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What I know about rape and incest and sexual abuse

March 27, 2013

I’ve read countless articles about the Steubenville rape case. I’m disgusted by it all. By how dismissively the media has treated the girl who was raped. By how more attention has been placed on the lives of the rapists who knew what the fuck they were doing when they did it. I don’t care if they are just boys. I don’t care that they destroyed their own lives. I don’t care about their damn football team. I care about that girl who is reliving that shame over and over every time she turns on the fucking television.

I was horrified when I heard of the 23-year-old female physio-therapy intern who was gang raped on a bus in India this past December. She died a few days after the attack. I lit a candle for her today.

This morning, when I read the story of the four-year-old who was repeatedly raped for four hours in outer Delhi, I held my baby girl close and prayed. Dios mio, save us from ourselves.

I’ve read the scathing articles rightfully bashing Rick Ross for his date rape lines in a rap song: “Put molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it / I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.” Rick Ross, you’re an asshole.

Recently, while commuting to Hunter College to my Writing Our Lives workshop, I heard a teenage boy tell another, “I saved a woman from being raped last night.” “How?” his friend asked, obviously amazed. “I convinced her.” They both howled with laughter. I was stunned & disgusted. When I mentioned it in class, a student, a female, defended them, said they were looking for “shock value,” for a reaction. I was appalled. This behavior is dangerous & defending or downplaying it adds to the problem. Rape is not a joking matter. Ever.

Rape culture is alive and rampant in this country and across the world. If recent headlines haven’t demonstrated this, I don’t know what will. But I’m not writing this to talk about the ills of society. I’m writing to talk about what I know about rape. What I learned about it in my life. In my family.

* * *

Maybe this is the beginning of madness…
Forgive me for what I am saying
Read it—quietly, quietly.
~Osip Mandelstam

* * *

My brother Carlos knows what I’m writing and he knows why. But as I was writing this, I heard him talking to grandma and asked him to take a walk with me. I was shaking. I still am. I needed him to give me permission.

He’d mentioned it earlier in the day when we went to the supermarket to buy carrots for the cole slaw grandma was making, and a salad for me. “You’re not playing with this diet, huh?” “Nah, you know how I am.” “Yeah, when you set your mind to something, you do it. You’ve always been like that.” We reminisced about our childhood. On how close we were.

We were crossing the street when he said it. Randomly. Out of nowhere. Like he felt my energy. Like he knew it’s been on my mind. Clawing at me. What’s got me caught in the third chapter of my memoir. What I’ve felt moving, like a current under my feet, like corriente, electricidad, readying me to keep going. To put the stories together. Final stretch. But sometimes life has to happen for the stories to take shape, to coalesce.

“I can’t believe mom got raped, V.” I stopped mid-step. We were in the middle of the street. He grabbed my arm and pushed me forward. Soft like he always did when we were kids. Like he still does when he’s sober.

Mom hadn’t been here a year when it happened. She arrived from Honduras on January 1, 1971. I only know that because my brother told me today. There’s so much my family doesn’t talk about. So much that’s never said. De esas cosas no se hablan. But it’s held us by the throat for 40 years. Like a heavy towel on my face, suffocating me. Y todavia, d’eso no se habla.

Until now…

Mom was all of 16 when she came to the US. Rail thin. Long hair. High cheekbones. Full red lips. All Mayan indigena blood. And beautiful. Allegedly she was a contestant in a Miss Honduras contest. That’s how stunning she was. Grandma said mom was el ejemplo of where las Americas went right; the dique perfect blend of sangre indigena y europea because she wasn’t too dark and you could run a brush through her hair.

Mom was strong willed but quiet most of the time. She came knowing only a few words of English. And she resented having to leave her abuelita who taught her to braid her hair, schooled her cuando le bajo el chinto, telling her now that she had to stay away from boys because all they brought was swollen bellies y sufrimiento.

Mom never had an enamorado before. She had no time for such things. She had to care for her sister who was eight years younger. She had to help make the tortillas and frijoles in the morning, sweep the patio, lavar la ropa by slapping and scrubbing it on rocks by the edge of the Cangrejal River. And, she had to go to school. Girls grew up fast in that world. They had to take on adult responsibilities while the adults looked for food and work. So, mom had no time for amores. Yes, she may have giggled at a boy’s advances. She may have shared a sidelong glance, but she’d never been kissed, never been touched. This is how I imagine her.

