“Unlike other forms of psychological disorders,” Bessel van der Kolk writes, “the core issue in trauma is reality.” He calls for the mind’s fundamental reeducation, for survivors to reclaim an “undamaged essence” as they enlist in an ongoing healing process. Like trauma, healing has no coherent narrative. There’s no beginning, middle, or end. But there are ways to pave a path to individual and collective change. It starts with witnessing the places we’ve been and don’t care to revisit, with holding each other accountable and encouraging the voices we seldom hear. We must receive each other’s stories with compassion and vigilance.
In Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement edited by Shelly Oria, twenty-three contributors spotlight the tyranny of gender violence. Twenty-three. The number leaps out at me. Twenty-three writers. Twenty-three chromosomes in the human body, in bodies that were taken or hunted or pressed against garage doors. Twenty-three years, the age of many survivors today, or the amount of time it takes to realize one has survived a terrible thing. “Telling your story is a key component of recovery,” contributor Kaitlyn Greenridge writes, “When you experience trauma, Broca’s area—one of the parts of the brain responsible for speech and language—goes offline. It’s similar to when the body experiences a stroke.”
The title comes from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford when she testified to Congress in 2018. Before that, the writer Shelly Oria had assembled intimate accounts of a global movement we now know as #MeToo. “It felt essential to me,” Oria writes in the introduction, “as a queer woman, as a writer who immigrated to this country at age twenty-five, and also as a person aware of her own privilege—to start the work of compiling this book by reaching out to writers of various backgrounds.” The result is at once a beautiful, intersectional work of creative writing and tangible proof of the reckoning we needed.
The contributors explore much of what we do not wish to see as reality: gaslighting and childhood sexual abuse, anti-trans violence, eating disorders, and our nation’s spotty recollection of Jim Crow. Their stories bristle with intelligence and grace as they navigate the present’s murkier waters. Even #MeToo, a movement founded by civil rights activist Tarana Burke in 2007, has isolated women of color and the genderqueer community. “As a queer black woman,” contributor Hafizah Geter writes, “I live in a state of heightened perception. I live at the intersection of a crash.”
For years, women have depended on each other’s soft-spoken care and warning networks. The violence hasn’t stopped, but there are ways to deepen the conversation. We now have dangerous men and dangerous stories. We have this anthology. Twenty-three contributors spoke up about lived bodily experiences and wrote them down. I hope the process was freeing. I hope they heal.
Indelible interrupts the silences and the oversights and the gut-certainty of, “I’m in this alone.” It’s a portrait of intergenerational sorrow and rebellion, an empirical fortification of the soul. This book, to quote contributor Gabrielle Bellot, “lights a candle in a room inside us.” When the contributors wrote their stories, they were not looking for a thank you, but I thank them anyway. I do, I do.
I thank them because when I was fifteen, a man twice my age followed me off the bus. It was two in the afternoon. I’d cut my last class and took the Metro to Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, my home. The bus stopped in front of my school every day. There was no question in my mind of taking it.
I felt him before we locked eyes, before he put his hands on me. He sat in the back. His stare was cold and penetrating. I swear it had its own pulse. He wore a black do-rag and plain white shirt. Spidery hairs covered his tanned arms. He leaned forward as I took my seat near the driver. I was afraid, but I protected him. I was younger than I looked. Men had commented on this before. “This may not be all his fault,” I thought on the bus. I looked down at my uniform. I took in the navy polo and plaid skirt and was flooded with relief. “He’ll notice the uniform,” I thought. “He’ll see I’m too young.”
I’d think about my uniform, my armor, in protest as he followed me off the bus and into the parking lot of a nearby strip center. I’d think myself stupid for assuming he would give a damn about my age. “Mamí,” he said as he grabbed my waist and fingered my bra strap. “Mama. Miss.” He may have uttered the whole gamut of gendered salutations, but all I could hear was, “Mine.”
I shoved him as hard as I could and ran inside Nguyễn’s Laundry. The owner greeted me, but all I could do was point at the parking lot and say, “There’s a man.” The owner spoke little English, but I didn’t need to explain further. He saw the tears on my cheeks, the hand over my heart. He told me to wait. He grabbed his phone and went outside, shouting. When neither one of them were looking, I ran and didn’t stop until I reached my house on Kipling St.
I crawled into bed. My body was numb. My brain spun the yarn of, “I’m fine.” I wouldn’t tell anyone. Truthfully, I wouldn’t think about it much. Not until I held this book in my hands and read the words inside:
“At the age of twelve, a substitute teacher asked if I had a boyfriend.”
“When the door opens, I’m surprised and not surprised at the same time. He slides his body into the narrow space behind me.”
“If only they knew, if only they knew, but they don’t, and they treat me like this.”
“She’d been lucky in rape, unlucky in other ways. She was counting on luck to keep her rapeless.”
“I folded over to smell myself.”
“Just a kiss, he says, dropping his tackle box, and I know I should run.”
“He offered me an apartment to live in rent-free if I would regularly have sex with him in it.”
“In one ear/the languid violin/in the other,/the language of violence”
“He took me, easily, and dragged me, easily, and pushed me, easily, into a recessed garage door.”
“I don’t want to be a killjoy. It is over in seconds.”
“I remember cold concrete on my bare back, a summer girlchild dress pushed upward.”
“It was this unsteadiness, this never knowing, that Shaniece wasn’t able to break.”
“Some folks like to use the word slut, even with children.”
“terrified, showstopping, mute, asking for it.”
“I was learning, again, the limits of no.”
“He looked as if he were actively trying in each moment to not cut me up and eat me.”
“Men tell me to be honest about my role in the incident:/Okay, yes/ I should have stayed inside.”
“I think you should track me down/the block and clarify how you’d like to split my lip open.”
“I’m sorry for telling you this story. I want to both protect you from it and in some way force you to see it, in all its ugliness.
“Just let him, something small, dry, miserable in me says. Let him and it will all be over.”
“In the dark of memory, I turn toward the future.”
“The small shames//are the hardest to say//”
“It’s going to take time but if you keep doing the work, you will get through it. I guarantee it.”
May this book light many rooms.