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Guest Posts, memories, Trauma

Beyond The Haunting

August 17, 2021
trauma

by Micah Stover

My favorite auntie told me when I was little to be careful. She said it with a wink, but I knew it was a warning. She told me not to be scared of boys. That really the girls are the powerful ones because we know things. But knowing things can be dangerous.

*

Trauma spreads through my bloodlines like bamboo, strong and supple. Sometimes dressed as madness. Sometimes addiction. Sometimes violence. It wears many faces and has many names, but mostly it lies hidden with everything evocative of shame.

It took me years and much work to understand that inside everything labeled as trauma rests a jewel – a seeing, a knowing, a power. Intuition is the key that unlocks that house of divinity. Inside that house, there is no battle for control. There is only truth and clarity. Inside that house, I sleep like a baby and walk like a warrior in tune with the earth. Inside that house, my life is my own and I understood it to be a gift, not a curse.

*

This was the truth as it was revealed to me under the elixir of the great mycelium and her perfect, little flowering body. How little I understood about this vast, robust network under the soil, communicating, connecting, severing, mending, ending and beginning. Everything. All of life held clearly here in the womb of nature where she spreads and pulses her rhythms out into the world, like a woman in labor contracting with life and possibilities. My aunties were midwives. They knew all these things and whispered them in my ears.

When the psilocybin carried me down into the dirt, into the center of all that is living, she showed me the intricate weave of my ancestors. In a voice familiar, loving and firm, she insisted my self-concept deconstruct. She repeated this over and over again, until it was all I knew. Until my ego completely dissolved returning me to the earth from which I’d come. Then it became clear how subservience and humility rendered so little space for agency. How rage filled in the spaces where potential might otherwise have been.

I saw myself inside the construct of time and generations, chasing the truth like an elusive thread. I was the canary in the coal mine of my lineage, my karmic inheritance clear. I’d come to sing a song, to seek and speak the truth where all the other women before me had been silenced. I grabbed this thread woven into the essence of me, and I started to work.

Deep down in the belly of the earth it was apparent how much had been hidden and buried in the small cemetery with dilapidated fence and hand carved tombstones, sitting just behind Grandma’s old farmhouse.  The garden, fertile and ripe, with succulent tomatoes popping off the vine, tasting more like a fruit than a vegetable as they toppled like offerings onto the graves. Death and life juxtaposed, swirling together in the soil, side by side. The lush and loss represented in equal measure. My cousin commanded the four-wheeler like a master at age eleven while I clung to his waist, pink frock and blonde curls trailing in the wind. A small shiver on my spine as we whizzed past the stretch of cemetery where all the spirits moaned and grasped at my ankles.

Etched in the family code was reverence to a severe god who required we reject our desires and curiosities. Feeling sorry was inherent to being conscious. I was raised in this context to speak earnestly but in code, to tell half-truths and leave the rest behind. I was taught to live my life as an apology and required to subvert my power in attempt to find a place in a world that was not ever mine.

*

I never met Cecil, my paternal grandfather, though he visits sometimes in my sleep. He was dead before I came along, buried in that cemetery out back. My grandmother visited him daily, loyal beyond time to a man she loved almost as deeply as she despised. His stories linger large even after all this time. Charismatic and unhinged, he was prone to episodic drunken outbursts before the war. His body returned, but not his spirit. His spirit was a casualty into the wasteland of unresolved PTSD. He returned taunting death, begging for an escape that would stick. When he was almost fifty, the doctor came to unplug the machines keeping his barely breathing body alive. The black cancer had spread to his lungs from his heart leaving the entire chest cavity a shadow. He left behind lots of babies and a teenage wife who couldn’t drive or read.

He is the dark man I see sometimes in my dreams, appearing like a hunter, seeking me out. Initially his shadow evoked a shiver, but these days, he wanes and turns to walk before running away. My body in this dream is also black, more iridescent than dark or opaque. I move lithe, strong and equally foreboding, approaching him dead on. I am a large, sensual cat in the twilight. I am not here to hunt. I have come to protect and preserve myself, my cubs, the lineage that is now mine. I’ve come to retrieve something sacred and pure from a black hole of ancestral pain.

For a moment, Cecil and my eyes meet, and an inexplicable recalibration transpires with our gaze locked. We remain transfixed until his black shadow shrinks to the size of a small boy far more frightened of me than I of him. His spirit begins to pulse little specks of red blood from a heart that used to beat. Cecil had come all this way for salvation, not conquest. Salvation was not mine to give, but there was something universal I could offer him. I could tell him he’s forgiven. As a mother, learning to soothe a scared little boy, out of control, I said simply: “You’re safe now. The struggle is done.”

