Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading.
By e nina jay
the porch (an introduction)
When I received the email from Aishah asking me to be part of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum, my immediate answer was “yes.” It was unquestionable for me. I believe in Aishah’s work and her intentions. I read the word “incest.” I read the words “child sexual abuse.” I believed I had. It took me days, maybe even a couple weeks to truly realize that i may not have heard her.
Having worked in rape crisis centers for over a decade, having written hundreds of poems about rape & incest, having performed at endless take back the night marches, perhaps it was possible that those words had become just words to me. Perhaps in order to do the work effectively, I’d distanced myself from them in ways I’m not aware of. Perhaps I’ve become numb. I thought this, at first, as i could not feel anything as i sat to write. That’s what i told myself. I didn’t feel anything. This wasn’t true.
As the initial deadline approached closer, I felt anger. Why did I agree to do this? I didn’t have time. I told myself I didn’t have the patience. I told myself I had no idea what “love with accountability” means. I told myself Aishah was making me angry. She wanted too much. She’s never satisfied. She’s always pushing me. I told myself a lot of things. Except this truth.
I was afraid to intimately engage this process because the person I felt the least accountable to had been myself. To the parts of myself that needed healing. For me it’s easier to focus, fight and love another womon, a community, a society. It’s not difficult for me to contextualize childhood rape trauma when I’m reaching to love somebody else. I deeply understand that I still live in a myriad of silences. I still knowingly live in shame.
So with this forum, I’d do what I’ve always done when dealing with childhood traumas. I’d just attach them to all the traumas & feel them together. At a point, it became clear to me that I was going to have to dig deeper. I was going to have to talk about it at the same time that i was loving and being accountable to myself. I wasn’t sure i knew how to do that. I found this a stunning revelation.
I told myself it would be easy. I’d simply walk into the room where I stored all the files related to my incest and grab something quickly. That’s how i talk about it in my mind. It’s easier that way. Sounds like business. Almost clinical. Controllable. Contained. I expected that I would be able to just walk into the room and open a drawer, pull an old file out to send to Aishah and simply walk back out of the room and close the door back. Tightly.
As the third deadline extension approached, I awakened in the mornings irritated with Aishah. But I wasn’t irritated with Aishah. I was afraid. I was angry at her, though, perhaps, for knowing me deeply enough to know I wasn’t present. Even if she didn’t have the words for it. I could hear her doing her work by the tone of her emails/voice. She was struggling, perhaps hurting. It didn’t sound like she was just walking into rooms and pulling files out of drawers. If my sister isn’t doing that, how could I?
I understood I was going to have to write, which, for me, meant jumping into a volcano and praying I would be able to climb back out without getting burned alive. But not being certain it would be possible. I had to decide it was worth the risk. And I have decided that it is worth the risk. That whatever fears I have about the kind of nudity this forum demands of me, that this is an opportunity for me to face them and to reach toward the possibility of my dreams, for survivors like me.
I believe that we are our most powerful when we are able to embrace every inch of ourselves. I believe our collective loving and healing lies in our ability to acknowledge who we dreamed to be, what has interrupted that dream and who it is that we are now. As individuals and as a community. I believe it is possible to turn pain into power. And this is not a metaphor. I believe pain unspoken can never be transformed into power. And true power cannot be held inside the same hands as secrets.
The following writing, “a place to live,” was born on a morning last week. I share it now in an effort to be accountable to myself and more importantly, to the little gurl inside me who was raped and silenced and further silenced by me. I share it now in an effort to explore what “love with accountability” means to me. I share it now, with the hope that in doing so, I might come to understand and believe in what we call “restorative justice” and/or “transformative justice.”
I share it knowing that whatever work needs to be done, whatever dreams we may have about affecting the world concretely, as it relates to incest and child sexual abuse, that we must first acknowledge that we must first be accountable to ourselves and each other. Our experiences. Our pain. Our shame. Our voices. Our stories. Our power.
a place to live
i need a place to live. i don’t fit into any space. my borders are too wide. i spill out of the sides. it’s difficult to breathe. i’m tired of altering and shifting. i do not fit into this world, as i am. i need a place to tell my secrets. a place to be whole.
i need a place to live. where i can be visible. i want to be seen now. i want to be accepted. i want to be loved as all that i am. i have tried to love and be loved, in pieces, the way people seem to need me. not too much. just a little. of myself. not the wreckage mixed with beauty. not this weeping body i walk around in. just the sweetness that eases down a throat like honey. i’m tired of living without my entire body. without my entire self. i’m tired of secrets i know i don’t wanna keep anymore. secrets i know are trying to kill me. secrets that have filled my mouth with shame. nothing tastes good anymore.
