My burial began the day that I was kidnapped.
I was two then. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and categorically adorable. If my parents were the home-owning sort, maybe I’d be news. As it was, I had a schizophrenic father in jail on a dine-and-dash turned assault-on-a-cop. I lived in a foster home. My drug-addicted mother took me and disappeared, along with a six-month-old baby. There may have been money involved. Police found her well and alone, with nothing to say about any missing children. While I was gone I traveled hours up a highway. Strangers waited, in a place full of trees, and then screams.
I turned up alive on a relative’s doorstep. Doctors stitched me up and The System took me back. I stayed in the foster home that lost me for a few more years, until I was adopted.
My new parents were home-owners, good and normal. They sent me to Catholic school and filled the living room with shining gifts at Christmas. We didn’t talk about the things I’d seen. They told me every night, voices singsong with repetition, there was nothing to be afraid of.
At six and eight and twelve years old, I learned to keep a mask on. There were triggers in many ordinary things. I knew a darkness lurked behind each good and normal, idle time. It spoke with a griminess that clung to everything like gum. And in a certainty that struck me, once in a while, like a physical blow – that there is no meaning, no escape, and no end to our existence.
I held it in, like all my obscene memories. Nobody asked to know, so nobody learned. I started writing before I could properly read – my poetry and homemade fairy-tales wrapping up the secrets at my core. At the bottom of my every story, untold, there was a dollhouse in a foster home where I hid a plastic teacup. I took it to the bathroom to gorge on toilet water when no one gave me anything to drink.
There were red nostril hairs quivering with rage overhead. There was getting hit, just for fun – the salty, sharp smell of a crack to the nose. Thrashing in a brimming bathtub, my breath left inches above me. A toothbrush that scrubbed the skin off my gums before every trip to the dentist. The closet, the car trunk, the pillow where my face pressed in, erasing my voice and my air. I spoke of a monster that came at night, and remembered the smirk, cold and hating, on a teenaged foster brother. There was growth-stunting hunger and lead in my blood. There was crying, and trying to run. There were broken-windowed warehouses that littered nasty dreams. One day I watched the father who made me blowing on his hands in the cold – calling my name, and goodbye. We used to have visits at Child Services. My hand stayed on the window while the car I was in rolled away.
There was a girl, through all of this, who wasn’t like everyone else. When they took her to the park, she ran for the road – the one that made her family disappear. She changed the baby’s diapers but she peed her pants on purpose. She was proud she’d found a way to make the foster mother angry. She laughed out loud when they told her to use the word, “mama.”
Nobody loved her but me. I smuggled her into my nice new house in pieces of memory. I didn’t mind that she was messy. I wouldn’t let her die. She peeked through every mask I wore, pissing people off. Coming on to everything too strong. She did not need your help and she didn’t want to play. She’d rather pick trash off the playground than waste any time with no cause. She would smile every time she found out she was hated. Being liked tells you nothing. People being mean don’t hide who they are.
I had no word like survivor growing up. It’s hard medicine, kept out of children’s hands. It’s regulated, moderated, carefully consumed. It took me years to track that label down. In the meantime, I was crazy. I was stupid. I was weird.
The land called normal shimmered around me, bordered by the flowers in my garden, the architecture of my clean white house, the laundered clothes I wore. Privileges like cloying honeypots tried to make me ignore the feelings of weakness creeping in. I told myself not to be fooled.
At night I kept vigil, tearful and sweaty, inside a blanket cocoon. There were things with no names and no witnesses more real to me than anything seen in the day. I had nightmares of apocalypse and took it for a prophesy. It made sense that one day food would shrivel up, the sky would burn, we’d all stomp off to war. Nothing made sense about the years passing.
But there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Empty words can take up so much space. I mulled over library shelves and shelves devoted to Sigmund Freud. Psychology’s founder announced that child-molestation is the root cause of hysteria. He took it back when people got mad. Now his books claim that those kids weren’t lying about the rape, but they did kind of make it all up. Venerated doctors ever after have preached that some kids who weren’t molested wish that they were, and daydream about it so hard they want to kill themselves.
