Purified: A Reflection on Healing
In the spring of 2011, I performed my spoken word piece “Purified” for the first time at an event called the Loudest Form of Silence and later transformed the piece into separate poems in my book [Woman]ifesto. I always comment on how my book is a “coming of age” work. Over the years, I’ve had several conversations where people ask me about the inspiration for my poetry, especially when it comes to that poem. After one friend viewed my performance via YouTube, she said she could feel how personal that poem was for me. She was correct. Though I share that poem with people often, I’ve never really talked about the origin of the content. Yet, in utilizing 2016 to further grow and heal, I feel like it’s time to open up about the subject matter at the heart of that piece: sexual abuse.
When I was around 7 or 8, I was visiting my Granny on my father’s side. My uncle was also at the house that day. I was standing in the kitchen after having just gotten a snack when he came in, stumbling and staggering. He said, “Give me a hug” and wrapped his arms around me. I hadn’t seen him in a while, so of course I obliged. He held on to me for a moment and said, “Now give me some sugar.” I let him give me a kiss on the cheek. He then said, “Give me some more,” and looked as though he was moving toward my lips. I said, “No, I’m good.” He didn’t let me go. He kept moving his mouth closer to mine and I could smell the beer on his breath. By then, I was beginning to panic because I felt so uncomfortable. I told him “Let me go!”, but he held on tighter. I finally was able to get away from his grasp. I went to my Granny and told her about how her son had just tried to kiss me on my lips. She said, “Oh girl! He was just playing with you. Calm down.” That evening, I went back to my grandparent’s home on my mother’s side. When visiting St. Louis in the summer, I always stayed with them. I was sitting in the kitchen eating dinner with my Gram and talking to her about my day. I told her about the incident and how I didn’t like it, without mentioning my Granny’s reaction. She didn’t say too much, but did assure me that I didn’t do anything wrong. She got up from the table, kissed me on my forehead, and went to get something out of the fridge. We never spoke about the incident again.
A week later, another family gathering came up at my Granny’s house. I went over there, and was admittedly a little anxious because I didn’t want another incident to happen. My uncle wasn’t there. After a while, my Granny told me to come to her bedroom. When I got there, she said, “Why would you tell people about what happened? He was just playing with you! You need to learn to keep your mouth shut!” I shrunk into a ball and hung my head down. I was so embarrassed and ashamed. I thought that I was doing the right thing speaking about my feelings. Yet, the entire day I could feel my Granny’s disappointment with me. This was especially hard for the people pleaser in myself. I couldn’t deal with anyone being angry or disappointed by my actions. I later found out that Gram had called my Granny and told her to make sure my uncle kept his hands to himself.
That scolding and chastisement chipped away a part of me. It began what was a downward spiral into my silence (and in a way, acceptance) regarding the sexual abuse that followed. When I found myself faced with two more situations involving inappropriate sexual behavior, I felt anxiety when I considered telling someone. It’s not as though I felt like my mother wouldn’t believe me. Now, and even back then, I know she wouldn’t have doubted my claims for a second, and she would have sprung into action without hesitation. But that wasn’t important at the time. I didn’t want to be scolded again. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone, or have my family angry with me. That fear outweighed my discomfort. I stopped speaking up. I stopped protesting. I lost my voice.
It wasn’t until I was 15 (close to 16) that I fully understood what I had experienced. My best friend knew how much I loved Oprah, and for Christmas gave me Oprah’s 20th Anniversary DVD collection set. I was beyond excited! All of the great segments I had missed were now at my disposal forever. While going through the DVDs, I stumbled upon an episode where Oprah was talking to both the victim of sexual abuse and the perpetrator. While the girl was describing her experience, Oprah keeping saying things like “molested” or “molester”. I was laser focused on the show, soaking up all of the information and I became invested in that girl’s story. At the conclusion of the episode, I suddenly began to cry my eyes out. I finally realized that THAT was the word to describe what I had been through: “molestation”. Before then, I didn’t really know how to identify my experience. For a long time, I believe I didn’t WANT to be able to identify it. Yet finally, my experience was no longer just “weird, bad shit”. It was molestation. More importantly, those tears flowed because I understood that what happened to me wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t weird or damaged. I didn’t have to believe that I should be happy that someone was paying me any kind of attention. There wasn’t something internally wrong with me. Though I didn’t want to be victimized, I was (in this situation) the victim. It didn’t matter if I viewed myself as too fat or too ugly or too dark to receive both consensual attention and affection. It didn’t matter how “not good enough” I felt. IT. WASN’T. MY. FAULT.
