Image Credit: Patri Hadad
I have found that while I am able to speak, fight against, and even write on my adult sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence, I am unable to articulate my childhood sexual abuse, in the way that really feels like I’ve done something right. This may be overseeing my efforts: I published a poetry book, where my protagonist, as a child, is sexually abused by her mother’s lover. I taught a biweekly testimonial writing workshop for domestic violence survivors. I run WOVEN, an Entropy series dedicated to #MeToo and domestic violence stories, including but not limited to sexual assault and harassment, mental illness, legal complications, and child abuse. This series, as I wrote one year ago, came from my domestic violence.
It doesn’t feel enough. Although my nightmares have tempered, I don’t sleep. I ask myself, where is my anger, and that doesn’t fill me, even when I still check beneath my car for the tracker. I see my friends flinch or make faces when they’re scared for me, or when they see someone like my ex and step forward, to shield my body. I’m not alone. Other WOVEN contributors wake from recurring nightmares, as if running for their lives. They’ve struggled with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, gainful employment, and school.
When the stories aren’t mine, I gain some clarity, if that means the ability to step back, look at myself in the mirror, and move on. “Requiem Abandoned” depicts a lyric recreation of child rape at the hands of a male relative: “That’s just him being him.” It remains anonymous because of the author’s proximity to her family, to the people who would be broken if they knew. Beulah Amsterdam delineates her “Rose Garden” as a sanctuary in the afterffects of a childhood group sexual assault; Patrice de Palma’s “Shame” manifests itself in a gang rape where she’s hospitalized for alleged drug usage, for which her mother commits her to a psychiatric hospital—following generational tradition, because her mother had been taught never to speak. In “The Men in Medicine and The Theory of Evolution,” Helena Rho backtracks into her abusive relationship with another doctor, unfolding her domestic violence and legal troubles; her rape by a medical resident; and in present day, her questions to a female medical student: “They will question you. He will claim you manipulated them. Who do you tihnk is going to win? What are you willing to lose for your principles?” She goes onto represent herself in Supreme Court, “choosing the narrative of survival and resilience, of heartbreak and joy, of grief and recovery, of truth and beauty.”
The ones that hurt most come from students, because I think, Oh, you shouldn’t have to write this story; I’m reminded we need to trust our stories regardless of what makes us different. Growing up watching JonBenét Ramsey’s assault and death—and refusing, at first, “Giving Up the Ghost,” Stacy Jane Grover understands the who’s of their story—and how it forgoes women’s and children’s stories of sexual assault: “The reason I feared JonBenét’s story was the why, a why I couldn’t examine no matter how it was obscured.” L. Elaine stops working with Title IX and her university compliance officers in “Always Keep You Safe,” choosing to leave her “textbook rape” (he told her she wanted it, her bruises showed up, he threatened her to stay quiet—and she still believed him) and work as a sexual assault crisis counselor—like too many of us who look for alternative safe spaces when our authorities have betrayed us. “For colored girls,” Malaika retriggers her familial and high school rapes as they follow her throughout the rest of high school and into her first year of college. As a black woman, she carries, “the fear of coming upfront about their assaults . . . deeper than being told they are lying indirectly or directly, when most victims, no matter the race, know their attackers,” as she did. Lexie Solsky, on her “Road Away from Victimization,” profiles college party and rape culture at her university, as it mirrors her post-military assault. She concludes we need to focus “more on informing people of consent and the effect of sexual assault within a community” to “alleviate the stress on the survivor.” After trauma, how do survivors find support, especially in communities where they’re disbelieved?
One of the things I was adamantly against in establishing WOVEN was to push for a “traditional,” linear narrative: trauma is not linear. To insist it can follow a clean exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution is to villify the words of survivors who cannot remember how it happened. To say, “Don’t you people think you’re wrong?” is to interchange our bodies and experiences. We still live in a world where the rationally-minded are held to a greater power than those who feel. I want to help survivors work with how they’ve rewritten their real cases. Do they change the names and details enough such that it doesn’t compromise the living people? Does that matter, since WOVEN isn’t journalism or reportage? Are there families sitting at home who know what happened, who are a part of their trauma aftereffects?
