Queer Writing on Surviving
Edited by Mattilda a.k.a. Matt Bernstein-Sycamore
Harrington Park Press, 2004
Dangerous Families is a ground-breaking book: an anthology of writings by queer survivors of childhood abuse.
People have only been speaking out publicly in great numbers about abuse for a few decades, and been allowed mainstream visibility to talk about this for even less time, perhaps twenty years.
For much of that time, the discussion was moderated by therapists analyzing people's experiences, as in The Flock or The Minds of Billy Milligan, or as currently happens on talk shows like the loathsome Sally Jessy Raphael. In fact, old-timers in our local Survivors of Incest Anonymous meetings talk about an era when meetings fell apart partly because therapists would come just to goggle at the survivors who were, inexplicably, getting healing without their help. ("You... talk to other abuse survivors? But... everyone knows that's bad for you! You're just going to get re-traumatized! There should be a therapist guiding the discussion at least!")
Queerness is usually erased from the discussion, too, except for the unfortunate and now-rare occasions in which a mental health professional of some kind is attempting to "blame" queerness on abuse. Because, you see, they're both so rare. And sexual. (Never, oddly, because they're both so common.) And as a result of this, for some people it became forbidden to talk about being queer and being raped, for fear of reinforcing that farcical link and helping reduce a community to some Freudian wet dream.
Furthermore, most if not all writing about abuse is partitioned off: it is just about child sexual abuse, or specifically about domestic violence, or focusing on spanking. There is a sense that we must deal with our problems one at a time, a societal tendency to "divide and conquer" - a tactic which never serves anyone but the abusers, regardless of the milieu in which it is being used.
And maybe most importantly, the little speaking and writing about abuse allowed is usually limited to white women - or really, to straight, able-bodied, affluent white women. The effects of abuse and the silence around it pose two more barriers to communities which already have many hurdles between them and writing and publishing and the visual media. On top of that, there is a perception that abuse is already weird enough - we don't need to alienate people more by talking about male survivors, survivors of color, queer survivors, Deaf survivors, working-class transgendered Latina ritual abuse survivors... mainstream culture, in the United States at least, reduces these different communities to the punch lines of anti-P.C. jokes.
Dangerous Families breaks all of those unspoken rules.
And a good thing, too. It is difficult to effectively break the rule of silence surrounding all abuse while sticking to all the other rules that keep us in line.
Dangerous Families is an amazing collection of essays for more reasons than those. Those are all the political reasons to read it; the personal are just as compelling.
It is a book full of stories in which the authors tell nothing but the truth, bold and clear and direct, the truth as it is right this minute. Some of the authors' stories have arced up and down all the way into safety and healing; others are caught in the middle of figuring it all out, in chaos, or on some other bump or valley in the journey. In that way it offers both recognition and hope to its readers.
So whenever that magic moment came when I needed to slide over on the couch or run my hand down her ass, I felt like I was becoming her perp. It shocked the shit out of me when I started having friends who touched one another casually. It shocked me when I popped my cherry a second time, casually sleeping with a not-friend. "Fuck, this is weird," I remember thinking, "he's not leaving his body." And neither was I.
- leah lakshmi piepzna-samarasinha, "gonna get my girl body back"
In the introduction, the editor observes all that is left out of writing on childhood abuse and talks about how it we need "literature that focuses on something more than the time line of events, the feelings involved, and the process of recovery
There is another book, called The Memory Bird, which collects personal writings about abuse. It focuses specifically on sexual abuse, but it is similar to this in many ways, as a collection solely of people's thoughts and experiences instead of a prescription for life. I remember, when I first read it, how intensely struck I was by seeing my experiences and opinions echoed in the words of a few other survivors halfway around the world. It was amazing.
Dangerous Families serves a similar purpose with a wider scope. It can be difficult to read, particularly with its wider range of abuses: the more abuse is involved, the more readers are likely to see themselves reflected therein. There will be people who never thought of what happened to them as abuse before, and people who thought they had "dealt with it," who find that something in them is opened up by reading this book. For those who are willing to see that part of themselves, this anthology can bring amazing fellowship and revelations about life.
The editor goes on to comment that,
"I always conceived of Dangerous Families as an anthology of non-fiction stories that goes beyond the recovery narrative to create a new queer literature of investigation, exploration, and transformation.... These stories... go right to the horror, the beauty, and the joy, often throwing the reader off guard, revealing layers of meaning before the reader can step back. As survivors, we become hyperaware; our vigilance enables us to dissect everything."
This anthology has definitely achieved its goal. Each piece packs in powerful layers of experience and imagery, asking for multiple readings. As a whole, the layers of pieces and experiences and identities add up to something densely packed, multi-dimensional, world-changing, and amazing.
Eli Clare's work, always lush and powerful in this way, goes even farther in this anthology, and serves as a good example of how much is contained within:
What I have to tell makes language a club, a bludgeon, sticks and stones wielded against advancing tanks and trucks. Yes, a weapon. Not even a tool, much less the snow tracings of the last wet storm before spring, bending the boxwood, elderberry, scrubby pine almost double. A story, yet another story.
Last night at the theater Jeffrey Dahmer's voice came alive in one brilliant monologue - that black gay performance artist, cross-gendered and beautiful, leading us from hair salon to drum to Jeffrey's seductive murder of black boys. I fled the building, bolting from the memory of blood. Dahmer the lone crazy man taking his full.
Let me tell you, my father was Jeffrey Dahmer. Jeffrey lived in my hometown over and over again. Too many people to count. We drank blood, decorated our bodies with blood, shaped symbols in blood. Human blood, animal blood. Sometimes I wake up in the deep of night, that taste still on my lips.
This book is incredible and important: important for survivors to read to see they are not alone, important for survivors of any kind of abuse to see the commonalities between abuse of all kinds, important for people who have never been abused in any way
to read to understand their friends and loved ones and the world in which we live. Read it piece by piece, slowly, read it in giant gulping banquets, read it alone, read it with support, but definitely, as soon as you can. Read it.