Denial, part 1:
My mother always insisted, “We’re not poor, we’re artists and intellectuals.” The thing is, we definitely were poor. Not working class, because working class implies that you have a job.
I have my ideas about why my mother chose to say this. She wanted us to think we were smart, to think that we could make choices in our lives. And, subconsciously, she wanted to pass on her internalized classism. She didn’t like poor people, she was ashamed of her background (rural and poor). She didn’t want us to be like the people around us—uneducated and uninterested in education. She wasn’t able to move out of poverty, and she didn’t know how, but she wanted to encourage us to use our brains and our talents.
There were some advantages to this. She didn’t encourage us to drop out of school to get jobs. She didn’t make fun of us for reading or drawing or playing instruments. She didn’t complain when I applied to colleges, and didn’t say that I shouldn’t go to a liberal arts college.
But she left us thoroughly aware that there is something shameful in being poor. And she coped with poverty through denial.
Denial, part 2:
The same thing was true of my race, although that wasn’t talked about very often. When my family acknowledges that I’m biracial or black, it’s always with the comment, “We don’t see you as black.”
Despite the fact that my skin is darker than theirs, despite my kinky hair, despite my black father… we are not supposed to notice that I am black. When I protest racist comments they make, I am reminded that they don’t see me as black. They are surprised when I mention experiencing racial profiling, I suppose because they expect the rest of the world to go along with their belief that I’m not “really” black.
In fact, the only time they bring up my race on their own is to explain that they could have gone to college or grad school, too, if only they had been able to take advantage of affirmative action. Because, of course, no one else in our family had the advantage of having black genes, so they couldn’t get all of the scholarships I got just for being black.
It doesn’t matter that the scholarships and grants I received were primarily need-based aid, which any of them could have gotten. And it also doesn’t matter that what fellowships I received were highly competitive, and not many other people received them, regardless of race. The fact that I had very good grades all through school, and that I scored well on standardized tests, and that I worked my butt off through high school and college and grad school… these things don’t count, and the only reason I have gotten where I am is because of affirmative action.
I am constantly reminded that my siblings are all really smart (they are, don’t get me wrong), and their failure in school was because they didn’t do well with the structure (this may be true as well). They are the ones who are talented (they are), and I’m just “good at school.”
Denial, part 3:
Strangely enough, my mother also denies that we were abused as kids. She will admit that we were hit, but she doesn’t consider it abuse.
I will grant this much. I don’t think anyone had bones broken. We weren’t starved. We weren’t burned often, and burns were generally on the lines of collateral damage.
But we regularly ended up with welts and bruises. We were hit with hands, with belts, with switches, with whatever happened to be handy when someone in charge got angry. We were yelled at, belittled, demeaned. And even though some of the apparent neglect was because, despite her best efforts, my mother couldn’t afford to meet all of our needs… some of the neglect was because she chose not to respond to our needs or to admit that we needed to have attention and care, and that we weren’t mature enough to carry the burdens she laid on us.
Denial, part 4:
Why, then, would it surprise me that no one in our family would even hint that at least we girls were sexually abused?
I struggle with my own disbelief. I can intellectualize it: I know that I, and each of my three sisters have between us virtually all of the signs of having been sexually abused as children. I know that when I first had consensual sex, it caused almost intolerable panic attacks (because consensual sex requires you to actually be in your body during sex, which is terrifying). And I can realize that there’s really no benefit whatsoever to me in making up a history of abuse.
But even in my own mind, I find it nearly impossible to actually believe that I was sexually abused. I dismiss the visual aspects of my panic attacks, assuming that it’s marginally possible that I’m making things up or misinterpreting what I see. I ignore the content of the “nightmares” I have when I need to relax my mind enough to fall asleep, because I have no evidence that they are memories rather than products of my imagination.
Denial, part 5:
When I say something to someone that indicates I was abused, I feel almost intolerably guilty. I am assaulted with voices in the back of my head that shout that I am a liar, that it isn’t true, that I am being manipulative. Despite the fact that I know I’m a rotten liar, I feel every moment that I am deceiving people when I talk about abuse.
I am baffled by the way that my mind tries to bury any evidence of abuse, and to minimize the things I remember. Intellectually, I know that it makes sense. This is a defense mechanism. I kept myself as safe and as whole as possible when I was a child by blocking out things that no child should have to cope with. Even though I know how much these defenses are hurting me now, it is so hard to let them go.
Because it does feel safer not to remember.
I can feel the rage and terror welling up behind those walls. I thought I had come to a degree of acceptance, to an ability to connect with my family on my own terms. And I’m so afraid of losing what little love they give me, if I were to admit even to myself that they hurt me over and over again when I was small. To admit that they probably recognize that the things they say to me now can only work to erode any confidence and pride I feel in my accomplishments.
I don’t want to be angry, I don’t want to feel the fear. And yet, I’m getting to a point when I can no longer tolerate the weight of my defenses.