“I will tell you something about stories,
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off
illness and death.
You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.”
— Leslie Marmon Silko, from Ceremony
Back in April, I was honored to accept the invitation to be a Storyteller at the first Esther Be Gather, held here in Indianapolis at the historic Madame Walker Theater. Stacy Sallmen, Esther Be’s founder, has been organizing these events — here in the U.S., Europe, and Africa (to date) — as a means of providing everyday role models for women seeking to escape the damaging (and often dangerous) silence and inaction resulting from feelings shame, fear, and guilt. By gathering women to share their stories with others, Esther Be forges connections through common experience and inspires women to build the courage required to rise up and claim the resources they often refuse — in some cases at the cost of their lives — because of the shame, guilt, and fear associated with traumatic events or circumstances of their lives.
At this first Esther Be Gather, we heard stories from women who had not only survived but rose above such atrocities as rape and incest and abuse, as well as addiction, eating disorders, and pornography. Participants shared their stories in a number of ways: through talks, songs, audience participation. I chose to share mine, with the help of dear friend Kelli B. Schmith, through the medium most natural to me: poetry.
The piece wraps free verse (“The Physics of Epiphany”) around a narrative (“The Incident”). It reflects two experiences of memory: the intellectualized, emotionally stifled one and the spontaneous, emotionally explosive one in response to sensory recall. The poem portrays the violent battle fought between the mind, which seeks to suppress or sanitize traumatic memories to protect us from their impact, and the emotions, which are spontaneously triggered by sensory memory and often burst through the mind’s protective buffering with a range of intensity.
While my own delivery of the performance began with a tone of dismissive denial, racheting up to violent physicality, Kelli read the narrative with the quiet detachment many trauma victims use to tell stories — as though they were describing something that happened to someone else.
In a separate post, I’ll publish the re-creation of my brief talk about the role of the body in creating, recording, and storing memory — and why repressing memories can result in the violent eruptions of “epiphany” that many people suffer when those memories suddenly, often unexpectedly, surface again.
I’m publishing my talk separately, in part, to retrieve a little of the poem’s visceral impact, which it loses in its print form. But I also wanted to make the reader pause in the emotional intensity the poem creates before allowing them to move into the safer, cleaner intellectual space to which we reflexively retreat when faced with difficult feelings.
Because, while our theories and our analyses and our psychologies are fine, “[y]ou don’t have anything / if you don’t have the stories.”
The Poem: “The Physics of Epiphany (The Incident)”
as a faint shimmer in the distance
a subtle ripple
a vaguely disturbing distortion of the horizon
pricking at your attention.
But it’s still easy to dismiss
so you do.
My memory of the incident itself is vague, incomplete:
I am crying, my hands pulled through the fence and held fast on the other side so I can’t get away. They shush me again and again, intently focused on what they are doing. No one must hear this. It isn’t allowed.
By the next time you glance up,
it’s gathered speed,
and it’s heading straight at you.
My panties are pulled down, and through the fence, dirty fingers probe me. I remember nothing of this, specifically; only the tops of their heads as they whisper to one another with stifled laughter.
Your first instinct is to dodge it,
But you’re rooted to the spot
by its inescapable gravity,
the inevitable pull of its mass.
How did I get there? What had they used to lure me? For what had I reached my hands through the fence to grasp, only to be caught in this trap?
I don’t know. I was only three.
Your lungs suck for breath
as the first white-hot cannon ball of truth
slams into your gut
forcing your stomach back into your spine.
What I remember vividly is the sound the back door made as my father burst through it as though shot from a cannon, taking the stairs two at a time, his face twisted with rage.
You feel your body crumple,
curling inward around this thing
you don’t want to know
you don’t want to know
you don’t want to know
And my mother’s voice, high-pitched with terror, as she follows him, “Don’t hurt them! Don’t hurt them! They’re just boys!” her fear echoing forward and backward at once.
Forward and backward at once,
your whole being seems to spin around this new center.
And just when it seems
you can curl no tighter,
that every fiber of your being,
every cell every atom
has been pushed to its limit:
the equal and opposite reaction.
Reaction is slowed. The boys are transfixed, forgetting for a moment to release my wrists. I feel my father hit the ground behind me, and the spell is broken as he slams into the fence, a bellowing bull. The boys scatter, wild with terror. I remember one, the visiting friend of the neighbor boy who still had my smell on his fingers, scaling the opposite fence like a mad creature and disappearing down the street.
scattering what you once believed
was solid and real and firm
and stable – the very core
of your Self –
in all directions.
You desperately try
to hold it together
no no no NO
I remember my mother quickly pulling up my panties, hiding my dishonor. My father stands, shaking with impotence, the damage he could never undo settling into the pit of his stomach as I whimper and hide my face in my mother’s neck.
The MESS you’re making!
How will you clean this up?
How will you ever tuck this back in?
How will you piece together the splintered fragments
of the mask they all need you to wear –
Something my mother is saying to him about my trembling breaks through the thick, protective skin of my father’s anger, causing him to whirl and twisting his face in the other direction, from rage to naked anguish.
– your family
This, too, I remember vividly: My father dropping to his knees, the tears welling, as he takes me tenderly by my tiny shoulders and looks deeply into my eyes, his own eyes desperately begging me to hear him. He’s helpless…shattered…undone.
But you’re helpless…shattered…undone.
There’s no going back from here.
No pretending your life
will ever be the same again.
Can ever be the same.
He says it so softly, so fiercely.
And then you feel it:
the expansiveness of the broken places
the light shining through…
“It wasn’t your fault, honey. You did nothing wrong.”
which starts as a shimmer, a subtle ripple
And he gently draws me into his arms
before defining a new horizon.