Image Credit: Jamie Street
Dear sensibility journal,
I sit down today to write a poem at my hardwood desk after receiving an assignment in our creative writing class. Number five on the list of writing exercises at the end of our textbook: vulnerability. We are to write about the moment, or moments, that’s affected us the most. This prompt is an extension of our class lecture where my professor discussed writing our testimony that has shaped the individuals and writers we are today. This should be an ordinary assignment like every other day, but I can’t scratch the itch that nags my subconscious that I need to write about the ghosts who haunt my youth. I choose to ignore my inner voice and write about one of the many controversial conversations circling the #MeToo movement. I was inspired to write and vent out some feelings after I read an article in a random magazine article on social media during my spare time between classes. So frustrated with what I read I can’t remember which online magazine posted it. The article consisted of a male interviewer surveying men, asking them about their perspective of the #MeToo movement. I dreamed it had potential to be a liberating article; however, it was a self-indulgent interview about men’s inner thoughts: “Can I really prevent women from being hurt sexually,” “Have I ever engaged in such behaviors myself,” and my favorite, “Are women actually sexually assaulted?” Despite my irritation, halfway through the article the male interviewer provided his experience, in which he is guilty of taking advantage of women, not physically, but in a manipulative manner. What he failed to notice about his own indulgent experiences is that sometimes, for many women, the beginning of sexual assault or abuse is through psychological manipulative manners. At least, it was for me and a majority of my friend’s stories. However, he did acknowledge his past behaviors in college, where alcohol, partying, and sexual intercourse was more of a lifestyle, and recognized that his activities lived a blurred line. At least he realized his past actions were shitty and started to reckon with them, something he hoped in the end of his interview that male college students would recognize now instead of twenty years later like him. He did close his article with men should be more self-reflective. It’s not a selfish quality but a necessary one.
So the article did have some good points, but I was still angry, and felt my journal growing heavier. As if the new words that mark my pages hold more weight than any other assignment. I look at what I wrote, thinking it was just going to be a self-evaluation of my feelings from this article and thoughts on the points made but no. I succumbed to my subconscious (in which she won) and wrote a poem about my past sexual experiences, realizing why I paid so much attention to this article and why it frustrated me greatly, because I’ve never told anyone my story, and being self-indulgent is not such a bad thing every once in a while if it helps someone else think about their own lives or the ones they are affecting. The crimson tainted memory that began my life of sexual misery stains my pages. It looks like this:
Girls dream about it
dream about losing it
losing it on their wedding night, prom night
to the boy that shocks euphoria from their
hypothalamus to their toe pads.
Girls dream about exploring
places they’ve never seen, how it feels
to touch foreign hairs, some skin smooth
some scaly. Their mouth’s quiver to taste
salt, but not the kind from a shaker.
They dream of two-folds flicked and
the quotidian common round, chapped lips, swollen skin.
Dream about it, I don’t.
I relive it.
Relive the stolen covers
at age six, the purist impurist
too young to understand
Tears flowing from my canal
shaving my branches, pinning my hands
a finger to my lips,
“Hush, don’t tell.”
“Don’t tell” and tell I did not.
The woods can be
My woods are
but I made a promise to keep.
Fourteen going on forty years
of silence, never telling
the secret of the hostage sin
that could leave a man to rot in prison.
The bank’s been robbed and
the evidence swabbed
thrush in exchange
to keep hushed.
The first sinful act happened around the age of six. My mom worked long, inconvenient hours so someone always babysat me. Our neighbor watched me quite frequently. I believe he was in his 50’s. I always thought of him to be a nice man, until I was left alone with him and he had to keep me occupied. We played hide and seek. My favorite childhood game proved to be a metaphor for playing hide and seek with my adolescent body. With each round of hide and seek, he touched me in new ways. First was his rough, chapped lips against mine. Second was his calloused hands touching the curves rounding out my growing, reddened flesh. Third was a visit to the forest, an exploration of inappropriate touching. He purred against my ear, “you will like this” while holding my wrists against my head. He held me in a stationary place, my brain stagnant to moving. I never answered. I never said no. A part of me did not understand what was happening, maybe this was normal. Of course my mom taught me what places were mine and no one else’s, just the normal “these are places that no one is allowed to touch you or it’s wrong.” In the moment though, it was if her lessons never existed. He took my silence as an answer to continue seeking out the places that hid. Thankfully, a UPS man rang the doorbell and saved my life that day, interrupting him before he penetrated me. He always said, “Don’t’ tell.” Not even my mom. I used to tell my mom everything, but not this secret. I never went back to his house, alone at least, after he crossed my personal space. I knew it was wrong of him to touch me, but I just couldn’t say stop in the moment (as if that would have prevented things). It was if I was paralyzed. I’ve never told a soul, until this journal entry, my safe space dedicated to sensibility. I always wanted to tell my mom but she loved him and his wife. I guess a part of me believed that if I did tell her, she wouldn’t believe me. Or tell me I was so young I don’t know what I’m talking about. Or she would talk down to me in order to manipulate my memory to question myself: “Did that really happen?” or “Was that how it happened?” Despite how a conventional mother-daughter relationship should go, my mom has some narcissistic tendencies that make me doubt my intuition.
