I have been struggling without my emotional compass for a few weeks now, experiencing very intense but brief bursts of acute emotional awareness, and slipping away again into numbness and dissociation within a mere couple of hours. This has been the emotional context in which the marked majority of my entire life has played out — that I’m not in a safe space where I can feel what’s deeper, and that the only real barrier between myself and my emotions is my skin (which barely suffices to contain me when my emotions are triggered). Thus, it should not surprise anyone if I disclose that I was, for a time, a cutter. Except, not the kind with a razor in hir hands. I used my fingernails. And when I was hospitalized involuntarily for such an event (but not exclusively for that reason), I found a powerful outlet in writing. Which also shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point.
Now one of my other outlets, as well as a powerful tool of self-reclamation, is body modification and ritual body play. I have been dreaming a great deal these days about a suicide hook suspension (note: it is named for what the position looks like, not for the intent with which I am going to be doing it). In my dreams, I am already pierced, and I am euphoric as I begin to pull against the hooks and my body begins to open a doorway to something deeper within me — Fakir Musafar calls this the spirit, Hindu worshippers of Murugan call it the Brahman-Atman, and I think it quite possibly doesn’t have a name as it exists inside me. I think it preceded both my assigned name and the one I have chosen for myself. I don’t know what it is, or if it even ought to have a name, or if giving one would be like putting it in a cage. I just know it’s there, and I know it gives me the strength I need to kick ass, hang and pull from hooks, and take names (including my own). And to take space in a cape. And it is the taking of space that led my thoughts this Friday morning, at my psychiatrist’s office, to discuss my safety in those spaces and in safe spaces.
I need feminism because the entire world is only a safe space for white men. And I need safe spaces because my own body isn’t even safe enough — it still carries the memories of a lifetime of trauma. But safe spaces aren’t always spaces designed around the principle of excluding the presence of phalluses. Often safe spaces are simply where all voices are equally valued (many voices, including my own, are currently under-valued by default), and as such, conversation is not dominated by phallocentrism or white supremacy. I need safe spaces because the saying the word vagina on the Michigan State House floor can get a woman indefinitely banned from speaking, while men continue to speak without impediment, even about issues that pertain exclusively to women. But I had to explain all this to my psychiatrist, who was telling me that when I speak of the idea of a safe space, it sounds to him like I’m struggling with an ideological contradiction. He described a safe space as an impermeable membrane — like skin or a womb — before I realized that he doesn’t understand what a safe space is, except perhaps in terms of the office in which I sit and speak to him. He continued to struggle with the idea after I explained what a safe space is for, and that it is actually meant to be inclusive, rather than exclusive. He described this new conception of the term as a semi-permeable membrane. I half-expected him to start talking about a hymen, but he didn’t.
Instead, he started to talk about the way women talk about her genitals, not realizing that a person assigned to the female sex at birth is often socialized to think of herself as being inherently foul because of the darkness between her legs. She is told from as early on as possible that she can’t say the word vagina — that it’s a “down-there” rather than a vulva or a pussy. She is told she has to let it “air out”. She’s told she’s dirty and disgusting because of it. Then she’s told she’s filthy. Then she’s a bitch. Then a slut. Then a whore. And in my personal experience, what’s next is lovers who make a face like they are about to throw up when they put their mouth on it (if they ever do), but who think they are entitled to ambitious self-less reciprocation on-demand, without complaint or judgment, and without hesitation. When I found a lover who wasn’t out-right revolted by my anatomy, he still felt it necessary to wipe any sign of good health away from the folds of my flesh before he put his face in it — he did this because everything he learned about women’s sexuality, that wasn’t about abstinence or sexually transmitted diseases, was from watching strippers (who use baby wipes before they go up on stage, specifically to satisfy men like him with how clean they are) and porn. And his answer to all of this? Well, it seems Dr. Shrink has never heard someone of The Two X Chromosomes speak so frankly to being socialized as a female from birth before. He said that this often comes from confusion of the vagina with the anus, because of their proximity to each other. When I said “That’s possible,” he actually let a burst of laughter slip out before he said “It’s fact.”
Now I’m trying to understand what he meant by the transmission of this sentiment across the room. Because a vagina isn’t a cloaca. It’s not dirty just because it’s close to that which is generally considered dirty even when it has been thoroughly washed out. But my mind wandered back to one of my earliest memories as I struggled with Dr. Shrink’s words about the ambiguity of my anatomy in the eyes of those who have gazed upon it, put their hands on it, or forced their penis into it. I was three years old. I was covered from my neck to my ankles in yellow flannel, and from my waist down in pink fluffy blanket. My mother stood in the room, and my tiny little dog jumped up on the bed, immediately getting startled by my three-year-old legs. But I wanted to play with my tiny little dog, so I moved my legs apart to make a safe space for her. My father came down the hallway, saw what I was doing, and flew into a fit of rage, shouting “Close your fucking legs!” at three-year-old me. He stormed off, but returned, and shouted at me again. “CLOSE YOUR FUCKING LEGS!” I remember feeling utterly terrified for my life, terrified of what he was going to do if I didn’t figure out with my three-year-old brain what he wanted me to do or stop doing, and scared that my mother stood there and said nothing as he returned and shouted at me to close my fucking legs again before slamming my door to hide my transgression from his eyes.
As I am writing this — for the first time in my entire life — I am thinking about how important this event is to my understanding of what makes a space, or even my own body, safe or not. And as I told this to Dr. Shrink, telling him that my last psychiatrist was the first person to voluntarily affirm what I never dared tell anyone I suspected, I said the words “What kind of a man finds a three-year-old girl sexually attractive?” And he replied “It’s normal.”
It should be of absolutely no surprise at all that I found myself stunned into silence by this answer. Dr. Shrink went on to explain that virtually every parent experiences sexual feelings towards their own children, and children towards their own parents, but abnormality begins where private thoughts turn into actions. Three-year-old me, I told him, didn’t know how to make this distinction. Three-year-old me didn’t know how to deal with being berated for being a three years old. And it has become apparent to me, repeatedly, that I never learned how to leave that relationship with my father. I’ve repeatedly sought him out in the people I’ve maintained long-term relationships with, and repeatedly found myself looking in the mirror, shaming my reflection for doing it again. For falling in love with my pedophile father again. Because even while I was living in his home, I knew my home wasn’t like other people’s homes. And now that I’ve been living away from home for ten years, I’ve slowly begun to recognize over time that I still carry my natal home with me everywhere. That as far away as I’ve run from it, it’s still with me.
I’m tired of running. I’m tired of running straight back to him.