This is my straight-jacket
Traditionally understood as the storage and retrieval of information, memory is really not so much a retrieval as an active construction… Memory is an abstraction that refers to a process—remembering. If we say we know something, we are speaking metaphorically—we are judging that we can construct the answer. Our memories do not spring full formed from little trunks stored in our heads, but instead represent an incredibly complex constructive power that we all possess.” ~The Encyclopedia of Memory and Memory Disorders
This is all to say, memory is flawed. That’s why people remember the same scenarios so differently. So what we write is not necessarily the truth, but our truths as best we know them. This is not permission to lie or make things up. As Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of “The Beautiful Struggle,” said: “Don’t fucking lie. Seriously, don’t fucking lie. Don’t claim to have been the only white girl gang-banging in South Central. Don’t claim to have been raised by wolves. Don’t claim that you took a root canal without pain killers. You are not a bad ass. You are a writer. The first step is to accept this and not fucking lie.”
If memory is a construct, what happens when different versions of a story are delivered? What if in your attempt to reveal the truth, to break the silences that devastated your family, that killed your brother, you realize that there are layers to the silence. Layers upon layers. And these silences are still being perpetrated and even protected. Why? Why now? Is it shame wearing a different mask, a different dress? Is it intentional manipulation of the truth? Or can it be dismissed as just another symptom of PTSD? It’s amazing what the brain does to keep you from having a complete meltdown.
There are three stories. Three versions of the truth. Which one is true, I’m not sure. So, I’m writing them all. How I imagine them.
Two or three things I know for sure and one of them is that that telling the story all the way through is an act of love. ~Dorothy Allison, “Two or Three Things I Know for Sure”
For a long time, years and years and years, I thought it happened like this…
My brother was in the guidance counselor’s office. He was getting in trouble again for being a black boy who misbehaved in class. He was waiting for his counselor to come back into the room when he noticed his folder on the desk. Juan Carlos Moncada was typed neatly on a white label on the tab. He looked to make sure the counselor wasn’t coming, then he scooted forward in his seat and opened up the folder. There were notes about his behavior, he talked a lot in class, his grades were average; he wasn’t a stand out student but he wasn’t a reckless mess either. At least not yet. He turned the pages, skimming over them. Nothing stood out. Then he saw his birth certificate. Why was Mario Crime in the father box? Isn’t that my uncle’s father? What the fuck? He heard the counselor’s footsteps approaching. Carlos closed the folder with a rough hand and shoved it across the desk. That night he asked my mother. She told him what happened—about the rape. She teared up while she didn’t let the tears fall. She blinked hard. Her tone was matter of fact. “This is what happened…” My brother listened quietly. When she was done, she got up and started cleaning the kitchen. Carlos stared at her back. Mom avoided his face. She knew she’d break if she looked at the fallen expression on his face. She went into the bathroom and that was where she let herself scream into the towel she shoved into her mouth. Carlos went to his bed in the bottom bunk. He faced the wall but didn’t fall asleep. They never talk about it again until years later, when my brother was a drug addict living with full blown AIDS. But he did start acting up in school right away. He was suspended once for throwing a chair at a teacher. And a just a few weeks later, he broke his curfew for the first time ever. That was the night he lost his virginity to his then girlfriend Jeannie who mom said was loose and fast. Mom knew. She cried when she lashed him with the correa. Carlos took the beating without shedding a tear. I remember the look on his face. He just stared at mom. A blank stare that scared me. Two years didn’t pass before he was gone. He moved to grandma’s house uptown. Never lived with us again.
When my brother was sick in the hospital in the spring of 2013, mom told me that it was Millie who told him. Millie was jealous of my mother’s love for my brother, how she coddled him and doted over him and defended him. How she loved him con pena. So one day, my grandmother came over. Grandma was always fashionable, she was always dressed to the nine with make-up and expensive perfumes; she had boyfriends who were younger than mom. Good looking men who dressed in suits and stared at her longingly. Grandma introduced us as her nieces and nephew “porque yo soy demasiado joven para ser abuela.” She loved to remind us “yo paraba trafico en mi día.” They were talking in the kitchen when the argument started, over what I’m not sure. They clawed at eachother with words like two feral cats. Millie and my brother were watching TV in the livingroom. They grew quiet and watched. Then, Millie leaned over and whispered, “You know it’s because of you they fight like that.” Sweat lined Millie’s pointy nose. She wiped it with a pinch of her thumb and index finger. Her upper lip curled up as if it were being tugged by a hook. Grandma stormed out. Mom ran to her room and stayed there for hours. We heard nothing, not even the T.V. Carlos was confused. He didn’t dare ask mom. We all knew better than to bother her when she was angry. Carlos pretended to watch TV, but he couldn’t silence the words that played on loop in his head: “because of you…”
Millie was sitting at the kitchen table she built and shellacked a shiny burnt umber. She was pretending to read mail while she drank coffee. She was biding the time until he walked over, needing to know.
