PASSED NOTES & POEMS
a monthly feature by
Girl Who Had To Learn To Scream
My soul is darker now — also my hair.
These days I’m wearing underwear. Look
less people in the eye. Beware men’s stares,
and you are why. Passivity you took —
I’m what was left, decimated, desert, two
decades ago, bereft of dignity
afraid to dream — girl who had to learn to
scream. Always question. Run away. Be
alone to be okay. Distrust nice guys
because I trusted you (I’ll blame them all
for what you put me through.) I didn’t die,
survived to wear a black dress and a pall
for a girl, recalled, who’s disappeared.
I still hear you whispering in her ear.
My book Puritan U comes out this week, and it’s hard for me to really process how important that book is to me -- what an absolute miracle it is. I’m a girl who doesn’t believe in God or miracles – or didn’t for a long, long time because of the things that happened to me in a desert reforestation camping trip over 20 years ago.
Attending Brigham Young University, I was ostensibly a Mormon though I was already an atheist (as I am today). I was abused. My Mormon parents had a very strict interpretation of Mormonism, more so than any other families I knew. I didn’t drive or date until I was 18. Didn’t attend parties, spent the night at very few people’s houses. Until I was in high school, the only sleepovers I was allowed to attend were at the houses of Mormons and even that was not guaranteed.
When I was at BYU, I never in my life thought I’d be free to write about my child abuse, my experiences inside a repressive religious institution without censoring myself or worrying for my physical safety. It is such a survivor’s privilege, all these year’s later, to be able to tell my story without fear, sitting in my own house behind a locked door, speaking my voice. I feel grateful for it every day.
The poem above, a new poem I wrote about this same sexual assault that took place at Brigham Young University, still affects me today. Even though I had been abused – perhaps because I had abused, I had a very complacent side of myself that wanted to survive my childhood by (most of the time) not upsetting anyone, being quiet and taking things that happened to me without complaint. The sexual assault, which happened after I ignored some warning signs that I shouldn’t have, aroused in me a lot of fear and a new attention to my fear – to listen to signals, to speak when I am being abused.
This poem is about how often now I listen too much. I am a person who can, at times, shut people down if I don’t trust them. I’m very, very afraid to be hurt again, and sometimes now I have decided I can’t trust people, and I have cut them off – perhaps too soon. This is one of the ways that sexual assault haunts survivors forever, the way its effects can manifest in your life. It certainly has in mine. I learned to be hyper-diligent in the care of myself.
It’s a poem about the ways that I have changed from a girl who was always, by nature, kind of feral and free, even if I was also shy. I had a natural hedonistic sexuality always – even though I was raised in direct opposition to that philosophy. It’s why I sort of shamefully mention the underwear in this poem – it’s something I think when I was younger when I got to college and had control of my bodily autonomy more. I would have been terrified to do this when I was at home with my parents because my body was always subject to inspection, and I can’t imagine what I would have suffered if this had been discovered.
But at college, until the assault, I had control of my body. It felt like a secret delicious rebellion to ostensibly be following the strict dress code of below the knee skirts and very conservative dress only to not wear something beneath.
Stripping was certainly a part of that hedonistic side manifesting itself in a controlled way (protected by ex-college football players bouncers. You can read more about this phase of my life in part two of the memoir, Candy Cigarette Womanchild Noir coming soon from Hedgehog Poetry Press.)
These days, post-stripping, I’m a reclusive person. I don’t engage with a lot of people. I’m always questioning motives. Two decades later post the sexual assault, he’s whispering in my ear encouraging me to maintain a vigilance that has become a lifestyle at this point.
I remember reading a book called The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. This book resonated with the fears that I felt now all the time. Experience had already taught me now to give more credence to my fears. I was no longer the girl who would wake to a man’s hand between my legs in a van and brush it off as some accident. I attributed motives to everything, maybe even too much.
Puritan U, part one of a two-part poetic memoir series, is available now for order from Rhythm & Bones Press, Amazon.com, BN.com and listed on Goodreads. I would be very honored for you to read my story and give a voice to people living in abuse and oppression.