When I first told my ex (and now friend) that I’m writing about being molested when I was six, he said, “You’re not publishing it, are you?”
“Of course I am.”
He gave me an exasperated look that I’ve seen before, usually followed by a “What the fuck?” and an ill stare that doesn’t let up until an explanation is offered.
“Why should I feel ashamed about what some pervert did to me?”
My friend looked at me and then out past the baseball field we were walking past. The trees were just beginning to bud and you could smell spring in the nippy air. We didn’t talk about it again.
The thing is, this guy is one of the most open-minded, understanding people I know so that reaction from him surprised me a bit, but not enough to not write about the abuse. I’ve written blog posts (my most recent one “An open to letter to Dylan Farrow”) and essays and am currently completing the story in the memoir, White Straw Climbs, which details what happened to me and the silence that was perpetuated for so many years afterward. The desgraciado who molested me died long ago and was never punished.
I didn’t tell anyone until I was thirty years old. That’s when I told Millie, my second Mom. The first words out her mouth were, “You could never tell your mother that.” It took me years to talk about it again.
I told my brother last year, just three months before he died. It had been 31 years since I’d been molested. Carlos stared at me for a while but said nothing. There were so few things we didn’t talk about. My brother was one of the first ones I told when I lost my virginity. He knew so many of my secrets. Not this one.
“His son molested me,” he said, a while later, as we were watching TV. The nurse came in and took his vitals, checked his temperature and changed his IV drip.
I wasn’t totally shocked by my brother’s revelation. Sexual abusers usually abuse many children, including their own. Later Carlos said, “I wish I would’ve known.” I wonder if he felt somehow responsible.
Only three and a half years older than me, my brother was my protector for much of my childhood. He’d tuck me in at night, then tell my mother, “ya arropé a mis hermanas.” He cooked for us when mom was out. I remember him once burning his face while making pancakes for my sister and me. The batter popped and landed on his cheek, leaving a patch of raw skin that took weeks to heal. He ended up having to sooth me because I couldn’t stop crying. I was so scared of losing him.
“…the desire to make art, to draw the limits of the body, to create a simulacrum has its roots in loss; or at least, the possibility of loss. The need to remember, to create (or re-create) a body out of loss, but also against loss, and against forgetting, is what drives the artist…
When we speak of art giving witness, we usually meant that we are attempting to give form, address or visibility to things that are often inexpressible such as the effects of terror, pain, destruction, and erasure. In this way, the idea of witness, of testimony, is seldom if ever linked to things that are wholesome in our cultures. We give testimony it seems to unveil the hidden, to restore the wished away, the instinct towards the erasure of shame.” ~Chris Abani, Painting a Body of Loss and Love in the Proximity of an Aesthetic
My memoir writing has forced me to ask myself repeatedly why I’m writing these stories. Why I continue to write even though sometimes the digging roils my insides so I’m a bit of a mess for days. I’ve had to ask myself why it is that I’ve pulled up a chair and sat in my grief and chronicled it. Sometimes I think it’s rather masochistic of me, but most of the time I know that this is necessary to heal years of carrying shit around, pains I couldn’t deal with earlier because I was too busy surviving. I’m tired of just surviving. I want to live. If my brother’s death taught me anything, it’s that the ghosts of the past won’t go away until and unless you deal with them.
“True writing, being a writer, is the struggle to wring meaning, to wring value to redeem even the most unredeemable thing, to find transformation in even the most heinous moments, to prove, through a very complex sophisticated telling, that every life can and does in fact must have value. There is nothing else.”
Someone accused me recently of writing for attention. Of course this person isn’t a writer so she had no clue what we go through or why, but she made me think about these insults and accusations that are hurled at memoir writers—that we’re narcissistic and self-obsessed, “navel gazers,” etc. If only it were that simple.