It turns out my canary song was more a lullaby than a cry for help. All I needed to do was let love loom larger than fear and replace caution with courage.

*

Cecil raised Richard, my father, third of eight kids born into poverty and chaos. In the back hills of Tennessee where my father was raised, his pedigree was well known. Because there were so many of them and because their charisma and epic feuds ricocheted through the corn fields, nothing was really secret. The shotgun rang out like a sheet of music to accompany the family score. Richard was raised by ghosts, damaged spirits above and below the earth.

He made his way out of the wreckage by identifying two goals – stay sober and make money. His money created a different life for me than he had known. Though his sobriety did not. He still lived from the haunted place that devoured love and left another kind of scarcity in its wake.

*

Richard’s goals were well set before he met my mother. My mother was equally smart in different ways – an intellectual, not a survivalist. No trauma swirled inside her. By contrast, her idyllic childhood left her with no sense of all that could possibly go wrong.

They bore me not from rage, but neither from clear intent. Love can also lend accidental objects. This was my predicament, nestled between a mother who wanted a baby and father who was terrified of passing on his pain. His rejection of me was also a matter of his love, a deep desire not to hurt me as he’d been hurt. I understand this knee jerk response better now as a mother myself. Though as a girl what I felt most was loneliness, stuck in the landmine between them, their squabbles and projections. Their unconsciousness, almost my inheritance.

The child me needed a bad guy and a good guy. Someone to be angry at and someone to save. The adult me understands what the child could not. A woman without voice and boundaries will always believe she needs someone other than herself.  And a little boy longing to be loved will raise a little girl in search of the same. The adult me now knows I was always enough, and they did the best they could. There are no binaries.

Trauma does many things. It cultivates your intuition, your ability to read people and the environment. It leaves you lonely, but never bored. It makes you resourceful and creative, albeit potentially and periodically manic. It gives you stories to tell, if you can find the courage to tell them. My sons gave me cause to bury the ghosts, to find a way to turn tragedy to triumph, to work with the pain rather than resist it.

I’m not the same kind of midwife my aunties were. But I’ve learned how to birth certain things. How to take hurt and transmute it into something different. How to take bitter and make it sweet. How to find the little overlap where shame and blame give way to empathy and forgiveness.

The tiniest voice buried deep inside me had much to say and was not so tiny after all. A tickle in the way back of my throat, followed by something that felt like choking. Ancestral hands constricting the airways, begging not to be shamed. Then something that was half cough, half growl, barreled forward from the depths and what came out was my life. A story about moving from pious to righteous. A story being rewritten in real time.

Raised by evangelicals on a farm in rural Tennessee, Micah Stover is now far from home in Mexico where she resides with her family and works as an integrative support therapist with trauma survivors. Micah is currently writing and revising a memoir, chronicling the path to heal intergenerational trauma and PTSD with MDMA, psilocybin and guided psychotherapy.

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Leigh Stein is amazing, no really she is. Leigh was cofounder and executive director of Out of the Binders/BinderCon, a feminist literary nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the careers of women and gender variant writers. The Land of Enchantment was our first introduction to Leigh, and her memoir of a broken love and lost dreams placed this writer firmly on our radar. Leigh’s recent novel, Self Care, received rave (and starred) reviews and is a highbrow yet satirical look at influencer culture. This month, though, she released a book of poetry  that is everything. What to Miss When: Poems is a look at the internet, the pandemic, and the life lived in between. Leigh is an amazing talent, pick up one of her books and let us know what you think!

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, memories, Trauma

My Body Remembers What I Don’t

August 3, 2021
mother

by Meredith Resnick

I am six. I am standing on the cement pool deck behind our brick apartment building in Yonkers. A sticky day in August. My body is wet. The pool is blue. The sky is gray. It is a weekday. All the mothers are lined up on woven beach chairs in a row that spans the chain link fence. All the mothers except my mother. There is a break between her and the other mothers. No chairs, no towels, just gray cement.

I stand in front of her in a pink bathing suit. My ribs stick out like a xylophone. I cradle my fingers between my ribs. She tells me to stop. You look insecure, she says, and lights a cigarette. I don’t know what insecure means but I stop. I shiver. She has called me out of the pool to put on a t-shirt to wear in the water because you can get a sunburn on overcast days. This is before we know that t-shirts in the water can make a sunburn worse. This is before we know a lot of things. Before I know a lot of things.

My mother hides behind large sunglasses. She wears a black and white bathing suit. She smokes. She pulls a towel over her squishy thighs. She hates her cellulite. She hates her body. She flicks ashes into a Fresca can and slides the lipstick-marked butt after it. I hear it sizzle. She lights another. I slip the t-shirt over my wet hair, over my pink shoulders. Good, she says. I can’t tell if she is looking at me.

