Voyage Around My Body

roxane gay hunger body trauma

I am reading Roxane Gay’s immensely powerful memoir, Hunger. It comes at a time when I am deep into another intense period of therapy, thinking about trauma in new ways and inching toward recognition of the traumas my body has been harboring ever since I was a very small child. I have been at odds with my body for such a long time.

EMDR therapy allowed me to see, for the first time in my life, my body’s intelligence. An emotional intelligence I’d wanted nothing to do with up to that point, because I’d wanted nothing to do with my own emotions. I knew they would be unbearable. After EMDR helped me to process and to bear what I was feeling about having been trapped in a crashed airplane, about having survived my little sister, about having been told—and believing—that I did not deserve to be alive, I thought I was done.

But here’s the thing I am coming awake to: my body is riddled with pockets of grief, and anger, and shame. And joy, thankfully. My body is mapped with sites of trauma, and if I can let myself follow its quiet guidance, if I can stand to visit each one and, with help, connect to how it feels, then I can hope to fully embody my emotion. I can own my whole feeing and thinking self.

I am seeing two therapists weekly now. It was getting difficult to hold on to—or even to understand, sometimes—the concepts we were discussing in talk therapy. It felt like they were sliding out of my brain before I could process them. This made sense, my therapist said. We were talking about abuses that occurred in early childhood, before I had the language to describe them to myself, to name them.

I found a somatic psychotherapist to work with, because those abstract concepts that slide out of my brain were preceded by wordless, flesh-and-blood traumas imprinted on skin. We are in the early stages of our work together, slowly setting out on a voyage around my body. She puts a hand on my back and I burst into tears. I lie on a green mat on the floor and sob. I am a small, small girl in bed in the dark, tail tucked between my legs.

Something my talk therapist said yesterday, when we were discussing Hunger, made me consider that I may not always hold myself at odds with my body. I am bereft of my body. Bereft of the whole, unbroken self who came into the world as a Song of Joy. She was taken by adults who had no right. But I am moving through the dark toward her again.

As Gay writes, “She is still small and scared and ashamed, and perhaps I am writing my way back to her, trying to tell her everything she needs to hear.”

 

Predator in Chief

Donald Trump sexual predator

Donald Trump is president elect. Maybe putting that down in black and white will somehow make it fathomable.

On a day when a punch-drunk populace is waking up to the reality of what the U.S. election has wrought, I am deeply moved by the resilience and expressed determination of so many Americans. I know that, when I am able, I will link arms in solidarity with good people as we re-commit to doing everything in our power to meet virulent hatred with astonishing love, deep-seated fear with compassion, ignorance with a willingness to learn from one another.

But not today. Today I am afraid to leave the house.

I was born to a man who taught me from day one that my body was not my own, that my person could be violated and my spirit crushed at his whim. From him I learned that I was worthless human garbage, that my mother and brothers and sister were worthless human garbage. I was—we were—trashed in body, mind and spirit. Meanwhile, to those outside our home, this man was admired as an avowed Christian, a capable and successful doctor, a person to be trusted with the care of those who flocked to him.

Today, it feels like fifty percent of my fellow Americans have elected this man, my father, to serve as our next president. And not only that, it feels like they have done so in full awareness of his sadistic ways, in chilling indifference to the mangled lives he has left in his wake and the promises he has made to desecrate and destroy countless more.

Today, I cannot find the reserves to convince myself that I am—we are—safe out there. Today, I don’t know which half of you would intervene and which half of you would look the other way until the whimpered pleading stops.

This may sound like histrionics to those who have no context for understanding what goes on in abusive families. But here is what trauma does: it makes us feel in our bodies what the mind might otherwise manage to reason away.

Most days, with support and effort and grace, we survivors go on. But for me, today is not one of those days.

