Facing Abuse

Exploring the effects of abuse and the tools that heal them.

Sunday Salon: The Memory Bird

April26


The Sunday Salon

The Memory Bird:
Survivors of Sexual Abuse
Edited by Caroline Malone, Linda Farthing, & Lorraine Marce
Temple University Press, 1997

Like Dangerous Families, The Memory Bird is an amazing anthology of writing by abuse survivors, free from intervention or direction by psychological “experts.”

Its rareness (at least to me) comes not only in presenting the voices of sexual abuse survivors, but in the particular community involved: survivors of all sorts from New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

The authors range from utterly unknown to nearly famous activists, pouring their hearts out sometimes for the first time; and the anthology’s editors are no slackers themselves.

Who Are These People?

Caroline Malone is an artist and an activist for survivors’ rights and needs. She is involved with – in fact, she’s the founder of – a successful self-help network for sexual abuse survivors which began in 1989.

Lorraine Marce educates people on the psychological effects of sexual abuse and the rights of children, via workshops, lectures, and political lobbying.

Linda Farthing is a therapist with seventeen years of experience in working with sexual abuse survivors of all ages, and manages her own family therapy center.

With such a political group, it may be no surprise that this book stands out in one other important way: its political awareness. The art, stories, letters, poems, and essays within its covers run the emotional gamut, but unlike many books about abuse, this one has a special place in its heart for rage.

Shouting Out, Not Speaking Out

The Memory Bird is divided into different sections with names like “Claiming the Right to Feel Pain” and “Learning To Dance.” Each section illustrates vividly the struggle to break the rule of silence and shame and speak out, as well as the beauty and strength of each person’s recovery. But my favorite section by far was the last: “You Want a Witness?”

They end the book with a bang. One review of the book remarks that this section is about recovered memories and “helpful comments on false memory syndrome.” This is what we call exceedingly subtle sarcasm.

This section is beautiful. The whole book is beautiful, in the particular way that truth is beauty and people sharing their truth is beautiful and the feelings and the strength and…. But you know, in this last section there is some TRUTH. Ass-stomping, how-dare-you, get-your-fucking-ass- out-here-motherfucker kind of truth, in which everyone who ever said “You know, that incest happened a long time ago, you need to just forget it and get on with your life,” or “Well, you know, kids can really be very flirtatious, and….” or “Well, at least you’re experienced,” is utterly called on their shit.

It’s a wonderful little book, full of good writing and especially of people being very open about a subject which has for so long been hermetically sealed. I think in many ways the angry parts make it easier to read, because anger is easier on many people than grief. This is the sort of book which inspires plenty of emotion.

Little House, Big Vision (Sunday Salon)

April19

Cover of Little House in the Big WoodsThe Sunday Salon Missouri Ruralist

I have always loved the Little House books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read them many times as a child; I especially loved Little House in the Big Woods, with its holiday stories of peppermint stick candy and rag dolls and dresses with buttons that look just like fat juicy blackberries. And the pig’s bladder balloon! And the stories-within-a-story of Pa’s childhood, a trillion years ago. That must be the one, too, where they make maple sugar candy in the snow, because the dress is at the sugaring party at their relatives’ house through the woods. There’s a lot of great food in that story.

And I LOVE reading @HalfPintIngalls on twitter. (The “@” is just how usernames show up on Twitter.) It’s someone’s hilarious rendition of what it would be like if Laura Ingalls Wilder, as she is portrayed in those books, were Twittering. She has the slightly sarcastic bite of teenage Laura, a good dose of historical parody, and a lot of just plain funny. “Pa says if the blizzards keep up there’s going to be a ‘donner party.’ Whatever that is, it’s high time we had some FUN around here. Hurrah!”

So today while I was catching up on some of HalfPint’s twitter posts, I ended up at the Wikipedia article on Wilder and found that, although her daughter Rose Wilder Lane helped write the Little House books, Laura did quite a bit of writing on her own – in large part as a columnist for The Missouri Ruralist (which still exists!), writing a regular column called “As a Farm Woman Thinks.”