The sexual assault cases that make mainstream news (i.e. R Kelly, Bill Cosby, Daniel Holtzclaw, Jared Fogle, etc.) always present a touchy subject for me. Mind you, discussing sexual assault isn’t an issue. I’d love to counsel young women on the subject matter someday. But, where I get sensitive is the moment we start talking about when a woman chooses to disclose information about her assault, especially when people feel that she waited too long to speak up. In my senior year of college, I took a seminar class for my Family Studies Concentration. For our final project, we were able to choose any topic for our presentation. I chose to present methods (both those supported by research and others considered experimental) that can help Black women cope with and overcome the effects of sexual abuse. In doing my research, I had to find out why women weren’t initially talking about their abuse or seeking help. One main reason was the idea of “what happens in this house stays in this house”. When women speak up about sexual abuse, they are met with ridicule. They are called liars. These perceptions then co-mingle with the idea that women (especially Black women) are supposed to be strong individuals and deal with whatever life throws their way. Black women are survivors anyway, right? They should be able to deal with whatever comes their way, right? But how can women really heal if they don’t have the opportunity to address their pain?
There is a pressure (that can be both familial and societal) that encourages women to not speak of or address the traumas they encounter. I had witnessed this in my own situation when I was scolded for speaking up about what simply made me uncomfortable. I never assumed that my Granny felt inappropriate behavior was acceptable. I also never assumed that she’d be okay with someone hurting me. But, I assume she came from an era where personal matters stayed within the home, and having another woman tell her how to handle her child or run her household made her feel...some type of way. However, this was troubling because I was a young girl, still adjusting to my body, still trying to organically understand sexuality, and still growing up. I was a child that was told to be myself, and yet was ridiculed and bullied by other children (and even family members) for those things that made me different. Children are allowed to identify what feels right to them, and what makes them uncomfortable. But being chastised for not wanting that affection created feelings of shame. When the next incident occurred, that made it easier to not move away. This is especially problematic when the abuser is a person that you have close ties to, such as a family member. Suddenly, this begins a chain reaction that causes young girls to meet repeated sexual abuse with...complacency. They may stop screaming. They may stop fighting. They may feel yucky inside when their body has a natural reaction from what is STILL considered abuse. They did not “ask” for it by being (what society considers) overly developed for their age. They did not “ask” for it by returning what they felt was initially acceptable affection that suddenly took a strange and unpleasant turn. They did not “ask” for it by not fighting back hard enough. No one ever asks to be forced to relinquish their power.
When I encounter people who comment on how a woman waited too long to disclose incidents of sexual abuse, I sometimes ask “If it was someone close to you, a child or spouse perhaps; would you feel as though the claim wasn’t legitimate because they waited years to tell you?” Often, this gives people pause because they hadn’t previously made the situation personal. We shouldn’t HAVE to make a situation personal to better understand it. We never know why women are hesitant to initially speak up. We never consider how the trauma affected them. We never consider if we ever made a safe and welcoming space that would allow for trust to be present to discuss that pain. Many women are screaming in silence. They are patching band aids on their wounds. They are repressing their pain to be able to move forward. And yet, sometimes... those women (even after years of healing, either alone or with professional help) finally decide to confront their pain. For me, my healing came through writing and helping those who have encountered similar experiences. It came through music. It came through loving and living, relentlessly. I didn’t choose to seek legal action against my abusers, and I don’t plan to do so in the future. But I fully support a woman that does choose to confront her abuser. Whether they wait one week, one month, or 20 years, they are allowed to heal in the way they see fit. They are allowed to stand in their truth. Time doesn’t negate the abuse. An abuser isn’t exonerated because of the longevity of a woman’s silence. Sure, she can “build a bridge and get over it”, but if her bridge building requires her to seek justice for the crime committed against her, then she has that right.
So many women sit on a wealth of potential, but struggle to move forward because they haven’t healed from things in their past. I had to learn to heal. After years of depression and hating what I saw in the mirror, I began to fall in love with myself. I learned to take every day one day at a time. I accepted my mistakes. I embraced my imperfections. I finally saw myself as a whole person, and not someone struggling to heal and fill voids. I wasn’t damaged goods anymore. I had to learn this in order to move forward. I want to pursue so many endeavors. I want to help people. I want to throw myself into the world and float on the waves of adventure. At some point, I realized that I needed to better understand forgiveness in order to heal and move forward. Forgiving those who wronged me was the easy part. The difficulty lied in forgiving myself. I had to tell myself “Tiffany, you didn’t ask for it to happen. Don’t let life stay stagnant because you’re holding onto things you couldn’t control.” Now, I can walk in my truth, unashamed of the past because it isn’t my present and won’t dictate my future. I hope that other women who have encountered similar experiences can learn to do the same.
Here’s to healing from the hurt, and pressing forward!