It is Memorial Day weekend 2015 and I am remembering a year ago, traveling to West Virginia to be a bridesmaid in a friend’s wedding. I remember my long blue and green dress hanging loose on my thinning body that of course I did not see as thinning. I remember being hungry. I remember being full. I remember my hotel room on something like the 10th floor, the too-cold air conditioning and the tiny balcony I kept envisioning throwing myself off of. It was an obsession, this image of my body falling over and down into traffic. I did not want to think about suicide but all I could think about was suicide. I chain-smoked and texted my then-fiancé, who was in Florida for his grandfather’s funeral. A few days before I’d ended the relationship, or attempted to, for what felt like the hundredth time in the short span of eight months. Another outburst. Another fuck-up. I woke him to get ready for the airport and he exploded at me within seconds of realizing what time it was. It was too late, I’d woken him up too late, and I deserved to be punished for being such a failure. I screamed that I couldn’t do this anymore and he yelled Then give me the fucking ring back, so I crawled across the bed and slammed the diamond on his chest. He flung it against the wall. I would later pick it up and put it on my nightstand. I would later put it back on my finger, but only for another week. In a week I would be at the point of a psychotic break, my brain spiraling into knots that cut me off from reality. I remember thinking about calling an ambulance. I remember feeling an emergency. I remember telling him that I felt suicidal and the apathy with which he responded. Something inside me froze, clicked over. The shift in my mind at that moment was the first step I would take in the long journey back towards myself.
In the past year people have said they feel they are witnessing me getting back to myself, and I’m sure there’s some truth to that, but publicly processing trauma the way I have is not something I ever want anyone to go through. I spoke up having processed very little of what happened to me. I spoke up so soon for the same empathic reasons I stayed with him even after he hurt me: I wanted to be of use. I wanted to ease other people’s pain because it distracted me from my own.
Because my abuser was already publicly named by other victims, I knew that I was in a position of power, whether I chose to speak or not. I knew that my silence would lead people to continue believing in his innocence, because, I guess, several victims aren’t enough to make a story solid. This angered me, and I felt deeply for the others he had also harmed, and so I spoke. Yet months of psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse left me without much ground of my own to stand on. I now see that I was desperately searching for something solid, some security, so I stood on the ground of others, namely those he’d also harmed. In many ways this was helpful, finding myself validated by their narratives, their narratives like stepping stones as I tried to find my way back home, but suddenly this ground also became unstable. Society so often lumps victims of a mutual abuser together under an umbrella identity, but having been abused by the same person is not necessarily the foundation of a solid friendship. This isn’t to say friendships with other victims can’t be formed, but like with any other relationship, there has to be a foundation built in trust. Sharing an abuser does not equal trust, no matter how validated we may initially feel. This is one of the more complex and painful aspects of my experience that I have trouble putting to words. When I first spoke up, for example, it was with the gentle prompting of another victim of his, someone I blindly trusted but was then betrayed by, as this person has since reached out to and sided with my abuser’s lawyer, despite no history of negative interactions between us. I don’t have answers to this and other incidents, except that everyone responds to abuse differently, and it shouldn’t be surprising that those differences are sometimes too big to cross. All the ground I scrambled along, after all, was not my ground, and I could not trust it. I needed – still need to – find my own ground. This is not to say that I regret speaking – I don’t – but I was in so many ways so far from ready to speak, and this is what I wish someone had told me. When I first spoke I had only scratched the surface of the surface of what had happened to me. I didn’t know I’d just broken from a psychopath. I didn’t know the depths of psychological pain that loomed in the months ahead.
In the past year I’ve fallen over and over again as I ran frantically from one alleged ally to the next. Some days I feel farther from myself than ever before. And now I’ve found myself in this role of being some sort of advocate regarding abuse and the prevalence of sexual assault within the literary community, and lately I feel less and less comfortable with this role. I am not at home here. This is not my ground. I am so much more than what happened to me. I am so much more than rage. There are people who know this, who see me as a whole person. It is these people I keep close. I build trust with these people through time, mutual respect, and private communication. Public declarations of solidarity have come to mean very little to me. The only safe spaces are the ones I decide for myself. They are small pockets of oxygen that wouldn’t survive in the public sphere. These pockets are the most necessary. Maybe I am talking about love.
