The Window Bangs

[TW for discussion of rape, PTSD.]


I write about my past in order to rebuild my present. I dredge my brain for what scraps remain, until I have enough pieces that something coherent emerges. When it does, I seize it in words like an lepidopterist pinning a recent capture to a cardboard tag, where it flutters briefly and then dies. Where it can then be studied.

I write things down so I can stop revisiting a past that happened. When I talk to friends, I am not remembering. I am telling you about a thing I wrote.

I have been repeating this process consciously since last October, and the day almost exactly a year ago when I sat on my therapist’s couch and said, “I think I remember the first time I dissociated. I know I remember hearing a pop in my head and then it wasn’t my body. I think it was a rape.” I told her the story that afternoon. I told other people, as many other people as I could find and trust, every day that followed for more than a week. Maybe for more than two. Until I had enough pieces to write it all down, at which point my retellings became less frenzied affairs.

I’ve been feeling rather smug about how well it’s working out so far. Not stop the presses! revolutionary, by any means — still, I have been encouraged at how well this whole writing-it-down thing works to quell the trauma echoes. Then last month, organizing a box of old files, I came across a bunch of pieces I had forgotten writing. It appears I have been telling and retelling the same story for decades. Every poem reads like the same poem. Almost from the beginning, and I never noticed.

In my words, I never leave that summer.

The earliest piece I found is from June 1990, the year after it all occurred. The poem begins:

The first thing I remember is a very loud noise.
Couldn’t describe it, not a gunshot
firecracker piano-falling,
just a noise like loud.

*      *      *      *      *

These are facts, as baldly as I can construct them, from the summer I was eighteen. The summer of the kid at the window.

It starts on a date with a kid from the neighborhood, a kid I knew from high school. The date does not go well. He leaves my house abruptly once I begin to wail. According to the definitions of my peer group, it was not yet “sex.” According to Texas statute, it was already “rape.” I don’t understand what has just happened. I wonder how I got so confused.

The next night, the kid comes back to my house and brings a friend. I am still confused. I think maybe if I act the right way, he too will follow a script that I can understand. I let them in. Later the friend leaves. The kid does not.

A week later, perhaps, in the middle of the night, I find myself awake and terrified. Something is pounding on my second-floor bedroom window. So much noise. It will wake my father and he will come into my room yelling. I need to stop the noise. I look out. The kid has climbed the small gable roof over the porch and is now shouting at me to let him in. I need him to be quiet. I let him in.

This becomes the pattern: The kid gets drunk or high with friends who let him off at my house. He climbs my roof and bangs on my window. The sound is frightening and loud. It always comes between 2 and 3 in the morning. I do not think beyond the need to have him go away as quickly and quietly as possible. Without realizing it, I am taking steps to ensure that I never fully wake up: I leave the latch on the window unfastened, I don’t reinstall the screen. Each morning after, I look for evidence that what I think I am remembering is in fact a thing that happened. Is there new bruising. Is there blood.

It goes on for maybe two months. It goes on forever.

Couldn’t describe it, not a gunshot
firecracker piano-falling,
just a noise like loud.
I remember other events only as they happen.

*      *      *      *      *

At one time, I knew how often this had happened. I kept a tally in my mind like the scratches a prisoner gouges into the wall of his cell to keep from forgetting how long he’s been imprisoned. Now all I know is that once upon a time, I thought I could remember: Once or twice a week, every week, for two months.

So I say 12.

I say, “I was raped 12 times.”

I pretend it is completely solid knowledge. Something you can hang your hat on. Something you can take to the bank.

*      *      *      *      *

Later that same summer I began to date a boy who loved me and who wanted me fully present during any time we spent together. I credit his care for enabling me to find my way back to myself. Back to the body I had abandoned.

The last week of August, my father found circumstantial evidence that this boy and I might have started sleeping together and (in a leap that seems odd to me still) drew the conclusion that I was in fact losing my virginity that very night. After throwing my boyfriend out of the house, my father kept me standing in the kitchen while he screamed until almost 2 in the morning. During one momentary pause, he turned to my mother and said, “At least it’s the kind of disappointment I’ll only ever have once.”

A few days later — during which none of us mentioned that night — I told my mother how angry I was, and how hurt. I snarled, “What makes you two think I have never had sex before.” In retrospect, I think I was begging her to ask what I was talking about. What had I done. She didn’t. She made no response at all until a full day later, when she found me in the front yard and said only, “I cannot think of any reason you’d have said that except that you want to hurt me.”

So I chose silence. Since even an attempt to speak seemed to hurt people I loved, I stopped trying. It seemed easier, too, to leave that prisoner behind, in the cell with no windows and no door, scratching marks into walls no one saw. For 25 years I never discussed that summer in detail with anyone. Back at college the following week, I got shitfaced at a dorm kegger — the drunkest I’ve ever been before or since. My hangover lasted three days.

Silence is like a gift, silence is like god,
silence is like silver honey dripping from your mouth.
I bought the rose from the corner vendor,
I bought the rose so I could swallow it, let it bloom in my mouth like crimson,
I bought it so men would love me. 

They never do.

