Trigger Alert: The following is a meditation on childhood abuse.
A few months ago, the family of Oscar-winning actress Mo’Nique went on Oprah to discuss an issue that has torn them apart. After years of denials, Gerald Imes, Mo’Nique’s older brother, admitted to molesting his sister for several years. Though I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, what struck me the most about the interview was the family’s defensive posture regarding the situation. Another of Mo’Nique’s brothers was really invested in maintaining that his brother “wasn’t a monster” and that Mo’Nique seemed to have “gotten over” the abuse because she and Imes seemed to have a “great relationship” in the years after and are only recently estranged. (Side eye). Watching this episode, horrified, I meant to write a post on surviving childhood abuse that week, but I’ve just gotten up the strength to do so.
Before I speak my piece, I’d like to start off with a feminist prayer, of sorts.
won’t you celebrate with me
by LUCILLE CLIFTON (1936-2010)
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
I feel blessed every time I read this poem. While I love so much of Clifton’s work, this is the one that speaks to me the most often, the one that I return to when I’m feeling low down and sorry for myself. I think, I’m here, I’m a survivor. So much bullshit, and yet, I’m still standing.
Like an unfortunately large number of people, I was abused as a child. It’s not something I talk about often or think about daily, but it’s a part of my past that exists just below the surface of my consciousness, like a throbbing vein beneath my skin. When I was a little girl and we had just moved from the islands to the mainland, my mother and I lived in the basement “apartment” of some family friends. Our place was a very small room that, in retrospect, was probably a walk-in closet. We shared a twin bed and a small side table. We didn’t have our own bathroom (we often used a chamber pot to relieve ourselves) and we alternated between freezing and boiling in the New England weather. Needless to say these were conditions my mother wanted to get us out of. So, she got herself a couple of low-paying, menial jobs and left me in the company of the aforementioned family friends during the day while she worked.
Once left in the care of these people, I became easily frightened and I cried a lot. I became intensely afraid of my mother dying and being left with these people who treated me so badly in a whole host of ways. My mother was worried, but was really focused on moving us out of there. My father was no where to be found (he’d abdicated his responsibility when my mother was pregnant with me) and the rest of my mother’s people were a thousand miles away. So I learned to get through the days as best as I could and when my mother came home and fell into the tiny bed in deep exhaustion, I didn’t say a word. This went on for two years. When I was seven, my mother lucked up and got a section 8 apartment and we left that basement hovel and never looked back. Boy, wasn’t no one as happy to see some projects as I was, I tell you what.
I was a fairly well-adjusted kid on the surface, though I suffered from nightmares and had intense crying spells. I loved to read and after a couple false starts, really began to excel in school, something my mom championed in me. She took me to the library and bought me books when she could. When I wrote up little stories and fairy tales, she told me they were great and that I would grow up to be a great writer and teacher. I really thank her for that because everywhere else I went I was getting the exact opposite treatment. I really was working against all the stuff I went through in that basement “apartment” and I can’t tell you how many times folks—adult and children alike—told me how stupid, fat, ugly, not to mention poor, I was.
Against all odds, I’ve been to college and graduate school. I’m gainfully employed, live in my own place and drive my own car. I even have health insurance—the good kind that lets you go to the dentist and the eye doctor. I am surrounded by love from a whole host of folk who comprise a fiercely loyal chosen family. And I am very close to my mother, who is wonderful in all sorts of ways. All in all, I’ve turned out alright. Yet, mine is not a Horatio Alger story of triumph. Sure I worked hard, but I am here because I was able to tap into a feminist network of friends and create a loving family. The support I get from these folks cannot erase the past, but it can engender a healthy present and a better future for me and perhaps others with similar experiences.
I’m not telling you this for your pity. Rather, I’m speaking out because I’m in a safe space/place with feminist brothers and sisters who value my voice. There are so many who have gone through what I have experienced and more and who may have the desire to speak, but no safe space to do so. (I also recognize there are those who do not desire to speak about their abuse, and I respect that desire as well). If we call ourselves progressives, radicals, and feminists of any sort, we need to take close, hard looks at the sort of the communities we are born into and become a part of. What are we doing to make our communities a safe space for children and the survivors of abuse? What are we doing to break the patriarchal patterns of control that promote exacting violence as a rite of passage? I do not have all the answers, but I am damn sure asking some questions, and no one’s gonna shut me up for “airing dirty laundry.”
Although I don’t know all of Mo’Nique’s story, I respect her need to disconnect and disassociate from her abusers. I too have had moments where I was expected to be cordial to the very people that violated my trust. Back in the day, I would’ve smiled and held down the bile, but now I refuse and will continue to do so.
Despite the fact that abuse comprises most of my earliest memories, when I think of my past, I think of the last lines of Clifton’s poem. And I think of my mother and grandmother and all the other women in my family who, like me, are survivors of abuse. Now, let’s not get it twisted, I am not saying that abuse is a badge of honor. Far from it. What I am saying is that I went through the crucible and I’m still here. Sometimes I’m broken and bleeding, but I’m here.