What I Mean When I Say I Was Abused
Updated: Sep 28, 2018
Sunday Content #43
I used to publish a newsletter on Medium called Sunday Content. In each edition, I'd write a bit about something on my mind, then recommend some content to read and / or listen to / watch, etc. I've decided to revive the newsletter here on my site. It'll be like the old newsletter. Now with less Twitter!
Feel free to check out the newsletter's archive. Some of my favorites are: "How I Learned that I Am Evil," "On Straight White Men," "On Art that Ages Poorly," "Talking about White Supremacy," "On Believing Women," "On Misogynists who Aren't Men," and "On Using Words like 'Insane' or 'Crazy'" I also like the ones about being an essayist, being a teacher, being a waiter, why I love cooking, why I love features, why I love essays, and what Bowie taught us.
I'm no longer going to publish only on Sundays. I'm also not going to hold myself to one a week or anything because my life doesn't allow for such promises. But expect these posts here, occasionally. Sign up here to receive an email update whenever there's a new one. Expect this newsletter will be like my old newsletter except with more photos of food I grow and bake. Speaking of which, check out yesterday's gorgeous butt bread:
What to do with the bad men? There are so many bad men. Bad men in every magazine, bad men on every website. Bad men walk through my mind. Bad men fall through my feed.
I was waiting for a delayed flight recently and "I Believe I Can Fly" was playing from small speakers overhead. Ironic I thought and Who thinks this song is still okay to play? A man? An algorithm? How has R. Kelly still not be cancelled? How can this still be happening?
But I also knew how. All of us who've known all along about the in-plain-sight existence of the bad men, we're not surprised. Neither are we surprised that it's hard to take them down.
I think often of a conversation I had earlier this year, an argument. It was with someone older than me. This someone had heard my stated premise — I'm an abuse survivor — and decided to reject it. She felt, I think, that I am wrong to insert a great distance between myself and the adult who abused me throughout my young life. For the record, I don't think it's wrong of me to impose such distance; I think it's life-saving.
This skeptic shouted at me, "When you say abuse, what do you mean!?"
To be abused often means to be denied permission to experience your reality as real. In my case, when I was a kid going through what I was, I was often told my emotions weren't real. My pain wasn't valid. I did a lot of theater and this only hurt my case. You're being dramatic. These are theatrics. You're faking your tears.
I tried to find adults who'd help me. I'd be punished for seeking help. Sometimes adults whose help I sought would, like this person so many years later, receive my truth with crossed arms, with questions. A few adults went so far as to tell me to not tell secrets, or to not tell lies. Most adults, I think, pretended they couldn't see what was going on.
Some adults whose help I sought actually listened. Some even tried to help me get out. Plans were made. Nobody succeeded. No scheme ever worked, not until college, that great scheme. That was thirteen years ago that I got out, that I put three thousand miles between my abuser and me. That first day I flew away, I considered myself free. I wasn't. I'm still not. I still live with what happened every day.
When you say abuse, what do you mean?!
I didn't give her what she wanted. I didn't begin listing awful things. I didn't begin proving my case. My mind did go there, though, it played a greatest hits of the Absolute Worst Things. The things that, had I ever gotten an adult to really listen back then, had I ever gotten my day in court, I would have sat and recounted with exacting detail. I'd have done it, too. I was angry as fuck back then and brave therefore. I'd have done anything and everything to get out, to never live another night choked with fear. Instead each afternoon darkened and sometimes you couldn't think much further than how you were going to get through the next hour, the next few minutes, never mind how I was going to make it to eighteen.
Whether my memory was actually good is factually questionable, I now understand. I have lately read Dr. Bessel van der Kolk's The Body Keeps the Score and it has helped me substantiate the sense I've long had that, though I consider my memory a good one, there are things that even I might not remember still. That's a book all people should read, both those who've been abused and those who might shout something like When you say abuse, what do you mean?!
When she said it, my main reaction was shock. I was also not shocked; again, abuse survivors are accustomed to hearing our realities aren't real.