My feet slap the cement. I’m back at the pool. I squat on the steps in the shallow end then let my body glide through the water until my feet no longer stretch for the bottom. The water holds me. It wants to hold me. It teaches me to swim. This part is easy. I float. I touch the bottom. I buoy to the surface. I hold my breath.

One year ago I knew without knowing that I must teach myself to swim. I don’t know what that meant until years later and I am an adult. I don’t know what a lot of things mean until years later. There is a large gap in my knowledge of things that a daughter should understand.

I learn to swim by gulping air and holding my breath. I look like other children splashing in the water, trying to learn.

My mother does not look like other mothers sitting on the deck.

For a reason I don’t understand, I am afraid she will abandon me. This happens when I’m in the water, always when I’m skimming the bottom of the pool, furthest from the surface, from her. I force myself to count. To not panic. One to ten. Ten to twenty. The longer I wait the more my panic grows. I am frantic. I burst from shallow depths in my t-shirt and search for her. Scan the long line of mothers. But she is not like other mothers. She sits alone in the corner, with her cigarettes, after the gap and I forget, I always forget.

When I wave she waves back, a limp hand in my direction. She blows smoke into the summer air.

As if on cue the other mothers rise from their chaises and lower into the pool like some synchronized dance they all know. In the water, all around me, mothers with black hair and brown hair and blond hair or hair tucked beneath flower bathing caps pull their children in slow circles around their thighs, even the kids bigger than me. Through my chlorine-stung eyes, mother and child are one.

Except.

This time I look for the red hair and the orange tip of the lit cigarette. I push up the edge of the pool and run to her, then run back to the edge and scoop the water up with my hands and dumped it over my head.  I don’t know why or what I am doing. My mother blows more smoke. She laughs.  She laughs so hard I think she might cry.  She laughs so hard she tells me to stop.  I don’t stop. I wave to her. Silly excited waving.  Simmer-down excited.

“Enough already,” she says, cigarette between her teeth. I stop. I stand there. I want to hug her. I don’t hug her. She doesn’t like me to touch her. I turn and jump into the water and swim in this vast sea, warm water touching every part of me except what is beneath the t-shirt. That part feels cold. That I want to wrap my arms around her too tight, and sit too close, and touch her arm or leg is normal. This must mean there is something wrong with me or with my body where the t-shirt touches. She is the mother; there is nothing wrong with her. But I don’t know that yet. There is so much I don’t yet know.

I peel off my t-shirt. I will get another sunburn. I let the water hold all of me.

***

I am thirty-three. I am meticulous about birth control.  About preparing my diaphragm. When I use the foams, creams, and jellies, and the doughy sponges that never stay put.  I lay in bed and watch my husband don the prophylactics, the Trojans that stick like glue, wrapped in the knowledge that as two mature responsible adults who are learning to grow together, we will know when it is time, when it is right, to grow our family.

My interior universe already knows no sign, time, or alarm clock exists. I don’t long for a baby who melts into me, who captures my hair between her fingers. I long to be the type of woman who does. I don’t fantasize about a real baby I can love, or dream of pregnancy the way some women do.  I never stuck a pillow beneath my dress as a child and pretended I was pregnant.  But I do now, as an adult.

I act “as if.”

I act.

I try.

I am trying.

I wonder if there is something wrong with me.

I am seven.  My mother and I are in the den on the couch. Raindrops ping the air conditioner perched on the windowsill. It is morning. It is Christmas vacation. It is going to be a boring day.  On her side, face creased into the pillow, my mother lights a cigarette.  Her doughy legs fold into an L; the fetal position. Freckles, our miniature poodle, crawls into their right angle.

“Can we get a Christmas tree?”

“We are Jewish,” my mother says. Smoke streams into the air.

“Can we get a crèche?” It is a serious word. I understand serious words. I say I will take care of the baby Jesus all year, and that he can be a child for my Barbie doll. They will live in the crèche. My mother says Barbie doesn’t have a husband, is too young to have a baby, and that even if Joseph were the father, it wouldn’t be nice to leave Mary out and besides, the Baby Jesus doesn’t look like a Barbie would be his mother.

The girl who lives next door has a cross over the side of her bed at pillow height. In the middle of the night when she’s scared, Jesus makes her feel safe. It’s her secret with Jesus. This cross is made of wood and Jesus is nailed to it. The nails stick out of his palms, their flat tops painted red. His face is so sad. I wonder what Jesus was like as a boy. Did he like milk? Did he get scared? When I get scared I crawl into my parents’ bed. Fear and safety are how I feel close to them.

“I touch his feet every night. Want to touch them?”

“No,” I say.

“Because you’re Jewish?”

