By ROWAN RENE
The dream begins at my mother's funeral. I stand on the podium telling her secrets to a sea of faces.
“You never knew my mother. I could talk about the mother that you saw out in the world. She was a generous caretaker, a world traveller, the first to raise a wine glass to toast, a woman who at age fifty let her daughter drag her by bus across the rural mountain roads of Peru. She was a woman who kept in touch with her family, who kept a tidy home, who paid her bills on time. But, there was so much inside of her that she hid from the world. Underneath the trim veneer she carried incredible burdens and never asked for help. She lived in an era where it was shameful to speak of these things. I do not want her secrets to be buried with her. I want you to know my mother. ”
I go on. Each one of the secrets mars the surface of togetherness my mother built around her. I lived in her secret world. From the inside I saw that she was coming undone, unable to let anyone else into the suffering she refused to speak. In my dream I approach the podium. I find a crystalline shape in the fibers of my voice.They are not only her secrets.
Someone once told me that speaking about trauma helps redirect the synapses that connect these memories to pain. By speaking them it literally takes the edge off, as if rubbing the painful memories against healthy new memories has a kind of diluting effect. There must be some truth to this, because unlike my mother, I have spoken my story to the people around me since the day my mother sat me down on the couch and opened up the dictionary across our laps.
“Rowan, do you know the definition of lewd?”
I set these fragments of information into my chest. I was old enough to understand the words on the page, but, as if I had swallowed a penny, they would sit in me in an indigestible form. They became a kind of talisman I carried with me in case I ever forgot who I was and where I came from. They cut the tether that might have bound me to my own history, set me flying out into the universe. As a small new moon in the galaxy, I set to the process of aggregating mass, to building cohesion from the inchoate rubble whirling around me.
That's to say tradition, convention, authority were systems that, for me, did not come with any latent right to rule.
My mother grew from a childhood where she was beaten up every day, into an adulthood that was a revolving door of deeply abusive men. Throughout my childhood my mother told the story of how her brother beat her up at her mother's behest. Gus was taught to terrorize against his own will while he was still a child himself. His mother instructed him, standing by sadistically, watching as my mother's young head was beaten against bed posts until it bled.
If she ever threatened to tell, by calling the police or spilling the beans to the nuns at Catholic school, her mother would say “That would make your father very angry... and you know his temper. If he finds out he'll get so mad that he will kill your brother. And it will be all your fault.”
So my mothers lips were taught to stay shut. A survival skill she never unlearned.
Speaking often leads to others who have spoken. The years of learning to talk about my childhood were followed, perhaps more importantly, with years of learning to feel powerful in my silence. Silence that could be a choice exercised as a measure of discretion rather than a symbol of disempowerment. In those years I sought out, sometimes obsessively, the stories of others who have spoken. Anaïs Nin, who seduced her father at the age of 30, documenting it dutifully in both her infamous diaries and the novel based on them, House of Incest; Lidia Yuknavitch whose memoir of trauma, addiction and art struck such a chord that I feel like I have inhabited her body through her words; Maggie Nelson who flushes out with piercing clarity what it means to transform the cruelty we experience into art; Kathy Acker whose abuse is not spoken directly but her vivid descriptions of violence, sex, and incest leave a lot left to reasonable conjecture about what traumas she might have known.
Speaking as the end itself is not enough, however, as I discovered after years of sharing with the people close to me the story about my dad in prison, and the mom that acquiesced to his manipulative tyranny. The story may fall on kind ears, empathetic ears, ears that do everything they can to support and ease the pain. But, there is nothing like speaking of trauma to one who can look you in the eye and immediately, deeply understand. This connection is often wordless. It strikes to the core, breaking open the vault in which one's vulnerability is ensconced.
I looked up the group about a year before I actually went. Survivors of Incest Anonymous.When I walk into the meeting room, I am surrounded by middle-aged men. They overturn my most basic assumption about sexual abuse: that men are usually the perpetrators. I wonder where the women are. An unsettling thought arises. Is sexual abuse so integral to womanhood that women don't consider coming to a support group? I let this thought meander across my psyche. I sit in the circle of chairs studying the men around me, trying to pinpoint what about them makes me uncomfortable.
