The stories that haunt
I’ve been thinking a lot about the secret I just revealed. The secret that has had a choke hold on my family for forty years. The secret that my brother told me he’s written about. I imagine him writing. He’s hunkered over the paper, head on his left arm. He’s not resting or doing it for the sake of comfort. No. The weight of the story, his story is just too heavy for him to keep his head up, his shoulders square. How he came into this world. The rape. He says he’s compiling the writings for me. “You’re the writer. I can’t do it. I get writer’s block.” There’s a hint of pride in his voice, not for himself but for me. He’s proud that his little sister, the one he called Tita when we were kids, is now a writer.
I recently read that Voldemort (of the Harry Potter series) is incapable of love because he was conceived under the spell of a love potion. It made me think of my brother, who I called my Superman when we were growing up. I remember him and I having a fight once with two big girls who were bullying him in sixth grade. They were sisters. Both towered over him. I ran to his defense. One of them slapped me to the ground. I was in third grade. I jumped on her back. And though they beat us up, we went for ours. We scratched and we bit and we kicked. We took chunks of them. It’s who we were. It’s how we defended each other. We loved each other that hard. We still do.
If the Voldemort theory were true for real people and not just characters in a book, it’d be said that my brother is incapable of love because he is the result of a vile, violent act against our mother. I don’t believe it. Before the drugs and even in stints during his addiction, my brother has been and still is one of the most loving and tender people I’ve ever known. His heart is so open and raw. I think that’s why he turned to drugs, because he felt the truth of his conception so profoundly, so to his core, the only way to escape it was to numb it. The numbing was/is heroine.
There are glimpses of the him I knew growing up that emerge sometimes. Like when he tells mom to her face that it’s her fault she and I have such an antagonistic relationship. When he tells that she’s wrong for treating me like she does. When he tells her it’s wrong that he’s the only one she mothers. Like when he calls me randomly to tell me how proud he is of me. Like the other day, when he said, “If you had told me when we were kids that I’d turn out like this, I would never believe it. I was supposed to be somebody, sis.” His eyes drift off somewhere far so he doesn’t hear me say, “You are somebody, pa.” Or maybe he was purposely ignoring me. I saw the weight of it all in the hollow of his cheeks. In the way his whole face droops like a bloodhound’s. Mi querido hermano.
I received a message the other day after I posted my latest blog. The sender said the blog reminded her of a scene in my first novel, Woman’s Cry. Shit! I hadn’t even thought of that.
There are rape scenes in both of my novels (To Play Write is not yet published). Violent rape scenes that involve kidnapping and basements and girls chained to radiators, locked in rooms, left for dead.
Ghosts leave their vestigial traces all over your work. Once they have decided to haunt you, that is. These ectoplasmic moments litter your work for years. They are both the veil and the revelation, the thing that leads you to the cusp of the transformational. ~Chris Abani, Abigail and My Becoming
I read these words just days after posting my “What I know about rape” blog, while in the throes of a “vulnerability hangover” that kicked my ass. I thought of the rapes in my books. I knew: this is the ghost that’s haunted me and littered my work for years. I was running from memoir for years but the stories still surfaced in my fiction. The memory of something that didn’t happen to me. That somehow lives in me because I was housed in my mother’s womb for nine months where that memory still eats at her. Because I was raised by the woman that never recovered from it. Her rape. The memory of it.
All artists, writers among them, have several stories—one might call them creation myths—that haunt and obsess them. This is one of mine. I don’t even remember when I first heard about it. I feel as though I have always known it . . . ~Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously
Danticat calls them creation myths. Abani calls these ectoplasmic moments “avaratic manifestations” or “the wet spot of the soul.” That is, “a necessary condition of melancholy and displacement that produces the poet’s ache to make the poem.” He refers to Khalil Gibran’s line: “To know the pain of too much tenderness.” I think of Gibran’s, “To be wounded by your own understanding of love.”
I think of the festering wounds my family carries as a result of the silence surrounding my mother’s rape. Still, entiendo that my mother’s silence was an attempt, however futile, at protecting us and even herself from something so vicious, that it continues to tear at us forty years after it happened. El olvido es imposible.
I remember mom’s psychotic breaks growing up. There were many. Like the times she’d lock herself in her room. We could hear her whimpering through the splintered door. The door Millie had to build so many times out of cheap ply wood when she had to break it down to get to Mom or they broke it during one of their fights.
Millie knocked on the door softly, “Abreme. Por favor, abreme la puerta.” There wasn’t even a pause in Mom’s crying. Like she didn’t hear Millie.
None of us kids ever dared knock. I think we were afraid of what we would see. What condition we’d find our mother. If she was crying, at least we knew she was alive. At least we knew she hadn’t done anything to herself.
When Millie finally got the door open, usually after a long while of knocking, after banging on it and screaming, after she’d had to push it open with her thick shoulder, splintering the door so she’d have to replace it yet again. By that time Millie had sent one of us up to her mother’s apartment on the second floor. Millie consulted Doña Carmen on all things holy and not. Doña Carmen rushed down with the other women, her daughter and our other neighbor Luisa, the same woman who we heard beating her pre-teen daughter every night, calling her puta and sucia.
When Mom finally emerged from the room, she leaned all her weight on Millie so she almost looked like she was being dragged. Her eyes were swollen, hair plastered to her face, and her tattered nightgown was wet from her tears and snot and sometimes her urine. They’d shoo us into our room and slam the door, but even from our room we could hear the beads of the rosaries and the prayers.
Santa Maria, Madre de Dio, ruega por nosotros pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amen.
What mom needed was a psychiatrist. She needed therapy. She needed medication. She needed treatment. Instead, they did an exorcism.
They put her in a scalding hot bath and prayed over her. Splashed her with alcolado and brandished the cross over her. I didn’t know until many years later that what they were performing was a Lares campo Pentecostal style exorcism.
It took hours but eventually mom snapped out of it. We stayed out of her way for a while until she was back to herself, cooking and swatting at me when I passed by. Blaming me for my sister’s mischief. Singing along to the ballads on the radio.
During lunch today, my little girl pointed at the light fixture and asked, “Why is the sankofa symbol everywhere, mom?” I smiled at the irony. “What does it mean?” She looked at me with those big eyes that say I’m the authority on everything in her eight year old world. I googled. One definition struck me and stayed: “It is not wrong to go back for what you have forgotten.” I thought of these stories I’m writing. I thought about the impossibility of forgetting. I thought about how going back for me isn’t about not being able to remember but, rather, that I can’t forget. That I’m not supposed to. These stories have shown up time and again in my work. These are the ghosts that have left “their vestigial traces all over [my] work.” These are my “creation myths.” And I don’t expect them to disappear once my memoir A Dim Capacity for Wings is out there in the world. They haven’t yet so why would they now? These are the kind of relentless ghosts that stay. “They are both the veil and the revelation.” And they’ve led me so many times and will lead me again to that “cusp of the transformational.” So although they shake and rattle me, make me cry and hold myself, I know they are here to make me grow. To make me break those silences that never have and never will protect us. Que Dios nos bendiga y nos guarde on the journey. Siempre.