(She wrote it as “Mrs. A. J. Wilder,” which confused me until I remembered the olden days less than a century ago, when otherwise perfectly normal sane women took not only their husbands’ last names but their WHOLE ENTIRE NAMES as their married names. So you’d call someone Jane because you knew her, but when you invited her to your formal dinner party it would be “Mrs. Albert E. Hannigan.” I used to work for my college’s alumnae association – it was a women’s college, so we got to spell it like that, even though technically that leaves out the boy graduate students and the trannyboy alums of all kinds – and even in 1999, we’d still frequently have to address thank-you notes that way. It was just What Was Done, for so many women; Tradition, disconnected from any sort of rights or oppression. But that’s another story….)

I googled her writing, of course. And I found one of her columns so far, which I thought was so excellently suited to the subject matter at hand, and tied so well in with the last entry here, that I would like to share it with you in its (short) entirety. It is, in part, about the way in which we judge others is really a reflection of where we are. Which is very recovery.

In 12-step programs, the fourth step in large part involves exploring our resentments and fears, and what part we play in them; in doing that work, I’ve repeatedly found that my resentment of others is just me projecting my self-judgment onto them. Like, if I internalized the idea, growing up, that I shouldn’t take up space, it just plain riles me up when other people barge around the supermarket aisle with their enormous carts, taking up not only their own space but the little space I thought I was allowed. Of course, that’s not what I think is going on at the time – I just think “how rude! That person is in my way! I hate them! I hate this store! Damn yuppies! Taking up all the space! Why don’t you leave your cart in one place and walk to find things like I do! I am in a hurry! Get out of my way!” And in reality, they’re probably just doing the best they can to navigate the store – maybe it didn’t occur to them that they could leave the cart off to the side, or maybe they have a good reason not to right then. But when I look at them through the lenses of my own abuse history, all I see is red.

But what struck me more about this article, the first time I read it, was the way that our vision of the world around is different when we are “blue” than when we are happy, even though we are looking at the same situations, people, and objects. It is so easy to focus on just the negative, and find it everywhere – in fact, it is so easy to choose to focus on the positive too, but when we are stuck on the negative it’s very hard to see that. And our negative thinking argues, “If it’s easy to find the negative everywhere, why would I look at the positive? That’s just self-delusion! The bad stuff is just as prevalent as the good, and if I focus on it, I will know where to find it and how to avoid it!” Sounds perfectly logical, but in fact it is madness, because it’s not a matter of knowing both of them are there, equally: framing the world as a series of pitfalls and crises poisons our lives and obscures all of the good stuff. What we focus on grows: whether it’s the good or the bad, what we see and think about spreads out like ink on wet paper, slowly eliding anything else from our experience.

But you don’t have to take my word for it; here is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s own insights on the matter, with enormous thanks to DakotaGirl for finding and sharing it. I hope she shares more. And if you are at all interested in these books or that historical time, I think you too will love her blog. She has some amazing stuff on there – but I guess that is obvious, since she seems to be the only one on the web with copies of this writing!

As a Farm Woman Thinks
BY MRS. A. J. WILDER
February 1, 1922

A WONDERFUL way has been invented to transform a scene on the stage, completely changing the apparent surroundings of the actors and their costumes without moving an article. The change is made in an instant. By an arrangement of light and colors the scenes are so painted that with a red light thrown upon them, certain parts come into view while other parts remain invisible. By changing a switch and throwing a blue light upon the scene, what has been visible disappears and things, unseen before appear, completely changing the appearance of the stage.

This late achievement of science is a good illustration of a fact we all know but so easily forget or overlook-that things and persons appear to us according to “the light we throw upon them” from our own minds.

When we are down-hearted and discouraged, we speak of looking at the world thru blue glasses; nothing looks the same to us; our family and friends do not appear the same; our home and work show in the darkest colors. But when we are happy, we see things in a brighter light and everything is transformed.

How unconsciously we judge others by the light that is within our­selves, condemning or approving them by our own conception of right and wrong, honor and dishonor! We show by our judgment just what the light within us is.

What we see is always affected by the light in which we look at it so that no two persons see people and things alike. What we see and how we see depends upon the nature of our light.

A quotation, the origin of which I have forgotten, lingers in my mind: “You cannot believe in honor until you have achieved it. Better keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window thru which you must see the world.”

An attitude of gratitude?

April19

Gratitude is a huge tool in 12-step programs. People often make gratitude lists, or find other ways to have “an attitude of gratitude” – to focus on what is positive and the ways in which they are showered with support, rather than giving in to the urge to grouch around and make everything negative.