Or are these images, leaps of thoughts, scene, dialogue, and stakes muddled, as is human nature to forget what we don’t want to remember? Is it better to write parts of a whole, to offer a snippet of our experience? How uncomfortable can we render our readers without losing them? How does writing for WOVEN stand with other publications which curate similar safe spaces?
I despise being told to write conventionally, especially for a subject such as a rape. This is why I don’t force a form, other than essays at this time, for WOVEN. Abby Perry inverts “The Threat of a Female Body” by demarcating age, sex, and location—with the last being a psychological “stages of processing;” she challenges the where did it happen? and where did it end? expectations, confronting its impact in her roles as a mother and #ChurchToo advocate. Rachel Laverdiere draws “The Moth” in her visual essay, a creature she’s been taught not to harm because it is God’s sin, as is the neighbor boy swallowing her scream. Whitney Vale, a “fighter,” as decreed by her dying mother, reinvents her name and identity, challenging her “Good Bones” in a lyric essay that pushes passive verbs into actions against her grandfather’s command, “Don’t you move.” “on spilling open,” lauren samblanet excavates a text that returns to sexual violence before her rape in graduate school, weaving the poetics of Bhanu Kapil, Ariana Reines, Julie Carr, and Dodie Bellamy to recognize even feminist solidarity breaks down. Emily Kellogg braids a “List of the Affected,” depicting rape as the unspeakable crime; a crime of power; a horror film; a friend, even an illusion of safety. Meredith and Katherine Indermaur, our collaboration, are mother and daughter who juxtapose their clergy and literary sexual abuse and misconduct, a “soul rape.” “Torn Just For Wanting,” they urge survivors to heal and to hear—to learn “how to give voice to it.”
Teachers, too, are gatekeepers; we don’t live in a world where we can trust they’re always our mentors. For Mike McClelland, it’s growing up watching the boys who could’ve been him be the high school teacher’s sexual pet. “God Eats His Mistakes” describes “being demonstrably queer” and being “instantly sexualized” as an “incandescence . . . the privilege of having the gay part of [himself] not only recognized but also protected.” Do you allow someone to joke that the teacher’s aide has a crush on your kindergartener—then, when he asks for a kiss on the lips, let it go? “As They Walk Through the Door,” Celeste Hamilton Dennis weaves between her childhood domestic violence and the witness she bears as someone who speaks against her daughter’s pedophile.“In Your Sleep, a Me Too Story by a Woman with Developmental Disabilities,” it’s doubting her molestation at the hands of a teacher who has a special education background, who convinces her it’s her learning disabilities which justify the act. She recounts her sexual molestation at a school overnight trip “to protect those I love from having the same happen again,” and from other autistic women who may be diagnosed as adults, assaulted by a teacher, and left confused by their experiences, despite the clear memories they have of what happened.
Rewriting and writing after the fact can be empowering. Rebecca Evans undergoes the “Mona Lisa,” a vagina-lift, where the act itself, has her repeating, “Avoid re-experiencing sexual trauma of my childhood. Like the brain-game, Don’t Think About Blue; you only see blue. Instead of smelling my own flesh, I smelled the stench of my step-father.” Victoria Buitron comes of age in “Cat Whistles and Wolf Calls,” in witnessing her body be objectified around the world. She cultivates a “look,” where her eyes say, “I won’t risk edging my body towards yours.” Jane Gregorie, like Caitlin Flanagan, like Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, recounts her all-American “Shitty Sixteen,” a rape culture where, by whispering her present-day mantra—“Pelvis. Hip joint. Sacrum. Womb. Hers.”—her sixteen year-old self is recovered and restrored.
