My daughter asked me last night, “Are there things you are gonna tell me later about our family? Stuff you can’t tell me now?” I wonder how she knows these things. How is it she’s able to express what I’ve worried about for so long—when I’m going to tell her and how. She’ll be nine in a few days, my Minnie me. When will she be old enough to know about the silences I’m breaking? The secrets that have had my family in a choke hold for so long? My brother was thirteen when he was told and it broke him. When is a child old enough to know about family tragedies?
When will I be able to tell her about my own shame? About who I was in 1994, just 18 years old, a student at Columbia University, in love with a drug dealer eight years older than me. I thought it was so fly that an older man had noticed me. I was so alone, wanted so desperately to be loved. It was my first dique “adult” relationship. When and how can I tell my little girl that the decisions I made that year have haunted me since? How every time I think about that year I think of the line in Pete Rock’s song Reminisce: “Irresponsible, straight not thinking.” How I still can’t write about it publicly though I started the story a few years back, titled it Big Mac, and have never let anyone see it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about shame. Mom told me recently that my grandmother’s best friend who she’s known over forty years, we’ll call her A, didn’t know that my brother was a heroin addict and HIV positive. So when she went to my brother’s memorial, she went not knowing what killed him. My grandmother had never told her. My brother had struggled with drug addiction for fifteen years. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1993. And my grandmother never told her best friend about it. Her best friend who she met at la factoría she worked at when she arrived to this country in the late 1960s. Why didn’t my grandmother tell her? Shame.
When my mother was raped by her step-father, my grandmother’s then husband, my grandmother moved her family to Brooklyn. Far away from everyone they knew. What would the neighbors say? How would her friends react? She’d been warned by her friends that her husband, we’ll call him M, was looking at my mom inappropriately. She didn’t believe it. She didn’t want to believe it. Grandma was too proud. “Yo paraba tráfico,” she says when she describes herself in her youth. Or maybe it was shame. Maybe she felt that he did that not because he was sick or dirty or a psycho, but because something was wrong with her. Because she was missing something.
Shame feels the same for men and women, but it’s organized by gender.
For women, the best example I can give you is Enjoli the commercial: “I can put the wash on the line, pack the lunches, hand out the kisses and be at work at five to nine. I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan and never let you forget you’re a man.” For women, shame is do it all, do it perfectly and never let them see you sweat. I don’t know how much perfume that commercial sold, but I guarantee you, it moved a lot of antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds. Shame, for women, is this web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be. And it’s a straight-jacket. ~Brené Brown, Listening to Shame
A few weeks after my brother died, I went to the beach with my mom. She spent the day telling me stories about her life. She’s been doing so much of that. Confessing. Sharing. As if she knows that storytelling can heal. As if she’s always known but needed permission. Needed someone to listen, to understand, to love her through it. Like she needed to be confronted by my brother’s mortality to finally let it out.
She’d just been talking about what happened to her. How my brother was conceived. How M first molested her. How he’d take her out of her bed while my grandmother slept in the next room. Mom said she knew something terrible was going to happen to her when she came to this country. That’s why she didn’t want to come. That’s why the day before she got on the plane to New York from La Ceiba, Honduras, she says she climbed to the top of a hill and sat in the grass and prayed. She asked God to protect her, and if He couldn’t, to help her understand why she would have to suffer. Mom was staring out at the water of Rockaway Beach. It was surprisingly clean. We both commented on how we’d never seen that water so green.
“Sometimes I think my mother thinks what happened with my son is how God punished me for what happened. She still blames me for what that man did to me.” Mom told me that even her brother told her grandma still blames her. She said she seduced him. It didn’t matter that mom was all of 16, still a señorita, not in this country for a year. She still had Honduran soil under her fingernails.
This victim blaming mentality isn’t exclusive to my family. I was just talking to my friend about it a few days ago and she shared that her mother was raped when she was 14. Her family forced her to marry the guy who after the wedding went off to fight in the war between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. She lived in his house with his parents for two years before she escaped and got the marriage annulled. She was abused and berated for choosing herself. For leaving her rapist.
If we’re going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy, because empathy’s the antidote to shame. If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.” ~Brené Brown, Listening to Shame
My mother’s never had anyone tell her: “me too.”
A few years ago, I was sitting in the Indian Road playground (in Inwood Park) with a friend while my daughter, who was six then, played. She climbed monkey bars, shrieked down the slide, ran through and around the jungle gym, climbed the monkey bars, took turns with her new friends on the swings. Vasialys is so much like me, she meets people everywhere she goes.