I used to see that as a burden. Like, OHHH, you should be GRATEFUL for what you have. Like SUCK IT UP! There will always be someone worse off than you, so you can’t be justifiably upset about anything! You have to make like you are happy about it all! Or like a threat: be grateful or I’ll give you something to really be unhappy about!

Eventually I let go of my resentments around it and learned to use it as a tool, to practice thinking about all the great stuff in my life or the overlooked silver lining in whatever is pissing me off. Like people say, what we put our focus on grows. Our minds work like microscopes, zooming in on great or horrible details until they fill our entire field of vision and seem like the whole universe.

But it’s only recently that I figured out that gratitude equals joy. Being grateful about things just means ENJOYING them.

I like this much better. It suggests that “having an attitude of gratitude” means I get to ENJOY my life. That I can go around just looking for things to enjoy about what I am doing. The sun, the wind, walking outside, seeing someone I like, being at work, not being at work, having a cool idea to think about, eating some chocolate, whatever. There’s a lot to enjoy in my life. And that means I get to use this idea to work on being present in my life, which is a lot easier than trying to, separately, be present AND every so often list things I am grateful for. It means integrating joy into my every day – and not just that, but that I am SUPPOSED to have a joyful time here. That this is a reasonable, laudable goal.

So rather than trying to stop and mentally list things that I can be thankful for, I get to enjoy my life on an everyday basis. Like the keychain I got that says, “Don’t postpone joy.”

And it’s a good reminder: if I’m not enjoying something, why am I doing it? Sometimes there’s a good reason: I don’t enjoy filling out my timesheet, but I will certainly enjoy the money that follows as a direct result. Sometimes I can find something to enjoy in those necessary things, too: I can make it a little challenge to fill it out correctly, like a puzzle. (I have a really hard time getting the timesheet all the way right!)

Sometimes it’s ridiculous: I’m not enjoying myself because I am spinning my wheels, looking for jobs way past my bedtime and cranky because I am tired; hanging out with people I would normally enjoy but secretly just stressing about when we are going to stop and eat because I am hungry and I don’t know what to do about getting some food where we are; reading a book because I really wanted to earlier and I think that must mean I still want to, instead of checking in with my feelings to see what I actually want to be doing now. In other words, neglecting my needs – a classic survivor pitfall. Stopping to notice this stuff helps me shape my life, carving away behaviors and experiences that don’t work for me and choose the ones that are fun and fulfilling.

What are you enjoying right now? How much more do you enjoy it when you take a moment to consciously notice that joy?

Dangerous Families

April17

Dangerous Families cover


Dangerous Families

Queer Writing on Surviving

Edited by Mattilda a.k.a. Matt Bernstein-Sycamore

[an imprint of the Haworth Press|Harrington Park Press], [2004]

Dangerous Families is a ground-breaking book: an anthology of writings by queer survivors of childhood abuse.

People have only been speaking out publicly in great numbers about abuse for a few decades, and been allowed mainstream visibility to talk about this for even less time, perhaps twenty years.

For much of that time, the discussion was moderated by therapists analyzing people’s experiences, as in The Flock or The Minds of Billy Milligan, or as currently happens on talk shows like the loathsome Sally Jessy Raphael. In fact, old-timers in our local Survivors of Incest Anonymous meetings talk about an era when meetings fell apart partly because therapists would come just to goggle at the survivors who were, inexplicably, getting healing without their help. (“You… talk to other abuse survivors? But… everyone knows that’s bad for you! You’re just going to get re-traumatized! There should be a therapist guiding the discussion at least!”)

Queerness is usually erased from the discussion, too, except for the unfortunate and now-rare occasions in which a mental health professional of some kind is attempting to “blame” queerness on abuse. Because, you see, they’re both so rare. And sexual. (Never, oddly, because they’re both so common.) And as a result of this, for some people it became forbidden to talk about being queer and being raped, for fear of reinforcing that farcical link and helping reduce a community to some Freudian wet dream.

Furthermore, most if not all writing about abuse is partitioned off: it is just about child sexual abuse, or specifically about domestic violence, or focusing on spanking. There is a sense that we must deal with our problems one at a time, a societal tendency to “divide and conquer” – a tactic which never serves anyone but the abusers, regardless of the milieu in which it is being used.

