This was a very special episode indeed. The second hour features Professor Leonie Pihama, an amazing Māori scholar and activist, who gave a keynote at the SRB III Walls conference this weekend. Leonie spoke with us about indigenous knowledge, colonisation and borders which cut thought and violate indigenous lands, intergenerational trauma, and deep healing. It was an honour and a privilege for Blythe and I to get to chat with her for over an hour. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
We are joined by the lovey Paul B Ramaeker, a professor in film and media studies. We start of talking about Melania’s asshole-jacket and explore the idea of her as a victim of violence. We move on to chat about diversity in film criticism, and the perennial question of whether art can be separated from the asshole who made it (think Spacey, Polanski, and abusers). Finally, we take some time to mourn Anthony Bourdain and appreciate his legacy.
A lot of my work deals with victim status and reclaiming the label. I know, who wants to be a victim? Who wants to claim that label? No one. Not really. But that’s the point. People don’t choose to endure victimising experiences, especially traumatic ones. But when those things happen, whether by human hands or the hands of fate, people will go to great lengths to avoid calling themselves victims. That’s part of why survivor has become the trending identity category, especially for victims of sexual or intimate violence.
But victim has had a range of meanings over the centuries. For thousands of years it referred to a sacrificial animal until it was applied to Christ in the 16th century. Then it took on a slew of connotations rooted in Christian values – to be meek, weak, passive, and forgiving in the face of harm. These connotations became imperatives, tacit guidelines for how victims should behave. These connotations are one of the most prominent threads in the tapestry we call victimhood.
Enter neoliberalism. In the 1950s, the idea that unfettered free will was going to liberate markets and people across the world started getting traction. Individual agency and responsibility became idealised. Over the last many decades, victimhood has increasingly become an insult leveraged at people too weak, too lazy, to whatever to succeed under they tyranny of neoliberalism. They are seen as having a victim mentality.
Among the most important tensions in how we think of victims is whether it’s in reference to something that happens to someone (i.e. an accident, an assault) or whether it’s an internal state of mind. Increasingly, we view victimhood as an internal mind state that primes people for bad things to happen to them. We think of victimhood as a mentality. We castigate victims for being weak people who need to get their shit together. And we believe that people get attached to their suffering, lack the moral fibre to push past it, and therefore bring on further suffering to themselves.
But there was a moment when that’s not what victimhood was about. Mardorossian, a feminist theorist, writes that “it was precisely at the historical moment when women became active in fighting to dismantle the oppressive structures that subordinated them that the category of “victim” was reinfected and ideologically redefined to support the depoliticisation of gendered class relations.” In the 1970s, “being a victim did not mean being incapacitated and powerless. It means being a determined and angry (although not pathologically resentful) agent of change.” Victimhood in the 1970s was about naming a wrong and channeling anger at the wrong into political and social action for change.
I think it’s time to start reclaiming the victim label. It emphasises that a wrong has been done. In the case of sexual violence, it quietly but boldly points a finger at someone who caused harm. It demands that something be done to ameliorate the situation and repair it by way of justice. And it honours the powerlessness that is endemic to victimising experiences. What’s more, it resists cultural pressures to overcome victimhood on an individual basis, it undercuts what I call the survivor imperative, the individual push to become stronger than a violent victimising incident, to grow from the experience and highlight one’s agency and strength through suffering. Those ideas are counterproductive to healing and recovery. And they put responsibility where it doesn’t belong — on the shoulders of victims, rather than on rapists and the social realities that produce them
To be a victim is to know powerlessness, and to rail against it happening again. To be a victim is to cry for justice, based on the acknowledgement that harm comes to us from the outside, not from in our own heads. And victimhood offers a renewed way to band together for support and solidarity, to resist together. These days, thoughtful reclamation of the victim label is an act of resistance and subversion. It doesn’t have to negate survivor identity — for example, I identify as either, neither or both depending on the day and the context. In my writing, I write victim/survivor, since I see strategic opportunities in both.
