[CN: sexual assault, incest]
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
Once upon a time, a beautiful maiden in possession of all her limbs [so every version of the Armless Maiden begins] lived in the forest with her father the woodsman and her mother, the woodsman’s wife. [Or sometimes her mother is already dead, depends on which version you choose to retell.] The woodsman is seized with sexual desire for his beautiful daughter—or perhaps greedy desire to trade her to the devil for wealth—or perhaps marital desire to replace his dead wife with similar product already close-to-hand and convenient.
[Such surface details of a father’s lust often shift, the critics agree, while leaving the underlying incest motif intact.]
Angered at her strong rejection of his plans, the woodsman chops off his daughter’s hands with an ax. [Just above the wrist, or a bit below the elbow, or let’s say he takes the whole arm—at this point, you really wanna quibble details with me??] He may even demand that she cleaver them off herself [though I am fuzzy on the mechanics of how this would be done]. She flees from him into the woods, to eat fruit from the ground where it has fallen and, in general, to survive like a brutish animal.
Now, since this is a fairy tale, you and I both know what’s coming: a handsome prince, true love, and marriage. [Still that tricky “look, ma! no hands!” issue, though. Happily ever after is harder with a princess who can’t hug her spouse, care for their babies, or even wipe herself after a late-night visit to the chamber pot.] So the story hiccups into a second half, during which our handless heroine flees back into the woods, communes with herself and with nature for a number of years, and becomes such an overall loving spirit, inside and out, that her arms and hands grow back entirely.
At which point, the Armless Maiden—armless no long—reunites with her love, scoops up their baby [grown surly preteen, no doubt, in her absence], and takes over all the housework, allowing everyone to Happily ever after, for ever after…
Do you know this story? Have you come across it elsewhere? Can you perhaps then explain to me, because I really don’t understand, why our heroine comes back to herself all sweetness and light and not, for example, royally fcking pissed the fcking-fck off?
Me, I think I might pick up the first ax my new hands could carry and go hunting myself a woodsman.
[Or maybe I just like to think I might.]
[Me being me, I’m much more likely to pick up the first available pen.]
[Which is another way of saying: I’ve been having a lot of trouble figuring out how I want to write today’s post.]
* * *
If this were not a story about me, or not a story about my father, this is how I think it would begin:
“Y’know, my father’s a rapist,” I tell the woman sitting across from me in the cafe. We had met recently in a support group for sexual assault survivors. A grimace passes fleetingly across her face, and she shrugs sympathetically.
“Oh, yeah? Mine too.”
Start talking publicly about sexual violence, and you too can find yourself stumbling into revelations like this all the time. Available responses largely boil down to just two: shrug, or shriek.
Shrieking takes more energy.
Yes. I think that’s how I would begin the story I would tell you.
[Or maybe I just like to think I would.]
* * *
In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott writes: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” I love the bravado of this sentiment, the obvious and unsubtle demarcation she draws between ‘those who harm’ and ‘those who are harmed.’
I wish I could see it the way Lamott does. The possibilities of such clarity appeal to me.
[I’m sure I’d get more writing done, for starters.]
* * *
Another thought occurs. Maybe I should ease you into today’s story with background information. About small manipulations and large terrorizings. About a lifetime of gaslighting and a dysfunctional family system.
Or how the convergence a few years ago of a widely-analyzed rape trial and a spectacularly coercive act by my father finally turned a light on in my head: even though he never touched me himself, my father has groomed me since early childhood to be the most compliant of victims. Some girls, they rape so easy…
Or I could begin this post the way my father began a conversation with me not three years ago, the same day I first told him about having been raped when I was 18 by someone I thought was a friend (a friend who assaulted me week after week, at night in my bedroom in my father’s house). I had talked for hours, telling dad the story while trying not to lose myself back into the trauma. We each took a break, then met back up for dinner.
I was still pulling out my chair to sit down when my father told me he was a rapist.
I mean, he told me he thought he was a rapist. He was pretty sure. Seemed quite likely. Because of what I’d said. “It’s so interesting to me, what you said about being raped…”
Not just one woman.
More than one.
He wanted to tell me about them. To tell me details so I could make the decision for him, if he was a rapist or not. He told me about his own teenage years: his girlfriends’ breast sizes, their sexual experiences before him, what happened the moment he penetrated—
[I did not make him stop talking, but neither did I pass out or vomit in the middle of the restaurant, so yknow. Points for that.]
