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‘You Had No Father, You Had The Armor’

Modified from flickr / Mark Mauno

When did you first split open? Did you spill into your own hair? Did you ever find the pieces? How does it feel to look at yourself and wonder if you’re really there?

At the long end of 1986, two households emerge and I absorb the remnants of the home that split four people open. After my parents’ separation, I am always looking around for the rest of me, making sure I am still there. I am several parts of one body, holding two homes and four people’s memories.

When the phone rings at my mother’s house, my father’s berating increases to make up for the fact that he can no longer yell at her in person. Instead of embodying different parts of myself with each parent, I begin to present all of me with my mother and a shadow of me with my father. When I am with him, I am a mistake to be corrected. Most of what comes out of my mouth is wrong, so I eventually stop talking.

In my sixth year I learn that I should never have to go to the bathroom away from home. When I need to, it’s very bad and it upsets my father, but I do not know how to stop. He asks me why I don’t go before we leave, but I don’t have to go then or I do and then I have to go again. I do not know why my body works this way, but it must be wrong because he gets very irritated and lectures me for a long time—whether we find a public restroom quickly or not.

Dinners at his house feel like sharp teeth on me. He picks at me for how I eat, how much I eat and the baby fat I gain in adolescence. I come to realize he is using meal time to poke at my brother and me; asking us questions that no kids could answer, only to laugh at us then lash out at us for getting them wrong. Eventually my brother loses patience with the picking and starts to respond back. This results in a Ping-Pong game of verbal confrontations that bounce back and forth between them and latch onto my skin, assaulting me. I want to escape to the basement or the attic but my limbs are stiff against me. My body is still though I am slowly floating away from me.

In my 13th year, my brother begins to taunt me. We are at my mother’s kitchen table when he smiles, insisting I am holding my fork wrong and people will shun me for it. I melt into my plate and realize I am being eaten down to the core of me. When I look for myself in my body, I can barely find a trace of me.

How old were you when your face fell through? Did you hold it in your hands? Did you catch it in your skin? Did you lose track of where they end and you begin?

In my 17th year, I am in my first year of college when I meet Daniela*—the older cousin of one of my best friends. She becomes part of our friend group and we’re envious when she starts dating the cute guy we’re all curious about, until we find out he pulls her hair by the root when he’s angry.

We are parked in front of the house Daniela grew up in when I notice my skin becoming heavy, as though I am falling out of myself. I feel a draft in my body as though a door has opened that cannot be closed. It is on this day that I learn from my friend, that Daniela’s brothers used to throw her down the basement stairs when they were angry. I look up and stare at the house, as if for the first time, and something cracks in my bones.

I am ripped open and that tear becomes the catalyst for my sociology project—women rappers using art to discuss gendered power dynamics and abuse. When I take the risk of telling my brother and father about it, I do not mention the door of the house, the staircase or the hair pulled from Daniela’s head. I do not tell them the focus is on Eve’s Love is Blind. I simply say that I did a presentation on women rappers using music to illuminate social issues. I explain that I worked really hard and I know my professor doesn’t care for hip-hop, but I have the sense that she might be able to look at the genre in a different light after this.

For a moment, neither of them are saying anything, but they’re both smiling and they eventually begin to laugh. They make fun of me for thinking I had an impact on my professor and I begin to disappear into the length of my hair. I sail away to all those nights at the dinner table, the staircase at Daniela’s house, and the distance from the top of that first step to the basement floor.

I imagine the door to my father’s basement, the safety of his attic and the way edges of houses hold some little girls together, but pull other ones apart. When I float back, they’re still laughing. I know how quickly they erupt when disagreement is present, so I draw a smile on my face too.

Were you tangled in your words, when your flesh fell to your ankles? Could you see yourself around? Were you stuck inside your own sound?

In the last week of my 28th year, my agoraphobia and sensory processing disorder spill out on either side of me. Preparing to get on a plane for the first time since high school, I am terrified. I am washing my hands in the airport bathroom when my mother appears, telling me it’s time to board the flight.       

I check my hair and make-up and walk back to where she and my brother are sitting, only to find him exploding at me. I try to figure out what I’ve done, but I am fading down to the seams of me. I am transported back to the ‘90s to the small apartment we shared with my mom. My skin snags on the image of him shouting in my doorway. I remember the shape of the bedroom door, the contour of his mouth, and the screams that shook my skin out. I think back to the day I found my room trashed and the way I held the damage like souvenirs. I recall the string of punches that came after I interfered with his business call; I remember the rhythm of his fists hitting my arm.

