The President, The Actor, My Father and Me

A little over one year ago, there was an election race in the United States of America. In this race, the nominee for the Republican Party spent more time in the news for his hateful rhetoric than he did for public policy. Most people assumed that there was a comment – some comment – that would sway the public away from him. I live in Toronto and I watched the mayoral stumblings of Rob Ford. I was less certain.

Susanna_and_the_Elders_(1610),_Artemisia_Gentileschi“I moved on her like a bitch.”

“Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

“I did try and fuck her. She was married.”

And that was just one conversation. One recorded conversation. One recorded conversation that was proof that a man running for president thought men could do anything to women. Then he was elected – and he was proven right.

The repercussion of his win are hard to explain, but it proved something to victims. It proved that every excuse we’d heard for why justice had not been meted out was a lie. It proved that a recorded confession was not enough. It proved that a dozen people with corroborating stories was not enough. It proved that overt and predatory lechery was not enough.

Nothing is enough.

That was it. That and Cosby and Ghomeshi and every other powerful person who hurts people without consequence. That was the moment we realized exactly how little we mattered. How little our pain mattered.

That realization was paired with a new ability to connect to each other and to count ourselves. When my first abuse happened in the 80s and 90s, there was no connective tissue like the one we have now. Our isolation was both a tool of our abusers and a symptom of our abuse. My father told me not to tell. He said things that I assumed were unique. He said I was special for being mature. He said I should never tell anyone or they would put him in jail. He said he would get me.

It lived in me. It lived there as others, spotting a pre-trained victim, repeated the abuse in new flavours and colours. Saltier tears or louder screams. Different ceilings and darker nights. Churches and workplaces and bus stations. My living room couch and a theatre and a restaurant. In each instance, I collapsed further inward. I wrote about my experience and tried to support others dealing with theirs, but the isolation persisted.

So did the hope.

I hoped that the people who were supposed to have protected me would come around. Sometimes, in a moment of sincere naivety, I even hoped my abuser would come around. He’s dying now, I’ve heard. A part of me still wants to ask him why. A part of me wants him just to admit it.

Artemisia_Gentileschi_-_Mary_Magalene_as_Melancholy_1621-22

Seeing a man win an election who was so overtly cool with sexual assault killed that tender hope. It told me that a huge swath of folks didn’t actually think victims were liars – they just didn’t care. We were unimportant. And that fucking hurt. I cut off the world, the way I was trained. I didn’t read the news. I didn’t call friends. I was okay, alone. I was alone, okay? Friends let me be. Friends reached out. Friends sent me coded messages that may not have been for me.

A year later and a story comes out that an actor attacked a 14 year old kid. I know his story wasn’t the first one, but it’s the one that hit me the hardest. Maybe it was the similarity in ages or the physical similarities between our assailants. Maybe it was because that survivor’s voice, on a CD, kept me going in the group home I ended up in after I told the truth and found myself disposed of.

I don’t know him either. He was just a voice. I don’t believe in heroes. They are always too human in real life. But it shook it all up again. It’s been shaken so much I’m like a Bond martini of anxiety.

There seems to be a movement toward believing people. That’s good. It is. But it also means that survivors have to see a dozen conversations about things they hold in to get through a day. It means that I have to stop myself a hundred times over from explaining, AGAIN, why 96% of survivors who see no justice is more shocking than the 2% possibility of false accusations. It means that I have to do my job and live my life and ignore the panic and the pain in my stomach and the nightmares so bad I bruise my face in my sleep.

So here it is. Conversations I’m tired of having.

I think some people are just crying wolf.
Perhaps. But we live in a place and time where one in six have been mauled by said wolves so maybe we have a fucking problem with wolves and we should listen.

A false accusation can ruin a career.
Even a confession can’t ruin a career (see above re: President.) But let’s also consider the amazing deleted careers of folks who were assaulted when they were first starting out. Let’s consider the people who chose speaking out over their careers. Let’s value the artistic contributions that survivors make, even when they’ve been turned inside out. Let me mourn for those lost and altered voices.

If these folks had spoken out earlier, they might have saved someone else.
*BUZZER* Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. No one gets to judge folks for the way they reacted to assault, unless they chose to hurt others.

Damn – side-tracked again.

That’s why I wanted to include the actor. That’s reason number two why this story hit me so hard. He was, if you believe his brother, also a victim of an abuser. He was hurt. Then he hurt. I know that’s true of my abuser. I know it’s true of more than one of the people who didn’t keep me safe. It’s a huge, messy, fucking loop. Time is not a line.

