My therapist asks me how I feel about healing. I pause for too long. I stretch a “hmmmm well” as my mind teeters between calculations, turning over answers so quickly they melt into each other and become putty.
I string together something about defeat, that it feels like it’s out of reach, and that I reject the idea that states of being or harm can be fixed. I think healing sounds nice, but it sounds aspirational. I’m not sure what healed looks like. I forget to mention my answer changes depending on the day.
She asks if I feel angry. I say I do. To have healing means to have been harmed. Healing invokes hurt. I am mad. I’d prefer to have been preserved whole.
I don’t name the people or the systems aloud, but they flood me at once. When I was five. When I was six. When I was seven, eight, nine, ten. Sixteen. When I was born. Today. Tomorrow.
I listen to a podcast about forgiveness. I think this might be a step towards healing, but there might be nothing I hate more than to be asked for forgiveness. The audacity of a request to be absolved. I am no priest. I will not prescribe a few rote Hail Marys and eternal repentance. Forgiveness is mine and mine only. It will not be granted. It will not be doled. It will not be summoned by anyone other than myself.
Forgiveness is for white people. I conjure crisp essay theses, sentences, and titles. In Defense of the School Yard Bully. I log them as fragments in my Notes app. When Your Heroes Harm.
I think they are profound. But when I get around to trying to write them more fully, they often feel empty and small. I can’t recall the part of my brain that was so sure of a sentence. The part that was sure I would and could return to flesh out the thought.
It’s not that I no longer believe forgiveness is for white people. It’s that I don’t know if I know what forgiveness is.
I know what it is not: an apology or accountability.
“The journey to release all grudges, to relinquish the quest for revenge, and to let go of the fantasy of what might have been, is one of the most difficult spiritual challenges we will ever face,” Oprah Winfrey says of forgiveness on her podcast Super Soul Conversations. “The other side of forgiveness is freedom.” I think this sounds nice.
When I was in fifth grade, Mrs. Rook assigned a state research project to our class. We could pick any state except California. The coolest ones were claimed first: Hawaii, New York, Texas, Alaska. I kept my noodley fingers crossed and got my pick: Illinois. The state my Papi lived in. My Mami took me to Walgreen’s and let me get the thick fancy black foam board and sheets of thin red, white, and blue. I made the poster post-9/11 patriotic. I cut out squares and stars and used our printer instead of my messy handwriting to make sure my message was clear. I used AOL and checked out nonfiction books from our school library. I covered my ground: state flower, motto, flag, nickname, governor. I picked Oprah Winfrey for ‘famous person.’ I wrote that Oprah grew up in poverty and was raised by a single mom. She was raped as a child. Then she became one of the richest celebrities through her own hard work, her own version of an American dream.
I wrote that me and my mom watched The Oprah Winfrey Show together, which (in 2001) had been on television more than one-and-a-half times as long as I’d been alive. Oprah helps people with her show. At that time, she had lived in Chicago for 17 years and would live there for another decade.
I get a ‘B’ on my project because Oprah was not born in Illinois. I still haven’t forgiven Mrs. Rook.
Outstretched on a woven blanket I bought on a visit back to the motherland, I listen, ten feet apart, to my friend who sits cross-legged on a blanket of her own. We have removed our pandemic masks and sip iced coffee from plastic cups. She wears all black: two French braids and a long sleeve under her overalls. I wear buttery hues—a plush leopard print tank top and gold door knocker earrings. The Portland sun is out. We’re surprised by our own sweat. Sunflowers, stretching higher than the distance between my friend and me, protect us from the noise of the street. Every time I look at my friend, I am looking at art.
We’re imagining a world without police. Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery have just been brutally murdered by cops for being Black. Our community hosts a violin vigil for Elijah McClain. We’re talking through the logistics of what a justice system might look like if it were truly just. She is so sure it is possible, and I am so sure I want to be convinced. She entertains my many what ifs.
I tell her I recently learned the name for transformative justice, something I’ve felt in my bones but never knew how to put to words. I had sent an educational YouTube series via Slack to colleagues after I, the sole person of color in the room, had to listen to eight white people talk about equity work in a meeting, as if it were a new à la carte offering. adrienne maree brown is one of the people interviewed in the videos. I tell my friend I am excited she has written a new book: We Will Not Cancel Us. I tell my friend I found the videos as a way to communicate accountability to my new white peers.
