Tag Archives: trauma

On Mining Yourself

Black and white pen and ink drawing of a young woman old woman optical illusion for Mining Yourself post by Malin James

Young Woman, Old Woman Optical Illusion by W.E. Hill (1915)

I’ve always loved this image. Is it a picture of a young woman or a crone? Even when I was little, I saw them fluctuate, like a portrait under water, equally young and old. It’s a powerful visual metaphor, one my brain seized on well before I could understand why.

I’ve always split my writing time between fiction and essays. Recently, though, the balance has tipped and I’m  leaning into fiction as I focus on a collection I care a great deal about. That said, project-love isn’t the only reason for the shift in focus.

While there is, inescapably, a lot of me in those stories, there’s a distance in the writing that I need right now. Fiction is, and always will be, fiction, no matter how much of the writer informs the narrative.

The nonfiction I tend to write, especially for this blog, doesn’t have that natural buffer. Everything I write here takes on an inherently personal bent, whether I’m ranting about sexual history calculators or exploring different aspects of non-monogamy. Even when I don’t draw directly from my own experiences, my opinions and history inform those posts to a massive degree. While I usually lean into that level of transparency, my boundaries are higher right now, which makes that transparency hard.

I’m going through an odd time. Things that are fundamental to who I am as a person are shifting and changing, like the young woman and the crone. I grew up affected by a trauma I couldn’t process, and the effects of that trauma unknowingly molded my childhood, my relationships and even my sense of self. Over the course of the past 10 months, I’ve begun to unpack the issues I’ve avoided for 35 years. As a result, my internal landscape is shifting, sometimes quite suddenly. It’s terrifically destabilizing – on some days. On other days it feels great. But the swing between the two is both constant and erratic, so I’m extremely hesitant to write about it. Yet.

In order for me to write well, I need distance and perspective. Venting feels good (oh, so very good), but if I don’t broaden my understanding I run the risk of ranting aimlessly or navel-gazing or, even worse, both. No one likes a ranty navel-gazer so I try not to mine myself until I’ve gained some insight. That’s why I didn’t write about this or this for more than a decade, even though I did (and still do) have plenty to say.

That’s the key, for me, to writing personal essays. While nonfiction takes a thousand different forms, my natural approach is to mine myself for material and (hopefully) create something that connects with a reader in some kind of meaningful way. This often means that the most immediate, difficult or overwhelming situations (the ones I tend to want to vent about) are best left alone until I understand the lay of the land.

At the moment, my emotional landscape is the sort of primordial jungle that guys in pith helmets get lost in. Except for scrawling in my journal, writing about any of it would, in the end, make me feel worse. The young woman and the crone might use the same hand, but they write from different perspectives. Anything I say now will very likely shift given time and emotional clarity. Writing is a way to pin my thoughts down. That’s a hard thing to do when they will very likely change.

Eventually, I’ll put enough distance between myself and this mine of material but, for now, there’s little I could say that would be of use to anyone but myself. I admire writers who produce beautiful, cogent essays in the middle of great stress. It’s a magnificent talent, one I quite notably lack. My strengths lie in hindsight, and hindsight takes time, so I’m leaning on fiction and quiet…at least, I am for now.

On Mining Yourself was inspired in large part by this post by Honey at Happy Come Lucky. If you’re looking for perspective and clarity, there are few bloggers as gifted as she is. I wholeheartedly recommend you check it out. 

On Complicity

Abstract painting of Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp for On Complicity by Malin James

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp

TW: Rape, Assault, Public Shaming

A Quick Note: It’s important to say that my sympathy for Chrissie Hynde extends only so far as the statements she made regarding her own sexual assault. She lost me when she started making comments about women “enticing rapists” by “wearing something that says, ‘Come and fuck me.’”