When I drift back to the airport he is still yelling, grating me down to my ankles. Apparently, my having to pee was very selfish and those two minutes I took to look myself over meant that the three of us could’ve missed our flight. As the screaming tapers off, I find the edge of my abandoned body, pick it up by the shreds and drag it onto the plane.

In the coming months I begin to wear my silence like armor. It becomes the protector of me. I find that the only way to be around my brother and father is to be a ground down version of me, an acceptable facsimile; it stands in for me as a way to survive. This makes me feel like I am not a real person or they are not real to me. I start to feel like I don’t really have a father or a brother. The two of them are essentially strangers to me, flaming things that mostly know how to rage at me.

Do you live inside the skin of you? Are you the girl behind the face? Did you find yourself in the shadow box? What’s left of you after the chase?

As my twenties begin to evaporate, I begin to part down the length of me. I feel enamored with men, but when they’re standing in front of me, it seems like there’s a wall between us. I think there must be something wrong with me that cannot be fixed or reconciled, so I eventually stop dating them—but the pull towards them remains.

When I tell my therapist about it, she asks if I am more attracted to men’s or women’s bodies. I tell her that is not the right question. I ask a friend for advice and they tell me that if I enjoy having sex with women, then I am queer. I know that is not the right answer. I feel drawn to men inside my bones, but when I get close to them, it feels like the best parts of me drop out of my body. I know there must be a reason why thinking about it makes me feel like I am holding my breath. I know there must be a reason why they light up so many parts of me, then leave me split up in messy piles.

On the raw edge of my 29th year, my long-term partner starts transitioning and something is pulled up and out of me. I begin thinking about the way people both transcend and encompass gender. I think about the way I am absorbing and categorizing gender and I begin to ask what I mean when I say I cannot connect with men. I begin to ask if I mean that I cannot connect with cis men. Like my other relationships at the time, there is unwarranted anger and an inability to show up for difficult conversations. But when I think about all the ways he is different than my recent partners, the most obvious difference on both a superficial and spiritual level is that he isn’t a girl.

I freeze into myself when I think about the way our relationship took shape. We are best friends and it is New Year’s Eve—one week after my 27th birthday.

He’s coming from work as a bartender, but I’m the one who’s been drinking. He starts a violent argument with me in the public hallway of my apartment building and I fall out to the edge of me. His words draw a fence around me, yelling that he can no longer play this “friend role.” I am confused and tired, but I understand he feels I’ve wronged him and now I owe him a right. I am drunk and drowning in this hallway. I just want it to stop. I cannot imagine losing him, so I have sex with him. When I come, it’s the kind of orgasm I wish I could take back.

I know there must be a reason why men light up so many parts of me then leave me split up in messy piles. Click To Tweet

Five years after the waves rush out and over our relationship, I read Jenny Lumet’s letter to Russell Simmons, and I am cut through to the other side of me. Her words are gentle but unapologetic and I am reminded of the intimacy that is having patience with Black men, even after experiencing harm at their hands. I wipe my face with my own hands and count how many years I’ve held on to things for fear that the men who have hurt me, would feel some of the same hurt if I use words to say what they have done to me.

She talks about making a trade—”just keep him calm, and you’ll get home” and I am yanked down to the tightest threads of me. I think about the way silence and sex turn into offerings when men decide you owe them something. My eyes spill out to my formative years and then back to adulthood. I remember the weight of being covered by flesh that never asked.

I think about all the times my eyes stood still while my body stiffened into a “no” because my words couldn’t do it. I’ve been making trades with trauma since I was 14.

Did you make oceans with your eyes, when your legs dropped out from under you? Do you recognize your body, when you split right down the length of you?

In the wake of 4:44, I awoke—30 years after I first swallowed my mouth closed. Three decades after one house became two, I widened out like unfolding fists. When I heard those words, “You had no father, you had the armor,” it felt as if they lived inside my fingers. When Jay Z says, “You got a daughter, gotta get softer,” I am holding both lines in both hands; I am holding the child me and the grown-up me in the skin of my palms.

I consider the way the world conflates hyper-masculinity with Blackness and vulnerability with femininity. I think about the way self-reflection is conceptualized as something men do in honor of daughters—but not wives. I remember my mother’s ability to hold my father’s rage. I think about the length of my emotional intelligence and how little I was when I learned to shut my mouth. I consider the way abuse patterns wrap around us like rope.

Of all the things that tried to split me, it was the juxtaposition of having a white mother and a Black father and the pain of being accepted by her and rejected by him that ultimately severed me in half. It was the confusion of not being Black enough for my father and feeling like I was supposed to partner with men who acted like him in order to prove that rejecting his abuse does not mean rejecting my Blackness. It was the cut of feeling so guilty; I would see his face in other people and believe I could undo what had been done to me by having it done again by them.