One tangible result of that hour-long conversation: I no longer have flashbacks to being raped. First time in my life, I can pick up and handle nearly any scrap of memory remaining from those desperate summer nights without becoming horror-scorched. For many months after my father’s visit, I attributed this shift to my own hard work in therapy and felt quite proud of myself.
Took me that long to recognize that my brain had simply pulled a swap. In the space where my PTSD lives, my rapist now bangs on the window of some girl in the 1950s…and I am forever just sitting down to dinner with my father, paralyzed by a mortal danger I am powerless to prevent.
[A consequence worth bearing in mind, should you yourself ever feel tempted to plant your narrative flag in the midst of someone else’s trauma story.]
Would this have been the proper story to start with, to tell the story I am trying to tell? Or perhaps I should just leave it out altogether. I’m not entirely sure my father meant for me to remember what he said, you see, after he’d finished saying it.
* * *
I feel guilty and ashamed again today, even to hint that my mind’s confounding of my father with my own rapist is neither arbitrary nor unwarranted. Part of me wants to write in a handwavy disavowal. “I don’t really mean it, I know it’s not fair, my dad’s a great guy and I’m not trying to hurt him, even I don’t believe half the things I think are true…”
* * *
Sometimes I seek comfort in reminding myself: even my mother believes that I have had reason to fear my father.
“You were right, you know, to let that boy in rather than let his noise wake your father up,” she said to me a few months later, after I finally told her about the events of my 18th summer. “Once that boy started coming to your window, he left you no good choices. It was better to let him in, as many times as he came by. It was the safest thing you could do.”
Safer to be raped a baker’s dozen times than let my father find a young man in my bedroom…?
Yes, my mother’s tone implied. Safer to be raped two dozen times, three—raped forever—than to have let this secret out.
I don’t know how to reconcile this belief with a lifetime of her telling me how much I love and owe my father.
How he is my greatest hero.
How no one could ever love me more.
Or, rather, I should say: I do know how these facts reconcile.
It’s just that the answer makes me want to run shrieking into the night, tearing at my clothes until I rend flesh, dumping buckets of ash over my head as I go.
* * *
I have come a long way, in the last few years, from the panic and emotional blank-outs I experienced in my father’s presence for much of my life. A dissociative trigger so deeply ingrained that when my therapist finally recognized the pattern, it was not due to my father himself but a half-hour meeting with an authoritative older man who shared certain of my father’s characteristics that had sent me tumbling for the next six weeks into “lost time.”
For the first time in my life, I am learning to feel anger. To sense it and know it for what it is. To sit with my anger and not deny it back into darkness, where it perverts and metastasizes into self-hatred and razor blades against my own body.
For the first time, I am also starting to understand my father’s anger. The way a childhood spent feeling unseen and unvalued—one that included never love enough to meet his needs—continued twisting and distorting him into adulthood. The way rage can mask a terror that if his best-beloveds ever felt leave to express their truest opinions of him, we might declare my father just as worthless as he most fears he is.
Left unaddressed, such old wounds can mire one’s strongest desires to express love within a compulsion to control / limit / silence the object of that love. In seeking intimacy without vulnerability, anyone’s deepest longings for connection will turn inevitably monstrous.
* * *
But back to questions of writing.
I didn’t have a chance to fully workshop this essay before posting it, so if you’re willing to help out, maybe I can do so here? This is how my current draft ends:
In a small back room of my mind, a version of me stands alert—2×4 in hand, held at the ready like a weaponized baseball bat—and argues I can never feel safe until my father’s dead. In another room, another self of mine weeps for this would-be warrior’s certainty, and for the losses she represents.
Weeps, also, for my father, and for the losses that shaped him, too.
I included the final line because: A) I truly feel this way. B) I want my narrator to come across as sympathetic. C) I am still afraid to care more about my own story than about his.
Now, for the purposes of this exercise, tell me: which of the proceeding statements do you most believe is true?
You only get to choose one.
* * *
Once upon a time, a wounded woman retreats to the woods, communing with herself and with her past until she finds the courage to heal. Grateful for a mind and body at last again intact, she reenters the world of women and men, of friendship and work, her heart light with gratitude and joy.
Once upon another time, a wounded woman grapples with her wounding past until she fights her way back to wholeness. Grateful for a mind and body at last again intact, she hefts the weight of a silver ax in her regrown hands and sets off back into the woods to mutilate the father who mutilated her, her heart light with gratitude and fury.
[“A Father’s Daughter’s Hand Firmly Grips the Pen” is part of an ongoing collaborative writing project: drawing on myths & fairy tales as a means of understanding, resisting, and healing from rape culture, trauma, and sexual violence.
Links to the rest of the developing series appear here.]