Halloween Night, 2007: Detroit
It is Halloween, and we are at the Detroit Zoo. I am walking past brightly painted pumpkins lumped together in strange shapes, somehow resembling animals. The night is cool, a fine mist spraying our cheeks, but the smell of autumn takes me back to years before I knew that the world contained danger. Wet leaves, cool air. Smells of hot cider and frying donuts beckon from a nearby tent. I’m with my friends Ricardo and Itchel, and also three witches and a small Quidditch player, her striped maroon-and-gold sweater flashing ahead of us in the darkness like a bright flag. The tallest witch and the little Harry Potter character are with me. These children whom I am graced to accompany pull me by my hands to the haunted mine ride, and I let myself be taken through. We are riding on a little cart, seemingly careening through a deep cave, past flames, free-falling, and then suddenly, amidst screams, coasting to a safe landing. The children climb out, stagger around, laughing hysterically, and run outside shrieking. I am a little slower to follow.
Being a survivor of domestic violence is like this children’s ride, but with a sinister twist. I don’t always know that we are actually strapped in safely, that the dangers lurching at us are mostly imagined, or if there is any such thing as a safe landing. I can’t tell you these girls are mine, but sometimes, when one of them slips her hand into mine, or runs to me at the end of the day, barreling into me, I think, "My child." But it cannot be misunderstood, because "mine" carries in it ownership, non-equality, violence. The smallest seed of violence, even if it is contained in as small a word as "my," must be questioned.
My stepmother said to me that the extent of our desire to change someone is the measure of our co-dependency on that person. I believe there’s another, grimmer equation that parallels this. The degree to which someone believes that he or she owns another person is the measure of the risk of doing violence to that person. When we are on the receiving end of this control, ownership, and violence continuum, we are vulnerable to continuing the cycle of violence.
The price of my resistance has included welts on my legs, bruises on my body, being in a car driven 90 miles an hour in a residential area, and being alternately controlled or neglected in a myriad of ways. Neither the violence nor the resistance to it can be let go of easily because it is engraved in my arms and my legs, my mind, and even my soul.
She’s pointing a knife at me, a knife that she was using to cut meat for a stew. It’s still bloody. "I could kill you, you know." She’s almost calm when she says it, but her eyes are mean. She turns back to the counter. I am 15 years old.
Some part of me splits off and runs and runs, going deep underground, becoming a fairyland creature, hiding between towering birch trees, taking refuge. The rest of me freezes and dies and doesn’t go home the next day after swim practice; I ask Donna if I can go home with her instead. We have enough change for the bus or for two White Castle hamburgers each. We’re hungry, so we start walking, past downtown, past the Michigan Central Train Station, under the viaduct and onto West Vernor Highway. Now we’re officially on the Southwest Side—just two blocks from the Ambassador Bridge to Canada, but still two miles from Donna’s house. My feet hurt, and I’m hot and thirsty.
We hear the car before we see it—a rusty brown ’72 Dodge Duster with a white stripe pulls over to the curb and stops. Donna and I look at each other: "Manny." We run over to climb in. Manny Davis is wearing a tight, white T-shirt, and his muscular, honey-colored arm drapes casually over the back of the passenger seat. Donna jumps in the front, so I climb in the back with ugly Amos. "How you going to pay for the ride, girls?" asks Manny. Donna scoots over towards Manny. His hand snakes down her shirt and he kisses her neck. Amos’ eyes are blue, but they are vacant; he’s on something. He shifts in his seat and leans towards me. This is a two-door car, so there’s no escape. I take my knife out and glare at him.
"This is Bobby’s knife." I push the sleeve of my jacket up, and start working on my homemade tattoo. All of us are carving our boyfriends’ initials into our arms. Bobby wasn’t exactly a boyfriend, but he gave me liquor, weed, and speed, and I didn’t even have to pay for it Donna-style.