Susanna_e_i_vecchioni_di_Artemisia_Gentileschi,_Museo_Civico_di_Bassano_del_GrappaThe person who hurt me was the boy who was hurt by a man who was a boy who was hurt by a man who was a boy who was hurt…and on it goes. I am the kid I was and the person I have grown to be. That kid isn’t gone and in my dreams, my abuser/the child he was/the dying man is young and his polyester work pants scratch my skin. And I am soft skinned and thin skinned and I still can feel it now and maybe he can still feel his abuser now.

So there it is, in all its non-linear, time-looping glory. Presidents and paupers, parents and children, actors and survivors and me.

Tending an almost extinguished hope, one breath at a time.

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Ways To Go

Your bed was in my dream last night
Beige knit bedspread
Reaching out to my hand
Where I lay on the floor
Counting the wooden tiles
Like building block pieces
In checkered patterns

Now right to left
Now up and down

Cheap and replaceable
So tenants destroy just one small part
With cigarettes left burning
Or oil spilled from bottles promising VEGETABLE
So mothers can count ten servings
With bags and jars and mixes and cans
On pyramids sent back to school

You were on your bed last night
As young as I am now old

Now brown haired
Now grey
Now brown

Because I am dreaming
I do not hate you
And you smile
And you hurt me
And I think of ways to go.

by Heather Emme

To read all the #verseday poems, click here. To read my twitter poems, click here.

Henry Rollins, Rape and the End of the World

Thanks to my brother-in-law’s wild life touring with the Trews, he wasn’t able to use his fifth row tickets to see Henry Rollins‘ spoken word performance at the Music Hall. My love and I were happy to step up and take one for the team, putting the tickets to good use.

I’ll start with a confession. I am NOT punk rock. Not even a little. I don’t gel with the music and I’m not edgy. I apparently didn’t get the dress code memo that black t-shirts were the required uniform.  I wore a horned Loki sweater to the event. But my love has listened to Rollins’ spoken word albums since we met over 20 years ago and Rollins’ books of poetry and performances in works like He Never Died speak to me on a weirdly personal level.

IMG_2191.JPGStill, I had never seen him live and I’d never listened to his bands. I expected I’d be going on a night that my love really enjoyed and his joy would make the night wonderful. After some waiting, Rollins took the stage. He wrapped the mic cord around his hand, took a deep breath, and spoke like a machine gun on auto-load for two hours and twenty five minutes.

Here’s the thing about me. I’m old. I mean, I’m not Pop’s Soda Shoppe old, but I remember when plaid was king and orange and brown were considered a reasonable colour scheme for a living room. While I talk about my trauma on my blog, for the most part I go through the world like a normal human being. I smile at jokes. I read books on the bus. I watch cheesy movies. I pass for normal. Unless you speak to me and I’m open about it, nothing about me screams ABUSE AND RAPE SURVIVOR. Yes I have PTSD, but generally I’m pretty good at keeping my symptoms to myself. I camouflage. I blend.

Still, as Rollins progressed through his talk, it was like he was dancing on every one of my triggers. He talked about his friend RuPaul. Weirdly, RuPaul’s autobiography was the first book I bought when considering that I might be queer. He talked about global warming and the end of the world. He talked about how music gave him proxy parents, musicians who spoke to him in ways his own parents couldn’t, when he needed to be understood. He talked about being the weird, spazzy kid whose brain worked differently than other people’s. He even talked about misogyny, homophobia and racism, problems that hit close to my heart – an organ I don’t always protect like I should.

So yeah. I cried a few times as he raced through his anecdotes. I was watching a dude at the front of the room be honest and beautiful and real and it tore me up. Here was a guy at almost all the intersections of privilege, choosing to challenge every advantage he had and to be naked in the face of scorn. I dug it.

When he talked about his discovery of punk, I found a place where our paths diverged.He was looking for music that spoke to the anger he felt, his base emotion being rage at the world around him. When I discovered music, I didn’t go that way. Rage wasn’t a colour in my palette. Anger wasn’t an emotion I had permission to feel. So instead, I reached for sorrow. I gravitated to blues and folk, to R&B and soul. In tunes about lost loves and do-wrong partners, I found my companions. Sure, their loss was of a different flavour to mine, but it still spoke of heartache and destruction. I remember the first time I heard Joplin’s Cry Baby. Hell, I knew it was a sin, but I loved the way she wept in tune. I loved the way she bellowed pain. Here was my avatar.