Feeling like men were in charge of me made me feel like my body wasn’t mine long before I knew what words like consent meant. So when it came time for me to say yes or no to a man, I would tighten into my mouth and fall out of my skin. I would later attribute it to my Selective Mutism, my Non-Verbal Learning Disability, and a confusion around my sexuality.

But my tendency to lose my words was born out of a trauma that developed from being unable to speak freely in my home as a child. And my difficulties with non-verbal communication were informed by a childhood that left me feeling like I was safer when I didn’t speak.

In my 36th year, I learn about the R Kelly sex cult accusations and several memories converge as if on cue. The idea of a man controlling women so much that he has power over their eating and going to the bathroom makes me fall backwards into my six-year-old self. I realize that I have spent my entire life being unsure if it is ok for me to speak, eat, go to the bathroom or do anything that reveals me as human around men.

You are not a shadow box, an after-thought or a vacant sketch of you.

My father did not get softer, as a result of having me. He simply reproduced what had been done to him as a child. And my brother’s ability to replicate my father’s abuse came from absorbing my parents’ dynamic and being able to identify more with losing yourself to a fit of violence, than being able to identify with the body that holds the scars after the fit.

I know now that people rage when they are disconnected from their person. Having so much rage projected onto me eventually resulted in my belief that I am too much of a person. Men regarded my most basic needs as something to get rid of. So I believed that if I wanted to be with a man, I’d have to get rid of myself.

When I was able to connect with queer and lesbian people, I thought it meant there was something queer about my attraction to masculinity. I started to think there was something inherently queer about me—something internal that exists outside of my attractions. But as my queerness became wider, it felt like the puzzle was being solved outside of me. The more I tried to grow into these understandings, the more I seemed to grow out of me.

When I learned I was dating a man, I simply thought the way in which I was attracted to men had revealed itself as a different shape. I thought my attraction to him could explain why my chemistry with cis men never translated properly. But I left the relationship still feeling like there was something wrong with me.

It is only now after spending years of my life depriving myself from relationships with all men and then cis men specifically as a way to protect myself, that I realize the only relationships I’ve ever had were replications of the abuse that led to the repression.

And most of the sexual experiences I’ve had with men reinforced that my body was theirs. So I became averse to the abuse and called it an aversion to men.

As I thaw out into the larger part of me, I know that the thing standing between myself and other people in relationships is not their gender. It’s the way my body viscerally responds to gender, since my early understandings of masculinity and intimacy were tied up in abuse. It’s about the way my skin translates injury, after years of experiences taught me to anticipate blood instead of love from men.

I am finally starting to ask if I am truly a poor fit for cis men or simply not attracted to men who act like my father and brother.

You are real raw love and gorgeous flesh. You deserve to be held like the entire shape of you.

In the aftermath of the home that broke open, I know that girls like Daniela* and I will have a steeper climb towards finding home in the arms of a man, because of what happened at the hands of men in our homes. I know that relationships aren’t about breaking somebody down or taking away their person, as a way to regain yours. I know that intimacy doesn’t feel like being trapped inside a house. I know that love doesn’t feel like the wrong side of the basement door.

When I look at the place inside me that split, I can see the wound and feel it closing. I know that people are neither good nor bad, but in a constant state of becoming. When they engage in harmful behaviors it’s because they’ve been profoundly hurt and they’re perpetuating that learning. I know unlearning is a process. I know I’ve survived both my child and adulthood due to my ability to read people who were so checked out from their person, they didn’t care if what happened next froze me out of my person.

I know that brain structure, systemic and familial post-trauma can complicate the ability to say or hear a no. I know that doesn’t make it a yes. I know the thing that causes people to control and rage is the same thing that allows them to keep going during a sexual act, after a face has gone blank. And I know I don’t owe it to anyone to be an emotional punching bag while they work through their trauma superficially through me.

On the long end of my 36th year, I figured out why that complex, primal, physical and emotional longing for men never went away. It is part of me, but it is no longer a gash on me. I am learning how to stop the blood. In the wake of my healing, I know that trying to love people in similar pain as me was an attempt to grow the skin over the cuts that once divided me.

I am not broken, but I have existed in pieces and I know that being deeply harmed during childhood is a particular kind of bruise. I have a higher level of empathy because of it and I know that empathy will translate into the highest level of love for myself as I continue to learn that I cannot love the rage out of a person. And if you are navigating that kind of trauma, you deserve to learn it too.

You deserve to be loved like survival, like the spelling of your name, like the softest whisper and the loudest yell that sounds like the entire length of you. And you deserve to hear it over and over again until you know it’s true.