When I wake up on November 9th, the day after the presidential election, I’m in a familiar haze, like I was on the mornings after my father would sexually assault me. The light streams across my face through a small gap in the curtains. I blink into the new day with numb limbs, and scan my body for signs of life. For years, in the mornings, I woke up this same way, to this question–am I still alive, or did that last assault kill me?
Being raped as a child is like living through something that should have killed me. I lived anyway, even though some parts of me died in the process. Sometimes, when the sun rose in the morning I would think, “how is the world still here?” And when the day started up again, like nothing ever happened, I felt shocked. “How is this possible? Why doesn’t everyone notice that everything is upside down and inside out?”
But the sun just kept coming up, every single day, no matter what happened the night before, and I just kept living through it. So I never got an answer to how it was possible that the world was still here, but the fact that it simply was kept me moving forward into my life, one foot in front of the other.
In my busy, childhood home, each potential witness to my trauma experienced such a complicated set of near misses that I used to think of their lives–my mom’s and my sisters’–like Inspector Clouseau’s life in the Pink Panther movies that I loved. They had no idea how many times they almost had a direct run in with the father that I had to live with. At the last second, the universe always shifted for them, or at least my father did, and the cliff off which one of them was about to walk would transform suddenly into solid ground. Something kept saving them from knowing just how far my father could fall off his pedestal. They could bumble, stumble and fall through the day and still end up safe, never knowing how lucky they were, just like Inspector Clouseau. I loved those Pink Panther movies because I loved my family and because I longed to experience the protection their innocence afforded them. Inspector Clouseau Clip
I, on the other hand, was more like Wil-E-Coyote, running off a constant cliff, almost safe, until my simple acknowledgement of reality smashed me to the ground over and over again. I never learned not to see the missing ground under my feet or the 200 foot drop that would flatten me when I hit the ground. I never learned not to acknowledge what was right in front of me: my father, relentlessly dangerous and threatening, my life always in his hands.
When I was 8 years old, my sisters and I watched The Little Match Girl on TV and I watched, frozen in place with tears running down my face. The image I still remember is of the little match girl in her unravelling gloves and dirt-smudged face, standing on her tiptoes, peeking inside the window of a restaurant. All the tables are laid out with an embarrassing excess of food and the people inside are laughing and celebrating, oblivious to her starving eyes and frozen fingers. She sits down to rest in a corner, right outside the restaurant and freezes to death. Nobody notices. The world doesn’t even blink, because she is just a girl, and a poor one at that. In the morning, she is still there and people keep rushing past her body on the street, on their way to church. That’s how I felt in my family, that I had my nose pressed up against the window of their lives while I froze to death in the cold.
When the movie ended, I couldn’t move. I was sitting in the kitchen on the wicker chairs that we turned from the table so we could watch the TV on the counter. The only sensation I could feel was the imprint of the wicker seat on my ankles, which were tucked up under me.
“Oh God,” one of my sisters said. “She’s on a feelings trip.”
My family had a deep disdain for the expression of feelings. We made fun of anyone who simply needed a moment. If one of us even had a lump in her throat, someone would start to sing, “Feelings, nothing more than feelings, trying to forget…” Then there would be a dramatic silence before everyone belted out, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, feeeeelings, whoa whoa whoa, feelings, alone in my heart.” I was still numb when I heard one of my sisters start to sing “Feelings” and it snapped me back into reality. Feelings Song
“Stop it!” I yelled, not wanting to be accused of ‘being dramatic’. I tried to get up quickly, but my ankles, still stuck to the wicker, pulled the chair with them when I moved and dumped me onto the ground.
“Owwww,” I screamed from under the toppled chair.
“Oh my GOD,” said one of my sisters. “You are SO dramatic!”
“Shut UP!” I yelled, untangling myself and standing up.
“YOU shut up,” one of my sisters yelled.
“You’re such a baby!” the other yelled, though it was unclear who the baby was.
We all stomped upstairs bickering and picking at each other until my mom yelled a stern, “GIRLS, QUIET!” and we scattered off to bed in our separate rooms.
