A brilliant new and different way of honoring women’s voices is taking place. It’s being done by That’s What She Said in Denver, Colorado. Jamie Newton, Founder and Hannah Smith, Senior Producer explain:
“We collect stories from women of experiences they had that were based on gender (or their courage to not conform to one). The stories are short and long and hilarious and unnerving and all of the things in between. They need to be heard, and they need to be heard not just by those of us who have catalogues of the same; they need to be heard by those who don’t normally listen. We think we found the way.
The stories we've collected, left written in the first person, are handed to a different reader just before he walks on stage. One by one, those men open their envelopes and read a woman’s experience—out loud, for the first time, to the audience.”
At the TWSS April 12, 2019 sold out event they gave an excerpt from my book to Mark Newton. Two weeks later I asked Mark what that experience was like for him. He told me:
When I was reading these words for the first time — in front of people without any knowledge of what’s in the next sentence — I wanted to change them, to create a different outcome. I don’t want anyone to have to go through this. I know I couldn’t. I was there to read them as the author intended, to hear her — and to do my best to understand and respect her story and to honor her for telling it.
I sure do wish I could have been there, seen that. At least I can share a bit of the experience here through the above photos and the excerpt Mark read:
From Healing My Life from Incest to Joy, Pages 153 to 157
When my brother decided I was lying about the incest, the bottom fell out. The little shit. How dare he choose to believe our father’s denial of the abuse I said happened? How dare he look at me with disdain and judgment? I changed his goddamned diapers and helped him learn how to walk.
But there was an even greater consequence. With every step David took away, not only ceasing to communicate with me but refusing to let me have any contact with his children, my mother froze. She stayed frozen as he returned gifts I’d sent the kids – unopened, stamped “return to sender.”
Each time he rejected me Mom would say things like, “I don’t understand what’s gotten into him. It’s terrible what he’s doing to you.” Finally, with a good measure of trepidation, I confronted her with it, “Well, Mom, if you think it’s terrible, why don’t you say something to him?”
“Oh, Donna, I could never do that. I couldn’t bear risking him taking my grandchildren from me.” And I thought to myself, “But you’d risk losing MY daughter.”
And with that exchange a rage welled up in me that reached all the way back to my childhood. Just as she hadn’t stood up for me against my father’s mistreatment, she was repeating the same behavior now by not standing up to my brother. All the pent up grief and anger towards my mother I denied having all my life came crashing forth like gangbusters. The two places I went for help to work this pain out of my system were with Proprioceptive writing and EMDR therapy.
I went, in a matter of months, from being madly in love with my mother to being mad. Losing that loving feeling left me and my inner child gasping. It was amazing to get to age forty-eight thinking I’d done all my inner work on surviving incest only to discover I was only half-way there.
Even before the rapes started I grabbed on and held tight to the idea that Mom was the good one and Dad the bad. It helped me through decades of nightmares and hopelessness; this idea that at least there was some good in the world – my mother.
It was riveting to wake up to see, to admit to myself, that Mom had not protected me from Dad’s abuse. The fantasy wall I’d built around Mom and me started to crack and crumble. Truth landed like an enemy rocket on the edge of our foxhole, blasting my cozy pretending into smoke and dust.
* * *
The second worst thing about the incest, beyond it happening in the first place, is what my family did upon learning about it – or didn’t do. The aunts and uncles who took whatever sliver of information they smelled and buried it in their back yards next to the dog bones. My brother taking the story, my story, and throwing it into the bonfire of his rage. I still wonder from time to time – does he ever think of me? Does he ever wonder if he made a mistake believing our father? Does he ever regret exiling me from himself and his children?
This saga of coming out to my family ended with two final phone calls on the subject, one from Mom and one from Dad.
Mom’s call came while I was in the kitchen. Telling the truth about the incest was only a month or two old. I was stirring something on the stove, holding the phone receiver to my ear with my shoulder, when my hand holding the spoon froze. What did she just say?
Did she say, “Oh Donna, I wish you had told us years ago – not now with your father racked with cancer, so sick he can’t do anything about it.”
Breathe. That’s what I told myself to do. Breathe, first. And then slowly – don’t get ahead of yourself, just tell the truth.
“Mom, do you see that you are blaming me for this?”
“Well, dear, I’m not blaming, I’m saying what I wish.”
“Mom, I wish you could see that the blame belongs to Dad for what he did – not to me for telling.”
The last time I spoke to my father was two weeks before he died. He called me. Here’s how I describe it in [my one woman] play.
- One night I’m in my bedroom. Phone rings.
- It’s Dad. He says my name, “Donna,” he’s slurring. He sounds drunk. But he stopped drinking 30 years ago.
- And how’d he get on the phone? Mom told me hospice put him on crisis watch round the clock and on a morphine drip.
- His halting raspy voice slides through the receiver, “Donna, I called because, I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching and I want to tell you that I’ve come to a place where I can forgive you for all you’ve done to hurt our family.”
- My knees give out. I drop to the bed.
- “Donna, did you hear me? I said I forgive you.”
I pulled the receiver away from my face, looked at it for a moment then quietly set it down in its cradle and folded myself into a fetal position.
A part of me wishes I had hung up the minute I heard his voice. But another part is glad I hung on and listened. It became a stark memory to hold on to every time someone asks me about forgiving my father. That query shows up a lot. Or I get asked my opinion about forgiveness in general. Lucky for me Judith Lewis Herman wrote the best response to this in her book Trauma and Recovery:
[The idea] of forgiveness often becomes a cruel torture, because it remains out of reach for most ordinary human beings. Folk wisdom recognizes that to forgive is divine. And even divine forgiveness, in most religions, is not unconditional. True forgiveness cannot be granted until the perpetrator has sought and earned it through confession, repentance and restitution.
Genuine contrition in a perpetrator is a rare miracle. Fortunately, the survivor does not need to wait for it. Her healing depends on the discovery of restorative love in her own life; it does not require that this love be extended to the perpetrator. Once the survivor has mourned the traumatic event, she may be surprised to discover how uninteresting the perpetrator has become and how little concern she feels for him, but this disengaged feeling is not the same as forgiveness. (p. 190)
Herman’s forgiveness trifecta is right on: confession, repentance and restitution. In all the “forgiveness” stories I’ve heard from other survivors, every once in a while I hear a perpetrator confessed, a few say there was repentance, but I don’t believe I’ve heard of any restitution. What would that look like? How about offering to pay all the therapy bills?
I’ve come to see forgiveness as a process. When I am harmed and tell the one who harmed me of how I feel, if the transgressor offers up a sincere, heartfelt apology, forgiveness automatically wells up, practically unbidden. And since my father never asked for forgiveness I haven’t forgiven him – nor can I, since he’s dead.
But I have worked hard at getting to a place of acceptance. This acceptance is a releasing of the yearning for the past to be different. Pieces, and sometimes chunks, of my yearning were released through all the healing experiences [I describe in my] book. Ultimately this acceptance brings a solid sense of peace and reconciliation: I was born to a father who was unequipped to be a loving father and a mother unable to protect me. That’s just the way it was.