I understood, going in, that telling family secrets wouldn’t exactly be a cake walk. But I believed—and still do—that the benefits of airing our truth would far outweigh the squirrelly nerves, sweaty palms or insomnia I might experience. I told myself I’d find reserves of courage along the way, as I needed them.
I had no idea how much of a coward I’ve been for years.
I just finished a course of physical therapy with an amazing woman my doctor referred me to. She helped me understand that the constant pain in my hips wasn’t caused by arthritis or an inflammatory food allergy; I was doing it to myself, clenching muscles that needed a chance to relax. Over-recruiting certain muscle groups to compensate for flabbiness in others.
She pressed her finger to the tip of my tailbone so I could feel its position. “If you had an actual tail, it should sweep out from here and gently hang toward the ground,” she told me. But my tailbone was so tightly curled toward my pubic bone that, if I’d had a tail, it would’ve been clamped between my knees. I knew right away that I’d been holding it in that position for years. Tail firmly tucked between my legs.
A lot of people have told me that what I’m doing with this blog, and with my memoir, Every Moment of a Fall, is brave. Speaking my unsanitized truth, casting myself in the unflattering light of what actually happened rather than what I wish had happened. Opening doors to family closets that have been harboring skeletons for decades—maybe generations. But I don’t feel brave. I feel like I’ve still got my tail between my legs.
I’m scared. What will life be like, how will people treat me once the whole story gets out in the world and can’t be taken back? What will those close to me who don’t appreciate being exposed have to say about a book I’ve labored over for years, chiseling away to make it true, and beautiful? How will I be rejected, reviled, repudiated?
My husband the therapist reminds me that I don’t have to feel brave to be brave—I just need to act as if I am. Every good therapist I’ve had has reminded me of that very thing. But I can’t stop asking myself: Was it really that bad? The impulse to take it all back, to cram the skeletons back into their closets, to downplay the severity of my experience is almost irresistible. After 50-odd years of lying on the pillowtop mattress of denial, why go looking for a bed of nails to stretch out on?
In his excellent book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk remembers his teacher telling him that the greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves. My guess is that it’s impossible not to be a coward when you live by a script of lies you keep feeding yourself. “If I just make it through this one more time,” you say, clamping your eyes shut, “everything will be OK.”
“We do not really want to know how many children are being molested and abused in our society,” van der Kolk writes. “We want to think of families as safe havens in a heartless world. . . . We prefer to believe that cruelty occurs only in faraway places.”
For the longest time, our family worked hard to conform to some Rockwellian fantasy of togetherness, of safe haven. From the outside, we looked enviable. People often said so. What was behind that facade, though, except a deeply desperate need (on the part of both parents and kids) to be loved and not humiliated, valued and not savaged, protected instead of thrown under the bus?
So I guess this is the shape my bravery takes: I have stopped denying the damage that’s been done. I no longer qualify or excuse it. Neither will I deny myself the right to live beyond it, to embrace my sweet life and know myself closer to whole.
I’ll act brave and tell the family secrets that aren’t serving us, that have never served us. I’ll own the part I played in perpetuating those secrets when I protected the perpetrators. To find my courage, I’ll go on writing these things down, running them out into the open, defusing their power. And although my knees turn to jelly, I’ll try to wag my untucked tail.