Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems.


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Esther Be Gather, Indianapolis – Part 2: The Talk

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.

Epiphany.

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.


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Esther Be Gather, Indianapolis – Part 1: The Poem

“I will tell you something about stories,

[he said]

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)”

It begins

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,

gained momentum

 

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,

deflect 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.

You implode

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

because

no 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

your friends

your coworkers?

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 peace

the acceptance

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.

and cries.