In the stories people like to tell, home is safe and we love our folks. But you have a different story. Despite everything you have learned about how violence works, there are moments and days when you are immobilized by its shame. You find yourself back at that place where you long for something that is not yours. You want the other story–the one about the father who would never threaten his wife and children, the father who would never humiliate or physically attack you. You want the father who never brutalized your brother. A father who felt things besides rage.
You agree with Primo Levi; there is nothing inherently righteous about suffering. For those of us who have survived the terrorism of gender-based violence, it means we know things we wish we never knew. It makes us skillful during emergencies. It makes us calm when things are falling apart, anxious when things move along well. We are intimate with taking flight and people like us around when their hearts are broken.
You dislike remembering the details. As the cliché goes, how can any of it be said? When you do share, people react with surprise.
But you seem so well adjusted.
I can’t believe this happened to someone like you.
You’ve come so far.
And you regret having said what you said because what do those comments mean except, Shut your mouth and stay quiet. It is in the past. Maybe it wasn’t so bad?
When your mom tells you she still has nightmares, your mind turns to your brother who sleeps on the floor. She knows what you are thinking and counters, “He did not destroy us.”
“No,” you say, “he has irreparably deformed our lives.”
It’s been over 30 years since you left his house and you still jump at loud noises. Flinching beneath the peace you have worked so hard to build, there is your reservoir of dread. His nihilism is that fierce. You have kept it at bay with discipline and love. You have learned the strategic necessity of optimism. Those who think optimism is superficial or naive never had to run for their lives. Never had to lie for no reason, never knowing which truth might get them punched or kicked out.
You remember the man from the Adult Children of Alcoholics meeting and how sometimes other people say the things we are unable to say or imagine. You sat in a circle in a community center afloat in a parking lot in Tucson. You offered only a brief introduction but that man gave his full name and in a quiet voice he told the group,
“My father has been dead for ten years and now, only now, am I beginning to feel some sense of safety, some degree of hope.”