Carlos’s shoulders were slumped like he’s carrying an boulder. “What do you mean they fight ‘cause of me?”
Millie pounced. I imagine a lion hiding in the underbrush waiting for his prey, a young gazelle, to get closer. The gazelle is completely unaware, he’s so focused on eating the tender shoots. “You ever wonder why you and your uncle Mario look so much alike?”
Mom said she remembers Carlos in that era. She’d catch him staring at her, a look of sadness on his face. Sometimes she’d be cooking and he’d come up behind her and hug her, burying his face in her back. “Se aferraba a mi,” she said one day while we were on the cruise. She was watching the people walking languidly on the deck. “Yo le preguntaba, ¿que te pasa hijo?” He didn’t tell her until years later when he was already deep into drugs and recklessness.
I heard this one from my nephew for the first time just the other day. He’s living with my mom now. They go on long walks where mom talks about her life here and in Honduras. One day, she says, “You know what happened to me, right? Your titi told you.” She knows he and I are close. “My nephew nods. “Yeah, titi told me.” Then she tells him that it was her brother who told my brother, Carlos. Her brother who was also my brother’s brother and uncle. Her brother whose father is the one who raped her.
Jungian analysts call shame the swampland of the soul. And we’re going to walk in. And the purpose is not to walk in and construct a home and live there. It is to put on some galoshes and walk through and find our way around… Shame, for women, is this web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be. And it’s a straight-jacket. ~Brené Brown: Listening to shame
I cringe when people call me brave for writing what I’m writing and revealing these secrets. It’s easier (never easy) to write about my mother’s and brother’s shame while I avoid my own. I’ve been carrying a vergüenza for so many years. I’ve grappled with it and run from it, and now I have to stop running. And this here, it’s a part of that journey.
As forthright as I am about my life, there are things even I don’t write about, because of shame and guilt. Because I’m afraid of what people will say. Because the wounds aren’t healed. Or maybe I’m just coming up with excuses. It’s not like I haven’t written about it in my journals, over and over again, in so many renditions. Sometimes the tone was regretful and brooding. Sometimes it was defensive and angry. I even wrote a story about it a few years ago called “Big Mac.” But I’ve never written about it so publicly. I’ve never blogged about it. Not until today.
I’d be lying if I said I thought about it often over the years. I haven’t. But I have thought about it at key moments, like when I took that pregnancy test on January 1st, 2004 and found out I was pregnant with my daughter. I didn’t consider aborting her. Not once. And I thought about it when I felt that fist-sized blood clot slip out of me a few weeks later. I thought God was punishing me. I thought about it when my little girl told me when she was four that she wanted me to give her a sister. And I thought about it when I read that line in the NY Mag piece on abortions: “Truly pro-life people should go light on the judgment, because shame motivates abortions.” I thought about it the other day as I was walking in the park with my nena and she said, “I wonder sometimes how my kids are gonna look. Did you ever wonder that when I was in your belly? How I was gonna look?”
When I think of that year, 1994, I hear a line from Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s Song Reminisce, “Irresponsible, straight not thinkin…” I was a student at Columbia University. Who dates a drug dealer while attending an Ivy League? I do, that’s who.
It was the second semester of my freshman year, the day after Valentine’s Day. I didn’t let myself think about it on V-Day. I wanted to celebrate with my love. I wanted to enjoy dinner and the chocolates he bought me. But I knew. I knew because my period was like clockwork. I never missed a period. Ever. So when I woke up February 15th, I slipped out of bed and walked down to the clinic which was conveniently located in the bottom level of my dorm. I sat in the same waiting room I’d sat in when I got birth control pills the previous fall.
I’d been careless. Blessed in a strange way, I’d been put on birth control when I was 15 because I’d developed cysts on my ovaries, so when I became sexually active, I didn’t have to worry about pregnancy. Why I didn’t think about getting a venereal disease I can chalk up to youthful ambivalence. He loved me. I’d given him my virginity. He’d never bring anything like that to me. Thankfully he never did…but that was just luck, not for lack of cheating.