Writing memoir is how I rewrite the narrative of my life. It’s how I save that little girl that no one protected. I save her again and again, every time I write about her, every time I remember her voice, every time I thank her for telling herself those stories that helped her survive, that made her see that she needed to save herself. I save myself every time I come to the page. When I’m missing my brother and coping with the dysfunctional relationship with my mother, I save myself. When I let the epiphanies come and don’t try to control the flow of my fingers across the keyboard, I free myself. When I shut out the critic and let my unconscious take over, I see the truth of it: I am not that voice in my head that berates me all the time (sometimes in a scream, other times in a whisper), repeating, “Who the fuck do you think you are?” That same voice that calls me names and challenges everything I think (know) to be true. That same voice that tells me that I have no right to tell these stories, that I “ain’t shit and ain’t neva gonna be shit.” I can shut that voice down when I’m tearing across the page. Writing is how I’ve always saved myself. It’s the mirror that stares back and says, “I love you. Look at how amazing you are.” The page hugs my imperfections, my pudgy hands and Flinstone feet that people made fun of when I was a kid, my wide hips, my cesarean scar in my bikini line, the dimples on my thighs, the gap between my front teeth. The page tells me that I am not “ordinaria” or “retardada” as my mother made me believe when I was a nena. The page tells me that mom has been through so much and that’s why she can’t love me, has never been able to love me, the way I needed her to. The page tells me that mom is cruel because she has not healed, because they were cruel to her, because in me she sees the girl she was, the girl she can’t forgive. The page tells me that it’s okay to walk away from her, that it’s not okay for her to treat me the way she does, that her being my mother does not give her a pass. The page is where I go to understand, to make sense, to stare at my image and remind myself that my sadness is mine and that I can survive it, even if some days I can’t bear to get out of bed. The page is where I find solace, even if I have to first go through the bowels of everything I think of as terrible and harrowing, to get there.
Your Mother’s First Kiss
The first boy to kiss your mother later raped women
when the war broke out. She remember hearing this
from your uncle, then gong to your bedroom and laying
down on the floor. You were at school.
Your mother was sixteen when he first kissed her.
She held her breath for so long that she blacked out.
On waking she found her dress was wet and sticking
to her stomach, half moons bitten into her thighs.
The same evening she visited a friend, a girl
who fermented wine illegally in her bedroom.
When your mother confessed I’ve never been touched
like that before, the friend laughed, mouth blood with grapes,
then plunged a hand between your mother’s legs.
Last week, she saw him driving the number 18 bus,
his cheek a swollen drumlin, a vine scar dragging itself
across his mouth. You were with her, holding a bag
of dates to your chest, heard her let out a deep moan
when she saw how much you look like him.
~Warsan Shire (How To Give Birth, 2011)
I wish I could give you a beautiful tale of mother and daughter. I wish I could tell you that my mom is my greatest supporter. I wish I could tell you that I could have never asked for a better mom. But that’s not the case. To say that would be a lie.
I remember mom being terribly abusive. I remember her impatience. I remember the way she would yank me by my hair so hard, I’d have whiplash for days. That’s why I hated my hair and wanted to cut it for so long—it made me an easy target.
I remember mom beating me for my clumsiness. Because I tripped over and dropped something. Or fell and ripped a pair of pants. From mom I learned the power of an open-handed slap swung carelessly and without aim, so no matter where it landed, it did damage; on my back, my leg, my face, I’d have the imprint of her five fingers and wide palm for hours. Sometimes days.
The first time I stood up to my mother, like really stood up to her, was in defense of my daughter. Vasia was little, maybe four. We’d spent the night because it was New Year’s and my friends had a party. They lived in Bed Stuy, just a mile or so from mom, and mom stayed with Vasia while I went out a despedir el año. The next morning, mom made hot chocolate for Vasia. Vasia was so happy, I remember her smiling with her whole face like she does when she’s especially excited, her brows arched high on her forehead, her smile huge, showing all two rows of teeth. Then, just when Vasia was sitting down to sip on her hot chocolate, she leaned in too much and spilled her drink. Her face fell and she stared up at me with the most heartbreaking frown. That’s when mom ran over from the kitchen, her strides long and angry. She towered over Vasia and started screaming, calling her clumsy and ordinaria. I flashed to my childhood and how crushing mom’s rants were. I remember how helpless I felt, how devastated her words could be. Each one like the jab of a short, pointy knife into my heart, into my self-esteem. All these years later, I’m still trying to shut those words out. Those words that dig into me when I’m feeling down or lost. Those words that tell me that I am not worthy, that I’m a mess, that I’m retardada and ordinaria.
“Ma, it was an accident,” I stepped in between them, trying to shield my daughter from my mom’s rage.
“Ay, a ella no se le puede decir nada.” That’s what mom does. She can’t see her own shit, so she makes it your issue.
I couldn’t hold it in. “No, you are not going to do to my daughter what you did to me.”
Mom froze. Her face was still contorted into that rage that made me shrink into myself so many times. Her lips were pulled back taut over her teeth, like Saran Wrap.
“You did that to me when I was a kid. I couldn’t protect myself but you are not gonna do that to my daughter.”