Family Reunion

 

family-secrets-trauma-memoir

The first to arrive was my cousin Sheri, who I hadn’t seen in at least forty years. She looks like her mother now (as do I), but it wasn’t hard to see the teenager with hair down to her butt who’d entranced me as a kid. We gathered at my sister Sue’s house. My brother Bruce and his family were visiting from Europe, and we’d invited some relatives for lunch.

Bruce and Sue and I made sure to discuss ahead of time how we would handle certain topics when they came up. We knew they would come up. Whenever we see extended family, someone always starts in about what a great guy our father was. They mean Arthur Fish, father #1 in the diagram above, who looked from the outside like a pious, God-fearing family man. He was a master at hiding his twisted, predatory nature.

We decided our little lunch party wasn’t the place to blow his cover. We’d intended the visit as a time to remember and celebrate our mother and her sisters. If our father came up, we’d gently steer the conversation back to happier memories.

For laughs, my husband and I devised a list of ten responses we could give if our relatives started talking about what a good man Arthur Fish was. The top three:

#3 “You know, I’m struck by how many types of people there are in the world.”

#2 “Did I tell you we have two kinds of sandwiches?”

#1 “Bless your heart!”

Because we’d talked about it ahead of time, we weren’t thrown when our mother’s cousin, in telling the story of how she and her brother had been separated as infants, praised “Doctor Fish” for reuniting them as adults. Bruce and Sue and I know it was actually our mother who orchestrated the whole thing, but we didn’t feel the need to interject.

What none of us saw coming, however, was the story our cousin Gail piped up to tell. She must’ve been five or six when it happened. She and her older sister Peggy were sleeping over in the rambling house where my family lived before I was born. Gail said she woke up in the middle of the night to find a large figure standing over her. A man. He said everything was OK. He told her to close her eyes and go back to sleep. So that’s what she did.

I was so thrown by this revelation I couldn’t speak.

Later that same year, Gail continued, her sister Peggy drowned. Gail said she now believes the figure who stood over her that night was Jesus. He came to reassure her in advance, knowing how hard it would be for her to lose her sister.

I don’t know that it wasn’t Jesus who appeared to my cousin that night. But I’d lay odds the looming figure was actually my father, Arthur Fish. When Gail opened her eyes, he shushed her and sent her back to sleep because he hadn’t come for her. That was the pattern when he slipped into the room Sue and I shared as kids. He wanted my eyes closed so I couldn’t witness what he’d come to do in our bedroom in the middle of the night.

I don’t know why I was the lucky one who got to go back to sleep. It sounds like cousin Gail was lucky that way, too.

As a writer exploring and exposing our family’s truths on the path toward healing, I often think about whether my telling of our story will resonate or collide with the versions other people tell. As I’ve said in other posts, I’ve come to believe that speaking the truth about our traumas is necessary to move beyond them. But I don’t relish the thought of inflicting pain.

I guess the only way is to respect the stories we’ve been given to tell–and the lives they entwine. To keep talking through the hard parts. To show that we’re open to meaningful connection. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t scare me, thinking about how some people might respond to my rifling through our shared past, shining a spotlight. But we’ve lived in selective silence for so long, and that hasn’t served us well.

It’s time to tell. I’ve written to my cousins Sheri and Gail. Perhaps an update post will follow as this chapter of the story fills in with new voices.

On Forgiving and Forgetting

My brother Tedd is a compassionate man. An ordained Christian minister, he takes his faith seriously and works hard to be a force for good in the world. He has a special interest in helping those living through trying times. He and a friend do grief counseling with people whose spouses have died. He also has an active music ministry, booking concerts and sharing his story of personal struggle and growth with church congregations.

Were someone to approach my brother after one of these concerts and ask him to pray with them about the wounds they carry from childhood abuse, he would be glad for the chance to offer comfort. He would not ask the person if they are sure the abuse really happened.

But when the confessor is a sibling and the abuser is our father, my brother has asked more than once: How do you know?