That night was the first night I realized how different my life was from my sisters’ lives. They were growing up protected while I was struggling under the weight of the knowledge I had. The things I knew about human nature, about the loss of trust, of self, of all my power, of faith in anything and of my own intact spirit were things my sisters did not have to confront every day as kids. It was the first time I felt how lonely it was to grow up right next to them, in the same family, and have a totally separate life, different obstacles to success, and a system of values that no longer matched. I lived in a world they’d never seen–a world they had the privilege and the luck not to see. I don’t blame them for that–we were just kids, and all pawns in a game none of us chose to play.
That night I dreamt that I froze to death on the sidewalk and that the feet rushing by me on their way to church belonged to my sisters. And they were not being unkind. They simply could not see me, or the corner I was in. My world did not exist for them.
* * *
My mom and I are sitting at my dining room table drinking tea and talking about the presidential election. She is visiting for a week right before the election. We know better than to talk about politics because there is so little we agree on, but we can’t seem to stop.
“Oh, honey,” my mom says, shaking her head like she feels sad for me. “I used to think like you. For years. But then I turned on Fox News one day, and it was like coming home.”
“Ummm, that feels a little patronizing,” I say, wondering where all of this is going.
“Well, I’m sorry you’re taking it that way,” my mom says, patting my hand with hers.
“But Mom, doesn’t Donald Trump remind you of Dad? The way he talks about women? The jokes he tells, the way nothing is ever his fault?” I am expecting her to deny the similarity but she does just the opposite.
“Yes! He does! I’ve been thinking same thing–he’s a lot like your father!” She and I are both excited that we agree on something and I am nodding my head, smiling like a fool, relieved that she and I see the same thing at the same time for once.
“So, you’re not voting for him then?” I ask, still nodding my head. I know this is a Hail Mary, but I can’t help feeling hopeful. My mom, who has called my father “evil incarnate” and “Satan, himself” surely won’t be pulling the lever for my father’s cloven-hoofed twin.
“Of course I’m voting for him. What does his being like your father have to do with anything?” She says, eyes narrowing, pulling away from the moment of recognition we just shared. Right. My expectations adjust themselves to this mom. The mom, who alternately says she should never have given up on her marriage to my dad, or, on the other hand that, had she known he was abusing me, she would have left him immediately.
When she says she is voting for Trump, my arms go numb. This always happens when I go into shock. I notice it happening and also that my mind has stayed calm and clear. Extra calm and clear, in that “my adrenal system ramped up and slowed everything down to the point where I could calmly parkour through a barrage of bullets, Matrix-style.” So my mom and I move forward from this moment, because I know how to, and we don’t look back.
We don’t fight about Trump during the visit. We both know better–it is a waste of energy and my adrenal system can’t take anymore. This is simply another in a series of reality checks about how good my mom is at shifting reality so that she can feel safe in her world. She is a master of denial, which, in her more honest moments, she will happily admit.
“I think I’ve done it my whole life, in order to get by,” she says, and I feel a sharp pang of grief thinking of her, at 4 years old, stuck in a Catholic Boarding School while her mother was in the hospital trying to recover from a nervous breakdown. I imagine my own daughter, who is close to the age my mom was then, sleeping in a dorm with 9 other kids, not knowing how long she would be there, not getting a hug for weeks on end. I think of her, powerless over her circumstances, not allowed to go home, and I want to cry.
I understand that the very denial that helped my mom survive, that helped her raise 3 daughters as a mostly single parent, is the exact thing that caused her to fail me. I know that this is simply how the world works–that we fail one another all the time, and that all I can do is keep practicing holding the contradictions that come along with loving her. They are the same contradictions that come with loving anybody.
But when my mom gets on the plane to leave this time, I feel that leaden kind of loneliness I haven’t felt in years, so heavy it is hard to lift my limbs. It is a particular kind of loneliness to be invisible to my mother, to live in such a different reality that it’s impossible to know what she sees about the world around her. Although she does leave me some clues about what she sees, like, “oh, honey, that hair style is just not flattering on you,” and “I was just sitting here reading a magazine with the cats and the dust bunnies.” Those moments, when she is remarking on the dust bunnies in my home, come almost as a relief. Comic relief, even. The way she says things like that has always made me laugh. I love how blunt she is. Those are the moments when she feels most like a mom and I feel most like her daughter.
