I sit cross-legged on her couch, running my hands up and down the sides of my thighs like a small child who has been asked where the last cookie in the jar went. The dryness overtaking my throat is doing a grand job of silencing my tongue as I try desperately to speak. Even my blood feels foreign. She reminds me to breathe, every so gently in the way only she can as my therapist. A joke floats between us that passing out on her watch is not an option. She knows her sarcasm will break my spell, has a hunch she can pull me from the brink of disassociation. Leaving my body, escaping to another reality is not hard for me I’ve been doing it the majority of my life. The trick now becomes to stay present in the moment when I have to bare my soul. She hasn’t rushed me into anything this is on my schedule. After all, I brought the journal. The one I found in a box of stuff I packed six years ago when my mom called:
“We sold the house and are moving in June. You need to come pack up your room.”
“What do I do with all of my things? I’m 1600 miles away, I can’t bring it here.”
“Doesn’t matter to me,” she replies curtly. “Come empty your room out.”
I booked a flight for two weeks later and flew to Texas. A place I spent the first eighteen years of my life and now only for a few days around Christmas. I’m glad they are selling the house, it harbors painful memories, secret hiding places and a girl I am more than happy to forget existed. The house is down a quarter mile driveway guarded by a black gate. It gives the ominous impression no one is welcome here unless invited. Business attended to inside the brick house was not for public consumption. I walk in the back door and it looks so different. They have repainted and all the photos are gone from the mantel. The house doesn’t look lived in. I head upstairs and the oppressive Texas heat swamps me as I ascend. Even in April temperatures are eclipsing the high 80s.
“You’ll have to turn the air on. We’ve shut it off since no one is ever up there anymore,” she calls to me from the kitchen. I walk over to click on the thermostat noticing they have put a door back on my brother’s bedroom. I’m sure it’s only for the potential buyers, can’t imagine my parents wanting to explain how they took away his privacy as punishment. I click the air on and smile. My brother and I used to fight over the temperature of the upstairs constantly. I preferred it warm, he preferred to live in Antarctica. I usually gave in and let him win but always put up a fight. Until my dad stepped in one summer and decided that was enough, it was his house and he got to set the air temperature. We took turns sneakily setting it during the night and putting it back to the “right” temperature in the morning. We were always cohorts in little rebellions. Present a group at odds with a common enemy and they will join forces to defeat him.
I push open my bedroom door and the daylight dust hits the shelves and my bed. The same bed I slept on the first eighteen years of life. The room is a pale yellow, a color my mother painted for me when I was getting closer to thirteen. I think she wanted me to feel calmer. All of my furniture looks out of place and disconnected from who I am now. My shelves are filled with trophies and plaques, smiling pictures and floral arrangements. I hardly remember who this girl was. There are some boxes on the floor and plastic bins in the bathroom. Without any method I start to dump my shelves into the boxes, labeling as I go. I have no idea what to do with any of this stuff. I don’t want to keep it, but I don’t want to get rid of it. I can’t imagine wanting it someday but what if I do? What if I come into my own and remember who I was when I lived in this room, lived in this life?
I lift up my faded blue duvet and pull the trundle bed out. A shotgun lays across the bed. Oh, right, I’m in Texas. It’s the shotgun my brother got for his 13th birthday. It usually hangs in his closet; I wonder what it’s doing in here. I wonder if my mom has been sleeping in here. Maybe she needed it close by.
Flinging open the closet there is a hazardous selection of clothes left behind when I packed for college. Garments outdated, old, and too small. Shirts that didn’t make sense to donate and pants I hoped I would squeeze back into. I sink into my favorite spot on the floor, between the lower hanging rack and the bins of knickknacks, pressing my back into the wall. I shut the doors and peak thru the gap. Flashes of my life dance in front of me in the darkness. I wrote my first book on this spot. I talked on the phone late into the night from this carpet. I hid from the yelling in this fortress. I was darting to squirrel myself into this spot when my mom stopped me and confronted me one night. The night she told me I couldn’t tell anyone about him and what he does. The night my brother sat on the floor and cried because I tried to give him hope. The night I realized I would never be normal and things were never going to be okay again. I crack the closet door to allow for some light and see the writing on the wall. Literal writing. I scribbled in pencil all over the back of the closet. You had to be in the closet to see it and obviously my mother had not thought to repaint this section. I would need to do that before I left. My twelve-year-old handwriting showed me how much I longed to be loved and wanted. How much I wanted someone to want me. The message is the same over and over and over again. My fingers softly linger over the hasted pencil marks and I smile at my braveness. That would have earned me some stripes across my backside had anyone ever found it.
