We Have Nothing to Fear But Love Itself

[CN: rape, emotional abuse] 

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(“So thick you couldn’t see the building.” photo by Vicky TH via)

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.

21 thoughts on “We Have Nothing to Fear But Love Itself

  1. AND thank you for allowing me to benefit, not only from your life/words but also from the opportunity to process my own. This is a rare privilege.

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    1. I am benefiting tremendously, too, from what you share with me here. I hope someday we have the chance to sit down together in person.

      Maybe we can grab a beer and just shoot the sh!t. I think we’ve both earned it!

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  2. In my very similar and yet-so-different life, I’ve left behind my own trails and trials of tears, mine and others. I’ve seen and shared and lived the darkness within. “Either God doesn’t love me enough to change me, or he’s not strong enough to change me.” That was my mantra,inside and out. It took time to realize that he did in fact love me and was in fact strong. In that time I had to embrace the fact that I didn’t love myself and the self I had become. I had little inner strength, and rested in outward expressions of what I thought was strength. In fact it was only weakness wrapped in anger. The scars of sin are born by all. I could no longer blame God. How does one, can or should one, learn to embrace this shadow self? I’m no longer that person, but the – hopefully better person I’m becoming – stands on the ugly man I was. I’ve tried to rip out, to expel, to surgically and chemically remove that shadow, that false self. But I can’t. It’s me. Some say not to fear the shadows because they tell you there’s also light nearby. I’m not sure yet.

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    1. I am, as always, deeply moved by the thoughts you share with me here. Indeed, by your willingness to engage with these stories at all; I can’t imagine they make for comfortable reading, given all the ways they do — and do not — touch on your own experiences. (Also, sorry for the delay in responding! I wrote something a few days ago, then lost it with an ill-timed cat attack on my keyboard. Will do my best to recreate that which I can.)

      Despite the differences in religion and faith, I wonder if you and I aren’t thinking about these issues in quite similar ways. We all stand on the person(s) we once were. Our ugliest adult selves, seems to me, are not just standing on — but attempting to guard over — the injured children we once were, and that part of us feels itself still to be. The child that truly was weak or (perhaps put more accurately) powerless. It is hard to protect our damaged places without resorting to equally destructive stances (whether aggression/control or total passivity/surrender); it is impossible to heal those places unless and until we acknowledge that they *are* damaged. They are also, as you poignantly describe, fully part of us — not something foreign we can expel, destroy, or rip asunder.

      I do not know the shadows that you carry. From what you have shared and what I know/believe about family patterns, I understand why you might feel reluctant to let go of fearing certain darknesses. Please know that I empathize. I also share both the grief and the hope that your words seem to express.

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      1. “Trauma, in its turn, pulls down the walls between dream and daylight.” Might I expand on this and add my own twists in my own context?

        In September I will begin a second-year residency embedded in the Trauma team for 12 months. Here I will have the opportunity to live out our unit’s mantra: “Chaplains are among those who run toward the screams.” I’m uncertain as to my motivations for pursuing this area of specialization: to be a hero; to be a calming presence in an horrendous situation; to experience the adrenaline surge that comes the page that says, “Trauma One, GSW x 3; ten minutes out”; to walk with someone in her/his darkest moment on their worst-ever day. Saying this, I guess I’m wrong. I am certain about my motivations. It’s just that they are a mixed bag.

        The first thing trauma does, usually for the family (member) and not the patient who’s usually unconscious and intubated, is to tear down the walls between dream and nightmare. The dream for your 22-year old daughter becomes the nightmare of a child with a traumatic brain stem injury: will she live, will she want to live like this? Trauma tears down the wall between dream/nightmare and daylight. Night terrors invade the sunlight that no longer protect from horror. The life that might have been…gone forever, no matter the eventual outcome. Trauma changes one forever. Life becomes the journey to make some sense, or not; to embrace the horror, or not; to learn to live well with it, or not; to walk courageously into a changed life, or not. Bravery bleeds through your words to reveal a woman who is rejecting the “or not.”

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  3. I aspire to write like you one day…

    I am not a parent, but I can imagine that if I had a child and learned that they had been raped in my own house, with me sleeping… I would suffer my own kind of trauma. The guilt of knowing I could have done something and didn’t or couldn’t stop it when it happened would eat me alive.

    My family has always been extremely awkward about showing affection or expressing emotion. I don’t recall my mom ever telling me she loved me until I finally said it to her one day as a teenager. I spent so many years angry and resentful toward her for her lack of emotion, warped sense of reality, and constant worry and paranoia about what the neighbors think (as if someone is constantly watching through the window… better close the blinds if the house looks trashy!).

    I eventually realized that my mother’s behavior and failure to love me the way I wanted her to signified that she was never shown that kind of love either, so how could I hate her for being unable to show it to me? Even though my relationship with her has been fundamentally hurtful and damaging, I know she has done the best she can. I know she loves me the only way she knows how.

