At eight years old, I sat in church while the pastor informed the congregation that a wife’s body did not belong to her, that marriage meant that her husband owned her sexuality.
I doubt this was the first time I had heard this sermon, but it juts out in my memory. I sat stiffly in the pew, every inch of my skin hurting. It isn’t fair, I couldn’t say. I don’t want that, were forbidden words. The future I was being offered was the present: my body belonged to men now, and it would belong to men in the future.
I was raised to love a God that asked me for everything. My life, my body, my wants, my desires, my goals, my dreams, everything a person could possibly call theirs, God wanted all. The language of my Evangelical faith was, Less of me, more of Jesus, and, Not my will, but God’s. You surrendered to God, you died to self, you released all control and let God define you. And it was God that said that I would grow up to marry a man and give my body to my husband.
There was no raging against this. As much as it hurt, as sick as I felt listening to those words, it was a sickness akin to grief: an acknowledgement, a resignation. This was the truth, commanded by God himself, and no small child had any power to change it.
I could only relinquish myself. This was the one line in the sand: obey God or rebel. One led to contentment, happiness, fulfillment. The other pain, destruction, and hell. All that was required of me as a child, the only thing I needed to learn was how to obey better. Obey the Lord. Obey my parents. Obey authority. And one day, my future husband. There was nothing else.
The sexual abuse took my body before I understood I had one. It was part of my formation of consciousness, how I categorized the world. What houses looked like houses where children were being hurt? What men looked like men who loved their daughters too much? Why did so many girls look like they deserved to be spared when I certainly didn’t? I made these assessments with the casualness of familiarity. By the time my parents were separated, and it was my second oldest brother leading me off to the bedroom, I had no sense that I could say no. It simply was. I’d trained myself into empty boredom. Bodies tune out consistent stimulus. I dissolved into nothing.
I was handcrafted by God to be a girl. It was my mother’s prayer. In the terror of an abusive husband and the chaos of two sons, she wanted the innocence of a girl, the quiet calm of a daughter, whole and set apart from the trauma of abuse. So God created me for her. I was an infant so beautifully still, so sweetly quiet, my mother could forget she was holding me in her arms. An answer to prayer.
But I was also girl; my mother put on me the predilections of what she saw as feminine traits. My emotions were suspect, held up to scrutiny to determine whether they were true or had hidden motivations. Spoiled, prone to dramatics, feigning illness and weakness. A cunning child, willingly provoking her brother to violence for the sheer delight of getting him in trouble. My anger was an intentional cruelty I inflicted on my family, my tears manipulative attempts to avoid punishment. When my mother reflected on my childhood, it was with the assurance of her parenting skills; I was bad, but she had made me better. I was lazy, rebellious, manipulative, and she taught me obedience.
I was not a teenager, my mother pointed out with pride. Teenager meant self-exploration, independence, rebellion—all things that contradicted the relinquishing of self. The only lesson on defying that God taught was how wrong it was to defy God. So why not skip all that? Why not jump ahead to the right conclusion and avoid the misery?
For once my mother was proud of me. I received praise from her when I scorned my childhood self and called her a spoiled brat. Who else but someone who loved truth, whose thinking wasn’t clouded with self-interest, would be willing to acknowledge how wicked they had once been? I was wise now, someone who cared about logic before emotion. I disconnected so deeply from any felt experience that I insisted to myself that I was not hungry if I had just eaten, I was not tired if I’d slept through the night; these were facts. The body—the flesh, as our Christian faith called it, in all its carnality, only wanted to trick us, and I was not going to be tricked.
I had to rearrange my feelings to match what I was supposed to feel. The only trauma I was allowed was “a girl without her father,” and everything I experienced was assigned to it. Any other problem was merely physical. I was inexplicably sick a lot: headaches, stomachaches, allergies, and a chronic case of PMS my mother insisted could plague me all month long.
It is easy to feel afraid and call it being cold. Sadness simply becomes exhaustion. The wish for death a Christian’s desire to go home to heaven. It’s not that I was entirely unaware that begging God to kill me had no spiritual motivation. But when I slipped up, when I admitted to myself what I really felt, I had to go back to the process of making my emotions line up correctly.
I was a girl. I wanted a boyfriend. There was no question. It was easy to be this way, to logically reverse emotions. What did I feel toward boys? Attraction. What was attraction? What I felt toward boys. There was no conscious effort on my part, no confusion or doubts. It didn’t matter that I hated these things. They were so. They were determined by God and I had no fight in me.
I was solidly an adult before I could finally tell others about the sexual abuse. I worried that my mother was right; I was manipulative. Because to talk about the abuse was to intentionally recall the trauma, to bring to mind the kinds of chronic pains our bodies let us forget about. I didn’t have to do this, so didn’t it, by definition, mean I was playing the victim? It felt less like I was tearing down the walls to find the fresh, real, spontaneous self underneath. I was making myself climb back into my body and teaching myself how to map those feelings into emotional expressions.
Abuse survivors are often handed a narrative that says: there is no such thing as the complete destruction of the human soul. No matter who hurts you, no matter how broken you might be, you can’t help who you are, the reality of you. There is always a before to get back to, a version of yourself that exists untraumatized that you merely need to find. If any part of you is still affected by the trauma, then you have not arrived at your real self.
What of me was unaffected by the abuse? What self existed prior to it? No one cared if the trauma was what caused me to say, I am straight, I am a girl. No one asked me if I should separate myself into pieces to determine their uninfluenced truth.
I couldn’t tell you who I was, only what I wanted. When I said, I’m attracted to women, it’s because the idea sounded so good. I wanted to be; it was the first time I imagined love as good. Was that the abuse talking? Someone who runs into the arms of women to avoid their trauma with men?
When I said, I am non-binary, I did so because it felt right. It meant I could conceive of my body as a home, something I could change and transform into a livable space. Does it make too much traumatic sense, the chronically dissociated survivor, calling themselves non-binary? What proof can I offer anyone that this is my unchangeable soul?
None. But I’m more inside my skin than I ever was before. I have dimension, solidity, a sharper sense of my skin. What more is there to owning your body other than finding what makes it easier to live in? I’d accepted for so long narratives that said that easier was cheating, that healing meant forcing yourself into what made you miserable or afraid because it was good for you, that who you are was somehow different than who you want to be. And yet I cannot deny how much easier it is for me to look in the mirror now and say, I am me.
I looked at God and said, I am mine. I take back everything. No more surrender, no more less of me, no more resignation to who I’m supposed to be, whether I like it or not. Obedience taught me how to surrender myself and rebellion is my refusal. There is nothing more rebellious than the word no. No, I did not deserve the abuse, no, I am not my mother’s daughter, no, I will not marry a man, no, I belong to me.
It is incremental. I spent so long comfortable with being uncomfortable, so used to contorting myself into obedience. But I am teaching myself to resist, shaping myself so that my body feels distinctly separate from others. I am no longer without form and void. I called myself into existence. And it was good.
You Have a Body features personal essays on the the ways we reconcile our physical forms with our identities. This series explores how our bodies sometimes disagree with us, how the world sometimes disagrees with our bodies, and how we attempt to accept that dissonance.