This is a story of bruises.
Of fingers pressed between legs.
A story of a childhood charted in welts and panic attacks.
A story of moonshine and hashish and the look in a man’s eyes when he knows you’re too young.
It’s a story of the first time I saw a penis, on the street in front of my high school, shocking and flaccid and wagged in my face. A horror that fit in a hand.
This is a story of how it was always my fault.
I’m trying to write this story in a cramped cinderblock flat on a desert island in the middle of a summer so hot asphalt is softening in the street. For the past two days, a moth with brown wings and a peach-skin belly has been bumping dumbly against the smeared windowpanes, evading every attempt I make to free it. I’m feeling claustrophobic and antsy with my failure to chart this story; all I can see are its outlines, like the dim bulk of a distant continent. I can’t see how it will finish which means I can’t begin. So I make notes, pages and pages of notes, to help me navigate its topography. The notes sing a song of violence and as I write my mind fills with memories; I am an archeologist unearthing mangled skeletons from an ancient battlefield.
My psychologist talks about how trauma can rewire the brain, redirecting thoughts and altering connections, reshaping the stories we use to navigate the world. Stories are a kind of map and when your map is filled with notations—here be monsters—horizons have a way of encroaching.
Once upon a time…
…my spine listed to the right.
Take off your shirt.
Drop your pants.
This is how we check your pulse.
This is just what doctors do.
A central challenge of mapmaking is the exclusion of features not pertinent to the map’s objective. Maps are the stories of our world and stories are the maps of our life and so I sift through my notebooks trying to discern what should be eliminated. Is this a story about a red-faced child in a pediatrician’s office or about a teenager spitting like a skinned cat as she’s dragged up the stairs by her hair? Or is it a story of zippers and chewing tobacco and the smell of caliche after it rains?
It’s a story I have too much material for, a story every woman has too much material for. One in three women will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, most from an intimate partner, and in some places, the number climbs as high as seven out of ten1. I wrote that statistic on a blue Post-It and stuck it right above my desk. Next to it is a scrap of paper with a quote from Patricia Weaver Francisco: “If the occurrence of rape were audible, its decibel level equal to is frequency, it would overpower our days and nights, interrupt our meals, our bedtime stories, howl behind our love-making, an insistent jackhammer of distress. We would demand an end to it. And if we failed to locate its source, we would condemn the whole structure. We would refuse to live under such conditions.”
This story I’m trying to tell, that I keep trying to tell—of fingers and panic attacks, of bruises and shame—it is a story we have heard again and again; it’s an old tale born anew every day but somehow I still can’t see the ending; the map makes no sense.
Outside, dusk falls and in the distance, the city lights hang suspended in a gauze of humidity. The call to prayer swells in the shadows and all I can think is that the evening is warm and my apartment is hot and I want to walk outside and let the moonlight melt through my hair. But neighbors have warned me this area isn’t safe for women alone at night and isn’t that a story women know too well; a story of catcalls and car horns and hands darting out of doorways. A story with a theme: you aren’t safe anywhere so always, always be afraid.
A few years ago local papers were filled with the story of a trial involving a car full of boys—the defendants, young men, were often referred to as boys—who abducted a woman, raped her, and dumped her in the middle of the desert. I’ve never been able to forget something their defense attorney said—this was just boys being boys with no intention of harming anyone.
In the United States only three out of every 100 rapists will spend time in prison for their crime2. And Donald Trump, a man who brags about committing sexual assault, was elected president by more than 60 million American voters. What clearer way is there to teach the women of the world that our bodies are things to be discarded, toys for boys to use as they will? Our pain is a meaningless trait of societal topography so unimportant it doesn’t factor into any map.
I sit in my apartment with the wayward moth and the hum of failure in my teeth and I make notes.
Several years ago I was diagnosed with complex-PTSD, which means my brain has been so thoroughly rewired that the main story it tells itself is that world is on fire and I’m about to go up in flames. This rewiring is literal, not figurative. Trauma can shrink the hippocampus, have lasting effects on the function of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex region, and spur hyperactivity in the amygdala; all of which can have lasting effects on a person’s mental and physical wellbeing3. Children with high Adverse Childhood Event (ACE) Scores—a method of calculating markers of difficult childhoods—are at higher risk for serious ailments later in life4. I check my ACE score habitually, the obsessive part of my brain unable to comprehend that the score won’t change, that my past is irreversibly written in the bedrock of my subconscious. It’s a 5, which increases my chances of pulmonary lung disease by 390%, depression by 240%, and suicide by 1,220%. An ACE score of 4 or more is also correlated with a higher incidence of being raped later in life5.
I think of the adults who abuse children and I wonder what their ACE scores would be. And the ACE scores of the adults who abused them. I wonder about the progenitor of this cycle, wondering how far back this route to trauma began. If we are all victims, are any of us the villain? And do I have any right to feel this angry?
When I first told my psychologist that I was the black sheep of my family she said, I think you might be the symptom bearer. A symptom bearer, or identified patient, is “the person in a dysfunctional family who has been unconsciously selected to act out the family’s inner conflict as a diversion…”6 A scapegoat, in other words.
