[CN: rape, emotional abuse]
The conversation we had begun that afternoon did not finish until after nine at night. I felt spent and numb, yet somehow giddy. My throat was raw. When I stood up, I rocked unsteadily on my feet.
“What now?” my mother asked. “Shall we go get dinner? What do you usually do after these kinds of talks?”
I blinked at her and shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never actually told my mother about being raped before.”
~ ~ ~
I am now going to tell you a story. That is, I am going to try. I suspect I will conceal more than I realize, and reveal more than I intend. Such is the nature of stories.
My mother would read the words I am about to write as violence. As betrayal.
She might not be wrong.
The capacity for cruelty runs through my family, and I am not exempt. Perhaps it runs through yours, as well.
~ ~ ~
When does someone else’s story become also mine, their memories threaded so densely through my own that I must either speak the forbidden or else tear my tongue out at the root? Secrets wrap around my throat like strangling vines grown thick across a trellis.
I could always lock away this story: until she is dead, until he is dead, until all the family beyond me is reduced to ash and dust. It feels like a ghoul’s choice. I picture myself as some starving vulture, shuffling anxiously from one taloned foot to the other, waiting for the meat to die.
~ ~ ~
When my mother came to visit last fall, she came to hear for herself a story I had already told my father. Afterwards, she and I went out to the same diner where my father and I had eaten the month before, right after his turn at learning how their teenaged daughter had been raped, repeatedly, in their house, down the hall from where they lay sleeping.
As he and I had sat eating our burgers, and fries slathered in ketchup and salt, my father had shared memories from his own younger life. He told me stories my mother would not recognize, even though she’d been present. He told me stories I somehow already knew, even though I’d never heard them before. It felt like he was looking to me for absolution.
I am not his god, nor his christ.
I asked him not to tell me anything more.
When I went back to that diner the following month with my mother, I made sure we sat at a different table. She and I talked about funny movies and crossword puzzles, about a llama farm near the house where she and my father live.
~ ~ ~
The dreaming mind is a poet’s mind. It makes connections between the disparate and pulls meaning out of flotsam. It speaks to us in metaphor and substitution. What seems most absurd, when recounted over cereal the next morning, conceals greatest depths.
Trauma, in its turn, pulls down the walls between dreams and daylight.
I do not know what my earliest memory was throughout my first eighteen years. After the events of my nightmarish 18th summer — that summer of the rapist knocking at my window — another earliest memory surfaced:
I am very small. I am lying in my bed with my knees bent to my chest. My bedroom is dark but the hallway light is still on — it’s after my bedtime but before my parents have gone to their own room. I have been listening to my father shouting downstairs and what sounded like things being thrown against the walls. Now it’s gone quiet, and I am filled with dread. I am bracing myself for what comes next: his apology.
I hate the apologies worse than anything. I wish he would just go to his own room. I wish the end of the yelling could mean less fear, not more.
Soon my father will come up the stairs, softly open my door, and sit on the edge of my bed. I know I am not supposed to be afraid, even though he still seems more loud scary thing than he does daddy. He will tell me it is all over, and I can go to sleep. Then it will be my turn to comfort and reassure him. I will tell him: I am okay, I am not scared.
Making peace is the only tool I know to make him go away.
I began remembering this moment with insistent clarity during the months following that summer, a summer filled with its own memories that I would not revisit in any detail for many more years. It became my new truth: that fear of my father is the first thing I remember.
Or perhaps this was always my truth, even before. I no longer know. It may no longer matter.
~ ~ ~
With or without this memory, I know that he often scared me as a child. My father holds tightest to people whom he frightens, or who frighten him. The family he was born into. The family he made.
He will still say, “When we spoke this morning, you were afraid of me, weren’t you,” in a tone that suggests he is confirming my plane’s arrival time, or whether I take cream in my coffee. I am tempted to ask if he knows the difference between fear and respect. Does he know that it is not my respect he has, when I am afraid? Or that it is not his respect, held in my hands, that at times helps him resist the urge to be frightening?
I want to know, but I never pose the question.
I wonder if I fear his response.
I know I fear remaining forever gravid with the bloat and poison of other people’s secrets.
~ ~ ~
After almost a year of this memory fragment banging loudly in my head, I decided to ask my mother.
“Can you tell me what I’m remembering? I mean, is this something that really happened?” I wanted her to tell me what the crashing sounds were — my father has never had a habit of throwing things, that I am aware of — and how often this event had repeated.
“Is this something just happened once, or a few times? Or did it happen a lot? In my memory, it feels like this went on forever.”
Not at all, my mother assured me. What I was describing had really happened, yes — but only on Sunday evenings, and it only went on for a couple of months.
“Your dad was so unhappy at his job back then,” she pointed out. “On Sunday nights, knowing he had to go back to work the next morning…well, he’d get upset.”
That was the story she stuck to, and after a while, I stopped asking for more. Must be just one of those tricks our minds play with us sometimes, I thought: magnifying trivial flickers into ominous overtones. Making solemn import out of mere vapor.
I now know my mother lied.
She told me so last fall.
~ ~ ~
I don’t think her intent was ever malicious. Certain pains are private. Certain shames can feel like not-shames if no one ever knows.
Except that I did know.
I knew more even than I realized, back when my brain first seized upon this memory to be its standard bearer — to frantically wave its flag over that part of me left abandoned on the battlefield of traumas that went unacknowledged for months, stretching into years, stretching into decades.
I believe my mother downplayed my knowledge in order to deny her own. She attempted to lie herself into an alternate truth — and me along with her — for twenty-five years. My confidence in my own mind and memories, in my own perceptions, seemed a justifiable cost. A loss she was willing to have me bear.
