[CN: rape, self-injury]
“Survivors understand full well that the natural human response to horrible events is to put them out of mind. They may have done this themselves in the past. Survivors also understand that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. It is for this reason that public truth-telling is the common denominator of all social action.”
–Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery
In a dream, I come across a toad in the woods. Squat, warty, with flat blank eyes. He belches up a stone that clatters over my feet. A ruby, I recognize when I bend over to look: big as my fist and red as death. I reach out to pick it up, to pop it into my mouth for safe-keeping, and grab the toad instead. I do not realize my mistake until I feel the toad sitting belligerent on my tongue, plumping up his blotchy abdomen to fill the space from my lips to my throat. When I look back for the ruby, it is already gone.
I wake up choking.
* * * * *
Most of the photos I have from my childhood live in a large document box, clustered together chronologically in clearly-labeled archival folders. My mother—trained historian and daughter of a news-photographer—made just such a careful box for each of us during the years after my grandfather’s death, merging countless stacks of inherited photos with her own files as she worked to organize his legacy. An inch into the box, in a folder simply labeled “GRADE 2,” one finds not photographs but a carbon-copy report typed onto two sheets of onion skin paper, preprinted with the words: CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION.
I remember this report, even though I’d never read it until recently. Or, more precisely, I remember taking the tests that led to it.
And I remember Mr. Morley.
John Morley, school counselor at my second-grade elementary school and author of this CONFIDENTIAL report, was hands-down my favorite teacher ever. Visiting his office—in my memory, a room stacked floor-to-ceiling on every wall with board games, puzzles, and other kid-friendly delights in boxes—meant a respite from whatever classroom routines I seemed hellbent on escaping. I could tell him stories as long as I liked, and Mr. Morley always listened attentively. He made me feel like I myself was a delight. It never occurred to me that the stories, like rest of Mr. Morley’s games, were really a test.
(It certainly never occurred to me that he was timing me, or I’d have told my stories differently. In under 10 seconds, a still-competitive streak in me whispers.)
What the report says: I was sent to Mr. Morley for assessment of a possible learning disability, concern prompted by a string of otherwise-inexplicable health issues. “Starting in March ’78, Alice was evidencing many physical complaints, trips to the nurse, and time out for tests. Her parents also took her to the pediatrician three times for headaches and stomachaches.” What the report concludes: I had no discernible disabilities, but rather “it is highly probable that she was becoming bored with classroom work.”
What the report doesn’t say? That the way I kept getting out of class was by making myself bleed.
Nosebleeds, to be precise, which I got easily as a kid and could produce—and prolong—quite easily as well. Details that felt innocent at the time, and which might seem so today still, had later events not transpired the way they did. Utterly innocuous, along with this postscript: I continued giving myself nosebleeds throughout the following year, only not at school and not where adults might again catch me. Late at night, when my family was all asleep, I would sneak into the guest bedroom down the hall and crouch in darkness in front of the television set, volume turned so low as to be inaudible if I breathed too loud, and bloody my nose while Star Trek reruns flickered across the screen.
The most successful nights I stretched it out almost an entire episode, my lap filled with red-stained kleenexes, until no amount of picking or pinching or punching would restart the flow. Then I wadded up the mess, wrapped two or three clean tissues around it all, and buried it at the bottom of a half-filled trashcan, before tiptoeing back to bed.
Like I said, if that little-girl self’s future had not spun out to become my present-day self’s past, I might not ever think about these stories again. If I had not spent more than a decade of adulthood taking comfort in the sight of my own forearms, freshly scored with razor blades and dripping blood, I might think it no more than eccentric: having taken such pride as a child in my ability to bleed, silently and unseen, in the lonely dark.
* * * * *
We are mistaken if we think of remembering as a journey taken in reverse. No truly past event lies in pristine stability, untouched and unchanged for our minds to visit at will.
The past is an invention of the present, patterned into meanings that get constructed in the very act of seeking them out. Memory, like all of time—like life itself—is a rushing river that travels only forward.
* * * * *
“Traumatized people feel utterly abandoned, utterly alone, cast out of the human and divine systems of care and protection that sustain life. Thereafter, a sense of alienation, of disconnection, pervades every relationship, from the most intimate familial bonds to the most abstract affiliations of community and religion… [T]raumatized people feel that they belong more to the dead than to the living.” (Herman, p. 52)
* * * * *
In classical myths of the Underworld, the land of the dead was traversed by five mighty rivers: the Styx, River of Hatred, circling the land seven times like the loops of a noose; the Acheron, River of Pain, across which Charon ferried all souls fortunate enough to arrive with a coin on their tongues to pay his fare; the Lethe, River of Forgetting; the Phlegethon, River of Blood (or of Fire, depending on your sources); and finally the Cocytus, River of Wailing.
