Thursday, March 6, 2008

living with a history of violence

This is a complicated issue, so I'll probably be breaking this down into sections. This particular section is about rape and, at least elliptically, about making yourself.

One of the incidents that will go into my dissertation (because it is both nonfiction and considered interesting) happened right after we moved back to the states from Okinawa. Okinawa was where I met John the preacher's son, but that's another post. I can only guess that my parents were disappointed with me, because I got into trouble a lot after I told everyone what John was up to. On the plus side, one of the nonillion times I was grounded, I read a dictionary and figured out what the things my mother was calling me meant and had a brief interlude where I thought that perhaps what had happened with John meant that I was getting an allowance in order to have that kind of thing done to me. The Webster's definition of whore is a woman (yes, I know there are men that do, now) who takes money for sex acts. I figured since I was supposed to not tell anyone what was happening, and because John gave me gifts and I got my allowance from the same parents who beat 'Jesus owns your vagina' and 'don't embarrass the important people' into me, that the allowance was payment of some description. I was fuzzy on the specifics.

When we got back to the states, we moved to a little town in east Texas, Greenville. I hear it's gotten much larger since then. In the early nineties, it was a fairly smallish place with E Systems like a cancer on its side. My father was employed by E Systems for most of my childhood. The frequency with which I got in trouble got to the point where it was daily, and since I was grounded, even sitting in my room staring at the wall would not prevent me from being punished, something that ranged from getting smacked with something (or whatever was handy), getting bent over something and more formally spanked (my mother in particular used to break things like that; she would take me shopping and ask me what she should get to break on me while she was out; I still find oak spoons a little frightening) or being sent to bed without dinner, grounded from, etc. It wasn't so much punishments that were unfamiliar to what I thought other kids were getting so much as it was the frequency and severity. I was in I want to say fourth or fifth grade at the time, and there were days I couldn't sit right at school and had to be careful what showed. A lot of days.

In any case, I decided, right after we moved, that my parents did not love us (my brother and I) and would only hurt us. As the oldest sibling, I had always been told he was my responsibility, a duty I accepted gladly by getting in trouble so that they (my parents) would be distracted from whatever he did. I could not stand the sound of them hitting him. I also beat people up at school if they hurt him. I broke the ribs on the principal's son with a History textbook that year for trying to bully him. The spine on most books is very reinforced. He was my little brother, and I was determined not to let him be hurt. Which left me with a problem, right, because I was in no way big enough to actually prevent anyone from doing anything.

This has a point, I promise. I'll interpret for you momentarily.

So I decided to kill my parents. I waited until they were both home and asleep (Dad was never home, so this took some waiting. I stopped sleeping a long time ago, as much because night was the only time I could be alone as the fact that my nightmares were so bad there was no point in trying to relax.) I decided to wear as little as possible, both to make it hard for me to be grabbed and because I figured it would be messy. I decided to call the cops from their phone by the bed and not to bother with cleaning up, since I was likely to go straight to jail for this. But I did look up my grandmother's number because they needed to know where to send my brother, who I figured was probably better off without me. There was something twisted in my head that I didn't want to share with him, and I could often feel it slithering through my mind when I looked at my parents and the other kids I went to school with, when I looked at the pets. I didn't want to let it out, but if I was going to, it would be at people I knew wanted to hurt us.

I remember seeing the Menendez brothers on television, but it had to have been the re-cast of their trial, because the original murder was in 1989 and I don't think I was in the states at that point. I knew I could do it better; they were clumsy. I got up, I think around three in the morning. My memory is fuzzy on some things and not on others. I was wearing a pair of panties and my favorite t shirt, florescent pink with black stick figures dancing on it, for luck. I crept through the house. I'd been doing dry runs for weeks to see how to get through the house silently and to see if I could do it.

I could. I crept into the kitchen, dog walking beside me, and got the filet knife out of the block. Then I went back to their bedroom, at the end of the hall. They had a white door, cracked open so that they could hear us sleep. From previous experience, I knew their door had no creaks, so I could push it open without much noise at all. I could hear them snoring. I pushed the dog away, opened their door and stood there, in the dark hall, watching them sleep. The big window in their bedroom faced the street, so there was enough light to see them pretty well, throwing a long, bluish shadow across the top of the comforter they picked up in Japan. It was beige, with branches, some small birds and bright pink flower explosions at intervals. They slept on their backs, shoulder to shoulder. His head was tilted back more than hers. I was grateful, because my dad is much, much bigger than my mother and I wanted to do him first. I walked into the room, approaching her side of the bed, which was closest.