Almost despite myself, I understand her reasoning. It was not that her love for me ran shallow.
Only that her desperation ran deeper.
She sacrificed my truth in order to appease a darkness that must have felt larger to her than either of us. In writing these words today, I am sacrificing some of her secrecy in order to rip away the tangled vines of my own demons, grown so thick around me they crush my throat and crack my ribs.
I tell myself my decision is not less justified than hers. I know for certain: it is not more.
After twenty-five years of being denied, even a poet’s own dreams go mad.
~ ~ ~
The following night, my mother and I resumed our conversation about that summer. She sat in a chair just outside my tiny kitchen, so we could talk while I fixed dinner.
“It’s weird, what the mind does,” I told her. “You remember that memory I have of dad yelling at night, from those few months when I was a kid? I realized recently that it’s actually a mashup. I do remember being afraid, I remember dad coming into my room and how I had to be nice to him before he’d leave — but then it occurred to me: I don’t remember anything about the bedroom I had at that age.
“When I picture the scene, all the details of the room are actually from the bedroom I had in Texas. The one where I got raped. My brain just put the two memories together.”
My mother sipped her wine and sat silent for a long moment.
“It wasn’t a few months,” she said, then stopped. “I mean, those nights went on for a few months at a time, then he’d stop for a couple months before starting again.
“But it went on for years.”
I stepped to the kitchen doorway so I could see her face. She kept talking, her eyes trained on her wine glass.
“He did hate his job then, that’s true. And he was miserable to live with. He ignored me every time he came home, and after I’d spent all day by myself with two little kids. Then he’d want something from me — and I’d say no. That’s what the screaming was about.”
I stood with this revelation for a moment, before quietly asking, “I remember sounds like things being thrown against the wall — what was that?”
“Nothing thrown, no. Probably you heard cupboards banging.” My mother looked at me finally. “I would be up in our room, and he would go to the kitchen to make himself a peanut butter sandwich. Angry. Yelling. Banging all the cupboard doors.
“Maybe I should have left him. But I had two little kids. No job, nowhere to go. I don’t know. Maybe…”
As her voice trailed off, I turned back to the stove and ladled more broth into the risotto. I did not ask more. I did not ask about the other nights: the nights when there was no screaming. I too married a wounded man, and I know the compromises one can make with oneself in those moments when anything seems better than yet another fight.
To ask would be to invite certainty — and to risk more secret burdens. I prefer to live with doubt.
~ ~ ~
Behavior that cannot be safely criticized in a patriarch can often be harshly judged and policed in a girlchild. I am told that when I was little, I had terrible temper tantrums. I don’t remember them, though I remember certain punishments that lasted for years. I have not gotten visibly angry in a very long time.
Instead, I have gone increasingly mad.
Within the family, it is my defining characteristic. For all us — mother, brother, father, even me myself — I am madness. I am sickness.
I am the measuring stick for others’ sanity.
This conviction seeps into our every interaction, into every comment large or small. When I leave a room, the subtle waft of bedlam trails after me.
~ ~ ~
As I tended to my stirring, and the arborio rice started to pump and thicken, I thought about a moment from the night before. I had been trying to explain to my mother — to make sense of it for us both — why I had opened my window that summer, night after night, once I realized the consequences. Why had I not just ignored the drunk neighborhood kid, let him pound on my window for hours if he chose? Why had I not said no?
“I know this sounds terrible — remember, I was just a kid myself — I think I was more scared of my father than of anything that shit-kid would do to me. I was terrified the banging would wake him up, and he’d come into my room. Find some random man at my window.
“I don’t know what I thought dad would do. I can’t…I just know I was afraid.”
My mother had nodded slowly, her face a dark mask as she remembered the moods we each carried within us, that fateful summer.
“I think you were right. Letting the kid in was better than letting your father find out.” She paused. “You made the only choice you had.”
I dipped my ladle again into the broth and realized: I don’t know what she fears might have happened, either. Sometimes an abyss feels so deep, even wildest imagination does not dare attempt to cross it.
Sometimes, when the mind connects two memories, the message it wants to communicate runs both ways across time.
~ ~ ~
“Ever since you started telling us that something happened to you when you were eighteen,” my mother spoke again, as she poured herself another glass, “I’ve been wondering if it was one of those, what are they called? ‘Recovered memory’ types of things.”
My hand holding the wooden spoon stopped moving. Her voice seemed lighter, brighter in tone, than moments before.
“You remember, with all that controversy some time back? Not that I thought you were doing it deliberately, but, you know. You never can be sure…”
I stood very still, as my mother continued talking about young children manipulated into false memories of sexual abuse. Finally, I turned to look at her. Her gaze back was steady and sincere, almost as if she was expecting me to nod agreement: “How very reasonable, for you to assume I hallucinate violence.”
After all — as my mother will tell you — I have always enjoyed being melodramatic.
“Such a drama queen,” she often describes me, “ever since you were little!”
~ ~ ~
In my earliest memory, I am a small child huddled in the bed where I will be raped more than a decade later, in a house that has not yet been built. The screaming and banging has ended downstairs, and I am waiting in silence and the sliver of hallway light that comes through my cracked-open door.
I am waiting, and I am afraid.
When my father comes into my room, he does not turn on the light and instead shuffles towards my bed in the darkness. I cannot make out his face as he bends down to tell me it’s all over. Everything is over.
“It’s okay, daddy,” I whisper into his ear, my arms clutched around his neck. “It’s okay, daddy. It’s okay. Everything’s okay.”
Sometimes I think I remember him crying.
“We Have Nothing to Fear But Love Itself” is part of an ongoing memory project.
Previous installments can be found here.