Mostly, I felt wonder. What would it be like to go through life not understanding this reality — of the existence of the bad men and also those of us they've hurt, most of whom aren't saying shit because it's rarely safe to do so? Because what would saying anything accomplish at this point? Because if what happened really did, how did I go on pretending to be his friend for so long? Her question seemed to ask: Why can't you just keep pretending?
I have often wondered at people who live oblivious to the reality of things. Many men must live with such ignorance. As this exchange reminded me, some women do too. And of course not all the bad people are men, though a lot of them are. Regardless it's patriarchy that both condones abuse and casts a veil of silence around it.
Of course there is another possibility about this person who shouted this at me. Perhaps she also already knew the truth. Perhaps she is pretending, even to herself, that what happened didn't. Perhaps pretending seems easier to her still than admitting the reality of what did.
Read Jia Tolentino's piece up at The New Yorker about what the GOP's response to allegations against Kavanaugh reveals about their attitudes towards sexual assault generally:
What’s surfacing in these comments is something that has, up until now, mostly been dodged, or left unspoken: that it has traditionally been accepted for men to sexually assault women, particularly at parties, particularly when they’re young.
Read this excerpt from Rebecca Traister's new book about the power of female rage.
But to keep minority rule in place, order must be maintained, as the honorable senator from California was peremptorily instructed. It is order, after all, that throughout our history has worked to suppress the anger of women, to discourage us from speaking it or even feeling it. And when women have gotten mad, they’ve been ignored or marginalized, laughed or blanched at, their vehement objections treated as irrational theater, inconsequential to the important matter of governing the nation. This has always been an error.
Read Padma Lakshmi's Opinion piece in the Times about why she didn't report sooner:
When I think about it now, I realize that by the time of this rape, I had already absorbed certain lessons. When I was 7 years old, my stepfather’s relative touched me between my legs and put my hand on his erect penis. Shortly after I told my mother and stepfather, they sent me to India for a year to live with my grandparents. The lesson was: If you speak up, you will be cast out.
A few of the books about (sexual) abuse I recommend:
Not That Bad edited by Roxane Gay
Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
Edinburgh by Alexander Chee
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube by Blair Braverman
~ Opinions about Podcasts ~
Perhaps to fill the Dear Sugars-sized hole in my heart*, I've been listening to Daniel Ortberg's Dear Prudence podcast more. I very much enjoyed this very cute episode where he's joined by his girlfriend.
*Dear Sugars ceased production rather suddenly and since they've been airing some of their best episodes, so it's oddly not a bad time to start listening to the show. I'd recommend for example this really intense one with Roxane Gay, where they address a letter from a sexual assault survivor whose longterm partner has confessed he raped someone. My enjoyment of this show was heavily biased towards Cheryl and away from Steve. That said, as a fan of anything that's big on feelings, I am sad to see this one go.
BTW read Tiny Beautiful Things if you never have.
BuzzFeed axed their podcast department, which is really fucking awful and ridiculous. Another Round has been stopped for a while now, but it's never too late to dive in and listen to that excellent, groundbreaking show. I'm really sad for See Something Say Something. Check it out if you haven't.
I'm super excited that Nancy is back.
I've been digging into Jill Soloway's forthcoming memoir, She Wants It, with great relish. Here's to the nonbinary future.
Complaining about always failing the TSA boy/girl quiz, I was told about this Andrea Gibson poem and cried and cried. Since I've been reading lots more Andrea Gibson poems.
TV-wise, I've been catching up on Queen Sugar, and Billions. I like them both for different reasons. My reasons for liking Billions are Asia Kate Dillon...
Late to this, but I finally watched I Am Not Your Negro and highly, highly recommend.
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p.p.p.s. What's AKOMP you ask? Why, that's my book! You should read it. It totally rules.
p.p.p.p.s. Shoutout to Esquire which calls AKOMP one of the best nonfiction books of the year.
p.p.p.p.p.s. btw I'm playing this Prince "A Case of You" on repeat forever
p.p.p.p.p.p.s. Learn how to draw