Giedre Pavalkyte walks us through the topography of her Lithuania and Spain, on growing into lessons about how it’s traditional to sexually harass women in her homeland, despite “I Have Never Invited Him Home.” “Now I Understand” is a distance of twelve years after sexual assault, a definition that includes unwanted physical touch. Its memory compels Kolina Cicero “to empathize. Second, to audit [her] own experiences—only to come up short.” Jean Ferruzola hears “Your Body is My Body,” and “feels” as though she carries two bodies, both of which are touched by her father. For Sayuri Ayers, it’s learning to love her shadow, a woman who follows her sadness, loneliness, and sexual assaults in “The Moon, The Maiden,” in prose blocks—until they find a new man who agrees to stop.
It’s not enough to simply believe. Blasey Ford’s testimony against the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh marks her as a tribuner of women’s rights and justice—increasingly, as Kavanaugh’s active resistance to Blasey Ford’s word is treated, by the highest court of law, as a proscription to be swept away. It is legally acceptable for powerful men to dismiss the stories of survivors; the scales of justice, of court and of popular media, favor the accused. When Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony retriggers Maggie Harrison’s high school sexual assault, the author re-examines different versions of their proofs, “A Catch in the Spokes:” “Is it her protests or his conscience that keeps the vulnerable part of him away?” Mary Catherine Ford, commited to finding her peace, exposes the catechizations that dictated her departure from a pluristic and patriarchical clericalism in “Catholic Bodies, or Notes from the Kavanaugh Hearings.” It’s akin to seeing someone else’s desperation, frustration, loneliness, and willingness to do something about the violations to their bodies—mirrored in my own. If someone writes to me to share their story, it means little to nobody else is listening. It means they don’t feel safe.
It means they imagine—humanity’s deepest need. Claire Agnes’ “Spending Time,” which we nominated for the Pushcart Prize, writes the vainglory in being desired in passion, sexual abuse, and sex work, no matter how he might make her his habit. She reminds us that domestic violence is cyclical: she says, I love you too, as much she figures out “how to best run the clock on the days that stand between our nights.” Traversing her family history, Rain Wright writes from “Everything Turns to Light,” a memoir on raising her daughters away from their father: selling their beds and desiring the normalcy to home —no matter how much domestic violence makes “things go silent. Go to peace.” Shavaun Scott refuses the word “victim” when she becomes Domestic Violence’s surviving spouse—she finds her husband hung “When Suicide is a Dirty Bomb.” Maggie Milstein’s “As the Dam Drips” begins, “A girl runs”—the female jogger who is murdered by her perpetrator, a coming of age. Embodying the allegory of the Lake Hodges monster, Chelsea King’s and Amber Dubois’ murders and surviving victim Candice Moncayo follow Milstein into her present-day visit with the murderer, whom she imagines slicing in the cheek—as if to crack a dam, to carve a life after sentencing.
Our stories are ones in which someone else’s bigotry, anger, or despair manifests itself into a non-consensual force that could be mitigated and made non-fatal, with communities who foster communication and empathy for the survivors. My state of Arizona necessitates the perpetrator must reoffend in order to protect me: after a year, the order is nullified, and his firearms are returned to his possession.
Writing about #MeToo and domestic violence is no longer timely: we can’t approach our stories as if they’re news because another incident will happen, too quickly, then be replaced by the next. Woven, stitched upon a body which never stops forgetting.
When I write about my brother, in his defenses of my body, it’s in half- and mis-rememberings that I gain clarity. In real life, my brother failed to defend me: he said, in one of our last conversations, he couldn’t get our guardian’s hands “sewn off my body.” He said it haunted him, knowing he was complicit in allowing a rape. When he started telling my story to the other inmates—and every single prisoner chimed in with a story about a girl they knew who’d been raped—I understood how necessary my story is.
In one year, there have been 40 stories, written by 41 people. Two come from men, of same-sex abuse, power dynamics, and intimate partner violence. The majority, 36, are cisgender women. One is transgender. Five are queer. Two are disabled. Eight are women of color. Nine are students. Two are anonymous. Our backgrounds include academia, medicine, law, unemployment; our stories come from non-identifying writers and those with little to no social media presence; our personal lives comprise of happy partnerships and single parenthood; our hearts are reflective, scared, hopeful.
