrastructure (which would be transformed if the stories of my body were transformed)?

We use story every day, throughout the day. When someone asks how we slept, we offer a story of deems and waking. When a friend calls to tell us about her morning, she gives us a story, an anecdote. We tell childhood stories, baby stories, coming out stories, the story of how we met, the story of an illness, the story of our experience of abuse, the story of our recovery. When I ask someone, “Do you know my story?” – I have a particular story in mind. I meant the story of my trauma, most of the time – and this is the story of my body.

Every story is an illumination and an occlusion. Every story highlights one side of a situation while leaving out other information. This is out of necessity. We can’t remember or apprehend every detail of a happening or an experience. We remember what’s important – we tell what we remember and, over time, what we remember is what we’ve told repeatedly. We believe our own stories. We can forget that there are other ways to tell, understand, consider those stories – and each different telling provides a different lens through which to consider ourselves and our experiences.

How we tell our stories matters. The words we use for our stories matters. The metaphors and symbolic language, the imagery – all matter, all influence how we perceive ourselves, our bodies, our physical being, our agency, our history and our possibility.

What stories do you have about yourself and your experience that no longer serve you? What happens when you shift, examine or change the stories you’ve been living with, and by, and through? What happens when you expose yourself to other people’s stories, really listen to them, and consider how they compare to your own?

what if we lived

graffiti: silhouette of a child walking a dog - behind them are enormous bright flowers(some maybe-intense writing about incest this morning — not details of a story, but thinking about how we think about ourselves, the language we use to describe ourselves. In any event, please take care of you — xo, Jen)

Today’s tea is tulsi-anise-nettle-mint. I choose tulsi for the calming, anise for the thick, round taste and the belly comforting, nettle for the cleansing and the bitterness, mint for the sweetness, the quickening sharpness. And, for the first time since moving, the first time this year, likely, I have the window open while I write. 2 candles, the tea-smoke pushing into the light of the flames, and some cool breeze from outside that feels like a good morning.

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This is what I thought about this morning, considering the language of incest & trauma: the idea of soul-murder. The language around incest is this language: he killed the child I was, he murdered my soul. It’s the language of death (and rebirth, sometimes). Death is irrecoverable, it’s an end, it’s finished. And sometimes, during the recovery/healing/growing process, incest feels like that, like having been killed, because we see how the trajectory our lives were on was irrevocably changed, and we can never know who we might have been if this person hadn’t decided to take our life path into their own hands, to intervene on our bodies and minds and understandings and beliefs, to seem to forclose our futures, shut them down, close our eyes to tomorrow. That can feel like a killing: I might have been a happy teenager, I might have been someone with close friends, I might have been able to learn some comfort in my body playing sports or in other physical activity — but you (that abuser/the abusers) took that from me.

Recently, I was telling my therapist that I wanted to get to that light, I wanted to feel it flare, I wanted to get underneath all the layers of self-protective mechanisms and inside walls and fear and shame and self-aggrandizement and loss and sorrow and make some windows so that that flame could burn a bit more brightly. In my inside metaphors, that flame is what: soul? will to live? will to survive? that flame is the fingerprint of a little girl who had to take her life into her own hands. that flame is a closed eyelid of a child who decides to see what she needs to see, but not let out what she wants to keep safe. That flame, the small one deep in my chest, is the self-mothering. That flame is the heat of living. That flame is curiosity about tomorrow, the thing that kept me alive. That flame is what fed my understanding that he couldn’t make the clock stop ticking. That flame is what he could not blow out, no matter his 10 years of trying — and what I couldn’t drown in alcohol, self-loathing, deep shame, cloaking, couldn’t choke out with too much food, couldn’t run away from. That flame is this me still alive. He didn’t kill anything. He didn’t have that much power.

The idea of soul murder is a impactful one. It says to the reader,  These people do terrible things from which their victims never recover — because, as we know, murder victims never recover. It conveys a message to policy makers, and others in all our societies, that have condoned the sexual use of children apparently since the beginning of time: we should think differently about this act of child sexual use. We need people to understand that it’s a really bad thing, so that they start taking action to prevent its continued prevalence, to stop being so silent around the great numbers of people being used sexually against their will or desire.

(The birds just woke up outside.)

The words we use to define ourselves shape how we understand ourselves, in how we can see ourselves. If we as people who have experienced child sexual abuse, and/or other undesired/unconsented-to sexual use, learn from the experts and authorities that our souls were murdered, that has an effect on us — that tells us something, it gives a shape to the enormity we carry, the stuff that has so little language for it, and there’s a relief in that: This awful feeling inside, the emptiness, the thick loss? It’s what was killed. It’s a death we carry around inside our skins.

But: What if our souls weren’t murdered, and it was still an awful, inexcusable, unwelcome, inappropriate, not-at-all-ok thing that was done to us?

There have been times that I have felt, psychically, like I was digging out of a grave. I felt that far down, that far away from humans, that distant, that dead. And I have appreciated, needed, the myth of the phoenix, that which is resurrected from the aftermath of the flames, that which rises up anew. But what if I was never dead? What if he didn’t kill my teenage self? What if I survived without being murdered? What if you did, too? What if my psyche did a tremendous, un-willed job of keeping my inside-light protected and lit? What if yours did to?

I don’t want to take this language from anyone for whom it’s working/necessary/important. I do want expand the way we think about ourselves, about anyone who has experienced sexual violation. The metaphors we use predominantly in our society put shape around our thinking — which means they also put boundaries around that thought. (I first learned about this idea from reading Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff & Johnson — a profoundly important book.) First looking at, becoming aware of, and then (if we choose to) changing the metaphors we use for our situations, our understanding of ourselves, can intensely resituate us in our understanding of our world — resituate what we understand our possibilities to be.

We lived. The flame within us lived.

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A writing idea, for when you have some safe and uninterrupted time — this is one of the few prompts in which I’ll specifically invite you to use the word ‘incest’ or ‘rape’ (as it works best for you), and so please take care of yourself around this one (as with any writing prompt). If you want, check in with someone before starting this write, or think about who you can call/talk to after, if things come up that are triggering or upsetting.

‘Soul murder’ is one way we think about incest/sexual violation. I’m going to invite us to create some other metaphors. let’s take 10 or 15 minutes for this one, after we create the list: number a sheet of paper from 1-7 (you don’t have to do this; I just always liked the numbering part of the spelling test at school.) Write down a list of 7 everyday-type actions: “going to the store” “tying my shoes” (or his shoes, or her shoes). Don’t think too much about each item, just put them down as they come to mind. Then let the phase “Incest is like” or “Rape is like” or “Sexual harassment is like” or “Molestation is like…” go in front of each phrase — say it out loud. It’s ok if they don’t make any immediate sense. Choose one that sounds interesting to you, that catches your writer’s creative attention, that you feel especially curious about, and let that be your starting point: for instance, Sexual harassment is like tying his shoes — ok: what does that mean? Write down your prompt, whichever one you chose, and write it at the top of a new page (or below your list) and start there — it’s ok if your writing isn’t logical, is filled with images and ideas; that’s just right! Write for your 10 or 15 minutes, as fast as you can, as much as possible without editing. Follow your writing wherever it seems to want to go.

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Thank you for all your knowings and reknowings and deep, unlanguaged understandings, and your survival. Thank you for the creative ways you have found to heal and hold you and be present with others. Thank you for your words.