Butterfly in Reverse
(a poem from my upcoming book, Memory Chose A Woman’s Body)
I had wings.
They seemed no different
than human hands
Along the mantelpiece,
beside a twenty dollar bill—
the world, smut-stained;
neither of them mine.
Butterfly in reverse,
at half an inch.
Until I forgave.
Wings aren’t required to fly.
On a weekend afternoon, around age 9, my mother stated that she was not feeling well and decided to take a nap in her bedroom. He sat in the room with me, seemingly more attentive that day than others. My family had only known him a short while, yet he treated me like a friend that he’d known for years. My brother sat directly in front of the television, I sat on the floor with my knees raised slightly and my back to the couch.
He leaned forward to play with my hair, and rubbed my shoulders and back. The back rub moved to my front, and that became the day that whoever I was supposed to become died a sudden death. In an instant I could feel the light of life drain out of me. I left the old me there, like an old withered snakeskin. Some might say that the obstacles that I endured throughout my life could have been much worse. Maybe. But, why should I have to justify any abuse at all?
In truth, the abuse is only a small portion of the aftermath. I needed to be acknowledged, but was ignored due to loved one’s not knowing how to reach out to me. When I was later molested by a boy at school, the principal and teachers never even disclosed the information to my parents, even though there were witnesses. I didn’t speak of it after that day. Instead, I wore sweaters, in the southern Virginia summertime, so that I could cover the peaks appearing on my chest.
The silence that I experienced, after I first spoke of the initial abuse, created a tired, untrusting girl. My mother sat me down, asked me to show her what exactly happened. I began by lifting my top, and reenacting the motions. I realize, now, that my mother was purely trying to confirm my allegations; however, my ultimate disclosure to her didn’t change anything. I felt humiliated and dirty, and even blamed myself for being so trusting.
Not long after, she pulled on my arm, and asked me to get into the car. As we didn’t have a house phone at the time, we drove down the local highway to a payphone. While I was standing beside her, she called him and proceeded to ask him if my recollection of events were true. I remember the southern Virginia summer air, coupled with the sound of the occasional car passing by. I worried that neighbors would find out why I was standing there, even though the reality was that they never would. I don’t know what his response was to my accusations. My mother never told if he confirmed or denied.
My mother asked that I repeat my words over and over. She continued to ask me for more detail than I understood to give. “Maybe you misunderstood?” Over and over, I was asked “What happened?” and “How did I know what he did was wrong?” It was as if there was hope that my words would change. And so they did. The words stopped altogether. Silence is a very loud killer; he enters our homes and neighborhoods on tiptoes, and leaves by siren. My siren was a mixture of depression, eating disorders, a failed suicide attempt and a haunting fear of rejection.
I shed many more skins along the journey of my life, which lead me to believe that I was broken, and that all the other damaged people could easily detect it. I used to obsess about who I could have become if I hadn’t been abused. Would I have still been bullied? Would I still have needed to take 6 pills a day to feel human?
Growing up my words came alive on scrap paper: every notebook, penciled on lamp shades and recorded on every audio tape I owned. Poetry became a part of a new self I created in order to cope. To me, poetry is a guardian, a caregiver and a friend that is not afraid to hear my many truths. Poetry doesn’t ignore me, doesn’t judge me and speaks with me in those times when others have not taken the time to listen to me. Poetry speaks with me in times that others have disappeared.
I owe the fact that I was created to my mother and father, but I owe the fact that I survived, and am truly living, to the poetry I found within myself. I take pure pride that I am a voice on behalf of many that are unable to speak up. I’m not only thrilled to be alive, I’m ecstatic about possessing the ability to support others by understanding what they have experienced. I believe that the obstacles I have lived through made me the woman I am now. The snake-skins I left behind were only that–skins that were necessary to shed in order to become the individual, wife, mother, friend and advocate that I am today.
Recently, I performed my poem Science Class at a local theater. It speaks about the reality of what it is truly like to be the victim of childhood abuse. My mother saw the video online, and it initiated the conversation that was 20 years overdue. Only weeks ago did she approach me regarding my past, and listened. She did not talk over me; only asked questions that would help her further understand my journey. It’s a peculiar feeling to need to describe your life to the one that gave you life, but that’s how disabling abuse is; it affects each and every aspect of the victim’s life, including those around them. Through my written words I could explain a story I couldn’t tell, with my own actions, in over 20-something years.
Memories of my past life still disturb me. I don’t like to walk by training bras in a department store, or feel the coarseness of certain wool sweaters. Even large iron frying pans, the whiff of warm beer, and small glasses filled with brown liquor are immediate triggers for me; it’s a lot like learning to live with a punch in the stomach each time I see these things. Recently, I performed a poetry reading based on sexual abuse, and experienced a moment in which I felt exactly as I did as a child. I have no doubt I will always encounter those moments of regression and triggers, but these things serve their purpose to me. When I witness a negative flicker of past desperation, I create performances like this:
It’s never too late to learn how to live. I’m not accepting merely breathing as a form of living; and no one else should either. I choose to believe that what I have faced was present to form me into my destined self. I believe that I was chosen in order to genuinely reach others that encounter some of the loudest silences known.
It’s a cycle of life and I am proud to be a part of it, even if I wouldn’t have chosen it. I am a butterfly in reverse, and have never felt freer than I do right now–thanks to my sixth sense….poetry.