I don’t know how the conversation started. I know we were talking about memoir and how some stories burn to be told. How they burn inside us until we write them down. I told my friend, G, about how I was molested when I was just six by Millie’s uncle, who lived next door. This man is always old in my memory, real old, no teeth-white, wiry hair-deep, cavernous wrinkles-old. I told her that I’d only just started realizing that what he did to me wasn’t my fault. I’d blamed myself for so long, held that shame for years. 29 years to be exact. When my daughter turned six, the memories started rushing in, pummeling me. I couldn’t stop them. They kept me up at night. I thought about them all the time though I tried hard not to. It was when I saw that my daughter was just a baby that I realized that I too was a baby when I was molested. That it wasn’t my fault. I was the victim. I told G what I did because I was so ashamed. How I laid in the tub and let the hot water scald me. How I started scratching my inner thigh and moved up and didn’t stop until I bled.
I blurted it out. “I mutilated when I was six. I scratched myself until I bled.” We both gasped and stared at each other. Shame rattled my bones and bounced around in my head, screaming, “What the fuck is wrong with you? Now she knows how dirty you are. Now everyone will know.” I tortured myself for the eternity of a minute, until my friend said, “Shit, V, I thought I was the only one who did that.”
I wrote the story soon afterwards. White Straw Climbs. The story of being molested and blaming myself and what I did to my body when I was six because I was so ashamed.
It still burns sometimes. The shame. When I wrote the above I felt it sitting in my throat so I couldn’t swallow, could hardly breathe. Shame is relentless. Once it has a hold of you, its grip has the world’s strongest hold. But it’s through sharing my stories that I’ve slowly (and with effort) pried its fingers from around my heart…
Through storytelling we can come to know who we are in new and unforeseen ways. We can also reveal to others what is deepest in our hearts, in the process building bridges. The very act of sharing a story with another human being contradicts the extreme isolation that characterizes so many of our lives…
Creating narratives that are filled with our life experiences may be the only way we can know and understand our journey through this world. ~Richard Stone, The Healing Art of Storytelling
After telling me all these stories about her mother, my grandmother, their agarrones, how she rejected her and us, her own grandchildren, mom tells me “tu tienes que entender, tu abuela a sufrido.” She tells me that grandma worked since she was five. She had to take care of the babies of rich families when she was just a baby herself. That was the only way she could eat. And they beat her, pulled her hair, called her negra. Grandma lost five children to diseases that in this country would have been cured with antibiotics or a shot.
Five of her children died.
Mom knows all their names. Even the ones that died before she was born. She told me about two. The son grandma lost when he was nine, Juan Carlos, was his name. My mother named my brother after him. One day he got sick with diarrhea and vomiting. He was gone two days later. Mom says grandma was never the same after that. He was the one she loved the most. Her firstborn. Her nene.
Then there was the six month old infant mom saw go into seizures and die. “Su cuerpo le brincaba,” mom says, showing me with her hands how the baby’s body jumped as she seized. Mom was just ten. She had to run to the house of the Turkish family grandma was working for as a maid. She had to tell her mother that her daughter had died. Grandma left Honduras six months later. She never moved back.
I think of these stories and I wonder how my family has survived it all. How grandma survived. How mom survived. How we’ve all carried this tremendous shame and the many ways we’ve all be affected by it, crippled. My brother and his drug addiction. My mom and her psychotic breaks. How abusive she was and still can be when she’s in pain. My sister and how she’s always so ready to flip out on someone. My grandmother and how callous she can be. How I had to call her out recently for being so hard on Vasia. “No me importa,” she screamed. “And that’s the problem,” I replied, angry and resentful. “You will not treat my daughter like that.”
And me. How I’ve grappled with shame and been singed by it in my own way. My anger issues. How I beat myself up. The devastating mistakes I’ve made in my relationships. How I’ve sabotaged myself by falling for the same kind of man (different face, same treatment) since I was twelve. We repeat the cycles in our own way, don’t we?
I look at my daughter and know it’s my job to break those cycles. So how do I do it? The only way I know how is to sit in the muck of shame and expose it. To face it, stare it down and write about it. Not as something to be embarrassed of, but as something that exists and must be shaken, written, out of me. I’m from the school of “the only way out is in.”