My mom and aunt traveled to the U.S. alone. They dismounted the plane and looked around the airport, so clean and modern compared to what they’d left behind in La Ceiba. They stared at the stores that lined the pathway, the shiny marble floor, the huge ads on the walls. Then she heard her mother, a voice she’d never forgotten though the facial features had grown fuzzy over the years. “Mira, ahí estan.” She met eyes with her mother’s husband, looking down at her from the mezzanine. She saw the fresco sucio descara’o climb into his eyeballs.

Grandma was living with Mario, the father of her then months old son. She worked nights en la factoria she’d been working in since she arrived to mainland America. This was how she put food on the table and sent money back home. This same job helped her bring her daughters to this land of opportunity.

While grandma was at work, mom was left to care for her stepfather, to handle the “wife” duties of feeding him, washing his clothes, taking care of his son. It wasn’t long before Mario started leaning in too close. Mom caught him watching her hips sway or staring down her cleavage when she served him coffee. She swallowed hard and ran off.

Mario’s missing his wife’s affections. They don’t see eachother much. He works days. She works nights. And when she’s home, she’s caring for the baby and these two daughters she just brought over. The ones she cried over, sending them money and barrels of gifts, then mortificandose when they didn’t arrive.

Grandma’s so naïve. She’s folding clothes when mom walks over. She needs her mother to help her zip her dress. She can’t reach it. The zipper goes all the way down her back so you can see the top of her panties. Grandma doesn’t even look up from the pile. “Dile a Mario que te ayude.” She didn’t think him capaz.

Days later, he gets home while mom is cooking dinner. She’s wearing a nightgown, nothing revealing. She’s still new to the ways of this country. Still has Honduran soil under her fingernails.

He sees my mother standing over a caldero of rice, the smell of comino and peppers trace her legs. He moves closer. Comes up behind her. She tenses. Doesn’t know what to do. That day he just brushes himself against her. Feels for her breast. Then he hears footsteps so he backs away. She doesn’t sit to eat with him. He doesn’t hear her leave to school in the morning. She’s gone when he gets up. That’s just the beginning.

He compliments her on her beauty, her hands, her dress. He pushes her into corners and rubs his erection on her. She tries to pull away but never tells anyone. It’s been years since she lived with her mother so whatever semblance of a mother-daughter relationship they had was lost. Mom used to say, “Mi madre fue Tinita.” Grandma keeps working nights, unaware. So naïve.

Weeks later, he’s hell bent on having her. He doesn’t think about the repercussions. He’s the superintendent of a building on Riverside Drive, just off the Dyckman exit on the West Side Highway. He goes to pick her up at school, George Washington High School in Washington Heights. At first she resists but he follows her in his car. He’s sweet, saying he’s just going to take her home, will buy her a nice dinner. She keeps walking. Then he terrorizes her, says he’ll hurt her sister, her brother. She relents. She doesn’t think she has a choice.

He takes her to a room in the basement of his building. Drugs her. Chains her to a radiator or perhaps a pipe or a bed. He was ready. He’d planned this. He drugs her. Rapes her. For days. She loses track of time and all semblance of sanity. She comes to in a hospital room. He left her for dead on the side of a road. In Riverside Park, a wooded area, along the West Side Highway. Or maybe it was a grassy area along the Harlem River Drive.

Or maybe he took her home, como si nada. No one’s ever said.

Mario insists that mom seduced him. Mom cries that she’s been raped. My grandmother blames them both. She accepts her daughter back on the condition that she not press charges. Que diran la gente? Mom gives in. Where was she going to go? When mom misses her period, grandma insists that she have an abortiom. “O lo mandas a Santo Domingo o Honduras.” That’s when mom stood up to her, for the first time. She’s having her child.

I can’t tell you if there was anyone in the maternity room holding mom’s hand when she had her son. I imagine her cursing this country as she pushed him out. She got quiet when she saw her baby’s face, so much like his. That’s when she knew she had to love him more, con pena, to defy the evil that brought him into this world. (A Dim Capacity for Wings by Vanessa Mártir)

* * *

My brother is that child. My brother who told me today that sometimes he feels that rape is a part of him, in him. “I looked it up,” he said, pulling so hard on his cigarette I thought he was going to burn it to the filter with one inhale. I watched this man who was my Superman while I was growing up. I listened to him talk. My brother, who today I saw be him, who he was before the drugs, before that fucking drug heroin took him from me. My Superman. “The Bible says I carry that sin. That I’m a sin.” I wanted to scream. I wanted to hold him. I wanted to say I’m sorry. I just listened.