“Because he looks so sad.” Because he looks like my mother.

“He’s not sad,” she says, hands on hips.

I don’t answer. She leads me into the living room. Beneath the Christmas tree is a crèche. My friend hands me the baby. “That’s the same Jesus,” she says. “In case you didn’t know.”

“I know.” I cradle him in my palm.

I ask my mother to tell me the story of how I was born. We are on the high riser, in the den.

She lights a cigarette.

“I missed my period.”

I slide my foot across the cushion. I want to touch my mother in such a way so she doesn’t notice. It will be my secret. So slowly, like my foot is the medium from the Ouija board I got for my birthday. I move against my will but every bit my will, toward my mother’s leg.

“We brought you home and I put you in an infant seat, propped a bottle against a balled-up receiving blanket, and watched you drink it from across the room.”

I hate when she tells me about her period.  And when she says she never held me.  That she hated feeding me.  Was afraid she’d drop me.

I look down into my lap then I look at her, smile. “But are you glad you had me?”

I don’t know that this is not a question all children ask.

My parents are older than other parents. I am only in second grade but I’ve already vowed to never be that old when I become a mother. In real life, my parents are not so much old, they just seem old—she is 42 when I am born in 1961, and my father is about to turn 44.  I know my father always with gray hair, a bad back, and perpetual cancer that warrants lengthy hospital stays, and my mother with wrinkled skin, few teeth save for her silver bridges, and leg cramps that leave her toes curled like fists.  My sister is 21 years older than me, and my brother 18 years older, and look more like the parents of kids my age. “That lady,” friends say, pointing to my mother, “looks like a grandmother.”

My mother exhales smoke. “I would never have an abortion.”

I have looked up this word. This word is in the grown-up dictionary, not in my children’s illustrated dictionary. I have checked.

“But you were our change of life baby. A great big surprise.”

She moves. The dog scurries. I can’t get my foot to touch her leg fast enough before she sits up.

Secretly I worry that my lack of desire to have a baby, to be pregnant, to carry a child indicate something fundamentally wrong with me.  I’m afraid I’ve inherited my mother’s lack of baby desire and maternal instinct.  That in some odd twist my own mothering instinct was tweaked in her womb.  It seeps from my pores, a disease that takes generations to cure.  But mine is not the generation for such miracles.  Babies, with hands like rose petals and toes like creamy pebbles, are natural.  My lack of maternal instinct—or maybe it is my mother herself?— is not.

***

The year my husband I adopt our daughters—two sisters, Russian, who are ten and thirteen when they come to us—I find the mirror I’d given my mother on her birthday long ago. She is eighty now. I’m thirty-eight. I’m packing her things. She can no longer live alone. Dementia has changed her. Softened her. She gazes at me sometimes.

But now my mother sleeps and I hold the frame. The metal warms in my fingers. The green patina features a slender silhouette, a metal woman peering back at herself in the mirror. I’d chosen this mirror for reasons I did not understand until now. To hold my mother’s gaze was like trying to balancing a gyroscope on the tip of your finger at the bottom of the ocean. This embellishment, this expressionless woman, was the face I’d memorized. It was all I ever saw because it was all she showed me.

For some there is the urge to develop. To move beyond. But for me, developing means deepening. My body remembers. It has become a kind of appendix that has collected the bits and pieces of my girlhood. Its captured the outlying events that inform but don’t define the story arc of me. What has deepened me has also wounded me, and the person who wouldn’t touch me may well have also loved me in their very particular way. These footnotes and asterisks about someone else also comprise the main narrative of mine, and sometimes it can be difficult to explain and understand. How could your mother have been like that? You’re nothing like that. I didn’t inherited my mother’s lack of desire or her inability to love. I am still trying to understand why that feels like a transgression.

So what happened; what really happened? It all happened. I won’t say that I raised myself. But, rather, that something larger than myself, than my mother, than any of us whispered in my ear to keep going. I never feel alone and yet, in many ways, I always feel alone.

And that is okay.

I am okay.

When you become a mother you become acquainted with the rights others take in telling you what motherhood is or, rather, what it should be. This goes for daughterhood, too. These are binaries, though, eithers and ors that appoint shame and pity to the ones who cannot give, and the others who don’t have something to receive. This fault line demands not a choice of one or the other but, rather, falling backwards into the depths and darkness. That is where you become. From this you emerge. This is what I’ve learned. To find myself there, no longer unseen.

 

Meredith Gordon Resnick’s* work appears in the Washington Post, JAMA, Psychology Today, Lilith, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Motherwell, Literary Mama, and the Santa Monica Review. Meredith is creator of the Shame Recovery Project, work devoted to healing the unwarranted shame of sexual (and other) traumas, and founder of The Writer’s [Inner] Journey, an award-winning site about the intersection of writing, creativity and depth. She is co-author of All the Love: Healing Your Heart and Finding Meaning After Pregnancy Loss. 