At the age of six I never understood the violence that invaded my childhood. I learned to close myself off, emotionally and physically, not allowing anyone to show me affection. I did this in silence, manipulating myself to forgive and forget the memories, protecting myself from future harm. The fear still lingered though, more than I what I realized. Or, wanted to realize. I held every family member and friend at arm’s length. Literally. It was if anyone’s touch was a fire to my skin, giving me second degree burns if they stayed in contact with me too long. I would get too hot, felt as if tiny bugs crawled over my skin, no amount of scratching could make the itch go away. The longer friends or family would embrace me, the hotter I would get and start sweating bullets. Of course sweating bullets is a figurative term but if I were able to actually sweat bullets I would at least have had something to protect myself with. Their touch triggered my anxiety, causing me to hyperventilate and feel as if I was burning alive, fire bringing suffocation. It’s because of this that I think death by fire would be the worst imaginable death.
I’m certainly not a hugger. When acquaintances, friends, or family hug me against my will, all I can say is “please don’t touch me,” as if they listen to my pleas. There is this girl that I go to school with, she will hug anyone she is “friends” with. Key word above being “acquaintances,” because I don’t’ consider her a friend. Some of my friends know an idea of my past trauma, and they have learned I don’t like to be touched. When it comes to family, they just assume I’m moody rather than concerning my stance on what affection means to me. While their arms wrap around me, I picture my body, the holy temple that begs for cleansing, as a cactus. My prickly spine stabbing my body’s intruders. Maybe they will feel as much pain as I do when their thorns attack me.
It wasn’t till high school that I learned what sexual assault, or abuse, is. Unwanted sexual contact or threats with no consent. Unwanted. Like the time my father told me during freshman year he didn’t me. That I was the reason he cheated on my mom. He never truly wanted kids, a point he made sure to slap me in the face with. Perhaps that’s why he’s had five marriages, each wife coming to the stage where they want a kid, and he walks out. And perhaps another justified reasoning for ridding me from his life is the fact I was officially able to take care of myself. As if he ever took care of me anyway.
It was around this time I met who I thought was the love of my life, the boy who I thought would make me change my mind about my hatred towards men. His name leaves a puckering sting on my tongue, as if it’s been zapped with sour candy, so let’s call him Peter Pan, Pan for short, because he will never grow up in the time I’ve known him. After I truly got to know him, I realized he is a mother’s boy who is immature and can’t make decisions for himself. He was lost, could never keep his feet on the ground. He thought Neverland was real, that he could live in the stars where he would never have to face the real world. A boy that will never be a man.
We had a healthy relationship at the beginning of our freshman year of high school. We became best friends, our families slowly emerging as one. After our first year together, Pan and I joined forces on family vacations. Our accolades a phase in the honeymoon stage. Around the third vacation, two summers later during our junior year, did Pan change. He started groping my ass, giving me firm slaps if I rolled over on my side in bed. Then it turned into groping my breasts. Sometimes he would pin me against the bed and “tickle” me. An excuse to assault me repeatedly. He always claimed it was an “accident.” Then I think back to health class and remember unwanted. His behavior is unwanted.
I pleaded for him to stop, but he never did. No amount of my pain fazed him. The words “no” and “stop” were music to his ears, as if they were his favorite song he listened to on repeat. Sometimes I returned the violence, hitting him between my thrashing underneath him. Never helped me out though. He knew how I felt about him, no longer in love with the charm he swooned me with. I think he was waiting for me to leave him, testing to see how much I could take. I learned to accept his affection and just live with my fear. My fear of pain, touching, and a newfound fear of love.
One day I woke up and knew I could say goodbye. It was as if all the trauma beat sense into my intuition and make me stop second guessing myself. For the first time in my life I was self-aware of what decisions I was making that would change my life. Approaching graduation also helped me realize what decisions to make. I was about to be an adult and stand up for myself by making my own decisions. I knew our paths were not aligning in the stars he lived in as we were choosing two different collegiate and career paths. I finally felt empowered to take control of our relationship and end it. Not long after graduation did I walk out on him, never looking back, and leaving him with my disgust. I’ve kept tabs on him through mutual friends. He’s not “loved” anyone since.