And maybe most importantly, the little speaking and writing about abuse allowed is usually limited to white women – or really, to straight, able-bodied, affluent white women. The effects of abuse and the silence around it pose two more barriers to communities which already have many hurdles between them and writing and publishing and the visual media. On top of that, there is a perception that abuse is already weird enough – we don’t need to alienate people more by talking about male survivors, survivors of color, queer survivors, Deaf survivors, working-class transgendered Latina ritual abuse survivors… mainstream culture, in the United States at least, reduces these different communities to the punch lines of anti-P.C. jokes.

Dangerous Families breaks all of those unspoken rules.

And a good thing, too. It is difficult to effectively break the rule of silence surrounding all abuse while sticking to all the other rules that keep us in line.

Dangerous Families is an amazing collection of essays for more reasons than those. Those are all the political reasons to read it; the personal are just as compelling.

It is a book full of stories in which the authors tell nothing but the truth, bold and clear and direct, the truth as it is right this minute. Some of the authors’ stories have arced up and down all the way into safety and healing; others are caught in the middle of figuring it all out, in chaos, or on some other bump or valley in the journey. In that way it offers both recognition and hope to its readers.

So whenever that magic moment came when I needed to slide over on the couch or run my hand down her ass, I felt like I was becoming her perp. It shocked the shit out of me when I started having friends who touched one another casually. It shocked me when I popped my cherry a second time, casually sleeping with a not-friend. “Fuck, this is weird,” I remember thinking, “he’s not leaving his body.” And neither was I.

– leah lakshmi piepzna-samarasinha, “gonna get my girl body back”

In the introduction, the editor observes all that is left out of writing on childhood abuse and talks about how it we need “literature that focuses on something more than the time line of events, the feelings involved, and the process of recovery.”

There is another book, called The Memory Bird, which collects personal writings about abuse. It focuses specifically on sexual abuse, but it is similar to this in many ways, as a collection solely of people’s thoughts and experiences instead of a prescription for life. I remember, when I first read it, how intensely struck I was by seeing my experiences and opinions echoed in the words of a few other survivors halfway around the world. It was amazing.

Dangerous Families serves a similar purpose with a wider scope. It can be difficult to read, particularly with its wider range of abuses: the more abuse is involved, the more readers are likely to see themselves reflected therein. There will be people who never thought of what happened to them as abuse before, and people who thought they had “dealt with it,” who find that something in them is opened up by reading this book. For those who are willing to see that part of themselves, this anthology can bring amazing fellowship and revelations about life.

The editor goes on to comment that,

“I always conceived of Dangerous Families as an anthology of non-fiction stories that goes beyond the recovery narrative to create a new queer literature of investigation, exploration, and transformation…. These stories… go right to the horror, the beauty, and the joy, often throwing the reader off guard, revealing layers of meaning before the reader can step back. As survivors, we become hyperaware; our vigilance enables us to dissect everything.”

This anthology has definitely achieved its goal. Each piece packs in powerful layers of experience and imagery, asking for multiple readings. As a whole, the layers of pieces and experiences and identities add up to something densely packed, multi-dimensional, world-changing, and amazing.

Eli Clare‘s work, always lush and powerful in this way, goes even farther in this anthology, and serves as a good example of how much is contained within:

What I have to tell makes language a club, a bludgeon, sticks and stones wielded against advancing tanks and trucks. Yes, a weapon. Not even a tool, much less the snow tracings of the last wet storm before spring, bending the boxwood, elderberry, scrubby pine almost double. A story, yet another story.

Last night at the theater Jeffrey Dahmer’s voice came alive in one brilliant monologue – that black gay performance artist, cross-gendered and beautiful, leading us from hair salon to drum to Jeffrey’s seductive murder of black boys. I fled the building, bolting from the memory of blood. Dahmer the lone crazy man taking his full.

Let me tell you, my father was Jeffrey Dahmer. Jeffrey lived in my hometown over and over again. Too many people to count. We drank blood, decorated our bodies with blood, shaped symbols in blood. Human blood, animal blood. Sometimes I wake up in the deep of night, that taste still on my lips.

This book is incredible and important: important for survivors to read to see they are not alone, important for survivors of any kind of abuse to see the commonalities between abuse of all kinds, important for (those extremely few) people who have never been abused in any way to read to understand their friends and loved ones and the world in which we live. Read it piece by piece, slowly, read it in giant gulping banquets, read it alone, read it with support, but definitely, as soon as you can. Read it.

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