*Her work also appears under Meredith Gordon and Meredith Resnick.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, Trauma

I Remember My Dad As Brutal, But It Was Far Worse

August 14, 2020
father

CW: This essay discusses sexual abuse and/or assault.

By Caroline Leavitt

There it is, the photo I have saved to remind myself of the feelings I had tamped down. I’m at my Aunt Gertrude’s sedar table, standing for the obligatory family shot. I’m ten years old, in a starchy blue sailor dress my mother made me wear and though I am smiling, I am terrified, desperate to get away. I can’t, though, because my father is holding my elbow in a vise grip even as I lean away toward my older sister on the other side of me. She’s smiling, not coming to my rescue. My mom, who I love, is outside the frame, her face turned away.

Here are the facts: My dad is a bully who often uses a strap and literally screams so loudly that it sounds like his voice is tearing from his throat. When he talks, he belittles. He never says I love you, never hugs or kisses anyone, and the one time he takes me to a movie, he leaves me alone in the cavernously empty theater to watch the film by myself while he stays at the refreshment stand wolfing down candy. My mom endures him because she doesn’t know what else to do, my sister inexplicably loves him, and his rageful behavior is never spoken about in my house. No, that’s quarantined, a room full of secrets roped off by silence.

Family, I’m told, is everything.

Instead, I learn to bury my feelings, and in many ways, myself. I make myself small—as small as the last line on a vision chart. The one nobody can see.

I grow quieter and quieter because any sort of speaking up can get me hit. I’m not allowed to close the door to my room (and if I do, it will be yanked open and I will be yelled at or struck), but I learn to simulate privacy by getting lost in the world of books, and then writing. I do this for hours and hours because who can yell at me when I am so silent, so invisible? And in books, my writing, I’m lost in a whole other world which seemed much safer than the real one.

I grow up around my father’s rules. Don’t dress like a hippie and embarrass him. Don’t dare get up earlier than he does because I’d wake him with my noise and be punished. And, of course, the rules include what to think. I soon know that my thoughts are not respected, that any opinions have to match his. The government’s always right. Any war going on that the United States was raging is the right one. Women are lesser than men. We are to respect his mother and agree with whatever she does when we visit her every week, and if we don’t say good morning in the right way, he will give us the silent treatment for week, making us beg over and over, “What did I do?” until he would deign to tell us.

But if my thoughts are not my own, then either is my body. We are little girls, my sister and I, but my father never tells us we were darling or smart or beloved. Instead, my father keeps piles of Playboys around the house, the glossy centerfolds of women who look nothing like us, nothing like our mom or any woman we have ever seen, out in plain view and my sister and I stare at them amazed and uncomfortable. One day, my father catches me looking and snatches the magazine away. I go to sit on the couch, and turn on TV, and then my father strides over to me and takes my little hand and shoves it into his wet mouth. Horrified, I jerk my hand free and run to the bathroom, washing my hands over and over, and when I come back, he motions me to him, and he does it again, only this time he’s laughing.

And that’s when I begin to have nightmares. I sleep with the covers bunched over my head and only my nose poking out, terrified. Sometimes I call for my mother and ask her to lay beside me until I fall asleep and then gradually I can and it becomes a habit.

But my father doesn’t like that.

One night, my mother cautiously tells me, “Your father wants you to sleep beside him tonight.”

I look at her panicked. “I don’t want to,” I say. “Why do I have to?”

My mother sighes.  “Please do it. His feelings are hurt. He asked me to ask you.”

“Can I say no?”

I am five. I have no power. That night, I curl into my father’s twin bed, separated from my mom’s bed by a night table, my whole body turns away from my father, facing my mother, whose eyes are closed. All of us have pajamas on, and I’m careful not to let any part of him touch me. I move to the edge of the bed, reaching across to try and touch my mom. I whisper, “Mom,” but she doesn’t hear me. Her eyes stay shut. Mom. Mom. Mommy. In the morning, I wake as my father is getting out of bed, but he doesn’t have pajamas on now, and he is naked and hairy, and I stare at his penis, his balls, the first I have ever seen. He sees my eyes locked on his genitals and he shouts, “What the hell are you doing? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? What’s the matter with you?” My mother, rising, says nothing except his name, trying to calm him down. All that day I live in terror that he will ask for me to do this again, but he stays silent, and my mom and I never talk about any of it. But it roils inside of me.

