That time my grandmother dragged me through the perfume aisles at Saks, she held me up by my arm, hissing, "Stand up," through clenched teeth, her eyes bright as a dog's cornered in the light. She said it over and over, as if she were Jesus, and I were dead. She had been solid as a tree, a fur around her neck, a light-skinned matron whose car was parked, who walked on swirling marble and passed through brass openings—in 1945. There was not even a black elevator operator at Saks. The saleswoman had brought velvet leggings to lace me in, and cooed, as if in service of all grandmothers. My grandmother had smiled, but not hungrily, not like my mother who hated them, but wanted to please, and they had smiled back, as if they were wearing wooden collars. When my legs gave out, my grandmother dragged me up and held me like God holds saints by the roots of the hair. I begged her to believe I couldn't help it. Stumbling, her face white with sweat, she pushed me through the crowd, rushing away from those eyes that saw through her clothes, under her skin, all the way down to the transparent genes confessing.
Trauma is not what happens to us, but what
we hold inside us in the absence of an
Peter Levine, The Unspoken Voice
The first was a bassinet. I don’t remember what it was made of; I think it was one of those big white wicker baskets with wheels. When I couldn’t sleep at night, my father would drag it into the kitchen. It was winter. He’d light the gas oven. I remember the room’s stuffiness, the acrid bite of cold and fumes.
My father didn’t like crying. He said I was doing it to get attention. He didn’t like my mother teaching me that I could cry and get attention. Nothing was wrong with me, and, even if I was hungry, it wasn’t time to eat. Sometimes, I screamed for hours, and my father—I do remember this—would push his chair up to the lip of the bassinet and smoke, as if he were keeping me company.
After a few nights, he had broken me. I stopped crying. But, when he put the bottle to my lips, I didn’t want it. I was too exhausted to drink.
Most times I liked my food. I didn’t mind eating until my daddy started making me clean my plate and either struck me off my chair if I didn’t or lifted me up by my hair and held me midair if I was slow. He wanted me to eat faster; he didn’t have all day.
He’d hold me off the floor until I pleaded. I’d sputter in fear and humiliation—I don’t remember pain—but I had to button up before he put me down to do exactly what he had told me to do, fast.
Slowness was a sign of insubordination. If I missed a pea or a crumb, I was trying to outwit him. I must have thought he was stupid. And if I pleaded that I hadn’t seen the pea, he’d know I was lying. “Your story is so touching till it sounds like a lie.”
I swallowed it down; I wiped that look off my face. But still he would notice my bottom lip beginning to quiver. This was a personal insult, as if I had taken a knife and put it to his face. If my brow wrinkled in a question—“Do you love me, daddy? How could you hurt me like this?”—this implied I was pursuing my own version of the truth, as if I were his victim.
It was a war of wills, as he so clearly saw, and these were my attempts to subvert him, to make my will reign, to plant my flag.
He was the ruler of my body. I had to learn that. He had to be deep in me, deeper than instinct, like the commander of a submarine during times of war.
I hear in myself a slight opposition, a wounded presence saying, “I am me, I know who I am.” But I am left with only a narrow hole, a thin tube that the words must squeak through. Where words might have gushed out as from a struck well, now, instead, I watch it—watch every word. It wasn’t my father’s thought that I took in; it was his language. It is the language in me that must change.