Last October, Chrissie Hynde published an autobiography detailing her life as the lead singer of The Pretenders. What set Reckless apart from other rock memoirs was that it included Hynde’s account of her rape and assault by a gang of bikers at the age of twenty-one. Although her tone is matter-of-fact to the point of detachment, it’s clear that this was a violent act. And yet, in a number of follow-up interviews, Hynde repeatedly claims “full responsibility” for her assault. That’s when things got interesting.

The outcry against what was seen as Hynde’s self-imposed victim blaming was immediate and intense. Unfortunately, rather than clarify her stance by explaining that claiming complicity in her own assault did not extend to a victim’s complicity in general, Hynde doubled down. That’s where all hope of discourse got lost.

Complicity is a complicated issue. In fact, it shares its Latin root with complicated. (Isn’t that cool? <End geekery>) The problem with Hynde was that her media presence blurred the line between taking responsibility for yourself and asking for it, which is dangerous, especially when a celebrity is doing the blurring. It was a great opportunity for discussion but, unfortunately, the many, many, many ways in which people cope with trauma were lost in the coverage. That’s important because Hynde’s claim of “full responsibility” is one of them.

Coping mechanisms exist for a reason. While they’re rarely healthy in the long-term, in the short-term, they can make the difference between surviving or giving up. Acknowledging one’s complicity can be empowering, but it can also be seriously damaging. What’s even worse is that it can do both simultaneously. Because of that, it’s easy to misinterpret complicity and, even worse, to misapply it. So, let’s talk about complicity. How does it function, for good and for ill?

At it’s most basic, complicity is a way of making something that isn’t okay, okay.

Remember when you were a kid, and you wanted pie but your mom said no? You might have said something like Fine. I don’t want pie anyway. That “fine” is a form of complicity. In this case, you abdicated your desire for pie because you weren’t getting any. BUT I’ll bet your desire for pie didn’t disappear just because you denied it. That cross-section between what you say and how you feel is where complicity gets tricky. At what point does complicity override the reality of the narrative? Put another way, when do you actually stop wanting the pie, just because you said “fine”?

That’s complicity in a nutshell—everything from the moment you say “fine” to when you honestly stop wanting pie. In my experience, it can happen either in real time or in hindsight. For fun and fairness, I’ll use me as an example. Here is what complicity might look like in real time:

When I was 24, I met this man. I wanted him so much I couldn’t see straight. That’s important—I couldn’t see straight. My perception was totally warped by how much I wanted him, so every time a red flag popped up, I ignored it and told myself that it was okay (ie: Fine. I don’t want pie.).

As his demands became more demanding, I worked harder and harder to justify his behavior because I wanted his approval and I loved him (and because the sex was amazing). That’s where my complicity lies—in all the little ways that I chose to stay, even though I knew the relationship was hurting me.

Am I responsible for the fact that he was a sociopathic fuck? No. I’m not. Am I responsible for having justified myself into staying multiple times? Yes. I am responsible for that—just as I’m responsible for having finally chosen to leave.

My complicity in that relationship is linked to my conscious understanding and the choices that I made based on that understanding. Yes, he manipulated me. But I also manipulated myself, which means that, objectively speaking, I was complicit in his manipulation, albeit to a very limited degree.

It’s the opposite of how I feel about the sexual abuse I experienced when I was four. Unlike what happened when I was an adult, I am in NO WAY responsible for my abuse as a child. No understanding. No choice. No complicity. You can’t have complicity without agency—even if it’s the agency you claim after the fact. Which brings me to complicity in hindsight.

Let’s go back to the situation with my ex.

After I left the relationship, I felt horrible—guilty, weak, powerless, vulnerable–every single emotion that had triggered me for years. Needless to say, it was a very difficult time. In fact, it was so difficult that I couldn’t bear to be in my own skin. That’s when complicity in hindsight set in.

I couldn’t stand the thought of my own helplessness, so I internalized a perverse sense of control by twisting my limited, real-time complicity into a massive sense of self-recrimination. As a result, my internal rhetoric hardened. It shifted from I’m powerless to I’m an idiot; I was dumb enough to stay; I’d played with fire, what did I expect?