Three weeks later, my mother is called in by the kindergarten teacher because we have been asked to draw paper dolls of our family and I have drawn mine all naked. My father’s penis is so large, it dwarfs him, reaching down to his ankles. His balls are like balloons. The teacher’s concerned but my mother shrugs it off. “She’s precocious and imaginative,” she tells my teacher.

When my mother comes home, she holds me and tells me about the meeting. “Maybe keep things in the family in the family,” she says gently. My sister, listening, looks appalled. “You’re disgusting,” my sister tells me. “You lie and lie and lie. You made Mom feel bad,” she says, and I feel a flash of guilt. I never think to ask my sister, does he ever make her sleep in the bed with him, too?

We grow, and I turn ten and then my sister tells me the facts of life. “It’s revolting,” she says. “No one wants to do it, except for guys.” She bangs two rocks together to show me, a violent coupling that scares me. I grow afraid when I think I’d have to do this with boys. “You just do it,” my sister says, and then she asks me if I want to touch tongues with her, if I want us to touch each other’s butts. I recoil. “Why would I want to do that?” I ask and she laughs at me. But it makes me wonder. Did something happen with my sister and my dad? Or did she escape it all? And if she had, how? What does she know that I did not?

And then I turn sixteen, and then seventeen, and while my sister, the good girl, never rebels, I begin to tentatively speak out and this time, for the first time, my mom yells at me. “Don’t be so independent!” she shouts. She doesn’t like my fresh mouth, my wildly curly hair, the way I dress in skirts so short I’m always being sent home. My dad yells in chorus with her. My sister begins to date and I listen to my mom talking to her about “playing her cards right,” getting married as soon as she can, but not letting any boy get fast with her. “Men need sex. Women don’t,” my mother says, and I listen, bewildered. Was that true?

My sister, newly gorgeous, suddenly has all this male attention, boyfriends who came to the door with flowers and smiles, Is it any wonder I look for my own male attention? That I fall in love so hard and fast with any boy who pays me attention in a kind of madness? I’m skinny and unpopular, and when a known “bad boy” boy in school asks me out, my mother tells me I can go, but we never tell my dad.

That date is magic. The boy likes me. He really likes me. He holds my hands and talks quietly and by the time we arrive back to my house and I have my first tender kiss in our doorway, I am insane with love.  But just as we are about to kiss again, my father barges out in his boxers, his fly wide open, screaming at me that I’m late, and who told me I could date? My father sends him home and then shoves me. He tells me I’m never to see that boy again, and if I do, he will keep me prisoner in the house.

Go ahead and try it, I think, feeling a flush of power. And that whole summer, I lie to my parents about having a job as a camp counselor, about going on overnights, so I can sleep with my boyfriend at an abandoned ski slope by his house, because by then I know for sure that it isn’t just boys who need sex. We are together off and on for a year, and my family never knows it.

I keep dating. My father has no idea about all the boys I sleep with. I keep score in a notebook, as if the amount proves my worth. 70 guys. Then 100. Then more. Every one I sleep with feels like I am ripping away the seam that still connects me to my family.

I go to college halfway across the country to Ann Arbor, as far away as I can get. Every week I speak to my mom on the phone, and when my father gets on, all he says is that I should work hard. “Don’t think I won’t cut you off if you don’t,” my father threatens. He shouts so loudly I have to hold the phone away from my ear. Good, I think. Cut me off. Good.

Why don’t  I ever confront anyone? Because I’m told my memories are wrong, that I must have exaggerated, “the way I always do.” I’m told this  so often, that I begin to believe it. And so I replace those memories with something else: My father loves me. In his own way. I visit home once a year, for two days at the most, and nothing important is ever said. I sleep in my old childhood room, the door locked, the covers around my head.

I am 25 when my father dies. He’s 57 years old, obese, with skyrocketing blood pressure and high cholesterol, a man whose only exercise is walking from the car to our house. I feel nothing about his death. I come back home and my sister is sobbing, my mother wailing, “I want him back.” She is so upset, I didn’t have the heart to ask her why. Later my sister tells me that she thinks she sees him watching over her, his profile in a nearby tree. “He protects me.”

“How?” I ask. She shows me the tree and I stare at it blankly.

“What was so great about him?” I ask.

“Lots,” she says. She tells me when she was in high school and she went to a party, some of the kids were dropping acid, snorting coke, and afraid, she called him to come and get her. “You did the right thing,” he told her. He would always take care of her, she says. “Shame on you for saying those bad things about our wonderful father,” she said.

My father leaves my mother nothing, no insurance money, no savings, but she has the house, and a teaching job, and friends, and without him, she blooms. But for me and my sister, he leaves a legacy. How are either of us to know what a good male partner looks like when our dad was our only model?