Most of us don’t realize how devastating that kind of skepticism can be. We haven’t learned that abuse victims often expect not to be believed when they disclose their abuse, which makes speaking up especially risky. The abused tend to doubt their own credibility. Maybe I made the whole thing up. Jennifer Freyd and Pamela Birrell write that children abused by parents often blame themselves, harboring great shame. “With repeated betrayal, the shame becomes chronic.”  It “makes us feel crazy at times and silences us.”

That crushing, silencing shame is something my sibs and I are familiar with. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that we somehow provoked our father to mistreat us. When he angrily pulled me out of my chair and hoisted me up to the mirror, insisting I see what a bad girl looked like, I was sure I’d brought it on myself.

Tedd’s less than sympathetic reaction to the mention of our father’s abusive behaviors makes him seem indifferent to the ways we’ve suffered. Which makes me wonder what’s really going on.

It’s possible my brother’s repeated questioning–how do you know?– is a kind of willed forgetting. Freyed and Birrell call it betrayal blindness. “We remain blind to betrayal in order to protect ourselves,” they write. Violating a child’s physical, emotional or sexual safety is the greatest act of betrayal a parent can commit. The child depends on the parent for her very survival, so how can she protest? She can’t. Instead, she hides the abuse from herself and others. She pretends, ignores, forgets. Because “forgetting and unawareness help the abuse victim survive.”

As I wrote in a previous post, at one time in his life Tedd believed that he, too, had been sexually abused by our father. He has since changed his mind, following a pattern of disclosure and retraction identified by clinical research. For many people, the possibility of abuse is too monstrous or terrifying to entertain for long. So they take it back. When a brother or sister dredges it up again, they deflect it.

Are you sure? How do you know?

Because he is not an unkind or uncaring man, my brother is willing to concede that others of us could have been abused. He doesn’t deny our reality. But lately he has taken to defending our father’s behavior. Making excuses for him. He tells me he can understand what drove our father to prey on his family and his patients sexually. Living for years with a sickly, bedridden wife the way our father did with Tedd’s mother would give any man large sexual appetites, my brother explained to me. He’d felt some of that himself during his wife’s protracted battle with cancer.

It’s hard to believe my brother would willingly identify with his abuser. That is, until you consider the other options. Like admitting our father threw him under the bus. Like bumping up against his own rage.

After reading what I wrote about our father in my memoir, Tedd brought up forgiveness. Our father helped a lot of people during his life, my brother insisted. Had my therapist encouraged me to consider that and forgive our father for the wrong he did to our family? I explained that what therapy taught me about forgiveness was how to begin to forgive myself. To surrender the self-blame and shame. That’s not the sort of forgiveness my brother was driving at, though. He wanted me to turn my burden over to God and find the freedom he believed would come from granting our father pardon.

No doubt about it, forgiveness can be powerful medicine. But if you don’t first acknowledge the truth of what a person has done, how can you meaningfully forgive him for it? How can any measure of real freedom flow from refusing to face what happened to you and how you really feel about it?

In The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, Eleanor Payson writes that often we would rather believe we are to blame for the painful parenting we received than “look directly into our feelings of hurt and anger.” Furthermore, “we have multiple messages from society and religious teachings that tell us the only way to release these feelings is through forgiveness.”

“Genuine forgiveness does not deny anger but faces it head-on,” Alice Miller writes in For Your Own Good.

Blanket statements of forgiveness that suppress or circumvent our real feelings are not the starting point for healing. Instead, Payson continues, “all healing must start with awareness and the retrieval of our authentic thoughts and feelings.” In Where to Draw the Line, Anne Katherine describes the freeing encounter with genuine emotions this way: “Expressing our true feeling about a true incident lightens and enlightens. All the energy tied up in keeping the anger contained is released. After we’ve been angry in a healthy way, we have more energy.”

“Only the truth will shift a feeling,” Katherine writes.

“Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” Jesus Christ promised his followers.

