Tag Archives: sexual abuse

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 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/.

 

Many Restless Concerns by Gayle Brandeis

many restless concerns book cover

Many Restless Concerns (a testimony)  by Gayle Brandeis

(This post is being drafted using voice typing on Google Docs. I am using this technology because I broke my dominant wrist and had surgery, and am still recovering.  Please excuse any Typos and imperfections!)

In thinking about my friend Gayle Brandeis’ new book, I recalled Joy Williams essay “Why I write” from her book Ill Nature. In the essay, Williams writes, “The good piece of writing startles the reader back into Life. The work– this Other, this other thing– this false life that is even less than the seeming of this lived life, is more than the lived life, too. It is so unreal, so precise, so alarming, really.  Good writing never soothes or comforts. It is no prescription, neither is it diversionary, although it can and should enchant while it explodes in the reader’s face. Whenever the writer writes, it’s always three or four or five in the morning in his head. Those horrid hours are the writer’s days and nights when he is writing. The writer doesn’t write for the reader. He doesn’t write for himself, either. He writes to serve… something.  Somethingness. The somethingness that is sheltered by the wings of nothingness– those exquisite, enveloping, protecting wings.”

I was thinking about how to talk about my experience of reading the new work of Gayle Brandeis. How these riveting verses accumulate into story, and along the way, yes, enchant, for their lyrical brilliance, and yet still, for their horrifying imagery, explode in my face. Although (please know) they are extremely unsettling and certainly violent, the voices of these (imagined or channeled) victims of Countess Bathory make their impression in part because of the importance of not looking away.  The lives of these girls and women, from the perspective of their torturer, were incidental, always a casualty to Bathory’s drive to torture.

The victims survived by adapting. As victims often do. On page 29, Gayle writes,

“We learned to stay upright, to work even when wounds wept beneath our sleeves; we learned to keep our voices down, learned to not look her in the eye; we learned fear becomes another organ in the body, pulsing gall through every vein.”

On page 35, Gayle writes about how the body keeps the score, writes about the words burn, drown, freeze, scald, verbs which were among the methods of torture, how they stay with the spirit even when the body is gone.

“…These words have become something more than words. They have become weapons, ready to get under the surface of you, pry you back open.

Your body remembers even when you no longer have a body.

(some tender part of you still flinches.)

( some immaterial nerves still flare)”

This short, crystalline book is not an easy read. After diving in and becoming quickly engrossed,  I was unsure how exactly I would get through it. But I trusted that Gayle–and the survivors’ spirits–would lead toward light. And they did. The victims, so many unnamed survivors, found and picked up their power through making a circle, banding together. And they needed to tell their story. Ghosts need witnesses. 

We need to witness.

From page 102,

“It’s fine you don’t know our names now.

 You know our testimony.

 You know enough to yell “Meat!”

 when we call out “Bone?”

 if you are listening

(are you still listening?)

 You know enough to lay some flesh upon our forgotten skeletons,

 to feel the weight of our death inside your own body.

 You know enough to remember how alive you are

(how lucky).”

***

I am grateful for the reminder, for knowing enough to remember how alive I am, and how lucky. 

Black Wave by Michelle Tea

Black Wave by Michelle TeaThis book. So beautiful. A delectable collision of intelligent prose with the viscera. So visceral, and so smart—the sentences hold an intelligence beyond any I can think of, even, in a way, beyond Didion’s. But the sentences aren’t overly smart in a told-you-so kinda way. They’re smart in a way that has faith, more faith than most sentences have, in the reader. The book, the story, is so dark and so light. It’s a gift, really.

Black Wave was my first encounter with the work of Michelle Tea, and I can’t wait to read more of her work. For now, all I can do is urge you to read Black Wave—knowing that it’s written for adults, and has a lot of very specific, intense detail about sex and drugs—and today I offer this passage.

Michelle Tea, Black Wave, p. 151:

“Where did your own story end and other people’s begin? Michelle wrestled with this question. After her first book came out she’d been invited to give some lectures and teach some workshops, and always the people who came were females, females who wanted to tell their stories. Their stories being female stories, there was a lot of hurt inside them—abuse, betrayals, injustices, feelings. They were all worries about getting in trouble for writing the truth. They didn’t want people to be mad at them. It’s Your Story, Michelle would insist.

She wanted to free them all, all the girl writers. Girls needed to tell the truth about what the fuck was going on in this world. It was bad. It was brave of the girls to let themselves stay so raw, though Michelle worried that some of them had had to conjure personality disorders in order to cope. Sometimes the girls were too much even for her, Michelle wondered if she could handle another piece of writing about sexual abuse or sex work. But it seemed that this was to be her job upon the earth. If you don’t tell your story, who will? It was important. Our stories are important.”

**

Read the whole book and you’ll understand its uplift.

 

 

Heartberries, by Terese Marie Mailhot (“The work of ‘never done’: therapy and writing.”)

9781619023345-256x413A thousand thanks to my friend Dr. Kelli Zaytoun for recommending this distilled and beautiful memoir. From the publisher’s description:

“Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Band in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father—an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist—who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.

Mailhot trusts the reader to understand that memory isn’t exact, but melded to imagination, pain, and what we can bring ourselves to accept. Her unique and at times unsettling voice graphically illustrates her mental state. As she writes, she discovers her own true voice, seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, reestablishes her connection to her family, to her people, and to her place in the world.”

