part one of a blog series on compassionate self-witness and my new book still life
There’s a reason poets often say ‘poetry saved my life,’
for often the blank page is the only one listening to the soul’s suffering,
the only one registering the story completely,
the only one receiving all softly and without condemnation.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes
I was reading a lyric essay piece about living with PTSD before a very small audience in a classroom at Michigan State University, when I noticed an older man in the audience tearing up as I read. The piece was fresh, another of many pieces I had written at that point while processing a history of traumatic experiences throughout my BA, MA, and MFA.
After the reading, the man approached me, still teary-eyed, and explained that he was a war vet. We shared some story about our experiences with PTSD, noting the similarities between trauma experienced as a result of sexual assault and trauma from military combat. Few people have your narrative impulse he told me, keep writing.
Honestly, I was surprised by his statement. Few? To that point, I had somewhat assumed that most people turned to some form of expressive art to work out the episodic nature of physical and psychological trauma; perhaps because I had engaged this art from such an early age, or maybe because I have been part of vibrant writing communities for almost a decade now. It hadn’t occurred to me to even imagine that I was working through my traumatic memories and experiences in an unusually healthy way.
In Beverly Engle’s It Wasn’t Your Fault, a book that addresses the trauma, and subsequent shame, of childhood sexual assault, she coins the phrase “compassionate self-witness” when referring to the way victims of assault should bear witness to their own pain and trauma. I read this book several years ago when the memory of my childhood abuse came at me full-swing. I wish I could say that every word and phrase she wrote completely released me from all the repercussions of the pedophilic act, that my eight-year-old self was completely soothed and restored—but this simply wasn’t, and isn’t, the case.
Today, as I anticipate the launch of my second chapbook addressing childhood sexual assault, I am confronted again with a particular conundrum: I still feel the shame of this past experience and an impulse to hide every poem I’ve ever written about it, even as I am also compelled to encourage others to honor the harmed parts of their body and soul, giving voice to this harm via artistic expression—to be their own compassionate self-witness.
When I look up the word “witness” in my nifty computer dictionary app, I am drawn to its verb tense. Extracting its essence, I observe that it refers to being seen, having knowledge of, being present, testifying to, and professing. These are all powerful words.
A few years ago, I wrote a poem titled “What It Holds” in which the speaker carries the broken shell of a bird’s egg in her hands and asks several others to simply look at the broken pieces. No fixing. No attempts to name the damage. No impulse to dismiss lightly. Please simply witness this with me, she asks each person on her journey through the poem. Ironically, as I have discovered over the past several years writing and seeking witness, this may be the most difficult task anyone could ever ask of another human individual. Our impulse, it seems, is to meddle, label, and (often) escape; and as much as I want to condemn this impulse in others, I know I do it too.
It’s hard—incredibly hard—to stare into an abyss, a hopeless situation, the damage of a careless moment, etc. etc. and not, at least, offer a platitude to encourage comfort or offload discomfort by assigning some blame. We need to feel better in the midst of difficulty. So do I. And I’m not sure that’s a wholly condemnable need.
It was hard—incredibly hard—to resist this need for comfort and focus all of my attention on a deep wound in my own psyche: the raw tear from a single act of pedophilia leveled again my eight-year-old body by a man who was basically a stranger to me. Previously suppressed, the memories of this act came rushing back to me in my mid-thirties; hence it was a “fresh” wound, experienced as though brand new, sending my mind and body into a strange physiological orbit.
I want to say that the reeling is over. But it’s not. There are days that spin so aggressively, I grip the ledges of my life until my bones ache. Those days are fewer and farther between thanks to my willingness to narrate, in my own words and on my own terms, the story of assault in all its forms—from the embodied trauma I still experience, to the reactions of others who get caught in a moment of my reeling, to ways I still feel vulnerable in a world where I am not (as a woman and traumatized individual) at the top of the sexual food chain.
None of this has been easy to explore or narrate. I’ve wanted to quit many times and, only a few months ago, seriously considered burning the box of books I will soon receive from PANK (my publisher) because still life is twenty-one poems all beginning “my pedophile.” What on earth was I thinking?!! Why give so much artistic attention to this disgusting act and then offer this very personally painful history to an entire world of readers?!! Yes, I was seriously considering dousing the cardboard in gasoline, lighting a match (drop), changing my identity, and letting this whole history of trauma go up in the flames.
But, that’s not really how a history happens. History is chronicled, remembered, and known no matter how much we wish to run from its traumas and shames. My veins, my DNA, carry the imprint of a this past. In running, it only comes with me. And trying to gain any sort of personal power over that shame through dismissal, defenses, or escape does nothing to alter its existence. It’s still there. The small huddled eight-year-old of my body is part of me and she needs me every time her system goes on high-alert or the grief initiates another soul shattering. “The truth is,” says Engle, “one cannot be truly empowered until the shame is brought out, examined, and healed by compassion.”
Even as I read the word “healed” I cringe a little, though I know what Engle means. You can’t suture a broken bird egg. The pieces cupped in the hand cannot be restored to their original state. Things have changed. The eight-year old is harmed; she cannot be unharmed.
But she can be loved.
The shell shards in my poem are beautiful, a fragile memorial to a winged-life attempted, and they can be honored for what they are as they are. They can be placed in a glass jar and set on a shelf for observance. They could even be dusted off with a fine brush, maybe polished and arranged—appreciated.
I am a woman with PTSD still learning to cope with physiological stressors and emotional pain from assault. I have looked at, even lingered, in the dark corners of my mind to see, gain knowledge, be present, and then to testify to what I found there and eventually profess those findings. My exploration, however, has no value unless I can offer a compassionate response to and about what I have witnessed. I am happy to say I can.
After all, what is a broken eggshell or a small child huddled and frightened in the corner of a room? Life. They are both a part of the living world. And in the dark places I have searched, I have always found life. Broken, shaken, unmoving perhaps—but evidence of aliveness all the same.
The war veteran sitting across from me that cold January evening was shaking too. Soft spoken and bright he told me a bit about his experiences and how little others understand PTSD. Few words were exchanged between us—instead, we shared a knowing. We bore witness to common trauma while the people around us gathered in more jovial conversation. The eggshells in our hands were trembling ever so slightly and, together, we observed their delicate edges where torn and the perfect roundness of some of their intact pieces. No need to label or fix this moment. It was beautiful. The shattering of our mutual existences, a few vulnerable minutes acknowledging our pasts, together honoring all of it.
This is the first of a series of blogs I will write on assault, trauma, and compassionate self-witness, as well as the hope that comes from taking the time to sit with ourselves in the dark. After all, as Martin Luther King once said so brilliantly, “But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” In our darkness, the hope of gentle light.
Order still life from PANK Press in October of 2020 at https://pankmagazine.com/shop/still-life-kimberly-ann-priest/