    I see now that the way my mother has treated me reflects how she has been treated. She must have endured some unspeakable trauma, because she never talks much about her past.

    I remember her mocking me when I was first assaulted at 14, “Awww, you’re such a victim, aren’t you?” Well yes, I was. But I guess I was whining about it too much. I wish she hadn’t invited her friend to come with us to the hospital after I was assaulted. I wish she had been sensitive to how traumatizing it was to be a chubby, painfully awkward 14-year-old who could only keep repeating, “I wasn’t THAT traumatized,” over and over as I stood in the middle of a hospital room in bare feet and just my underwear, trying to cover my fat rolls, while a nurse looked down my panties, surrounded by too many people. There were too many people in that room. Why wouldn’t mom realize how terrible that was for me? But she was trying to help by having her friend there, or something…

    When it happened again over last Halloween, she was actually the first family member I told. She was supportive and encouraged me to go to the police. She checked on me and brought me food when I spent days in bed sobbing and refusing to get up after I remembered and realized what had happened. But she also, once again, made me feel like it was my fault because I was drunk. “Well you know, I had this friend once who used to get really drunk and just walk around the beach, and you know what happens…”.

    No, I don’t. Yeah mom, you’re right. Women should watch where they get drunk and not be stupid enough to go places they want to go, since rapists might be standing by ready to attack. Thanks for the advice…

    As for my father, I’ve always been a daddy’s girl and from what my siblings tell me, his favorite. We have always been close, but still in an emotionally distant way. Hugs with my mom have always been rare and forced/awkward, but it’s different with dad. I know he grew up with violent drunk men in his family. He is so soft-spoken and mild-mannered, it seems he walks on eggshells all the time. My mom effectively beats him down mentally, probably just carrying on what someone else must have done his entire life.

    I remember my mother telling me that dad cried when he read my teenage diary, an explicit, uncensored account of my early sexual activities. I guess it would be nice if he ever cried with me, or got outraged and angry and wanted to kill the men that hurt me. But he’s a quiet man, and I love him for it anyway.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading my work, and sharing your own story. I think you’re right: it can be quite difficult for people who have suffered their own traumas to support us as we might want or need, even when they love us. I wish you love, light, and good good words, during your own healing.

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  4. This whole piece is riveting, but I froze when I read “You never can be sure…” That sense of crazy-making and reality fucking is what I always feared about my own mother and why I am so very careful about sharing my own stories without a thick layer of metaphor and buffer. Anyway, I believe you, and if that’s all I have to offer I think it can be enough.

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  5. Speaking the truth in love has tremendous power to heal not only yourself but others. Many many people don’t have enough courage to tell their own stories. It takes tremendous courage to look inside one’s heart and soul and speak the truth of what you find. Don’t underestimate the possibility that your having the courage to tell your story may be the very impetus for healing of your entire family. Darkness cannot be healed until it’s brought into the light of truth and love. Continue to give your story a voice.

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    1. Thank you for reading, and thank you for your comment! I completely agree with you about the power of telling our own stories: I have found great strength in hearing the truths of others, as well as speaking my own.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Stunning!

    This bit – “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.” – I know this, this part of your story is a part of mine too, and as I read those words… I recalled that moment I thought that I’d probably die before them, perhaps because of everything I was holding in, and then what.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Intense. Beautiful. Life.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is powerful. You don’t have to share here if it’s too much right now but…what will happen on the day you let all the anger out, not in bits and pieces but every single ounce of mad within you all at once shouted to the rooftops so that I can hear you all the way across the USA?
    I’ve been writing and editing my ‘return to blogging’ post to present after this April challenge thing. Fear (my fear) is a large part of what I write about, for the first time, and it is by no means completely revealed in the post, however your words create a vision that cannot be denied–
    I wonder if I will get there someday… I wonder which one of us will be first…

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    1. I am deeply looking forward to see what you start writing when you find your path — and give yourself permission to say what you need to. I am excited for you as both a writer and a person, and for myself as a reader. Sometimes I feel like I hear aspects of you in the comments you leave here more loudly than in your own blog posts — like this comment — though that may be bleedover from the energy I’ve already invested in my posts. I have so many questions…

      And I’m interested to answer your question, too. Given that I accidentally posted a much nastier version of this (from my perspective, at least) over the weekend, I’m a little burned out on the question of “how do I navigate the dance with anger?” for the week! 🙂 I can say this: I don’t actually know where all my anger lies, or how much of it there is. My goal for now is less “letting it out” and more “learning to touch it without burning myself or others.”

      If you ever would like to chat about something better suited to a not-internet-open venue, please feel free to send me an email address where I can contact you. (My own is on the CaaBP contact page.)
      Best, alice

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you, for so much more than this reply can convey. As to that writing…well the comeback post touches on some of that issue, but it will be a work in progress for me. I will take you up on that offer of outside conversation soon.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It is always a work in progress. All of it. All of everything. Sometimes that is a lesson we need to learn more than once — it remains, nonetheless, always true. 🙂

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