Friday, January 30, 2009

The Divine Secrets

My Mom and I went to see that movie, "The Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood," one summer long ago, after swapping the book back and forth. We showed up at the old clapboard building that held the small theater one damp summer evening, one of many pairs of women, mothers and daughters, girlfriends; all laughing and talking quietly. In the dim space of the theater, we became a tribe; a tribe who had all passed through the same rites of passage and were gathered together to offer solace and to celebrate.

I have never been fluent in all the languages of women. At first I was oblivious to them, lost in my own inner world of books and imagination, following all those haunting paths in my mind. If I played, I played with the boys, fiercely and with no self consciousness, or in groups.

Slowly I became aware that the other girls were speaking a language that I not realized I needed to learn. This was about the time I started developing hips, to my complete disgust, and could no longer run unimpeded. The other girls had catch phrases, their language was peppered with interesting colorful things, they roamed around in small groups, flicking their hair, shining in the sun. They laughed a lot.

I felt ungainly, I felt that my tongue was forever glued to the top of my mouth. I felt torn; should I be interested in what interested them? Was I snob if I was not; was I forever destined to be a late bloomer? It was fine back in first grade, when my gentle teacher sent me off to repeat that grade in a larger school, with the book, "Leo the Late Bloomer," clutched close to my chest.

And there I did learn to read, but also to run off shouting to the deserted tire jungle gym with Noah, a boy with intriguingly long hair and an imagination that rivaled my own. And the jungle gym became a dragon and we would ride around in the belly of the beast without fear.

In my first and only year in a public high school, I was even more lost than before. I imagined that the entire building was a space station and when the bell rang at three in the afternoon, all that bustle was the space station preparing to deploy to far off star systems, everyone suiting up and focused on their mission.

By then I had given up blooming at all, I was destined it seemed forever to be lost in space. The other girls by now had formed tight, ever shifting bonds of friendship that appeared to have multiple layers. If I attempted to step into them, I felt the ground always shifting under my feet.

Did she mean what she said? Why was she looking at me as though for a response? What one should I give? I was not good at being empathetic, I thought in clear terms, black and white, my mouth either uttered forth the bald truth or nothing at all; mostly nothing. This did me no favors.

I remember lying awake in the night at summer camps, hearing the whispered confessions of other girls in the cozy companionship of the dark. Sleepless, I lay awake, strangely mute. I'm certain now that this inability to speak is the result of my sexual abuse.

It came over me last week at the dentist; I sat there mute in the seat, unable to question the dentists discussing my case. I knew it must have been something powerful because I was thirty one years old and I couldn't speak. When I did speak, at last, it was as though I were finally breaking through the surface of dense water; my voice came out as though I were gasping for air.

And this makes sense to me now because the abuse began when I was three, just when language was beginning. When this feeling comes over me now, it comes over me with a feeling of desperate danger; as though if I were to make a noise, the terrible unknown would come washing up over me and my survival depended upon crouching down, motionless, like a rabbit under a hedge.

Of course this didn't save me, but the instinct toward it has never fully left. It made navigating the pitfalls of puberty even more treacherous than usual. I home schooled for two and a half years after my freshman year. For two winters I was blissfully on my own; I made up weather charts in watercolor, I spent hours in my room typing up long, long fantasies on the electric typewriter that gave me such a headache. I took my dog Samwise out with me into the winter cold to walk the deserted and ice rimed roads, beside the listening woods.

For my senior year, I decided I wanted to actually graduate; I was beginning to worry about my future, looming at me suddenly over the horizon. My parents and I choose a private Christian school and I did well academically. I made straight As, even in my dreaded speech class. Even though anxiety ate away at my stomach so terribly that sometimes I had to stand outside on the cold front steps, forcing myself to gag down an apple so I would have something in my system.

I lasted only half a year. One night I lay quietly on my bed and told my father in a quiet voice that I wasn't going to go to that school anymore and if they made me go, I would sit in the library and not move and they could come and yell at me all they wanted to.

And they did yell, those teachers, I have a vivid memory of the speech teacher shouting at me for ten minutes straight; I don't remember what he said, I remember his face red and distorted, his open mouth gleaming and the utter silence around me as the rest of the class sat with lowered head and pretended not to hear.

When I left, one of the teachers said something to my parents that I've never forgotten. She said, "The other girls made gestures of friendship to her, but she never responded."

And I thought, almost with desperation, When? When had this happened, and what had it looked like? Why was it that I had never seen it? I knew she must be telling the truth and what disturbed me so much was that I hadn't even had a hint of them. It was then that I knew my isolation from the ways of women was complete. Not only could I not speak the language, I couldn't even recognize it as words.

I'm still trying to unravel these mysteries, still trying to harness and recognize the sound of my own voice. In written word, I am fluent and powerful, confident. But in individual interactions, I still flounder.

My boss stood by my desk and vented for almost an hour. "I'm telling you these things because I guess I want advice," she finally said desperately. And I clutched at this rope as though drowning; I had sat listening, my bewilderment growing, as she went on and on.

I still question myself; is this what I wish to say? Is this my own voice, or the voice of those around me? What is it that I wish to create or to cause with my voice? And I write this out because I have a sneaking suspicion; I suspect that every woman has wondered about her voice, what she was saying, if she would ever be understood and even in the midst of friends and close society, felt alone.

Maybe the divine secret is merely that we are not alone with our insecurities and accumulated damages. Maybe the divine secret is that we all have our own language and each one is powerful and beautiful. And so I choose to write mine out loud.


d.a.r. said...

Can you please write a book? You have such an amazing and powerful voice.

T said...

Somehow you always manage to reach down into the depths of my emotion and pull out tears that I've tried like hell to stifle.

You are amazing, Jenny. And you are definitely speaking for all women when you write this.

Even though I was always (and still am) the social butterfly, I am well trained in being a chameleon. I play my role well, I sense what I'm supposed to say or do and I do it. I am a pleaser.

But that doesn't mean that the chameleon or the butterfly is who I really am.

Being well versed at reacting tends to place the true "me" in the shadows. And your writing, coaxes her our every time.

Thank you for that.

Libby said...

Very well written and absolutely well put :) I'm with should write a book :)

. Becca . said...

Yep! I'd buy your book ;)

Annie said...


I can remember those middle years of being wedged out of peer groups, too.

The pessimist in me wants to say that even if we have shared or similar feelings, we're alone in anguish, maybe because we want to be, maybe because we can't believe things are similar for other people, maybe because those individual languages are so hard to translate.

But that will just lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I have to believe in something better.