When my brain finished integrating last fall—last stage in healing the mental fractures that nearly killed me, after 25 years of misdiagnosed and untreated PTSD—I came back to myself less than two weeks after an illegitimate election placed an unstable and corrupt would-be dictator in line to be the next US president. In other words, I finally knew myself in the world just as the world I knew tilted on its axis and began slipping away.
The core challenge that posed has taunted me ever since: how do I normalize this overwhelming new sense of self I am experiencing, while at the same not normalizing this overwhelming new world, filled with political chaos targeting every social principle I believe in?
As a human being, feeling at home within my mind and body is everything. Is life itself.
As a citizen, feeling at home within this burgeoning autocracy would mean death.
Do you ever skip around when you are trying to broach a difficult topic? Sidle up beside your point, see if you can spot it in your peripheral vision without being seen in turn?
Oh, do not ask what is it.
I wouldn’t tell you yet anyhow. Instead, I’m going to share with you the opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s early modernist poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
Other days, it begins with finding myself being equated to a Nazi mass-murderer by some random online stranger, who happens to disagree with me about the need and function of public protest in any functioning democracy.
So, yeah. That.
I wondered, as I stared at my computer screen this morning: why am I the one in this exchange feeling trapped and tongue-tied? Why this stab of pain at witnessing the shameful barbarism of another human’s ill-informed—and ill-intended—imagination?
I have been trying to write about shame for days, y’see. The way it clots the throat. The way it steals intent and stillbirths action.
When functioning properly, shame polices the edges of propriety. It’s the tool our social herds use to cull those whose behavior transgresses the untransgressable. But often when we speak of it this way directly—“Have you no shame?”—we are merely evoking the presence of its absence, trying to summon the effects of a boundary on someone who has long since abandoned our thought-to-be-agreed-upon rules.
Shame is a double-edged knife, sharpened even through its hilt. It cuts in unpredictable directions, as often burying itself in the flesh of the sinned-against as in that of the sinner. More often, perhaps.
Still unsure what I’m getting at? Ask any rape survivor.
The new US president—aided, abetted, and manipulated by the unholy choir of white supremacists and power-drunk opportunists that surrounds him—seems bent on tying, if not beating, that world-creating record as he sets about the process of destroying it.
Holy crap. I mean…
How to even begin to resist?
With the Word, I ‘spose. If I’m sticking with tradition, I begin with the word. And in this situation, that word is me. My resistance must begin with me.
* * *
Let me be clear: I want to save myself.
First, last, every day in between. Myself.
So do you. It’s human nature; it’s survival instinct; it’s why we don’t yet breed in cannisters but cling to the fleshy stickiness of bodies and lusts, new life emerging blood-covered and squalling.
I want to save myself most, and so do you.
Now. If I misunderstand this basic fact, I can’t serve justice. It is my own judgment that I confront in the mirror at the end of each day, after all.
The first time I wrote on this blog in my truest voice, it was a declaration of independence from audience. “I am done speaking to the bodies of men,” I pronounced; “To the helpmeets of men.” I decided to write first and foremost for myself and, as a distant second, to address an imagined audience of other women who had survived sexual assault. Anybody else who wanted to listen? Was certainly welcome to do so, but I would make no adjustments for their comfort.
As last year began winding down, however, I started itching to leave this stance for greener, less plundered, pastures. Tired of five years of filling-in-the-blank “current occupation: rape survivor-in-recovery,” bored with my own intimate overexposure and the incessant “I… I… I…” of confessional writing.
I wondered what else I might want to say, if I no longer felt compelled to foreground the issue of violation.
And then my country elected a rapist as president.
I am filled with grief this morning for Melania Trump.
I watched her husband’s tasteless speech at the Al Smith charity dinner last night, in which he repeatedly and grotesquely insulted Hillary Clinton to her face. [Apparently this event has a longstanding tradition of both presidential candidates showing up to “roast” one another.] And I noted the ease with which Trump shifted into humiliating Melania as a tactic to garner audience support.
When the audience laughed—and laugh they did, breaking for a moment the tension of that excruciating speech—they laughed because for a moment his target felt like a safe one. What husband would say such a thing if his wife weren’t in on the joke, right? And maybe they laughed because they slipped into the same blurred distinctions as Donald, using his wife as a lightning rod for their discomfort with him just as he jabbed at her in a pretense of self-deprecating humor.
But a wife is not mere extension of the man she has married. Make no mistake: that was spousal abuse on display last night, as Trump commanded Melania to stand for the people laughing at him making fun of her. When he admitted that he had not warned her in advance of the humiliation he had planned, he used her own loyalty against her and cornered her into either immediately absolving him or making a scene at a hugely public event.
After the Trump video released last Friday, writer Kelly Oxford tweeted about her own experience—at only 12 years old—of having a strange man grab her crotch. While she may not have expected more than a few friends to respond to her invitation to “tweet me you first assaults,” she has now received hundreds of thousands of stories (a million on Saturday night alone), and the tweets are still pouring in, under the hashtag #NotOkay.
I find myself among those unwilling to join this conversation openly. Not because I do not have such memories in my past, but these are encounters that I either have already shared or have reasons to hold private still. So I am thinking instead about the ubiquity of not only sexual violence in girlhood but also the threats of such violence—and how these twin forces shaped the early years of so many women I know, and continue to color our daughters’ experiences today.
With all that in mind (both the said and the unsaid), I decided to revisit and revamp this piece I wrote a few years ago:
My Body Is a Car Door
He and I are drinking coffee together, sitting
each in our own maturity and marveling the kids these days! when he says:
“I always thought puberty
was so much worse for girls. Breasts, menstruation—
like living inside an alien.
Boys have nothing that compares.”