When I think about transformative justice, I think about the young men who opened their hearts to me at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility the couple of times I’ve visited. It was always a Friday night. I’d carpool for ninety minutes with Carlos, the dope Chicano journalist-turned-Executive Director who started Morpheus Youth Project in 2005. It’s a program that supports young people who are incarcerated or who live in underserved communities. His programming is about community, care, and hip hop as replacements for gang life. The guys at MacLaren talked with me about the school-to-prison pipeline, racism, abuse, and the prison industrial complex on my visits. We talked about their lives. Who they were before. Who they are now.
The young men, mostly Black and brown, offered acceptance of their mistakes without being asked. It is uncouth to ask, and I know that part of their story isn’t for me. But they share that they have caused harmed and say if they could go back, they’d want to make different choices. They understand more about the individual choices within but also the systems that urged their mistakes. From the outside, it seems the lessons have been learned. But mandated years and minimum sentences are not for lessons or epiphanies. They are for hardening.
The first time I leave all I can think is I get to go home. Carlos and I get to eat tacos on a carpool pitstop. And they are still there.
I splice together a broadcast journalism piece for a community radio station’s Juneteenth programming that blends personal testimony with a recounting of our state and country’s racist history. Despite the façade of contemporary progressive politics, Oregon is second place in the rate of incarcerated youth being directly transferred to adult prisons, by design. Later, I write an article about the power and kinship that is b-boying and why Morpheus Youth Project centers it in their approach. I write about Tyler and Trey and Ephraim. Young men who miss the humans who love them and who are locked up, unable to parent their own children, care for mothers dying of cancer, or be filled with the emotionality and physicality of love. Young men arrested in chrysalis from the full metamorphosis they crave.
The editor at the publication reads my first draft, says there are too many “characters,” and asks could I consider cutting one out? I do not think I’ve made my point clear enough.
In the park, under the sun, my friend and I discuss the logistics of a victim- or survivor-led process. I accept that I can’t change what has happened to me or my body, but I share my biggest wish is that this never happens to another person. Another victim forced into the hardness of survival. If I don’t think prison is a place where humans become better people, I know prison is not the place for my rapist. But I tell her I can’t imagine what accountability would look like to me.
She gently nudges me to try.
We dream a scenario where his partner, mother, and the mutual friend who invited and introduced him to me at the party learn about the many wounds he has carved into women. They learn that I am the second person he has sexually violated, at least that I know of, but there are likely more. This white man must remove “feminist” and “activist” from his Twitter bio and bid farewell to his 8,083 followers. His progressive platform has been built on lies (although Herman’s having written a television ad, and more, for the man who ran for Portland mayor and lost because he punched a woman when she rejected his sexual advances feels fitting now).
The ink dries on a notarized contract he’s signed that ensures I’ll never be barred from telling my story. He is sentenced to his own therapy and to paying for mine.
I develop a formula:
(Years Since the Assault x Biweekly Therapy Sessions) x The Cost of Therapy
I apply it and round up:
(8 years x 26 sessions) x 90 dollars = $18,720 of restitution
I wonder how to quantify the attempted assault I survived which my therapist assures counts as trauma too. Maybe I could try to count the involuntary flinches from grazed thighs or fingertips on my neck or the times I’ve driven by and subsequently shuddered at the Broadway Street bar where I agreed to a second drink before it felt truly scary. Perhaps I might come up with a similar formula but reduce it by half since this assault is the mere ghost of almost.
I try to imagine my idea of accountability as reality and, like healing, it still feels just a little bit out of reach.
My therapist has been gently nudging me to envision healing. I want healing to mean reversal, and I want to believe it means permanent protection. I’m not sure I, or anyone, has ever known healing in this definition, so I think that definition is wrong. I think healing might mean stability. I think resilience and being able to bounce back from the triggers that may always come up will help. I think healing involves picking at scabs and sometimes turning scars back into scabs so they can become smaller. I think healing might mean turning over the truth and rewriting our memories. I hope healing doesn’t mean my erasure.
I am realizing my twenties have been about surviving. I am starting to realize my thirties can be about healing.
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