Note: this morning’s write contains some specific language around sexual violence. Just a heads-up. xox, Jen
Sit down here like you’re sitting in front of a page.
Maybe I’m feeling a little bit better. Maybe things don’t look so bleak. Maybe things are opening up. I’ve been reading, rereading, the old books — Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, right now, then before that it was A. Manette Ansay’s Sister and before that it was the Vachss book and before that? What did I just finish? Skimming through Joe Jones and maybe next Danzy Senna’s Caucasia (again, again) — all books having to do with family, with chosen versus blood, with paying close attention, listening to your heart and trusting it, and having to keep on walking into and with life while you’re learning to do that.
What else? I don’t want to be typing or writing at all this morning. I slept in a little, and now I just want to be with my spiced coffee and the rest of my book. It’s nearing its conclusion, and who cares if I’ve read it before: the author builds a powerful story, good suspense, characters I almost want to be, to say nothing of caring about them, so I want to be with them in their story, even as it moves into and through the hard places. Even those — books have been some of my truest lifelong companions, for better or for worse, and the characters I’ve lived with and through and into have modeled for me how I might navigate my own tough stuff — so now I’m with Mama Day, and even though those characters’ lives resemble nothing like mine now, there’s still some powerful magic in being with history, with the story of a family that goes back loving for several generations, and a character who can feel all that solid rooting in time and place.
Here’s what I want: someone who can tell that story for us who are survivors of horror: of sexual violation, of physical abuse, of mental torture, of emotional manipulation, of captivity — for those of us who have had our ties with our own blood severed, or/and who have wished to scrape out of our veins the rest that flowed in us: not suicidal, but wanting to be free of that history, that connection. Who are we then, without those roots? We know we’re not the first generation of survivors, we’re not the first generation whose parents/caregivers/spouses thought we were worthy of abuse: our lineage is in that truth. In the mouths of the ones who came before us. In the whispers and models of resilience: I mean, in the slow ways we learned to keep little pieces of ourselves safe, even if no one told us directly. That’s bone memory, something in these awful cells that knows something about staying alive and keeping bits of oneself whole in the process.
We are of our own blood, it’s true, and/but we are also of that other, larger family, the family that can never gather for a reunion, that sometimes averts its eyes from strangers or looks boldly into your curious face, the family of truth-veined human beings who made it through something horrible, only to have to live the rest of their lives
Maybe its true for almost all of us. Maybe everyone reading knows what I’m talking about. Maybe for most of us, childhood is a torture.
So I’m trying to listen for the voices of before, while I figure out how to move forward now. What does it mean to keep on living when your parents have set you down? I mean that for the small babies found in dumpsters, and I mean that for the children, the teenagers, whose parents would rather kick them out into the street, into the arms of new horror, rather than have a homosexual child in their home; and I mean that for the mothers who hold a child’s hand while the father is raping her. My mother did not hold my hand, and I wonder if it could have been comforting — and I’ll tell you this: in the world that my stepfather constructed, and that we each of us in that house, had to live within, yes: her holding my hand would have been a secondary comfort. And then I would have been worried about how I was going to get in trouble for her having comforted me.
This is awful morning writing. Who wants to read this? And what I meant to talk about was being triggered, walking around with this feeling like my skin isn’t just off, it’s fragmented — that I’ve become several — while I try to figure out what “reality” to pay attention to: my partner’s, my father’s, my friend’s, my sister’s, my own? How could I have a reality of my own, somehow separate from these others? But I’ve been brought back, full-bodied, into that year I was separating from my family: over and over having to convince my stepfather that I wasn’t coming home again, using his language to say no (telling him I understood that I wasn’t evolved enough for his relationship with me as it stood now, that I just wanted to end the sexual part of our relationship); and then, having conversations with my mother and sister that seemed like they were robots, they were working so hard to stay on message, as we’d all been trained; and in my most secretive places, alone in the bookstore, or in a dusty corner of the library stacks or in my notebook at a cafe, I weighed a new understanding of the word incest, and I listened to the voices and the stories of the people who had come before me, and I let them introduce me to their understanding of that word: I felt myself fragmenting. All the ways I had come to understand myself were unordering themselves, and I had to figure out what was really me, and what was someone else’s design/desire.
Rachel Naomi Remen, at the Writing as a Healing Art workshop earlier this summer, talked about stories being able to accompany people into their darkest places. The story that you tell about how you survived, whether it’s surviving a fucked-up supervisor at your job, harassment and torment at school, sexual abuse at home, those stories will accompany those who hear them, and you won’t ever know the good work those stories can do. What happens, for me as a listener as I receive those stories, is a kind of opening into possibility: look how ze did that. Maybe I could do that, too. Or, wait, I never thought about that as a kind of surviving — didn’t I do that, too? I get the chance to revisit my own narrative, reconsider the parts I’ve labeled cowardice, betrayal, isolation, lack of strength, and call them by new names: strategy.
I guess what I’m saying is that I need your stories, still, always. As much as I need, still, to figure out my own. It’s an ongoing calculus, this life. I’m so grateful I don’t have to be all alone in my head all the time. Your stories are there with me, painful, some, yes: but singing. Thank you –