As I aged, I discovered Janis Ian and Ma Rainey and Odetta and Joan Armatrading and Buffy Sainte-Marie. Damn, but those women could wail. Rather than anger, I immersed myself in sorrow and I survived.

img_2192Near the end of Rollins’ set, he told a story about a young woman who waited outside one of his shows, seeking an autograph. As a storyteller, he told her story. He talked about her rape. He talked about her experience with not being believed, about how her rapist was allowed to share space with her – to smile at her – because she was not believed. By this point, I was weeping silently. It would not do to weep loudly or burn the feeling down. He talked about her suicide attempts and her cutting. He talked about her attachment to his music, how it gave her more of a voice for her anger.

That’s when, despite it all, I felt hope. She wasn’t like me, attaching meaning to the blues. She saw her reality in a genre that felt anger and expressed it. She had found a connection to a genre that demanded that anger be seen, acknowledged and felt.

She raged.

I was shaking.

Rollins ended his set and left the stage. All my nerves were activated, all my sense peaked. I knew I couldn’t push my way through a crowd, a press of bodies, to get to an exit. Still, I sing the blues. I do not rage. I sat and waited for the crowd to pass.

Then a security guard, a uniformed man standing a good foot over me, came over and tried to hurry me up. As always, words caught in my throat and ideas stammered through my head like unruly passengers. I needed to wait until the crowd cleared. After all that exploration, I couldn’t leave through a crowd. Not yet. He raised his voice, impatient with what I’m sure he saw as my impertinence, an accusation a woman doesn’t escape until she meets soil and headstone. I managed words, as the crowd waiting for the VIP Q&A started to gawk at the scene developing by them.

“If you give me a moment, I can explain. Just come over here.”

I knew he wouldn’t understand unless I explained. Still, 100 strangers didn’t need to know my life. For me, electing to tell my story only when I wanted had helped me find my voice. Being cornered into it didn’t appeal.

The guard would have none of it. He was brisk. He had a job to do. I was in the way. Still, I waited. I took breaths. I waited and eventually I left.

I thought about what Rollins had told the woman who had come to his show. He had asked her if people had been telling her, of her rape experience, that it would pass. Of course, they had. Rollins had explained to her that this was probably not the case. It would live inside her, like an energy. It wouldn’t pass. It rarely does. But it was an energy she could harness. As I walked home, I thought about this. I thought about the energy that, after all this time, still takes up space in my body. It wearies me. It has changed the lens through which I see the world. I thought about the space it occupies and the shockwaves I still feel, decades later, when a man on stage talks about abuse and rape and falling apart.

I know he’s right. It hasn’t gone away, no matter what people promised. It’s here inside me. So I do what I can. I describe it. I examine it. I am honest with it and about it. I write even if no one reads. I write because it spreads the energy out. I write because I can.

I Like To Cut My Skin

I like to cut my skin
It’s the only thrill I’ve got
It’s better
I know
To feel something
Than not

I like the tug and catch
And the perfect lines I draw
It’s better
I know
To exorcise
The flaw

I like to cut my skin
I cannot tell you why
It’s better
I know
To say nothing
Than lie

by Heather Emme

To read all the #verseday poems, click here. To read my twitter poems, click here.

Time/Space

He is a scientist
What’s more
An engineer
And he can hear
The drum, the thrum,
The humming of the gears

And he can tell
(Like the top was popped)
What’s underneath
What’s buzzing in my ears

One time he told me
Time
The line
Is not a line
It slips and slides
Like gears that grind
Until their teeth
Are powder fine
Until their teeth are gone

I know that song
My active head
I lie abed
I’m lost in time
Not powder fine
Not faded by
These years
These gears
My teeth, they grind
Until they’re flat
They make
A line
And all the points are gone

And now I ride a bus to school
A bus that takes me
Back in time
Past places that are not in line
Past buildings where I took up space
The place
They ground me down
The face that I have found
I’m bound
Lost in a sideways eight

I think on what he said
My bed
My teeth
My gears
My years
My head

I hope time is not linear

So she hears what I say to her
The girl trapped in the infinite
The halted time of being hit
I whisper to her not to quit

“You’ll be okay
You’ll be okay
You’ll be okay
Okay”
I say

Until we pull away

by Heather Emme

To read all the #verseday poems, click here. To read my twitter poems, click here.

Existing in the Disaster’s Wake

Content warning: Assault and abuse.