This kind of thinking is toxic, but it calmed the panic and cut the feedback loop. And it gave me the sense of power that I desperately needed, even if it was false; even if I was hurting myself with it. What I needed was control over the narrative and, for good or for ill, claiming total complicity did that.

It’s important to underscore something here. Accepting my limited complicity for the choices I made isn’t the same thing as flaying myself with the lie of total complicity (something I did for years). That’s important because it’s the difference between taking responsibility for your choices and abusing yourself. If the devil is in the details, that’s the devil that got missed in the discussion of Chrissie Hynde.

Complicity, like coping, is determined by the individual. If evaluated honestly, it can deepen your understanding and (possibly) help you prevent a similar trauma from happening again. If claimed without perspective, it can do a lot of harm. Complicity is, in every respect, a gray area, one in which self-blame and delusion are horribly destructive, but where clarity is an equally valuable gift. It’s a hard balance to find, and even harder to keep.

At a time when victimization and victim blaming have entered our cultural discourse, it would be good to see less emphasis on the black and white, and more focus on the gray. While it goes against the nature of sound bites and click bait, the anatomy of trauma, and of how people cope with it, require more than a quick flash of outrage before the next headline hits.

Erotic Fiction: Resurrection

I wrote this story nearly two years ago and submitted it to Best Men’s Erotica 2014. I was very new to the genre then, and it was only the third piece of erotica that I’d ever had accepted. Though Burning Books Press very sadly closed its doors before the anthology could be published, I’ve got a real soft spot for this piece. I hope you enjoy. xx.M

Resurrection

Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh & Leslie Banks in 21 Days Together, dir. by Basil Dean. Image courtesy of The Red List.

Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh & Leslie Banks in 21 Days Together, dir. by Basil Dean. Image courtesy of The Red List.

There is a man in a room. He is sitting on a hard-backed wooden chair, one arm held diagonally across his chest. His palm is pressed flat against the opposite shoulder, as if he is trying to keep it in place.

A woman stands behind him. It is her room, her flat, hers and his friend’s…no, not his friend’s. It’s her flat alone. A distant image of shrapnel and a cockpit full of flames tries, briefly, to surface, but it finds no purchase and drifts away. In any event, this room, this flat, is the only place he knew to go.

The woman, his friend’s sweetheart, now his widow, is tall and lean, a bit underfed. She holds a pair of scissors in her hand and is shearing off the man’s dark, lank hair, which has grown to unaccustomed lengths since his capture and release. Just past the collar. This is an estimate, of course. He hadn’t worn a collar in months.

Lift, snip, lift, snip. Her nimble fingers are gentle, as if she is removing layers of harm with every cut, revealing the man’s once untarnished future as she reveals the column of his neck. He is surprised by her gentleness. He’s known her only as his dead friend’s wife; competent, distant, impossible to know. He himself is impossible to know. He understands how one becomes this way, and doesn’t begrudge it in her.

Snip, snip, snip.

She lays the shears on the table in front of him. Its only other contents are a paper-thin towel and the cracked, oval mirror that he’d made himself confront the moment he sat down. A ragged ghost had stared back at him. Dead eyes. Not a man to know. At least now, with his hair cut short again, he looks more like himself. Himself as a corpse. He smiles, a cold stretch of lips over teeth. He’s seen plenty of corpses look worse.

She runs her narrow hands through his new-cut hair, sending stray, brown tufts floating to the ground. He is shocked by how good her fingers feel on his scalp, how unexpectedly erotic. He presses his hand harder into his damaged shoulder, reminding himself of his nearly useless arm and the treatment that had rendered it so. She is his dead friend’s wife. He doesn’t want to intrude. But his skin begins to hum as she moves across the room.

She returns with a mismatched set of shaving things, retrieved from a tiny cupboard above an even smaller sink. The straight razor is old. The soap cracked and dry. She dips the brush into a bowl full of water, before massaging the soap in disciplined circles, coaxing a respectable foam from the long-forgotten cup.

