I recently learned of a woman named Iyanla Vanzant. She has a reality television series called Iyanla: Fix My Life which airs on the Oprah Winfrey Network. The show debuted in 2012.
Iyanla Vanzant gave a SuperSoul Session talk titled “You Matter,” and I love it so much. I’ve watched it twice now, and the second time was today. I was inspired to re-watch the segment after being asked, on three different occasions this month — in completely unrelated situations — some rather blunt questions about death. Which is another way of talking about fear.
“Have you confronted your own mortality yet?”
“Do you know you’re going to die?”
“Are you aware that most people only truly start living after they have faced death?”
“Are you truly alive, or living in fear of death?”
“When have you faced death in your life?”
“When have you been forced to confront your mortality?”
Isn’t it lovely when strangers want to engage you in chats about the birds and the bees and the Grim Reaper? I mean, fill up the punch bowl and rock on, my friends. This is such a great conversation starter, by all means, take notes! Who needs to eat cheese cubes and fruit kabobs when we can discuss our earthly demise?
One of my excellent party hosts even scolded me that I’m “probably living in death’s shadow” right now, too afraid to “truly live,” because, “like most people,” I fail to consider that my life has an endpoint.
I don’t know why anyone thinks a good public shaming would ever be a productive way to broach the topic of death, but to each their own.
For the record, I only know of one sane reaction to a public shaming —
At least, that is the only sane reaction that avoids curse words, burned bridges, and someone perhaps being flung out a window.
In my case, the unwelcome astonishment quickly transformed into this feeling —
I wanted to simply say, “I’m a writer,” and let that speak for itself, since depression, alcohol addiction, and shotguns seem so rampant in this line of work.
But that is really unfair to writers, to use an ugly stereotype to counter a verbal attack.
So I didn’t mention that my chosen profession pretty much guarantees I contemplate my death and Death In General on the reg.
Only later did I ask myself, “Why didn’t you just answer the question?” When my awesome party host accused me of being someone who lives in a bubble of denial and delusion, and he asked WHEN have I ever had to face my own death — why didn’t I just answer?
I actually had to sit with that question a while. It made me uncomfortable. Because my answer, it turns out, is steeped in an experience of shame, and trauma, and things it has taken me years to work through on my own, most of them while I was in college. I needed to have over 2,000 miles between myself and my family before I could mentally tackle the things that were not okay in my past.
So here is a short story about the first time I ever had to truly face my own death, or accept the fact that I am mortal and will one day die.
And a warning to everyone that this story deals with rape and abuse, and that you might want to stop reading this post at the asterisk break. It is not my intention to trigger anyone’s trauma with my blog, as my posts aren’t usually quite this dark. But there’s some darkness ahead, so if you need to bail, now is the time. Thanks.
My story begins in 1987, during the summer right after I turned seven. Because of the vagaries of time, and memory, I might have gotten the year wrong. I might have been six years old when this happened. But as a child, I told myself this event occurred when I was seven.
My family was spending a summer in Silverton, Colorado, in the same home my family lives in today.
I was playing across the street from the house, in the schoolyard. A teenage boy, who might have been thirteen, or fifteen, or seventeen, started to pick on two toddlers. I didn’t know the toddlers. They were playing on the kiddie swings. In the ’80s, parents let their kids play without supervision, so no adults were around. I stopped the teen boy from kicking, slapping, and hurting the two toddlers. As a consequence, he ended up hurting me instead, pretty badly, and then he removed me from the schoolyard and raped me. I told no one. I knew my mother would beat me if I told her what had happened, because my mother already beat me a lot.
After the boy finished hurting me, he gave a name for the terrible thing he’d done — he told me he’d “f*cked me” — which was a word I heard a lot in my house. Some common statements used by adults in my home — “Don’t you f*cking walk away from me!” “Look at me when I’m f*cking talking to you!” “You want to cry? I’ll give you something to f*cking cry about!”
The kind of sentences many people have heard growing up, and can serve as triggers for awful memories. I know just typing those words makes me feel ill.
