I want to redraw the map of my body. The seashell curve of my hips, the spread of my thighs; my two breasts which point down when unstimulated, and the rounded lower belly that looks just like my mother’s rounded lower belly. Two arms, shoulders, and a neck, and eyes that follow the arc of both the moon and the sun. Hair that is natural and wild and sometimes curly, sometimes straight. And a mouth that says whatever it wants. I want to show the world a body that belongs to a woman. A body that is strong and resilient and capable. Creative. A body that is not colonized by anyone else. And I want this map to beautiful. And I want this map to be mine.
My body, a chapel of forgiveness.
The old boundaries began in girlhood, when my body became an adaptable and reliable container. Within those curves and lines and soft flesh are the memories of other people’s pain, needing, and hunger. As a girl, I learned to hold my body together with silence and physical discipline, conditioning myself to regulate, as well as reconcile the contradictions of love and violence in my home—anything to sculpt the guise of protection. Perfection. Anything not to hurt.
Across the last twenty years of my life, I moved from place to place trailing all kinds of wreckage—damaged friendships, old apartments, places of work, and the rubbish of impulsively purchased things. All out of fear, mostly, I think. Fear of intimacy, fear of death, fear—ultimately— of myself. A fear that lead me to practice the habit of stripping my body down to any man who proffered the slightest hint of affection to avoid showing my true self—the girl of me, the wounded child, I am ashamed of.
It began when I was five. Though maybe I was six. I could have been four years old the first time I took a cock into my mouth. The act of it upon my body was meant to make me less visible, less viable, and vulnerable—a body that did not matter. But that could only happen because I was vulnerable. I was only a little girl.
What I remember most about that day was the light: It is mid-afternoon, and there are tiny specks of dust undulating in the yellow-white light filtering in through the curtains. I climbed onto the couch and before moving my face toward the heap of pink flesh, I notice the tiny pot of purple flowers on the window sill. I think they were violets.
(Between you and me: I sometimes wonder about the memories I cannot recover, and whether or not I should be grateful for that.)
At eight years old, there was an older cousin, not by blood, who came into my room to play doctor. What I remember most about that day was the feeling of his hands running down my flat, little girl chest. All the lights were off, and I laid as still as I could. I did not close my eyes.
The following year, my father beat-up my mother so bad I could barely recognize her face. Except the most recognizable quality about her that day was the sadness in her green eyes. A sadness, I think, she was born with, because her own mother had been abused. I can’t help but look at this like a specific kind of male violence that delegitimatizes the boundaries of the female body as a body that mattered, a body that birthed. A body that brought him into being.
On that day, my father held her at gunpoint, and then later, he held the gun to me. I expected him to shoot us and them himself. But that didn’t happened. Sometimes, I wish it did.
After the gun night, my mother stopped being herself—the boundaries of her body were redrawn too. Her hair changed, her clothes changed, and she even stopped driving herself to work. At night, the fights between my parents were more frequent and explosive, and my role as the warden between them was crystal sharp.
To the outside world, we continued on like a regular, white, middle-class family, and the illusion of our perfection and our normalcy and togetherness kept us sheltered in our sorrow. I understood from my parents that it was shameful to air your troubles, but I felt that it was more damaging to pretend. Still, we carried on with the stuff of life: work, school, family outings, vacations, and despair ran the ground beneath us. Suppose we are all afraid of upsetting one another by revealing the truth of our vulnerability. But in the denial of our own feelings, we continued to turn an incredible violence onto ourselves.
I was twelve years old when the boundary lines of my body were drawn again. All I wanted were braces but I got so much more: the first time my orthodontist paused while working in my mouth to squeeze my breast, I stared up into the overhead light, waiting for it to be over. Moments later, he did it again. How it went was, he would reach down with his right hand toward the blue paper bib dancing around neck, which was covering my chest like a blanket. I wondered if he thought the barrier made it less noticeable, him grabbing, him squeezing, his wiping his hand in hard, heavy strokes. It didn’t. Between twelve and fourteen, these were my check-ups.
After that, standing in front of the mirror, I decided my body wasn’t mine.
My breasts were ugly.