I’ve reached what feels like a sharp curve in the road that I am on. I feel the need to reexamine my theories, my thoughts, my speech. On the one hand it doesn’t matter to me if, for example, an editor has sexually harassed someone online or actually physically assaulted someone – it is not my place to know or ask for details, and either way I want nothing to do with a man who has abused the position of his power at the expense of someone else. Acts of gender-based violence exist on a multi-dimensional continuum as a manifestation of patriarchy, an assertion of power. And because we exist in social systems, the way we talk about and respond to such violence plays a role in the normalization – or de-normalization – of oppressive acts. This is why I am so invested in the way people respond to allegations of abuse, no matter how minimal or severe we might interpret those allegations to be. What we say, or don’t say, has political power, which in turn affects the space we live in and the personal lives of individuals.
However, some acts of gender-based violence are far more likely to leave a person traumatized, and the failure to recognize this nuance risks erasing the severity and dynamics of trauma, which in turn only risks to further erase the traumatized person’s individual needs and desires. By grouping all acts of sexism and abuse together we run the risk of applying political theory to personal traumas, and I fear that we’ve been looking for a politically-driven monolithic “solution” that not only often lacks intersectionality but also attempts to address problems that reach far too deeply within the individual psyches of those affected by trauma. My personal experiences with my ex, for example, have led me to realize that the man who raised me is also a narcissist, and that I’ve been a victim of emotional and psychological abuse my entire life. This discovery in itself has been re-traumatizing and immensely painful, and has nothing to do with the conversation regarding allegations of abuse within the literary world, yet it no doubt influences how I approach these conversations.
When I speak about trauma I don’t speak for anyone but myself and what I know of trauma: Trauma can happen to anyone. Healing is non-linear. Healing is unique to each individual. Healing takes time, patience, and empathic listening, and that is all I can offer anyone. If you’ve been victimized and want to talk about it, I will listen. I believe you, and it’s not your fault.
When I speak about sexism at large I speak from a slightly different place. Politically there is no room for nuance. Acts of gender-based violence are inexcusable. Microagressions are unacceptable. I think calling out editors and journals who engage in sexist editorial practices, or male writers who aestheticize violence against women, is an excellent form of resistance to everyday sexism. I also think cutting social and professional ties with people who have been accused of gender-based acts of violence is crucial in moving towards a new narrative of what is not acceptable behavior. But I want to be better at distinguishing between microaggressions and personal traumas, and speaking to each situation appropriately, because otherwise I risk being complicit in further erasing a person’s individuality and agency. While a sexist editor and a rapist are both perpetrators of acts I approach with a zero tolerance mindset, talking about the latter is to talk about a person’s trauma, and I don’t know if there’s a way to publicly do this without risking further harm, except, to forever repeat, I’m listening. I hear you. At this point I don’t feel comfortable publicly mouthing the name of an abuser except my own, and that’s not because I’m interested in protecting abusers. The opposite: I am interested in being sensitive to those who have been traumatized, and this sensitivity translates to being more careful, more thoughtful, even more empathic.
I also want to be better at practicing this empathy on myself, which means recognizing that talking about the prevalence of sexual assault within the literary community is not always something I am emotionally equipped to do, and that’s okay. In the past year I’ve moved from finding my identity within the empathy I had for my ex-fiancé to finding my identity within the empathy I have for anyone else who’s ever experienced trauma. I know I’ve helped many people, and so I don’t regret it, but at the end of the day I am still without my own ground to stand on. At the end of the day I am still defined by my ties to other people’s pain. At the end of the day I still don’t know what I want for myself. At the end of the day I still don’t feel I deserve to want for myself. I still don’t know who I am, but I do know that I would like to go home now, and I count that as a step.
Sarah Xerta is the author of the book Nothing To Do with Me (University of Hell Press, 2015), as well as the chapbooks Red Paper Heart (Zoo Cake Press, 2013), JULIET (I) (H_NGM_N 2014), and JULIET (II), one of the recent winners of the Nostrovia! Poetry chapbook contest and forthcoming July, 2015. Find more online at sarahxerta.com.