the power and challenge of affinity

This morning the dark is full and lush around me, and I lean into the words for support and surprise. Almost time for a tea run– Berkeley Bowl, here I come. The sleep still sits heavy in my eyes, and I could easily fall back into the dreamtime architecture of airplanes and travel and solidarity. My dreams have shifted recently: instead of just hanging out at the airports, suddenly I’m on the planes, in the car, on the way to a someplace. The dream itself is about the journey, though, the people, the relationships. It’s all supposed to be about the journey, isn’t it? How to let it be true even if it is cliche?

Last week, I found a comment in response to a post about my upcoming Fall writing workshops, specifically in response to Write Whole: Survivors Write. The commenter was curious as to what “woman survivors” meant and why the workshop was restricted to that group of folks. (Write Whole is open to all people who identify as women and identify as survivors of sexual trauma.)

Here’s what’s true: I believe in, have borne witness to and have experienced the power and use of affinity spaces. I have also facilitated mixed survivor groups, with folks of different genders and survivor experiences, and witnessed profound community and artistry emerge.

We many of us have times in our lives when we want to be around those who speak our language, whose life experiences bear close resemblance to our own in one way or another, who we don’t have to educate about a particularly tender aspect of ourselves. When I talk with women who are joining the Write Whole workshop, I describe how it is that though we all come together with unique, individual experiences of trauma, we also come into the room with a shared understanding of what it means to be socialized as “woman” when we have also been sexually violated, by a family member, by someone we love, and/or by strangers. It’s rather like the water level is raised in the room, and we can begin our writing together from that place, trusting/believing that the witness we will receive from one another is heightened, can carry us further.

This does not meant that there aren’t misunderstandings in the room, nor that our experiences of trauma haven’t been shaped by our other identities and life experiences, but that we have the space to push into our particular stories, the stories we are ready to write, without having to worry that the other writers are going to get hung up on the subject matter of trauma and not be able to meet our writing as craft. I’ve heard from many writers in the Write Whole group that when they wrote in other workshops about experiences of trauma, the feedback that they got back from the other writers in the room was focused on how brave they were, as writers, to tell that particular story — period — when what they were hoping for was some deeper feedback about how the voice or craft of the piece worked, say; a more writing-focused response.

It’s absolutely true that each person writing about trauma is brave (as it’s true that most of us sitting down to write anything are brave!) — but at some point we want our listeners to be able to meet our work as something more complicated than brave. We deserve to be met as creative beings who are survivors of sexual violence, to allow some other aspect of our identities to be forefronted, to not have to be “the trauma girl” in the room.

Of course, just because we are all ‘women survivors’ doesn’t mean we necessarily understand everything about each other!/ We are not any of us the same, those writers who participate in Write Whole workshops– we continue to learn and grow and have our stereotypes and expectations challenged. Women from different backgrounds, who are writing about different sorts of violences, tell their particular stories. My story of/experience as a middle-class white midwestern girl who was getting raped in the 80s by a social-climbing therapist stepfather isn’t the same as the same as any other writer in the room — and through writing into our individual stories, into our particular experiences, we teach one another the craft of storytelling, we learn the universal power of specific detail, we write away from the cliched stories and into what’s true.

Here’s what’s also true: affinity groups can be coddling spaces, can be codifying spaces — we can come to believe that our collective story is the story of our “community,” and that, in the case of Write Whole, the story of sexual violence has a “woman’s” body; many of us also have specific ideas about what woman’s body means. Affinity groups are necessarily exclusionary, and require gate-keeping: who decides who fits with the identity we’re gathering around? We can begin to police the borders of “our” group, police who fits and who doesn’t, walling ourselves in. In our circling in, we are turning our backs to others. In our healing time, we are disallowing some questions, some experiences, some voices.

I have facilitated mixed-gender trauma survivors workshops and have been profoundly moved by the similarity of experience shared by the writers in the room, those gendered male, those gendered female, those with multiple and varying gender expressions. This was one of the important goals of the early erotic writing workshops as well: I wanted to gather folks together across identities and allow us to enter into more complicated conversations about sexuality and desire, to be able to discover the surprising places of similarity, of the affinity we might find with someone who, on the surface, appears completely different from us and with whom we assume we would have nothing in common — particularly around sex! This dismantling of society-driven stereotypes opens us to one another, opens us to the deeper complexity of our human experience, allows us to bear truer witness to one another and hold a more authentic community.

I believe that both affinity spaces and mixed-community spaces are necessary and powerful for each of us — and important, too, to notice if we are always or only drawn to one or the other. Do we, or our characters, only spend time with people “like us” or different from us?

A thinking / prompt for today: Have you needed/used affinity space? For what aspect of yourself/-ves? During what time in your life? What was your experience in that/those communities? What got nurtured, and what got ignored? Give yourself ten or fifteen minutes to dive into this today, and follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

Thank you for your tenderness with all your different selves today, with those parts that find community and those parts that haven’t yet. Thank you for your whole and necessary words.


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