The point is, the victim label is as complex as any word could be that’s been in use for thousands of years. It’s time to think about it carefully and realise that denying the label is profoundly depoliticising. I am a victim, and a proud one. It’s not all in my head. And I am fighting to stop the violence that hurt me and victimises others every day. I am a proud victim, and I am not alone.
Originally published by the Otago Daily Times, May 22 2018
The Dunedin — and Otago — theatre community deserve a candid explanation of why the Fortune Theatre has been forced to close, writes Lily Kay Ross.
The Fortune Theatre is not history. It is a place with history, and it is surely a part of our city’s history. But its lifeblood is still pulsing in the veins of the local artists, practitioners, volunteers, and theatre-goers who are grieving and in shock at what Dunedin has just lost.
But what exactly has been lost? The Fortune Theatre is a space and a company, but it is also a community, made up of talented and passionate individuals. We collaborate because we believe in professional theatre. We are still here.
The future of the Fortune, as a company and as a space, remains uncertain. But the Fortune is still very much present. Playwright and dramaturg Emily Duncan has minced no words in noting that there is a need for transparency and a detailed account of what led us here.
The Dunedin – and Otago – theatre community deserve a candid explanation around what has occurred in order to realise the next iteration of professional theatre in Dunedin.
Now is a time of mourning and taking stock. It is also a time of action. Playbills are set, countless of hours have been poured into programming and education on which our wider community relies. It will take solidarity to resist the impending erasure of diverse efforts by the skilled and dedicated practitioners who worked with the Fortune. Over the coming months, venues and funding will be needed to make sure professional theatre stays alive in Dunedin until a long term solution can be instated.
The immediate risk is that people will leave; that talent will drain from this City of Literature in search of more viable opportunities. We can’t risk that.
Director Jordan Dickson and I have had a number of conversations about the need for and possibility of keeping Dunedin’s professional theatre alive while developing long-term solutions.
An ideal solution would be to extend the Fortune Theatre’s expiration date by about a year – to see through the already scheduled events. The funding from Creative New Zealand is there, and the DCC has indicated a willingness to provide funds. Our town has the staff and expertise. It would be a way to dissipate some of the shock.
A thriving future for theatre in Dunedin will take some creative thinking and consideration of modern models that work, including profit sharing models. We need a new theatre, built for purpose. We need to think about how multi-purpose spaces, including live-work spaces and business ventures, can promote greater community involvement in local theatre, and contribute to the vitality of theatre spaces.
A central location is essential for accessibility. Perhaps Sammy’s and the old Fortune Theatre site, as well as other historic venues in town, could be revamped and put to use in a creative, community-based coalition. Such revamping would take funds from the DCC, and a wise investment could render Dunedin a creative destination for creatives and their supporters.
The Tannery Arts Center, in Santa Cruz California, offers a potential pathway that I’m especially excited about. They offer low-income, state-sponsored housing for proven artists, who pay a range of rental fees based on their income. The live-work environment is an unrivalled method for community building, with events, friendships, collaborations, and word-of-mouth support helping artists to expand their audiences and inspire their work. The Tannery offers 100 units, which house up to three people (including many families), and offer an on-site gallery as well as a 182-seat theatre.
Part of our conundrum is that the arts are in tension with the interests and values of neoliberal capitalism – its obsession with bottom lines and profits, and its reluctance to provide safety nets. What theatre offers is nourishment for the soul, not the pocket book. At its best, it will always present stories and ideas that challenge norms and ask viewers to think in new ways, to empathise with others whose experience is outside their own. To support theatre takes more than good business sense: it takes community and governmental support. Any self-reflective society has an ethical obligation to foster creative output.
What happens next sits on the shoulders of the Dunedin community. Whether or not you attend professional theatre, our city’s culture thrives with it. We would not be the same city without it. Now is a time to voice support for theatre. There are coalitions and teams in the works aiming to brainstorm and figure long term solutions to the Fortune closure. Young people are especially vital to this process – we need innovation and new ideas that speak to young people in a fast changing world.
