**Trigger warning: The following post involves the story of a child sex abuse survivor**
You may remember that over the last couple years, I’ve shared blogs in the past either written by or about an unnamed, anonymous friend who suffered extreme sexual violence at the hands of close family for years growing up, the worst of which began at 4 years old when her grandfather first raped her.
Over the last months / year, she’s climbed mountain after mountain and come to a place where she’s ready to speak out loud, to tell the truth of her trauma, without hiding her identity.
This is such a huge and powerful step for anyone who’s endured sexual violence not least because of the shame inextricably tied to victimhood, but also because the victim’s voice is repeatedly stolen. Along with everything else they’re forced to do and participate in, they’re forced to protect their abusers as well.
Culturally, we don’t believe victims. We blame victims. We shame victims. We silence victims. And so they learn to believe the lies and wear the shame like a blanket.
So much of overcoming victimhood is taking back the power to own the story, be the hero, and lay waste the villain.
Here’s Jessy’s story in her own words. Under the light.
I hope you’ll listen closely. I hope you’ll share far and wide so she is heard, and so others like her are given permission to tell their stories in their own voices.
It is better to speak
we were never meant to survive. -Audre Lorde
As one of my favorite writers and thinkers, I often revisit the wisdom and challenge of Audre Lorde. For those unfamiliar, she was a gay black womanist poet, essayist, and activist. You can imagine that she writes with unsurpassable authority on what it means to survive when the very system is stacked against you.
I struggle to use Lorde as the basis of a piece about my own survival because as a white woman, I do not want to co-opt her words to explain my own experience. I can not know what it is to live as a black woman; I can only grasp some of what it means through the subversive power and the heartbreaks in voices of women like Audre. However, I can speak to what it is like to survive in the margins, not just of society, but from the very foundations of life and family.
In her essay, ‘The Transformation of Silence Into Action,’ she states, “In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear — fear of contempt, of censure, of some judgment, or recognition of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live. And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.” I read this in juxtaposition with her great poem “A Litany for Survival,” and I see myself “at the shoreline standing upon the constant edges of decision crucial and alone….”
AND it’s in these vast oceans of silence, where I’ve made an art of survival.
You see, I was born into a system, a family, whose very history is fraught with the most insidious abuses; kept in the secret and in the dark. When you come into a world like that, you lose your power and your voice before you can even walk. Even as I took my first steps and learned my first words, how was I to know that a monster would step out of a closet and snuff out my life before it began?
Beginning at the age of four and lasting for the next eight years, every last breath of my life was raped from me. Even when the actual terror stops, you do not just go on living. There is no life after such horror, only what existed before and the fragments of who is left after. AND the truth is if there was anything left of you, in a system like that, you become the problem because your very existence exposes every other piece. BUT you grow silent and numb, because even if only in physical existence, you learn to survive any way you can.
So I fought. I spoke up. I became disruptive. I self-destructed. There’s only so much a child can do, and eventually I bought into the lies that I was the problem. So I grew silent. I feared more loss; I’d already lost so much. I knew the truth: you can’t live apart from community, and in systems such as this, you believe there is no one else. I did what I had to to do to make it through and in so doing, lost every last piece of myself.
Despite some achievements that on the surface point to one who’s overcome, a closer look reveals an ugly truth: I scratch the surface of my pain and realize that fear and heartache still controls my every move, and I wonder if I will ever be free.
As I consider how the treacherous conundrum of the past can be navigated, I turn back to Audre Lorde. From her essay, ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury,’ she argues “when we view living only as a problem to be solved, we then rely solely upon our ideas to make us free.” She goes on to say in one powerful passage that it is not in the “drug” of a new idea that saves, but instead the creative, liberative power of feelings shared and voiced in community that brings about freedom. “I feel therefore I can be free.”
In her powerful words, I see a call to freedom not necessarily in things actively getting better, though one hopes, but in letting out our hearts cries. Mine: I am not a problem to be solved, but a woman worthy of love and worth being heard in a world built to drown me in silence. I know the road is fraught with peril when speaking truth over and against a system meant to break you. However, there will be other voices, too, who come along side and join in “for all of us this instant and this triumph” who also were never meant to survive.
In our society we are often expected to just get over our grief or look past the abuses committed against us. What’s done is done. Just focus on the positive. But the truth is sometimes we face impossible losses; however, we can gain a new level of awareness just by shining a little light in. In turn, we begin to see through the cracks.
I don’t know that I hold fully to redemption, at least in the narrative that wholeness or healing after such horrific trauma can ever be attained. However, I do think it occurs in the smaller, mundane moments of living. I find it in: the first notes of a songbird after the quiet of a long winter, the frail purple bloom of a flower emerging from the cold hard ground, in the soft, knowing eyes of a horse or a cat, running and getting lost on deep forest trails, listening to music, playing cards with a client or painting a room with a friend. All restore a sense of connection and okayness in a world that often makes us feel less than.