We turn down the street, and I see Bobby, Ruben, and Simone waiting on the church steps. Donna stays in the car with Manny, and their heads sink out of sight. "Have a drink, Lisa." Bobby nods at a brown paper bag. He passes me a joint. Take a toke, take a sip; keep carving his initials on my forearm. Simone, Donna’s out-of-control little sister, starts repeating "Fat Jesse" stories again. "Fat Jesse carved your initials on his arm. He burned down his uncle’s warehouse and said Bobby is next if he tries to carve your initials in his arm. Fat Jesse really loves you, Lisa." I kick her leg. "Shut up, Simone!" She stands up and starts rushing at me. I have to do what I do every time she does something stupid like this, like when she soaks a paper bag in gasoline and breathes it in until it’s dry, and then thinks she’s a killer robot. I set down the knife, take my earrings out, and stand up. "You think you’re so bad, don’t you!" She charges at me. She is so easy to knock down.
I once bought a book just for the title. Pretending to Be Normal, by Lianne Holliday Willey, is about a woman living with Asperger’s Syndrome. I could identify with being someone who looks like anyone else on the outside, but who struggles internally just to do everyday activities without calling unwelcome attention to herself. Answering questions like "How are you?" is easy enough: "Fine, thanks." But there are times when ordinary human communication opens a chasm into the past, and I flounder down dark mazes before I can compose myself. It can be difficult to muster enough courage to live, when memories take me back to family members becoming assailants, when once-comforting hands are now squeezing my throat and banging my head to the ground over and over. It is difficult to feel equal to those who have never, as a teenager, forced themselves to vomit, cut letters in their skin, run away from home, been shoved to the floor at gunpoint, or crouched on the sill of the attic window and bitterly decided to climb back into the dark room, even when there was no one waiting to say, "I’m glad you came back."
But I am here now because I have been listened to. An e.e. cummings poem comes to mind:
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands
This gentle, spiritual listening enabled me to accept, speak, and understand my truth. Through the balm and guidance of many people and practices, I began to heal. I am grateful to all of them, too numerous to mention, although in their number, very significantly, some are Friends.
But even in receiving deep understanding, there was a deeper and more hidden dark place where a small child hovered, terrified and alone, spirit all but rent, whispering, "Is anyone glad I climbed back in that window?" Spirit sent a Friend who understood that this question was about extinction more permanent than suicide. My dear friend Max Heirich showed me "Yes," because I could not hear it. He had a birthday present for me, he said, as we walked towards the Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "It’s a surprise." We walked through the small cast-iron gate and down a path. "Close your eyes now." He led me forward several paces. "Okay. Now you can open them again." We were standing in a small clearing of trees, in a garden with 27 beds of blooming peonies riotously reaching for the sun. I hear the "Yes" now, and, like the lilies of the field, the brightly colored peonies tell me I am supposed to be here, alive.
I wake with a start and look at the red LED display: 11:30 pm. The baby is still asleep. I walk the length of the apartment and look out the front window. There is snow falling, illuminated by the streetlight. It is hushed and calm, but no Cesar. I lie back down. The next time, I wake to footsteps on the back stairs and a pounding on the back door. The clock reads 1:45 am. He has to be drunk. I swing my legs out of bed. I want to shut the bedroom door, but then he starts shouting and pounding louder, and I am afraid he is going to break the window. I am taking too long. I hurry toward the back door, but Manuel, the landlord, who lives downstairs, has the spare key and is already letting him in. Cesar lunges at me, slamming me into the kitchen door. He grabs my head by the hair and holds on so he can backhand me, then slap me again. My face feels like it’s on fire. I put my hands up in front of me so he can only punch my arms. Why hadn’t I put the chain on? Why hadn’t I gone over to Magdalena’s? I’d known something bad would happen tonight, but something inside of me made me stay, made me let him in—the same feeling I had when I cut Bobby’s initials into my arm in 10th grade. I look up. Manuel’s eyes are glinting behind his glasses like a lizard waiting for a fly. He backs out of the door and shuts it. I slump down. Cesar looks at me and kicks me once, hard, on the upper thigh. "Pendeja," he spits. "Who’s the piece of garbage on the floor now?" He wrenches the door to our bedroom and lies down on the bed. I don’t dare move until I hear his snore. Somehow, the baby is still sleeping. I walk to the couch and curl up into a ball. The rays from the streetlamp are shining through the window like a child’s nightlight, and finally I fall asleep.
