I cried every time I read one of the recent #YesAllWomen tweets. I love, love them. Each #YesAllWomen story brings me closer to telling my own, but mine won’t fit into 140 characters. Most of them don’t, really. They are long stories, and even longer is the conversation about what’s next. What do we do with our trauma, with the scars it leaves? The public conversation has opened to accept women telling the stories of their abuse, harassment, assault, or stalking, but an equal, and often undiscussed part of the tragedy of violence against women is the life-long process of dealing with the lasting results of their trauma. What Meredith Grey would call the “dark and twisty” issues that manifest in every-day life.
When I was a kid, I lived in Pakistan. I have lots of wonderful memories from those years and the beauty of that country, which had both cracked deserts and snow-capped mountains. We lived in a small mountain village in the summers, and I remember clambering up mulberry and apricot trees with my brother and sisters to eat as much fruit as we could before being scolded by Api, our stooped, 90-year-old Pakistani “grandmother,” to get down and stop eating the whole harvest before we get so bloated we fall down and pop.
In the arid capital city, where my family lived in the winters when snow took over the village, I remember street food—the smells of coriander and chilies and sweat and sour meat, the sounds of bicycle delivery men hawking their wares of buffalo milk and cotton candy and cheap plastic toys. I remember sitting with my friends and painting our hands and feet with fragrant mehndi for parties, and I remember watching from the balcony as colorful kites filled the orange evening sky during kite fighting tournaments. I remember sleeping on cushions on the living room floor—all us kids and mom and dad—because it was the only air conditioned room in the house and it was 100 degrees outside at night.
Coming from a context where I was the racial minority, and moving to Minnesota, I realized very quickly the many and pervasive privileges that being white gives me in this country. While being a white kid in a non-white country did have some perks, like the swimming pool at the American embassy, my childhood in Pakistan was also fraught with memories of feeling uncomfortably foreign. Being a blond, white girl in a brown country meant that I was always, by default of my skin and gender, on display—a public commodity.
When my sister and I were seven and ten, we had two teenage next-door neighbor boys who liked to stand on their porch, across from our big bedroom windows and stare at us any time we walked through our room. They called out jeers or made lewd gestures whenever they saw us, and stayed there into the evening, so the only way to avoid them seeing us change for bed was to crouch down under the windowsill and change with all the lights off. Our parents talked to their parents, but the mild scolding they got didn’t dissuade them from their nightly entertainment. Eventually, my dad put up thick, bamboo blinds, but still as an adult I feel nervous going to sleep without curtains closed and doors locked.
My parents were sacrifice-everything-live-in-poverty-move-to-the-ends-of-the-earth missionaries. Not the Poisonwood Bible-esque pastors you might expect. I didn’t grow up with language barrier altar calls and holy spirit slash evil spirit tribal conflicts. They were Bible translators, not church-planters. My dad spent all day typing at the kitchen table, books and manuscripts scattered around him, and my mom illustrated the ethnography he published. My parents were academics, not pastors, but they took their presence in Pakistan seriously, and wanted to live a life that embodied Christian respect, hope, and joy. Most of the Pakistanis that we encountered and befriended were amazingly hospitable, kind and respectful people. That’s why it’s been hard to sort through these hard memories.
When I got into my preteen years, it became ritual that I would come downstairs ready to go wherever we were going, and my dad would tell me to go change, that I knew I couldn’t leave the house “dressed like that.” I had put a lot of effort into my Aaliyah-inspired mini-T and baggy jeans, but suddenly I would feel ashamed at the implied immodesty of my dress. I would back upstairs, frustrated and confused, to root around in my room until I found a roomy salwar kameez with a dopatta, or veil that would be draped over my tiny breasts, or at least a shirt that hung down past my butt. I had to be modest.
My dad wasn’t trying to shame me; he was trying to protect me, and he had to. I remember walking through the crowded marketplace with my dad right behind me, uncomfortably close, carrying a long, closed umbrella even though monsoon season was four months away. He literally carried an umbrella to be able to defend me from men who felt free to pinch, brush up against, and grab women and girls’ bodies in public, only to quickly turn away and melt into the crowd, anonymous and respectable again. As far as I know my dad never actually did hit a Pakistani man to keep him away, but he wasn’t able to stand behind me all the time and pinching fingers and slapping palms on my thirteen-year-old ass were common.
I should clarify—this kind of thing happened way too often—to me, to my mother (when she didn’t have her kids or a man with her), to all the white women we knew (and many of the non-white). We stuck out, we were gaudy, and we were hard to understand, hard to respect. We resembled American actors in our whiteness, and so it was assumed that we resembled their characters in our sexual availability.
I remember my mom telling me to “walk like you’re a millionaire, like you don’t even see the men staring at you, walk like you’re the queen of them all.”
Because of these experiences, I have some body issues. For example, I feel pretty awkward when I’m naked with someone else, not only because of the normal things—giddiness, nervousness—but because for as long as I can remember I’ve felt vaguely ashamed of being on display. I want to be wanted, but I feel guilty when I am.
I have some social anxiety issues. Like when I’m stuck too close to a male-bodied person on a bus or in a line, I’m always running through escape and self-defense strategies in my mind. For a long time I would instinctively cover my ass with my bag or hands. I never give them the benefit of the doubt. My knee-jerk reaction is always fear and self-protection. Always.
I have some race issues. Brown-skinned, male-bodied people are intimidating to me. Older men are intimidating to me. Men my age are intimidating to me.
You know, embarrassing, dark and twisty issues.
For a long time, I didn’t know what to do with these fears and prejudices, and I had a hard time talking or putting into written word what had happened to me, because it wasn’t one incident, it was my whole childhood. But I have learned that the only way to move past prejudice or trauma is to name it. So I’ve named mine, and I’ve accepted it.
What I don’t accept is when I can’t stop these issues from controlling my behavior or treatment of other people. I don’t want to be closed off to the person I love, so I try to welcome their attention, and most of the time I feel safe, because I always am. I don’t accept it when I catch myself responding with closed off body language or avoidance to a person because of their color or gender, so sometimes I make a beeline for the most intimidating person in the room, and make myself smile and shake their hand.
I don’t accept the urgent anxiety that still bubbles up in my throat when I’m in that line or on that bus, so I force myself to make eye-contact and be pleasant. I hate the fear that’s a result of my childhood interactions with some particular brown-skinned, male-bodied people that lived across the planet from where I live now, and I’m going to continue doing my damndest not to let it determine who I speak to, how I act, or how I treat any person or group.
Overcoming prejudice and healing from violence is a helluva lot of work, but it’s work that starts with telling our stories. The hard ones, the ones that left us with scars. It might begin with telling your best friend or a 140-character tweet. And the next step, the longer step, is sorting out how those scars make us act and think, and deciding to let them, or not.