I will not say again
I sat on his lap. No.
He had me on his lap.
You were not raped; he raped you.
Memory moves as it can, freedom is yours
to place the verb.
And yes, the oppressor’s language
sometimes sounds beautiful,
always dies hard. Let us move on.1
— Margaret Randall
The woman writer walks a stony path. Joanna Russ outlined the difficulties faced by women who enter the literary sphere in her now classic work, How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983).2 Almost a quarter of a century later, these obstacles are still in place. Women’s works are ridiculed, trivialized, appropriated, scorned or ignored, rarely engaged sympathetically and infrequently appreciated. In addition to literary skills, a woman writer needs determination and courage, and even the possession of all three does not guarantee success. This chapter focuses on the work of three women who have chosen to write and to publish narratives of incest; who have chosen to break not only the taboos against women writing, but the taboos against acknowledging and discussing sexual abuse.
Louise Wisechild’s The Obsidian Mirror: An Adult Healing from Incest is the story of a woman who reconstructs her fragmented self piece by piece — assembling a whole woman out of the child shattered by incestuous abuse. Enter Password: Recover. Re-Enter Password is Elly Bulkin’s record of her struggle towards self-consciousness and memory and of her efforts to generate a balance between herself and her community. Margaret Randall’s This Is About Incest combines prose, poetry and photography in a work carefully constructed to provide the reader with a chronological re-enactment of her struggle to heal from incest. These narratives are dedicated to transforming a personal journey into a matter of public record.
Sociologist Inger Agger and psychiatrist Søren Buus Jensen describe the act of testimony as a ritual with dual purpose. When a survivor testifies, she both purges herself on an internal “evil,” and bears witness to a social or political injustice:
The word “testimony” has in itself a double connotation of both something objective, judicial, public, or political, and of something subjective, spiritual, cathartic, or private… Thus the use of the word “testimony” in itself in a psychotherapeutic setting with victims of political repression implies that the subjective, private pain is to be seen in an objective, political context.3
The drive to testify is a “universal phenomenon,” and Agger and Jensen promote the use of the “testimony method” of psychotherapy in cross-cultural treatment of trauma survivors. A therapist who uses the testimony method is concerned with both “the cognitive and emotional levels in the process of bearing testimony.”4 The therapist becomes involved in a multi-level relationship with the patient, first as her psychotherapist, and subsequently in a public, political role “as a joint advocate against political oppression and the violation of human rights.”5
The sexual abuse survivor narratives discussed in this chapter are products of this personal/political therapeutic process. Within the supportive environment of the feminist movement, writing workshops, and therapy groups for survivors of sexual abuse have evolved and multiplied. Survivors are both going about the business of personal healing and publicly documenting atrocities against women. This work is difficult, and, as Agger and Jensen explain, it is most successful with survivors who have a strong ideological commitment to bearing witness. Many of the women who engage in the process of testifying to experiences of sexual abuse are white lesbian feminists and activists and share a certain set of beliefs and practices. Literary critic Lillian Faderman explains:
There is a good deal on which lesbian-feminists disagree… But they all agree that men have waged constant battle against women, committed atrocities or at best injustices against them, reduced them to grown-up children, and that a feminist ought not to sleep in the enemy camp. They all agree that being a lesbian is, whether consciously or unconsciously perceived, a political act, a refusal to fulfill the male image of womanhood or to bow to male supremacy… [Lesbianism] is a choice which has been made often in the context of the feminist movement and with an awareness of the ideology behind it. It has seemed the only possible choice for many women who believe that the personal is political…6
Wisechild and Bulkin describe themselves as lesbians; Randall, though she does not state her sexual preference, is clearly woman-identified.7 The disproportionate representation of white lesbian women in the ranks of those who bear witness to surviving sexual abuse is liable to be misinterpreted, and a discussion of this phenomenon is in order. It is crucial that the student of sexual abuse survivor testimony reject the heterosexist assumption that lesbianism is deviant behavior. Approaching these writings with the idea that lesbian women are simply “normal” women who have “gone wrong” will prevent the critic from fully understanding lesbian testimony in context.
Lesbian sexual abuse survivors are not potentially heterosexual women who have been turned into “manhaters” by their terrible experiences. As philosopher Sarah Hoagland explains in Lesbian Ethics, “Certainly many lesbians hate men, and there is reason to believe that manhating is important to moving out of oppression.”8 But manhating is not the defining characteristic of lesbians — the defining characteristic is woman-identification, a positive rather than a negative trait. Lesbian separatist Harriet Desmoines explains:
“Lesbian consciousness” is really a point of view, a view from the boundary. And in a sense every time a woman draws a circle around her psyche, saying “this is a room of my own,” and then writes from within that “room,” she’s inhabiting lesbian consciousness.9
In order to fully understand the implications of lesbian testimony, we must refuse to trivialize lesbianism by defining it as a “bedroom issue,” and expand our understanding into the realm of the political.10
The importance of woman-identification is clear to feminist therapists who work with sexual abuse survivors. The Courage To Heal (1988), a popular, mass-market, 500-page “handbook” for women survivors of child sexual abuse, contains the testimony of lesbian survivors, as well as a section entitled “On Being a Lesbian and a Survivor.”11Edited by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, The Courage to Heal is strongly supportive of lesbian women, and contains testimony that underlines the idea that lesbianism is a viable option for women:
I had believed that I was a lesbian because I had been so badly abused by my father. I thought maybe it was a point of being stuck in my emotional growth. I thought that until I met a lesbian… who had never been abused in any way… [T]hat’s when I realized my lesbianism didn’t have to have a cause. It’s got nothing to do with what happened to me.
I’m a lesbian because I love women, not because I hate men. I’m not a separatist. I have a male child who I think is terrific. There are men in my life I care a great deal for. I’m not a man-hater. In fact, I think heterosexual women have a lot more reason to hate men than I do.12
Bass and Davis explain that although “some survivors still believe that there is something wrong with them that caused them to be lesbian,” this is far from the truth. “Being lesbian,” they state firmly, “is a perfectly healthy way to be, not another effect of the abuse you need to overcome.”13 They suggest that women who are not comfortable with their lesbian identity look for support within the lesbian community: “Subscribe to lesbian journals and magazines. Get on the mailing list for women’s music festivals and conferences… Reach out. You’re not alone. For many women their lesbian identity is a strong, positive anchor in their lives.”14
Woman-identification serves as a strong, positive anchor for the three women whose works are discussed in this chapter. In their narratives we can find the essential elements of the same testimony method employed by women who serve as therapists both in a professional and peer group setting. The white lesbian feminist community provides a safe and supportive environment within which these sexual abuse survivors can come to terms with their pain and anger. The existence of this environment most likely accounts for the high proportion of sexual abuse survivor testimonies written by white lesbians. Heterosexual women may testify in smaller numbers than their lesbian sisters because they do not often have access to a close-knit communal support system that validates and encourages a strong ideological commitment to bearing witness to sexual abuse.
Therapeutic healing is at the heart of both the Wisechild and Randall narratives, where the relationship between survivor and therapist is central to the text. Though Bulkin is not in therapy, her lover and friends take on the role of therapist, and she embarks on a journey of healing and self-discovery. These narratives parallel the three-stage process for treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder described by psychologist and art therapist David Read Johnson:
First, the patient needs to gain access in a safe and controlled way to the traumatic memories, to overcome denial or amnesia for the events. Second, the patient needs to engage in a lengthy working-through process in which the trauma can be acknowledged, re-examined, and conceptualized, resulting in a modification of its intensity. The trauma is transformed from an intrusive re-living of the event into a memory that can be recalled when one wishes. Third, the patient needs to re-join the world of others through interaction with other trauma victims, to find forgiveness from others for what happened, and to be able to go on with one’s life.15
But where Johnson envisions a carefully managed therapeutic environment and an unequal patient-therapist relationship, the authors of these personal narrative describe a situation in which personal healing and public perception are inextricably intertwined. Patients and therapists are feminists dedicated to bringing about profound change in the political order. As Agger and Jensen suggest, the therapist is engaged in the process of reconstructing reality — her exposure to the testimony of the survivor may strengthen her own ideological commitment, and she may “choose to join the struggle against the injustice and evil [she has] witnessed.”16 The reader becomes part of this reconstruction when she participates in the testimonial process. Persuaded by the authenticity and power of a narrative generated by the collaborative efforts of therapist and survivor, she may also revise her views of reality or be moved to take an active role in the struggle.
The involvement of the reader in the testimonial process depends upon her willingness to participate in the communal struggle and to identify with the survivor. The white lesbian feminist writer expects such commitment from her sister-readers, whom she assumes are also feminists and involved in the work of interpreting and understanding women’s writing with sympathy and respect. Literary critic Patrocinio Schweickart explains, “Feminist reading and writing alike are grounded in the interest of producing a community of feminist readers and writers, in the hope that ultimately this community will expand to include everyone.”17 Feminist ideology promotes and supports the testimonial process and a community of feminists will crete an environment in which testimony may be both given and received.18 Women’s testimonies are often dismissed by the masculine critical community as mere “confessional” narratives, “personal” rather than “literary.”19 But feminist critics are committed to a kind of testimony of their own, speaking “as a witness in defense of the woman writer… The feminist reader takes the part of the woman writer against patriarchal misreadings that trivialize or distort her work…”20
It is in this spirit of sisterhood and communal support that I undertake to analyze and comment upon the work of Wisechild, Bulkin and Randall. I read, as Schweikart suggests, to “connect,” to recuperate and to formulate “the context, the tradition, that would link women writers to one another, to women readers and critics, and to the larger community of women.”21 Schweikart’s caution echoes in my ears: I must respect the autonomy of the text; I am a visitor and must observe the requisite courtesies; I must be careful not to appropriate what is not mine.
Louise M. Wisechild’s The Obsidian Mirror: An Adult Healing From Incest was published in 1988 by Seal Press, a feminist press that features a series of “self-help and theoretical works for battered women and movement workers.”22 Its lavender cover and the excerpt from Judy Grahn’s favorable review,23 identify it as a lesbian narrative to those who are able to pick up the signals, though the lesbian perspective of the author is not advertised. Seal markets the text to those interested in “Psychology/Self-Help/Women’s Studies” and places the following comments on the back cover:
In this affirming and inspiring book, Louise Wisechild describes her personal journey as an adult survivor of incest — the pain of her experience and the power of her healing.
Exploring the process of remembering, the author explains how she, like many other survivors, was unable to recall incidents of childhood abuse until well into adulthood. With the support of friends, counselors and her own work with body therapy, she begins her recovery: the movement from fear and grief to rage and resolve, the spiritual reawakening and growing understanding of her creativity, and the ultimate reclamation of self.
Deeply personal and powerfully universal, The Obsidian Mirror gives validation and hope to survivors of incest and abuse and those working with them.
The Seal publicist writes in terms strikingly similar to Agger and Jensen’s, demonstrating an awareness that testimony has both personal and political implications. Furthermore, by directing her remarks to “survivors of incest and abuse and those working with them,” she underlines the point that abused women and their supporters form a community with specific interests. The Grahn quote reinforces this idea, emphasizing that many women belong to this community when she notes that the common experience of women who are sexually abused is “one of the more spectacular revelations of modern women — that a quarter of us and more are raped as children.”
The Acknowledgements page — the first page of the text — once again affirms the communal nature of testimony. Friends and therapists are equally important and at times they are indistinguishable; both are an active part of Wisechild’s life. Furthermore, Wisechild is herself a therapist and works with other sexual abuse survivors, so that her role as survivor is now inseparable from her role as therapist; she is a therapist because she is a survivor, and a survivor because she has entered into a therapeutic relationship with others. She has become both healer and healed. Wisechild writes:
Many people helped me as I wrote this book. I am grateful to the wisdom, humor and support of my friends and therapists and their willingness to be included in my life and in my writings.
The women I’ve seen as clients helped me keep writing by telling me their stories and sharing their pain and their healing.23
The healing process is located in the acts of storytelling and of listening to stories. Wisechild acknowledges her debt to the women who have served as her support network, and affirms that writing her healers into her stories has enabled her to grow strong. She also acknowledges a debt to the clients who have told her their own stories. It is both possible and desirable to share pain and healing within the community through the process of testimony with acknowledgment.
Wisechild divides her narrative into 20 parts. The introduction is entitled “The Story,” and it is followed by 19 chapters, all, presumably, part of the “story”: “The Voice,” “The Body,” “The Well,” “The Touch,” “The Rock,” “The Threat,” “The Response,” “The Stare,” “The Fire,” “The Mask,” “The Song,” “The Fist,” “The Mirror,” “The Hand,” “The Pit,” “The Cord,” “The Dust,” “The Climb,” “The Gift.” These titles indicate the mystical and spiritual nature of Wisechild’s journey and its connection to New Age philosophy, which she has embraced. They call to mind the names of Tarot cards — the Moon, the Lovers, the Tower, the Star — and they are laid out, like cards. Feminist Tarot interpreters Sally Gearhart and Susan Rennie explain that the Tarot can be “an instrument for women’s self discover and self-exploration”:
Reading the Tarot is an attempt to perceive and understand the conscious and unconscious reality surrounding a particular question or circumstance. What is important in a Tarot reading is whatever is discovered. The discovery is limited only by the reader’s openness and sensitivity to the meaning of the cards. Sensitivity grows with acquaintance with the deck and practice in exploring relationships of symbols to particular questions.24
Wisechild is engaged in an attempt to perceive and understand the conscious and unconscious reality which surrounds her incest experience.