My fear of love stems from tangible events. People, especially my family, often tell me my refusal to find love is daft, even irrational, but they’re not endowed with the mental clarity to see my rationality. While it may prove to be a privilege to have your body looked for, the idea of intimacy disassociates me from wanting a relationship. If I don’t face the implausible, then I can protect myself from repeating history. Besides, I wouldn’t know what true love looks like if it slapped me in the face.
I always wanted to talk to someone about the trauma I’ve faced. Although, I feel as if I won’t find someone that understands. Even my therapist. Deep down I know this is an absurd thought. I think I haven’t met the right person to talk to about my trauma. I haven’t met someone who resembles my curvier physique. Someone who shares my values and interests that have endured the same experiences. Someone who will not make me doubt my own life. When people discover the short version of my story, that I’m a victim of sexual assault, their jaw drops and paralyzes. “You?” they ask. Yes, me. Why is it so hard to believe that a man scathed me? Yes, my thighs are a little thicker than an average woman and my love handles have a little more love to give, not take. I’ve always had more meat on my bones than I would like, but the older I’ve gotten the more my excess weight has filled out in curves. Either way, my reddened flesh has followed me and continues to fluctuate.
This doesn’t mean it should be astonishing to believe because bodies of all shapes and sizes, even different genders, are assaulted. Just not all of them are reported, maybe that is where the issue lies. Then there is also the underlying problem that society reveals the ideal female identity who face sexual assault/abuse is skinny, bubbly, and most likely a cheerleader in school. But that issue is a whole other essay. Why is it so hard to believe any woman has been assaulted? Their disbelief makes me question my confidence sometimes, and my perception of reality. Did I really live through such hateful crimes? More specifically do I remember such heinous crimes as they happened or do I remember what I think happened? Or was it a vivid nightmare? One I kept on dreaming and could never wake up from. These are the most difficult questions to ask yourself as a victim, especially after someone has challenged your memory. However, I do remember exactly what and how it happened, and then I’m hard on myself mentally for going back to my second-guessing ways.
However, I decided to talk to my therapist about it because her office is too a safe space for healing. Of course, my feelings of being misunderstood proved invalid, as she continues to work with me through my past issues. To hear her say “it’s not your fault, you didn’t know what was happening, you can change the way you feel about your past” is cathartic. Yet, I still can’t help and live with fear, but it’s not as severe as it used to be. She’s diagnosed me with PTSD. She put me on anxiety medication and I see her for weekly appointments. The idea she suggested I find a support group. I joined the best one I can think of: the nonfiction essays of other survivors. I found the genre bridges the bond between those flying on broken wings and those who need help getting wind beneath theirs. I look for the stories written by women. I want to feel their stories, feel as if I know them by sharing the same pain, and honor the women for sharing their most vulnerable moment the best way I know how: writing. Writing provides healing and connects us with others. I feel as if I found someone to talk to about my assault and the same for my fellow survivors. The writing community taught me to learn to live with my past, find ways to cope and help others, rather than bury the memories and let the fear of future assault impact future relationships and my future health.
As a writer and bearer of the untold, I can’t help but wonder what power my story holds in this journal and how it will find its way into the world. All I can say is “this is what happened” and “this is how I feel,” hoping there is someone out there that feels the same, but compelled to get help and work past their fears. I want to help the lives of the women I know and cherish, the women I don’t, the women who are gone, to be a catalyst of light in their remembrance, and the women in the dark, reminding them we are simply not defined by our pasts. I can’t say I will ever be comfortable with being in a relationship again, especially an intimate one. My past will always make me more cautious in future relationships, but the thought of being in a relationship again is more settling than it was before. I’m not sure what this essay is about, other than the hushed secrets my body has endured. It is about the memories from my childhood. It is a meditation on fear and where my hesitation towards men was planted. It is a reflection of healing, while keeping my fear intact. It’s my place to finally speak up. I fulfilled the point of my assignment, subconsciously at least. It’s occurred to me I have more meditating and writing to do, and more to share with my sensible, fighting community.
I’m not sure who I identify with at this point, the victim, the perpetrator, or the survivor. However, I don’t want to identify as either. Rather, I only want to identify what lives inside me, rather that be consistent fear or hope, and never be cheated of my silence again.
Rachel Swatzell is a senior Creative Writing and Literature major at Tusculum University. Her poems are published in The Blue Route, The Tusculum Review, The Mildred Haun Review, and SHIFT: a publication of MTSU Write, where her writing features flowers, colors, and gives life to women’s voices. She is an Andrew Johnson Women’s scholar and the 2018-2019 Curtis Owens Literary award winner for poetry and drama. In her spare time she enjoys spending time with her dog, thrift shopping, listening to music, and traveling. Swatzell currently serves as the Assistant Editor and Featured Artist Editor for The Tusculum Review.