That’s when mom came at me, her hands flailing. She went for my hair, yelling. I tried to block her blows while keeping Vasia behind me so she wouldn’t go at her. I knew if that happened, I would lose my shit. I didn’t want to lose my shit on my mom.
Vasia whimpered behind me, “Mommy, mommy.”
Somehow, I don’t remember how, we ended up in mom’s room. Maybe mom followed me, slapping at me as we walked. All I remember is leaning back on her bed, screaming, “Ma stop, you think God doesn’t see this? God is watching you, ma.” It was all I had to make her stop. She was delirious and I knew it. I could see it in her crazed expression. I remembered that face from when she would attack me when I was a kid. She wouldn’t stop hitting me until I was a shivering ball on the floor. But I was an adult then, 33 years old, a mother, and I was not going to let her get me there, to the floor, in fetal position. So, I mentioned God, because Mom is Jehovah’s Witness and I prayed that maybe she’d listen to that. She finally stopped and stormed off. She was crying, saying that I didn’t love her, that I never loved her, that I’d abandoned her.
I grabbed my trembling child and tried to console her while I threw our things into my bag and tried to keep myself from falling apart. I couldn’t afford to do that. I had to take care of my baby girl who had just seen her mother attacked.
We were all crying. I was throwing on my coat when my mother did something that totally surprised me, she grabbed my wrist and begged, “No, no te vayas. Perdoname, hija, perdoname.” And she confessed to having abused me as a child. She confessed to being wrong. And she begged me not to leave, to forgive her. We fell into eachother, three generations of bruised females, and cried, like I’m crying now, blubbering and trembling with the weight of the years and the sadness of it all. That was the first time my mother ever apologized for treating like she did.
I’ve written extensively about my mother and her pain. What she went through. How she grew up in the kind of poverty that we only see in Save the Children Commercials. How she was raped when she was just 16 and was blamed for it. How she’s never gotten over that. Ever. I don’t resent her for what she did to me during my childhood. Not anymore. I see now that she was suffering and didn’t have the tools to love me like I needed her to.
Some time ago, she told me, “Tu tienes que entender. Tu eras la fuerta. You brother and sister needed me more.” I stood quiet, though I wanted to say, “Did you ever ask me that? Did you ever ask me what I needed?” I would have told her that I needed her love too. I needed her tenderness. She says my brother and sister were weaker, and though I want to resist and say that’s not true, I look at my brother’s life and how his pain eventually killed him, and I look at my sister who exists on the brink of flipping out on anyone who provokes her rage, and I wonder if maybe mom was right. And, yet, and still, I still needed that love and tenderness that she still denies me. And that’s what I resent her for, that she’s still as cold and cruel as she was back then. And I resent her for not having a relationship with my daughter and not really trying to. Yes, I know that mom hasn’t healed, and, yes, I know that she sees in me who she was and could have been, and maybe she even resents me for doing what she couldn’t do, but, see, that’s not my fault. I can’t carry her pain. I’ve done that for too long. I’ve pined for attention and adoration and love. I’ve made so many moves in my life, both consciously and unconsciously, just to get her to love me, to say, “I’m proud of you, hija,” but she never has. We’ll be good for a little while and then she’ll attack and I am left with a wide, open wound. I am left tattered and broken. I can’t live like that. Not anymore. I have a daughter to raise. I have a life to live, books to write, students to teach. I have love to give. And so, the other day, after yet another war with mom, I threw up my arms and raised the white flag, I give up. I can’t make her love me the way I’ve always needed her to. She is who she is. I choose me.
Mom, I’m sorry that happened to you. I’m sorry that man did that to you and I’m sorry that grandma didn’t believe you, that she’s punished you for more than forty years. I’m sorry that your son, was an eternal reminder of that rape. I’m sorry that you couldn’t save him from himself. I’m sorry for all of it, but that wasn’t my fault and I can’t keep being your punching bag. I love you. I will always love you, but I gotta let you go. For the sake of my heart and my sanity. I gotta let you go.
Events of the past few weeks have triggered so much, I’ve restrained from commenting on a lot of it because I’ve been digesting and coping with my own emotions around it. While in class a week ago, I heard about the death of one of the greatest actors of this generation: Philip Seymour Hoffman.