Instead of using the symbols and archetypes pictured on a Tarot deck, Wisechild gazes deep into an obsidian mirror, which reflects images she must interpret. In the European mystical tradition, fortune-tellers used crystal balls to reveal the future to paying customers, and in fairy tales witches sometimes possessed magical mirrors which perform at their command, revealing secrets and providing answers to specific questions. Wisechild’s mirror is black, suggesting that it is a window into an internal, rather than external universe.26 She rejects the New Age answers offered by Western magic and turns, instead, to a different New Age tradition — an idealized and appropriated notion of the magic of a Native American population — the Mexican Indians. In her Introduction, Wisechild explains the symbolism of the obsidian mirror:
When obsidian is polished, it is reflective; a glossy black mirror of volcanic glass. Looking at myself in an obsidian mirror. I see my face circled with black. After several minutes of looking into the obsidian, my eyes turn inward, peering inside myself, meeting the blackness within me. Ancient Mexicans used mirrors of obsidian for visions. Some believe that gazing into polished obsidian brings whatever an individual needs to deal with the surface of consciousness. Looking into the mirror, I saw buried scenes from my past. As I continued to look, I found new possibilities. I saw that darkness is a sacred part of my woman’s body. I learned that I could reclaim this body as my own.27
The notion of looking inward for answers rather than turning to the outside world is powerfully attractive to Westerners who seek spiritual enlightenment in what can only be called a kind of faux Native American “style.” Carlos Casteneda, icon of such faux seekers, expresses his fascination with his imaginary Yaqui sorcerers, whom he alleges taught him to “gaze,” to “see” rather than to merely look. To see, he had to accept darkness, to overcome his Western fear of the night, and to find in it truth and clarity. In Casteneda’s narrative, the woman sorcerer Lidia explains that her magical powers enable her to see truth by looking at the shadow of an object, rather than at the object itself: “Now I never look at anything anymore; I just look at their shadows. Even if there is no light at all, there are shadows; even at night there are shadows. Because I’m a shadow gazer I’m also a distance gazer. I can gaze at shadows even in the distance.”28 Wisechild has also accepted the notion that dreams and visions are a gateway to a broader reality, and that the inability to see and interpret mystical signs makes personal growth difficult or impossible.
Wisechild perceives her healing process as a totality, a world where the “search through memory, the confrontation of my family and my subsequent growth could not be separated from my life as a whole, into my changing relationship with with my lover and my friends, and into my search for a new understanding of spirituality.29 Lidia, the character of the Yaqui sorcerer, explains the manner in which she came to “see”:
Dreamers must gaze in order to dreaming and then they must look for their dreams in their gazing… Gazing and dreaming go together. It took me a lot of gazing at shadows to get my dreaming of shadows going. And then it took a lot of dreaming and gazing to get the two together and really see in the shadows what I was seeing in my dreaming.30
Lidia’s success in bringing her internal symbolic world into parity with the external natural world is matched by Wisechild’s own. Wisechild gazes into the mirror, which is both real and symbolic, to see and dream her past. She moves toward wholeness as she integrates the symbols of memory — Well, Pit, Dust, and Tree — with the kinesthetic memories of tension ad pain. Changes in internal symbolic relationships affect changes in Wisechild’s relationships in the physical world. By gazing, she sees herself. By dreaming herself different, she changes herself. When she is healed, the physical image she sees reflected in The Obsidian Mirror is the same as the symbolic image she sees in the metaphorical obsidian mirror of her dreams.
Wisechild’s first chapter, “The Voice,” begins with her declaration of mutiny. “Since it is inappropriate to discuss religion, I will begin there.”31 But her rebellion is incomplete, for Wisechild believes “God is out to get me,” and though she pretends to have outgrown her mother’s cautions — “Never talk about religion or sex or politics in front of company” — she still finds herself bound by them:
I still don’t talk about religion. I think that I should have matured enough to stop worrying about God and to start putting my energy into something constructive. But God is a shadow. He even followed me here, to Stanford.”32
Wisechild’s first paragraph states her problem — she must come to terms with God. “He” is a shadow she must gaze at and understand. She makes clear at this point that she has only looked at God and no yet seen “Him,” for “he” is indistinguishable from other authorities and “His” rules appear similar to the rule of other patriarchal authorities in her life:
As it turns out, religion and graduate school have a lot more in common. Each has a set of rules and acceptable standards. Like church, the classroom has an aura of solemnity. A hush descends when the elder professor enters the classroom, like a minister taking his place behind a pulpit. If I’m not on my best behavior, I’ll get punished, just as my grandfather delivered God’s punishment if I played too much when I was a kid. I’m afraid that I still don’t know how to be good enough.33
The preoccupation with being “good enough,” with living up to standards imposed by others, prevents Wisechild from gaining access to her own inner truth. “It’s disturbing,” she writes, “to admit that I became a graduate student for the same reasons I prayed to Jesus nineteen years ago. I want someone to tell me I’m good enough. I need saving. I lack the nerve to try something else.”34
An inner voice, “The Voice” of the chapter title, tells Wisechild she is “bad.” Wisechild has named this voice “Sarah,” and she describes her as “a prematurely old woman with a tight mouth and worried forehead,” who “quotes God and my grandfather against me.”35 Grandpa and God were, to the four-year-old Wisechild, the same entity — old men with “fierce white hair and stern blue eyes” — and Grandpa spoke with the voice of God, frequently quoting the Bible, especially “sow as ye shall reap.” Like God, Grandpa dispensed judgment and punishment. An understanding of neither was accessible to a child:
He had a lot of rules, but only grownups got to know exactly what they were. As a child, I discovered them only after breaking one, like the correct interpretation of an essay question revealed after the test.”36
An instant acceptance of masculine authority has been conditioned in Wisechild, and she fears her professors “just as [she] feared [her] grandfather.”37 Sarah is Wisechild’s internalized masculine authority, reminding her that a woman is nothing, and that she is doomed to failure. “Sometimes,” Wisechild says, “Sarah talks like my mother.”38Wisechild’s mother reinforced patriarchal authority, speaking to her in an echo of her grandfather’s “loud, mad voice.”39
Sarah is not the only voice who lives inside Wisechild. She remembers that at twelve she rebelled against her parents, a this part of her began to speak, chanting “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care” like “a demonstrator shouting slogans.” Wisechild calls this voice “Fuckit”: “Fuckit hates being told what to do. ‘Fuck you!’ she says, ‘Leave me alone! I won’t listen to Sarah! I don’t care if I do go to hell!”40 The battle between Sarah and Fuckit is unending. Sarah pushes Wisechild to accept the judgment of her parents and grandparents — that she is a failure. Fuckit drives her to reject their judgements, but can offer nothing that promises fulfillment. Her spiritual and emotional agony takes the form of
a dark rotting mass that spreads from the secret recesses of my stomach into my chest. The heaviness is like dough that cannot rise. I imagine it smelling like an open sewer…. I know it’s an evil that lives inside. It keeps growing bigger like a curse. I feel trapped and small inside of it. I don’t know when it began because I don’t remember when I didn’t feel this way. I can’t seem to make it go away. I can’t ever let anyone know it’s inside of me…. I know it’s not normal. It keeps me from fitting in. If anyone likes me, it’s only because they don’t know about the darkness and the smells.41
Wisechild opens her story at the moment she can no longer repress or ignore the darkness inside. Though she has attempted “converting” from fundamentalist religion to academia, she has failed to divorce her mind from her body. When she reaches the point of seriously considering suicide because she “can’t imagine any other solution,” a third voice speaks to her, a voice without a name, but one which offers the possibility of hope: “‘I though you had other visions once,’ the voice says. ‘I recall you deciding to pursue a creative path. You were determined to make a difference.'”43
“Do you think I’ll make it?” I finally ask. “I’ve always through I would die before I turned thirty.””Sure,” the voice says. “I’m sure.”44
“Sure Voice” names herself, the first of Wisechild’s voices that spring from her own needs and desires; neither an internalization of the codes imposed upon her, or a reaction to those codes. Able to hear herself for the first time, Wisechild decides to act on her own desires and to leave graduate school. Her decision brings her face-to-face with “The Body.”
Sure Voice is associated with a new freedom for Wisechild, and she finds herself revising her notion of authority:
I was let to expect burning bushes and stone tablets with rules and regulations on them. Sunday school had established a prim polarity: God the destroyer, Mary with her arms full of Jesus. No one mentioned a firm, clear voice from the stomach. No one ever hinted at a woman’s voice in any sort of divine capacity. For a while I under-estimated her. But I find myself feeling strangely confident when I hear her, as if I’m in tune with myself. She says she’s a part of me, but she’s greater than me in some way I don’t understand. She feels old, but somehow without an age. Sure Voice asks questions I’ve never thought about before.45
For the first time Wisechild considers an authority who may ask questions rather than provide answers. Sure Voice tells Wisechild, “You do not understand power,” and Wisechild begins to consider the notion that power might be generated internally, rather than exercised externally:
It’s hard to imagine power without thinking of war, football or having the final words in disputes like my grandfather and stepfather did. Power means that someone is controlling someone else. Power feels like a bad word. It’s never been connected to being a woman.46
This voice without precedent teaches Wisechild about vision, explaining, “When vision joins emotion you learn and everything is changed.”47 Gazing and dreaming go together. Combining them, Wisechild begins to see shadows in a new way.
The new voice within her teaches Wisechild how to feel with her body, to experience the physical pleasures of simple movement. She finds that when she listens with her body, the voices within are temporarily stilled. But with her newfound ability to experience the present comes a less pleasant tendency to flash back, to reexperience the past. Sure Voice explains that this is natural, the result of Wisechild’s new efforts to understand herself. She suggests Wisechild take a massage course, that this will help her come to terms with her own body. Despite her fears, Sarah’s warnings that she is doomed to failure, and Fuckit’s disdain for “mellow carrot-juiced sissies” and “health freaks,” she beings the course. At the end of the day a new voice is born, one whose first words are, “Gentle. Be gentle.”48 “Who are you?” asks Wisechild as she thinks, “I’m not sure how many more voices I want to have.”49 The voice responds:
Carrie. I was born in the pulsing of your hands. I began in touch when you felt another’s body without hatred. I was birthed in the space of the table. I can travel under the skin, finding muscle. Textures and colors are alive for me. I like activities that are restful and herb tea, especially peppermint. I hold your dreams about the future.50
Carrie becomes devoted to massage, and to healing others, helping Sarah to know her own body by responding to the bodies of others with patience and awe. All bodies, she discovers, are not the same.
Wisechild fears her own body, and hates it, because of the darkness she perceives as lurking within it — a feeling of decay, a “misery without a name.”51 When she thinks of her body and the evils she feels it contains, she remembers moments when men’s words and looks made her feel dirty and afraid. She realizes she has attempted to bury her body in fat, or to become thin enough to make herself invisible, to “turn her body into stone” in order to save her spirit. Wisechild, weeping, remembers a scene from her infancy, remembers her mother’s impatience and anger: “She hits me across the mouth a couple of times, which makes me cry harder; she yanks me out of the cart by the arms and I am afraid my arm will come off. She is so big.”52 For the first time she can remember, memories of childhood are accessible and they overwhelm her with fright and misery. She writes:
Even though I cried for the first time in a long time, I am still weighted. Heavier than before I started crying. Now what? I wish someone would hold me.Despair. There is no apparent direction: I think of suicide to still the hopelessness. Thinking of self-destruction makes the darkness larger, blacker. I always consider suicide when I don’t know what else to do.53
But she is no longer without resources. Sure Voice, calm and reassuring, suggests she go to see a healer.
Wisechild’s therapy begins in “The Well,” a place with rough obsidian walls “which climb straight up for miles.”54 Her therapist, Kate, works with her to explore the Well, and Wisechild finds herself adjusting to the darkness within. She has, she explains, “acquired a peculiar kind of night vision”:
What once felt like a dark rotting mass in my stomach has specific features. The rocks lining the Well are dusty, jagged chunks of obsidian. The inner fire dims and quickens. Sarah, Fuckit, and Carrie take form in the Well which houses them. Even more curious is that the more clearly I see the Well, the more I understand about how I move in the world.55
Wisechild’s new sight resembles Lidia’s — both are shadow gazers. Wisechild has discovered that she has the talent to see in the dark, and that the darkness is not always what it seems. With her newly sighted eyes, Wisechild looks within the Well, and discovers a Pit, so deep and dark she can’t see the bottom. Beside the Pit is perched an infant of six months, filthy and wailing. The infant, whom Wisechild names YoungerOne, is a child part of herself.
Therapy brings more than one child part to consciousness, and the infant in the Pit is soon joined by a miserable thirteen-year-old. Wisechild, desperate and in pain, again thinks of suicide: “I keep coming back to dying. It’s a familiar place. I don’t ask why I wanted to die.” Her ability to heal others sustains her, keep her alive, but does not relieve her pain. Caught in a cycle of depression, she is unable to break out of it until Kate convinces her that she is able to begin to nurture herself. For the first time, she moves to comfort the YoungerOnes within her: “I see the clear-eyed twenty-six-year-old part of myself holding two children on her lap. I rocked back and forth, hugging a pillow against my belly. I didn’t know I could hug myself and feel comforted.” This is “The Touch,” Wisechild’s ability to reach out to her inner children: “I feel my strong arms around my shoulders.”57
Once she is able to nurture herself, Wisechild is able to discover an important aspect of her sexuality. She realizes she is a lesbian, and that she wants an intimate relationship with another woman. In therapy she explains how she felt at a women’s potluck: “‘I just know that I liked being a woman when I was them them,’ Carrie tells Kate. ‘I felt strong and proud.'”58 On the heels of this revelation comes Kate’s announcement that Wisechild has learned from her all that she can. At their last therapy session, Wisechild writes and performs a play for Kate which recapitulates all she has learned. All goes well. “I thought I was done,” writes Wisechild. “Sure Voice didn’t tell me we were just resting.”59
“The Rock” begins with a celebration of Wisechild’s new relationship with Stephanie, as she glories in her rediscovered ability to play. But as quickly as she raises the relationship, she voices her doubts and fears:
I get uncomfortable thinking about intimacy. I feel stimulated and accepted when I’m with Stephanie. But parts of me are hiding. My heart closes so that I don’t feel anything. My genitals seem lost in the bottom of the Well. Sometimes Stephanie gets too close and I tell her I don’t want to see her for a week. Sometimes I’m not sure I want to see her at all. Then I remember all the friends and lovers I’ve lost in the past because I ran away from them instead of trying to work things out.”60
Sex troubles Wisechild. It makes her feel used and dirty. When she is sexual, her good feelings go away. Stephanie, also a healer, hypnotizes Wisechild in an attempt to explore the problem. The results are startling:
A man stands in the Pit. He is naked, his penis is erect…. He is my stepfather…. I am sixteen years old in my bedroom. I am in the bed, but I am not alone. I’ve been asleep and at first, I think I’m dreaming. But the weight is too real; it presses me into the bed. He puts a pillow over my face, catching my mouth open. Inside I think, I can’t breathe, can’t breathe, I will die, it doesn’t matter, I want to die, I want it to end…. My body is underneath a rock, but it’s not a rock because there is hair, it is rough and scratches. And there are hands pushing my legs apart and I can’t get my legs to stay together. My legs are weak. Hardness. Tearing. The weight pounds against me…. He doesn’t seem to see me.61
Wisechild’s first thought is that she must be crazy — such things don’t happen to people. But Sure Voice explains that her memories of incest are the Pit in the Well: “The only way out of the Well is to know the secrets held within the obsidian, seeing what you have hidden from yourself.”62 With Stephanie’s help and support, she will begin to find her way out.