Meanwhile, the lifeblood of the Fortune is still pulsing. Wellsprings of talent and knowledge dwell inside hundreds of people in this city; we are still here and still fighting for the future of Fortune and its legacy. We cannot do it alone. We want – and need – you to join us.
Lily Kay Ross is a PhD student in gender studies at the University of Otago and carries a Masters in Divinity from Harvard University. She also writes plays, novellas, nonfiction and memoirs, and co-hosts Your Friendly Neighbourhood Feminists on Radio1.
The latest episode of Your Friendly Neighbourhood Feminists on Radio One, 91 FM. We are joined in the studio by Jordan Dickson to talk about the closure of the Fortune Theatre, and the future of professional theatre in Dunedin.
(Also posted on Medium)
Nothing can prepare a woman to read a journalist’s account of her own rape. To call it surreal is an understatement. Rachel Monroe’s handling of my story for New York Magazine (read it here), situated in a larger piece on sexual abuse in ayahuasca tourism, was exactly what I hoped it would be: understated, to the point, accurate in fact and time-frame. She resisted sensationalism, which isn’t easy to do when the rapist in question has so many murder allegations against him. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
And anyway, who on Earth — besides the one who survived it — could possibly describe the horror of having a man writhe beside you in the dark as the world pulses and melts around you, as you begin to realize that you cannot move? Under the influence of scopolamine (brugmansia), the fear tasted green in my cotton mouth. I watched as my overwhelming doubt in this man grew quiet, how my inner thoughts came to sound like his voice while, next to me, he wouldn’t stop saying “I love you, we’re in love, this is the will of god.” I don’t even believe in god.
Nothing made sense, not his words, not his erection, not my paralysis.
It took me ten minutes to muster the strength to turn away from him that night. A pool of sweat had formed between us. I spend the next eight hours shivering, ten feet from the bed he slept in, unable to coil my fingers around my sleeping bag, unzip it, and crawl inside. From that night on, I was clay in his hands. I watched myself speak his words and do as he instructed. I couldn’t stop myself. It was like he had commandeered my will, my body, my inner life. I did as he told me to. “Get on the bed.” I’ll never forget the rage in his eyes, how his face contorted in hate. All I could feel while he was inside me was his hatred of me, how I wasn’t even human to him. He left without a word. That was the first of six rapes.
Maybe the horror is in the numbness of it all, the way he crept inside my body and twisted my mind. The thing about being brainwashed is how dream-like everything seems, how tranquil. I spent those twenty five days in a haze. He took me from myself. I was a part of him. Leaving never crossed my mind. And thank goodness for that. To this day, I believe he may have killed me if I tried to leave. To escape took surpassing my captor’s own ability to deceive.
The moment I managed to escape hinged on three factors: first, it had been a while since he had dosed me with scopolamine, so my head was not totally muddled. Second, I’d gotten an email alleging him of multiple murders: bodies cut to pieces with chainsaws, producing shrunken human heads for the black market, that sort of thing. I was afraid for my life. And when, a hour after that email, he locked eyes with me, testing the lies I’d told him in my effort to escape, I had no doubt that this man was willing to kill me. That distinct terror cleared my head enough that I could devise a plan that worked. The third thing, the x-factor, was luck.
Maybe the horror is that he did this on purpose, meticulously. He planned this. He knew exactly what he was doing. By all accounts, he’d done it before. He had a method. He changed my name. He controlled my food intake. He drugged me multiple times. He cut off my contact to the outside world. He laid a trap. And it worked. For a while, anyway.
Do you see it now? Can you begin to comprehend that kind of powerlessness?
And that’s just the beginning. The twenty five days I spent in his grasp were just the beginning. The story rode me for years after that, spurs and whip and all. And the fallout when I got home, the utter failure of the ayahuasca community to respond appropriately to me as I fought to survive, was a nightmare every bit as traumatizing as my time in the Amazon.
