Shame and the kinship of sexual violence

All community accountability work is science fiction, because it calls us to create that which has never been created. At least, not yet.

–inspired by Octavia’s Brood

I don’t trust an activist who does not take care of herself.

–Db’i Young

My mother was raped for the first time when she was a teenager. My mother, a small-town girl from a booming industrial village in central Pennsylvania, was sodomized by a local college boy with her body pressed into saliva-moistened leather seats of a red convertible my grandparents could never have afforded. There was another and more sexual violence during her heavy using years before she got clean, but it was the experience of being a young woman– drunk, aroused, deeply curious, and losing her body for the first time–that she wanted me to know about first. I was 15 or 16 when she first shared this history with me.

I don’t know exactly what I did with that story of my mother through my college years. I fucked. A lot. Made some love. Had unprotected sex. Watched friends turn up HIV positive. Became terrified. But, never terrified enough not to have unprotected sex one more time in college. I was sexually assaulted in college, and when I graduated, it is fair to say that my relationship with my body was still an ambiguous one regarding the full safety of it. My mother’s story, I understand now, was only intended, in part, as warning. The wisdoms she intended to impart pertain to shame and the familial kinship of sexual violence.

It has taken the last 25 years to experience the full weight and personal significance of my mother’s story to me as a young woman. I spent my teenage years in NA meetings in West Baltimore with my mom, where she spoke openly in front of me and a room full of strangers about her past and feelings of shame as part of her recovery. She was shameful for what she had done to friends and family members in her active addiction. Before she went into rehab for the first time—a month or two before she bottomed—she left my 3-year old brother with a man she had known for only a few weeks while she was working the 9-5. He sexually assaulted my baby brother and altered the course of his life forever. My mother went into rehab soon after she chased this man out of our apartment with a baseball bat, a few weeks after I had left for my father’s house for the summer. I don’t exactly know what the outcome of that attack was; it occurs to me only now that perhaps her first trip to rehab was a way of avoiding charges or jail time for assault. And maybe this explains why she relapsed so easily the first time, too. I do know that she lost her nursing license—and so, her only means to provide a decent life for me and my brother—during that first stint in rehab. My brother and I lived with our fathers—different men—for the next few years.

Our absences only increased my mother’s shame: When my father found out that my mother was in rehab, my month-long summer trip turned into two years in his house. Certainly, my mother knew what kind of grotesque violence I would witness in my father’s care. Certainly, she suspected what kind of damage would be done, and she was powerless over it. As a mother now, I cannot imagine what kind of end-of-the-world hopelessness made faith it took her to trust that I would somehow be all right while we were separated for those two years. I used to think that I would have died, but now I understand the much greater terror in leaving behind children without my world in theirs and without me alive to fight for them. I would indeed survive, I have since resolved, and she must have believed that too. That feeling must have greatly propelled her will for survival; my mother relapsed only once.

My mother was shameful, too, that she had had so much sex in ways that she had not enjoyed and that, in the process, she had caused great harm to her body. She was shameful, also, because of the way my grandfather had put his hands on her when he first recognized desire in her. I can still remember how my mother cried when she first shared with me the beating my grandfather had given her in 10th grade for coming home on a Friday night with a passion mark on her neck. She had bounded through the door at curfew, she explained, excited, joy-filled, and feeling beautiful with the quiet pleasure she held in making out with a boy who had been so tender with her. This boy had made her body feel good and safe, and he had respected her boundaries while they stood erect, hands and mouths wandering, making out behind her high school building. She had no idea he had given her a hickey, but my grandfather saw it immediately when she came in the door, giggling, with her best friend trailing behind. Before she could form a full sentence of explanation—her pleasure, please, no sex in it—my grandfather snapped his leather belt loose from his waist and came down upon her body. As she told me the story, she recalled all the places he beat her that night: The convex length of her spine, her forearms, flailing hands, calves, fronts of her legs, as she stood spinning wildly, partially disrobed, in the center of my grandparent’s living room. “I will always remember that beating against the pleasure I felt coming in the door,” she said when she was finished telling me the story. My mother had her period that night.

