from “Burial Sites”

Trauma is not what happens to us, but what
we hold inside us in the absence of an
empathetic witness.

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.


“Burial Sites” was originally published in The Undertaker’s Daughter (University of Pittsburgh Press). Copyright © by Toi Derricotte. Reprinted with the permission of the author.