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A memory drifts towards me. My father brushing my hair. I sit on the floor in front of him while he strokes my hair slowly. A knot turns in my stomach. I repress the urge to get away. I recall the image of his wrinkled fingers holding the hairbrush. I see hints of my father in the men around me; in their greying hairs, the loose skin around their eyes, their fragile-looking hands. Can I share my secrets with them? A familiar feeling descends. Run. I continue sitting. Doing so means subduing one of my most basic survival instincts: that men are not safe. But, these men are different than most men I have known. They have been raped. By their mothers, by their teachers, by their uncles. That doesn't mean they're safe. I take a breath. I resist the urge to run. I look for the place inside of me that is ready, and willing to share.
Romance is the sphere where talking about my past is the most complicated. When do I tell? Before we fuck? How long should I wait? Once I told someone on the second date, while drifting to sleep after sex. Like I couldn't resist immediately making them run the gauntlet. I know it's intense, can you handle that? If not, you can leave now. The ones who stay past this vetting process are a different sort. Accepting. Too accepting. They say I seem so together. I'm so open about what happened. I've come so far and seem so healthy. I am frustrated by their acceptance. I want them to see deep inside of me, past the healthy surface, to the place where the trauma still runs hot. I want them to feel how deeply it has fucked me up. I want them to know how hard it is for me to trust them.
There is a place within me that I cannot share. It is the part of me that is my deepest self. It's the only place I know that is safe. I learned to open it sometime in my childhood, laying on the bathroom floor, my gaze fixed on the gap between the ceiling tiles and my teeth grit shut. It's like a rising up, outside of my body, a floating. It's not unlike what I've read from those who have survived near-death experiences, their consciousness hovering above their body looking down at the scene. Retreating into this place allows me to detach from my body, like pulling up a shroud of haze to soften the piercing sensations which overwhelm the flesh. It's hard to explain how or why this mechanism persists after the danger has long passed. Or how it turns up to protect from dangers that are not physical. I retreat into this secret place when my body is close to those I love, entwined in them. I feel its protective membrane breach when I utter the words “I love you.” No matter how deeply and truly felt, saying those words out-loud has struck a fear into my heart unlike anything else I've known.
Psychoanalysts say that things that aren't dealt with in the conscious mind come out in dreams. First there were the night terrors where I woke up in dripping sweat, adrenaline pumping, wondering if my mother were dead or alive. Then there was the dream were I gave my mother's eulogy. To this day it is the only dream that I awoke from sobbing, my body quaking with years of feelings that I had pushed back into the unconscious. The meaning of the dream is clear. It's urging me to speak. As much as I have been told frankly of my father's disturbing pathology, as much as I have experienced first-hand his conviction and death in prison, my mother always dealt with it with a perfunctory quality that evaded ever speaking of it in relationship to me. Events had occurred, but always to a diffuse other, outside of our family. We never spoke to each other about what happened to us.
Once, in the car coming back from a prison visit before he died she looked at me and said gravely,
“If you ever remember anything your father did to you, don't tell me about it. Go to a therapist.”
Her words had a way of casting uncertainty on what I remembered. I wondered, did something happen that she wasn't telling me? How was it that my memories were not also hers? Didn't she remember?
I am consistently surprised by the variety and efficacy of the tools built into the human psyche to displace memories of trauma. My mother's preferred tool was fantasy. In it she could cling to the hope that I had miraculously escaped my father. Knowing this left me embedded in a peculiar sort of silence, a conditional silence, a silence that existed to protect my mother from a burden she would not carry. I was strong and outspoken to my friends and in my art. But, I could not look my mother in the eye and tell her that I did, in fact, remember very clearly what my father did to me.
I became so preoccupied with the need to tell her that it eclipsed all other conversations --the weather, my work, her plans in New York-- until the words just spilled out. There was an ease to the conversation. It was real. It was the most real I had been with my mother in a long time.
I left that day with another layer in our story. It brought to light what I know to be true of families with abusive history, but I did not see how the thread ran so deep in my own. So deep that it's hard to imagine that it could be limited to a single family; that is was not something so pervasive that it afflicted entire cultures, epochs. It raised a pang of horror within me that the cycle of abuse may just be another feature of human civilization, like breathing and fucking.
My grandmother's story.
She was the middle of three daughters. She married in her thirties, a spinster for a woman at the end of the second world war. The other two sisters married at age fifteen. They were motivated, perhaps, by a hope that marriage would be the way out of a bad home. It was a gamble that their husband would be less horrible than their father. My grandmother stayed at home for another two decades, dutifully working as caretaker to the father who molested her and beat her up.