As familiar as I was with the f-word, I didn’t know f*cking meant sexual intercourse. I had no language for this at age seven. And children were forbidden to curse in my house. For example, my brother Johnny once asked me how to spell the word that meant “where bad people go when they die” while we were coming home from school — and I answered “H-E-double-hockey-sticks.” I thought I’d followed the rules, and avoided cursing, but my mother seized me and punished me anyway. She took me into the kitchen, filled my mouth with Tabasco sauce, and then held my mouth shut while I screamed and screamed. She used a level of violence to make sure I not only received a burn on my lips, tongue, and throat, but that I couldn’t breathe for a time. I remember I had just started first grade.
I imagine many other people have similar stories about being taught not to curse. Needless to say, bringing up “the f-word” to my mother was not okay at age seven, which was the only word I could apply to what had happened to me at that time.
But back to the subject of this post — the facing of death. Having my mouth burned and being beaten did not make me face death. Nor did being held down and raped by a teenager as a child make me confront my mortality. Granted, I was terrified, but I don’t recall my child-mind comprehending that I could die. Abstract thinking usually comes to most children with puberty, and I don’t think I was particularly advanced at a young age. At seven, my mind was consumed with the present moment, and while I could certainly register terror and suffering, the idea of my own death was more murky.
By 1989, during the height of the AIDS scare, all I heard on the news was AIDS, AIDS, AIDS. And at age nine, the rapid, seemingly unstoppable spread of HIV filled me with terror, the same way it filled a lot of people with terror.
The word used on TV was “sex,” not “f*ck” — but by age nine, I had that deep, intuitive horror that the terrifying thing on TV was the thing that had happened to me.
I already knew I couldn’t find the word “f*ck” in any dictionaries that children had access to. So at age nine, I left the elementary school, smuggled myself into the high school building (this was really, really scary — I was breaking So Many Rules when I did this, just like a mini-James Bond) — and I found a huge dictionary that sat on its own table in the nonfiction section. I looked up the word “f*ck” — and then “coitus” — and then I had to look up “penis” and “vagina” until finally, somehow, I managed the impossible — I linked the word “f*cking” with “sex.”
At that point, as a nine-year-old who listened to the news every night, I realized the teen boy might’ve infected me with HIV. Which meant I needed a blood test to make sure I wasn’t carrying the virus.
But the only way to get a blood test was for a grown-up to take me. My mom. Which meant I had to tell her why I needed a blood test. And if I told her I’d had sex with a boy, I knew I’d receive a terrible beating. But in the state of mind I was in, this was my LIFE on the line. I could die of AIDS. I needed that blood test. I’d suffer the beating.
So I did the impossible thing — I told my mom about the horrible, terrifying thing that had happened, that “a boy had sex with me when I was seven,” and that I might now have HIV — and my mother beat me. So much worse than I could have expected. She beat me harder than any beating I’d ever had before then. My mother used objects to hit, not her hands — unless she struck the face. For this beating, I remember both. I weathered the storm because my hope, at age nine, was that I would suffer the terrible beating, and then get the blood test, so I’d know if I needed medicine or not, and hopefully not die.
But my mother told me that if I didn’t shut up, and keep what had happened a secret, she “would tell everyone” what had happened to me. Specifically, she threatened to tell my uncle John.
The idea she would tell a male family member what had happened to me was more terrifying than any mention of AIDS on TV. Tell my uncle? I couldn’t bear the shame. The horror that filled me was too overwhelming.
My mother’s threat was enough to silence me. Even years later, attending Take Back the Night events in college, I could not stand up and share this story, not even to a roomful of people who weren’t there to judge me at all. A roomful of people who had suffered their own forms of sexual abuse, and found the courage to stand and tell their stories.
That moment at age nine, when the ultimate silence descended — a silence so much more absolute than the silence I’d carried at seven and eight — that was when I first found my mortality. Because dying of AIDS was better than shame. When I learned death was easier than shame, that was the moment I accepted the fact I would die.
