Here is a story no one wants to hear.
But first, a dream.
I usually wake in the morning with a mind full of nighttime secrets. There have been events, dreams, full narratives happening while my body slept; I know it. My nighttime mind, however, will not reveal these stories to my daytime brain. Usually. Every now and then, something slips through.
This dream—or fragment of a dream—is vivid.
I was in a large, beautiful bedroom with my sister and a friend. We were in bikinis, dancing around, looking at clothes. It felt like we were getting ready for something, like prom. All of a sudden, someone else was there: an elderly man, but not the kind that smiles vaguely and hands out peppermints. No, he was clearly the creepy, leering kind. And he was leering. My sister and friend didn’t seem to mind, or even notice. They ignored him and kept doing their thing. But I noticed. I minded. I ran into the closet and pulled the heavy, mirrored, gold-trimmed doors closed. They wouldn’t shut all the way, and the leering man was able (somehow) to peer down over the door. I cowered and tried to cover myself and sobbed and screamed. No one moved, no one noticed, no one cared; then I woke up.
What does it mean? I have a few ideas.
But I was never abused. I’ve never been raped. I have no shadowy predatory figures lurking in my past.
But I do have fear and shame, and it’s somehow connected to the body: my body.
What it is, what it means, what it can do, what it feels. How vulnerable it is. How it can be undone. How it can be used against me. How—with a look, a sneer, a word—it can become something alien, a weapon, a knife grabbed and pointed back at me, plunged into my own being.
A few days later, I was on the beach with my family and some friends when a man joined our circle. We all know him.
I avoid him.
I avoid him because—around him—I have the same feeling I had about that predatory figure in my dream.
I listen to these sorts of feelings.
Whenever he is around, I want to hide. On this occasion, I wrapped up in my towel and told myself to chill the fuck out. It’s a public beach. What am I going to do, exclude him from our circle for potentially making me uncomfortable?
So I sat back, sunglasses on, and settled in for some horizon gazing and monosyllabic responses.
He began telling a story.
As a young teenager, he was walking home one day when he met some girls. They were beautiful, a little older. He was young and full of hormones. They noticed his reaction and, instead of mocking him… Well, this is where the story got fuzzy.
“They just… they jumped on me,” he said. “Like that. All three of them! And all my clothes: gone! And…you know what happens…”
He was recounting the story like a great adventure, an adolescent achievement, a sexual triumph. But his tone of voice didn’t match his story.
I stopped protecting myself long enough to look at this man, and I saw him: a young, newly teenaged boy. I saw confusion and shame wrap around him, like the towel I’d wrapped around my body. I heard the uncertainty in his laughter: can it really be bad if I… kind of liked it? If I didn’t know what to do? If I didn’t stop it, somehow?
Some sixty-odd years ago, on a dusty side road, three girls—a little older, a little smarter, a lot more confident—took something from a boy. And ever since, that boy has been trying to take it back.
Or maybe nothing like that happened at all. Perhaps he made it up, wished it would happen, fantasized.
Or perhaps he tells this story to avoid other, darker stories. To deflect attention. To get a reaction.
Or maybe it was a dream. A fragment, snatched from sleep. An echo, a message.
We are all trying to avoid the feeling of powerlessness.
You know the feeling. It creeps up and waits, striking randomly. It sinks deep into you. It tells you stories that you try not to hear.
I walked across our stretch of beach and into the water, leaving my towel on the sand.
I can still cover myself, if I want to—that’s my right—but it’s not going to replace what I lost, at some point long ago. A sense of power, of autonomy, of absolute fucking authority over my own sexuality.
I dove down, scraped my fingers across the sand, looked at the blue wavering world around me. Things shift down there. It is hard to focus, to catch what floats by. It is easy to be afraid. I surfaced and took in all the air I could hold, dove back down. Down, down, all the way down, to the shifting floor of that internal ocean, all the way through the layers of grit and seaweed to the solid, cold, dark stone.
Our helplessness does not come from what has been done to us. It comes from our fear that we will never be able to undo it. It comes because we do not believe that we can heal ourselves.
We are afraid of what it takes to be healed.
We don’t want to dive into those shifting layers of pain. We don’t want to go back to the wound, the confusion, the terror. We don’t want to lose again what we already lost.
We fear that the pain of healing will be worse than the original wound. It does hurt. But when we dive in, what we find is not loss. We find, instead, what we thought was lost: our autonomy. Our innocence. Our beauty. Our worth. Our openness. Our desire. Our power.
What gets taken from us is not our power, but our sense of it.
Our closeness to it.
When we break down all those layers of pain and hiding, we come close to it again. We face the terror and we heal ourselves: that is our power, and it can never be lost.