Doesn’t it make sense that my sister marries young, a man like our father, someone silent with a temper, a sexist who likes to cup his hands in the air like he was weighing boobs when a buxom woman walks by. I cry at her wedding, begging her to change her mind. “Don’t be silly,” she says. She has kids, one after another, the way our mother had, focusing on them for happiness. When I ask my sister why she stands for his behavior, she says, “because I have to.” When I ask her why she doesn’t shout back at him, she says, “because he can scream louder.”

I’m afraid of marrying a man like my father, like my sister’s husband, so I go for the opposite, the fast talkers who never shut up, who fill the silence so I never have to feel uncomfortable in its danger. It takes me time to realize they keep talking only about themselves, what they want, who they want me to be.  But with all those motor mouths, no one really notices how quiet I am. How quarantined.

And then, in my 40s, I meet Jeff, a smart, funny journalist who’s kind and sometimes quiet and I can’t believe he might really love me, so I test him, yelling sometimes, and instead of leaving, he comes closer, wanting to solve issues, to make things right. He actually sees me—all of me. He wants me to be happy. And that makes me want to revise my childhood, to try to think about it in a happier way, too.

I try to talk to my mother about my upbringing, my voice quiet, composed, even sympathetic to what she must have gone through. “I don’t want to talk about this because I have nothing to feel guilty about,” she says, and then her whole face changes, and she looks a thousand years old, and because I love her, I can’t hurt her, so I stop talking.

I never find out the things I’m so desperate to know, not then, and by the time I’m ready to try to ask again, my mom has dementia, and then she dies. I try to talk with my sister, but she now feels angry with me. She says I’ve stolen her life, grabbing the happy marriage, the writing career, that she was meant to have. The more I try to help her, to talk, the worse I make things. Her rage grows until she estranges herself from me. I haven’t seen her or spoken to her in two years.

So who can I find answers from? How can I put this to rest? I ask my friends, my cousins what they remember about that time, they said only that my father was oddly quiet, that they just felt he had a blah personality. When I tell them what I remember, they see my father through the lens of my reality. “Oh my God, I never knew,” they tell me. “I never imagined. If I had known, I would have done something”.

One day, just before the pandemic begins, I’m sitting with my friend Leora, and she’s asking me about my past, and I start to talk, and as I do, I see her face changing. I talk and talk and when I’m done, she is so still that I worry. “I’m not making this up,” I insist, and she shakes her head and reaches over and takes my hand. She says quietly, “Caroline, you were abused. You have to look at this trauma.” It’s the first time anyone’s ever used that word: abused.

 CLICK.

There it was, the lens of clarity as my friend reflects this truth back to me. And now it’s my turn to look. How could I not have known from the start who my father really was?

And so I go to talk to strangers, therapists who might help me decode what had happened.  When I tell my first therapist that I feel nothing about my father, that my memories are all jumbled up, he insists I am not telling the truth. “You have to feel something,” he says. Then he asks me to consider my father as a man who had had dreams and yearnings, that I consider his feelings, what he might have been going through. And that’s when I get up and leave the room, wired with rage.

And then I find a therapist I love, a woman who tells me that the brain neurons fire and rewire when we’re young, that a lot of what I’m feeling is leftover responses and if I talk about them enough, the firing will get weaker—I will be able to safely bury the past. “And,” she says. “You need to write about it. Writing about it will help you remember what was really going on underneath it all. The brain won’t know the difference.”

And so I do. Here. Now. The old feelings come back in a rage blizzard. I write about my love for a mother who took me to the movies, and was funny and bought me books, but who couldn’t stand up to her husband to protect her daughter. I write about hurt for a sister who seems to follow my mother’s past path unseeing, one choice after another. And I write out my outrage for a little girl who never got to be the adored daughter, who went through terrible things that she knew were terrible but she never once thought: this is wrong. You need to stop.

 And then I hear it again. CLICK. Like when you’re at the optometrist and you’re doing the vision test and you put your chin in the cup and stare at the chart, eyes wide, unblinking, and the doctor clicks different lenses in front of you as the random configuration of numbers and letters grow clearer and blurrier with each one. You see the first row, the second, the third—things seem clear. Then they don’t. CLICK. But the chart itself has not moved. Neither have you. And as you age, your vision changes, your clarity about your life changes, too. But the facts never change. The truth. You just may need different lenses to see it.

Now, I want to go back in time, first to my father to stand up to him and ask him why he did what he did, how dare he not treasure his little girl, how dare he not love her or want to know her? Why did he yell and abuse? Your loss, I want to tell him. You were wrong about everything, I want to say, especially me. Look at me, I want to tell him. I broke the pattern. I have a loving husband, a wonderful beauty of a son. No one yells. No one rages. No one hits or abuses emotionally or physically.

