In “Esther Be Gather, Indianapolis – Part 1: The Poem,” I provide context for the talk that appears below, as well as the poem to which it refers. I separately posted the emotional energy of the poem from the intellectualized content of the talk below, partly to give the poem its own space, where the intensity of its story could be experienced without the buffering offered by its intellectual explication. I wanted the reader to sit with the emotional impact for a moment, without heading into the relative “safety” we construct for ourselves by detaching from our emotions, objectifying the causes, and picking them apart under the sanitized glare of analysis and theory.
The poem focuses on only one of the events that — unbeknownst to me, for much of my life — shaped how I relate to the world and my place in it. The topic of molestation is a difficult one. But, for far too many women — and men — in the world, so is living with the shame of the experience. I’m fortunate. My family didn’t try to hide the event from me; in fact, we talked openly about it. Still, its effects ripple through my life in ways I haven’t always recognized or clearly understood. It wasn’t until I wrote the poem and stood in front of an audience to talk about it that connections to some of the beliefs I have about myself and some of the choices I’ve made in my life began to cohere for me. Many of my wounds have healed, scarred over. But even scars can pinch and pull when we stretch them.
I preserved the conversational style of my talk, which I delivered from a very brief set of notes. This is a recreation, based on those few scratches, so I might be missing one or two comments as well as what I pulled in from other women’s talks. I purposely left out my notes on the creation of the poem and the narrative.
The Talk: Body, Memory, and Epiphany
As you learned during the performance of my poem, “The Physics of Epiphany (The Incident),” I was molested by neighborhood boys when I was three years old.
You might be thinking: She was only three. What could she possibly remember? The past should be left in the past.
Ah, but there’s the rub: The past doesn’t stay in the past, no matter how hard we try to deny it, lock it up, walk away from it. We — all of us — remember more than we think we do about the events in our lives. You see, memory isn’t a function of the mind alone. Recent research shows us that memories are created and stored by every cell in our bodies. Remembering past experiences, in fact, often happens first in the body, through the senses, and the mind fills in the story, or the intellectualized “facts,” of the situation for us.
Let’s try something, using a positive memory:
Close your eyes for a moment and take a few deep breaths to clear your mind. Now, think about a time when you were really happy — or, at least, content. Just stay there for a moment.
If you can, locate where you feel that happy or contented feeling in your body. Is it your chest? Your stomach? Your arms? Your hands? What does it physically feel like? Warmth? Tingling? Something else?
Now, focus on each of your senses. If you can, identify the sense that most connects you with that memory. Was it a smell — newly-mowed grass or the smell of bread in the oven or a loved-one’s scent, perhaps? Or something more visual, like a color or the way the light shimmered on leaves? Maybe it was a sound — birds, a song on the radio, a voice. It could even be the taste of a meal or the sensation of a breeze or the sun on your face, connecting you with touch.
(Open your eyes.)
When we spontaneously remember something, it’s not our minds that take us back; it’s our senses, our bodies. In fact:
The folks at Epona Equestrian Services in Arizona, where horses are used as therapeutic partners in the healing process, found that the gentle rocking motion their clients experience when riding a horse often dislodges memories of rape, incest, and other forms of sexual abuse or assault.
Not that long ago, a friend of mine got onto an elevator, followed by a man — a complete stranger — who happened to be wearing the same cologne as one who’d sexually assaulted her years before. She bolted from the elevator, quivering and sickened with the very same terror she experienced during the original attack.
And me? How could being molested at age three possibly affect me? I honestly didn’t think I had anything more than an intellectual memory of the event until rehearsing “Epiphany” to perform for you today. As I walked myself through my description of “the incident,” another incident from my recent past suddenly struck me. For over a year, I practiced a martial art called aikido. The men and women at the dojo where I trained were some of the most generous, kind, and gentle people I’ve ever met — they were like otters at play, falling, rolling, laughing. We all took care of and with one another, which is one of the main principles of aikido. But every time one of those kind, gentle-hearted men grabbed my wrist to practice a hold, I went stiff as a board. They used to joke with me: “Loosen up! Relax!” and I’d respond — still tight and starting to grow inexplicably angry — “I am relaxed!”
Without my understanding it at the time, they were holding my wrists. Making me feel trapped. Like those boys who held me hostage through the fence that day.
What each of these examples illustrates is that repressed memories can ambush us. We have no control over where or when they’ll trigger. And we never know with what intensity they’ll surface. That’s the problem with trying to leave the past in the past. It doesn’t stay put. If you’re going to heal it, release it, be free of it, you have to drag it out into the light and deal with it. If you don’t, if you try to deny its impact on you, it could simply quietly prick at your attention as that nagging, vaguely disturbing distortion of the familiar — but it could also escalate into an emotionally violent freight train when the memory becomes too urgent to ignore.
Decades after being molested as a small child, and largely as the result of writing and rehearsing the poem, I’m looking anew at behaviors and feelings that have often perplexed me. Although I’d long ago dismissed the incident as something I was “over,” something requiring no attention, I’m beginning to wonder just how deeply and in what forms its effects are hidden.
I’ve been fortunate to work with some talented therapists over the years, who have guided me through talk therapy. Not long ago, a wonderful therapist led me through an EMDR session — Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which leverages physical eye movements similar to REM (or to the eye movements we unconsciously make when consciously trying to access a memory) to help me recall and re-process another, unrelated traumatic event from my childhood. I’ve also developed skills on my own, like meditation and yoga, to help me integrate what I learn about myself when I poke around in the shadows of my memory. Is the healing difficult? Yes. Painful? Sometimes, yes. But it’s the path to freedom, and I’m happy to walk it.
If I were going to leave you with anything, it would be this: There is help out there. Those of us who are haunted by some buried or half-remembered trauma can reclaim our power. With the help and guidance of a trained professional and support from the people we love, we can break the grip of what holds us hostage through the fences our minds erect. Approaches like EMDR can accelerate the recovery and processing of traumatic memories in a safe and controlled environment so we aren’t ambushed by horrifying responses to hidden emotional triggers. Through tools like meditation we can learn to accept our feelings, integrate the work we do in therapy, and make peace with the past instead of trying to stuff away in a closet from which it will surely escape: as outbursts, meltdowns, even physical disease.
We need to trust our bodies’ signals, overcome our fear and shame, and ask for the help and resources we need to heal ourselves of past hurts. Wounds never go away completely. We can’t un-know what we know. But we can close that gaping wound and let it scar over. And learn to live with the scars in a way that’s less frightening, less limiting, more joyful. It’s possible.
It’s not easy. It requires courage and determination. And it will take time. But I can tell you that, for me, freeing myself of the grip of the past has most definitely been worth the work.