One ancient sect believed that the Lethe had its own sister river, one that restored memories instead of stealing them forever. To taste from the first was to drink loss, to seek what peace comes with oblivion. Or one could drink memory from the second instead and achieve omniscience, together with every detail of one’s human life forever etched in consciousness like the writing of a diamond on glass. On its passage from life into death, each soul was presented with this choice.
It is no longer remembered what name this second river bore.
* * * * *
I used to think of my scars as stories forever etched into my flesh, the act of self-injury an embodied metaphor for the act of writing. I am not alone in this. Caroline Kettlewell’s Skin Game, the first memoir written about self-injury, opens with the meditative lines: “Skin has a good memory. Skin is like the ground we walk every day; you can read a whole history in it if you know how to look.”
For years I thought I had written a whole history in mine.
But as the decades flowed past and the scars built up, layered each upon the other like some ancient mariner’s chart, illegible with time and unnavigable without a sextant, I have come to understand cutting not as writing’s extension but as its antithesis. Each scar never carried its own story; rather all the scars carry the same single story. Traumatic memory repeating itself in blood like a demented koan, demanding and refusing interpretation in the same breath. A record playing the same track in unintelligible reverse again and again, wearing down the groove until the disk threatens to crack.
Do you see? Even my attempts to explain simply throw metaphor atop metaphor, no closer to showing you the truth than if I pulled back my sleeves and thrust the whole hypertophic mess into your face.
* * * * *
Between my early pride-filled nosebleeds and my later shame-filled cuts;
Between the first time I stared, astonished, at rust-colored streaks in the crotch of my middle-schooler’s panties and the last time I cleaned swathes of dried blood from my bedroom floor on a morning-after;
Falls the Shadow.
Me, I say: in the summer of my 18th year and long before the word “rape” ever crossed my lips, on all the mornings I woke up unsure if what I thought had happened was true memory or mere madness, I always felt grateful for the sight of still-sticky blood scraped across my inner thighs. Back then I would have told you, “Blood is how you know for sure if you’ve had sex.” I might have also said that flowing blood marks the line between living and death; that the ability to bleed is what tells us if a thing is still alive.
Today I would tell you, Blood is the color of remembering.
And a thing is never truly dead until it chooses to be.
* * * * *
“Four and a half decades later, the majority [of WWII vets in the study] gave very different accounts from the narratives recorded in their immediate postwar interviews: With the passage of time, events had been bleached of their intense horror. In contrast, those who had been traumatized and subsequently developed PTSD did not modify their accounts; their memories were preserved essentially intact forty-five years after the war ended.” (Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps Score, p. 177)
* * * * *
“I have known rivers,” the poet Langston Hughes writes, “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the / flow of human blood in human veins.”
Hughes wrote The Negro Speaks of Rivers when he was only 17, in which he imagines himself existing throughout the time and space of the diaspora as embodied in rivers:
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
Trauma, and the susceptibility to trauma, passes down often through families from one generation to the next. For unconscionably large segments of our human species, trauma passes down across entire groups: accumulated intergenerational trauma like that burdening Black communities in the US since slavery (and so many traumas after), or Jewish communities since the Holocaust (and so many traumas before). For community and individual alike, history must come to a reckoning. To release each frozen moment back into the current of time, we need storytelling…and story-receiving, too, without which every sentence is at best pantomime, or whispers told to a mirror when no one else is there.
May souls be healed in such tellings.
May we all grow deep like the waters that have birthed us.
* * * * *
I realized recently that I access emotions best when I am in the shower. I will feel the warm water streaming over my head, coursing down my body like a river, and begin to sob. Or shout. Or sometimes sing—off-key exuberance of raucous delight. The touch of running water frees whatever is trapped beneath my skin, and in its embrace I start to feel…human.
(I have begun showering two times a day now. Given the chance, sometimes even three.)
Last night, I showered late, following a mad-dash cleaning of my apartment that had seemed suddenly urgent. Combing my hair roughly with my fingers, I peered at my face in the steam-fogged mirror and drew in breath to speak.
Instead of words, from out my mouth fountained a cascade of red, red roses.
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“The Writer Dreams of Rivers” is part of an ongoing collaborative writing project using myths & fairy tales as tools to critique, resist, and heal from the impact of trauma and sexual violence.
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And now for something completely different:
I just gave Coffee and a Blank Page its own Facebook page!
Please follow and come out to play with me there if you’re interested.
Snacks may (or may not) be involved.