Flashbacks are a common symptom in women who have suffered sexual abuse, just as they are in combat veterans, Holocaust survivors, and other PTSD sufferers. Liz Kelly, who works with sexual abuse survivors, explains that both flashbacks and intrusive dreams occur in women who are in the “forgetting or minimizing phase, perhaps functioning as an internal reminder that there was something important the woman needed to resolve.”63 These flashbacks may occur often. Sometimes they are uncontrollable, and at other times they can be summoned by a woman who is attempting to work through her abuse by remembering suppressed events. In Wisechild’s case, she experiences both controlled and uncontrolled flashbacks. The latter terrify her.
The sixth chapter begins with the words, “I don’t know how to be safe.”64 The onslaught of memories awakened by hypnosis terrifies Wisechild. She lives in fear that her stepfather, Don, will carry out “The Threat” to kill her if she ever tells anyone about his abuse of her. Unable to function within her relationship to Stephanie, and haunted by unwanted memories, she makes the decision to begin therapy again. She shares the memories of Don with her new therapist Jean, who gives her a book about incest, perhaps one similar to Voices in the Night or I Never Told Anyone. Wisechild writes:
I open the book. I read myself in another woman’s words when she talks about being so afraid of the world and of everything around her; of feeling like she has no self-confidence. I close the book again. I don’t want it to remind me of how I am.65
But she is still comforted by the knowledge that “someone else felt this way too.”66
Every step forward seems to bring a new and unbearable memory to light. In her bodywork sessions she is overwhelmed with the memory of her grandfather forcing her to suck on his penis and later raping her. “The Threat” concludes with her reevaluation of a scene she has “always remembered”:
[M]y grandmother pulled my pants down and held me on the bed while my mother probed inside my vagina. I was nine years old. They said they saw blood on my underwear and I must have fallen from my bike. I screamed that I didn’t fall from my bicycle. They weren’t listening to me. Now I wonder if they knew what Grandpa was doing. I don’t know what they found. I don’t know how the blood got there. No one stopped him.67
“The Response” to “The Threat” is anger. Wisechild, consumed by her painful memories, feels ugly and violated. “The incest has become part of me,” she writes, “absorbed into my skin, my vagina, my mind.”68 She shares her feelings with her woman friends, who are supportive and comforting, but, again, her progress in interrupted by another intrusive memory — her mother’s brother, “Uncle Kevin,” rapes her in the garage when she is eleven:
He lies on top of me after unzipping his pants. He pushes up and down, wrapping his arms around my ribs. I can’t breathe…. “You cunt,” he says. His anger comes out on his breath… My body is confused…. But Kevin feels horrible. He feels hating. He feels old. This is dying. I t seems like he will crush my body underneath his weight. I cannot breathe. I cannot move. Every time he bears down on me he calls me a name. No one has ever called me these names before. But I know what they mean. They mean I’m bad. “Bitch. Cunt. Whore.” My body stops feeling. I become vacant. He is sneering, “You’re liking this aren’t you?” he whispers. I can’t talk…. I have no room.”69
Yet this last memory, which would once have been devastating, can now be survived because of her new strengths. For the first time she can envision a different ending to the scene, Carrie and Fuckit storming the garage and and taking Kevin prisoner, carrying her away to safety. Her anger is cleansing and she is full of hope: “I don’t know all the steps to healing. I only know that each step follows the one before it.”70
More memories unfold. Wisechild recalls her Uncle Kevin trapping her in a closet and shoving small toys — “Red hotels from a Monopoly game, Scrabble letters, plastic animals” — into her anus, her mother walking in on Kevin as he raped her from behind. “How could something like this happen,” she asks:
I never read about things like this, other than in Amnesty International reports of the torture of political prisoners. Or newspaper accounts of rapes by strangers. But this was happening within my own house. No one drank, no one was in jail. Everyone went to church. I feel crazy trying to fit this into the “perfect” family I was told I had… there was so much abuse and no one seemed to notice it.71
Her confusion is understandable. Sarah Hoagland comments, in Lesbian Ethics, that “Except for radical feminists, no one in the United States perceives the phenomenal rate of incest (daughter rape), wife beating, rape, forced prostitution, and the ideology of pornography… as any kind of concerted assault on women.”72 Instead, each incident of sexual abuse is perceived as unique, a particular pathology within a particular family. The victim has no connection with other victims, and believes that she is the only one in the world suffering such pain and humiliation.
Psychologists Ashurst and Hall explain that because children do not conceive of the abuse on any more than an individual level, abused youngsters internalize blaim, and do not expect help and sympathy from others. This repression is not countered by assistance from doctors or other professionals, who either do “not enquire about them, or disregard and make little of them, leaving the distress to persist, sometimes for years.”74 Wisechild writes: “No one at school talked about anything like this. None of my friends, none of my teachers. My mind took the words away, the words didn’t fit how I felt. I wouldn’t know how to tell. It’s hard to tell you, fifteen years later.”74
Feminist theorist Dale Spender believes that women have difficulty talking about rape and sexual abuse because there is
no name which represents the trauma of being taken by force… When an act cannot be accurately named it cannot be readily verified, to oneself, or to others…. Unable accurately to symbolize the event, rape victims can be victimized still further by the dominant reality, which may lead them to believe that they are responsible for this terrible act which they themselves do not perform.75
Wisechild’s preoccupation is with memory, naming, description of the abuse she has survived. Since her therapist, Jean, is unable to take away the pain, Wisechild must content herself with telling Jean what she does remember. “I’m tired of running away from myself,” Wisechild tells Jean.76 “The Stare” takes shape as she looks Jean in the eye. Wisechild has begun the work of creating a new name for sexual abuse, one which, as Spender suggests, “is not neutral” and “does not rationalize the facts.”77 Refusing to accept the blame for her abuse, Wisechild is intent on creating the new definition Spender calls for, one “which is more consistent with female-generated meanings,” one “named by women as they applied to women, and with women central to their meaning.”78
The reclamation of anger is inseparable from the reclamation of memory. Anger is “The Fire,” consuming Wisechild. It both attracts and terrifies her; she is afraid, “If the feeling gets out nothing will be left of me.”79 Wisechild is unable to cope with her anger, she explains, because “The fury of my family was funneled through unacknowledged channels.” Her mother and grandmother, unable to show rage, would not acknowledge anger but would threaten Wisechild, telling her that she was “bad” and that God would punish her. The men in her family were not acceptable targets for rage, but instead presided over arguments and deflected the women’s anger onto each other. Wisechild’s anger, once acknowledged, seems endless and is accompanied by a flood of memories and physical sensations, including abdominal bloating, nausea, and muscle pain. These crystallize in a single, horrifying flashback as Wisechild remembers her Uncle Kevin forcing her to chew and swallow his excrement. Her own reaction to the revelation is disbelief: “I’ve never heard of anything like this. What’s wrong with my mind and body that I see such things? Why do I have to feel so horrible?”81 In a session with her therapist Jean, she explains:
Sometimes I feel crazy because this stuff is so bizarre and hateful… After I remembered Kevin forcing me to eat feces, I thought that I’d lost my mind…. When I went to a workshop on incest at the Association of Women in Psychology conference, one of the presenters said that ten percent of the abused children she worked with were forced to eat fecal matter. I didn’t feel so crazy then….82
She is reassured when she finds that she alone did not suffer such abuse, that other children have survived similar horrors. Such reassurance is found, however, only in a feminist environment — one in which incest is considered a suitable topic for discussion, and in which the experiences and beliefs of women are considered important, relevant and truthful.
Wisechild’s repressed rage has exploded because, for the first time, she has experienced an environment where her anger is seen as legitimate and appropriate. Without the presence of a supportive lesbian feminist community, she would have been forced either to continue repressing her rage, or, if she could not prepress it, would have viewed her anger as inappropriate and unacceptable. Child psychiatrist Alice Miller suggests that the most damaging abuse of children occurs in homes where the child is unable to express her anger, and where her distress and pain are considered unimportant or intrusive:
As I have repeatedly stressed, it is not the trauma itself that is the source of illness but the unconscious, repressed, hopeless despair over not being allowed to give expression to what one has suffered and the fact that one is not allowed to show and is unable to experience feelings of rage, anger, humiliation, despair, helplessness, and sadness. This causes many people to commit suicide because life no longer seems worth living if they are totally unable to live out all these strong feelings that are part of their true self…. Pain over the frustration one has suffered is nothing to be ashamed of, nor is it harmful. It is a natural, human reaction. However, if it is verbally or nonverbally forbidden or even stamped out by force and beatings… then natural development is impeded and the conditions for pathological development are created.83
It is only when Wisechild’s emotions are given legitimacy by the process of therapy that she can reclaim her rage, and accept her “true self.” Jean’s work as a feminist therapist is to allow the adult Wisechild to experience her powerlessness and her inability to prevent her childhood sexual abuse as a condition imposed from the outside. Wisechild must learn, in a safe environment, that she is not to blame for her own pain, that she is not “bad,” but rather the victim of an externally imposed oppression which is both personal and political. Reduced to its simplest form, Wisechild has internalized the belief that “It’s bad… to be a girl.”84
Once she can articulate this basic assumption, she is free to reject it as false. Freedom from psychic bonds is accompanied by a new physical sense of well-being:
The old reason for being bad leaves my body as I exhale. A hidden dishonesty that can be rejected once I’ve defined it. The shame of being female was poured inside me, not born in. It was injected through incest, through my family’s belief that boys were more important, and through the messages of this culture. My arms and legs tingle as if the old ideas were moving out through my hands and feet.”85
Accompanying this shift in perception is a shift in the imagery Wisechild uses to symbolize her plight, for gazing and dreaming are intertwined. Anger, which Wisechild once viewed as evil — a fire that might consume her — becomes a tool by which she claims her freedom. Fire metamorphoses from foe to friend when she shifts her perspective from masculine-oriented to woman-centered:
The small fire in the Well brightens as if dry wood has been added. The fire has always been inside me. The fire planted questions about what was happening to me even when the Well seemed inescapable. The flames represent my desire to embrace myself.86
A newfound sense of self-esteem empowers Wisechild, and she is ready to direct her struggles outwardly as well as inwardly. A visit to her family on Christmas Day allows her to understand “The Mask” of normalcy which her family dons both in public and in private. In her home, Wisechild wears the mask of the “crazy” child — a child who lives out lies and fantasies — so that her mother is never forced to consider the idea that Wisechild’s accusations are true. Her abusive step-father, Don, wears the mask of the perfect husband; he doesn’t drink, or get angry, he earns a good living and supports his wife and family. Wisechild’s mother wears the mask of “a poor defenseless woman,”87a model primary school teacher, a good wife and mother. Her brother Jim wears the mask of “the older brother;” his assigned role is to protect their mother:
Jim takes care of mother. I take care of Jim. Don takes care of mother, but she really takes care of him, feeding, clothing, arranging a social life. I take care of Don, not telling, protecting. No one takes care of themselves. Hands reach out to give while trying to take.88
Wisechild realizes that being conscious of the mask makes all the difference. She is able to go home and interact with her family and come away unscathed because she has gained insight into herself. Once the mask becomes a self-conscious symbol, she can choose to wear it and, more important, choose to take it off. As her internal voice Carrie comments, Christmas with Wisechild’s lover Stephanie can be more enjoyable than her visit home. Wisechild can choose to create her own family and to interact with her new,, chosen family members in a healthy and positive manner: “We won’t have to wear a mask.”89
Once the mask is dropped, Wisechild is able to both feel and articulate her own perceptions of the world. She is also able to begin to integrate her perceptions of her body with her new understanding of herself. “The Song” she tries to capture when she sings and plays her guitar, is a consonance of mind and body. Her body has been co-opted by the men who have sexually abused her. They have penetrated her mouth, vagina, and anus, filled her with foreign matter, forced her to orgasm without her consent, restrained her from movement, bruised and wounded her. Wisechild’s feelings about sex and sexuality are connected to her feelings about being oppressed and abused, and she is unable to separate them out, “self-conscious, crawling with the wrong body,”90 until Jean helps her to realize that she was a helpless victim and not a responsible party to the abuse. Her Fuckit voice helps her to understand that, although she was unable to say “no.”
