CONTINUED from Part I.
Session 2. The Saturday morning session opens with another guided meditation. Then E explains what comes next: one person will share the story she wrote, and the others will have a chance to respond.
Our first response, E reminds us, the first response to anyone’s story of being wounded, should be empathy. We can just respond to the pain that girl experienced at the time.
Oh, that sounds so scary!
How sad for that little girl!
Children often take inaccurate messages from frightening or painful things that happen to them. They think it’s their fault; they think there is something inherently bad about them. What, E asks, would the wise inner guide say to the girl? What messages would she give about what happened?
She hands out little circles of paper and tells us that we can write those messages, as we say them, onto the little circles. When we finish one story, we will give those messages to the woman who told the story. Then someone else will read her story, and we will repeat the process.
The (brave!) woman who volunteers to go first is someone who has never done this before, not in group or individual therapy, which is pretty new to her. She says she suffers from social anxiety and tells a story about feeling alone and unseen in middle school. She describes having no friends and working to make herself as invisible as possible; no one wants to get to know her, anyway. She has nothing to offer.
It is so easy to empathize with the girl she describes. We tell her
You were so lonely.
Oh, how painful to feel no one sees you.
Without any prompting, we slide into messages we’d want a wise woman to give the girl:
I’ll sit with you and keep you company.
I want to know you.
I see good things in you and want to learn more.
This goes on for quite a while, and as we say these things, with genuine warmth, we also scribble them down on the little paper circles. After a while, E asks the woman, “How does it feel to hear these messages?”
“It feels good,” she says, almost surprised. “It feels really good.”
E passes around a little silk bag. We tuck in the circles with our messages, and then give the bag to the first woman, so she can hang on to them.
Another woman tells her story, of growing up in a big family, with no money, with a mother who was often gone studying or working. At the age of six, she was already taking care of her younger siblings, always afraid they were going to be homeless, always afraid that something would go terribly wrong.
We write messages for this little girl as well
You deserve to be a child and go play.
You don’t need to worry about the family; I’ll take care of that for you.
I love you for the little girl you are and don’t need you to act like a grown-up yet.
You can imagine, as we hear each other’s stories and see the tears that sometimes accompany them, we are rapidly developing a lot of tenderness for one another. I so want to support and comfort the others.
We go around the circle, and now it’s my turn. I’m questioning my choice of story, since no one else has presented anything like it. And mine is longer than the others. But that’s the story I wrote, so that’s the story I am going to read. I start reading aloud. Once I start, I find I cannot look up from the pages for fear of what I might see in the faces of the others.
This young woman is 21 years old, a college student. The school year has just finished, so she’s staying at her father’s house for a week or two before she eaves for German. Her father is an alcoholic–unreliable, irresponsible, but also generous and sometimes charming.
Before she even arrived, he had invited Lee, a colleague, to stay with him for a couple of months until he gets settled. Lee had just separated from his wife and had nowhere to live. He’s taken the young woman’s room, the larger bedroom with the comfortable, so she takes the small guest room.
Lee doesn’t have a lot to do when he’s not working. He drinks a lot and sits up ate at night, watching TV and chatting with the woman and her father.
Her father goes on a business trip right before she leaves for Germany. She goes out with friends to say goodbye. When she comes back home, Lee is in front of the television, quite drunk. They talk a little. He gives her a book by Hermann Hesse; they’ve been talking about German authors because of her upcoming trip. She thanks him, says good night, and goes into her room.
Only moments later, as she’s getting undressed, Lee opens the door and steps into the small bedroom. He reaches for her, pulls her close, and starts kissing her. She doesn’t respond, but she doesn’t resist, either. She is shocked, embarrassed, uncertain.
He takes her hand and pulls her down the hall to his bedroom, that is supposed to be her bedroom. He peels off her clothes, as she goes numb, her thoughts separating from her body, her body sliding into automatic mode. She has no desire for this man, who is her father’s age, or maybe older. But when he pulls her into his bed that is supposed to be her bed, when he moves onto what he seems to think is his body but should be hers, she does not protest. Not only does she not protest, but she goes along, pretends she wants it, too, tries to make it easier, more comfortable for him, because he is drunk and clumsy.
She is not excited. She is not attracted to him. She is a robot.
Later, he falls asleep, but she stays awake for a long time. The next day, in the morning, she pretends everything is fine. She is cheerful and friendly to him. That evening he drives her to the airport and pats her butt when he says goodbye.
The young woman tucks this experience away into a dark corner of her brain. After a few days, she forgets about it entirely for 12 years, until she’s at another crisis period of her life. Then it comes roaring back, together with the emotions that were missing that night: horror, revulsion, confusion, indignation, but above all, a deep same for her complicity and acquiescence, the absence of resistance.
How disgusting she was. How dirty. How easy for men to use. After all, she remembers, she has a stack of stories that are variants of this same thing: the creepy neighbor fondling her barely developing breasts, his son pushing an unwanted sexual experience on her 14-year-old self, the stepdad’s friend awakening her in the middle of the night. There are also fuzzier memories of even earlier experiences.
She thinks she must have “help yourself” or “use me” or even “fuck me” emblazoned on her forehead. She must be screaming out, “I’m available, I’m easy.” She must not deserve respect.
Remembering all of this, 12 years later, she can’t see how she is supposed to make a life with her twisted ugly spirit. But shit, by then she is 33 years old; she has two small children and an abusive husband, so she had better tuck it all away and protect those little boys. So she does this, and the need to be cradled, comforted, and reassured goes unaddressed for many long years.
I stop reading, and it’s quiet for a while. I’m so very uncomfortable in that long moment. But before long, the messages are flying around the room, many different messages that my 21-year-old self badly needs to hear.
This is a BIG DEAL. It’s a huge violation–even more than a BIG DEAL.
Your body is yours.
It’s not your shame.
Shame on HIM.
Not fighting does not mean consent.
Fighting back is not required to avoid shame.
You are precious and deserve to be around people who see this clearly.
It’s okay to still be talking about this.*
I’ll sit with you for as long as it takes to process this. We can talk and examine this into eternity, if that’s what you need.*
[*so important – I often berate myself for not being “over it” by now]
You can take as long as you need to heal.
You were never taught to fight back. You deserved to have been taught that.
Don’t be mad at yourself for not knowing things you were never taught.
I will protect you and teach you how to protect yourself.
You deserved to have someone protect you.
I will help you learn to use your voice to speak up for things that don’t feel right to you.
It wasn’t something about you that made this happen.
These aren’t even all of them–there are more that echo the same themes. I still don’t quite have the words to capture what these messages mean to me. I have pulled them out of my little bag and re-read them many times over.
It’s not that I have never heard such messages before. Of course E has said things like that to me, and I’ve read books, and I’ve said those things to myself and others. But somehow receiving a flood of these messages all at one time, in immediate response to my story, from a group of women who have also shared their own vulnerabilities–this is a rare and precious gift.
TO BE CONTINUED…