But when I went to college, I grew resentful of the pill I had to take every day at noon, because the doctor said that taking them at the same time everyday made them more effective. I missed one day, then two, then a week, until I just stopped taking them. I can’t say it was because I couldn’t afford them. Any student could go to the clinic and pick up a pack for $5. No, it was pure and utter carelessness. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when that test came back positive.
“You’re pregnant,” the gynecologist said in a deadpan tone that shocked me more than the actual news. Her roots were growing out, a striking gray against a mass of black, and she was painfully thin. I couldn’t stop staring at her wrist; it looked like it belonged on a child, it was so small. She handed me a pamphlet and stood up. “You can find some resources in there. Good luck.”
I watched her walk out and close the door behind her, her slacks hanging loose on her concave rear. It didn’t hit me until I looked down. “So you’re pregnant…” stared at me in bold, large font. I dropped the leaflet and hugged myself. How had I gotten so lost? How had this happened to me of all people? The honor student all throughout high school, recipient three years straight of the Wellesley ABC Program’s highest academic honor. Astute and focused, I received a full scholarship and left everything I loved to attend a prestigious boarding program at 13, knowing that I’d never get to where I wanted to be if I stayed in the hood. I worked throughout my four years in Massachusetts, buying myself everything I needed, refusing to ask my mother, knowing she would only throw it in my face.
What had I done?
I don’t remember the elevator ride to my room on the ninth floor. 918. I remember sitting on the bureau opposite the tiny twin bed my boyfriend was sleeping in. I didn’t realize I was crying until he opened his eyes. “What’s wrong?” “I’m pregnant.” Then I started sobbing loudly. I miscarried a week later. It was too easy. I hadn’t learned my lesson.
It was at the end of spring break in April that it hit me that I hadn’t gotten my period. I shrugged it off, thinking it was related to the miscarriage I’d had not even two months earlier. There was no way I could be pregnant again, right? That wasn’t possible, was it? But when a week passed by and I didn’t get my period, I went down to the clinic again. This time the doctor wasn’t so dry.
“Your chart says you were pregnant in February. Is that correct?” She was staring at me over the glasses she had perched on the tip of her thin nose. She held my chart in one hand and a pen in the other; I imagined the pen was poised over the note of my first pregnancy.
“That’s not even two months ago, Ms. Martir.” I looked at the cotton balls in the glass jar, the box of sterile gloves, counted the bottles in the glass-faced cabinet.
She exhaled loudly and took my blood.
“It’s positive,” she said before even closing the door behind her a little while later. I hopped off the examination table, the tissue paper stuck to the backs of my legs and ripped. I made to leave with it still stuck to my thighs. She reached down and pulled it off.
“Here,” she passed me the “So you’re pregnant” pamphlet and waited. I concentrated on the buzzing of the fluorescent lights. “Do you still have it from last time?”
I glared at her. “No I don’t, thanks.” I ripped it from her hands.
A week later, my boyfriend pushed past a pro-life protester who pushed a flyer into my hand. It had the image of a bloody fetus. It was in pieces. My boyfriend snatched the paper from my hands, balled it up and threw it at the protester who screamed, “You don’t have to do this.” I had to borrow someone’s Medicaid card to get the abortion because my partner said he didn’t have the money. A week later he showed up with a new pair of Versace glasses. I was still huddled in fetal position on my bed, wondering when the numbness would set in.
I think I was pregnant again in July. I can’t prove it because I was too ashamed to go get a pregnancy test, but I already knew what a miscarriage felt like. I miscarried by myself in the bathroom of his parent’s apartment. I flushed the blood clots and threw out the blood soaked towels, and I prayed. I prayed a lot. When my uterus didn’t fall out, I thanked god, jumped on my rollerblades and hit the pavement.
The next time was that fall. I went about my life like it wasn’t real, like I wasn’t growing a baby in my womb. One day, in late September, I walked into Riverside Park. I brought my journal. I hadn’t written in weeks, knowing that while I could lie to myself in my head, there was no running on the page. I sat on the wall, overlooking the Hudson River Parkway and started, “I can’t fuckin’ believe I’m pregnant again.” Pages in, I slammed the journal shut and wiped my face brutally with the back of my hand. I started walking north. I wasn’t headed in any particular direction. I just couldn’t sit there anymore. I couldn’t stare at the truth in my words. It was too much. From what I knew, what was growing inside of me now had a heartbeat, toes, fingers. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t have an abortion again, but I was only a sophomore in college. I had so many dreams. How could I do that with a kid? And with the piece of shit that I was with, I knew I’d have to take care of the kid by myself. There had to be another way out of the mess I’d made.