And I did not learn about vulnerability and courage and creativity and innovation from studying vulnerability. I learned about these things from studying shame. And so I want to walk you in to shame. Jungian analysts call shame the swampland of the soul. And we’re going to walk in. And the purpose is not to walk in and construct a home and live there. It is to put on some galoshes and walk through and find our way around. ~Brené Brown, Listening to Shame
As if she has a psychic pull or is just so in touch with her mother’s heart, my nena walked over to me while I was writing this and gave me a keepsake box she created out of a shoe box. I heard her ripping papers and rustling around in her room but I didn’t know what she was doing. She knows to keep herself busy when mommy’s writing.
On the cover of the box, she taped a cut out from a magazine that reads: “You’re stronger than you know.” There’s a woman in the painting. She’s sitting on a chair, a color palette in one hand and a paint brush in the other, the lake in front of her is her easel.
My daughter said the box is to collect things that show how she feels. The first image I see when I open the box is a woman dancing, she is leaping in the air, her head is thrown back, right leg is in the air behind her, foot is pointed, arms are fanned out in front of her. The quote at the bottom reads, “Women lose their lives not knowing they can do something different…. I claimed myself and remade my life. Only when I knew I belonged to myself completely did I become capable of giving myself to another, of finding joy in desire, pleasure in our love, power in this body no one else owns.” ~Dorothy Allison, from Two or Three Things I Know for Sure
There’s so much I don’t know. There’s so much I’m scared of. There’s so much shame I’ve been carrying. There’s so much shame I have to let go of. I’m tired of being a prisoner of it. I can’t have my daughter carrying it and I can’t carry it anymore. I’m learning how to let it go, and since I’m a writer and I figure things out through words and story, this is the way I’m doing it.
Shame drives two big tapes — “never good enough” and, if you can talk it out of that one, “who do you think you are?” The thing to understand about shame is it’s not guilt. Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.”…Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders. And here’s what you even need to know more…The ability to hold something we’ve done or failed to do up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s adaptive. ~Brené Brown, Listening to Shame
As part of his pre-VONA assignments, David Mura had us answer seventeen questions on process. One of them was: How does lack of confidence reflect on how you identify or characterize yourself? The first words of my response: I hear: “Who the fuck do you think you are?” The thing is I didn’t know the root of this was shame. I thought it was insecurity. I thought it stemmed from my fear (read: terror, dismay, a little girl curled in the corner of her bed while the boogey man with pointy, gnashing teeth, towers over her) of not being able to finish this book. It’s only now, two months after answering the question, after sitting in a grief I’ve never known, after holding my mother through hers and taking in all her stories, that I see that the root of those deafening words banging in my head and chest (“Who the fuck do you think you are?”), is shame. Shame over who I am, where I’m from, what I’ve been through, what my mom has been through, how she tried to protect us from it all and couldn’t. Shame over never being enough, never doing enough, to be loved, to fit in.
Today I heard a quote that made me flinch. It was like an uppercut to my kidneys that I couldn’t block or avoid. “We accept the love we think we deserve.” I’ve accepted such terrible love from relationships, romantic and otherwise. What does that say about how I love myself or don’t? I have to put on some galoshes and wade through this shame that’s screaming at me right now, demanding to know, that I answer: “Who the fuck do you think you are?” Right now, I’m a woman on a mission to release all this shit. All of it.
Shame and guilt bind and incapacitate us. If we are taught to be shameful, we may have to spend the rest of our lives unraveling the confining tentacles that keep us from embracing our deepest selves. ~Richard Stone, The Healing Art of Storytelling
I’ll spend a lifetime unraveling those tentacles if I have to. I’m confronting this shame, staring it down, by writing my stories, these blogs, my memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings. Poco a poco. Día a día. For me. For my daughter. For my mother. For the generations of women before me who were taught to feel shame.
My daughter and I went out at 4am in hope of seeing the Perseid meteor shower. Sadly, it was too overcast to see any of the magic. When we went back home, Vasia couldn’t fall asleep. When I woke up, she shared this poem she wrote.
I am a warrior
by Vasialys Rodriguez, August 11, 2013
I am a girl
A girl with power
A girl with the ability to let out her words
A girl who does not let anything get in her way
A girl with love in her heart
A girl with the moon as her soul
And a wolf as her self
In the inside I am a warrior
With the eyes of my soul
And a girl with hands leaking with god’s blood
I am a warrior.
I am a warrior.
Indeed she is a warrior. She knows this at nine. And she knows her mom’s a warrior. And somehow she knew her mom needed to be reminded. We’re warriors on a mission. “Hands leaking with god’s blood.”