There is a reason that rape is a weapon of war and genocide. There is truth to the Cheyenne proverb, “A Nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it’s finished; no matter how brave it’s warriors or how strong their weapons”.
“Why do you look so sad?” he asks.
“Today has been rough,” I reply.
“Rough? Didn’t you watch your documentary with your class? I thought you’d be happy!”
“Happy? Yeah, cause I absolutely love watching me recount tales of sexual assault on screen with a room full of people,” I say, there is a bite to my words that even I feel.
“Okay. Stop. I don’t need to hear any more of that. That’s enough,” Dad says loudly.
I feel completely shut down, but I don’t push it. It is a no-fly zone, my rapes and sexual abuse. I doubt Dad has ever watched my short documentary. He says frequently that he will never read my first book. I understand why. My sexual assaults have always been an off-limit topic with Dad. They are ghosts that exist in his peripheral. He will never look at them straight in the eyes because that would make them real.
This doesn’t come from a space of denial. He knows that they’ve happened and has watched me clean up the mess they’ve left behind. Or rather, he has watched Mom help me clean up the mess from the sidelines without fully knowing what is going on. Mom has held me in her arms while I cried until everything has been emptied out of me. My mama’s arms and love are ceremony, they are what put my back together. Dad will enter the room when I am crying and look for the nearest exit. He chooses not to know, and we choose to not tell him.
Several years ago I received a phone call from my dad. His voice broken up and small on the other end. He had just watched a video of a poetry performance I gave earlier that night because my mom forced him to witness it. In this video I discuss a sexually violent event and the healing I underwent to find some from it. It was a revelatory moment in my journey.
“Dad?” I asked, trying to match the man to the sputtering voice making noises into my ear.
“I..I…I..I’m….. s..s…sorry,” he said, the two words were spread out into several syllables as he struggled to get them out.
“Sorry for what Dad?”
“’I’m sorry.. I wasn’t there to protect you,” he stammered and broke down into a heavy cry.
“It’s okay Dad. There was no way you could have. It’s okay. I am okay.”
These topics became off-limit because they hurt him too much. There are things the women in my family discuss without the men in the room because they are protecting them from the truth. The women in my family are the keepers of burdens. The women in my family are the shores the waves first crash upon. The women in my family are the buffers between the elements of the world and the men in their worlds.
The women in my family are medicine. The women in my family are backbones and ribcages. The women in my family are the whisper’s in men’s ears. The women in my family are the guardians that keep us whole.
The women in my family cry alone behind closed doors. The women in my family are brave and unshakeable. The women in my family are islands that keep their mysterious secrets to themselves but offer the best they have to those that inhabit them.
I don’t know if writing this makes me less of an island or more of one.
Days later I find the courage to tell my Dad what I had wanted to say. Or at least, I find the courage to say something, anything, that will free me from becoming an island.
“You can’t shut me down every time the topic of sexual assault comes up. These are things that have happened to me. These are things that I have had to work through and heal from. If you are in the room, understand that it isn’t about you. Dad, when you tell me to keep quiet like you do it makes it feel as if I did something wrong. As if there is something wrong with me for that having happened to me. They were things that happened TO me. They are not things that I have control over. They are not mine. They are not me.….” I say and my words drift off into the sea between us.
Dad listens. The hockey game plays in the background. The Canucks score and the crowd goes wild. I picked an opportune time to free myself. I can see the panicked look in his eyes he gets whenever he is out of his emotional depth.
He says, “okay”.
The conversation is over.
Months later I am dressed up for a night out with a friend that I am meeting at a club. I say club to evoke city feelings, but this is the north. It is less of a club and more of a bar. It is one of two bars and because it is the one that plays less country music, it is the bar of my choice. Drinking liquor is far behind me but I still love to dance. I will dance with no one on the dance floor. I will dance until everything I have inside of me is spent. I will dance until my thick curled hair falls flat from sweat and I have to check if my makeup has stayed where I put it.
I pull up to the bar and wait for my friend’s arrival. The perk of going out with other non-drinkers is that no one needs to be the designated driver and no babysitting is required. The handle of the passenger door starts making the clicking noise of being pulled but the door is locked. I look up with the expectation of seeing my girlfriend Taryn’s face but it isn’t her. Standing outside of my door is a tall white male with messy brown hair and a plaid jacket.
I stare at him. He pulls the door handle again. And again. And again. I roll the window down two inches, thinking he has drunkenly mistaken me for a cab or a friend.
“Let me in,” he says.
“Sorry, but I don’t know you,” I reply.
“Where’s the guy?” he slurs, almost accusatory.
“The guy. Where the fuck is the guy in here?”
“I think you’re looking for someone else.”
Tall plaid man slams his fist against my window.
“Let me in you fucking bitch!” he screams.
I did not see this reaction coming.
Thump. He kicks the side of my door.
I am angry and helpless all at once. Tall plaid man is big, maybe 6’4. He is big and scary. I can’t get out of my vehicle. My mind flips quickly through my options. I decide to take his picture with the phone that has been sitting idly in my hand. It felt like it was the only bit of power I had at my disposal. The only way to try to ensure that this man was accountable to some degree for his actions. I also think that me taking a picture will snap him out of his psycho coma and he would just walk away. I was really fucking wrong.
I take the pictures and it is a catalyst for him to reach his next level of crazy. He grabs onto my window with the two inches of leeway I left when I rolled it down and he begins to shake it. I am sure he is going to break my window and then strangle me in the parking lot of a bar that plays country music sometimes. It all happens so quickly, maybe in just over a minute. He screams again and I realize that I need to get out of there.