But you did. And it is your loss.

Then I want to go back to that other me, that quiet little girl in the starchy sailor dress and tell her, it’s going to be okay, honey. Because you are absolutely and completely okay. Right now. And later, too. You will be able to leave all of this behind. You will be able to be loved by someone who deserves you, whom you deserve—and you deserve happiness. You will have wonderful friends and work you love. You will continue to talk and talk and talk and write about all of this, telling the story of your family, the truth, until all that pain loses its power and all of your quarantine will be over.

You will remember. You will see.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York times Bestselling author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow, Cruel Beautiful World and 9 other novels. Her new novel With or Without You was published August 4 by Algonquin Books.

 

 

On Being Human Online Workshops

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Other upcoming events with Jen

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Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Guest Posts, poetry, Trauma

TRAUMA, MARY OLIVER, AND ME: HOW POETRY SAVED MY LIFE

August 7, 2019
oliver

by Nadia Colburn, PhD

Mary Oliver, who died recently at 83, lit the way forward for me when I doubted that I could ever move past suffering into survival, let alone beauty and joy.

In 2011, I was a poet who had stopped writing poetry. Although writing had long been a trusted friend, holding my hand as I remembered being sexually abused as a child, writing also seemed to hold me in place, to mire me in pain.

Much of the poetry I had once loved now seemed to mirror back to me violence and suffering.  I didn’t want to be the cliche of the unhappy poet, or worse. Two of my poet friends, both also graduates of the my PhD program, had recently committed suicide. I often thought back to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, two mother poets who had famously committed suicide. I couldn’t help but wonder if poetry was doing us more harm than good.

I was a mother of two young kids when memories of a babysitter abusing me came flooding back. If for a while writing poetry allowed me to express my feelings, I soon worried that the form was holding me in my pain with no way out. I decided to move away from poetry, to write non-fiction instead. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Trauma

Making sense out of Tragedy

February 1, 2019
market

By Tanya Ward Goodman

You went to Katsuya at the Americana mall in Glendale to escape the sound of helicopters in your neighborhood. For an hour, your cell phone had been humming in your pocket alerting you to the concern of your friends and family.

“We are safe,” you typed. “Strange world.”

A few hours earlier, someone had crashed a car in front of your neighborhood Trader Joe’s. With the police in pursuit, this person took shelter in the grocery store. He was armed. He barricaded himself. Hostages were taken. Allegedly, he’d already shot his grandmother. And his girlfriend. The scene was still unfolding.

In LA, there are always helicopters. When they start to collect in one place a person begins to wonder. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Trauma

MY GHOST BODY’S THOUGHTS

November 29, 2018
ghost

CW: This essay discusses sexual assault and eating disorders

By Cyndie Randall

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.”
– Fred Rogers

“Survivors feel unsafe in their bodies. Their emotions and their thinking feel out of control.”
– Judith Lewis Herman

The carpet was bitter this morning. It jammed itself between my toes – the first resistance – and burned the skin on my knees like tiny pin pricks.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

I never say “Amen” without remembering the empty, sweaty hands I’ve held in countless circles of healing.

Several complex galaxies were pushing on my back by the time I stood up, each so heavy that I went looking for my daughter and apologized to her immediately.

“Why are you sorry, mama?”

My body told me I’d be crawling back into bed after tea, so I answered her by giving an advance on the second apology.

The third one came a few hours later – “Oh my! Sorry!” The clock read 1:30 p.m. and I was still wearing a tattered nightgown when her friend bounced up the driveway and to our door. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Trauma, World Events

Fallout

February 12, 2018
trauma

By Carin Enovijas

It’s been almost a month since the State of Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency grossly mismanaged a routine drill and sent out a text message to millions of my neighbors informing us that we were about to die by nuclear annihilation. It took another 38 minutes to issue a “just kidding” response to the FUBAR fiasco, during which many folks waited to either be instantly immolated or survive long enough to fight to the death in the apocalyptic aftermath.

I won’t bother rehashing all the incredulous details because unless you’ve been cut off from the world, possibly holed up in a bomb shelter, you’ve likely heard all about the incompetence that led to the now historic Panic in Paradise.

In the aftermath of the incident I gave myself permission to take the rest of the day off. My family seems to be a bit more prepared than a lot of folks. We had worked together calmly and quickly to gather our supplies and prepared to shelter in place for at least 14 days. Our successful teamwork helped to offset some of the immediate emotional fallout. Although I’m still not sure why I decided to put away all the fresh fruit into the freezer. After some discussion and making of notes on how to round out the details of our emergency plan, my family went about their business as usual. Like so many of our neighbors and friends, we have shared our “I love yous” with much more frequency and sincerity throughout the past week. Continue Reading…