AND therein lies the crux of what I’ve come to believe. If we do not allow ourselves to feel whatever it is we need to feel we lose ourselves. If we listen to the voices that tell us how we should act or to keep silent never speaking the truth of our existence, then we can only always be our fear. We lose out on the very things we desire like love and friendship. AND if we were never meant to survive as “A Litany for Survival” so eloquently posits, then we must speak our truths, no matter how devastating. We learn to sit with others in their pain. We drop our expectations of who we think they should be or how they should act because none of us know who we would be in the face of such ruin. Instead, their song becomes our song and we lift our voices together.
A Litany for Survival
For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed futures
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours:
For those of us
who imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.
And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive
“I thought I could fly…well, at least until my wings were clipped at the age of 4 when I first lost my innocence to my grandfather.”
In my last blog, I told a little bit of her story…
She was four years old when her grandfather molested her for the first time.
She was five when he raped her to the fullest extent of the word.
She was eleven before he quit, presumably because she’d soon begin menstruating.
Soon after, another family member began molesting her.
When told, a trusted youth pastor brought it to her parents rather than the police.
They not only deemed her a liar, refusing to believe her, but threatened her with shunning and worse if she didn’t remain silent and protect family secrets.
And in the decades since, she’s sunk deeper into their grave of lies, afraid to speak, afraid she doesn’t matter, afraid what they said about her worth, her belovedness, her value – or lack of all – is true.
Now, at 32 years old, she is beginning to find her voice.
It’s my honor to share her story in her words.
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it…
Funny the way life circles out and then back and then further still again. Often the journey is conceived geographically, but it’s the circumnavigation of waypoints deep within that map who we are as the circles widen.
My roots are nestled deep in the rural South of the US. There’s a friendly politeness to the people even if it lacks any genuine concern and a certain brand of Christian religion weaves through-out the culture. God often seems not one of compassion for those of us who doubt, question, are gay, or live in the grayer areas of life, but a God who casts off any who struggle to walk the straight and narrow.
For a precocious child who found turmoil way too early in life, I’ve found that such beginnings reverberate for years even as our small circles widen until we return again only to reach out further still. It’s hard to hold hope in such a God, especially when life curves.
Innately, I was always a bit of a risk taker, I pushed the envelope, I questioned everything, I thought I could fly…well, at least until my wings were clipped at the age of 4 when I first lost my innocence to my grandfather. For a while, I fought as best as a child could. I became insolent and angry, and in the midst, tried to reach out to the Church and my family, all who labeled me the problem. To them, it became more important to protect those who hurt me than how I felt. I lost all trust. As the next several years wore on with no relief, I slowly lost the rest of myself. In 9th grade, alone and with not much hope to cling to, I tried to kill myself.
In the hospital I found that tumultuous anger got me nowhere. So, I numbed to the pain and instead sought comfort in food and cutting. AND as my circles widened further into college, grad school, and finally, divinity school all of which I ran away to, to make sense of life…like my hidden scars, my weight increased proportionally through the years.
I’ve been to Burma and back, Appalachia and back, San Francisco and back, and a number of other places…and if any answers were found, it only lead to more questions.
AND then my life circled back to where I swore I’d never return when I left at the age of 17. BUT see the roots of my present journey started in the previous circle while I was in Nashville. The place I came to know as home. It was there that seeds of hope were first planted quietly in music, which has always been my life-blood, and then friendship, my saving grace and anchoring; whose beginnings were unknowingly fertilized in the circle of my high school days.
Now in my 30s and somehow back in the hauntings of where it all began; I couldn’t just sit still and languish. I found the courage to return to one of my first loves…horses. AND in the span of a year, as I’ve fought to find myself again, I’ve loved and lost and gained in so many ways: Friendship that challenges and teaches much about love, trust, and family. A beloved pony who began to teach me how to fly again even when I fell and had to get back up again…and again. I’m no longer carrying over 100 lbs that I had before… AND because I think it has something to teach me and a couple of good friends have encouraged me, I am training to run a half-marathon in February despite the fact that I’ve never ran more than 2.5 miles up to this point.
I’ve found that you CAN’T run from the things that are killing you…instead they must be faced. AND that’s why we circle back. How else can we heal? Only then can we make another revolution, wider still, and bring life and love to those encountered along the way.
The process is painful, excruciatingly so…and I DON’T know if I will complete this one. BUT maybe I’ll FINALLY begin to live into myself.
…I circle around God, the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
*The poem bookending this piece is from the Book of Hours by Rainer Maria Rilke.
<<<<< If you or someone you know has been or is being sexually assaulted, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1.800.656.HOPE