“Memories demand attention
because memories have teeth.”
About a month ago I was talking with my cousin Mary and she asked me a question about something that happened a very long time ago, when I was about twelve. We talked about it briefly, matter-of-factly, and then the conversation was over and we moved on to other things.
I kept coming back to it, though, and I wasn’t sure why. The thought of it was following me around. The memory kept nipping at my heels for a couple of weeks until all of a sudden things became very clear, as though I’d put on glasses and could suddenly see.
The truth is doggedly persistent.
Mary had unknowingly handed me a piece of my story that I’d not even known was missing until it was returned to me.
Kids are naturally imaginative and creative. All human beings are, but children are less married to the concrete. Their thinking is more fluid, more simple- primitive, even- they know less, so they are less encumbered by facts. So, like primitive people, when there are gaps in their knowledge, or there is something they don’t understand, they fill it in with story.
Ancient civilizations did not understand weather or natural phenomena, so what did they do? They used story to make sense of it. Created gods and goddesses, rituals and rules. Now, did the volcano remain dormant because they made their annual virgin sacrifice? Of course not. Does any of that matter to the unfortunate girl tossed into the lava? Of course not. She lived and died out of a story someone else created for her. What Brene Brown calls a confabulation, or a lie told honestly.
That poor girl wasn’t any less dead because her sacrifice was predicated on a lie.
My childhood abuse was traumatic, yes. But the real trauma, the lasting harm, came from people’s reactions to me telling my story.
I’d been told that if I said anything people would be upset and angry and think I was lying. In my child’s mind, that threat was borne out. The people in my life, by the way they reacted to my telling, unwittingly made my grandfather a truth-teller. And because I was a child trying to make sense of something painful and complicated, I created a simple story out of a complex and confusing situation. I decided if he was right about that, he was right about everything.
So, all of those seeds of shame took root. All of those lies he told me about myself, whether directly or by the way he treated me and used my body, became TRUE. I unquestioningly accepted them. You see, we humans don’t use facts to shore up our stories, we use story to shore up the facts of our lives. We use story to make sense of the incomprehensible. We use story to combat the dissonance of trauma.
I was bad. I was dirty. I was used up. My vaIue lay in being a sexual creature and nothing more. What I wanted didn’t matter. My no was unenforceable. I wasn’t worth protecting. I was a liar. I was forsaken by God.
It did not matter that absolutely none of that was true. I accepted it all as fact and lived accordingly. Those lies became the Gospel according to which I lived my life.
I’d cried out to God to make my abuse stop. I’d prayed for justice. For my father to believe me and protect me. I believed those prayers and pleas fell on deaf ears. I used to joke that I broke up with God when I was nine years old. I never stopped believing in God, but the story I told myself was that He either didn’t care about what happened to me, or worse- that it was part of God’s plan for me. Either way, I had no use for a god that small. I lost my faith in Him. I stopped talking to Him. And so I lived accordingly. I lived like someone forsaken and unloved.
You move through the world very differently when you believe that about yourself, whether it’s true or not.
When Mary’s revelation finally settled with me, I didn’t quite know what to do with it. Where before there may have been information missing, I’d found a way to make the picture whole. Now, though, I had this extra puzzle piece and I couldn’t put the story back together the way it had been before. Nothing fit. I had to throw away the story pieces I’d created to fill in those gaps of understanding- and that is hard to do, especially when the story you’d created was more palatable than the truth.
Because the thing is, story builds on story. The stories we get told and sold in childhood become the foundation of our lives, for better or for worse. The stories we create to make sense of things become real for us. You can’t replace a puzzle piece and have it not affect the entire picture- especially not when it’s a core story you lived out of- because we make decisions based on those stories. They wield enormous power in our lives. They color the way we view the world and our place in it.
This new information, while it brings some clarity, is not comfortable. It’s confusing, and sad, and challenges other assumptions I’d made about my life. The stories I’d created gave some people a pass on things that are inexcusable. The story I’d told myself had made it easier to forgive. So now I have to integrate this new truth and make peace with it. Now I have to work on forgiveness again- which I suppose is fine. I believe forgiveness is a practice- like yoga, and love, and sobriety. Maybe the work is never truly done, anyway.
So I’m taking the pieces apart. Examining them. Holding them up to the light and trying to determine what can be salvaged and what needs to go. When I’m done, I’ll have a new- and likely still incomplete- puzzle, and will have a new story as a part of my life. And I will see the world a little differently, I suppose.
I am writing a book and in order to get said book published it is awfully helpful to make the most of your platform. At least, that is what The People Who Know The Things tell me.
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