We never said “yes” to him either. He didn’t give a shit about what we thought and felt. The orgasm was a part of us that he stole, just like he took our body and our right to feel safe in our own room. No one thought the feelings of teenagers were important. But the danger was the adults who denied their sexuality while raping us. We were just trying to stay alive around that loony bin.91
Fuckit tells Wisechild that she resisted her abusers, that she was not complicit in the act. Liz Kelly, who counsels women who have survived sexual violence, explains that though resistance always involves active opposition to abuse, “The extent and form of women’s resistance to particular assault(s) is dependent on the circumstances of the event(s) and on the resources that they fell they can draw on at the time…. Resistance is a coping strategy which denies the abusive man certain forms of power over the woman.”92 Fuckit is Wisechild’s resisting voice, but the cost of her resistance was the rejection of her physical self. Sure Voice, who represents the part of Wisechild’s psyche which is guiding the healing process, counsels her: “Without a body… you could not make music or write poems. You would not feel the earth moving when you walk. The voices would have no home. The body houses the inner and takes you beyond yourself. You are a player in a complex puzzle which changes as you respond to it.”93 Wisechild must bring her dreaming and gazing selves together and unite them in her body. “I don’t want,” writes Wisechild, “to hate myself for what he did to me.”94 Instead of internalizing blame she projects it onto a more appropriate object; her stepfather, Don: “I hate him… Right now, I’d like to kill him.”95
When Wisechild begins to project blame onto the persons responsible for abusing her, she discovers that she, too, is guilty of abusing others. Memories surface: at seven she inserted a stick into her kitten’s anus and pushed it in and out until she was caught and reprimanded by a cousin; at thirteen she struck an infant she was babysitting and was overcome by guilt when the father of the child rebuked her for the act. She remembers verbally abusing her love. Fuckit, the part of her who has resisted abuse most strongly, is also the part of her that is most often abusive. “The Fist” belongs to Fuckit, who raises it to threaten and hurt. Fucking “moves toward Stephanie, using her mouth like my mother. She forgets about caring…. The memories of my own abusiveness line the Well like unwanted photographs. I am ashamed of my hitting and hurting, and of my tongue.”96 Along with this revelation comes a larger connection. Wisechild comes to believe that incest “makes violence.”97 Like Virginia Woolf, she chooses to “reflect on the patriarchs,”98 and concludes that incest is “not so different from war or beating people up or throwing sewage into drinking water.”99 And patriarchy, Wisechild must admit, is the structure that shapes her world. Part of the price of Wisechild’s reclamation of self is the awful knowledge that she is a member of systematically oppressed and disempowered group:
Incest is not so crazy. For a large part of the population, sexually abusing children is a silent routine. Children growing into lessons of abuse, becoming victims and abusers again, forgetting how to love. In order to call incest crazy, I would have to believe that the world is only a wonderful, just, loving place where people know how to respect each other. I know this isn’t true…. The crazy feeling is the denial, the figures pretending that nothing has happened.100
This realization drives Wisechild to demand a confrontation — she will face the forces which have dominated and exploited her and declare herself free of them.
But as long as Wisechild lives, she will never be free of the threat of masculine violence. She finds, when she seeks reparations from her family, that they are no more willing to acknowledge her present pain than they were willing to protect her in the past. The importance of the confrontation does not lie in the promise that Wisechild can, by facing the past, free herself in the present. Rather, the confrontation becomes “The Mirror” in which Wisechild learns to see herself,, and accept herself, for what she is — a sexually abused woman, a lesbian, a woman-identified woman with a certain limited number of choices in a mostly hostile world. As she writes a letter to her stepfather detailing his abuse and her response to it, Wisechild notes a shift in her internal imagery. She finds, in the Pit, “a loose slab of obsidian.”
Unlike the rocks which form the walls of the Well, this is polished. A shiny black triangle of volcanic glass that reflects a clear image. I stare into the black reflective mirror, looking into my twenty-nine-year-old face. “This rock holds both the past and the future,” Sure Voice says. “It will remind you of where you have been. There is always somewhere new to explore; this mirror holds those mysteries also. The past leads to the future.” Looking into The Obsidian Mirror I see the faces of my friends circling me as YoungerOnes moved through tears and rage and terror…. Taking courage with them…. I look into the mirror of obsidian. I hold the stones in my hand. They pulse in the rhythm of my changing.101 haven’t lost the people who really know me.”105
“The Hand” that Wisechild reaches out to her younger brother Jim is tentatively accepted and Wisechild is heartened by his belief in her story. She makes an appointment to meet her stepfather, Don, at a restaurant, so that she can confront him in a public place. They meet, and she reads him the letter she has written. He denies that he ever assaulted her, though he agrees to join her in a session with her therapist: “‘I’ll do that,” he says, ‘but I didn’t do it.'”102 A phone call from her brother follows the meeting; Jim has entirely withdrawn his support.103 “Why did you have to tell me in the first place?” he demands. “Why did you have to come in and mess up my life?… What do you think this is going to do to mother?… You’re always stirring up trouble…. Why couldn’t you just let things be?”104 Wisechild is still trapped “The Pit,” but she comes to the realization that her friends — her lover, Stephanie, and her close friend Paul — are more strongly bonded to her than her family: “My friends and I choose each other. We aren’t forced to be together. I may have lost Don and Jim, but I haven’t lost the people who really know me.”haven’t lost the people who really know me.”105 She has abandoned the ideal of the nuclear family as one that is unworkable for a woman who wishes to heal from childhood sexual abuse, and has redefined her concept of “family” in a manner which frees her to reshape her future.
The last link that remains to be broken is “The Cord,” which “stretches from my belly, from the place where we were connected, daughter to mother…. A cord that feels like a chain.”haven’t lost the people who really know me.”106 Wisechild longs for resolution, for a chance to tell her:
[W]e’re past being mother and daughter…. Those were roles that never allowed us to see each other. But we are both women. I want to tell her how I felt about my life with her…. Because we’re both women, I want to understand her. I have to tell her how betrayed by her I feel, and that I’m angry…. I don’t know how I’ll feel about her after that. Maybe nothing will be left then and we’ll never see each other. But I’ll feel completed with her. Or perhaps we will surprise each other and begin a new relationship.107
But she is denied that opportunity. A short note from her mother arrives in the mail. All that is written on it is: “Louise, I don’t want to hear any more or see you again, Carol.”108 Her mother is inaccessible to her, for she refuses to believe her. Wisechild’s mother listens to Don’s denials, trusting “the words of men” over a woman’s truths, just as she has always done. The cord has been ungently severed, and the Well is disintegrating:
I feel tentative as the rock breaks into boulders and an avalanche of pebbles…. I have a hole in my belly where the rocks of the Well held the echoes of past pain. I used to believe that if I held on to these rocks, my essence couldn’t be sucked out by invaders. I used the pain to remind me that I was alive. Now there’s nothing to hold onto.109
The Well gives way to “The Dust,” whirling in the air outside. “I cry for the loss of the Well,” writes Wisechild, “even though I fought so hard to free myself from it. Now, being outside of the Well reminds me of what I don’t know.110 Wisechild begins to visualize herself as a tree, able to root in the Dust, and to grow there. Four months pass. She visits a lake and performs a ritual similar to those she had imagined occurring in the Well, burying the evils of the past which she has magically contained within a rock. When she is finished, she looks into the water and sees reflected both her face and green alder trees: “I look at my reflection for a long time. It wrinkles when the wind blows, but does not fade. I have not lost everything.”111 Eight months pass, and she discovers that the last of the Dust has blown away. Her internal landscape is no longer a barren, rocky place — it is fertile and rich, filled with a Tree covered in “new bunches of colossal, freshly opened leaves.”112 The Tree is another Casteneda image drawn from Mexican Indians: The Tree of Life:
[T]he Tree pushes outward, feeding from my breasts, returning life to the air sacs that hang within my lungs. Its trunk grows deep into my belly, sending roots through my legs, into ground. The branches press upward, winding through unexplained areas of my mind, reaching to the sunlight over my head. I imagine that if I climbed this Tree, I would have adventure and perspective.113
“The Climb” begins with Wisechild’s decision to perform publicly at the women’s cultural festival, almost two years after her break with her family. Her new joy at singing in public is entwined with the difficult process of ending her relationship with Stephanie. “I want my body to myself,” she says to Stephanie. “I can’t keep feeling like I should be sharing it with you.”114 Sure Voice reminds her that being free does not mean that everything works out the way you want it to: “You sought healing so that you could fully be yourself…. It is not easy to be faithful to your path. But you have learned to go where you need to go.”116
Wisechild joins a writing workshop, and she emphasizes its importance: “We gather as women writing and learning. We study our craft. We read the women who have written before us and besides us.”116 Wisechild is preparing herself for her new work, the writings she begins in this class will become the text of The Obsidian Mirror. Perhaps it is even a workshop run by Ellen Bass or by Elly Bulkin. She celebrates her new community: “In my family, the father held power at the expense of everyone else. Here, I learn that we can all be powerful. Speaking uplifts all of us. I learn that respect is at the expense of no one. I see beauty in what makes us different as well as what brings us together.”117 Wisechild believes that a community of women who can share experiences and ideas can free each other:
I hear women reclaiming their inner children, honoring their feelings and rediscovering the desire to grow and love. I see women moving out of isolation to support each other in groups, to take the risks of telling and to search for healers who empower them. I know women who have grown wiser in their journeys; who have broken the patterns of generations in their lifetime, they are creating a new awareness that is changing how we crate families now. Violence within the family is not so different from the violence that haunts our lives in a wider sense. As we confront the denial of our personal pain, we also face the denial of our collective planetary wounds.118
The work of building a community of women, of making changes in the world, is inseparable from the work of healing the individual. “Incest split my mind from my body,” writes Wisechild.119 “The different parts of my self took on attributes of the abuse: victim, abuser, fighter and healer. As I heal the divisions in my self mend. The diverse aspects of my personality join together in deepening cooperation, creating a whole instead of a collection of competing parts.120
Wisechild’s yearning for wholeness is symbolized in a story that bears an eerie similarity to that told by another survivor. The Obsidian Mirror of the book title was shattered when Wisechild propped it up so that she could see her face in it when she was writing music:
When I struck the first chord, the obsidian mirror fell backwards, breaking into four pieces. I cried because the stone was precious to me and I knew it would never be the unblemished looking glass that it had been. I glued it together. I looked mournfully at the long cracks until I understood that the mirror is a reflection of me: scarred from the fall and joined together in a new whole.121
This story closely resembles the tale told by another incest survivor, Lillian Kelly. A close friend of Kelly’s received two antique vases in the mail:
One arrived whole, the other hopelessly shattered. My friend labored… all through that year piecing together the delicate porcelain. When her cat knocked the half completed reconstruction from her desk, breaking it in new places…. my friend saw it as a minor and interesting setback…. She completed the project, but the vase she produced could hardly be called complete. Tiny and large chips, once part of the original, had inevitably been lost…. This vase was more a product of my friend’s labor than that of the original artist. Strangely, though, the new vase, for all its disfigurement, scars, chips, and ragged lip, for all the horror of the shattering and an imperfect mending, when set beside its unblemished twin, was the more splendid of the two. My friend presented her vase to me as a graduation gift, and I have it still.122
The journey of the survivor is from fragmentation to wholeness, but the whole, is marked by the struggle. The survivor works to integrate her experiences and her beliefs, to create a space in the world where her truths can be heard, to see rather than to merely look. Wisechild’s triumph is the amalgamation of her shattered selves, the achievement of unity: dreaming and gazing she sees the same sights.
The Obsidian Mirror is comparable to W.D. Ehrhart’s prose works — Passing Time and Vietnam-Perkasie — in its insistence on tracing the protagonist’s development in a chronological fashion, and its refusal to generate an all-knowing narrative voice to serve as the interpreter of the story. Both authors insist firmly on allowing the protagonist to speak for himself/herself, and on situating the reader in the same state of “unknowing” as the main character. Both convey the disintegration and fragmentation of the young self in the traumatic setting, and use the device of flashback to demonstrate the connection between the healing process and the process of recovering and integrating the past and the present. Both leave their protagonists in a state of movement, a journey toward recovery which, they intimate, the character will travel without end. These works challenge the reader to share a transformative experience undergone, they suggest, by both main character and real-life author/survivor. This invitation is both intimate and public and marks the act of “bearing witness” or giving testimony in environments as diverse as survivors’ groups, Alcoholics Anonymous sessions, religious meetings, and courts of law.
Wisechild’s and Ehrhart’s choice not to privilege reader or narrator prevents them from offering a coherent political analysis of the traumatic event. Ehrhart’s protagonist’s ideas and explanations often seem to the reader naive and ill-formed. This is not because Ehrhart-the-author lacks a sophisticated understanding of American politics, culture, and society. Rather, it is the result of his considered decision not to impose his current views upon the character that represents his younger, immature self. Such imposition, he knows, would be useful in helping the reader understand the context of the American involvement in Vietnam, but it would inhibit his audience’s ability to identify with and, by proxy, become his younger, traumatized self. Wisechild has taken a similar course: her involvement in the lesbian feminist community, and her work with other survivors, indicates that she is far more aware of the political, social, and economic implications of widespread child sexual abuse than her personal narrative suggests. Wisechild and Ehrhart see testimony as a powerful and moving force and choose not to dilute the impact of their testimonial act by offering the reader an analytic framework within which it can be contained and interpreted. They hope — as Terrance Des Pres claims that those who write Holocaust survivor narratives hope — to create “an image of things so grim, so heartbreaking, so starkly unbearable, that inevitably the survivor’s scream begins to be our own.”123
Other survivor-authors have made different decisions. Margaret Randall’s collection of prose, poetry and photographs, This Is About Incest, is a confrontational work dedicated to creating a context for the interpretation of child sexual abuse. She is concerned with sharing her own experience of trauma and healing only in order to expose and dissect the power structures that support and condone acts of violence against women and children. Unable to fully embrace the rhetoric of hope, she cannot ignore the institutionalized sexism and racism that determine the course of her life and the lives of other women. Re-vision, for Randall, is a process through which she clarifies the relationship between her personal suffering and the forces of oppression and injustice that operate in the world.
Randall is a white U.S. journalist, poet, and photographer who has lived for two decades in Mexico and and Central America, working as a feminist activist and a supporter of the Sandinista revolution. Her other books have titles like Part of the Solution: Cuban Women Now, Inside the Nicaraguan Revolution, A Poetry of Resistance, and Nicaragua Libre!. Clearly, This Is About Incest is a departure from the norm, though it is also a product of her experience in Latin America, as well as being deeply connected to her successful struggle to force the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to allow her to remain in the United States. (Because she was a political “undesirable” and a known communist sympathizer, the INS claimed Randall had renounced all rights as an American citizen during her self-imposed 23-year exile, and they sought to have her deported when she resettled in New Mexico.)