I turn to see if I can pull out but than I see Taryn’s car approach. Tall plaid man sees this too and lets go of my window. She parks a few feet away from him and he immediately turns to approach her car.
I wave around in my seat. Arms flailing, trying to catch her attention. She sees me and I shake my head no. A big fat emphatic NO. He catches me in the act of my miming-for-safety routine and attacks my vehicle again. This time we both pull our vehicles out and drive away to a different part of the parking lot. I am screaming out the window. I am full of helpless empty rage and fear. The bouncers of the bar finally took notice of tall plaid man and he is chased away.
What follows is the routine of calling the cops and give them a description while almost sure that nothing will come out of it. We decide to go dancing still. Nothing comes out of the call to the cops. Tall plaid man is out there somewhere being psychotic outside of bars that play country music sometimes.
When the news spreads of this incident the men in my family are enraged. They want to dole out old school justice. They make it known with their fury and anger that erupts in cuss words. They play out scenarios that could have went down if only I had called them and not the police. Ski masks and baseball bats. Ninja attacks. I am scolded for calling the police.
“I handled it myself,” I tell them.
I am an island after all. I didn’t even think to call them. I have been raped several times before and in worse situations. It was a blip on the radar. My normalization of violence is alarming. I probably wouldn’t have called the police if Taryn hadn’t already had them on the phone when we finally got out of the vehicle.
The next weekend my brother calls from the same bar that plays country music sometimes. He is a solid guy. My other brother likes to embellish a story of him tossing an old washer into the dump from the back of the truck as if it was nothing.
“The washer just flew out way into the dump pile and into the horizon until it became a tiny speck. He just stood there like a Greek God,” he says.
Like I said, he is a sturdy guy. The sturdy one called me for a ride from the bar that plays country music sometimes. I go to pick him up because I am a good sister and it is the dead of winter.
“You should have fucking called me last weekend,” he growls at me.
“About that guy?”
“Yeah, that fucking guy”
“It’s okay. It’s over and done with now. I’m okay,” I say, trying to be soothing and reassuring.
“You should have fucking called me. What’s wrong with you?”
I can feel his anger radiating into the space between us.
“Are you seriously getting mad at me? I had no control over that.”
“I was three blocks away Helen. I live three blocks away. I could have been there. I could have protected you for fucks sakes.”
“I handled it.”
“You don’t fucking get it,” he spat at me.
“Okay than, explain it to me,” I’m annoyed now and fully regret being a gracious sibling and picking his ass up from the bar. I contemplate dropping him off in a snowbank.
He goes quiet. There is no music playing and all I can hear is the crunching of snow underneath the tires. The silence is broken by the sound of him crying. The anger has dissipated and the sturdy one is sniffling in my passenger seat.
“You don’t know how many times I worried about you growing up. There were so many times I couldn’t protect you……So many times I wasn’t there to save you. This time is the one time I could have done something. I could have fucking done something,” brother cries a little harder while fighting to keep it in.
“I live three fucking blocks away. I could have been there,”.
“I’m okay. I am here and I am okay. I know a lot of shit went down when I was younger but I am grown now. It’s not like it used to be. I’m not like I used to be. Next time something happens I will call you,” I tell him.
“You promise?” he asks as he wipes his tears from his face.
We arrive at our destination and I tell him goodbye.
I wait until he is out of the vehicle until I let my own tears out. I forget what violence against a woman does to the flesh of her flesh. My mind is filled with images of my brothers and father clutching baseball bats driving around trying to find a man that had harmed me when I was younger. They didn’t find him but the cops found them. They returned home without retribution. What could have been kept small was made a public event by them knocking on doors in search of this man. Everyone knew after that. Word travels fast in small towns and rural regions. Dad cried an apology over the kitchen table. Said he only wanted to protect me. I didn’t know how to reach him in that moment because I was drowning in my own sea of violence. I never wondered how my brothers processed these traumatic events. I never knew the violence I went through set up camp in the territory of their spirit and mind and claimed it as a spoil of war, just like it did to me.
Everything is so different now.
I am an island trying to unlearn how to be an island. I don’t know how to do this. I am navigating my own healing while simultaneously trying to guide the men in my life to their own. I wonder how much of this is even my responsibility. It is a tricky thing, moving through your own shit while protecting the ones you love from the hopelessness of not have being able to protect you. The women in my life can hear a rape story and barely flinch. The women in my life have all experienced some kind of violence. The men in my life have too. The men just haven’t learned how to stop being their own islands and we halt their learning under the belief that we are protecting them. We are all isolated tracts of land pretending we know how to be whole.
Take my hand. Let us find a new way.
The men in my family are the keepers of their own burdens. The men in my family keep the lights on and the cupboard stocked. The men in my family have calloused hands and know a hard days work. The men in my family will go to war for you. The men in my family keep baseball bats on hand just in case. The men in my family know that pride won’t put food on the table. The men in my family put food on the table. The men in my family are still full of pride.
The men in my family are medicine. The men in my family are their own islands.
Can you hear that? Our hearts beating, raising, and rising.
Can you feel that? Islands unlearning their aloneness, the ground shifting beneath our feet.
Can you see that? We are still here.
*** This is an excerpt of a longer piece of writing. We don’t discuss the impacts of violence against Indigenous women on the family and nation enough. The exploration of helplessness and historical learned helplessness are themes that need to be in the forefront in leading our transition to a safer place for both indigenous boys and girls. What was created needs to be dismantled in our search for something new.