Afterwards, she explained, shame and pleasure and the safety of her body got all jumbled up in her mind. She was ashamed of the things that were good for her, ashamed that she had wounded her father somehow, ashamed because his eyes averted hers for years after. “I felt a shame I had never known could exist before that night, and I carry it with me even now,” she explained. My mother told me this story, too, when I was 15 or 16, and when she was done, she promised to never shame me for my sexual desires or my sexual explorations. She honored that promise throughout my high school years and fully, until she died in 1999.

I think of her expressions of shame a lot because she so desperately did not want me to carry it on my body, as she had grafted it onto hers. She spoke of this often. My mother was so beautiful, kind, graceful and yet, as her daughter, I could always feel the façade of her solitude. From where I stood, I often felt a woman who was waiting for the love of her life to return to her from Vietnam (a gentle man named Greg), a woman who settled for very little in a man the first time lymphoma besieged her body and terrorized her, and then finally, a woman who let the dream go with the chance to live a bit longer. She stayed single the second go, when her body finally buckled under the weight of cancer’s return, its metastasized vigor, and its reminder of the liver she had destroyed when she was shooting drugs regularly into her veins. The shame that she carried with her to the very end, that she expressed in her fears and simple, abundant gratitudes in the last few days of her life, was two-fold: She was deeply shameful that she had failed to protect my baby brother—then, 15 and raging–, and she was ashamed for all the war she had waged upon her body—particularly, the sexual.

As my mother lay dying in her bed, I shared with her how grateful I was that she had protected me as a child and young woman. I was grateful she had fought her way back to me after she came out of rehab, that we had a full decade together before she died from cancer. I was grateful, so very grateful, that she had never left me alone with strange men during our years together or placed any partner, any love, any lover, before me. As a child, I would regularly tiptoe into her room in the middle of the night to sleep next to her, and my space next to her body was never filled. She kept an intentional distance between our home and her lovers and never let other men parent me or discipline me. Our home was never a resting place for new men, abusive men, and I can recall only one or two times during my high school years when a lover joined us for dinner or a family outing. I was grateful, also, that she never disappeared again or left me to care for my younger brother, eight years my junior. Those choices of distance and solitude my mother made saved my life, I now understand. And these choices, I believe, are “the thing” that keeps me so tethered to my own three children. Her choices have helped me lean into my aloneness as a place of solitude rather than absence, into a single life at 40, and to find comfort, most often, in this place.

In my years, I have never been so grateful about two facts pertaining to our time together after my mother got clean, as her refusal to place a man, a lover, before me and her willingness, also, to articulate her shame to me. In her expressions of shame, I know now that she was testing the waters of her own loveableness with me: To see whether or not her own daughter could unconditionally love a woman who had positioned her children within spaces of so much violence…whether or not I could love a body that had been raped, more than once, in the process of looking for something better than herself. I know she wondered, at times, whether she deserved to be loved at all. I also know now that the feelings that flooded me in the moments before and after my mother died were feelings of the highest, most intoxicating kind of love for this woman who had bared herself so raw to me, who had extended her heart to me when my teenage rage was most palpable, and who had dared to ask for forgiveness for things that I still cannot write.

I mean in no way to cast my mother as a saint. I am both clear and comfortable that she was not. I have reflected, rather, about my mother a great deal over the last year and a half in my organizing work around sexual violence. I have, particularly, been thinking about what draws folks to the center of the work our collective engages—in part, community accountability processes for sexual assault—and also what causes folks to fall away to the margins of this kind of organizing as silent supporters, the ambiguous, or the outrightly opposed. As one high-profile male organizer and activist in our community commented when he found out about our work: “Fuck community accountability.”

What do the personal conditions of self-acknowledgment and self-reflection that are demanded in the special work of sexual violence and community accountability look like? How are these qualities challenged when the work is, at times, so seething and so goddamned morbid?

Most importantly: What kind of relationship with our own bodies do we need in order to come into the center of accountability work involving sexual violence? Community accountability is work that bears no template, no ending point, no certainty, and yet, calls us into the center to face violence again and again. What happens to a body that cannot bear this violence or returns to a dark and distant place as a result of this work? Can we train ourselves to swim towards or away from the center when we need to?

I share this story of my mother and the histories of violence running between us for a few reasons. Importantly, I believe that she would allow me to share it.