i need a place to live with other people. i’m tired of living alone. tired of being lonely. tired of being in crowds, still lonely. tired of being surrounded by love, still feeling lonely. if i am not being myself, then i am not there. no matter who else may be there. i’m tired of crying alone. tired of my tears splashing onto concrete. tired of running away to cry. to be sad. to feel what i feel. alone. because i’ve learned that i can lose loving, by being honest. i can lose intimacy, by crying. we can lose almost anything, by hurting.
i have learned to be alone. to avoid being alone.
i need a place to live where i can talk and be heard. and i can hear words that sound like mine. taste tears that taste like mine. i need a place to live where my screams won’t break the glass. where the walls won’t cave in on me. where the floor won’t drop from beneath me, leaving me falling. i’m tired of falling. tired of caving in. tired of breaking. and the remnants being stepped over and walked across like garbage. but there is no refuse here. it all matters. it all is me. it all is life.
i need a place to live where i don’t have to keep it all contained. bracing the entire strength of my body against a closet door. attempting to walk and live and love as if i am standing full on two feet. i need a place to live without the feeling of danger. there is danger that comes when opening
doors that have been closed for decades. old houses with old memories. if i keep the door closed, you will never know how hurt i am still. you will never know that i never ever got over it and don’t believe i ever will. you will never know, and i want you to know. i think it’s important that you know. then maybe you’ll understand that i dream to build a village filled with broken houses. broken houses made of broken gurls. with wild flowers in the front yards. and deep pools of rainbows in the back.
i need a place to live where other broken gurls live. broken and powerful. a village of broken and cracked vessels of light that still shine powerful and brilliant like sun. its where i belong. in a village of womyn who do not hide from themselves and each other. a village of womyn who tell the truth and who prefer to hear the truth. a village of womyn who stand at the gates through the day and through the night to usher in the bodies and minds of other broken gurls and womyn who are in search of a life without hiding. who are in search of a community that does not see scars as sin and bruises as badges of failure.
i don’t dream this village an easy place to live. it is not like how people fantasize a heaven. it can never be heaven. not for gurls with bruises like mine. i won’t try to sell you a dream that i don’t believe can be reality. and i won’t try to convince you to live there with me. no womon will be convinced to live there. it must be her idea and her decision. she must be wide open. if she is not open, she will not be able to see the possibility of such a village. the dream is only impossible to those who do not need it. who cannot need it. i can remember when i could not need it.
this village is a place where everything that has ever happened to us, happened. and everything we’ve ever done or said, was done and said. this village is an idea of honesty and love. this village is across the bridge from denial. from pain buried in bibles. from the stench of shame wearing pretty flowered dresses.
this village is not so much a place, as a way of living. a way of existing. a way of moving through the healing as a community. a collective effort of reaching toward an emotional reality for womyn that can feel like justice. or the seeds of it. for womyn who live these lives of silence and shame and some futile reach for a forgiveness we have no need ask for.
i have memories of other womyn telling me that the pain of incest wasn’t something i was going to be able to do away with in my body, psyche and spirit. i have memories of hating those womyn for saying that. for urging me to give voice to the little gurl inside me. i did not want to talk about her. i did not want to talk about it. it was too complicated. it was too messy. all mixed in with family and death and other peoples’ secrets that i could or should not tell. i refused to deal with it. i refused to allow it any more space inside me. to grow any larger than it was. i had already spent a lifetime with my fingers squeezed around it to contain it and control it and i believed i did have it under control. i wanted to live a life that was free of those thoughts, memories and nightmares and i believed i could and would get there. it took almost forever for me to realize that i could, indeed, get “there.” but not whole. not ever whole.
i need a place to live where she, the violated little gurl inside me, and i can live together. whole and unseparated.
she needs my mouth and i need her bravery.
i know, now, that in order for me to have been able to live a life that did not acknowledge, accept and love the gurl that had been raped as a child, that she would have had to die. my past would have had to die. would have had to not exist. but is that realistic?
i need to build this village, even though i know not every womon will want to know this village exists as a viable and reliable and necessary place. some womyn will prefer to view it as a pit stop. a place to stop for a little while, always on the way to someplace else that promises what i might believe is impossible. a future without a past. a tomorrow not built on yesterday. that future. that tomorrow. crumbles. it crumbles. i know because i have tried to build houses on that land. and i have watched many gurls and womyn in my life attempt to build a house on that land. and i have watched them all crumble.
it’s my life now, yes. but she carried it for us. she began it for us. and even though she learned her words were not important, she still found a way to write poetry. through all that bullshit, she still wrote words in notebooks, even after learning that there was not one person in the world that gave a damn about the words she said.
because she told. the little gurl i was/am. she did tell. they listened. they didn’t care. there was no screaming. there were no police. there was no violence rained down upon him. he wasn’t put out of the house. nobody’s beds were moved. no schedules changed. there was no justice. only education. she was meaningless. her words were meaningless.