What does a woman do with this legacy? Is abuse the legacy of all women? Does living this story make me a woman? It's a definition of woman I am reluctant to accept. Yet, I know it has defined my experience within my body. Do I stand tall and carry it onward? Or cast it off, smash it to pieces, hurl it into the depths of the ocean, burn it and scatter its ashes to nourish the seeds of the next era? We are very lucky to live in this time. I am not the first to speak. There are women who have come before me. Their revolutionary words have left a liminal space in their wake. It is a space not yet seen, not yet defined, not yet lived. We have dug up our foundations and set ourselves adrift. We grasp for steadiness and find possibility. I do not know where we are going, but I know the destination is not yet formed. This time seems so new, and so precariously fragile. It is worth fighting for, this freedom to speak, and to imagine the world we have not yet seen.
In 1985, the year I was born, a woman was pushed out a window to her death at 300 Mercer St. in New York City. Her name was Ana Mendieta. She was an artist, married to the successful sculptor Carl Andre. Her career was starting to take off, his was stagnating. She came to him one night with the evidence she had collected of an affair. She wanted out, to divorce. That night her body is found 34 floors below. Andre is first charged, and then acquitted, of her murder. His career soars: a retrospective at the Dia Museum, work in the permanent collections of the Guggenheim, the Whitney and the Tate. Mendieta's career falls into obscurity, a rising artist who had a chance to make it.
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Mendieta's story has stuck with me in part because she is an artist who lived and died in a city where I too am fighting to be heard, where my vision is hungry to see what's around the next curve. I see parts of me in her boldness and her disobedience. Her fate marks the path where other women have walked, and where they have fallen. The woman who speaks out is often punished; since Eve the story has not tired of rewriting itself. It solidifies in practice a man's position of privilege to shape, sculpt, transform a woman's body brutally. When Andre speaks about sculpture he says, Wood is the mother of matter. Like all women hacked and ravaged by men, she renews herself by giving, gives herself by renewing. Mendieta's body would not renew after being shaped by the concrete it impacted from 34 stories above.
Always already implicated in each other, always already exceeding one another, language and materiality are never fully identical or fully different. -Judith Butler
In the words of others I look for ways to understand the violence we inflict upon on another, and the fear that keeps us silent. Mendieta's fatal argument with Andre began with an accusation of adultery, and ended with her death. My grandmother stood at the edge of the bedroom and instructed my child-uncle, word for word, in how to grip his sister's hair, how to push her head wherever she told him to. Language, like Butler suggests, is not isolated from our material world. The two overlap each other; it becomes messy. The dialectic that separates thought and action, abstract and material, imagined and real, may ring true in philosophy. But, in daily life, it seems like the precision of academic distinctions gets tossed into the blender. Even so, the desire for clarity urges me to pinpoint the exact place where words become dangerous. Is it in the context? In the intentions of the person speaking them? Or are there some words that carry the whole sum of their history, like when I say father?
Are words ever just words?
When my father left prison it was in a coffin. It was no dream, his funeral. There are parts of the scene that unfold like a film. My mother's arms interlocked with mine as we walk down the aisle to the open coffin. The recognition of his familiar face overcome with stillness, the too-dark tone of the make-up resurfacing it, the tautness of the lips that the coroner fixed together in a serene arc. Then there are the parts that I hear in song, as if his story has already become a myth of the American Dream. Then the warden walked by and said son don't try I'd hate to see you fall cause there is no doubt they'll carry you out if you ever touch that wall.
It was my job to download the music my dad requested for the funeral. There were three songs that would play during the service. The third was the Motown classic: The Great Pretender. I fought with my mother over it. She thought it was inappropriate. I argued: it was what he wanted. Inside what I really thought was: choosing this song was the smallest gesture of my father coming clean. What he could not admit during his life he told, obliquely, in these words: Oh-oh, yes I'm the Great Pretender. Adrift in a world of my own. I've played the game but to my real shame you've left me to grieve all alone. Too real is this feeling of make-believe. Too real when I feel what my heart can't conceal. Oh-oh, yes I'm the Great Pretender. Just laughin' and gay like a clown. I seem to be what I'm not, you see...
One count: lewd and lascivious battery of a 13 year old boy. Conviction: 15 years without parole.
One count: lewd and lascivious molestation, charges dropped.