If they woke up, what would I say to them? I resolved that I was being a coward. It needed to be done and therefore I should do it. Would they scream? Probably. I'd never cut anything's throat before. I was basically just going to guess and slice. The ceiling fan above their heads circled lazily, and I wondered if the spray would get it wet. I'd read a book on anatomy in preparation and knew that the pressure on the jugular, in particular, was highly pressurized. But I'd felt my own neck, and there was a lot of stuff in there that wasn't the jugular. And I wasn't sure I could hit it. My mother gave a particularly loud snore and rolled over. I jumped but didn't drop the knife.

I walked around to my dad's side of the bed, closest to the window. I raised the knife, watching his face twitch in his sleep. I can only attribute the following to luck or a strange lucidity I sometimes get in the presence of danger. The knife handle in my hand seemed heavy. They were going to take me to jail. I was never going to get out of jail. I would not have a life, anymore. I would be a number in one of those ugly jumpers. Would my brother be happier at my grandmother's? I was pretty sure he would be. And whether or not I would be happy in jail didn't matter.

But they'd be right. My mother's pet name for me, at the time, was monster. I was a monster like my dad, she said. If I killed them, they'd always be right and I'd be nothing but a monster. Always.

I didn't want to be a monster. I wanted to be a girl. I wanted to be me. I wanted to live, goddamn it. And be free. I wanted to be free and not to have to carry them with me everywhere I went, a stain on my permanent record, a stain on my soul. If I killed them, they'd own me in more ways than they already did. They owned my body, they were keeping it for Jesus, but I wanted to own my mind. And my soul. My me. I would own me, and no one else was going to take it.

I walked to the end of the bed and sat, just below the edge of the bed on the floor, ducking down so that I could not be seen. Was this what I would be? Above my head, my dad stirred in his sleep, fear running down me in that unpleasantly cold thrill from the crown of my head to my feet, making my hands shake on the handle. He settled back in and I snuck out of the room. I returned the knife and went back to standing in their door, watching them sleep.

Then it hit me. The night was mine. They owed their lives to me and would every time they fell asleep. Not that I could tell them that. But it was something to hold on to.

In retrospect, I came within inches of being a serial killer several times growing up. This becomes funny when I went to family therapy (I give up, now) a few years back and my mother said to the therapist that they always thought I'd grow up to be an axe murderer. How very close I came.

What does this have to do with violence and rape? Well, other than the obvious, I mentioned the above to show that I have an attachment to violence. It seems to me that no matter how much analysis I subject myself to (both personal and the poor therapists I enlist), there will always be a part of me that attests to the efficacy of violence, how sometimes it can indeed solve problems. I'm not so blind as to say it doesn't make others, but I can tell you the principal's kid never bugged my brother again. Wouldn't even look at him. And that knowing what I could do made some of what happened after that night a little easier to bear. But only because I didn't kill them. I still don't know why I could see forward into a prison cell. Kids don't usually have that kind of clarity, and I feel a little fake even writing this because kids don't have that kind of clarity. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn't. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't.

In any case, this becomes relevant because I have experienced rape, and twice I have hit someone where it hurts (very, very hard and quickly) or talk them out of it and gotten away. Of course, that makes my success rate about 20%, but I hold on to the idea that I have an effect on the world I live in, even though it is not always true. Oddly enough, the time I was homeless, I had less problem with some of this and more with others. Of course, I went for the don't look at me approach and shaved my head, camouflaged my tits (which weren't terribly big to start with), didn't bathe and generally went for as scary as possible. It helped with some things and not with others. Still had a problem with strangers approaching me, but not the strangers I'd attracted before. Because of experience, I identify myself as being tough, as being basically capable of defending myself and my children in ways that people who don't have these experiences would not even think of. Sometimes, this is not helpful. In a world that makes little sense to me, sometimes, I hold on to the idea that I am a tough bitch. And that my boundaries, my skin, my place is mine and no one can take it from me. It's a lie I tell myself often. But I own more of me than most people own of themselves, thanks to time, experience and my personality. And luck. Jesus, I'm lucky.

It makes the times I was unable to defend myself more horrible.

We live in a culture that emphasizes the self-made individual. To the extent that it's possible for a woman to make herself, I make me. I make me everyday. But that final surety, the one I cling to, the surety that tells me that I can always and ever defend my boundaries, is not a thing I can logically cling to. I have always resented the rhetoric of people who want to cushion you or give you space/make you grieve. Even though I know this is not the best assumption, it angers me because it pretends you have time to grieve, that you can allow your life to shut down so you can grieve, and that it matters what happens to you. Logically, I know that experience differs. I know that sometimes you do have the time, space and helpers. I know that not everyone who espouses that is interested in trying to make you be a victim or damaged your entire life and that often people don't understand why or how you get up the next morning and get on with your life, no matter how dead you feel.