This Is About Incest is dedicated to her therapist, Becky Bosh, “who helped retrieve the memory” and to her parents “who (knowingly and unknowingly) provided a buffer of love, and for my sisters and brothers working to survive.” Like Wisechild, Randall has expanded her notion of “family” to include those whom she has grown to love and value, and she weaves her thoughts and feelings about her communal family into the text of the book. Feminist theorist Robin Morgan suggests that this radical redefinition of family as a consciously constructed communal relationship, rather than as a “naturally” occurring biological unit, forces a reevaluation of female sexuality and will have a profound effect on both domestic and international politics as well as on interpersonal relationships:
The powers of female sexuality, in all of their expressions and redefinitions (maternal, celibate, bisexual, lesbian, and heterosexual) have the potential of forming completely different relationships in the twenty-first century…. This would mean an end to terrorism, its causes and effects and self-propagation, because it would mean an end to the sexuality of terrorism — which has given violence its power to destroy us all.124
Political scientist Cynthia Enloe also believes that a shift in family and relational structures will affect international political and economic changes. She takes the 1970s feminist claim that “the personal is political” several steps farther, suggesting that the assertion is a palindrome: it makes as much sense read backwards as forward. When applied to world politics, Enloe suggests, “the personal is international” as well:
The implications of a feminist understanding of international politics are thrown into a sharper relief when one reads “the personal is international” the other way round: the international is personal. This calls for a radical new imagining of what it takes for governments to ally with each other, compete with and wage war against each other.”The international is personal” implies that governments depend upon certain kinds of allegedly private relationships in order to conduct their foreign affairs. Governments need more than secrecy and intelligence agencies…. They need not only military hardware, but a steady supply of women’s sexual services to convince their soldiers that they are manly. To operate in the international arena, governments seek other governments’ recognition of their sovereignty; but they also depend on ideas about masculinized dignity and feminized sacrifice to sustain that sense of autonomous nationhood.125
Randall’s belief that the personal is international is apparent in her prose essay, “The Story,” which precedes the poetry and photographs in the text.
Randall has titled her nine-part introductory essay “The Story” — the same title Wisechold chose for her introduction. The decision to precede the text with “the story” is rooted in the desire to shape both the narrative and its interpretation. Cognitive scientists Weber, Harvey, and Stanley suggest126 that one reason for generating stories is to take control of the past, to “retrospectively understand and make sense out of an experience that at the the time must have seemed very senseless and ridiculous.”127 Moral lessons can be extracted from painful experiences. Both Randall and Wisechild creates stories that place their text in context, and suggest that there is a correct reading of the work. Taking on the roles of both writer and critic of their own work, they simultaneously situate themselves inside and outside of the discourse, insisting — in the words of feminist historian Caroll Smith-Rosenberg — on the “separateness and inseparability of material and discursive practices, of ‘actions in the world’ and symbolic gestures.”128 These incest survivors create self-histories which, in Smith-Rosenberg’s words, help us to gain a “more precise understanding of the ways social and linguistic difference take shape and power,” as they trace the ways the history of and the conversation about the sexual abuse of women “weave in and out of one another, powerful yet mutually dependent.”129 Smith-Rosenberg writes:
Considerations of power are central to the interaction of the physical body and the body of language. Sexuality produces power, at the same time as the discourse of the powerful constructs sexuality. We must not collapse sexuality, power, and discourse upon each other. It is their interpenetration, not their interchangeability, that is critical within the abstractions of poststructural debate, within the affective world of the emotions — and within the political arena.130
To make her position as guide and interpreter even more clear, Randall offers the following information to her readers. The comment is separated from the rest of the text, placed alone on the page that precedes “The Story”:
If the following prose, poems, and photographic images are taken in the order in which they are offered, the reader/viewer will have the chronological journey as close as possible to that which I experienced and wish to share.131
Randall reminds us that she knows things that we do not, assuring her position of authority.
The first section of “The Story” proclaims “1. This is about the language.” Prefaced by a quote from Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, in which Lorde declares that she is committed to reclaiming language,132 this first section establishes the primacy of the interaction between public and private memory, oral and written language. “Writing about incest,” explains Randall
is at once necessary (exploration, exorcism?) and painful for the writer. It is also often tenuous — the source itself floating somewhere just beyond consciousness. For the listener or reader it is uncomfortable, perhaps demanding, especially if the revived experience taps into something of her own, until now safely stored, adroitly camouflaged.133
Randall is engaged in a struggle between the dominant masculine discourse and the needs of women to represent their own experiences. In Liz Kelly’s words, there is “a conflict between men’s power to define and women’s truth.”134 The international community of feminists has been engaged in this battle over language for decades. They are aware of the pain and damage suffered by individual women who lose this fight — the consequences are articulated by Quebequoise sexual abuse survivor and feminist Elly Danica in her personal narrative, Don’t: A Woman’s Word:
Years of silence. Silence wrapped around life like a cocoon. I learn to live in a world where nothing is as it seems. Nothing is as I think it ought to be. Silence. Fear…. There is something wrong with me. Everyone tells me. The world is not how you imagine it to be. You’ve imagined everything. Your pain is imaginary. You are imaginary. You are crazy.”135
Craziness is a mask on the truth for Danica, just as it was for Wisechild. Randall and other feminists are committed to dropping the mask and giving voice to truth as women experience it. They wish to take control of language. Monique Witting, one of the most powerful writers among the French feminists dedicated to revising language, wrote:
The women say, the language you speak poisons your glottis tongue palate lips. They say, the language you speak is made up of words that are killing you. They say, the language you speak is made up of signs that rightly speaking designate what men have appropriated.136
Wittig’s celebration of The Lesbian Body made use of new words and structures to “embody” the previously inarticulable love between women.137 In the tradition of Wittig and other language-oriented feminists, Randall seeks to redefine language, to re-appropriate the terms of discourse.”2. This is about the small me” is just such an articulation. “The small me” is Randall’s characterization of those internal children Wisechild named “YoungerOnes.” Abused by her maternal grandfather, Randall’s small me was unable “to define, fight back, or reveal.”138 Unlike Wisechild, however, Randall’s small me was raised by supportive parents and was not entirely cut off from her mother. Randall comments:
I have moved back and forth in my need — no, not in my need but in my ability — to talk with my mother about the incest issue. She has wanted to be supportive, and has been, far beyond what many mothers would have mustered. It is clearly painful for her as well. One day we can speak; the next her concern for a dead father &mdashl; the aggressor — shuts my doors again. It has been beautiful to have the opportunity of seeing her legitimate love, she who so rarely expresses unedited feelings. Then, after a conversation particularly moving to me, she gets a migraine. And I retreat once more.139
The vacillation described by Bass and Davis is manifest in Randall’s description of her family’s response to the subject of her incest, but they do not reject her entirely, as Wisechild’s family did.
For Randall, the incest was symbolized by mushrooms — pale, soft fungi that flourish in the dark. She developed a phobia and took extreme measures to avoid coming in contact with mushrooms in their natural setting, in supermarkets, and even in pictures in books:
All my conscious life I feared mushrooms — their sight, their smell, the possibility of their presence, something to be found in unexpected places and that grow so quickly, almost while one watches. The terrifying thought was that I might come into actual physical contact with them. Worse, one might somehow enter me. Even now my body orifices close automatically at the thought (threat).140
Such fear is the stuff that Far Side cartoons and Woody Allen plots are made of, but Randall approaches the subject with the utmost seriousness, identifying incest as the source of her phobia and offering the reader the opportunity to forego laughter and seek with her the source of her terror. She allows us to choose — accept the simple scorn of her friends and psychiatrists (“Well, I’m sure if you just confronted the fear…”) or venture with her in a new direction. Those of us who wish to proceed may be ready for her next declaration: “4. I am a woman.”
Her declaration is not simply biological, for the section begins with the words, “Feminism was essential.” Randall makes it clear that without a feminist perspective, she would have been able to achieve the self-knowledge that has led to her perception of her own worth as a woman and of our worth as women. For the feminist, one’s worth as a woman is inseparable from the worth of women as a group. With a feminist’s belief that the personal is political, Randall assumes the political nature of her own phobia. “[M]y fear,” she writes, “is rooted in a part of my woman’s history denied in order that I function in the world as it is.”141 Minimizing experiences of sexual abuse, and repressing the details are coping strategies for women in a society that does not define sexual violence as “serious.” An anonymous rape survivor explains, “I survived through my dubious ability to push things to one side, which I suppose you could say I’m paying for now. I think women do that. They have to otherwise they just don’t survive.”142 But minimizing, as Liz Kelly explains, “seldom prevents women being affected and the effects of what is described as ‘not serious’ may well be.'”143
Randall believes that patriarchy denies the value of women and children, and that capitalism works in tandem with patriarchy in a white, male, upper- and middle-class conspiracy to oppress. Power, Randall suggests in an argument that bears great similarity to Cynthia Enloe’s proposition, is primarily divided along gender lines, and then complicated by issues of class and race: “Feminist theory reminds us that even as we deal with individual acts of sexual and physical violence committed by men, it is the power concentrated in the hands of one gender that is the fundamental social problem.”144 Female children, “double commodit[ies] in a consumer society,” are invisible victims of male abusers, “disappeared” by a patriarchy that refuses to accord them human worth. Reclaiming that worth necessarily requires, in Randall’s words, “a reclamation of memory.”145
The idea of reclaiming memory is familiar. Critics and interpreters of Holocaust literature suggest that Holocaust survivors who bear witness are participating in a communal, reconstitutive act. According to Des Pres, individual testimony introduces new information into public consciousness and the moral order is revised. Des Pres argues that testimony is par to of “a collective effort to come to terms with evil, to distill a moral knowledge equal to the problems at hand.”146 Lawrence Langer concedes that such a collective effort may indeed be underway, but suggests that the trend is more reactionary than revisionary. The reading public may “misuse” the testimony of the survivor — interpreting the survivor’s words in ways that help them “feel better,” rather than “see better.” The tendency of the audience, warns Langer, is to “conjure up a principle where none existed and reduce the complex survival ordeal to a matter of mere inner strength, of clinging to values that somehow insured continuing existence.”147
This appropriation of the survivor’s experience is possible because the experience has been translated into symbols manipulable by the reader — suffering has ceased to be suffering; it is, instead, merely a sign that stands for suffering, and could just as easily stand for something else. Popular culture critic John Carlos Rowe describes a similar appropriation of the symbols generated by survivors of combat in Vietnam:
It is, of course, no revelation that marginal, counter-cultural, critical discourses are “quoted” or “translated” in more popular forms of representation…. When military fatigues and boots migrate from the soldiers to anti-war demonstrations to Vietnam veterans protesting the war to high-fashion models to punkers and, finally, to adolescents, the path of metonymic displacement is hardly direct or simple.148
Aware that her works are liable to be appropriated and misinterpreted, Randall works to make it difficult for her readers to revise her experiences. Unlike Wisechild, she takes control of both the retelling and interpretive processes.
Memory, for Randall, transcends the intellectual task of reconstituting the past in symbolic form. She uses the tools of feminist theory — its holistic approach to “knowing” and its conflation of personal and political — to find truths which are buried in her mind and in her body. Randall’s insistence that her body plays an active part in her re-vision of the trauma of incest makes it difficult for the reader to reduce her re-telling to the merely symbolic. Her reclamation of her body’s role as a participant in the interpretive process suggests to the reading audience that they also have a body — and a memory — to reclaim. “True to my conditioning,” she explains, “there is a disjuncture between my mind and body in their separate ways of touching my history….. Now I am teaching my body to go back, to identify the act, to work through the terror and anger… and to understand how the abuse informed other areas of my action and reaction as well.”149 This process, which Randall calls “coming whole,” is intimately related to her perception of international politics — the politics of oppression. Randall writes: “An oppressive system’s most finely honed weapon against a people’s self-knowledge is the expert distortion of that people’s history.”150
“6. This is about memory” explores the ways in which the oppressor culture coopts and revises the history of the peoples they control, disappearing the history and influence of minorities, rewriting the past in their own image.151 Reclaiming her personal history, Randall asserts, is an essential part of reclaiming the history of the female gender: “When memory stood as the key to my absence and presence in this world, I looked at the ways in which our collective memory is manipulated — at times mutilated — in order that we forget who we are, what we have done, our feelings.”152 When she examined her mushroom phobia in that context, she found to her surprise that her fear was constructed in order to contain her memories of incest, and to store them for later retrieval and use.153
Writing was, for Randall, an essential part of the retrieval process. She used poetry and prose in combination with photography to help her visualize and concretize the memories she needed to confront and integrate. At the same time she continued her therapy, and used it both as an inspiration for her artistic work and as a means of interpreting the symbols and images she generated. At the end of her introductory essay, Randall reiterates the need to understand her work as an artistic vision of the journey toward healing, the “process of unfolding.” Psychiatrist Deborah Golub, who has used art therapy in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder, suggests that “the creation and transformation of symbols” provided her Vietnam veteran patients with “a new approach toward achieving self-integration and mastering the trauma.”154 Randall’s process is not radically different from the one Golub describes. Like the combat veterans in Golub’s workshop, Randall has “abstracted mental images from feeling states, organized the images into concrete art forms, reflected upon symbols and amplified them with associations, and manipulated imagery in an attempt to reframe and discover alternative solutions to problems.”155 It is in this context that we must read Randall’s description of This is About Incest as a set of “images and words speaking a language we must take the power to change.”156
The first poem in This Is About Incest entitled “Killing The Saint,” is addressed to her mother, and voices Randall’s distress at her mother’s inability to fully acknowledge the incest. “Once you say yes, / maybe he also forced my brother. / Maybe he forced me. / But now again you dont remember. / I didn’t say that, you tell me, tonight. / I never said that.”157
Randall uses the same mirror imagery that Wisechild employs. Both women struggle to see themselves; both women are afraid that when they look in the mirror they will see their mother’s face. Randall and Wisechild generate images of mothers who place their own needs before the needs of their children. Like Wisechild, Randall faces her need to break the cord, writing: “Mother you are larger now. / Awkward, we split. / The mirror goes.”158 They must reject their mothers’ anger and fear before they can care for their own inner children, before they can, as Randall writes, bring “my children back, circling / their size.”