In the New York Magazine article, Daniela Peluso’s comments offer an exceptionally clear example of the rhetoric of victim blame I encountered every day of my recovery. I struggled against it as I fought to bring light to sexual violence (and abuses of power more broadly) within the global culture around ayahuasca. Her words betray the conviction that women get themselves raped by extension of their naïveté. Her rhetoric suggests that women should know better, they should look past their cultural expectations — they should keep themselves safe. This is woman blame — undiluted, straight up, chased with a caveat about being feminist and not blaming victims that lingers with the taste of rotten lime.
The real responsibility lies not with women to keep themselves safe, but with shamans to stop raping.
And to move in that direction, to actually work to keep women safe, we need to consider who controls the narrative about ayahuasca. Members of the global research community have circled the wagon. They have used academic rhetoric to build a wall against critique and criticism, silencing those who seek to draw attention to the proliferation of sexual violence in their midst. Such acts depict scholarship at its worst: using big words and impressive credentials to shut people out of the conversation and bury the issue.
The controlled narrative goes something like this: ayahuasca is good, and we need to control how people perceive it because this is a controlled substance we want to see legalized, a medicine we want to see legitimated. And if we have to sacrifice a few women who get themselves raped to keep ayahuasca’s name clean, so be it. Efforts to raise the issue of sexual violence in a meaningful way, to bring people to the table and begin to create solutions, have been attacked and bullied into submission and silence. Anyone who watched the rise and fall of the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council can attest to that.
When I’m not doing research, I teach sexual violence resistance to university women. The program’s developer pulls no punches on this: resistance is not prevention. Prevention targets those who commit rape (mostly men, according to decades of peer-reviewed research). Resistance is a strategy that reduces, but does not eliminate, rape. But the first step in resistance is identifying that there is a problem, that rape happens, that it can happen to anyone. It’s one piece of the puzzle in addressing the problem, but it’s by no means the only piece.
In the case of ayahuasca tourism, efforts to address the issue, including fostering women’s resistance (“keeping themselves safe”) are continuously stymied and silenced. And the people who silence those efforts keep coming back with the same nonsense: women are responsible for their own safety (victim blame), it doesn’t happen that much (minimization of the problem), it’s not a big deal (minimization of its impact), we need to protect the name of ayahuasca (self-interest). In other words: “ladies, keep yourselves safe, but we aren’t going to actually give you any information that might help you do so, and we aren’t going to out abusers, or take any other preventative measures, either.” This kind of nonsense, like abuses of power and sexual violence, is not limited to the ayahuasca community. But it’s the example I have to work with. And to borrow from Anne Lamott, if people want me to talk about them more kindly, they should have behaved better.
Which leads me to my point. The responsibility for addressing this issue lies in the hands of the wider community. When I was in recovery, people often told me that I was in a position to find a solution, to create change, to keep other women safe. But it’s ridiculous to tell a person in a sinking boat that they are now perfectly poised to save others from drowning. It is not a victim’s responsibility to find solutions. It’s a victim’s responsibility to take care of herself, to try and survive on her own terms. And the role of the community is to step up to the bat, start meaningful dialogues, and try to combat the issue together.
My relationship to the ayahuasca community was always as an outsider. As a young researcher fascinated by marginalized spiritual communities, it was a compelling field. As a survivor, I stepped into the community to try and bring attention to an issue I was forced to grapple with. Since the subculture around ayahuasca claims to be progressive and self-reflective, I thought this community might be ready to lead the way in handling the age old problem of sexual abuse (and abuse of power) by spiritual leaders. I was wrong.
All I wanted, in the most treacherous phases of my recovery, was for people who care about ayahuasca to say “this isn’t your problem to fix, it’s our problem. We’re going to do something about it. And when you’re ready to give us input, we’ll listen.”
Within that conversation, the input of survivors is vital: we have valuable knowledge, insight, and guidance regarding sexual violence resistance, prevention, and response. But we are not obligated to stand on the front lines of the struggle. Communities everywhere have to work together on this issue — church communities, schools and universities, professional networks. Anywhere there is power to be abused and potential victims to be exploited, people need to work together to stop sexual violence, and to react appropriately when the unthinkable happens. Survivors need support, not pressure to find the solution or recover in a tidy way that makes everyone else in the community feel comfortable.