By the time I started to consciously hate my body, I admit, I both loved and hated my mother’s body too. The body that was my first home and shelter; the body I no longer felt safe around but for the life of me felt I needed to govern. The focus of my rage was turned on the way our rounded bellies looked the same, and the way the fear of men and love seemed to control us.
I would watch my mother stand in front of the mirror, staring at her gut, and at her legs, arms akimbo, disapproving. Its strange because I’d always thought she was beautiful—it never occurred to me that she thought otherwise. I recall myself at ten years of age, pressing my legs together when I walked so that they would be thin like hers. It didn’t work and it made walking feel complicated and funny, but I did it anyway. I did it anyways so I could be like my mother. Later, I started asking her if I looked fat. I wasn’t fat, but the word fat became a metaphor for all the terrible things I felt about myself and for all the anger contained in my body.
I began throwing hysterical fits during homework time or whenever I got into trouble. My need to be perfect competed with my need to be blameless in equal measure to my want to feel loved and safe. Looking back, I realize that this was how I was trying to express my pain by not naming my pain—I was too ashamed to. The secret of my abuse felt too large and overpowering, but so did the confusion I felt over my parents behavior. After the gun night, especially, I couldn’t be too sure what to make of our family anymore. Were we mother and daughter and father still? Or something other?
At some stage, my parents began buying me things to make me feel better. And I accepted these gifts and demanded more. But if I can be real for a moment: I think we were all aware of what we weren’t saying, but were too ashamed with ourselves to admit it: we needed help. At least, I needed help.
I can still hear my father voice saying my mother’s name in a deep and fearful tone when she upset him. The calling of her name was a flag on her behavior, to tell her she crossed a line—a line that seemed to move day to day. And with me, whenever I got on his nerves or got in between them during one of their fights, he’d hold a fist in the air, threatening. I dared him hard and often to use it, because this way, I could finally feel punished instead of doing all the punishing myself.
He never did, though.
My orthodontist didn’t have the nerve to ask me to keep quiet. Though the others put the responsibility on me, warning me not to tell—because I would be the one who gets into trouble. I can’t stress enough how much my kid brain believed it.
But there is something else.
I did not want to upset my mother. She already had a lot to deal with in terms of my father and his control and his abuse. Mostly, I felt an urge to protect her, and so I did not want to burden her with the responsibility of my feelings and needs. And lastly, I didn’t want to hurt her as much as I didn’t want to embarrass her. Either by telling her who did these things to me or by showing her that I was the spoiled, dirty, and broken girl I believed I was.
When I reflect on my sexual trauma, I am inclined to say that the abuse wasn’t that bad.
It didn’t last for years and years on end—at least, in a physical sense. There was the one time on the couch, and there were other times where I was asked to massage their skin, and other times still that grown hands ran along my body touching, squeezing, taking away my ability to choose for myself, to say yes, to say no. When I was older, I was raped. But I couldn’t name it as rape because I thought what was happening to me, to my body was my fault— my body did not belong to me, remember? Later, after the rape, he threatened me not to tell. His words: If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you. Words that were so eerily close to the words my father said to my mother on the gun night: I’ll pull the trigger, I’ll do it.
What about being me, being her, being a girl made them so afraid?
I did what I was told, I didn’t tell anyone.
And finally, all these years later, when I write all that down and read it back, I think, oh, it is that bad. It’s all bad. All of it.
That which makes my body viable, a body that matters, a body that can be reduced is that there is something to take—a something that is terrifying to the taker. Something unfamiliar, a secret. A sight of generation, creativity embodied.
I would have preferred that my mother passed onto me other things like her large, heavy breasts or her green eyes. But in the folds of my inherited blueprint for survival were lessons of how to reinforce structures of power and control and fear through repetitive acts of controlling my body. I have pushed and pressed and starved and stretched and punished my body for thirty years, self-managing, coping, controlling, keeping at bay the unnamable things. Sometimes, the unspeakable things like the violence in my home, the cutting pain of neglect, the isolation of competition, the love of my mother that felt warm but large, sometimes so large it was suffocating. And the love of my father which felt confusing and sometimes tender, but mostly not enough.