“These were Ben’s,” she murmurs.

He nods. He cannot picture his friend. He’s lost the knack. It’s always shrapnel and fire. He can’t picture what isn’t directly in front of him. He can’t picture much at all. He tries and the failure disturbs him, so he watches her instead. He can only see half of her reflection in the glass. It stops at her collarbones, a few inches above her breasts. She is lean and spare. Almost boyish. The mirror has been leveled to center his image, so that she can see him while she works. Something in his stirs. He wants to see her face.

The thought surprises him. He finds himself imagining her eyes, divining their expression through the angle of her shoulders, the hollow of her throat. She always had serious eyes. Grave. Even on her wedding day, in the courtroom, when he’d stood next to Ben. So serious. Too serious. Not his type. Not then. But now her gravity draws him. He craves those dark, sad eyes. He nearly turns to look – nearly, but does not. She places two fingers on his jaw and steadies his head, as she touches the brush to his cheek.

The shaving soap smells clean and good, so good after weeks in the filthy, dark hole. He inhales once, and then again, thanking a deity he no longer believes in for razors and soap and women who wield them well. She leans past him as she sets the cup aside, giving him the barest hint of her scent. Flowers… lilies? Her breast brushes against his good shoulder as she draws back. It is small and firm, the nipple taut beneath her blouse. His body responds, automatic and intense, a reaction he hasn’t had since his capture.

During his imprisonment, sex had ceased to exist, replaced by more immediate concerns. In the beginning, he had maintained a heroic defiance. Gradually, defiance had given way to the animal will to survive. Finally, all that had been left was the hope to die well. Sex served no purpose in a truncated life, so his body had shut the whole operation down. And so it had remained – until the moment her blouse brushed his naked shoulder, shocking his system to life.

He wants to see her face.

She pauses, holding the blade lightly in her hand. His face is done, and done well, but his neck remains and for the first time since undertaking the task, he can feel her hesitate. He sees her breath hitch in the mirror, a tiny catch. Then she comes around the chair and kneels between his legs. She is tucked in close, so close that her scent surrounds him, dizzying and female, clean. He cannot look at her, for all that he’d wished to moments before.

Disgusted by this weakness, this shyness, he makes himself meet her gaze. She smiles, and it transforms her. He remembers that smile now. It is lovely. She is lovely – as lovely as war is not. He thinks of college and baseball. He thinks of Ben. He shifts, slightly, in his chair.

“Sorry,” she says. “Necks make me nervous. One doesn’t want to slip.”

She guides his head back and to the side, exposing the angle of his throat. Adjusting her hold on the razor, she proceeds with great care, scraping the bristles and lather away, as his pulse begins to pound. He is sure that she can see it. Anyone could. Her breath flutters over his raw, exposed skin, but he remains as still as he can. His eyes grow distant, to compensate. She murmurs softly as she turns his head, but he cannot hear her through the pounding in his ears.

The razor is cold against his feverish skin. One pass. Two. Three. Done. She retrieves the towel without getting up, twisting her hips and leaning in so her trim, narrow waist is pressed, briefly, against his thigh. She takes the towel and pats his skin, clearing off the lather with a quiet, fractured air.

She lingers on his neck, his jaw, his throat. She flushes a delicate pink, and her breath catches, he could swear. He presses his palm hard into his shoulder, to keep from reaching out. Then she looks away, and he is glad he didn’t move. Perhaps he’d been wrong. He’s been wrong before. She stands and retrieves the mirror.

“Done. What do you think?”

She holds up the mirror so he can look at himself more closely. She’s done a good job. No longer a prisoner of war, but a groomed and respectable man. Familiar. Normal, if one avoids looking at his eyes, or his shoulder, or his near-to-useless arm. He clears his throat and nods, unused to talking and unable to find the words.