The idea of societal symptom bearers haunts me and like an angsty college freshman, I write poems about famous mad women, Sylvia, Virginia, Zelda, a firmament of stars glittering amid a dysfunctional sky. Women are 40% more likely than men to be diagnosed with a mental illness7 and throughout history women’s psychological ailments have been seen as evidence of many things, a weak constitution, a flaw in the anatomy, a wandering womb, but rarely as a symptom of suffocating oppression and constant violence. If the entire female sex could calculate our ACE score, I wonder what it would be.
I push the window open a little wider hoping the fluttering moth will leave. Outside, beyond the tangle of flowers, I can see the hard glint of sea on the horizon. Here be monsters.
I am 11 when my brain first starts telling itself stories. One of them is about the bus that passes by my house every night at 8:45pm, terror in the sound of its engine. The moral of the story: if my mother isn’t home by the time I hear the bus it’s because she has died. But I can prevent this by:
Straightening my bear-blanket
Straightening my bear-blanket
Straightening my bear-blanket
Straightening my bear-blanket
Straightening my bear-blanket
I keep these stories a secret for decades, like so much else in my life. Shame is a potent gag order. If I could find the ur-villain of this story, I would probably keep his secrets, too.
The notes stuck to the wall above my desk are filled with things I want to remember about my current project, notes from past-me to present-me in service of future-me. On one of them I have written: climax/moment of devastation/brought to knees. It is underlined three times.
If climax means being brought to your knees then it’s something my body has memory of on a cellular level. Memories are the stories our bodies refuse to forget and sometimes I still wake up thinking I’ll see pockmarks on my knees the exact size and shape of road pebbles. I still remember the metallic taste of cold zipper, like a lick of blood on my tongue, and the stars overhead, gleaming and screaming.
I sweat and stare down the pages in front of me, at the thoughts started and restarted and scratched out and abandoned, willing something, anything to make sense. But the story feels too big; it has become a landscape I inhabit, the map has swallowed me whole. Once again I have been forced to my knees.
- Is it rape if I might have slept with him anyway, if I had been conscious?
- Is it rape if he was handsome?
- Is it rape if he was the only one who ever wanted me like that?
Action precedes reaction but the prime mover is always female. She is the initiator and the receptacle, on a pedestal and in the gutter, the alpha and the omega, the cause of the violence and the recipient of the pain—character, setting, and moral meaning, all at once.
In the growing darkness the moth hones in on the moonlight, resting against a bright spot on the windowpane. I look outside and stories fill my head since I am a woman and the world is a wolf, but I decide to head out anyway because there is a story told in the way the sky quakes with the call to prayer, sifting heaven down to earth.
Walking through the dirt lanes of the village, the stories in my head tremble with an edge of hysteria and I walk aimlessly, losing myself in a labyrinth of shadow and rubble.
The problem with this story, as always, comes to the ending—I can’t see a way out. I get to a certain point and the map fails me. It’s just a story, I tell myself, a thousand thousand stories, deleted, forgotten, and thrown out, because sometimes the truth is a monster and the compass only spins and spins.
Buses + a listing spine + cold zippers + hand-sized horrors.
Find the common denominator:
- systemic misogyny
- bullshit bad luck
- the cycle of abuse
- I am the common thread. I am the eternal denominator upon which these tragedies divide and conquer. I am the center that will not hold.
As I walk, unfolding the night around me, I begin to remember things that aren’t in my notes, things I couldn’t write down because they were too arcane to capture in words, too vast to be contained by a single map. I walk and remember that I have cast spells before, spells of survival whispered into my pillow late at night when my eyes were swollen with tears and my body was quaking with shame. Hallowed incantations of resistance I made knowing freedom was always on the horizon and I didn’t need a map because I had a compass rose buried in my bones.
I think of the ending that I can’t find, the ending that teases with gnashing teeth just beyond the map’s edge, and I realize with a thunderclap of clarity that it’s not my story that’s wrong, but the map itself. The map I’ve been using doesn’t allow for this story; it’s a story the map was designed to obscure – in fact, this map was predicated on stories like mine never seeing the light of day.
Muriel Rukeyser’s quote comes to mind: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Instead of shrinking myself to fit the confines of a map I never wanted, I decide to write my truth and use the map to feed the flames that will split open the entire world. I refuse to live under these conditions any longer and I’m condemning the whole structure.
I turn for home; the night is silent and everything resonates.
When I reach the flat I find the moth has gone. I search the floor and windowsill to make sure it isn’t just dead somewhere, but it’s not, it has flown off into the night. The breeze coming in rustles the notes on the wall and there is the scent of dust in the air; a shamal is coming. I bend to pull the window shut and looking outside I see the purple light of evening has worked a strange magic. The horizon has vanished; everything is boundless.
I move back to my desk and begin to write.
Natasha Burge is a writer, psychogeographer, and curator living in the Arabian Gulf region. She is the writer-in-residence at the Qal’at al-Bahrain Museum and her writing can be found or is forthcoming in Pidgeonholes, The Establishment, Vagabond City, and Jersey Devil Press, among others. More of her work can be seen at www.natashaburge.com.