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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Due Process

I un-followed a Canadian author who helped shape my identity as a human and as a creator. I un-followed her because of a letter she signed. To be clear (because no small statement is ever clear) I did not un-follow her forever. My feed is an ebb and flow of the things I enjoy, the things that give me hope and the things I hope to know. My feed serves me. That’s why it’s mine. I may find, in the near future, that reading her small, instant words feeds me. For now, I’m choking on it. I also did not un-follow her simply because she took a political or personal action I disagree with. She has built up enough good faith as a creator that I see no need to view the world through a lens identical to hers. I un-followed her because it hurt.

Two words she threw out like a casual sprinkling of flavour on a massive meal: Due process.

I am a sexual assault survivor. I am a multiple sexual assault survivor. In almost every case, it was a man who held cross-sections of power attempting to or succeeding at misusing my physical and emotional form because they could.

When I started to realize – well into my teens – that what had happened to me was, indeed, against our presumed social contract, I began the process of seeking my due.

Due process simply means fair treatment in the judicial system. Not only fair treatment for the person who stands accused, but for the person who stands destroyed. Too visceral? Too emotional? Probably.

Here is due process to a person who has been raped, sexually abused or sexually assaulted:

1

Tell someone. This person may be yourself. Often that’s the first person you tell. If you are young, you may tell yourself after a book or a flyer in your school or an episode of Degrassi confirms that the tearing and ripping inside you is not an anomaly, but a reaction. There’s an overt message that you are not alone in numbers, but 1000 subtle messages that you are probably alone regardless. If you are an adult, telling yourself can happen during, or just after or years later. It can happen when you do that math inside your head that says if I scream he will kill me or if I just make it to the end it will be over and she will leave. Math is a process. Math figures out how much more they have to weigh than you to hold you down. Turns out, it’s not that much. It is not fair that this is how you must talk to yourself, but neither is it judicial, so we will pass this step.

2

Tell another someone. Maybe a friend. Maybe using code words. In my case, it was a guidance counselor. She was not the first person I told, but she was the first to break the code. There is a good chance that the person you tell will not believe you. They may try to find a way to show that it was your fault. This is about you, but it’s also not about you. It’s about constructing a safe cocoon of control that says I would not have made those choices so it would not happen to me or I did something similar once and I am not a villain. Sometimes they will believe you, but since they have spent a same lifetime watching dashing men on film win women over by hands-over-ears ignoring their nos and stops and I mean stops, they will wonder if it isn’t just the way things are. This is also not fair. Now that you have told someone, we may be drifting into the judicial. After all, everyone you tell, even your diary or your mother, can be called up later to testify. That’s the process. Maybe it’s better to say nothing at all, and to smile in pictures at picnics, but then, those pictures may also be called to testify. Anyone/thing you tell is likely to come back at you. This blog could come back at me. Every time we speak, we give a piece of ourselves to that process that we cannot take back with honest words. Words are not proof.

3

Tell the police. Go to the police. We use ‘the’ with police because everyone knows what you mean. No need to give qualifiers, adjectives. They are the police. The police with candies at parades and dirty looks when you walk in groups with other people from school. The police who, perhaps, look more like your assailant than you. Here the process comes due. If you have made it to this part in the process, you are one of only 6 out of 100. 94 out of 100 people chose to stop at step 1 or step 2. You sit in a room or curl up in a ball in a room or pretend you are not in a room and try to take something that is bigger than any part of you and break it down small enough that it will fit on a piece of paper that can go in a file in a drawer or on a computer and maybe turn into fair treatment in the judicial system. If this outcome were common, there would be more than 6 of you. It is not common. Numbers show that. Stories show that. Rooms full of women secure that no one is listening show that. Our arms and our medications and our nervous ticks show that.

4

There are two ways this step in the process can go. You may find, like I did, like a fall from a high height that lands you square on your back, that the last step takes all the wind out of you. It is okay if your process ends here. The next step involves lawyers. Lawyers are people who went to school for a very long time to study a system created before most folks could vote or own property or avoid being property. An apple tree can grow a thousand ways, but it’s still an apple tree. Until we plant something new, this is our only apple tree. This apple tree sucks. People will tell you to have faith in it. They may point to new branches that have grown since you were considered a person. They may say that the roots are strong enough to maintain us through change. That is bullshit. Only 1 out of 65 of us will see fruit from this tree and that fruit is often small and full of worms. Have I lost you? Anyone who tells you that you should not have feelings until due process is served is choosing not to see that no matter how nobly an idea may grow, it is only by its fruit that we can truly judge it. There is no fucking fruit.