I finally commented in a Facebook status, after having turned away in disgust at newspaper headlines, bold and ugly, sensationalizing his death and the “glassines of drugs” (likely heroin) found strewn around his apartment. “I haven’t commented on this tragedy because it sent me reeling back to the years of my brother’s drug addiction and his eventual death. I’ve said it before that his reckless behavior was just a side effect of this terrible disease, triggered by a pain none of us could heal. I miss him terribly. Maybe PSH’s death will make us pay attention and offer compassion rather than judgment.” Then I linked to an article, one of many I’ve read, about the tragic death.
The thing about this article, “What Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Tragic Death Teaches Us About Addiction” was that it didn’t sensationalize his death. Like the author, Lisa Aliferis, I too shook my head in disgust when I read “comments on social media clucking disapproval for Hoffman’s ‘selfishness’ and ‘poor choices.’” See, I know what it’s like to watch your brother kill himself slowly because the only thing that works to numb the relentless pain is drugs. I know what it is to find my brother nodding out and falling over himself. I know what it is to have my brother steal from me. I know what it is to have my brother tell me, after fifteen years of grappling with a monster heroin addiction, “my life wasn’t supposed to be this way, sis.” And it wasn’t until just months before he died, when he told me “I’m a sin, sis, the Bible says I’m a sin,” that I understood the root of his addiction.
See, I judged him too. I blamed him. I thought he was weak, he made poor choices, he was a mess, but I know now that it’s so much more complicated than that. “Diabetes is a disease of the pancreas. Addiction is a disease of the brain,” [Dr. David Smith] said. If you don’t think addiction is a disease, Smith said, “then take a laxative, sit on the toilet and try not to have a bowel movement.” Yes, a simplistic analogy, he said, “but effective.”
In the article the author references an interview with Dr. Smith, who founded the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic in 1967, where Dr. Smith told her about the “4 C’s of addiction – craving, compulsion, loss of control and continued use in spite of bad consequences. ‘Craving is a signal,’ Smith said, then added the worst thing an addict can do when craving is to isolate. Hoffman appears to have died alone…”
The author then references a moving piece in The Guardian by the comedian and actor Russell Brand who confesses to being an addict who has been clean for six years and continues to have cravings. “I cannot accurately convey to you the efficiency of heroin neutralizing pain. It transforms a tight, white fist into a gentle, brown wave. From my first inhalation 15 years ago, it fumigated my private hell and lay me down in its hazy pastures and a bathroom floor in Hackney embraced me like a womb.”
I thought of my brother and the private hell he endured from the moment he found out when he was 13 that he was the result of a rape. I thought about my mother and how she told me that she remembers him in that era, “el se aferraba a mi,” and when she asked him, “que te pasa, hijo,” he’d just shrug and walk away. I can’t help but wonder if therapy would have made a difference. He was told he was conceived in a rape (by whom is still up for debate) and then was expected to go on with his life like nothing had happened. And so he started spiraling out of control, and that pain eventually killed him.
On his death bed, my brother told me that six of his siblings from his father’s side were also heroin addicts. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Experts say that addiction is hereditary and this fact is proof. My mind goes to an interview I read recently in The Atlantic, Life as a Nonviolent Psychopath, about a neuroscientist who discovered that he had the brain of a psychopath. Learning that made him look into his upbringing and factors that led him to not become violent. He was raised in a loving family where he felt safe and supported. I think about how this can be applied to addiction. The triggers were all there for my brother, a violent home where we often didn’t feel safe. We lived in a drug-rattled neighborhood, Bushwick, Brooklyn in the 80s, where danger was very real and palpable. And I know my brother was also bullied and often felt isolated and ostracized from his peers for reasons that will forever be a mystery to me now that he’s gone. All of this coupled with that devastating news when he was just a boy and the silence that followed, combined to manifest that addiction. My poor brother never stood a chance.
And where does that leave me? It leaves me to pick apart the history and write it. Why me? Some days I’m not sure. Today I know that I’m the only one strong enough to do it. I’m the only one willing to be vulnerable and raw. I’m the only one willing to go through the often self-destructive process that is creating, not to become known to the world—but to become known to myself. To free myself of the tragedies that have shackled the women in my family. To free myself again and again, as many times as I have to, so my daughter doesn’t have to carry it and her daughter doesn’t have to carry it.
The only way out is in.
the hard season
split you through.
do not worry.
you will bleed water.
do not worry.
this is grief.
your face will fall out and drown your skin
there will be scorching
but do not worry.
keep speaking the years from their
keep coughing up smoke from all the deaths you
keep the rage tender
because the soft season will come.
it will come.
both hands in your chest.
up all night.
up all of the nights.
to drink all damage into love.
–therapy by Nayyirah Waheed