Randall’s next five poems are addressed to her abuser, her grandfather, and make use of the second person singular. These poems are angry and strong, reminiscent of much of the poetry in the early incest anthologies edited by Thornton and Bass, McNaron and Morgan:
I don’t want your business suit,
flat white face too close to mine.
Your rimless glasses
get in my way.
I need to kill you my way.159
»»»»»»»Learning to remember,
learning against all odds
to break your chain in me.160
»»»»»»»There are things we will never do together,
you who have hidden so long
I who wrench you from my flesh
breathing or not.161
»»»»»»»It was you who used my tender baby flesh and mind,
hid behind your patriarchal privilege
and left me to figure it out,
left me to wonder who abused you,
and how to clean the fear.162
The sixth poem, “Someone Trusted Has Used Force” abandons the device of direct accusation and is, instead, contemplative as Randall considers the consequences of her grandfather’s actions. “Someone trusted has used force / to enter this space,” she writes:
Memory tears and shreds.
Life and memory
have both been sacrificed. Nothing as it was.163
With these words, she begins to explore the shape and form that the reclamation of memory will take. “The Green Clothes Hamper” is strongly imagist — its hard to believe its invocation of William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” is not intentional.
Williams rejected the literary devices of Pound and Eliot, rejected their reliance on classical languages and allusions to classical literature, maintaining that there were “No ideas but in things. The poet does not… permit himself to go beyond the thought to be discovered in the context of that with which he is dealing…. The poet thinks with his poem….”164 Williams wrote evocative poetry in an American idiom, poetry which refused to accede to the primacy of “the great subject.” He chose instead to make clear “how any object, rightly regarded, can display its special signature.”165 “The Red Wheelbarrow” is a sparse poem, a mere eight lines comprising a single sentence. Randall’s “The Green Clothes Hamper” is a longer work — 20 lines arranged in four-line stanzas — but contained within it is a single sentence which, when slightly rearranged, conforms perfectly to Williams’ original:
the green lucite
of a clothes
where rape impaled
As Williams explains, “The particular thing offers a finality that sends us spinning through space….”167
Williams had an interest in freeing himself from the traditional constraints of language, and in generating new poetic forms: “I propose sweeping changes from top to bottom of the poetic structure….”168 Randall would have found Williams’ preoccupation with reshaping language so that it might contain and clarify an “eternal moment” appealing.169 She might have considered it to be consonant with her own desire to reconstruct language and to create a place within it for women’s reality, but she would also have found his sparse descriptions insufficient to convey the complexities of the incest experience. Imagist poems work only when the audience and the author share reference points. H.D. relied on her readers’ knowledge of Greek mythology,170 and Williams depended on the notion the reading public would be able to create a context for the red wheelbarrow. Randall places the imagist construct at the heart of her poem, but surrounds it with contextualizing references, suggesting that new languages are not born full-blown from the forehead of Zeus. They are, instead, carefully constructed as the poet creates explicit ties between “This lost green hamper” and “My body coming home.” Without her intervention we would miss the importance of the green clothes hamper, upon which so much depends. She cannot, like Williams, depend on the fact that too much goes without saying. To Randall, nothing must go without saying — too often the words of women are left unspoken. She fears that it is “impossible / to cut this silence with the words.”171
The notion of silence has preoccupied feminist scholars and writers. Literary critic Susan Gubar explained that women’s unwritten stories are symbolized by “the blank page [which] contains all stories in no story, just as silence contains all potential sound, and white contains all color.”172 Feminist theorist Susan Griffin has written this about the silence of women:
Silences. Not the silences between notes of music, or the silences of a sleeping animal, or the calm of a glassy surfaced river witnessing the outstretched wings of a heron. Not the silence of an emptied mind. But this other silence. That silence which can feel like a scream, in which there is not peace. The grim silence between two lovers who are quarreling. The painful silence of the one with tears in her eyes who will not cry. The silence of the child who knows he will not be heard. The silence of a whole people who have been massacred. Of a whole sex made mute, or not educated to speech. The silence of a mind afraid to admit truth to itself.”173
Books such as Tillie Olson’s Silences (1983) and Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets and Silences (1986) focus on the ways in which spoken and written language fail to articulate women’s experience.174 Concerned with similar issues, Randall aims to reclaim her voice, both by restructuring the language itself and by creating a new context — one which alleviates her readers’ culturally inculcated inability to hear what women say.
“Let Us Move On” articulates Randall’s philosophy about language. It begins with an excerpt from Adrienne Rich’s essay “Split at the Root,” in the anthology Nice Jewish Girls (1982): “The poet who knows that beautiful language can lie, that the oppressor’s language sometimes sounds beautiful.”175 “Having found the event / I looked for the man,” writes Randall. “Having discovered the man / I needed the meaning.”176 In “Let Us Move On,” Randall reminds herself to substitute the word “rape” for the world “abuse,” and to reread her grandfather’s affectionate words to her child self so that his apparently loving birthday note — “This is for my little sweetheart Margaret / who has set back the clock / for her ‘Grandpa'” — is exposed for the vicious hypocrisy it is. “Moving on” is a re-visionary process: “I will not say again / I sat in his lap. No. / He had me on his lap. / You were not raped: he raped you. / Memory moves as it can, freedom is yours / to place the verb.”177 She is no more seduced by her grandfather’s words that than she was seduced by William Carlos Williams’ attractive invitation to allow images to speak for themselves. She must speak or be spoken for.
“Easier To Match His Face” and “Guilty of Innocence” connect Randall’s personal experience of incest with institutionalized oppression. In the first poem, her grandfather’s hands become the hands of “that man in the White House / who calls himself a contra, Joe McCarthy’s ghost, / Jerry Falwell, Rambo, the District Director / of INS.” She links right wing politicians (living and dead), religious fanatics, popular culture manifestations of American militarism, and the bureaucrats of the INS to her traumatic incest experience in the same way W.D. Ehrhart ties his Vietnam war trauma to the Kent State massacre, the My Lai massacre, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, police brutality, capitalism, and other evils in his poem “To Those Who Have Gone Home Tired.”178 “Guilty of Innocence” equates institutionalized violence against women to the Holocaust, the archetypal trauma experience, as Randall allows Holocaust survivors Abraham Bomba, Motke Zaidl, and Itzhak Dugin to speak for her, quoting their words in her poem.179 She, and they, speak together, baring witness to atrocity: “The rape of language, the rape / of meaning. / Guilty of innocence. Innocent guild. / Memory hibernating / when memory threatens life. / Memory coming back returns survival.”180
Comparisons between the suffering of contemporary American women and the suffering of the Nazi victims strikes horror into the hearts of some Holocaust scholars. Alvin Rosenfeld, for example, writes of the “pathology” embodied in Sylvia Plath’s poetry — referring to the poem “Daddy” (1966), which invokes images of German atrocities, including lampshades made of human skin, mass executions and cremation.181 Rosenfeld calls Plath a “confessional” poet — a label that McNaron and Morgan specifically condemn when they discuss the ways in which male critics have marginalized women’s writing — and he accuses her of appropriating these powerful images to make her own “individual suffering” seem more important.182 Rosenfeld failed to consider that Plath might have good reason to make use of Holocaust imagery. He prefers to see her as a bad girl — a spoiled child who employs these metaphors without understanding them, sheerly out of a desire to shock the grown-ups. His smug dismissal is, however, rooted in the assumption that women have “personal” rather than “political” problems, and that, whatever these problems are, they are not important enough to discuss in connection with an event as “serious” as the Holocaust. As James Young reminds us, though, “The Holocaust exists for [Plath] not as an experience to be retold or described but as an event available to her (as it was to all who came after) only as a figure, an idea, in whose image she has expressed another brutal reality: that of her own internal pain.”183
Feminist scholars take issue with Rosenfeld and his ilk. The most radical feminists claim that other atrocities pale in comparison to the systematic oppression of women. Andrea Dworkin suggests that the Holocaust is too mild a metaphor to use in connection with the subjugation of women:
There is no analogue anywhere among subordinated groups of people to this experience of being made for intercourse; for penetration, entry occupation. There is no analogue in occupied countries or in dominated races or in imprisoned dissidents or in colonialized cultures or in the submission of children to adults or in the atrocities that have marked the twentieth century ranging from Auschwitz to the Gulag.184
Whether or not Dworkin is correct, feminist poets like Plath and Randall make use of Holocaust metaphors because they find that these comparisons are useful in illuminating the traumatic experiences in their own lives. The codified traumas of the Holocaust may echo Plath’s pain in language that is close to representing her reality.
Holocaust metaphors are not the only ones that occur to Randall. In “The Language of What Really Happened,” Randall connects her memories of incest with the “underground memories” of the Vietnam War. She feels her own inability to remember “what really happened” most deeply as she stands before the Vietnam War memorial wall, sure that these hidden truths would help her “connect / Quang Tri 1974 with Washington 1986.”185
“The Language of What Really Happened” is the final poem in This Is About Incest and it claims the authority to tell a “true” story, displacing official accounts and allowing suppressed memories to rise to the surface. But her newborn memory cannot yet successfully banish the official story, cannot yet find the words to express her thoughts “in a language they’d understand.” Instead, she stands silenced in the face of the enormously symbolic wall — she can only think of her memory “way off there in the mountains / waiting me home.”
The text of This Is About Incest is interspersed with a series of photographs that parallel the story of Randall’s journey towards wholeness. The first set of photos appears 38 pages into the book, when Randall has established the context in which they are to be interpreted. The first is a full portrait of her grandfather, seated at his desk holding a magazine (Town and Country) and looking into the camera with a faint smile. Three subsequent photos trace the progress of a mushroom across this portrait as it creeps up her grandfather’s body and comes to rest on his chest. Randall has switched the terms of her relationship with her abuser, forcing him to carry the burden of fear.
The second portrait is place adjacent to the poem titled “The Second Photograph.” The poem interprets and contextualizes the photo, explaining that her grandfather’s hand circles her buttocks with its “fingers strangely held, as if in secret signs.”186 Randall writes of this seemingly innocuous portrait:
I am reading this into the image.
I am reading it because I know.
I am telling it because now, half a century later,
Her reinterpretation gives the next photograph an ominous overtone. Once again we see the portrait of her grandfather, accompanied by the mushroom which now lies, like a long-stemmed rose, across the bottom. To the right of the portrait, beside the mushroom, is a small portrait of Randall seated alone on a step, with her own book in her hands. The similarity of the pose held by the grandfather and granddaughter is somehow oppressive, as if he were recreating her as a small image of herself. The mushroom, the only three-dimensional object in the frame, dominates the picture. A series of two more photos follows. The first contains an upper-body portrait of her grandfather as a young man, and a photograph of another small child (perhaps Randall or her mother) in a similar position to the portrait of Randall in the previous photo. Beside those two portraits lies a third — her grandfather, now much older, holding two naked and vulnerable infants. The mushroom is again prominently featured at the bottom of the frame. The final photo in the series contains the youthful portrait of her grandfather and, arranged upon his chest, three portraits of Randall as a young girl. Her grandfather’s portrait occupies only the upper right third of the frame. To the left of the portrait lie three discarded mushrooms, and the lower right hand of the frame is filled with Randall’s sandaled foot, which crushes a fourth mushroom.
The next photo is a close-up of Randall seated on her grandfather’s lap, but superimposed over the photo are Randall’s own hands hovering above a mushroom. It appears as if she is reaching into her own past and reshaping it. The final three photographs accomplish a complete restructuring of authority. In the first of the three a large and powerful female figure dominates most of the frame — the portrait of her youthful grandfather and several mushrooms are crowded into the right-hand side of the frame. In the second, a battered, one-eyed teddy-bear sprawls in the upper right-hand corner of the portrait of Randall as a child. The final photograph of the text normalizes the mushroom, placing it carelessly beside a telephone on her nightstand. It no longer dominates the frame, or even intrudes upon it.
The movement in the text is from patriarchal power, represented by her grandfather and embodied in Randall’s mushroom images, to a new woman’s power, represented by Randall’s reclamation of her voice, her powerful female doll, and her demystification of the mushroom. Her prose essay, “This Is About Power,” interprets the photographs for the reader and titles them. By appropriating existing portraits and arranging them with carefully chosen props she revises the past and then reinterprets it with her prose. The process is complete even before the film is developed — the images that actually appear on the film have a predetermined meaning generated and explicated by Randall herself. “Now I am developing this film,” she writes. “Its secrets are still locking inside the canister, suspended in sixty-eight degree chemicals.”188 These are secrets kept from us, since Randall is privy to the answers and will choose just which images she wishes to share. She concludes and we — successfully manipulated — must agree: “This is about power on every level.”189
Randall is primarily concerned with the relationship between the powerful and the powerless. She believes that the power relationship is gendered: the archetypal drama of dominance and subordination is played out between men and women, and all other forms of discrimination derive from and are interpreted within the framework of that essential division of the sexes. A number of white feminist scholars strongly concur, among them historian Joan Scott, who writes:
Power relations among nations and the status of colonial subjects have been made comprehensible (and thus legitimate) in terms of relations between male and female…. Gender is one of the recurrent references by which political power has been conceived, legitimated, and criticized. It refers to but also establishes the meaning of the male/female opposition.190
Randall’s goal is to dethrone the men in power, and to claim equality and freedom from fear and oppression. In her new world, no one will walk in fear.