When I am still awake at three in the morning, blinking at the ceiling, it hits me so hard that I sit up gasping for breath. The reason my limbs are leaden, the reason my body is in shock, is memory. My body is doing the same thing it did 40 years ago when I realized that my mom didn’t know what to do–that she could only look away to shield herself from my father’s actions, then look directly at me and think, “this daughter is acceptable collateral damage.”
* * *
I’ve heard a lot of folks say that liberals and Democrats just need to “get over” the election. That Trump won fair and square, the run up to the election was agonizing enough, and why can’t we all just move on? It’s the same thing that people say to sexual assault survivors who are still speaking out about their experiences years later. I hear it all the time from other survivors. I’ve even recently heard it again myself, from a family member who asked why I just couldn’t write about something more pleasant. Like superheroes. Or maybe cats.
Speaking or writing about my experience now doesn’t mean I’m clinging to it or am “not over it.” It simply means that being sexually abused as a child shaped the way I see the world. I saw things about human beings that I could not unsee and it permanently changed me. Once I experienced what it was like to be systematically broken down over years, to be told and shown I wasn’t valued the same way other people were, and that it was somehow my fault that I was in that position, once I experienced being on the wrong end of a systemic abuse of power, I became a fundamentally different human.
I recognize abuse of power even when I don’t want to see it, even when it makes life a lot more complicated, which it always does. I know I don’t want to be part of any system that perpetuates abuse on entire groups of people. And I don’t want to leave anyone behind, freezing to death on the sidewalk. And most days, I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.
I had an instructor in a Wilderness course once who never swatted at flies or bees and once let an entire army of ants march up his leg and disappear under his shorts.
“Jeff! Dude! Ants, literally in your pants!” I said.
He looked at me, blinked a slow blink, and said, “I made a commitment to treat all creatures as sacred. If I swat a fly or flick these ants off my leg, I might hurt them.”
“I couldn’t not flick ants off my leg, I think,” I said, trying not to watch the line of ants continue to march under the hem of his shorts.
“Well,” he shrugged, “right now I’m just taking it one fly at a time.”
“One fly, and an army of ants making its way toward your balls.” I said, hitting him on the shoulder with a soft fist.
To be honest, I both thought he was crazy and also kind of admired him. I liked the fact that he was trying to be in some kind of integrity with himself. And it was hard for me to be around him because I was overwhelmed by the enormity his task.
I think of Jeff again when I see my daughter ripping the petals off a tulip.
“Hey, those are not there to destroy. We don’t go around ripping flowers apart!” I say, still shocked by the display of anti-tulip violence.
“Why?” she asks. I sigh and consider this.
“Okay, how would you feel if a giant hand came out of the sky, grabbed your hair and ripped it all out?” I ask her.
“I would like it,” she says, because she’s five.
“Why on earth would you like that?” I ask her, laughing, but wishing I was not.
“Well, that would mean that I could meet a giant and make friends with him and then bring him to school so he could swing me and my friends up really really high for the whole day and never stop.” she says, crossing her arms and daring me to challenge her.
“Fair enough,” I say, because there are no good arguments against making friends with a giant who can swing you around and never get tired. “But back to the flowers, they are not here for you to destroy. Just leave them alone please.”
“I’ll try,” she says. “But what if I forget?”
“I mean, just take it one flower at a time, I guess,” I say, taking her hand as we cross the street. I know she is overwhelmed by the enormity of the task of remembering all the rules of things.
I wonder what the world will be like for little girls in the next four years. I wonder if I should bother teaching my daughter not to hurt flowers when she is living in a time where she will have to know how to stand up and fight hard. And I know that fighting won’t be enough–that it will be her generation’s ability to love and connect to other humans that can help start to heal all the harm we’ve done to one another and the world.
I wonder how to build those skills in her. So far, what I’ve come up with is to model them for her myself. That what I can do is show her how to take it one fly at a time, one flower at a time, one sentence at a time, and always to keep an army of ants available for any clandestine warfare that she might need to wage along the way.