5

Some people may think that the previous step is the last one in the process, but there is another. This is a step we take when we’ve exhausted one of the previous steps and found that, no matter what the promise of fairness is, the social contract we have signed has crap clauses. It has the clause that wealthy people and famous people and popular people and really any people can still succeed, no matter what they do to us. They can be free. They can be loved. They can be president. It has a clause that says we are to stay very, very silent no matter what happens, unless the tree gives us grand, ripe fruit. They do not point out the very small text that says it rarely does – and then usually when very pretty and convincing humans with pristine pasts and no scars point at very mean looking humans and say, “it was them!” So what do we do? We hold our hand to our mouth and with a theater aside, we whisper our stories in quiet spaces. We write maudlin poetry and carve lyrics on our bellies. We cry when we masturbate and flinch at gentle touches. We sometimes throw the contract out and shout and shout and shout, only to be met, finally, by a two words that I can no longer bear:

Due process.

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.

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.

Re-Schooled

2976

Kindergarten

I’m going back to school. That’s it. It’s happening. No matter how big a challenge the next two years are, I’m going back to school. Specifically, I’m taking a Library and Information Technician program. I’m cautiously jazzed about this. Cautious because it’s a big investment of time and money and – if I’m being honest – because no dream that a person has had for 30 years can ever be as good as what they’ve imagined. Jazzed because holy damn, I’m going to school!

 

I understand that for a lot of people, school was hard. But for me, it was my oasis. Every day, from 8:30 to 3:30, I was in my element: a place where books and art and ideas were valuable and questioning things was often encouraged.

If I’m being honest, it was also a place I was safe. It was my escape and I loved it, even when it was harsh or I had trouble with other kids or I got something less that an 80.

I remember clearly every teacher I’ve had, starting with Ms. Crouch in kindergarten all the way up to Mr. Piercey, who taught me Grade 12 English online after I returned to high school recently.

JPEG #2807 copy

Grade Two

To be clear, I didn’t leave school because I wanted to. The year I left, I had obtained the highest mark in all three of my courses for that semester. I still have the letters of congratulations from the principal. I was thinking about taking English in University and my grades meant that despite my poverty, I had a chance at making it. But just before exams, my abuser found out that I had “told” what had happened to me. I ran within minutes of finding out he knew, taking with me just what I could carry. His threats were a stronger motivator than any hope I had.

 

I still managed to attend most of my classes, while crashing on the couches of friends or staying up all night and catching sleep at school or on the subway. Then a spot opened up in a transitional group home. Since I had nowhere else to go, I took it, but that meant moving outside of my school district and starting again (not for the first time) in a new space with new challenges. As soon as I was out of immediate danger, I fell apart. I was bowled over by my own emotional combustion.

JPEG #2803 copy

Grade 8

I wonder if I could have fought it out then – but I just can’t look at back at the person I was and fault her for taking a job and focusing on surviving.

 

Since then, I’ve tried to go back to school a few times, with varying success. There was always something else that needed my focus, and that’s okay. That’s how life is. But a few years back I caught a bug that totaled my system. One day I had a seizure and, internally, I thought – oh, this is it, the end of my life. I realized that I was happy, in that moment. Happy with my love and home and the family and circle of friends I had built. I realized that I only had one regret and that was not finishing school.

So almost immediately, I started completing high school using TDSB e-Learning courses. They are fabulous, by the way, if you’re thinking about going back. I found that school was still very much in my blood. In my first course, the aforementioned English with Mr. Piercey, I received my first 100%. In all my courses, I never once dipped below a 98%. It’s something I’m proud of, as I was working and healing that whole time.

FullSizeRender

Grade 12, the second time around.

More than that, though, I loved it. That passion to share and learn, to strive to communicate and to listen, it felt like a homecoming, even if it was a virtual one.

 

That brings us to December of last year when I was laid off from work and injured myself pretty badly all in a few short days. In the time since then, two big things have happened: I had surgery, which I’m still recovering from (but quite well, thanks!) and I applied to go to college to become a Librarian!

If you know me, you know books are my heart (well, books and my love Graeme.) You know that with my years of work with kids and work with words, I’m suited to do this gig. But even more than that, it will be the final stage in my return to school.

I’m applying for some bursaries and assistance, but even with that, it’s going to be a massive cost. We will become a one income family and that’s going to be a shock to the system, for sure. But we will make it work, no matter what. I need to see that piece of paper with my name on it. Need need.

IMG_4742

College!

We’ve set up a GoFundMe so folks can help if they’d like. We’re asking only insofar as you have it to give, because we realize that most of us are in a tight place right now. Give what you can, if you can and if you want to. And know that no matter what, you’ve all helped me get to this place and I am so, so grateful.

My plan is to post videos and updates as I go, so you can see what you’ve helped accomplish.

Thank you all. So much.
See you in September!

Heather

 

 

Writing To You from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

Fingerprints stamp urgency
Where postmarks can’t be found
A letter this important
Should not be here on the ground

by Heather Emme

Just a mini-verse as I recover from my surgery. To read all the #verseday poems, click here. To read my twitter poems, click here.