Emotionally, it makes me feel like a freak. As if I was supposed to lay down and die just for that, for rape, of all the things I could lay down and die for. Rape, in my landscape, is not the biggest boogeyman. But it is unique. It forces my sense of self, my hard-won toughness and the experiences I am proud to have lived with, against myself. That is the violation which bothers me. My body? I have become accustomed, for bad or good, to laying that on the line for things. This is not a good thing, but it happens. But the same soul, the same mind I saved by refusing to kill my folks is damaged by rape. It makes me ugly to myself in the mirror, as stupid as that is. But I was convinced I should have, could have done more.

And every time I see more toughness propaganda, it makes me despair a little (nobody worry; I'm not suicidal, just pissy). Because there are things toughness helps, just as there are times for breaking down, but the propaganda just glamorizes a zero sum game. I can't win with the dudes because girls aren't tough (and how that meme stays active, I'll never know), and I can't win with the girls because I'm such a non-conformist and aggressive as all hell. And yet I cling to the idea. It is difficult to believe anyone gives a shit and I don't have to cling to violence and a tough veneer. Because, in my experience, they really don't.

Over the years, I have made it a point to try and remove violence from my language; to not threaten when I'm upset. To not think about how to hurt people as a random thought, a hobby. I have tried to eliminate it utterly, but have been forced to give my violent tendencies outlet or I begin to dream every night of violence, waking up every two hours after dreaming of killing everyone I know, of killing strangers, of more things I will not elaborate on here. I think that if you've experienced a certain level of violence, it is always with you. All hours of the day and night, it is all with me; fights in school yards, my parents, getting away from people while I was homeless, the relationships gone very, very awry. I think, at 30, that I will probably always have it with me. Thank whomever for video games, because I can check in for an hour of zombie slaying and ground those feelings. I also refuse to spank the kids for that reason. There's a lot of ugly shit in there that does not need outlet there.

Rape is, I think, sometimes problematized by how therapists and people handle it. I have many times been told I do not handle rape correctly. I suppose so. But I'm handling it the best way I can. I don't break down much, nor can I really afford to, and mostly I'm alone when I do. I refuse to abstain from sex or walking alone (god help anyone who jumps me; I carry an asp up my sleeve) or talking about it, or hiding in my home. I won't let myself drink because of it. I won't cry for a therapist, won't act pathetic or scared (it happens sometimes whether I like it or not), and I refuse to stop examining it. But all in all, I wonder if I am seeing it awry (completely possible) or if there is something in the way rape is handled that just can't apply to me. It is completely possible that I'm wrong. I resent, however, being treated like I'm prone to breaking any minute.

Which brings me back to pretensions of toughness. I'm probably going to be working on this one for much longer. The solution I have so far is to try and remember that there are things I can be tough for, and things I can't be. And to keep reminding myself that not everything is my fault, but look at what I've done with what I've been given.

And to try not to think much about the fact that, at any time, what I have can be taken from me.


r@d@r said...

listen - clearly you are not a person who tolerates foolishness from anybody if you can help it, and i like that, but i just felt like saying - what the hell do i know? - but i kind of think that you do have something, a big something, that can never, ever be taken from you. just a feeling i had, is all.

my life has been a picnic compared to yours, but on a much tinier scale i think i know a little bit of what you're talking about. people sure love to tell us that vulnerability is important, and it is, but heaven help us if we get in touch with our feelings and they are feelings that aren't pretty. and most of them aren't. in the end though, not feeling is a temporary survival measure; i don't think we are meant to adopt it permanently. eventually, we're going to have to feel in order to be alive. the thing that blew my mind was being told that you can actually choose what to feel - that locking it all away is not the only option. right, i didn't believe it either at first. but check that one out. it's an interesting proposition at least, isn't it?

mouthybitch said...

I think it is urgent, if your feelings are more than slightly dark, to air them somehow. I conjecture from my own experience, but I must air my feelings and/or give myself and outlet for aggression or it gets ugly in my head.

I am very fortunate to know something about choosing how to feel, but most of what I have is trial and error, and I am always willing to hear from people who know more than I. Well, I should say I make myself listen. Sometimes, I'm a touch stubborn.

My physical integrity can be taken from me. But my mind is mine, though with enough pain and manipulation, it can (as I have learned) be warped. I chose, in that bedroom, to be my own. I have never regretted it.

Panderian said...

I admire your toughness. The not breaking down. The walking alone still. Sometimes you cant help but break down in someone elses arms. I have been those arms for someone.

Anyone who can go on with a decent existence after that is amazing. But once you know, once you have been the arms for someone else, I don't think the hurt you feel for them ever goes away. In that way you understand on a tiny scale what they feel.

Whats even more amazing to me is how on the days their awful situation is hurting your own heart, they are smiling and enjoying a day without horror. When I see this I realize only those who have experienced this kind of black evil are the ones who, for even a brief moment, are the ones who can not hurt from it.
Letting go in someones arms isn't always a bad thing. Believe me somehow they understand.

Good luck on your journey, and God bless.