Outside the window, behind the curtains, sirens begin to scream. He flinches. Appallingly, he flinches. She puts the mirror back and kneels in front of him again. In his mind, he sees a pilot, outlined in smoke. He sees the letter his friend had written to her, the letter he’d had to send. Her hands, the hands that had opened the letter, drift up his torso now, as if to check his shoulder. It is scarred, deeply scarred, by a wound and its careless repair. The flat of his palm is still pressed against the ugly mess, though a part of him wants her to see it. She has, he knows, suffered damage of her own.

Her fingers drift over his wrist as she places his hand on his leg. He allows the manipulation, torn between the instinct to disconnect and the mounting need to feel her living warmth. She drifts closer, watching his eyes, gauging him, giving him time to withdraw. He knows he should, but he can’t. She smells like spring, like life, green and sweet, but her face is a woman’s face. They are not so young anymore. She is no longer his best friend’s girl. She is a woman of her own. And her waist is pressed against the rim of his chair – an inch from his hips and the erection that announces his return to the land of the living.

Her hands skim down to his scarred, naked ribs. She leans in and inhales his scent, her lips a whisper from his. His mouth goes dry and he angles his head, bringing his face close to hers. He can sees the world in her eyes. He sees the shadow of himself, and he knows he is going to kiss her. But she tilts her head and moves lower, past his mouth, until she finds his pulse.

She pauses there, at the hollow of his throat, and he savors the humid tension that thickens the air between them. Then she licks his thudding pulse, running her hot, nimble tongue over his receptive, newly shaved skin. Decency, pain, and memory are crushed. This room is all there is, this room and this woman and the simple need to fuck her.

He gathers her up with his good arm and roughly pulls her close, dragging her up off the floor. Her mouth crashes into his as they rock, precarious, in the chair. Then they are on the ground, their hands frantic, clutching and pulling, until her blouse rips and her buttons scatter. Tiny pearls on the floor.

They are too desperate to enjoy. He falls onto his back, pulling her with him so he can feel her without thinking about his arm. She understands and straddles him, pressing close before moving her hips against his hard, insistent cock. He arches his hips, changing their angle, while his good hand slides up her skirt and pulls her underthings aside in rough, inelegant jerks. When her sex is bare against his palm, she reaches down between them to unbuckle his belt. Her fingers shake. She is coming undone. She is pulling him apart with her need.

He feels the pulse of her, the wet, gorgeous heat of her as he moves his hand so she can rub herself against his naked cock. And then he is in her, thrusting and stroking as she clamps her legs around his waist, pulling him deep, deeper than he would have thought possible, if he’d been able to think at all. He rolls her onto his back, his arm and its limits forgotten. She is strong and full beneath him, and he is blind, lost in her scent, her throaty cries, her slick female heat.

She arches against him, scratching his back and clutching at his shoulders with her strong, desperate hands. Pain lances through him, but he doesn’t care. He loves it, embraces it, bares his teeth and tears into it as it shears through a wall of numbness and despair. He braces himself with his good arm as she buries her face in his neck, murmuring his name. Not his rank. Not his alias. Not God or the devil or angels or saints. Just his name. Then she comes, violently, shuddering in his arms.

He savors it and savors her, feels himself reborn in her clutching, perfect warmth. A second orgasm catches her, close on the heels of the first. It is more than he can bear. After months of stress and pain, he follows her, carried along by the joy of this woman, the only person left who knew him before.

When it is over, they lie on their backs on the floor, panting, unable to move. He feels shattered and restored. A cage inside him has broken – if not the last, then the first. She watches him, hair tumbled, lips swollen, eyes dark and serious. Grave. With an effort, he moves his ruined arm and touches her pale face, and through the numbness in his fingers, he can feel her dampened skin. She smiles her lovely smile and gets up off the floor.

She takes off her slip as she looks at him, rosy and full, not too skinny after all. Kneeling, he rests his head on the edge of her hip and inhales their mingled scents. Then he stands, and she strips him, revealing him in his entirety, scarred but whole. He kisses her, slowly this time, pressing his hips to her hips, his chest to her breast. Then they cross the room to her tiny bed, while sirens wail in the dark of the world.