I am not a religious person. But I claim that promise for my siblings and me. When we elect not to forget, not to blind ourselves, but keep charting our way through the minefield of our own explosive feelings, we’re making ourselves free. We’re navigating toward lasting forgiveness.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Sexual Abuse

 

sexual-abuse-in-families

My brother Bruce decided to go for counseling after seeing the great benefit I got from EMDR and talk therapy. In an early session, his therapist gave him a children’s book to read, a story about a servant of the king who takes pity on a street urchin and invites the boy to the castle for a meal. After the boy stuffs himself at a banquet table, the servant offers him new clothes to replace his rags. They stop first at the castle baths, where the servant prevails upon the boy to discard his filthy clothes and climb into a warm tub. While the boy is soaking and the servant is off fetching clean things for him, another man, the king, comes into the room to speak to the boy.

My brother’s immediate thought, before he had time to quash it, was this: What is that man going to do to the naked boy?

Bruce told me this story while we were picking blueberries together in Maine. Blueberrying has been one of our very favorite things since we were little kids. Our aunties would set off with metal pails and milking stools, a parade of kids in tow carrying empty Cool Whip tubs. The tiny, taut berries gave us blue teeth and a row of warm pies oozing juice on the counter.

Not everything about our childhood scared us. We have our cinnamonned memories. But there are so many shadowy fragments. Hunches, nagging feelings, questions like the one that ambushed Bruce. Intimations and awful possibilities.

My oldest brother, Allon, has told me a few times on the phone recently that he’s pretty sure our father had sex in the office with his secretary, a woman from church.

While she was dying of cancer, my mother talked about the time she walked into the waiting area of my father’s medical practice and heard the sounds of rutting coming from a treatment room. “Don’t you dare open this door,” my father’s voice commanded from inside.

When my middle brother, Tedd, started counseling people in his church who were struggling with memories of abuse, he realized that he had suppressed similar memories himself. Our father used to take him along when he made house calls to female patients. Tedd was posted outside the closed door and told to give the signal if he heard anyone coming. Maybe there was more, my brother admitted.

Today Tedd chooses to remember his version of blueberrying, the good things about our father. His generous support of missionary organizations. His role in founding a Christian academy and Bible college in Maine. The relief from suffering he gave his patients. Tedd says these deeds more than make up for whatever hurt our father caused. He urges me to join him in offering forgiveness.

But forgiveness for what, I have to wonder. How can you forgive what you don’t see? What you can’t quite pull into focus?

My sister Sue confessed as an adult that she suspected our father had sexually abused her. Maybe over a prolonged period. She was reluctant to say so, even though he’d been dead for decades, because she had no proof, just a feeling. We learned to keep our feelings to ourselves in my family. Airing them was an invitation to a trampling. But Sue was brave and spoke aloud what her gut had been telling her for a long while. She wanted corroboration. Maybe our mother saw or heard something all those years before. Maybe she could shed some light, dredge up some kind of confirmation.

Our mother was familiar with our father’s predilections. At the end of her life, she talked pointedly about the ways he forced himself on her. He did so even in the presence of my siblings and me.

Although she shared a bed with our father for fourteen years, our mother could not say unequivocally to my sister, “Trust you instinct. This happened to you. I believe.” Our mother preferred to “just drop it.” She believed the past was behind us.

To her credit, my sister has not let it go. She works with an exceedingly kind therapist and sometimes, together, they use EMDR to address her history of abuse. I know from experience a very little bit about how brave Sue is to do this, and how paralyzingly scary it must be.

Still. What do families talk about when we talk about sexual abuse? About a doctor who violates his patients? A husband who violates his wife? A parent who violates his child? Where are the words? How do we begin?

 

My First Narcissist

Father #1 in my family diagram is my biological father, Arthur. It was important to him to be taken for an important man. As a sought-after family physician, he rushed to the bedsides of his patients at all hours and made himself indispensible at the local hospital. As a deacon at Calvary Baptist Church, he taught Sunday school and counseled struggling souls in the ways of righteousness.