“Sometimes I blame myself. I know that doesn’t make sense, sis, but…”

“Emotions have no logic, Carlos.”

“Yeah…” He looked away. “I think things would be different if mom had put me in therapy when I found out.” He found out in junior high school when he saw his school records and saw Mario listed as his father. He came home flipping, confused. Mom told him the story. My brother has never been the same. That was the beginning of the spiral. Of his fall. A plummet down a dark, bottomless hole. He’s still falling.

“I’ve written about it.” He looks at me and smiles. It’s a small smile. Not a happy one. It’s for me. “But I get writer’s block. I can’t finish it. It’s too much. I’ll share it with you. I’ll give you what I wrote so you can see my side.” I nod. Then I lean in and hug him. “I support you 150%, V. Write it. Don’t worry about mom, just write it.”

“But mom, what about mom. I don’t want to hurt her. I…”

He shrugs. “Maybe somebody will finally fuckin’ talk.”

* * *

This is what I know about rape: I know that my mother was raped when she was 16 years old, having been in this country only 6 months. I know that my mother was blamed. I know that she’s carried this shame for 40 years. I know that no one talks about it. Ever. I know that mom tried to talk to grandma about it when grandma had open heart surgery five years ago.

We were all there, our little family. I even brought Vasia with me. We waited in the waiting room for hours until she came out of the surgery. We had to hear that everything went well and grandma was okay. She’s the matriarch of the family. The glue in so many ways. Abuela.

We hugged and kissed her before she went in for the surgery. We held hands and prayed. Mom sent us all out of the room. “Ya voy.” I squeezed her hand and walked out.

Mom’s terrified that something will happen to grandma and they’ll never talk about what happened all those years before. “Mami, si algo pasa debemos hablar.”

“No tenemos nada de que hablar.” Grandma doesn’t even look at mom. There’s no breaking that silence that’s spanned so many years, so many births and deaths. So much pain. It’s got roots now. They’re deep and they suck everything out of everything they dig into. That’s what this silence does; it bores into you like flesh eating bacteria. Chews at you. Sucks on you like leeches.

Mom’s crying when she walks into the waiting room. She’s quiet for a long time. We all know why but no one says anything. No one ever says anything.

Until now…

I heard mom’s story in fragments and out of sequence, like most terrible secrets are revealed. In arguments, when accusations are hurled like bullets, meant to cut jugular and make blood spew. Hot like magma, burning everything it touches.

I see myself, six, eight years old, playing with dolls behind couches. I smell the crisp boil of white rice and the heavy with cilantro habichuelas stewing on the stovetop. The chicken is baking in the oven, seasoned the night before so you can taste the sofrito even on the bones, in the marrow. Millie always closed her eyes when she ate mom’s chicken. When she was done, her plate looked like a graveyard of splintered bones.

In another scene, I have the Atari control in my hand, the TV volume is on low, Pacman is running across the screen. The ghosts are close behind. Chasing.

I hear the dominos clanking and the ting of Budweiser latitas against teeth. And, I hear the conversaciones.

The laughter becomes screams. Choked yells dripping with vergüenza. People can be so vile when they’re angry.

I didn’t really understand what I was hearing. I can’t even say when “then” was, but I knew. I knew something terrible happened to mom and she never got over it. When she beat me until I was a shivering ball on the floor. When she raged and cried until the doñas came to pray over her and rub her with alcolado while she sat naked and rocking herself like a supplicant in the tub, the beads of the rosary clinking to the rhythm of the prayers. Santa Maria, Madre de Dio, ruega por nosotros pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amen.

It’s taken me more than three decades to piece it together. How I imagine it…

My mother has carried that since. The rape. The shame. A long untreated post-traumatic stress disorder. A mental condition that manifested itself in the most heinous ways. The times she lost herself when beating me, I didn’t know this woman to be my mother. But she was. And though I wish I could tell you a seamless, loving tale of mother and daughter, that would be a lie.

It’s not that my mother didn’t love me. She loved me as best she could with what she had. Was it enough? The little girl in me cries, “No!” The woman in me wants to say yes. After all, here I am, dique successful, with an elite education under my belt, full of possibilities and an unflinching conviction to make it. But I still want to understand how Mom became the mother she was, that she still is. I still want to redeem her. Because in her redemption, I find my own.

