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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Splintered Into a Thousand Pieces (p. 240)

From chapter "Coercion"

I have to admit I’m pretty fucked up. I keep telling myself I’m one of the lucky ones— thelucky one—and that’s true. I told myself that as I sat on the couch and watched my brothers beaten and humiliated. It could have been me, but it wasn’t. As I watched my sisters cringe in the middle of the room, expectant of the next blow, I told myself I was lucky to only be witness and not victim. I still tell myself I’m lucky. My brother’s epilepsy, from blows to the head, is among the least of his problems. Having been struck so hard that your brain is damaged in that way, how can you ever create a life? Having been formed in a fire of hatred—or is it love, I never can be sure—and refined in a crucible of violence, how can you even think of carrying on? How can you even think, or more to the point, ever stop thinking? Yes, I wasthe lucky one.

It’s hard. Have you wondered that the great scenes of intimacy and ecstasy I’ve described in this book have had as their other the stars, a tree, high jumping? Have you wondered what high jumping taught me about love? And that the romantic partners I’ve described in this book have been peripheral to the discussion: I’ve spoken more of my conversations with coyotes than with lovers. What does that mean? What does it mean that on the night I confronted the politicians I returned to the arms of a tree, and not of a woman?

I have no answers, and feel as though most of the time I don’t even have questions. The questions I do have so often seem simple avoidances of what I feel, and of what I am afraid to feel, underneath.

Until the end of my twenties I had nightmares almost every night. A vampire who slashed my face with a razor as I said to him, “You cannot hurt me.” A doctor who strapped me seated to a wall, then pulled away the seat and spread my legs to rape me. Dream after dream where I escaped danger, only to find myself back where I began, or to find that those I trusted turned out, too, to be vampires. Or rapists. Or murderers. The nightmares have slowed, to perhaps two or three per week.

I often feel as though I’ve forgotten how to fall asleep. I can lie there awake for hours. Not scared, always. Just awake. And when I do fall asleep I often reawaken, probably an average of fifteen to twenty times per night. I am likely as not frightened, yet I am able to fall back asleep. I am thankful for that, or I would not sleep at all.

The first woman I ever dated snuck up behind me once to tickle me. Once. I whirled, fists raised, before I even thought, and my own look of horror that reflected back to me in her face has stayed with me ever since. Of course I did not hit her. I have never hit anyone. But no one sneaks up on me.

I sometimes feel as though the tone of this book is not appropriate. I’m not certain the language is raw enough. My language is too fine, the sentences too lyrical, to describe things neither child nor adult should have to describe at all. As for the atrocities that are not mine but are experienced by others—just today I read a report from Algeria that police routinely pump salt water into political prisoners’ stomachs until they burst, or have prisoners stand naked before a table, testicles on the flat surface, and. . . . they, too, should not have to be described.

But I know also that if I pretend they do not happen by not writing about them, and you pretend they do not happen by not reading about them, the horrors themselves will not go away. Given the numbers, right now somewhere in a torture center in Algeria (or in many other countries) a woman is being gang-raped by guards, and a man is having a hole bored through his leg with an electric drill. Right now in factory farms. . . . It’s not the writing that must change, but the reality.

Writing this book is the hardest thing I have ever done, but so long as I allow myself to remain focused on choosing the words precisely, I can keep myself distracted not only from the difficulty but from the feelings. And keeping ourselves distracted from our feelings is the point of so much of what we do, is it not?

This book is as artificial as any other, and is bound by the laws of cultural production. I allow you to know only what I want you to know of what I know. Even I am allowed to know only a small portion of what I know.

I do not know who I am. When my father came into my room, and I went away—poof—what happened to the part who remained behind? Who is he, and what does he feel? What did he feel? How can I ever make right to him what I put him through by leaving? I know I saved myself, and I do not precisely blame myself, but what of the me I left behind?

I have been splintered into a thousand pieces, and I do not know if I shall ever be whole. I do not even know what wholeness means, and looking around it does not seem that many others do, either.