One count: lewd and lascivious exhibition, charges dropped.
My father was 78 years old. His bail was set at $150,000. He broke bail because he couldn't resist going back to the Wal-Mart parking lot where he picked up the boy. In one gesture he blew all of his life savings and was immediately thrown into jail to await trial.
My mother separated from my father in 1987. I was two years old. She caught him doing something she couldn't describe to an 11 year old boy in our barn. She threw him out immediately. She still doesn't know what happened to the boy-- she was too enraged, afraid, shocked, or something else to call the cops. She talked to her lawyer. He sent her to therapy. A wife can't testify against a husband. So, the psychiatrist turned him in. My father went to therapy. He was miraculously cured. He had a letter signed by the shrink that said so. He was so charming. He was so romantic. He sweet talked my mom. Within a year they were back together.
What I remember is laying on the bathroom floor. I might be four, or five, or six years old. It was always in the bathroom. I remember the feeling of the shag carpet across my back. I stare at the ceiling. It's breathing. I tell my pain to go there, outside of me, so I can watch it writhe from a distance. I don't remember anything but the ceiling and the pain. Who is down there making my vagina burn the way a storm cloud cracks with thunder? In my memory I can't see his face. I'm told that I need to be washed with soap. No! I hate the soap, I don't want to be washed. It doesn't matter, the soap comes anyway and burns away down there. I am washed and I stare at the ceiling and grit my teeth and tell myself to get as far away as I can, to get outside of my body. For many years after I never put soap anywhere near my labia, I was so certain that it would scald my flesh. Then one day the ceiling of memory collapsed inward: the soap was a lie. That's what you tell a little girl so she doesn't tattle.
I'm at my father's funeral. My hands are outstretched. Two lieutenants have just played taps. I am mesmerized by their perfect white gloves. They are lowering an American Flag, precisely folded into a triangle, into my hands. It's the flag that was laid over my father's coffin. They nod at me, honoring my father, offering words of sympathy. I stare at them blankly. My face becomes wet and fills with a rosy heat. A part of me acknowledges the convenience of my tears, how they could be mistaken for grief. I feel my arms drop into my lap as they receive the flag. In every thread I feel the weight of a desperate rage.
It whispers, burn the flag.
The whispering becomes cacophonous. Aren't you tired of pretending to be a good daughter, you really just hate him.
It begins to scream.
You don't have to sit here silently, you can scream too.
I feel the rage rise up and I scream, a smashing rage, a blinding eclipse gaining speed down a steep mountain face. In that rage I smash the world of pretending to love my father, I smash the world of lies and silence, I smash them all and everything else in sight. And when there is nothing more to smash I find a torch and begin to burn it all. I burn my house and my mother and my father and our whole little family, myself too, I burn everything inside myself, burn every last thread and ash and bit of char and send it out to sea. And then when I look down and see my ashen body still standing, I begin to run. I run and run until I lose my breath, until my legs are swollen and I can go no further and then I rage at myself you can't stop here you'll die, and drag myself upward and keep running harder and harder until I get to New York City to start a new life, where I scream and scream and no one listens or cares there are so many people that no one will care if I just run into oncoming traffic and smash myself to bits.
Those fucking white gloves.
Everything so nice, so dignified. As if it wasn't just a performance, the military funeral, the flowers, the tears. I sat in the seat of dutiful daughter, wearing the sweet empty face of obedient love, the girl who got fucked by her father and shut up and took it like a good girl. Is this story not yet tired of rewriting itself? Obedient daughters and wives. Women taught that to speak out means to be shunned, brutalized or killed. Women taught to hate their bodies as much as the people who ravage them. Women who are thrown out of windows, like Ana Mendieta. Women who are abused and pass on their torment, like my grandmother. Women who are abused and think they deserve it, like my mother. Women who are abused and set out to find what lays beyond it, like me.
There I am with my hands outstretched. I look down at the flag, acknowledging its physicality, its coarseness and alternating stripes. I grasp at a subtle feeling, floating just beyond what I am able to speak. Relief? He's dead and I am free.
If you were there you might have mistaken me for a good girl, silently accepting the flag that is being passed on to me.
Rowan René is an artist living in Brooklyn whose work in photography, sculpture and installation deals with intimacy as a tool for reshaping codified systems of power and oppression. This is their first published writing piece. Both image and writing were produced with support of the VAR Program Residency.