CAUTION: TRIGGER WARNING. Contains descriptions of sexual and physical abuse. Please read at your own discretion.
“We wear the mask that grins and lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guild;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.”
–Paul Lawrence Dunbar, We Wear the Mask
“When I get to heaven I’m gonna sing and shout
Nobody will be able to put me out
My mother will be waiting
And my father too
And we’ll just walk around heaven all day”.
–Mighty Clouds of Joy (2010)
My Dear Readers,
“What happens in this house stays in this house.” It’s one of the first lessons we learn as we grow up—to keep family business within the family. We also learn not to share how things are for us at home—we wear “the mask that grins and lies.” As a result, we also learn at home to “suffer in silence.”
It has been nine months since the last time I have shared an entry from The Journey: Bobbi’s Saga—a collection of excerpts from the journal of Bobbi (not her real name), an African-American woman in her early 60s who was sexually assaulted in her early childhood and pre-adolescence.
The Importance of Bobbi
Sexual abuse is a shame that is hidden deep in the bowels of the African-American community. Since a positive, honorable appearance and image is highly valued and sought in African-American communities, people who speak out about things that threaten that image is seen as “showing dirty laundry,” and thus, is looked down upon.
There are many people like Bobbi who have endured the traumatization of sexual abuse existing and surviving today. There are some who, following these traumatic incidents, appear to go on to have successful lives, including marriages, careers and families.
Bobbi is one of the latter. Following her abuse, she went on to graduate from college, remains in a 36-year marriage and has successfully raised three children who now as adults have achieved success on their own as a military officer, an attorney, and a business entrepreneur, respectively.
Despite the success of her family, Bobbi was unable to continue to ignore the abuse she’d dealt with for the last 50 years, and contemplated ending her life of pain and suffering by suicide. However, before doing so, she decided to seek mental health treatment.
As of today, Bobbi has been involved in six years of mental health treatment. Bobbi was doing well working in individual psychotherapy, and then four weeks ago following a long illness, Bobbi’s mother died.
As we pick up Bobbi’s journal, she is cleaning up her mother’s home that is cluttered with 60 years of horrendous memories.
I just left a difficult session with Dr. Kane. We talked about the way I was as a child. I was thin. I felt ugly, alone, not smart, not loved, not cared about or wanted.
What the landlord did to me made me feel worthless, dirty, like I was less than nothing. I had no purpose. I was full of shame and disgrace. I was a disposable child. I recently found out that after placing me in the foster care system, my mother bragged to her friends about how she put me out for being disrespectful to her.
She was so proud about how badly she treated me. She was so proud and I was destroyed. At age 13, I was ashamed, sad, had no self-esteem, no friends. I didn’t care about myself. I just existed.
When I look at my life, it is either before and after the first rape and before and after the second series of rapes. No one should have to evaluate their life like that. I remember the first time my stepfather was inappropriate. I was in the fourth grade. He was in the living room. I remember the lavender gown and I wore and the little flower on my chest. He told me to crawl to the television to change the channel. While I was crawling, he looked under my gown.
He then took me to his bedroom and told me to “get in.” He then forced his fingers inside of me. It hurt so bad my body shook. He told me my mother knew about this, but didn’t want to talk about it. I wasn’t to talk about this or something bad would happen to her.
I limped out of the bedroom and went upstairs to my room. I had pain that I did not know how to deal with. At nine years old, I was naïve. I didn’t know that this pain was only the beginning.
Regardless of how my mother treated me, I didn’t think that her dying would be so difficult. I didn’t think that sitting with her in the hospital ward would be this exhausting. Watching her decline, watching the pain she had to endure as the cancer continued to grow was frightening.
I know that I did the right thing by taking care of her and watching over her. But there was a cost to me. It made my sadness, fatigue, and depression increase. While I know that I was right, I also know that I put my mother’s needs above my own.
My mother died over a month ago. Sometimes I forget that she is dead. Going back and cleaning up her house brings back many memories. I am having a difficult time. I am remembering how I was treated. These memories are hurting my self-esteem.
I want to stop thinking of my mother. I want to think about having a positive future. There are so many things that I worry about. Not only am I feeling depressed, I am feeling lost… I am worrying about issues that I know with Dr. Kane’s help, will get lighter.
The last 48 hours have been tough. The song “Walking Around Heaven” was in my mind all day. I started crying hard, and I couldn’t stop. My husband tells me that I should be over my mother’s death by now, but he doesn’t understand. I finally cried myself to sleep.
“We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!”
–Paul Lawrence Dunbar, We Wear the Mask
The words of the famed African-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar were written during the Jim Crow era (1877-mid 1960’s) of American life where a restrictive racial caste system traumatized the lives of black Americans. This poem clearly illustrates how white America treated and ignored the plight of its black citizens.
There are many people who live with the trauma of sexual abuse in the world today. However, Bobbi’s story is particularly poignant in how it arises within a community that often keeps its guard up against injury from external sources, not threats that come from within the community, such as sexual abuse. In fact, issues that come from within the African-American community are swept under the rug, considered to be less of a priority than threats arising from outside the community.
Bobbi’s Saga is important because it gives us the opportunity to understand the ongoing struggles of the sexually traumatized from their lived perspective. Bobbi tells the story not only of her sexual abuse, but her struggles responding to the shame she has endured as the result of being cast out and abandoned by her mother as well as being “disappeared” from her community.
In these entries, Bobbi is in conflict and torn regarding her feelings towards her mother. Despite the physical/emotional abuses and abandonment, Bobbi knowingly sacrifices her own “psychological self” as she continues to seek and obtain what she never received as a child … her mother’s love.
Now that Bobbi’s mother, the tormentor and the “giver of life” is gone, Bobbi is left to review, relive and reflect on her life on her own. As one can see in her words, she is deeply pained. Although loved by her husband and children, she is not understood.
Yet Bobbi understands; in therapy she will continue to process her feelings and walk the journey of self-discovery. In doing so she will learn to balance the traumatic experiences so these will become lighter as she continues to empower herself and finally be able to live the life she wants.
Until the next journey….Bobbi’s saga continues….
For additional information regarding Dr. Kane, please visit http://www.lovingmemore.com