From every angle, he looked like a pious man of God, an unimpeachable community leader.

He sent my oldest brother, Allon, to school in Florida because an Evangelical minister with an international following sent his kids there too. Allon was thirteen years old. Our father bought him a ticket and put him on a train to travel the 1,500 miles by himself. You can still hear that dejected kid in his voice today when my brother asks, “What did I do wrong? I don’t know why he sent me away.”

My middle brother Tedd was sent away to the Christian academy our father later helped to found with an itinerate preacher. Since reading a draft of my memoir, Tedd has told me many times about being in his dorm room at that school, which overlooked the parking lot. He knew our father was on campus when his car showed up in the lot. But instead of coming to say hello after his business was finished, our father climbed in his car and drove away while his son watched.

He’s been dead for four decades but people still take my sister aside to tell her what a Godly man our father was. A faithful servant of the Lord. How can she tell them that this revered Christian man was incapable of loving his family? That he stalked his patients, his wife, his children as sexual prey?

The hell a narcissist creates for those closest to him is an intensely private one.

Most Sunday nights after the evening service, my parents invited their church friends over to our house for fellowship. Bruce and Sue and I were sent to bed before the guests started arriving. Our father demanded that we stay out of the way. I would lie in bed staring at the ceiling while cars pulled in and ladies’ heels clacked up the front walk. One night, instead of settling in the living room or drifting to the kitchen for coffee and sandwiches, a group of guests hung back in the front hall. Spasms of laughter floated up the stairwell to the bedroom I shared with Sue.

I padded down the stairs in my footie pajamas and stood sleepily rubbing my eyes.  “Oh no,” one of the adults said with a wink. “Did we wake you?” Then they whirled me into the living room and plied me with chips and cookies while I performed. I danced. I sang. I answered questions. They hooted at my answers and looked approvingly at my parents. My father stood stiffly against the wall, arms crossed, his thin smile stretched taut.

He grabbed my wrists, marched me back to bed, hustled me under the covers and slammed the door shut on his way out. He wasn’t about to be upstaged in front of his flock. Least of all by a snot-nosed little kid.

When I met my husband, forty years after my father’s death, I found myself resisting the powerful manifestations of his love. This was what I’d been trying to invite into my life. Yet to be the object of such unequivocal feeling made me anxious. My therapist, Jan, suggested that I was holding onto the belief that I didn’t deserve to be loved so well.

We used EMDR to pursue that possibility. As I slowed my breathing and listened to the tones ping from one ear to the other, my father’s face appeared. We were outside, at dusk, standing in the space between the garage and the house. It was cold. He towered over me. He kept saying the same thing again and again: You don’t deserve to be loved. You don’t deserve to be loved. And then: Your mother only loves you because she has to.

Jan stopped the tones and let me cry a while before asking what was happening. Then she proposed I go back as an adult to get my child self out of there. She restarted the tones and back I went. I told my child self not to look at him, to keep her eyes on my face. As I held her and backed away from my father, I showed the child me all the things she was going to learn and experience, the fullness of who she would become. I told her that person was already inside of her. That she was perfectly suited for the journey just as she was.

I carried her into the house. My mother was lying on the couch. I told my child self to brush Mom’s hair until it was time for dinner, and while she was brushing, to raise the brush to her head sometimes and brush her own hair too.

Jan suggested I might be feeling unworthy of unreserved love because my mother hadn’t received it herself. She asked me to go back to the couch and have a conversation with Mom about that.

I told my mother I didn’t want to hold back or defend myself out of fear. I didn’t want to repeat her mistakes. She encouraged me to open myself completely, without reservation or doubt that I might not be worthy. Sitting in Jan’s office, I felt a palpable expansion, my chest brimming with breath.

We used the tones to reinforce the new belief: I deserve to be loved well. I laughed out loud at the image that came. My child self and I were outside again, between the house and garage in the almost-dark. We flicked our fingers and my father crumbled like dust. Poof.