Because she believes that the power relationship is gendered, Randall thinks that women can and should unite in common cause. Randall’s pain at her mother’s refusal to unequivocally support her in her condemnation of her maternal grandfather runs through both prose pieces and poetry. The conflict in This Is About Incest is between women and men, and between women-identified women and the women who (through fear, or self-hatred) support the patriarchal power structure. Such a simple construction elides the differences between women and comes dangerously close to obscuring the race and class issues for which gender is supposed to serve as archetype. This elision is far from what Randall intends, but it is a result of her decision to place patriarchal power on one side and femaleness, Jewishness, blackness, homosexuality, disability, and youth on the other.191
Enter Password: Re-enter Password, Elly Bulkin’s survivor narrative, is also concerned with questions of power. But where Randall is interested in the relations between men in power and the women who are oppressed by them, Bulkin is specifically concerned with the interactions between women. Bulkin belongs to several different communities that at times overlap and at times diverge: she is Jewish, lesbian, feminist, and a sexual abuse survivor — simultaneously a member of several of the categories of oppressed persons that Randall refers to in This Is About Incest. Focussed on questions both of autonomy and community, Bulkin explores the differences between women that Randall elides. She beings her narrative with the word “Recovery” in boldface: “That word.”192 Bulkin wrestles with language, sure, like Randall, that she must build something new, but not at all sure of how to go about it: “Moved finally to a different use of language. Using it too, still, in the old way, as cover, as distance.”193 Afraid she is off to a bad start, she wonders if she ought to begin again, to break her silence in a different way:
… I have been silent. Which is, after all, the issue. Or one of them. I’m a writer who does not write. Who said only yesterday, in response to a well-meaning question, that I’ve written one review in the past four years. Who had a panic reaction two springs ago when a woman tried to engage me in the common language of the lesbian-feminist literary scene…. And I left, rudely, compulsively, needing to go right away, not five minutes later. “Like rape trauma,” a friend said to me a month later; she had once been raped and knew the real thing, whereas I only knew the irrationality of my response and had no words for it.194
Bulkins’ difficulty is not in understanding her relationship to hostile, masculine power structures, but her connections to the community of lesbian feminists with which she identifies. How can we, she asks, talk to each other about ourselves? She notes, “as a prime instance of male violence and power, childhood sexual abuse (mine and others’) has begin to be an acceptable topic for feminist discussion, [while] the complexity and pain of women’s interactions with each other remain taboo.”195
Enter Password is written in journal form, with dated entries, and in an informal, first-person style. In addition to her own notations, she includes correspondence to and from other women, excerpts from her writing, and quotes from the works of other writers. The book is divided into two main sections: “Part One” and “Part Two.” “Part One” contains her short introduction (which bears the same title as the the book, but which could just as easily have been called “The Story”), dated April, 1987. Following the introduction are seven numbered sections, most beginning with a quote, bringing us up to October, 1987. “Part Two” is comprised of three sections, beginning in January of 1998 and ending in October of the same year. By shaping her work to resemble a journal, Bulkin exerts the same control over the reading process that Randall seeks in This Is About Incest. This is a chronological journey that reflects, in as much depth and detail as Bulkin chooses to share, the healing or “recovery” process.
Bulkin begins her first section with a quote from Perri Klass, in which Klass describes his reaction to his discovery that the New York Times Book Review contained letters accusing him of “some crime I hadn’t committed.” Klass explains that, wrongly accused, he felt “a little bit the way the victim of rape must feel… anyone I told would have at least a split second of wondering whether the accusation was true….”196 Underneath the quote, Bulkin writes, “I’ve always called it ‘the cloud.'”197 “The cloud” has followed her since a publisher responded to her lover’s submitted manuscript by describing it as “the most anti-Semitic writing she had ever read”198 and circulated an 11-page memo filled with angry criticism among the feminist community. Bulkin explains:
In all this time, the memo implied, I’d apparently been living — quite unknown to me — with a rabid anti-Semite…. It felt, I imagined, like having trash dumped all over the lawn, words crawled on the walls — the 3 a.m. act, not of the Klan or some local kids, but of the neighbors who for years had been dropping by for coffee. I felt furious and vulnerable. Not just unwanted by Jewish feminists, but discarded, rendered a virtual enemy of my people…. I raged, and, having no outlet for that anger, lapsed into depression.199
Her response was to write furiously, first long letters to feminist journals, then a 150-page manuscript. Bulkin was propelled by the thought that unless she got “everything right,” she was liable to be publicly pilloried. But no one can rest assured she has “everything right,” and so Bulkin wrote “in a state of fear,”200 suffered from stress-induced illness, and was finally admitted to a hospital because she was unable to speak or breathe — her vocal cords had swollen up and filled her throat.
After the publication of her long manuscript as an article in the anthology Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism,201 Bulkin stopped writing. Perplexed, she found herself in a crisis of faith, finally giving in to her “irrational” desire to seek spiritual satisfaction. A scholar Bulkin turned to books for answers, and found, in a volume entitled God’s Fierce Whimsy: Christian Feminism and Theological Education, a partial explanation of why “the cloud” had knocked her “so solidly onto her emotional back that [she’d] been unable to pick [herself] up again.”202 What illuminates Bulkin is not a brilliant theological argument, but a simple exchange between Carter Heywood, a white lesbian, and Katie Cannon, a black woman whose sexuality is not identified. Heywood and Cannon were survivors of childhood sexual abuse and told their stories in God’s Fierce Whimsey. Cannon’s summation of the abuse — “It wreaked havoc in our psyches”203 — strikes Bulkin to the heart and her own childhood memories “bubble up, loudly, insistently, no longer to be quieted.”204
The quote that heads the third section of Enter Password was penned by Judith McDaniel, a feminist activist and friend of Bulkin who had been taken hostage by the contras in Nicaragua. McDaniel’s description of splitting off from her body, looking down at herself “from a safe spot about six-feet overhead”205 is reminiscent of Wisechild’s descriptions of her incest experience, and of many of the writings in Voices of the Night and I Never Told Anyone. The contradiction between the “gentle face” of her contra captor and the terrible power he wields is similar to the contradiction between a person who is both a “loving” family man and a violent rapist. Bulkin addresses two letters to McDaniel in this section. In the first she communicates her new understanding of the ways Bulkin herself helped create the environment that prevented her from coping with “the cloud” and integrating that experience into her life:
As I’ve known for a long time, I hadn’t laid the groundwork for friends to know that I wasn’t just upset, but that, in addition to taking care of myself, I needed some way to be taken care of. And because I hadn’t done the work of setting groundrules or precedents, no one would’ve even thought to offer and I’d pretty much have to ask for something which I’d already established as the sort of thing I couldn’t possibly need.206
In the second letter, Bulkin declares herself, for the first time, a sexual abuse survivor. “Except for a two- or three-sentence comment to two Bronx friends (probably ages eight or nine),” Bulkin writes, “I have quite literally never discussed this experience with anybody.”207 Bulkin’s perception of her decision to repress, to “forget” her experience is complicated by her position as a feminist, a woman who has “read all the books, can offer all the analyses” about sexual abuse. She is troubled by the fact that one can know and not know at the same time.
Bulkin was abused by a male acquaintance, the superintendent of her apartment building (“white, not Jewish, probably early thirties”208), who invited her to his room and traded her stacks of comic books for sex (“my touching him until he came; his hand guiding mine”209). There was, she says, “No violence, no threats, no undressing.”210 This occurred, Bulkin writes, some three or four times. Her memories of her feelings included shame, fear, guilt, isolation, and abandonment, and she finds them strangely entwined with her feelings about her brother, who was, at the same point in time, having certain difficulties “never to be discussed”211 and was subsequently sent away to a special school. Her unresolved emotions about the abuse and about her relationship with her family are mirrored in her reaction to “the cloud.” When her lover’s manuscript was attacked, Bulkin felt “complicity,” “fear,” “loneliness,” “isolation,” and “abandonment.” Her realization of the continuity of her emotional response brings her to a new stage of self-consciousness.
Margaret Randall’s voice weaves through Bulkin’s narrative. Bulkin begins her third section with Randall’s words: “Not everything is recorded here. It is important to remember that. Not everything can be said.”212 Though it is true that not everything can be said, Bulkin realizes the importance of telling and re-telling stories of sexual abuse, and offers an example of her own dependence upon the words of other women. Bulkin struggles to take control of her tale, to choose what she will say and what she will not say, and she learns how to shape her story from other writers. She finds, in a Brattleboro bookstore, a copy of I Never Told Anyone, which she “inevitably” purchases. She also reads Randall’s work and is inspired to adopt her technique of using journal entries to tell her story. She converses with Judith McDaniel about rape trauma and child abuse, and is deeply affected by an article published in the women’s journal Sojourner by women who remembered having been sexually abused.213 Gradually she begins to reconstruct her story, beginning with a letter to Sojourner:
I recalled… that in a 1983 essay I had described myself “as a feminist who has counseled rape victims, had spoken with and found shelter for battered women, and who, like women all over the world, know women among those I love who have been raped and abused.” And I knew that my failure to include myself among their number was one measure of the power of that forgotten experience.214
When Bulkin sees the published letter, “prominently placed” in the journal, she regards it as a new kind of “coming-out” experience and purchases a “Child Abuse Kills” button from the bookstore. Still ambivalent, however, she buries the button in her pocket instead of wearing it.
Only after she publicly declares herself a sexual abuse survivor does Bulkin discover the title of her work — the prompts displayed by her computer when she opens her word-processing documents. The title seems to Bulkin symbolic of her effort to get “past something (a door, a block, silence, loss of memory).” The request for re-entry of the password indicates to her “that it isn’t enough to do it once and be done with it.”215 Recovery is a process and it takes time to find the right word to open each door. For inspiration she always returns to the work of other women:
… I started to think more about writing and recovery. Writing both as part of healing and as a way of taking control of what’s happening. The sense that publishing makes some piece of one’s life “finished” in a way. Many examples: my letter to Sojourner, Joan’s poems, Judith’s writing about alcoholism and being captured in Nicaragua. Dorothy’s “The Women Who Hate Me,” Audre’s prose and poetry on cancer and racism, Margaret’s incest poems, Cherríe on Latina sexuality, Adrienne’s “Contradictions: Tracking Poems.” There are lots of other examples — but I’m thinking primarily about women who are writers, who see writing as necessary to their lives. Recovering the ability to write, or to write about what’s most difficult.216
She seeks guidance not only in understanding what she can say, but in what she is permitted to omit, “The difference between our actual lives and both of our own and other people’s public presentations of them.”217
The impact on Bulkin of the early anthologies of sexual abuse survivor testimony is clear. Images from I Never Told Anyone and Voices in the Night appear throughout the text. Bulkin begins section five with an epigraph from Anne Lee’s “Untitled Incest Piece” in Voices: “To remember is to regress — to remove the careful, clanking armor of adulthood, and say finally, this is how it was.”218 She accepts and works with the images of “the child me,” the fragmented self, the journey toward wholeness. As a part of her won healing process she decides to teach a writing workshop she calls “Risky Writing,” a “non-fiction prose workshop focusing on writing about experiences which participants might find personally difficult.”219 Bulkin explains:
I’m beginning to understand how my sense of identification with other women is making possible my own writing and recovery. Writing now, I’m struck by the extent to which my risks are inseparable from theirs. For me, the movement out of depression, into some sort of slow healing has much to do with other women’s stories, with what women have told me when I said, “I never told you this, but….”220
Bulkin places her biography on the advertisement for “Risky Writing,” and describes her life in a manner that is not, strictly speaking, correct: “for the past year,” the flier reads, “she has been writing about recovering from childhood sexual abuse.”221 In truth, her problem is that she has not been writing, and she hopes the workshop will force her to produce new work. She sees her decision to run the workshop as a turning point in her healing process, and ends the first half of Enter Password on that note.
“Part Two” opens with a completely different topic. Bulkin, distraught and angry, asks the reader, “How not to simplify? Not to rant?” as she relates the story of the end of her 12-year relationship with her lover, Jan. Her feelings of rage and hurt are shared with the reader as Bulkin — returning from a conference — had sex with a man in the apartment she shares with Bulkin, “twice, without benefit of safe sex or birth control, with a man she’d met a few weeks earlier.”222 Her sense of betrayal is great, and it is heightened by the complex interplay of emotional, sexual, social, and ideological factors. Bulkin is infuriated “about men, about roles, about women who could pass as straight.”223 She sees Jan’s act of infidelity as both personal and political: in Randall’s words, “this is about power on every level.” In a final paroxysm of agony, Bulkin exclaims, “And we had been dykes together.”224
The relationship between Jan and Bulkin does not dissolve immediately. “I waited in silence,” Bulkin writes, “the few months when we hoped — against emotional logic, and the downward slide of events — for things to work out. Except for telling a few friends, I waited silently.”225 Only when the end of the partnership is in sight does Bulkin choose to write, “having had too much already of my own silence.”226 The composition process is crucial: she writes to express her feelings, and then reads and re-reads her writings in order to “notice what I’ve left out, or not highlighted.”227 In a manner similar to that described by Randall in This Is About Incest, Bulkin takes control of both the writing process and the interpretation of her work. From this position of authority she is able to discern an important truth: “I’ve been here before. Not in this exact spot, but very close to it.”228
On February 19, 1998, Bulking writes, “I’d not expected to write so soon about these things. I don’t yet have the language to explain what it was like….”229 On February 21 she corrects herself, saying of that last sentence, “… I know it’s inaccurate. For in truth, I’d never expected to write about these things.230 In discussion with Jan during a last vacation together, Bulkin had wrestled with an important question: “What of our life together (and breaking apart) could we write about, and when?”231 They negotiated and, in deference to Bulkin’s wishes, had agreed on “a ten-year limit on memoirs and explicit writing which describes the other person (or submit for approval).” Bulkin observes:
Only later did I realize what this means: I’d have to stop writing this piece. I couldn’t finish it or think about publishing it. I couldn’t use it as a way of getting certain things behind me. Out of my own fears, my own desire for some control over the the written record of my life, I’d acquiesced in my own silencing.232
Caught up in the “irreversible” process of articulating the “unsayable,” Bulkin asks that Jan agree to her request to remove the restrictions on their writing about each other. When Jan agrees, Bulkin is both relieved and afraid. She is realizes that the words she writes are solely her responsibility: “My words. My risk. Soloing in yet another wary.”233
The Ellen Bass poem that opens the next section can help us understand Bulkin’s writing up to this point, and suggests the new direction her writing is taking. “You do not know the breaking through as it happens,” reads the epigraph. “After, after you will look. You will acknowledge. You will see through the opening you have cleared.”234 This growth is evident in Bulkin’s discussion of the “Risky Writing” workshop:
I didn’t expect to receive so much from the six women and one man who stayed with the workshop: who started with fragments of journals, or prose about impersonal topics… who ended with writing so direct and painful that I felt near tears at our last workshop, overwhelmed both by what they were willing to say and by my ability to hear them into speech. For me, as for them, a measure of change.235
Taking a lesson from the writers in her workshop, Bulkin sends her manuscript to a feminist publisher. But despite her brave gesture, she still agonizes over the choice to make her work public. “To publish under a pseudonym,” she writes, “would just reinforce my feeling that I shouldn’t be talking about any of these things. But to publish under my name is unsettling. What will it mean to my future interactions with women I don’t already know well that that they have ingested this personal information about me?”236
Though Bulkin emphasizes her emotional connection to her work, she is also concerned with the literary quality of her writing. She comments on Randall’s manuscript, This Is About Incest, that the “prose worked better than the poetry,”237 and in a discussion with a publisher she agrees that her own manuscript is not “crafted enough”238 — that its structure and presentation are not yet complete. Style, for Bulkin, is comprised of a set of consciously adopted techniques (the journal entry form, the familiar address, etc.) that can be used to convey a particular set of meanings in a carefully engineered environment. So conscious is she of the impressions and emotions written words can evoke that a trip back to the house she once shared with Jan stimulates a desire in her to find and remove from Jan’s possession all of the letters Bulkin had sent her over the years. She would like to disappear these documents, dump them at “some roadside rest-stop,”239 and thereby rewrite (unwrite) the story of their relationship, as Jan rewrote that story by telling Bulkin about her affair. She eschews this retroactive rug-pulling for a clean break; stealing her words back will only cause more words to be uttered, “outraged phone calls or letters trailing,”240 pursuing her without end.
