If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.
—Barry Lopez, in Crow and Weasel
Many survivors of trauma or abuse confess that they feel deep shame. It’s part of what keeps our stories hidden and secret from the world, the fear that we are to blame. The fear that we deserve whatever has happened to us. This is a common feeling in survivors of childhood abuse, because children, as a coping mechanism, will internalize the message of the abuser, that somehow they deserve the abuse. If the abuser is a trusted adult or a parent, the child’s developing mind cannot process that the adult or the parent is bad. A parent knows all. The child trusts the adult to interpret the story of the world. So, if a parent is hurting the child, the child trusts the parent’s authority in telling the story.
As survivors grow older, another fear may creep into our consciousness. So often we hear that victims of abuse go on to become abusers. And very often, there may be a period of time before a victim is able to move through recovery, when we do treat others the way we learned to be treated, and we may feel deep shame for the ways we have continued the cycle of abuse. So, either we fear that we will be stigmatized as a survivor or we fear facing our own demons as we look at the ways we have done harm. Facing this fear and overcoming that shame is a part of the process of recovery. And it’s scary.
One of the things literature does for us, is that it opens up our vision into the lives of other people and the common human experience. We are not alone and though our personal experience is particular and singular, it is also a part of the larger human story and the story of the world.
In The Bride Minaret I was exploring questions about identity and motherhood. I had young children and I was really afraid that I would not be a good mother. I was interested in the labels of “Good mother and bad mother” and instinctively knew these were false identities that society uses to categorize and contain our fears. Our compulsion may be to strive to be a good mother and hate the bad mother in order to be safe. But through literature and in our own personal narratives, we know the human story is so much more complicated than these “safe” labels.
In the poem, “Mother’s Day” from The Bride Minaret I write about this fear and self-doubt and shame that many survivors of abuse wrestle with. Some of us just know that we are bad and everyone else can see through our mask. We often have some traits that mirror a personality disordered-parent, and we may indeed wear a mask to hide our insecurities or our failings. We may struggle with being able to trust other people and so remain hyper-vigilant against threats. On this morning in the poem I walk down to the playground in my small town in Iowa and the mothers there are all aloof and strange. I assume it’s me. I assume their judgment is for me. But it isn’t. The story is something else altogether–the story on the morning news about a mother who drowned her five children. But the horror of this event, is in fact something I feel is a part of me–not something separate and distant, but winds itself into my heart and grips me. Is that evil mother, me? Who am I in relation to her? How am I separate? How is my story distinct? These are the terrifying questions that many survivors wrestle with.
What day is it when cotton from the cottonwood
floats through the air
It must be long past spring
The rain’s applause
The mother’s at the playground are grieving or angry
I think they are angry with me
When I make conversation, they tell me about the morning news
the inscrutable question of motherhood: How could she drown all five of them
What did she see
the filigree of leaves
veins that collapse into color
It wasn’t me after all
I am relieved
We are all relieved that there were signs and symptoms
Descending into the terrifying territory of these questions may be a necessary step toward healing. We hear the story of the horror and we see ourselves potentially culpable. Many survivors of abuse are strongly empathic, to the point of identifying with the abuser and sometimes excusing abusive behavior out of a desire to show understanding . In order to move beyond this place, we have to find the strength to tell our own story and to see the way it differentiates from others and to be free to show empathy toward ourselves.
My step-father came into my life when I was seven. He was a man full of rage. But there were many times when he buried the rage deep within and there were times when he laughed with me and loved me, even. He had a wood shop in the basement where he made beautiful furniture. He made me a chest of drawers with my initials carved in the bottom. This was a gift of love from him. I saw it and still see it for the gift it was. But when his rage surfaced, that love fled. He was violent and terrifying then. and he did real harm.
I feel great compassion for my step-dad. He was raised in a small town on the desert prairies of Wyoming. His own father was terrifying and beat him and then suddenly died. He was sent to boarding school and missed his mother and home. His experience of violence and loss formed him into the broken man I knew and lived with for ten years. I can see him, now, in a black and white photograph, in white t shirt and jeans, a half-smile, arms slung around his friend as they leaned against a car. I feel tenderness when I think of his story and I feel sad for his pain.
But he was also the man whose legs I clung to, begging him to stop, as he kicked me down the hall. He was also the man, whose skin reeked of alcohol and whose stomping footsteps on the wood floors signaled danger. Here’s a recent poem I wrote about him:
There’s Mild Sexual Content, but Nothing Even Close to Sin
The news report said a twelve year old went missing, hailing that night.
Ice-stones cudgeled the brittle, dead columbine.
Twenty years later and she was never found.
I scan the landscape for messages, as if someone left a sign for us
to follow, leading the way to safe passage.
Snow began to fall, a soft white down stuck to my eyelashes.
Do you remember when we were twelve once and we met in the ditch,
knowing it was dangerous, the smell of Noxema in the creek?
Feather boa wrapped around my neck,
my stepfather said I had a tight little ass as I ran out the door.
Small leaves scatter on the sidewalk,like chips of nail polish, hot pink.
A lot has been written about forgiveness and its necessity for healing. I don’t believe that this is true. Each individual must find their own path, but for some of us In the process of healing, we are able to hold empathy for the people who have harmed us in balance with empathy for ourselves.