Sunday, December 11, 2011

girls today don't like to sleep alone

from a letter to jessalyn

two weeks ago i visited my family in georgia. the day after thanksgiving, sprawled out on my sister’s brown suede couch, i transcribed the most relevant portions of her college journals spanning from spring 2003 to summer 2004 when she stopped writing all together. that was also the summer she moved back home. a week before my high school graduation, i discovered in her diaries that she was fucking a man named mason, always without a condom, and often, without her explicit consent. i also learned that she was cutting herself again, contemplating suicide with some sincerity, and in a ten page hybrid essay, i read that our stepfather had abused her. the prose was pretty bad, v. derivative of dorothy allison’s
bastard out of carolina, a book we both still admire. it took me several pages to “get past” the style. the narrative lacked allison’s fierce honesty, was mired in obscure poetic language. when i confronted my sister about the abuse, she said “it didn’t happen.” i told my mother. nothing of consequence occurred. i graduated, left to live and work and never sleep in a cramped canvas tent at an overnight girl scout camp. years later when my sister got pregnant and moved home yet again, i could not stomach the idea of my stepfather raising the baby, having access and control over his emotional development. it became apparent to me then that my sister was never going to force the issue, that she harbored this great hate for our stepfather, and in turn, our mother for being with him. my role within the family has always been part therapist and part tattle-tale. in spring 2009 i went behind C’s back and told my mother that C would never love her, never really forgive her, until she divorced him. my sister still does not know this, all my dazzling scheming, which went on for months. i prefer her to think that our mother came to the realization herself, that she had the courage, all on her own, to rebel against her husband of twenty years, that her love for my sister was so stupendous she was willing to sacrifice her own stability so that C could finally prosper.

whenever i go home, i reread my sister’s journals. not only because they shaped my own feminist leanings but also because i had never—and still have never—felt closer, more in love with her, than while reading those pages. when she found me transcribing them on her couch after thanksgiving, she threatened i will sue you if you use them, if you write about me at all. i explained yes, i will use them but that the likelihood that a book will ever be published, much less read, is slim to none. that’s not the point. i know—have always known—that C will hate me for “saying,” shedding light on “our family’s shame” but i don’t care. her journals only further convinced me of the saliency of my thesis: it might well be worth saying simply because it happened.

on march 25, 2003, C confided in her composition notebook: “this is so hard for me to write about. i can’t think creatively. i’m so afraid to remove the veil. that veil helped me exchange hurt and weakness for hate. hate that is better than a destroyed family and shame. i trust myself a lot in this case to know that suppression is the best thing. no matter what people say.” i was struck by the similarity of our coping strategies, even if i never felt the need to protect some nonexistent “family legacy.” however, in the weeks after my high school graduation, i too, wrote in my journal silence is holy. we were both operating under the delusion of “self-control.” later in the same 03’ entry C added: “every time i cry about what he did to me, i drift further from the freedom i so desperately want to attain.” she quotes various authors about “silence” and “power”—as i did, repeating to myself a passage duras wrote in her own (undated) diaries: “I say nothing to no one. Nothing about what goes through my life, the anger, the wild movements of my body...I am modesty, I am silence itself. I say nothing. I express nothing. About what is important, nothing. It is there, unnamed, untouched.”

once i moved to california i realized the exact extent of my delusion. the delusion, of course, was not that silence can give you power, but rather, that anyone has power to begin with—that is, power to control what other’s do to you. whatever personal power (perhaps control?) i possess stems from the realization and acceptance of fallibility: you never know what the other person in the room is thinking, will do. you just don’t. “saying” does not, in any way, effect the so-called “shame” of abuse, or say, the shame of being rejected by a once-cherished lover, or perhaps, never having had a respectful, nurturing partner in the first place. you cannot be held responsible—made a fool—if someone swindles, deceives you however terrifically. bogart, playing sam spade, taught me this. you are never the fool for trusting, loving. you only become the fool the moment you believe that it is even possible to “know” others true motives, “what they will do.” we should never fetishize truth as such. foolish is the person who replaces trust and tenderness with suspicion and fear.

on the plane to atlanta, the woman sitting next to me read cover to cover six gossip mags all promising the “inside scoop” on kim kardashian’s short-lived marriage to that douche chris humpheries. by the time the beverage cart made its first round, i too had read all six rags and found myself deeply involved in a conversation with this woman about kim as well as her own love life. she informed me that her name was “sarah” and that she had moved to hollywood in 02’ to sing or at least make american idol but now worked as a waitress. she was overweight, wore too much eyeliner, high heels on a six hour flight. of kim’s quick divorce sarah mused: did they even try counseling? i mean, vows are for forever. she snapped her fingers, opened a mag. i’ve watched the show for years. i see the divorce as a betrayal, an affront. as i soon found out, she had also been married and that her ex had cheated on her for about eight months of their two year marriage with a variety of women. i was willing to forgive, she said, ordering us both a second cabernet. we went to counseling. to no benefit apparently. he just didn’t want to be with her. did he ever? she blinked, fully expecting an answer. after the affair, she struggled to find a single thing that she dug about him. i can’t think of him in terms of love, only WHAT HE DID. which, of course, is how i feel, at times, about my stepfather. even though i believe that no one person is all bad. not even sade’s monsters. its true: the point of sade’s justine is not that all people and institutions of power are inherently evil, but rather, that there is no virtue in the suffering said institutions cause, even if you think there is, as justine does, it doesn’t change the blunt fact: suffering is just that, suffering. since sarah’s husband cheated on her throughout their marriage—and alton abused my sister throughout our childhood—one might be tempted to discount whatever small pleasures sarah or my mother received from the relationship. did their betrayal, by its very nature, negate the incredibly real love sarah and my mother felt?

in origins of totalitarianism, arendt argues that since the mid-19th century there has been a tendency to define and interpret civilizations solely by their decline, ignoring the rather obvious fact that, before societies dissolve, they usually prosper for thousands of years. in history courses today, the “all societies decline sometime, by largely the same means” is still a guiding principal. but this focus on “decline,” she asserts, is but a flaw in the historiography, interpretation. perhaps it is the same with relationships. when i fell deeply in love with M in asheville, i knew already that there was nothing that M could do—even in my wildest horrors—that would alter the way i felt about that specific time period. if, say, it turned out that he had, in fact, “betrayed” me during those blissful years, i would still cherish the way his love made me swoon, feel as if anything were suddenly possible. even if his affection proved to be a lie, a farce, i still felt it. that is enough.

rereading C’s journals, i was doubly struck by all that i had missed before, especially in regard to mason. where at once i saw their affair along the strict lines of abuse, i now saw the pleasure too—the real physical delight she experienced whenever he “let himself into the house uninvited” or fucked her “always in the missionary position.” her version of the affair contains no “satisfaction” emotion or physical—but enjoyment, yes. also, a real sense of graciousness. she was thankful, not so much for him specifically, as for the touch, collective sweat, unmatched thrill of the flirt, high tease. it is one of the things i admire most, about the body: it takes what pleasure it can. whatever else is happening in your life. the body will, without your consent, root out pleasure. again and again.