*      *      *      *      *

For a brief period in the ’90s, I submitted poems to small journals. My second published piece was about the events of that summer. I decided it was clever, the way I started the poem in first person, then shifted entirely to third halfway through. “She opens the window that lets him in…” 

I preferred to be clever than admit the truth: I hadn’t noticed the I become she as I wrote. (I had also shifted tenses from past to present — as I see I’ve done in this piece today, too — when describing the actual events.) Each time I tried wrangling the language into consistency, I felt sick and slightly dizzy. Eventually I stopped trying.

Still, I was pleased that I had used my life as fodder for my craft. I was pleased the events of that summer no longer bothered me, pleased that they were now no more than a clever poem.

For publishing my first piece, the journal paid me $10 and a free issue. That poem was about the chronic migraines I had recently developed.

*      *      *      *      *

This is how the brain stores trauma. The memory is always just off to the side, dim, like the plot of a book you read once long ago and have mostly forgotten. If you look directly at it (you try not to look directly at it), the past is suddenly present and loud.

You wake suddenly back in that dark room and the window is banging.

*      *      *      *      *

Recently I talked to my parents about that summer for the first time. Neither remembers their own small role in these events, though they each say my remembrance sounds plausible. Sounds like a way they would have acted then, although they are deeply regretful now. Each has agreed to let my version stand as the official memory.

They worry I am angry at them, and that I will stay angry. “Of course I forgive you,” I have told them each. The living need forgiveness.

The truth?

Holding anger anywhere near these memories has only ever made the room spin. I am happy to be learning, finally, how to remember stories once I have written them down.

~a.i.


“The Window Bangs” is part of an ongoing memory project.
Additional installments can be found here.


POSTSCRIPT

Here is the 1990 poem in its entirety:

very loud noise_1

[The first thing I remember is a very loud noise.
Couldn’t describe it, not a gunshot
firecracker piano-falling,
just a noise like loud.
I remember other events only as they happen.
Remembering the past-not-past frightens the neighbors,
as if I carried snakes in my wicker basket,
as if I spilt the blood that dyes the moon red on summer nights.

I cut out the tongues of novelists.

Silence is like a gift, silence is like god,
silence is like silver honey dripping from your mouth.
I bought the rose from the corner vendor,
I bought the rose so I could swallow it, let it bloom in my mouth like crimson,
I bought it so men would love me.

They never do.
They remember snakes and red moons and musty nightmares
they had when they were eight
and they stay away.
I count my tongues and try to forget
a very loud noise. ]



POSTSCRIPT 2

As a memoirist, I am fascinated by questions of how we access and reconstruct our personal histories. Memory is ever malleable, often fickle; seen from that perspective, every memoirist is an inherently unreliable narrator. As someone who has long struggled with what gets termed “mental illness,” I have interacted with many people over the years who considered me an unreliable source of knowledge even about current details of my life. PTSD is itself largely a disorder of memory, in which events always exist in the mind out of sync with other events. Out of place, out of time.

I turn again to Lauren Slater’s conceptualizing of the memoir as always a form of lying — a lying that is itself a form of honesty. The act of reinvention blurs what one can and can’t know as “really real.” In much of my work — both as writer and as “mental patient” — I am far less concerned with remembering the really real…and far more with finding plausible stories in which my pieces can hold together as if true.


[Featured image: René Magritte. Empire of Light (L’empire des lumières), 1953–54. Source: Guggenheim Online Collection.]

9 thoughts on “The Window Bangs

  1. I don’t have anything to say. Just wanted you to know I was here. I was … moved? Grieved? Educated? Honestly, I don’t know how I feel except truly and deeply sad, but also glad that you’ve been able to talk openly with your parents about it and they accepted what you told them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, the postscript, the postscript!
    PTSD was a new filing system given to me last year. What are these empty folders? Where is the rest of it? I’m not the girl in the story I thought I was.

    I can’t stop reading these reconstructions now, even though I only meant to “stop by” from The Green Study. These are too important to put away, even if my cat falls asleep staring at me. They demand my attention and care. I will hold them in both my hands.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sandy,
      I am moved that these pieces felt so compelling to you, and honored by the time you committed tonight to reading and responding to them. I’ll reply to your other comments as I am able — please know how appreciative I am for your care and attention to my words.
      Best,
      alice

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Vague recollections from psych class surrounding the “real ability” of the mind to remember, especially during trauma, mixed with individual perception and interpretation…however Postscript 2 seems to be a gentler approach rather than trying to dredge up meaning from clinical descriptives. Your real is becoming by writing and retelling and if it becomes easier to live through this then you must continue for as long as it takes.
    This post also brought to mind unfortunately the way a criminal justice system can easily insight doubt and unreliability and turn the blame onto a rape victim…”Is that what really happened…” “Can you be sure that you said no…” I would assume that the longer a victim waits to report a rape, the greater the doubt and the higher incidence of questioning memory and reality on the part of the CJS-and then the cycle starts of self-doubt…god we live in a messed up society.

    Like

    1. I wouldn’t assume that. Doubt, memory lapses, and denial can be highest for survivors in the immediate aftermath. You can’t assess the damage of an earthquake while the strongest tremors still shake.

      Doubt and denial in those a survivor reports to often begin with hearing the word “rape.” At any point in time. One reason (among about a billion) that I am uninterested in looking to the legal system for justice.

      Like

      1. I see your point regarding the immediate aftermath–the chaos and disbelief surrounding a trauma can cloud and confuse and increase doubts of the events. It isn’t until reflection and perhaps discussion with others about what happened that reality may have the opportunity to come into focus.

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