“If you need more boxes they are in the garage.” My mother yells up the stairs cutting into my memory.
“Thanks” I respond bringing myself to my feet. I should finish this.
Several hours and eight boxes later the entire first eighteen years of my life has ceased to exist in this room. I began to haul them down the stairs and load the truck with stuff for the Salvation Army. A handful of the boxes are going to my Nana’s house, she has the space and I’ll drop them off later. I see the spot where the cedar tree used to stand, before the hurricane took it down and it reminds me I have no idea where my journals are. I didn’t see them in the packing. I rack my brain for my hiding spots. They aren’t buried, a tropical storm taught my not to bury paper in a county below sea level. Afraid with construction someone would discover my false drawer I removed them out of the bathroom. I didn’t see them in my dresser. A stale pack of cigarettes sure, but no journals. Where did I hide them? It comes to me and I trot up the stairs. I shut the bedroom door and sit cross-legged on the floor undoing the clasps to the air vent. Pulling out the filter I shine a light into the vast darkness of the bones of the old house. There they are, near a small shiny fake gold jewelry box. The two journals that hold all of my secrets thru adolescents. I carefully grip the beams and make my way inside to retrieve them, I’m not as small as I used to be and could easily fall thru the ceiling. Wouldn’t that be a site for the new owners. I grip the purple zebra print plastic ring bound book and her sister, a pale easter egg colored leather bound book, with ‘life is an adventure’ scrolled across the front and make my way back to the carpet. I sit in silence unable to open these treasure chests. Jostling the vent back in, I shove the journals in my purse and head to the truck flipping the ignition where Miranda Lambert’s House that Built Me comes on the radio. Pulling to the end of the winding driveway I stare at the dynasty in my rearview mirror, taking a mental snapshot of the house I grew up in. This house didn’t build me but it did shape me. Who I am is a direct result of who I was behind those doors. When I get to my Nana’s house I dump the journals into a box and slam the closet door closed. Out of site, out of mind, effectively erasing the girl I was all those years ago. She was dead to me anyway.
My therapist encouraged me to bring them back. Five months ago when I ended up in her office a shamble of a young lady I had no intention of discussing who I was before college. I figured the cliff notes version of my childhood would suffice. The topic of turbulent childhoods unfortunately means we don’t get to discuss it only once. I made the human mistake of thinking I had finished growing in that department. None of us are ever truly done; the occasions that shape us, the memories we harbor, the events that define us resurface multitude of times as new experiences capture us. The latest of my adventures had taken me to Texas for a month where reorganizing had led me to the box I locked into a closet six years before. As I held them in my hands I still wasn’t brave enough to open them. Cut to one phone call and a sleepless night later I had poured thru all three, including the newest addition from my college years. In the tight fashion I controlled my life, the journals were tabbed and color-coded for future use. What the hell was I doing? Leave the demons in the box in the closet where good monsters belong. Rapidly my youngster self, the small girl I had evaporated from my life was begging me to hold her. Begging me to forgive her for all the childish mistakes. I didn’t know how to forgive her without losing the foundation from which I was built.
The subject of today’s agenda rendering my silence is an assault I scribbled hastily in one of these journals using my captor’s verse. The majority of the page is filled with purple ink and the words ‘I’m sick.’ I don’t understand myself. I don’t remember this occurrence. I remember the first one by the same man when I was eight. In his hay barn barely big enough for a full grown adult to fit he came in behind me, shut the door and delicately arranged me on a pile of loose straw. The summer air suffocated the small space as he laid his enormous man body on top of my small, frail, innocent one. The bruises on my legs and shoulders remained for weeks and were the proof I needed something bad happened. Bruises I hid in shame as if their manifestation on my skin were evidence against crimes I had committed. That was rape. A word I hadn’t heard yet. A word I learned about on the news one night and got my sister to read the definition to me from a dictionary. A word I learned to attach to that experience. A word I couldn’t say for years.