In story after airbrushed story, we tell each other monsters live in only other worlds. Hollywood villains launch their subtle rape-threats at leading ladies; I notice every time, and wait, with baited breath, to see if they’ll follow through. They don’t. In movie universes, heroism and sexual violence cannot co-exist. The perfect girl, be she heroine or hero’s prize, mustn’t be sullied that way.
There are rare exceptions. Red Eye and American History X feature survivors – real, and weak, and striving. Drops in an ocean of damsels kept pure, and forcefully-courted dames who are stupidly never traumatized. Men don’t get raped, unless it’s for a joke. Survivors on screen turn out to be liars so often it’s not even good for a plot twist. Lying she’s are the kind of monsters good folk have no trouble believing in.
When there is a rape on screen – official, exposed, and true-beyond doubt – the victim usually dies. Otherwise it’s like in Gran Torino, where a badass Sue will stumble home with bloody thighs, and you can’t hear her voice for the rest of the film, and she doesn’t get a medal or a car, and they say no one’s going to jail since there was no witness to what she suffered through.
It’s all adding up to the message: Survivors Don’t Exist.
In the news, we hear of ‘alleged attacks,’ and ‘claims’ of assault. Examinations will be made and any muddled details trumpeted as proof that we’re not real. In private messages with friends, and flaming-angry public tweets, you’ll see the likes of Trump and Cosby called out as ‘accused’ and ‘probable’ brutalizers. Disclaimers bracket every voice of protest. Knee-jerk, and self-imposed. Google a rape conviction: dollars to donuts you won’t find a rapist, but someone or other ‘found guilty of rape.’
Doubt is our burden, like nobody else’s. Believe in one of us with no reservation, and it’s only a matter of time before they start calling you stupid and crazy and weird.
This can’t all be concern for the apocryphal Wrongly Accused. Six attacks in a thousand are remembered by a day in jail. Popular legend lies when it tells us that rape is never forgiven. Senators are bluffing when they say sexual assault admitted on tape is a Very Big Deal. People vote for who they want. People hire who they require. People love who they spend every day with. No one’s coming to lock up all the rapists and throw away the keys; there are too fucking many. They are normal, they are human. We need them in our lives.
But I am a mythical creature. My story is legend. I don’t exist. The rule for good and normal people seems to be: Bury the Survivors. Before you start to believe in them. Before you have to know the world of good and normal things can break.
I swallowed all my memories politely growing up, until they became an invisible background. Never recognized, yet intimately part of me. Then in high school, I had an epiphany of a suspicion, and started making lists. I tallied up the nightmares, the feelings, the faces people made when they looked at me. The deep dark, pressing sense of secret at my core. The lack of virgin pain or blood, the broken memories. Willing myself to breach some indestructible conclusion. I never felt more crazy than the days when I was almost, almost sure. I wanted to speak about my troubles, but dared not risk that kind of lie.
I was more alone than I knew how to explain. Looking for my people, without being consciously aware of it, I developed a pretty reliable rapedar. I recognize triggers in other people, and how they try to hide. There might be a torrent of words too loud and too reckless around a brutal subject – assault, or puberty, or things that bodies do in secret. A wide-eyed, looking-down moment at the mention of Boys Don’t Cry. A fury or a fear around some ordinary thing, or a chronic inability to be like other people. Social dynamics being what they are, the people who have suffered most will usually suffer more. Bullying can be kneejerk, or it can be wickedly shrewd. I’m not the only one who knows what triggers look like.
Once, to commemorate a fallen officer, a delegation of police families from my city traveled to Washington. My family was one of them. We paid a visit to the Smithsonian while we were there. At twelve years old, I was terrified of the two little buds of breasts poking through my tank-top. I slid my tray along the counter in the museum cafeteria, right beside my looming cop of a Dad. Beside me on the other side was a stranger, who introduced himself by pulling down my shirt.