What’s more, we victims are the only ones with the authority to tell our community if their response to us in the aftermath of rape has been appropriate and helpful. In my case, with the exception of very few individuals, it wasn’t. And for it to improve, I’d suggest engaging the writings of feminists like Rebecca Stringer and Nicola Gavey. Our culture’s handling of victims places the onus of responsibility on individuals to prevent victimization, rather than looking at complex cultural and social factors that foster the proliferation of sexual violence. What’s more, the onus isn’t just on would-be victims to protect themselves, but to rise above: not just to survive, but to turn their personal hell into the best thing that ever happened to them. Maybe it changed their outlook on life and now they can write a step-by-step guide to survival that makes them a boatload of cash. It’s balderdash, codswallop, bullshit.
Communities, and the individuals that constitute them, need to educate themselves about victim-blame. Working with survivors can be a minefield, and even people with the best intentions can say the wrong things when they aren’t sensitive to the dangers of the territory. That level of sensitivity takes work. That works begins in communities.
And let’s be clear, grammatically speaking. It’s not that women get raped. I did not “get raped.” This shaman raped me.
One final thing. I wasn’t an ayahuasca tourist: I knew what it was, I had a scholarly interest in it, but I did not go to the Amazon with any plans or intentions of drinking it. I certainly would never, under any conditions, have consented to ingesting brugmansia (scopolamine). And I did not walk into the Amazon naively. Even if I had, it wouldn’t be my fault.
The fact is, I was a Harvard graduate student with training in ethnography, and a field-education student working with an organization that had been collaborating with my abuser (who was also my boss and supervisor) for two years before I went to the Amazon. Two days before I left, I specifically asked a trusted colleague if there was any danger that this man would make sexual advances toward me. I was reassured that he would never do such a thing.
But for all my training and all my knowledge, I was blindsided by drugs I did not consent to taking, in an environment miles away from the nearest town, police station, or paved road. I had no way to contact the outside world except to use my abuser’s phone (did I mention he gave me the wrong phone number to pass along, so that no one back home could contact me?). I was blindsided by a man who planned every step of what he did to me. I wasn’t naive. I “knew better.” And I thought I was immune. Turns out, this nightmare can happen to anyone.
Here is the piece by Rachel Monroe in New York Magazine, Sexual Assault in the Amazon. It deals with sexual abuse in the Amazon and includes pieces of my story.
“Ainlay Dixon, her husband, and three of their four children were in a town in central Ecuador, midway through a South American tour, when a guide approached and offered to take them on a four-day jungle excursion to see the “authentic” Amazon: an indigenous village led by a real shaman. To get there, the family took a 4×4 as far as they could down a rutted road, which soon dwindled to a trail; they made the rest of the way on foot. Eventually, they arrived at a small village where they were introduced to the village chief, a well-known shaman who’d had tourists flocking to his remote village ever since he’d been featured on a news show in Ecuador. That night, the shaman held a welcome ceremony for the new guests. They sat in a thatched roof hut while he blew pungent tobacco smoke on them, invoking a charm of protection. The novelty of the experience was tempered by the presence of another American — a strawberry-blonde Harvard Divinity School student named Lily Ross, who had been living in the village for the past few weeks, working for a grassroots nonprofit and researching shamanic practices.”
11 July, 2016
Waiting for a major magazine to set a release date is like waiting for a baby to come — except you never really get a due date. These days my eyes linger of the work in front of me, occasionally glancing at the horizon, wondering when the story will come into view. I know only what I have spoken and the general map of the piece. The rest hinges on trust in another person’s ability to convey events and emotions in a manner that, if all goes will, will ring true.
In the meantime, I’m fairly obsessed with my research in critical victimology. Of course, my own experience shapes my reading of the material — it nuances my intellectual understanding as much as it sculpts the insights I might produce. Both theory and data offer a kind of relief to me: someone else has put words around an experience which, at the time I lived through it, was difficult to grasp and nearly impossible to name. I speak here not of the rape, but of the secondary vicitmization, the overwhelmingly inappropriate responses received from too many people in my community when I became public about my experience of victimization and my identity as a victim.