That happened to me.
That happened to me.
That happened to me.
That happened to me.
I repeated this phrase over and over as I watched the news. When my sister begged me to explain it’s the only phrase I echoed. It’s all I could say.
That happened to me.
The only way my eight-year-old brain could compartmentalize this hazardous act.
That happened to me.
But this one, this assault when I’m older, when I have started to understand male and female anatomy, when I am fully aware of the dangers of this man, I end up back alone with him and I don’t remember anything. My therapist softly speaks, “I can only imagine how bad this one must have been for you to not remember.” I’ve been arguing with her because I remember the other two assaults in my early twenties. By then however I had a vocabulary for such things. By then, with a handful of partners, I had consensual sex. At eight and thirteen this grown man in his forties was my introduction to all things sexual. What distorted lessons he taught.
My body remembers the assault. The amount of pain encompassing me the week following the reading out loud of that entry is vile. The nightmares are lucid, limiting my sleep to a few hours a night and once I woke to my boyfriend coming to bed but instead of his face it was my attacker. Not normally a crier my cheeks were wet and swollen in the mornings. The feelings were similar to when I thought I was going crazy, the first time my PTSD came full force. I desperately waited for this time to be over, for my body to return to normal, for my brain to let me remember. I never remember though. I am still protecting myself from this, to avoid the hatred and the absorption of my complicity in the matter.
This girl, this version of myself I scattered across the country desperate to forget has never left. What I’m learning now as I approach thirty is life doesn’t work that way. I don’t originate a new identity in every state; don’t have the luxury of reinventing myself every time I cross a border. This ignored girl, this neglected child has been with me the whole time. She was with me in college when a former boyfriend locked me in a bathroom and forced his dick in my mouth. She was with me the summer after graduation as I basked in the evening warmth with a beer in hand before a man pushed himself on top of me on the porch of our house. Animalistically he attacked my body causing irreparable damage. She taught me I would survive these acts of violence because I had before. She reminded me no one could destroy me unless I give permission. I wish she made me braver than I feel now but she is a child. Children had a bravado that cannot translate into the adult world. What she is teaching me, what she has been trying to communicate to me from the beginning is my voice is valued. My expressions are legitimate and my feelings are warranted. I can and will be wanted for the very person I exist to be. I do not have to change or adjust or morph into a different, braver, impostor of a person to face the world. The world can learn to accept me. The broken, beautiful, messy, powerful, hurt, jumbled, boundless woman I am. What my younger self is asking, the only thing she has ever asked is for me to find my voice. I spoke as a kid on the pages of a journal because that was my only safe place. Now I am outside of the physical hurt, I am no longer in active danger and it is safe, finally safe, for me to speak. To let go of the injustices I have harbored in my soul. These men, these brutal, broken, violent men, chose me because I did not have a voice to share. Their hope preyed on my vulnerabilities to swallow the indignations committed against me. Because I had no choice, it happened. It’s not my fault, it’s not her fault either my younger self. She was a victim of circumstances completely out of her control, searching for affection and attention in the only form it was offered. I carried her inadequacies into adulthood after I locked her in a closet to die. The moment has arrived to throw them away.
I walk into my therapists’ office and look her fully in the eyes. “I’m ready to tell you their names,” I say, my voice stronger than expected. “I don’t want to carry this inside. I don’t deserve to and I can’t keep quiet any longer.” Her eyes meet mine full of strength and hope and her mouth slides into a tiny smile. She leans back, picks up her coffee and lets me speak, unsophisticated, jumbled, erratic and conquering speech. It makes no difference how it tumbles out, just that I’m speaking, regaining the power these men held from me for so long.
Jackie Filer is a freelancer in the entertainment world. She works in television, theatre and film in a multitude of aspects; covering any ground that needs to be covered. New York has laid a stake in her and Jackie now calls the city home. Any spare time she has you will find her drinking wine with her girls or on the top of a mountain discovering new perspectives on life.