What gave me the strength to leave this marriage with its safe cloak of victimhood and the tacit acceptance of violence? I had to give up the protection of being a crime victim first, because there is a kind of safety in being defined as a survivor. A victim can find support. There is a script to follow at the police station, and instructions to follow from a safe house. Carry your ID, some cash, and a set of car keys at all times. Make sure your diaper bag has a spare can of formula, and that it is next to the door.
People know what to do with victims and survivors when we first leave our situations. We are docile, in shock, easy to help. When I am the one living in the car with the children, afraid to go to work or afraid to go home, there are very few decisions to make. But when the chaotic protection of the crisis is over, there is no road map. We’ve decided to live, but we don’t know how. We try our fledgling wings of dignity out, but we don’t get it right the first time. Our "no," completely understood in toddlers who are trying to learn by experience where the "yes" resides, is misunderstood as a lack of gratitude, unwillingness. "We’re just trying to help you." But for me, help is a dangerous word, because it implies a "helper" and a "helpee," and a natural inequality. These words separate us from each other. It is possible to be of great service to people who are in crisis, but only as equals, because anything other than that is violence to people’s dignity. It’s by some miracle of Spirit that we are here, safe now. It is Spirit who delivers us, who opens our eyes and teaches us that we can walk out the other door and never come back.
It’s impossible to do it alone. How can I take away the occasion for war if I am at war with myself and those around me? It is a connection that is otherworldly and worldly, deeper, broader than I; whoever created the pine forest, the pine forest itself, and what Wendell Berry calls the wide grace of the Holy Spirit that allows me to find the still waters inside of me. Gandhi’s words speak to me: "When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall—think of it, always."
Years have passed, but not empty years. Years filled with seeking and healing constantly, traveling by belief in warmth if not Light, like a blind nocturnal creature seeking water and shelter. I arrive at this new life filled with warmth and now Light. I am an equal human being; to those I have run from, to those who have helped me, and to those who offer friendship. The answer comes from accepting the love that has been walking quietly beside me the whole time. "I will cradle you in my arms, precious one. See? You are not alone." I look down at my scarred arms and see my last enemy, and I set down my weapons at last. I say the prayer that a friend tells me is from the Hawaiian tradition. I say it to my body, and to that which made it, that divine sea to which we all belong. "I am so sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you."
I have knitted myself back into the Creation, and I am bowing before a stillness that speaks softly to me. The notion enters that I am part of this creation, human belonging, human being, human equal to you, and human accepting you. Peace.
Halloween Night, 2007: Detroit
It is the turning point of the new year: Halloween. In dark silence come whisperings of new beginnings and the promise of another harvest. In ancient times in Ireland, a new fire was lit, and everyone carried a piece of it home, to light their hearth with all of the hopes for the year to come. It’s been said that at this time of the year the veil between the living and dead is at its thinnest. I can almost stretch out my hand and touch my grandmother, Nora Sinnett, and feel again that comfort and love that I always felt from her, even in my darkest times. I close my eyes and the wind on my cheeks is her soft touch. Her eyes, marbled with glaucoma in life, are bright and sparkling, and she is laughing. My grandmother is still with me, but in this place it’s the living who demand to be seen and heard. The girls’ laughter is wild and almost fierce, as they veer off into a copse of trees. The wind sends a scattering of leaves across our path, and for a moment Ricardo, Itchel, and I can’t see our children. We peer into the darkness, trying to spot the witches’ hats and Harry Potter. We hear giggles before we see them hiding behind a haystack, fitting their heads next to a display of jack-o-lanterns. We’re not sure who is missing more teeth, the row of grinning eight- and nine-year-olds, or the pumpkins. Itchel takes a picture of the children, and as the camera flashes the veil disappears into a blaze of light, and I am brilliantly alive in this present moment.
Some names in this article have been changed.