Immersing myself in critical victimological theory, feminist theory, and peace and conflict studies continues to help me cultivate the seedbed of my understanding of what I lived through. I understand that by speaking out in the manner that I did, I disrupted the presumed role of the victim in society, aggregating a slew of reactions aimed to silence me and return me to my place as the kind victim others could recognize. I can see how, even among those who loved me and desired to help, their desire to live in a Just World — where people get what they deserve, for better or for worse — hit a wall in trying to make sense of my senseless and undeserved suffering.
There were some who believed that women were a worthy sacrifice in the name of normalizing Ayahuasca use. It isn’t as surprising to me now as it once was. The word victim, after all, derives from the Latin victima, meaning sacrificial animal, and was only applied to humans in the 16th century, referring to Christ. Our modern concept of the victim grew from the soil of the Christian tradition, and continues to carry connotations of purity, innocence, and a willingness to suffer on behalf of others.
But women are not sacrificial lambs.
I could never play pretend at that farce. Not a single one of the strong, extraordinary women I know who have endured sexual violence could play pretend at that farce. Anyone asking us to live that lie ought to have known: we had already won a thousand days in a row at surviving what was done to us, what continues to be done to us even after the raping has stopped. And any woman who dares to speak out about her rape might also dare to speak about the ones who tried to make her shut up about it. In many ways, that is the more interesting story.
I am grateful for the support I have received from mentors, teachers, allies and friends. The kindness of the few has, for me, triumphed over the ignorance of the many. In this instance, it was the luxury of ignorance on display that seemed to aggravate the wounds of rape. But it was the care and wisdom of those who have not had that luxury, those who have had to think this suffering through, who helped me to clean out and suture the wound. I could not have done it alone. I hope you each know who you are, even if you don’t quite know the power of what you’ve done. Thank you.
I still don’t know what will become of this moment. I know that for the last four years, I needed and wanted for this story to meet the public because it seemed like the way to make my suffering mean something. I hope that that something is helpful. I hope maybe it keeps someone safe. And for those who are navigating the treacherous landscape of the aftermath of rape, especially rape involving mind-altering substances, I hope this story offers some kind of medicine. You are not alone. None of us are.
Among my hopes is that communities and individuals will reflect upon their responses to sexual victimization, and engage research, narratives and educators who can help them to form robust and informed methods for holding those who have been victimized dear. Victimization sucks. It isn’t something to glorify for its transformative value or romanticize as a catalyst for growth. It’s not intrinsically redeemable. But it can been composted and crafted into someone useful, inflected with the wisdom of the human who undertakes that work. Those fruits can only be harvested when people turn toward the suffering of victims and engage the process with kindness and care. Poison can be made into medicine. It just takes a village.
And so for now I return to my research. Curiosity drives me deeper into my studies. And curiosity nurtures my openness for what is about to unfold on the media stage. In all likelihood, you and I will meet on the other side. May the time and space between us be gentle and sweet as a pear tree in summer, fragrant and rooted, strong and deep.
Notes from the margins of a manuscript soaked in red
April 10, 2015
Los Angeles, CA
My story is changing it’s structure. I am restructuring my story. The story is reshaping me.
It remains a mystery to me whether art makes itself or are made by us. Or maybe art makes us. Maybe surrendering to it is the key to resilience. Except that it’s more than surrender. Resilience demands a kind of relishing in change. That relishing is a learned skill. If you listen and smell the rain, the soil will teach you.
I tell myself to trust the process: that if I am to design anything to support it, to make it elegant as a backstrap loom. I remind myself to never interrupt the chatter and songs of a weaving woman.
For months now I’ve been underground, in hibernation, reinventing, rewriting. I am still in the inbetween. After seven years of theorizing and studying liminality, the rites of adulthood and the framing of this epoch of human history as an initiation of sorts, I’m beginning to wonder if liminality is the new normal.