Kimberly Peterson, “Until Death,” metaphorizes an owner’s relationship to his pet and robotic object, “an amazing system” that punishes her when she sets the ketchup from his reach—the same system that motivates her to be screened at the hospital for domestic abuse, precisely because she’s told herself, “I am not like these women because he has never hit me.” For Jocelyn M. Ulevicus, it’s moving back and forth between assault and rape, “Grey Areas,” like diving into her father’s arms as much as she wanted to run from him. Living through him pointing a gun to her mother and herself, Ulevicus learns “the pain of believing that you had to go through a certain kind of violence to get love.” In the secrecy of her family’s shop, the women in Sherine Gilmour’s “How the Ladies Threaded and Stitched” bind their complicity in her child molestation and abuse. Watching The CW’s Supernatural, in archangel Gabriel—”dead, betrayed, eventually freed but broken”—Karyl Anne Geary Fischer writes her five stages of grief, challenging the arc of a domestic abuse story in “I’m Not Running Anymore.”
To be betrayed by the legal system is to be reminded of its limits as a champion of rational and historically-minded peace, one that commits to outsiders. Using an address from the Abused Persons Program, Shawna Kenney files charges for assault and battery. “Everything You Have is Just Borrowed,” a recovered bike that follows her through domestic violence, “even after the judge [gives] ‘no jail time,’ he [says], ‘because you’re not married.’” In dreams, he reappears as the man Melissa Grunrow trusts most, as her dog, as “the only black man in a room of white faces like [hers].” She wishes she could return to an understanding about her unraveling, a regret—“Becoming Someone Else,” as her petition for an ex parte personal protection order is dismissed. Zach Shultz braids his intimate partner violence following the history of IPV advocacy efforts in the United States—an advocacy that encompasses the respectability politics of LGBTQ survivors, a “Conspiracy of Silence”, for whom they’re less encouraged to discuss the violence within their relationships. He asks, “Does coming forward as a victim make me less than a man?” In response to family who disbelieve her abuse, Liz Declan dissects denial, gaslighting, “beautiful and meaningful compliments or messages of support,” and other misnomers for the victim who, in public opinion, may not suffer, to render them unworthy of others’ sympathy. In“Survivors are Not a Monolith; I’m Not a ‘Survivor,’” she writes how victims have their experiences rewritten when they’re told they don’t need anyone; that they’re not being abused. As someone who hasn’t been “killed by a rapist, attacker, or abuser, or for those who stayed or have yet to leave,” Declan refuses to be silenced in her suffering and understanding of that experience.
The voices of WOVEN have had support systems in hotlines, workshops, suicide survivorship, therapy, victim assistance organizations, pro-bono lawyers, and friends. We’ve sought work, solidarity, and empowerment in safer spaces when doubted. We’ve written our stories to be heard. Many of us write to heal—have always looked towards the act to process and to remember. We stand against being interchangeable—we’re not the same; our experiences are valid.
WOVEN can be accessed on Entropy’s front page. If you haven’t yet scrolled through our pages—and you’re reading this essay, consider leaving it open after you read—and clicking on the writings that I’ve embedded with my words. Read the stories which speak to you. Read one; read them all. Check back each week for a new essay. I read these essays and follow each of the writers, whether they write or have written solely for WOVEN, because it reminds me I’m not alone. These people are living sources and testimonies of a world where it’s still socially acceptable to be disbelieved for surviving crimes such as rape, assault, and murder. Interwoven, in this essay and in others to come, are their dedications to aesthetic, to intimate and minute details that lend themselves to beauty, no matter how painful.
There is no brightness to rape. I hope, when we talk about universal experiences and stories which bind us all, that one day, it won’t be as chilling as a row of incarcerated men telling their stories of women they knew who’d been raped. My brother would hang his hands when he was disappointed with himself; on the opposite end, he’d hold them up, as if to palm mine. It should be possible to uphold his vision for believing survivors, no matter how separate our stories may seem.