The shaping of my body as a protector of secrets has been nothing more than an expression of rooted and sprung terror—the naming of white fear for what it was: the fear of difference, the fear of other, the fear of annihilation. The same fear that had become my principal wound as a girl, coloring my entire life.
I was never able to ask my mother what it felt like to make love to a man that hit her, that held a gun to her face. I was never able to ask her about silence, the greatest regulator of the body. But my mother’s body, as well as my own, has been trained and shaped by specific weapons: the violence, the power, and the control that permeated my family system; the same violence, power, and control that looked, sometimes, in an aching and peculiar way like love.
Girled at the birth, the codification of my gender and in my family role, was predicated on a good performance. By a mouth full of sugar, a body that is contained, a body that is quiet. A body that is not a body but a projection; a public fantasy that both engrosses and disgusts.
The complex inheritance of both my childhood and my coming into a sexual being so ripe, so early has armed me with anger—an emotion that is not so readily named or accepted for a woman and thus, expressly disruptive to normative culture.
When unskilled, I have used this anger to commit terrible damage to myself. For years, I have struggled with disordered eating patters, and self-hate—divisive as it is, creating sad, intimate distance from others—friends, lovers, family too. Often, this has had the consequence of tumbling me toward, and into, often, abusive relationships. Just like my mother.
Though on the other side of this, I am grateful that female rage continues to be profoundly problematic—it challenges the boundaries of who is a person; it calls into question the very acts that challenge a person’s right to exist and how. This kind of anger reframes the story and certainly, how we tell it.
I find my anger to be useful, a modus of production; a master of art-making, a beacon of hope. From it comes an impulse to tether the distance between other and the materiality of the body—the other that forces violence out of a demand for legitimization.
Good thing I’m keen on the great political work of self-empowerment.
When I began telling my story, a common and frequent response was: you are so brave. Some women came forward and shared that they felt encouraged to tell their story. Some men did too. Others said, let it go, you can’t change the past; focus on the good, your parents loved you. And I tell them, I know they did.
But here it is: I don’t want to be made brave or noble for talking about the trauma in my family. I wish these weren’t the stories I had to tell. All the time. But they are my stories and they have made me into the woman I am today and I am strangely grateful for it. Though, and often, I wish the woman of me didn’t have to come at the cost of the girl.
When it comes to talking about family trauma or the shame of sexual abuse and domestic violence in family systems or my family in particular, I find it difficult to separate the hurt part of myself from the intellectualization of it. Being academic about it allows me to compartmentalize my hurt, which helps me take a systematic approach as to why these things happened: feeding into my need to protect all the people who hurt me by understanding that they were hurt themselves.
I suppose I also find it hard to admit that I was hurt as well—that would mean that I would have to claim a part of my story, or my whole story, as well as name myself as a person which at times, I find hard to do. It is also hard to accept that the events that happened were part of the irrational and randomized way life just occurs. But by not naming it or myself, in this way, silence wins again and again. What I need instead is for my memories to produce and reproduce hope again and again.
One of the hardest lessons of my womanhood is understanding that there are certain people in this world that I do not know how to love, that I have to try to love, that I want to love, while also loving myself. But with these words, I am trying: they offer me private and intimate communion of self-forgiveness on the heart. I didn’t deserve the things that happened. Neither did my mother. Neither do any of you.
It’s true, you carry around the shame everywhere you go—the things that aren’t spoken about live in the body. In the curve of the shoulders, roundness of the hips, and the breasts. Shame wets the eyes, and the tongue.
But today, my body is map of survival.
And I draw the boundary lines.
Jocelyn M. Ulevicus has a background in Social Work, Psychology, and Public Health. Her work focuses on exploring the terrain of family violence and re-humanizing oneself after trauma, and has been published in magazines such as Mindful Matter, Entropy, and Life in Ten Minutes. Ms. Ulevicus currently resides in Amsterdam and is finalizing her first book, a memoir, titled The Birth of A Tree which was recently short-listed for the Santa Fe Writer’s Program 2019 Literary Award. If you’d like to get in touch with her, send her an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. She’ll probably write you a love note or two.