If my father had seen, I’d have to die of humiliation. But his head was turned the other way. I stared at him a few slow seconds, reassuring myself that he didn’t know, before turning back to the stranger. I still remember his smile, and the way he watched my face. He knew.
I didn’t know it about myself, yet, but he did. He knew what I was afraid of. He knew what made me tick. He’d seen how deep my shame was, and that I’d never tell.
“I was going to get the pizza, but you moved,” he said loudly and comfortably. “This was your fault.”
There was a lady standing on the other side of the food-counter. She said something that made him walk away. I felt her eyes on me as I staggered down the line, blindly piling chip bags on my tray. My mom noticed and told me not to eat so much. My dad told her it was fine.
One day when I was all grown up, and had learned the stark facts of my past from a former foster sister I found again through Facebook, my mother let it slip that my parents knew about the worst of my pre-adoption abuse. They had always known, in fact. The baby who was with me had required surgery. It was a fleeting comment, and no conversation followed. The parameters of our relationship had long been cast in stone. I kept my feelings to myself, lest she call me crazy and stupid and weird.
My parents, good and normal, were the first to bury me.
When we’re buried – disbelieved, hushed, ignored – it means we have no allies. Not our Dad standing next to us in line or a cafeteria full of cops all prejudiced in our favor. Maybe a lady on the other side of a counter. No one who can stop us from getting picked out in a crowd and brutalized under their noses.
I learned in time about myself, that this deep secret of mine was like an uncovered manhole. It was a trap that would suck me in if I ever forgot it was there. Anyone who spoke of it could own me, like by true name magic. Several fraught relationships began exactly in this way.
A young man I met in college learned of my secret after asking me the meaning of a poem I’d written. He seemed to enjoy discussing my past. He used the word rape with languid relish, brazenly retelling me my guesses. I listened without breathing to my heart’s slow explosions, and followed him like a puppy up and down a starlit road. A year after we’d stopped speaking, he sent me a poem on Facebook, the last line of which referenced “semen stains and stab wounds on a twelve-year-old-girl’s breasts.”
“I’m flattered that she takes my poetry so seriously,” he told a friend to tell me, after I’d blocked him.
I wasn’t crushed by what he said. I was crushed by knowing that, for the first time in a year, I did not feel more alone than I could explain. It was a bad, abnormal guy who wanted to destroy me sending that kind of poem. But he would never make me disappear. I was buried every day by other kinds of people.
I was used to subjects changing, rolling eyes. Silence. Doubt, denial. The mountains of euphemism forbidding full disclosure – dampening human interest stories on the news, and making me wonder, and wonder again, if I really knew what happened. The common courtesy assuring everyone you won’t be exposed to that kind of story unless you’re in the right place at the right time and fully prepared to hear it. Trigger warnings I get. The societal requirement that I ask permission before I talk about myself puts me in the debt of whoever would call me a friend.
I’m tired of asking permission. I’m tired of the pressure to look like anyone else.
I’m even fed-up with survivors, in-the-closet, who retract their late-night confessions in the morning, who brush off references to specific childhood nightmares as having no meaning at all. Come out in your own good time and all, but I need you. And the more you reject my category, the stronger the story that tells us that our kind of person is less.
Survivors need allies. I don’t think you know it. Survivors are all alone.
Here’s something else, if you’re normal, that I don’t think you know: The world needs its survivors.
We are the people who can, if we fight to, shine light in dim corners, and heal you. We are the people who won’t get destroyed by your crazy and stupid and weird. We know in our hearts what others won’t admit: that you are never safe now.
All worlds crumble one day. Yours will, too. When your back is to the wall, and you’re going down hard, you need to know that you’re going to stay alive. It can’t be helped. You’ll want to be strong and cute, but you’ll just be this squirmy little worm who doesn’t know how to die.
I was broken many times. It’s fine; I find many ways to rise. Believe in me. One day maybe you’ll need to believe in you.