Writing about Childhood Sexual Abuse
I am posting this here as a kind of satellite in orbit around the discussion of Trigger Warnings and Content Advisories over on the Voices of Poetry Facebook page. It’s my contribution to a panel put together by Nikole Brown and including also Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Dorianne Laux, and Kamilah Aisha Moon.
The discussion on the Voices of Poetry thread became, too soon, an up or down, yes or no, choose up sides argument, and I probably contributed to that. I think we cannot have this discussion without asking many other questions as well, including questions about the value of literature, both fiction and documentary, across genres.
As for warnings… in this case the title of the panel announces itself as challenging terrain.
ME TOO: WRITING YOUR WAY THROUGH (AND OUT OF) CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE. AWP Conference, Portland OR, March 29, 2019. Richard Hoffman
In some respects, I am a misfit on this panel. I mean, besides being the only Y chromosome up here. After a few years of writing, as a young poet, profoundly irrelevant and studiedly indecipherable poems, I found that I was able to “come to terms” in the most literal sense of that phrase with childhood sexual abuse only or at least first of all in prose.
All my earlier, superficial, wordplay poems, those look-how-smart-I-am poems, those all-dressed-up-and-nowhere-to-go poems, those lights-are-on-but-nobody’s-home poems were actually the poet in me out in the garage doing push-ups, jumping rope, working the bag, getting ready for the main event.
In fact, the main event, to continue with this unfortunate metaphor, was a reckoning with childhood rape that I was only able to do in a narrative. Looking back, it seems to me that it wasn’t so much a decisive turn to prose as it was a shift from the lyric to the narrative. For me, the first person lyric presented a few obstacles: if it is true that the lyric seeks to stop time and fully inhabit a moment, then, well, there weren’t going to be many of those I could write — how many times did I want to be trapped in that nightmare? So the shift to narrative was a move from isolation and entrapment back into time, which has at least an implied future.
Writing about an instance of childhood abuse as if it were merely an isolated incident in one’s own autobiography is precisely the compartmentalization that abets and enables abusive power. If we examine the rhetoric that surrounds recovery from childhood sexual assault, we find a defeatist undercurrent that seeks to “heal the wound” so the victim can return to so-called normal life — to the very social arrangement that accomodated the abuse, and may well have secretly condoned it. When you understand that the world as presently constituted offers three roles and three only: perp, victim, and helpless bystander, why would you, or anyone, want to return to such an arrangement?
In other words, sexual abuse in childhood is not my subject, but the lens through which I view the world. It seems to me that the only way out of victimhood, the only way out of childhood victimization, is clarity about how power and socially sanctioned authority behaves, always, in every sphere, in every institution, in every situation. And as a writer it is not enough to know and recognize “the bully who rules the world” as the late Carol Bly termed him, I have to write against that power, and I have to feel the helplessness of knowing that the writing cannot stop the abuse, the exploitation, the inhumanity. All I am fit to do is to say now, at every chance I get, what I learned as a 10 year old boy but could not articulate: the emperor is naked, and not only that he’s ugly. Here’s a poem about that emperor:
Arriving at the podium on the tarmac,
he stands up tall and makes a big fuss
rolling up his sleeves like drawing back
his foreskin, and only amnesiacs
still traumatized and children
do not know what happens next.
I suppose another way to put the question is: How do we move from “me too” to “we too”? How do we move out of isolation? It’s paradoxical: because a sexual violation is so intimate it feels, of course, personal. Abusers reinforce that feeling in the child. It helps protect them in fact, but there’s nothing personal about it. I have come to believe — actually I’ve believed for quite a long time now — that the sexual exploitation of a child’s innocence is the very signature of militarism and conquest, of “might makes right.” In both the Hellenic and Hebraic stories of our hybrid Western heritage, children are sacrificed for the sake of conquest: even if Artemis rescues Iphigenia, even if the angel intervenes in Isaac’s murder, the willingness to sacrifice the most vulnerable for dominion — whether over Canaan or Troy — is a constant. What’s more, wherever Western aggression has succeeded, rampant sexual assaults on children have followed: “indigenous schools,” “youth detention centers,” “refugee camps,” “missionary schools.” Am I deluded? Ask yourself if this culture of ours (mainly the byproduct of profit-seeking, and that profit gained largely by and through military conquest and colonial exploitation) is designed to accomplish the first goal of human societies: to protect and educate the vulnerable young in order to ensure the future. Well, is it? Is that our culture’s central purpose?
I’d like to read you another poem, a nonfiction poem, its data derived from UN reports on the condition of the world’s children. It’s twelve years old, and the situation it describes is undoubtedly worse now, in the midst of the most massive human displacements in history.
An Emblem from Dresden
In Rembrandt’s The Rape of Ganymede
the boy, a chubby toddler torn from his play,
kicks and wails and pisses in terror as,
clamped in beak and talon, he looks down.
The sky is smoke, a billowing smudge
as after the bombardment of a city.
The eagle is unnatural, painted in the way
myth borrows nature for its purposes,
larger and more saurian, power from on high,
but the boy, as Rembrandt understood, is real
and not especially beautiful, a fat boy fed
the diet of the poor, potatoes, turnips, bread,
and for sweetness the cherries in his fist.
Ovid has Orpheus sing the story Hermes,
the slippery consigliare, tells the parents:
the boy will learn the language of the mighty,
an acolyte, loved and provided for, a story
that comes with a payment of valuable horses,
wealth enough to secure the future, more
than even a grown son could expect to earn
them. What does the boy see, rising? Over Laos
200,000 children trafficked into Thailand’s
brothels, building sites, and sweatshops; over
Kazahkstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Albania,
procurers riding shotgun, helicopter cargo
bound for prostitution in the streets of Athens;
from Nigeria, bush pilots make the short flight
over jungle to the secret auction, “Clean, no HIV. No HIV.”
Euros for their trouble from the French, the Belgians,
dollars from Americans. The eagle on the money,
each child a disappearance. “Too young,” says the madam,
pulling back the beaded curtain for her client,
“no boom-boom this one, not yet, only yum-yum.”
There is one more form of isolation I want to talk about, and that is the compartmentalization of sexual abuse as some kind of “special” trauma. In 1794, in “The Chimney Sweeper,” William Blake wrote
“And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.”
I do not want to write poems or essays or any other texts I might put out into the world to support this position, that suggests that now that I am no longer miserable, no longer a bleeding victim, I am satisfied with a situation in which people can express outrage at the sexual abuse of children while singing hi ho hi ho it’s off to work we go as they pull into the parking lot at General Dynamics or Raytheon to spend their day assembling missiles that will rain down on school buses in Yemen and hospitals in Syria and other places on other children. In his 1963 essay, “The Artist’s Struggle For Integrity” James Baldwin writes:
“And what is crucial here is that if it hurt you, that is not what’s important. Everybody’s hurt. What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what drives you, torments you, is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive. This is all you have to do it with. You must understand that your pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect to other people’s pain; and insofar as you can do that with your pain, you can be released from it, and then hopefully it works the other way around too: insofar as I can tell you what it is to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less.”
It is all one struggle, the struggle to be free from abusive power. That’s all I’m interested in pursuing in my work; the rest is a kind of sentimentality that privileges the suffering of one child over another, of one vulnerable person over another. I suppose what I’ve been looking for all my life is a broadly inclusive and secular ethical system that might take root and spare future generations unnecessary suffering. I’m still looking for that, still writing towards that.