Consent by Vanessa Springora

Consent, by Vanessa Springora, describes the author’s history of being sexually abused (starting at age 14) by the writer Gabriel Matzneff who was, at the time, age 49.

This memoir explodes the structures & strictures of keeping secrets and carrying shame. It’s a reckoning on behalf of those who have been fondled, lied to, controlled, terrorized, gaslit, manipulated, damaged, and otherwise abused by pedophiles. (Good!)

(I recommend this book. And this book may bring up past/un-metabolized/unhealed trauma. If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, and you choose to read it, please find ways to take care of yourself as needed.)

& may we all find our way toward healing and wholeness.

A couple resonant bits:

p. 181:

            “It’s incredible. I’d never have believed it possible. After so many romantic disasters, such a struggle to accept love unhesitatingly, the man whom I eventually met and with whom I now share my life was somehow able to heal my many wounds. We have a son who is just entering adolescence. A son who has helped me gro. Because you can’t remain fourteen years old forever once you become a mother. My son is handsome, with a gentle expression in his eyes, a bit of a dreamer. Fortunately, he never asks me much about my childhood. Which is just as well. In the imaginations of our children, at least when they’re young, our lives only began with their birth. Perhaps they sense, intuitively, that there is a shadowy zone it’s better not to venture into.”

p. 184:

            “By setting his sights on young, lonely, vulnerable girls, whose parents either couldn’t cope or were actively negligent, G. knew that they would never threaten his reputation. And silence means consent.

            But on the other hand, to my knowledge, not a single one of his countless mistresses has ever chosen to write a book recounting the wonderful relationship she had with G.

            Does that tell us something?

            What has changed today—something that men like he and his defenders complain about constantly, excoriating the general atmosphere of puritanism—is that following the sexual revolution, it is now, at last, the turn of the victims to speak out.”

When They Call You A Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele

When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter memoir

by Patrisse Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandele

If you want to better understand how systemic racism affects humanity, please read this book.

Here are some specific passages that resonate, for me, and help me see more fully.

On p. 93: Discussing the pitfalls of over/sole focus on personal responsibility as the solution for addiction, within the overarching structure of systemic racism:

“It was easy to understand that when race was a blatant factor, a friend says to me in a political discussion on afternoon. Jim Crow left no questions or confusion. But now that race isn’t written into the law, she says, look for the codes. Look for the coded language everywhere, she says. They rewrote the laws, but they didn’t rewrite white supremacy. They kept that shit intact, she says.

I don’t know if I ever convince my father of this line of thinking. A decade of 12-stepping has ensured that he only really knows how to hold himself accountable. Even with all my speeches and his engagement with me at the Strategy Center, I sense when we talk that everyone and everything else kind of gets a pass.”

p. 98: On the flagrant injustice that is knit into the “justice” system:

“I have never seen him high before but I refuse to turn away. If he matters to me at all then he has to matter to me at every moment. He has to matter to me at this moment. Seeing him like this feels like my soul is being pulled over shards of glass but I do not turn away. His life is not expendable. Our love is not disposable. I will not be to him what the world has been to him. I will not throw him away. I will not say he has nothing to offer.

I tell him that relapse is part of recovery.

I ask, What if we wrote off every person who fell off a diet? We laugh at that, but just briefly.

My father’s addiction and the stigma that attaches to it have made him so deeply lonely, forced him into a world that cannot ever be fully shared by anyone who loves him. I love him. I tell him I want to share his whole life with him. He sighs and expels air. He deflates. I move closer to him. He lets me. I tell him I won’t leave him and I don’t. We talk or we don’t talk, for the rest of the night. We hold each other on and off. We cry.

Two months later my father is sentenced to three years in prison. He is able to avoid the seven-year bid because he volunteers to go to the prison camp fire, a program where convicts are made to serve as front-line first responders when the California wildfires break out. They are the ones who go in before the trained firefighters do.

My father risks death for a faster shot at freedom.”

And p. 143:

“There is rarely discussion about the trauma that often drives chaotic drug use and addiction. And there is no discussion about the fact that fully 75 percent of the people who use drugs never develop addiction. (For some drugs, like marijuana, fully 90 percent of those who use never become addicted.) They wake up, go to work or school, pay their taxes, raise their kids, make love with their partners. They live. They live regular old boring lives. But for my father, my brother, others I know, chaos was a factor before drugs were a part of their lives. Why does no one ever address that?”

Heavy by Kiese Laymon

Heavy by Kiese Laymon is hypnotic. So much richness in the truth Laymon offers, so much vulnerability, so much powerful toppling of shame. Among other gifts, Laymon’s memoir deepened my understanding of the insidious and varied damage that systems of white supremacy cause on Black bodies and psyches. Of the pressure Black people are under, 24 hours a day, every day. Of what—to me (as a white-bodied person)—may be invisible in the classroom (and world). I’m grateful to Laymon for helping me open my eyes and see.