I sat down on a set of stairs I came to. There was no one around and the stairs were hidden from view by a tall wall of stone on one side and the greenery of the park on the other. I put my head between my legs and started gagging. That’s when I started to pray. It was more like begging. “God, please, take this baby out of me. Dios mio, por favor.” I sobbed when I referred to it as a baby for the first time, imagining her with my curls, my chubby hands. That’s when I threw myself down the stairs.
I didn’t fully realize what I was doing until I felt the hard stone steps strike my body. I tried to stop myself but the laws of physics and gravity rendered me useless. All I managed to do was twist my wrist, break a nail down to the root and scrape my knuckles as I clutched for something to grab onto. When I finally landed, maybe 30 steps down, I balled myself up and cried; I begged for forgiveness and willed the baby out. But she was a resilient little thing. She held on for another month, when the cold had started to seep into the cracks.
It was late October, just before Halloween. I’d spent the day in Brooklyn visiting my sister, nephew and mom. It was a decent enough day. Mom was in a tolerable mood. She kept her comments about my relationship to a minimum and even made us lunch. For dinner I insisted we go to McDonald’s. My sister raised her eyebrows at me when I said I was craving a Big Mac, but said nothing.
I was on the 1 train, almost home when I felt something seize in my uterus, then I felt the warm plop of a blood clot slip out. That’s when I knew. I basically crawled home from the 116th Station on Broadway, cursing the whole time that I’d chosen to move to a dorm on Claremont and 119th. I held onto the cars, the walls, whatever I could to keep me standing. When I entered the apartment I went straight to the bathroom and threw myself into the tub, peeling my clothes off in between sobs. The next thing I knew I was in a tubful of hot, blood stained water, with a paramedic over me checking my vitals. I cried out my boyfriend’s name as they put me on the gurney. He reached over to grab my hand. Apparently my roommate had called him.
I threw up twice in the ambulance, forcing the medic to put on a mask and sending my boyfriend dry heaving in the corner. The stench from the Big Mac and my digestive fluids was so bad. I threw that up for the day and a half I spent miscarrying in the emergency room of St. Luke’s hospital. I’ve never been able to stomach a Big Mac since.
If I’d had any of those babies, my child would be around 18, the age I was when I was pregnant four times in one year. The thing is, I don’t regret not having had a child that year. I don’t look back at that year as “I wish” moments. The shame comes from “you should have known better” judgments I hear in my head to this day, 20 years later. I was a student at an ivy league, had graduated from a prestigious high school where I graduated with honors. This shouldn’t have happened to me, or, better said, I shouldn’t have done this to myself, but I did, so what did that mean then and what does it mean now? What I can say is that I was just a girl making adult decisions. I was stupidly in love, was in a lot of pain because of unresolved issues with my mother and my past (issues I’m still working through), and I was desperate for someone to love me. The one who did when I needed it was a drug dealer who was eight years older than me, and that made me feel bad ass and beautiful and wanted and lustful. If he said something, I did it. And I didn’t complain when he didn’t want to use condoms. And it was me who stopped taking the pill. Was I irresponsible? Yes. Should I still feel shame over something that happened so long ago? I want to say no but I still do. I think of those people who’d call me baby killer. And, I think of my mother who at sixteen was raped and got pregnant. She refused to get an abortion even though the doctors warned her he could be born with all sorts of problems because her rapist had drugged her. Mom had her kid even after her mother told her “sacate ese maldito muchacho.” She had her son, my brother, and by the time she was 21, she had three kids. She’s the most gangsta woman I’ve ever known. By the time I was 21, I’d had three miscarriages and an abortion. I couldn’t have those kids. I wouldn’t be the woman I am today if I had, and, no, I don’t regret it. And I know I’m not supposed to say that but I’m going to say it anyway, I don’t regret it. I never have. And still, sometimes, when I look at my little girl and the love she’s brought to my life, I wonder who I’d be if I’d been brave enough to become a mother all those years ago. And I think of the horrible pain I was in and how those kids would have suffered because their mom was so fucked up. So, no, I don’t regret it. It wasn’t just myself I was saving.
If we’re going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy, because empathy’s the antidote to shame. If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too. ~Brené Brown: Listening to shame