First, I don’t believe any useful organizing or activism—particularly in the context of Black women and violence—can escape deep introspection, a revisitation of childhood, or our personal histories of violence. It is something I am still learning to fully articulate, but I am certain of the overwhelming, destructive disjuncture between the personal and political I witness all around me in other (often male-heavy) organizing spaces. Most simply, I know too many folks who have razor sharp political analyses and discourses and stay marching in the streets for “justice” and something better, but treat their children and lovers and kin—those closest to their bodies– with a harshness or violence that makes my heart hurt. Adrienne Maree Brown, a longtime organizer, facilitator, and co-editor of Octavia’s Brood, often speaks about the need to make our activism a site of our greatest pleasure. “How do we say, ‘let’s make justice the most pleasurable experience a human can involve themselves in?’” she asks. In this, I also hear an urgency to deepen the integrity in our most personal relationships—with ourselves and kinfolk– so that this sensuality seeps into all the work that we do.

Part of the work on that pathway Adrienne Maree Brown speaks of, I believe, also entails practicing a love and rigor and accountability in our own immediate families—both biological and extended. Recently, I taught a class at a local university, and a young student expressed the frustrations he felt with his white, rural Canadian family as his political consciousness expanded. He spoke of the frustration he feels specifically with his grandparents when they make racist comments at family gatherings and how his feelings of kinship are gaining some distance because of this. He asked what he should do.   “Learn to practice love and rigor in your family relationships,” I said. It is such hard work to do, but our most important, I believe. The rooting we obtain within this most-challenging love space in sharpening the practice of integrity at home, bleeds into everything else we do. “It will sustain you. And it will make you a better activist,” I smiled. “I promise.”

Secondly, I talk about my mother often because the silence in our families, in Black communities, in Black women’s relationships regarding our histories of violence is deafening. The silence is, quite literally, killing us. The silence is making us mad, stealing away our capacities of expanding into our most glorious, most unbound selves as we age. This process of “killing” has a long history, and little has been done to fracture this history among us. I am only now, in my forties, learning how to speak in any detail about the histories of sexual and partnership violence in my own family and life. There are many levels of violence in my family tree, and I am committed to learning how to name even the most extreme instances. More challenging still, is the process of getting clear about how these family histories have impacted my past and bleed into my present life and relationships with people I love.

One of the mental mistakes I made beginning this work was believing that my life would somehow become easier, that I would somehow experience less violence and pain around me if I was organizing around sexual violence. I was wrong: What I instead found was a pain that increased and knocked against my threshold. I realize now that pain will always increase, that this work brings the violence of my past into my chest like a fountain recycling water, and that the only way to thrive in this work is to lean into the pain until it becomes like water washing over me.   Allowing the persistence of violence to continually wash over me, however, requires deepening my threshold for love and joy and touch and pleasure in other areas of my life simultaneously.

Finally, I also share this story about my mother because I believe that our personal histories of violence inscribe a trajectory in our lives that determines how we deal with violence when it hits home again.   Violence always hits home again. And the failure to fully face the hot pain of our personal histories of violence compounds with age. How do we fail the people closest to us—our girlfriends, our ex-lovers, our children—when we cannot and do not do right by women in our community who have experienced sexual violence? I am constantly guided by this question: How do we fail our children when we do not face the violence Black women have borne for generations and fail to move, in some real capacity, to arrest this history? I think of my mother’s insistence in sharing her histories of violence with me and her commitment not to shame me as a sexually active young woman. In confronting the shame wielded upon her by her own father, she granted me tremendous freedom, joy, and the permission to explore sexually the first time I fell in love at 16. This is the same freedom I intend to pass on to my own children.

Written by Rachel Zellars


6 thoughts on “Shame and the kinship of sexual violence

  1. I am beyond appreciative for this heartbreaking, soul-buildimg, beautiful sharing. It evoked feelings of reminiscence, yearning for truth, fear of the unknown, and the desire for freedom for all seen and unseen, known and unknown. As I read, I found as much understanding as I felt confusion regarding my own past, and the past experiences of others inextricably linked to my own.

    Thank you, Rachel, for sharing you private experience and your moments of introspection with us. It is valued.

    Liked by 1 person

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