Some people will laugh at this story. “You stupid child! Of course you didn’t have AIDS!” But if you were raped by a stranger, wouldn’t you want a blood test to check? And I wasn’t even aware of STDs at age nine. For me, with the benefit of hindsight, I was just lucky that my rapist was young enough, and lucky enough himself, not to carry any number of diseases I might’ve received.
And please let the record show that I love my mother, and always have. I love her more, and crave her love more, than anyone else in my life. At no point as an adult have I shunned her. Sometimes, I’ve asked her questions about the things I experienced growing up, and her response is pretty standard — “That never happened.” This particular memory isn’t one I’ve ever asked her about. I have no desire to ask. I already know what she’ll say. “That never happened.” So please let the record show that you might be reading fiction here. According to my mother, I made this all up.
In Iyanla Vanzant’s SuperSoul Session talk, which is humorous, heartwarming, and uplifting, she shares the story of her grandmother. A woman who was raped at age nine, told her father what had happened, and then was beaten into silence by her father on the same day she was raped. I listened to this story nodding my head, aware of how traumatizing that would be, but also aware of how much braver Ms. Vanzant’s grandmother was than me. More courageous in every way.
She was Native American and black, grew up in poverty in Virginia, the daughter of sharecroppers. She was one of eleven children. Her mother died when she was seven. The man who raped her was the farm owner’s son. She ran home and told the only person she could tell — her father — and he beat her into silence so the family wouldn’t be thrown off the farm.
This young child had the courage to tell her father, who “ruled with an iron fist,” that she had been raped. On the same day the rape happened. I never had the fortitude to do that. This nine-year-old girl was so incredibly brave. I’m simply in awe of her courage.
At the end of the story, Iyanla Vanzant states, “when you’re loyal to people who don’t treat you well, you learn that you don’t matter.” She shares the story to explain why her grandmother, as an adult, was so mean and vicious. Not someone anyone ever wanted to be around. The experience of being raped and beaten into silence at age nine destroyed her.
I’m very, very fortunate that none of the experiences in my life have been bad enough to destroy me. I always had what I needed to avoid letting ugly things twist me into a mean, bitter person.
But I admit it’s very aggravating that any stranger would assume I’ve never confronted my own death, or accepted the fact that I am mortal, or that I must live my life “in death’s shadow” because I’m “too afraid to really live my life.”
Do I suffer from fear? Absolutely. Do I live in death’s shadow? Of course. Do I let fear hold me back in life? Yes. Not all of the time. But much of the time, the answer is yes.
But isn’t that being human? Can people not face death with courage, and still be afraid? Can people not embrace their passion and follow their heart, and still live with fear?
Why is this argument structured as an either/or situation?
Yes, I know I’m going to die. I accepted that a long time ago. Sometimes, I live my life pretty fearlessly. Much of the time, I am also deeply afraid, of all kinds of things. The list is quite endless. I don’t let my anxiety run amok, but I’d be a fool to say that facing death ever gave me a bulletproof suit.
Perhaps, the next time I’m asked if I’m “really alive” — or whatever these people seem so intent on discovering about what a scaredy-cat I am — I need to just admit that I fail to see the dichotomy. Yes, I feel like I’m fully alive. I show up for my life every day, in both conscious and unconscious ways. I’m also far from perfect. I’m not 100% courageous. And I’m okay with that. I’m okay being flawed in the ways I am flawed. Whatever this goal is — to be “perfectly healed and fearless” and achieve some kind of Superman status before I die — well, someone else can have that goal. It’s not mine.
I’ll be flawed and dirty and broken. With thin skin. My heart is easily moved. It shatters often. I cry. I get bruised fairly easily. I’m okay with these things.
My thin skin has always given me a certain kind of empathy. A radical and powerful empathy. And empathy in this life is important.
I’ve stayed loyal to plenty of people who have not treated me well. Because in the end, I understood they were far more broken than I’ll ever be.
Empathy was my superpower. You don’t have to be broken to have it. But being broken doesn’t take it away.