Please read and re-read this book. And meanwhile, behold some illuminating passages. (“You” in these passages refers to the narrator’s mother.):

P. 123: “In class, I only spoke when I could be an articulate defender of Black people. I didn’t use the classroom to ask questions. I didn’t use the classroom to make ungrounded claims. There was too much at stake to ask questions, to be dumb, to be a curious student, in front of a room of white folk who assumed all Black folk were intellectually less than. For the first time in my life, the classroom scared me. And when I was scared, I ran to cakes, because cakes felt safe, private, and celebratory. Cakes never fought back.”

P. 140-141: “I now knew what ‘patriarchy’ was.  I could define ‘compulsory heterosexuality.’  I could explain ‘intersectionality’ to Ray Gunn.  I understood gender was a construction and there were folk on Earth who were transgender and gender-fluid.  I went to abortion-clinic defenses.  I marched in safer-sex rallies. I made photocopies of my bell hooks essays and gave them to my friends. I had new lenses and frames to see the world. I called to those new lenses and frames ‘Black feminism,’ but I didn’t really have the will to publicly or privately reckon with what living my life as a Black feminist meant.”

P. 180: “‘The world was out to smother me and my kids,’  you told me a week after I arrived at Vassar. ‘ My job as a teacher was to help them breathe with excellence and discipline in the classroom. The ones that love you, they become what you model. Don’t forget that. Help them breathe by modeling responsible love in the classroom every single day. The most important thing a teacher can do is give their students permission to be loving and excellent.’” 

P. 180:  “My first week of class, I understood that none of my students, especially the black and brown ones who gravitated to me, wanted to be treated as noble exceptions to their communities. They wanted to be loved, inspired, protected, and heard. They didn’t want to be punished or unfairly disciplined for navigating the craziness that came with leaving home to sleep, eat, and drink with people they didn’t know while learning in haunted classrooms and dorms. Like nearly every black professor I knew from the Deep South, I expected to protect my students from security, police, and malicious administrations. I expected to pick them up from the police stations, train stations, and emergency rooms. I didn’t expect to fail them as much as I did. I mis-gendered my students when they asked if I could help push the college to cover the cost of transitioning because they’ve been disowned by their parents for being transgender. I made my students engage with art that attacked them for being queer, femme, black, and poor. I came into my James Baldwin lecture after the Virginia Tech shooting and told the one Asian American boy in the class, who happened to be Vietnamese, I was free if he ever wanted to talk about violence. I asked one of my Chicana students who told me her family had been deported if she knew when they’d be back, and if she wanted to publish an essay about it. 

I found more ways to fail and harm my kids than I ever imagined. Every time I failed them, I knew I thought I was doing something you would never have done.”

P. 228: “‘We all broken,’ I said. ‘Some broken folk do whatever they can not to break other folk. If we’re gone be broken, I wonder if we can be those kind of broken folk from now on. I think it’s possible to be broken and ask for help without breaking other people.’”

essay at LA Review of Books

shadow of writer at Long Pond, Omega Institute, October 2017
shadow of writer at Long Pond, Omega Institute, October 2017

Here’s a link to my essay, “A Trampoline,” recently published at LA Review of Books.

This essay is part of my memoir-in-progress, 318, about my childhood home that the fire department burned down as an exercise. Gratitude to all who have lent support, especially those who read & helped with early drafts; to Nick Flynn for Memoir as Bewilderment; and to Gina Frangello, for publishing this piece.

May we all find our way, as we work our way back up.

Inbox

May Day 1983. (318. My ghost.)

I keep many emails in my inbox. I don’t always archive, delete, or (if I’m honest) even read all the messages that arrive there. What’s weird is how often the precise number of messages in my inbox is 318. Maybe I am trying to recreate that place in any way I can, even through my electronic inertia and disarray.

short story published in CROOKED HOUSES

CROOKED HOUSES anthology by Egaeus Press
(photo by Merida Kuder-Wexler. Top wrist shown: a survivor of break & surgical mend in January 2020.)

My short story “Your House, Any House. That House” was published in Crooked Houses, a new anthology from Egaeus Press. The story was heavily inspired by the house in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where I grew up, which was burned down by the fire department (as an exercise) when the Village expanded Gaunt Park. (I am also writing a memoir about that house.)

The first printing of Crooked Houses sold out immediately, but the press plans a reprint in January 2021. It’s a great table of contents, and I’m honored to have my story included.

VESTIGES OF COURAGE by Mireya S. Vela

book cover of Vestiges of Courage, by Mireya S. Vela (cover art by the author!)
Vestiges of Courage, by Mireya S. Vela (cover art by the author!)

There are ways of saying things, making phrases and sentences that could not be any more succinct or perfect. It’s hard to describe, but I know it when I read it. When I consider the brilliance of Mireya Vela’s writing in her memoir, Vestiges of Courage, I marvel at her ability to work with a gratifyingly tight linguistic economy. In the memoir, Mireya exposes the toxicity and spirit/mind/body assaults women are expected to endure, and boils it down to the bone, illuminating the lived truth. Her act of peeling back, her lack of veil and refusal to bullshit carries incredible power. There is no time for waste, she seems to say. You just have to speak the truth.

For instance, on page 24:

“Women are trained into this type of acceptance:

‘Kiss your relatives.’

‘Hug creepy Uncle Manny.’