* * *

Recently at AWP, I asked my mentors how they’ve taken care of themselves while writing memoir. I asked because I had an unraveling in November that made me reassess what I was doing and how I was doing it. Made me think that I had to do more to take care of myself while working on this book that’s taken and continues to take so much from and out of me while giving me so much a la misma vez; epiphanies and clarity and love. So much love. It’s why I started boxing. It’s why I’ve committed to healthy eating and living. It’s why I’ve been spending so much time alone, having a love-affair with myself. And I thought, why not ask those people I love and trust and know my heart how they’ve done it. How they made it through this kind of digging work that tsunamis you sometimes.

Elmaz Abinader, my memoir mama, said, “I cried the whole time.” I’ve done a lot of that.

Chris Abani laughed and said, “You can’t.” “What the fuck, Chris?” We both laughed. “It will fuck you up, V. So, why are you writing it?”

“For solace…For redemption.”

He shook his head in that way he does that makes me brace myself because I know he’s about to say some Jedi shit that’s going to rattle my heart like a maraca. “Redemption is easy, Vanessa. It’s restoration that takes a lifetime.”

And maybe that’s what I’m looking for in revealing this secret that’s had my family in a choke hold for forty fucking years. For restoration. Or at least the beginning of the journey toward restoration because right now we’re nowhere near that. No one talks about what happened and how it’s shaped us, the way we love and don’t love, the things we do to each other, how broken we are. How it’s shaped my mother as a woman and a mother. How callous she can be and how devastating it is when she withholds her love to punish me. She’s done it so many times. And each time it takes a piece of me. A huge chunk of me.

I don’t expect my mom to turn around one day and love me the way I’ve always wanted her to. I’ve stopped fantasizing like that. It lessens the stab of her rejection. Or at least it protects me from being delusional and waiting for her love. I just want her to stare at her shame and realize that it wasn’t her fault. That it was fucked up what happened to her. And that her silence has not and will never protect her.

Like it never protected me. Ever.

* * *

When my nena was six, a memory came crashing in. I’d pushed it away so many times over the years. And I tried to swat it away like I would a mosquito, but it wouldn’t give. It wasn’t a tiny bug. It was enormous and it was sitting on my belly, picking at the raw, pus oozing wound that I was. It was relentless.

That’s when I first wrote White Straw Climbs, the story about being molested by Millie’s uncle Valentín when I was six. It wasn’t until I saw that my daughter was just a baby that I realized that I was a baby when it happened to me. I’d been blaming myself for 29 years. And I’d punished myself for it.

It was my fault. I’d gone over to him willingly. I knew he was going to do something. He’d done it before. I didn’t understand the gravity of what he did until much later, but I knew on some level that it was wrong. And, I knew it was my fault.

Now I understood why Mami lectured me and Dee about being careful with men, wearing shorts underneath our skirts and dresses, buttoning our blouses all the way up, sitting with our legs crossed. I always wondered why, what was the big deal. Now I understood why Mom beat me that time I’d lingered on Tio Damian’s lap, ignoring her dagger eyes. She caught me in the shower that night and lashed me so hard with her correa that the Ho from the “Honduras” embossing stayed imprinted on my thigh for days. “The next time I see you en la falda de un hombre, te voy a romper la cara!” She didn’t explain why but that day I regretted not listening.

I lay in the tub and let the hot water run until it singed my skin. I wished Mom had saved me from having to learn the why for myself. I wished she’d told me about what some men do. I wished I’d listened. I was dirty and desobendiente and had to be punished. I started scratching my inner thigh first. I moved up slowly. I clawed until I bled. Then I cried quietly into my bloody hands, telling myself that I deserved it. Every time I peed, the sting reminded me of my crime and my punishment.

I mutilated for months after, even after Valentín moved back to Puerto Rico. I never got close enough for him to touch me again.

* * *

Mommy, I can’t have my daughter carrying the weight of this silence. It wasn’t your fault, mom. It wasn’t mine, either. And you, my Superman, are not a sin. I love you and I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry.

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7 Comments
  1. Sani permalink

    Nicely written. What a horrifying experience

  2. I’m on a panel talking about Rape and Incest on Friday. Wish me luck!

  3. sozan permalink

    t h a n k y o u, no words can express the depth this sat within me

  4. aroundthewaygirl permalink

    Wow. Very powerful. It feels like you it was scraped from dry corners of my soul, where I’ve been too afraid to go during the day, but still find myself wandering there, lost and afraid, at night when I should be sleeping. I feel it too, my mother’s shame I carry. Thank you for writing this.

  5. andrea permalink

    Thank you Vanessa

  6. If some one wants expert view on the topic of
    blogging after that i advise him/her to pay a visit
    this blog, Keep up the nice work.

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