He Stifled My Voice: Trying to Write Long After the Abuse Stopped (Trigger warning: abuse discussed)
I often think about myself in terms of B.A. and A.A – “before the abuse” and “after the abuse.”
I don’t have many memories of the person I was before the abuse because I was stripped of my innocence by an uncle at the age of eleven. Although the incident was a one-time event, forty one years ago, I can still call up the memory of that day in June, not long after my eleventh birthday, just like it was yesterday.
Daddy and my adopted mother were both going to be working that day and I had begged to stay at home. It would be my first time. Before then, I always went with one of them to their jobs. I would sit in a corner and read or sit in the back of daddy’s pickup truck while he worked on houses or did plumbing. But I was a big girl, and I wanted to prove that I could stay at home and be okay. Daddy’s final words before he left were, “Don’t open the door to anyone.” I said sure, gave him a hug, and went back to reading my new summer book, Roots, by Alex Hailey.
I loved the language in the book Roots. I loved the discovery of a world where my ancestors resided before they were touched by slavery. I loved the idea of the community where Kunta Kinte resided, in the Mandinka village of Juffure, soaking up familial love. I was fascinated by those relationships. As an adopted child, I was always curious about other families, particularly those that stayed intact, and on this particular day, Kunta had not become a grown Mandinka warrior yet, captured by white slave catchers. He was still a boy, innocent like me. It wasn’t until days later that I realized he and I had so much in common. He lost his family too, and like Kunta, I began a journey to find what was lost to me.
From the moment I was told I was adopted, I had dreamed of and written stories about who my real mother was and what our story would look like if she came for me. I never daydreamed about a daddy, because M.C. Jackson fulfilled that role to the letter from the first day he took me into his arms. But a mother – that was my dream. I knew if she could just find me, I would be complete. So, I wrote stories about our reunion all of the time. I filled little notebooks with my innocent, childlike dreams of rescue and redemption.
And then, that summer day in June happened. I was wearing a red, white and blue short set. My body was already beginning to fill out. I had been told by my adopted mother that we needed to buy me additional clothing because I was growing so fast. She also said I needed to start covering myself up more, and not walking around in revealing clothes. She had even started me to wearing a bra and a girdle whenever I went out, but I was at home, so I figured, I would be safe from whatever dangers she was hinting at because see…she never had “the talk” with me. Oh, she would hint at things but the language was always so ambiguous and so coded that my child’s mind never truly understood what I was being warned against. Somewhere around ten in the morning, he knocked and, because I knew him, I did not think he was the boogieman I had been warned about. Here is where I will stop THAT part of the story, and fast forward to afterwards. A.A.
I remember picking up the fried baloney sandwich that I had made before he came to the house and throwing it and the glass of grape Kool-Aid against the wall next to the refrigerator. Then I looked for bleach. Bleach would clean and purify, my eleven year old brain decided. Thank goodness I didn’t irreparably harm myself as I diluted it in water and washed, and washed, and washed myself. “What will wash away my sins…Nothing but the blood…” I remember Bob Barker was on and they were spinning the big wheel. Someone won a lot of money that day. I remember gathering my clothes that I had worn and then, as an afterthought, I grabbed my notebooks with my innocent stories of being rescued by my mother. In that moment, I determined no one was going to save me. I went outside and burned my clothes and my notebooks inside daddy’s barbecue grill. I remember the hotness felt comforting. I remember contemplating getting inside that grill. Thankfully I didn’t.
I remember going back inside and sitting at the dining room table, just inches away from where the incident took place. I remember looking down and seeing the silver dollar on the table where he had placed it. Payment in full. His final words were, “Don’t tell.” I remember tossing that silver dollar across the room and it landed somewhere underneath the couch. That same couch is still there. I wonder, did anyone ever find that silver dollar? Years later, my husband, Robert, innocently showed me a silver dollar he had saved. I remember having a panic attack and screaming. He got rid of that silver dollar that day.
Trying to be a writer after that day in June, has been difficult. My stories lack innocence. Happy is hard-fought for my characters. I used to believe in fairytales and happily ever after, but that man took those schoolgirl thoughts and obliterated them with one single act. I try to write about romantic love and immediately I become overwhelmed and afraid. Afraid for myself as I try to find words to make an act that I still have difficulties with envisioning as anything other than violence. I try to focus on the beauty of intimacy but the smell of beer, cigarettes, and pork rinds enter into my brain, leaving me with no words.
I have been working on a love scene in my new book for days now. I tried to make a joke about my social awkwardness when it comes to writing about intimacy. I thought if I laughed about it I could move past the flood of images of that faithful day in June when that man stole my voice and left me struggling to find words again.
It is not easy writing through pain. I do it so often that it becomes second nature to me. I do violence to my characters because that is what feels most natural to me. Even when I give them happiness it is often overshadowed by their sadness and pain. After the abuse, that became my writing pattern. No more did I write about an unknown mother coming to rescue the innocent young girl. No, she never found her way into my work again. Mothers abandon their children and leave them wide open for pain. I just realized this morning, that every book I have written has an absent mother. Sometimes by choice, other times because of situations out of their control, but every single time, the child is left, in my stories, to fend for themselves.
He took away my hope and my belief in the impossible that day, two things a writer must have in order to succeed. I learned how to triage my work and make up for my lack of childlike innocence when I write, but I always wonder what type of stories I would have written had I been left to mature and develop in a normal way.
I never pray that anyone goes to hell, assuming there really is a big caldron of fire that torments people for all eternity. But I do believe, if there is justice in this universe, people should be required, after they die, to spend some time in the afterlife contemplating the choices they made while here and depending on how they lived their lives, that will be their reward or their torment.
I am thankful that I found a voice that allows me to write. Yes, sometimes it is sad and awkward and dark, but it is a voice, nonetheless. Not the voice I had or the voice I was developing, but a new voice. It is an uncomfortable voice at times, but it is all that I have.