Yesterday I saw my assailant on the subway, for the second time in as many months. Previous to that, it had been years since I’d shared a space with him. I don’t believe in a higher power. I don’t believe in fate. Still, my mind is trying to make order out of the disorder that seeing him twice in so short a time has caused in my body.

Here is where I have landed:

He is real and he is out there, in my city and in my world. He goes home to what was my family. Every day they share a space with him, when, for me, those seconds were repugnant.

I think about this like a small, personal epicenter of a bigger reality: we, as a society, are okay with sexual assault. Our conviction rates are so low as to make the crime tacitly legal. Of the reported 460,000 Canadians assaulted every year, only around 7000 will see a conviction. When convictions do happen, people do more time for stealing a car than sexually assaulting a human. When someone is convicted, it’s often discovered that they had previous complaints that were dismissed by police. Most who speak to police report being unsatisfied with the process. The most common feeling selected by those surveyed? Devastated. It’s a word we use when a disaster destroys a city and leaves it rubble.

And after that devastation, comes the attempt to rebuild. In the case of a disaster, most can assume that the danger has passed. That the hurricane is over. That the wildfire has gone out. No one pities the disaster. No one brings the earthquake in to their home. We don’t fault the city for daring to exist in the disaster’s wake. My disaster walks around my city. He joins Ghomeshi and Cosby and Turner and all the other disasters that are given succor while we rebuild.

I wonder what it would mean if they turned the disaster away. I wonder what it would mean if I did not have to, in my casual daily travels, brace for the storm. I can’t know. I’ll never know. I can just rebuild again, stronger this time – like every time – and hope that what I’ve built survives.

Thanks For The Ride

I’m going to college. It’s a done deal. Come September, I will be matriculating in the grand halls of Seneca College. How do I feel?

I’m grateful.

I’m grateful to the people who have helped out on my GoFundMe to raise my bus fare to get to school. I will be able to buy almost a full year of transit passes, thanks to the generosity of my friends and family and even a few folks I’ve never met. I haven’t the words.

It was my husband who recently offered insight in to why, specifically, I was worried about making it to classes, about affording transit, above anything else. As soon as he pointed it out, I felt almost doltish. How had I not seen it?

In a previous blog, I talked about my experiences with high school. What I didn’t talk about was why I didn’t graduate after my move to the group home.

I couldn’t afford transit.

It’s so obvious in retrospect. It was the mid nineties. I was in my last year of high school. I had taken my courses. I had done the work. We were coming up on exam time. Then a spot in my group home opened up and after a year, I was on top of the waiting list. I was moved half way across the city. I managed to continue in school for a while, then I ran out of money.

It was a transitional group home, which meant no live-in matron, no on-call care and no financial assistance. We were expected to work and pay rent. If I had been more resourceful, perhaps I would have figured out a way to do it all. But I had been running on leftover steam for quite a few years and, surrounded by my boxes of possessions, feeling absolutely alone, I gave up. Missing my exams because I couldn’t afford the fare? That was like a death knell. I’d gone to five high schools, survived abuse, homelessness, my neurodivergent brain, but it was a few dollars for the subway that did me in. I sat on my boxes and sobbed. I had no fight left. I upped my hours to full time and got to the business of being an adult.

20+ years later, when the opportunity came to go to college, all those old doubts resurfaced. Every exhausting fear came creeping back. Every negative inner whisper. Every worst case scenario

So I asked for help.

And you helped.

All of you helped me save up my bus fare so, no matter what, I’ll never be trapped with no way to get to my classes.

And in exciting news, Times Change Women’s Employment Centre helped me get a bursary to assist with my tuition. I can’t thank them enough. I went in looking for back to work tips, and instead they helped me find my way to go back to school.

I told my husband, the day my bursary came through, “I planned for every contingency, EXCEPT this all working out.”

Dudes – it’s all working out. I’m going to school. I’m really doing it. And everyone who has been there for me through rough times and great times, everyone who kicked a few bucks to my transit fund, everyone who send me a cheesy Facebook boost when I was blue, everyone who let me volunteer in their spaces to learn skills, everyone who read my work and told me my ideas were valuable – you all deserve a bigger THANK YOU than I can convey.

I wish I could go back to the girl crying on the boxes and say, “It’s not over. It’s just delayed. You’re going to school. You’ll get there. And you’ll do it with the help of your friends.”

I say thank you. That girl says thank you. Thank you with all my heart.