I spent the weekend with a bunch of friends and acquaintances at a storytelling retreat. At this same retreat last year was the first time I told people publicly that I intend to dance on my father’s grave. It was an incredibly important experience for me then, to speak of my loneliness being a high-functioning and therefore able-to -hide survivor of extreme abuse. It was a kind of coming out, and like all coming out experiences, helped me connect with allies and support I would not have dreamed possible.
This year, I wanted to tell them how the project was coming along. I wanted to tell these kind, sympathetic women how six months after I told them how I was waiting for my father to die, I got news that he’d been in the hospital for months and had cancer again. I wanted to tell them how I’d been planning, preparing a rite of passage for myself, a brave act of victory and inspiration for others.
I ended up feeling more and more alone.
I am not brave. I am not a sword dance warrior waging glorious psychic battle with the patriarchy as embodied in its one evil representative in my life.
I am horribly exposed.
As I sit here, typing, gasping for breath amid sobs, from long habit permitting and encouraging myself to sob until it is all released, I feel like I have undermined all my efforts to be a success in this world, that people I know, know that I am damaged and not well socialized enough to keep my dirty secrets, fears and spiritual sorrows private in polite company.
I am pressed up against the wall of ice that is the silence around incest, trying so hard not to beg, please, please let me be part of you in my whole self. Let me be a normal person with normal responses to a horrific tragedy. Let me speak the truth of my life without making you look at me with discomfort.
Please let me be real.
My friend, who is also a brave warrior, suggests I scan and publish the art piece I made on the first night there, when it felt like I was a stream of hot lava running through a landscape meant to be watercolours and comedy, politeness and laughter.I willed myself to be truthful, to claim the right to be me in an intimate environment, knowing that successful art comes from rigorous truth. I avoided graphic details out of concern for virgin ears, and to keep the focus on my Quest. Other women could talk about the painful truths of their life, divorce, loves lost, abortions and miscarriages, loss of beloved parents, but my losses are too bizarrre to share, too evocative and raw.
As an act of courage, I ruthlessly returned to the art I wanted to make and share, the story of my quest to reclaim the right of women who have been raped to openly challenge their abusers and avenge their honour, if only in symbolic terms. I wanted to see and hear women understand, but I don’t have any evidence they did.
On the last day, one woman, a therapist, self-confessed ‘not-a-survivor-herself’ but a therapist to many survivors over the years took exception to a phrase I used, as feminists often sadly feel the right to do.
I had used it to describe my conviction that I had been exposed, by listening to survivors I’d sat in support meetings with and in other contexts, to women who had experienced the full range of the horror of sexual abuse, from molestation to rape to ritual abuse. She said this had been disrespectful to survivors, since I couldn’t possibly have heard ‘everything’. My point had been that a thing I valued about myself was that when listening to a woman’s story, I listened for what she wanted to tell me, and didn’t get distracted by the drama of the horror. I knew of and accepted the fact of a very large range of abuse so didn’t need to attach energy to them if it wasn’t the main topic the survivor wanted to discuss.
When I tell someone about my experience, I don’t normally want them to get caught up in the dramatic and graphic details, but in the meaning I am trying to make of them, how they affect me now or even just to provide context for an everyday experience affected by my past. I’d been really trying to say, probably, “Listen to my story, but don’t get caught up in pity or disgust. I have a richer story to tell about this if you don’t get caught up in the horror.”
Frankly, once I got over the hurt, if I have as yet, it seemed to me that this was like a white person telling a black person something they said might be disrespectful to black people. None of the other survivors I spoke to after my story seemed to have any issue with it, and I know for sure I would not have been offended had someone else said what I’d said. Perhaps it would have been offensive or disrespectful coming from someone ‘not-a-survivor-herself’, depending on the attitude that accompanied it. I’d be inclined to say that if you’re not a survivor yourself, you can’t know.
When I was single and told lovers I was a survivor, it wasn’t because I wanted to get into it and kill the mood (although it unfortunately might have at times), but because, like a hip injury or an STD, they needed to know in order to understand why I might have some limits to the way I could have sex and it was a big deal that they be respected.
The neighbourhood where I live has a lot of lesbians living in it. This has the advantage of being a place where people are blessedly bored with the whole concept of lesbians. I can hold hands or go shopping for household items with my wife with no funny looks or awkwardness and interact with people without the gay thing getting in the way.
While I don’t want people to be bored with incest, which of course still needs to be aggressively stopped whenever and wherever it is noticed, I’d sure like it if my normal, everyday, Pagan rite of passage for the death of a mortal enemy could be viewed as a reasonable and expected thing for a survivor to do. I’d like it if survivors, like the wounded shamans of other cultures, were regarded with respect for their courage, resilience and earned wisdom. Christopher Reeves, the superman who bravely soldiered on after a spinal cord sports injury, is heralded as a hero, which may in fact be so, but where are our incest survivor comeback stories, from women who’ve sustained injuries as deep and debilitating and have triumphed?
As I tell my story, I tell myself that that is what I am creating that space for myself and others, a way of viewing survivors as heroic/heraic figures. May the all that I hold holy – earth, water and fire and air and the truth/life/sacred at the centre of all things – bless me with the courage and support I need.