This book is among a few gems I’ve read lately, written by women, that grant permission. Permission to reveal the self, in all its tatters and glow. Permission to speak the truth even when it isn’t convenient or dainty. I can’t recall where I heard this, but somewhere, a wise human referred to writing memoir as a kind of alchemy: how a writer metabolizes her experience into a distilled piece of art. Mailhot does so here, with grace and wisdom.
A couple shimmery passages from Mailhot’s memoir:

Page 72: “[My mother] taught me that I didn’t own things. I really liked the idea of possession. We don’t own our mothers. We don’t own our bodies or our land—maybe I’m unsure. We become the land when we are buried in it. Our grandmothers have been uprooted and shelved in boxes, placed on slabs of plastic, or packed neatly in rooms, or turned into artifact—all after proper burials. Indians aren’t always allowed to rest in peace. I want to be buried in a bone garden with my ancestors someday. I’d like to belong to that.”

And: 

 

Page 97: “I can’t believe my reserve of water—from my nose and eyes. I have dormant fluid in my body, every woman does. I don’t know if I am a cavern or a river.”

In the back of the petite volume, Mailhot is interviewed by Joan Naviyuk Kane. In the conversation, Mailhot says things about writing that I know will stick with me (and will help, in working on memoir):

About women writing our stories:

Page 131: “I know the book isn’t simply an abuse narrative, but then it is. I was abused, and brilliant women are abused, often, and we write about it. People seem so resistant to let women write about these experiences, and they sometimes resent when the narrative sounds familiar. It’s almost funny, because, yeah—there is nothing new about what they do to us. We can write about it in new ways, but what value are we placing on newness? Familiarity is boring, but these fucking people—they keep hurting us in the same ways. It’s putting the onus on us to tell it differently, spare people melodrama, explicative language, image, and make it new. I think, well, fuck that. I’ll say how it happened to me, and by doing that maybe it became new. I took the voice out of my heat that said writing about abuse it too much, that people will think it’s sentimental, or pulling at someone’s pathos, unwilling to be art. By resisting the pushback, I was able to write more fully and, at times, less artfully about what happened.

I remember my first creative writing professor in nonfiction asked his class not to write about abortions or car wrecks. I thought, You’re going to know about my abortion in detail (if only there had been a car crash that same day). I don’t think there is anything wrong with exploring familiar themes in the human experience. When the individual gets up and tells her story, there’s going to be a detail so real and vivid it places you there, and you identify. I believe in the author’s right to tell any story, and the closer it comes to a singular truth, the more art they render in the telling.”

And about work that is never really finished:

Page 132: “Cathartic or therapeutic—those words are sometimes used to relate a feeling, like a sigh of relief, or release, but therapy is fucking hard. My therapists didn’t pity me, not the good ones; they made me strip myself of pandering, manipulation, presentation—they wanted the truth more desperately than I did, and they wanted me to speak it—live it every moment. I feel like writing is that way. Writing can be hard therapy. You write, and then read it, revise your work to be cleaner, sharper, better, and then, when you have the best version of yourself (not rhetorically, but you’ve come close to playing the music you hear in your head)—you give it time and re-read it—you go back to the work—it seems endless. Nothing is ever communicated fully. The way being healed is never real unless every moment of every day you remind yourself of your progress and remind yourself not to go back, or hurt someone, or do the wrong thing—it’s not healing unless you keep moving—you’re never done. The work of ‘never done’: therapy and writing.”

(because there’s always more.)

thumb_IMG_9602_1024

More than 160 women say Larry Nassar sexually abused them.

MORE THAN 160 WOMEN
Who are likely many, many more than 160…because we don’t always feel safe coming forward. Because it’s sometimes too unsafe for our bodies to feel what we feel, and to know what we know. Because sometimes it’s scarier to speak than to remain silent. Because we were warned not to speak, because others who knew minimized our experiences, or looked the other way, or (fill in the blank). Because we don’t remember. Because why would we want to remember. Because because because a million times because, just because.

The exuberant reaction to the conviction of Larry Nassar, which I heard in the voice of the woman reporting it on NPR last week, which was impossible to hide, because she is a woman and who knows, maybe a survivor herself…that exuberant reaction is a feeling that’s been shimmering for me, below the surface of #metoo and among groups of women I talk to who are horrified but not shocked about these stories, these minimizations, these erasures, this looking away.

(The other day, I was writing the above blog post about several recent headlines dealing with child sexual abuse, and then I saw I was right, sadly, there’s even moreLarry Nassar, Sentenced in Sexual Abuse Case, Is Back in Court.)

**

And p.s. to any predators out there:

“Let this sentence strike fear in anyone who thinks it is O.K. to hurt another person. Abusers, your time is up. The survivors are here, standing tall, and we are not going anywhere.”—Aly Raisman, gymnast and six-time Olympic medalist

“Little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.”—Kyle Stephens, family friend

 

 

Silent all these years…

(…which is a line from a Tori Amos song.)

I recently read Roxane Gay’s book, Hunger, which is kind of amazing in many ways, one being its unvarnished truth-telling. Lots of thoughts about the memoir, but today in the words of Roxane Gay (p. 45):

“He said/she said is why so many victims (or survivors, if you prefer that terminology) don’t come forward. All too often, what “he said” matters more, so we just swallow the truth. We swallow it, and more often than not, that truth turns rancid. It spreads through the body like an infection. It becomes depression or addiction or obsession or some other physical manifestation of the silence of what she would have said, needed to say, couldn’t say.”