Soon after she has begun “to sink into the simple rhythm of a single life led in a single place,” Bulkin finds herself in the Lesbian Herstory Archives giving her first public talk “about how my young dykehood had shaped my sense of being Jewish.”241 As a young woman Bulkin read lesbian novels and then burned them, erasing their words in the same way she considered erasing her letters to Jan. (Adrienne Rich writes about this in a letter to Bulkin: “I think of you as you described yourself burning lesbian novels in the incinerator; finding the words you needed but then having to destroy them.”242) In the Archives, she is surrounded by these lost words, miraculously reconstituted, there for her to use when she needs them. Bulkin’s awareness of all the books never published, the books burned and suppressed and ruined, is crucial to her decision to pen, now, words she does not intend to destroy.
Bulkin’s decision to write for a public audience entails a second decision — to share her words with her daughter Anna. Though Bulkin is determined to provide a healthy and supportive environment for Anna, and is careful to encourage her daughter to grow and develop in her own way and at her own pace, she is unable to entirely prevent herself from projecting her own fears onto the child. She dreams that Anna has been abused by a man. In the dream she looks for Anna but cannot find her; she knows that something has happened, but she does not know what. Bulkin describes this as “a dream in which, on several levels, the little girl got totally lost.”243 This entry brings to mind W.D. Ehrhart’s prose-poem “The Dream,” in which he witnesses, and then becomes the perpetrator of, the massacres of his friends and loved ones.244 Like Ehrhart, Bulkin cannot escape the suspicioun that she is the embodiment of her own worst fear. The little girl of her dream is simultaneously Anna and Bulkin herself; the “something” that happened represents Bulkin’s inability to fully remember and articulate her own past — she is afraid of failing herself and of failing others. Even her journey toward healing causes Bulkin to doubt her fitness as a mother. “In this journal,” she writes, “I was for months the mother who was leaving her daughter, or waiting for her to go off someplace so I could write or collapse or be alone….”245
Instead of succumbing to the fear that she is a “bad mother,” Bulkin retells her story from another perspective, once again taking control of the interpretation of her own life and work. Up to this point, she notes, she has “been near-silent as a mother,” but a simple revision can change the reader’s perception. She reminds us that what we have read so far has been what she has chosen to tell us. It is not the whole truth. “[T]here are other stories.”246 Enter Password is dedicated to Anna. Through the recovery process Bulkin has learned to be what she calls a “consenting mother.”247 She has chosen to raise her child in an atmosphere of “parental speech” rather than “parental silence” and to cede to her daughter the right to forgive or condemn her for her decision. This marks Bulkin’s acceptance of full responsibility for her actions and it is embodied in a new perception of her intimate relationships.
Her relationship with Jan, Bulkin realizes, was predicated on the notion that she could change while Jan remained the same. All change has its price, as Randall and Wisechild both confirm. The notion panics Bulkin, immobilizes her. How much will each change cost? The next decision that faces her — whether or not to become involved with the Jewish feminist literary project Gesher — terrifies her. Unable to continue throwing away the words of the past, Bulkin knows that the must carry “the cloud” with her into this new group, that she must explain the “implications of my tangled Jewish-feminist history.”248 It would be safer to be silent, to use “language in the old way, as cover, as distance.”249 But Bulkin is no longer able to take the safe way out, no longer able “to simply walk away.”250
As I write this, I finger for the first time the rage behind my recent depression: cup in my hands my just-found anger and its source. I have talked and written myself into this world I can no longer even pretend to control: I am furious at myself for having let my shell slip so far from its secure, familiar spot (soft vital organs, hard-to-the-touch vertebrae — all unguarded). The loss of armor. The end of safety.251
Faced with a future that holds no promise of security, she acknowledges the presence of her fear. She may never walk without fear again. The world is not a safe place for any woman, and it is a downright dangerous place for a Jewish lesbian feminist activist. “My fault. My responsibility. My move,” writes Bulkin. The decisions are her own, but she cannot control or even predict the consequences.
Wisechild, Randall, and Bulkin have constructed survivor testimonies that force us to confront the damaging power of male violence. Wisechild has recreated the experience of her terror and pain, and the first years of her healing, in order that we might exercise our ability to empathize, to understand on an emotional level her experience of childhood sexual abuse. Randall has shared her therapeutic process — her literary and photographic depiction of her unfolding recognition of her status as an incest survivor enables us to interpret that experience and place it within the feminist theoretical context she creates. Bulkin brings us face-to-face with “the cloud” and then gives us the tools to dissipate it: honesty, openness, frank speech between sisters, the acknowledgment of our different needs and goals.
The final line of Enter Password embodies the contradictions contained within the personal narratives of sexual abuse survivors. “I don’t know if I’m ready,” Bulkin writes, unsure about her decision to publish her story. Yet the published book in my hands belies her claims to uncertainty. Bulkin’s words and her actions play in counterpoint to create the final composition: Ready or not, here we come.
5. Ibid. Agger and Jensen cite, as an example of this process, the use of testimony as a therapeutic tool by the underground in Chile: “In this work, psychologists, at the risk of their own lives, collected testimonies from former prisoners who had been subjected to torture. These testimonies were drawn up by the therapist and the ex-prisoner together, and they form part of the evidence which the underground movement collected of the regime’s repressive techniques. The drawing up of a complete and precise testimony became a therapeutic process for ex-prisoners, as through this, they were able to relate to their pain in a new way. They could see the universal in pain which had been experienced as personal encroachment. The bearing of the testimony became a cathartic process in which the common goal acted as a means of reestablishing the connection to reality. The collection of testimonies was also a research process for therapists who continuously learned more about the regime’s methods against its opponents” (118-199).
7. Firebrand Books, the press that published This Is About Incest, identifies itself as a lesbian feminist press [Andrea Fleck Clardy, Words to the Wise: A Writer’s Guide to Feminist and Lesbian Periodicals & Publishers, revised second edition, Firebrand Sparks Pamphlet #1 (Ithaca, NY, Firebrand) 1987. Furthermore, she has influenced and been influenced by lesbian writers such as Elly Bulkin (Enter Password) and Adrienne Rich (“North American Tunnel Vision,” and “Blood, Bread, and Poetry: The Location of the Poet,” in Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985 (New York: Norton) 1986: 160-166; 167-187.
10. Lesbian psychologist Coralyn Fontaine writes on the sexualization of lesbianism, and the need for students to learn about patriarchy, heterosexism and woman-identification in courses on the psychology of women in her essay, “Teaching the Psychology of Women: A Lesbian-Feminist Perspective,” in Margaret Cruikshank, ed., Lesbian Studies: Present and Future (Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press) 1982: 70-80.
18. Feminist testimonial narratives proliferate. In addition to the incest and sexual abuse survivor narratives discussed in this text, one may find, in any women’s literature or women’s studies section in any bookstore, a variety of personal narratives, anthologies of personal narratives, oral histories, novels using testimonial devices, and “reclaimed” narratives of long “lost” women. A few examples include: Maxine Alexander, ed., Speaking for Ourselves: Women of the South (New York: Pantheon) 1984; Rita Mae Brown, Six of One (New York: Bantam) 1978; Lillian Halegua, The Pearl Bastard (Boston: Alyson Publications) 1978; Hall Carpenter Archives Lesbian Oral History Group, Inventing Ourselves: Lesbian Life Stories (New York: Routledge) 1989; Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (New York, New American Library) 1973; Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals (San Francisco: Spinsters Ink) 1980; Cherríe Moraga, Loving in the War Years: Lo Que Nunca Pasó por sus Labios (Boston: South End Press) 1983; Alice Walker, The Color Purple (New York: Washington Square Press) 1982: Ida B. Wells, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 1970; Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig: Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (New York: Vintage) 1859/1983.
19. McNaron and Morgan challenge male and male-oriented critics who call the testimonies collected in their text “confessionalism”: “Male and male-oriented critics have often attempted to devalue women’s art either by saying that it is not crafted enough, i.e., does not fit established male forms; that it is innovated; or that it is not universal. ‘Universal’ means that it is about or from a male perspective. Since much of women’s literature is about defining what our experience is, it is invalidated as private and therefore not of interest. Since we as editors are passionately convinced of the necessity and excitement of rendering women’s lives into art as healing, enriching and affirmative experiences, there is little or no dialogue possible with the critic who will attempt to silence us in this way.” [Toni A.H. McNaron and Yarrow Morgan, Voices in the Night: Women Speaking About Incest (San Francisco: Cleis) 1982: 17-18.
23. Judy Grahn is a lesbian feminist and the author of a number of books, including Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds (Boston: Beacon Press) 1984. Her name would be familiar to most lesbian feminist readers.
28. Carlos Casteneda, The Second Ring of Power (New York: Pocket) 1977: 307. There is a strong and persuasive argument that Casteneda fabricated the Yaqui “sorcerers” out of whole cloth, that they are fictitious creations of a skilled writer. Casteneda’s books have been the subject of quite a bit of debate in the anthropological community and have come in for a great deal of criticism from scholars of Native American culture like Ward Churchill for their appropriation if nonwhite cultures. Their popularity in the New Age spiritual community, however, is undeniable and — true or not — they have influenced a great many readers. For the purposes of this book they can be regarded as powerful fictions that describe archetypal characters and imagined ways of being in the world.
98. “Reflect on the patriarchs. True, they had money and power, but only at the cost of harboring in their breasts an eagle, a vulture, forever tearing the liver out and plucking at the lungs — the instinct for possession, the rage for acquisition which drives them to desire other people’s fields and goods perpetually; to make frontiers and flags; battleships and poison gas; to offer up their own lives and their children’s lives.” [Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt, Brace, World) 1929: 38-39.]
103. Bass and Davis mention that this is a common scenario for incest survivors who confront family members. An initially sympathetic response does not indicate that the survivor can expect continued support. Often sympathy changes to rejection, denial, and anger when the implications of the accusation sink in. [Bass and Davis, The Courage to Heal: 140-141.]
126. See Chapter 2 for a detailed explanation of their claims.
132. “Each of us is here now because in one way or another we share a commitment to language and to the power of language, and to the reclaiming of that language which has been made to work against us. In the transformation of silence into language and action, it is vitally necessary for each of us to establish or examine her function in that transformation and to recognize her role as vital within that transformation.” [Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” in Sister Outsider (New York: Crossing Press) 1984.
136. Monique Witting, Les Guérillès, translated by David Le Vay (Boston: Beacon Press) 1985. Originally published in 1969 in French, under the same title by Les Editions de Minuit. For other French feminist discussions of language (in English translation) see also Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds., New French Feminisms: An Anthology (New York: Schocken) 1980.
148. John Carlos Rowe, “‘Bringing It All Back Home’: American Recyclings of the Vietnam War,” in Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennehouse, eds., The Violence of Representation: Literature and the History of Violence, (New York: Routledge) 1989: 203.
151. See Frances FitzGerald, America Revised (New York: Vintage) 1979; Oscar Handlin, Truth In History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard) 1979, especially Chapter 16, “Ethnicity and the New History”; and David Thelen, ed., Memory and American History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) 1990, especially David Lowenthal’s essay, “The Timeless Past: Some Anglo-American Historical Preconceptions.”
178. See Chapter One.
201. Elly Bulkin, “Hard Ground: Jewish Identity, Racism, and Anti-Semitism,” in Elly Bulkin, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Barbara Smith, Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism (Brooklyn: Long Haul Press) 1984: 91-230. Reprinted by Firebrand Books (Ithaca: NY).
202. Ibid.: 21. The Mud Flower Collective (Katie G. Cannon, Beverly W. Harrison, Carter Heyward, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Bess B. Johnson, Mary D. Pellauer, and Nancy D. Richardson), God’s Fierce Whimsey: Christian Feminist and Theological Education (New York: The Pilgrim Press) 1985.
244. See Chapter 4: 123.