‘Don’t be uppity. You’re rude. Go sit on Uncle Joe’s lap.’

‘Uncle Manny gave you a gift. Show proper gratitude.’

‘Liar. He didn’t touch you. That’s your imagination. Why are you always such a drama queen, looking for attention?’

Whittle down the women. Take off all the rough edges till they are smooth and fit into the palms of men.”

***

And it’s beautiful how she writes about the armature of memory…on page 132:

“Sometimes I see people I know aren’t there. This has been happening since I went into therapy four years ago and I unhooked the memories from their anchors.

Memories float. No matter what you do, whoever you were 15 years ago can float to the surface to haunt you. It doesn’t matter if you are ready or if you are walking back to your classroom.”

***

And finally, she offers affirmation about the pain and necessity of healing. On page 134:

“I don’t talk to my psychiatrist about the people I see. I know she’ll heavily medicate me. I strongly suspect this is post-traumatic stress disorder. The problem with PTSD is that it prefers to unsettle you just as you feel you are moving beyond those memories. When you feel strong, the memories appear, waiting for resolution.

Instead, I go to my therapist. The words spill out of my mouth with trepidation.

‘Is it men?’ she asks.

‘Yes. How did you know?’ I say.

‘It’s out of the corner of your eye?’ she says.

‘Yes.’

‘Do they look like the men who hurt you?’

‘Yes,’ I say.

‘That’s common with people who have had sexual abuse. I’m sorry,’ she says.

‘I’m not crazy?’

‘No,’ she says, ‘You are just healing.’

‘Healing feels awful. Why am I doing this to myself? I just want it to stop.’

‘Because,’ she says, ‘you want something better for your children.’

‘Yes. Yes, I do.’

But for a moment, I think about quitting. Why do they call it healing when it feels like being ripped open?”

***

We need to do this work; we need something better for our children. We need more books with the inside of the human showing. We need more writers who can cut through bullshit, use deft strokes to arrange the words so that they accumulate to tell the truth. I am grateful for the act of humanity that Mireya Vela did in writing this book.

(And speaking of deft strokes, Mireya Vela is also a visual artist. Please go peruse her creations here: https://www.mireyasvela.com/)

essay “Cushion & Frame” in Bayou Magazine

Cover of Bayou Magazine #72
Bayou Magazine #72

(This post was written using the imperfect yet helpful voice typing feature on google docs, because I am recovering from wrist surgery. Please forgive typos!) 

I’m excited to announce that my essay, “Cushion & Frame,” was recently published in Bayou Magazine Number 72. Founded in 2002, Bayou Magazine is a biannual, national literary magazine published by The University of New Orleans. Bayou’s mission is to publish exceptional, exciting work by both established and emerging writers. “Cushion & Frame” is part of my memoir-in-progress. 

“Cushion & Frame” is also likely the most personal piece I’ve ever put into the world. Its publication leaves me heady and vulnerable. The essay deals with trauma and my history as a survivor of child sexual abuse. When the essay was accepted, I realized that beyond the sweet sunshine of strangers believing in my work, they also believed my story. To a survivor, being believed is essential. And while I usually like having my work accessible online, I’m a little glad this one is only available in print. That fact makes me feel somewhat less exposed.

 I am grateful to beloved humans who read this piece at various points along the way, or in other ways provided nourishment, including Deanna N., Jahzerah B., Lisa P.,  Renee A., Diane B., Nick F., Jennifer N., Lisa B., Candace R., Elaine G., Kristin W., Vanja T., Rachel F., Anne E., Susanne F., Mary H., Amy C., JoJo K., Puy N., Dina P., Gayle B., and especially Melissa T. 

And especially Mama. And especially Hummy. 

I’m also grateful to the humans who invited me and heard me read and read with me in 2018 at AWP in Tampa for Tiferet Journal. And extra-rainbow-sprinkle grateful to Gayle B. for encouraging me to read that piece. And Mireya V. for a beautiful connection after the reading.

I hope I did not forget to thank anyone. So many have helped me survive and write this piece. Thank you all. 

(And may we all continue to heal.)

Issue 72 is available for purchase from https://bayoumagazine.org/.

Because, by Joshua Mensch

Because, a lyric memoir by Joshua Mensch
Because, a lyric memoir by Joshua Mensch

Because, by Joshua Mensch, is a devastating and beautiful lyric memoir. I can’t recall why I picked it up to read, but I’m so glad I did. It was rough going because of the subject matter (childhood sexual abuse) but the language, its incantation and repetition and just plain brilliance is so well suited to how memory and trauma work that the writer’s work (processing the devastation, and crafting language to approximate it) pulled me through.

If you have a history of sexual abuse, you might only want to read this book if you feel sturdy in your recovery. I’m sure it could be very triggering. But I also found it very healing to read.

I won’t soon forget this diamond.

(consider the commas, etc.)

Revising rough paragraphs from the house memoir…realized it was actually a handful of deflated, sad sentences wanting to be a poem so I wrote them into a poem. And right now, I’m in love with the poem.

…revision’s cool heart, still to come, and time, will tell. (But for now it’s fun to fall in love with this unplanned poem.)