he had been raping the gurl children in the family for 20 years before she was even born. nobody ever hid the kids and nobody ever warned her. but this little gurl was smart. she had somehow learned that it was wrong for grown men to touch gurls as young as she was. and so when he sat her down the first time with his large penis laying in his lap for her to touch, she refused. she pulled her hand away just before he forced her skin to touch his skin and she said in a scared voice ‘i don’t want to’ and he did not force her that day. he told her not to tell anyone. that nobody would believe her. but she told an adult, anyway. who told another adult. who told the little gurl’s aunt, her mother’s sister, who was this man’s wife. and when she pulled the little gurl into a room with just herself, the little gurl and the big uncle, and she asked the little gurl to say out loud what the grown man had said and done, while he was looking right at her.
the little gurl said out loud what he had done right in front of him. and she didn’t crumble when he said he just didn’t understand why she would tell a lie like that. she did not crumble. the aunt sent her out of the room and she went to play. i think. maybe she did not go play but i know she did not go and die.
maybe it wasn’t as bad as she thought. maybe she was stupid for saying anything at all. her words had done nothing. she never told again.
that little gurl that was me. thank god she still tried to write words when they should have been so easy to give up and not believe in. but they were all she had. words. writing. sometimes just the writing. i can remember years of not being able to find the words i had buried and i would just sit and write my name over and over and over again. i could not find the secrets. i would not write the secrets. but i would write. i still wrote. i have always written, even when i couldn’t find anything to say. and i have the little gurl to thank for that. she held that love. she didn’t let words die. she didn’t let writing die. she breathed life into it constantly as it constantly tried to kill itself.
we need to prepare a place for our children to live. a place where shame is not birthed nor welcomed. a place where gurls can peacefully sit with their legs open, even if they wear dresses. a place where they can walk down a street alone in the dark just to think about a poem. a place where they don’t have to fill their pockets with rocks and make hiding places of their bodies for mace, pocket knives, guns or ice picks. a place where they need not care how soon or how much their bodies grow or how much of them to hide.
we want children to live in a place where monsters and boogeymen do not exist. a place for our children to nurture a healthy imagination. a true imagination. not just fantasies that attempt to mask the truths that are difficult to know.
that little gurl inside me needs me to prepare a place for gurls who tell their stories and their secrets. who fill their arms with one another. she dreams us to live in a village where womyn walk and skip, hand in hand, with the little gurls they had been. and we don’t tell those gurls to be quiet. and we don’t push those little gurls into corners. we don’t hide them in another room when company comes over.
she wants me to tell you we are a package deal, just like when one desires the love of a single womon and she tells you immediately… this is a package deal. you get me, you get these kids. well, you get me, you get this little gurl and every other being i have ever had to be to survive and nurture my life until today. i won’t kill any of them to live in a world that fears them because they may fear themselves.
she needs a place to live where she can tell someone she wants to live. and i need a place to live where i can tell someone, i have not been ruined.
we need a place to live, where we can live together. and we are preparing a village where we shall build a house. and we will seek a community of other gurls and womyn. and we will live there. and we will grow powerful. and we will use our power to build other villages of gurls who do not know shame and who do not take on the guilt of oppressors that pretend to be family. pretend to be protectors. pretend to be love.
we need to prepare a place where she can scream all the things she knew, that she knew she should never have known. where she can say all she has to say and not be called names. nasty. fast. disgusting. shameful. too grown. brooding. we need a place to live where we can vomit the things we’ve been forced to eat and not be blamed for the meal. for the sickness. for the fact that our body violently heaves and throws it back out.
i am asked what does restorative justice looks like to me? i have not fit the two words together yet. i can talk about restoration and what that looks like to me. it looks like the erasure of shame. the creation of a world where his rape is his rape. and not mine. it looks like the eradication of the idea that i must waste another inch of my lifeline trying to stand in front of trains that will never ever stop.
rapists are going to rape. pedophiles are going to victimize children. what i believe can be restored or my idea of restoration lives in the ideas of what we can create together with the power we amass once we have done away with the burdens of guilt and shame. in my opinion, that is a true example of what restoration might mean.
and what of justice? i am not sure i have any idea of how any true justice might be attained. i have little experience with justice. i have no just reference of justice. i am not sure i believe in true justice as it relates to incest and child sexual abuse. i can only tell you that i wish i did believe in it. perhaps one day i might.
but in the meantime, what can be restored and what can be transformed? the gurls and womyn who live these lives in shame and unbearable silences. like me. this is where my dreams are born.
e nina jay is a lesbian/womon/activist/writer of African descent, who uses poetry as a tool of survival & to break silences around all forms of violence against gurls & womyn, with particular focus on the intersection of gender, violence, race & poverty. as a survivor of rape & incest, e.nina.jay believes womyn & gurls can create powerful community to fight against the violence & constant degradation that weaves itself into every facet of our lives, using art, voice and education to empower & build strong resistance & community.