It seems to be. At least for me. And when I look around at my friends, my peers, my cohort, I get the feeling that I am not alone. Change is a changing thing.
Almost daily I remind myself of these words from Terry Tempest Williams:
“I want to feel both the beauty and the pain of the age we are living in. I want to survive my life without becoming numb. I want to speak and comprehend words of wounding without having these words become the landscape where I dwell. I want to possess a light touch that can elevate darkness to the realm of stars.”
The change is still coming. The stars still abide in the vacancy of night beyond the reach of our days. My thoughts are only partial now. Intimations. Seeds. But the soil is rich and the rains are coming.
I send you my love from the inbetween. I don’t know where I am anymore. But I know I’m home. And here, I remember the ones I love, the ones who love me. Even in my solitude, I do not walk alone.
February 19, 2015
It’s not a headline I’ve ever seen, but I can see the photo: a tiny human, three feet tall and looking up at an empty space in the world above them, wondering when daddy will come home or why mommy’s not back yet, wishing for something so simple as a hug they don’t yet know will never come. I wonder if the photographer will capture the innocence in their eyes while it’s still there, glistening. Soon, a dull heartache will be the new normal. At least for a time.
No matter the age or the circumstances, the initial impact is a double punch. The first is the loss, the confusion, the grief. The experts call it “child bereavement.” The second is realizing that the person you want to comfort you, the person who is supposed to be here, the person who always knew just the right way to hold you in moments like this, isn’t here anymore.
There was a book on my dad’s shelf called Part of Me Died, Too. I never read it. But I know the sentiment. There is a void in my life where my relationship with mom should be. I cannot fill it. I cannot forget it. The only thing that works is when I cup my hands around it and say, “this void belongs to me.” The only thing that fills it is learning to love myself the way she would have.
The Dead Parent Club is the club no one wants to join. Of course, we all do, eventually. I’ll tell you a secret known among its silent members: we never stop loosing our parents. We never get over it. With every milestone reached and every major victory, there is one face among the crowd we know is missing.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve wished “mom” was a contact in my iPhone I could call to commiserate over my latest failure or broken heart. I cannot tell you how many times calling on mom never crossed my mind because it’s never been an option.
Her absence is her presence. It was her death that raised me: her death that was my father’s coparent.
Ten minutes ago was the exact moment my mother died, twenty five years ago. I’m getting older now. I’ve note her absence at four graduations, births, weddings. Meanwhile my adult friend’s parents are dying. Siblings are dying and leaving small children behind. I can’t turn away, in part because I know how many people will.
I grew up as “the girl whose mom died.” I remember a long childhood spent as a symbol of hell in other people’s imaginations. I represented the horror of a parent taken from her child and symbolized a nightmare the likes of which people would do anything to remain ignorant. As the walking, talking representation of that quiet hell, I came to embody the taboo.
No one wanted to look at my reality, and so they turned away from me.
Meanwhile, I wanted to be anyone but Lily-whose-mom-died, I wanted to taste a life where the pain of her death was not constantly lingering.
I don’t think people ever “get over” their own life story. I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask. And I think it’s outright cruel to expect a child to forget their parent and move on. The idea that “enough time has passed” utterly fails to acknowledge that the loss only grows and shifts over time.
Life after parental death assumes a new normal. Accepting that is a step to healing that has to be made again and again.
So what helps? Companionship. I’ll never forget the people who could admit that they didn’t understand what I was going through, but who were willing to try. They were the brave ones who didn’t panic and didn’t run. Instead, they walked with me into the unknown and kept me company on the adventure of coming to grips and finding peace with what I’d lost. Exactly who and what it is I lost is something I will always be learning.
What helps are the people who don’t place their need for me to get over it — and be “okay” — before my own need to get through it honestly, in my own time and in my own way.
What helps is interest, not morbid curiosity. Interest sits back and let’s me talk about it on my own terms. Curiosity drives me to answer questions and dig up memories best left to rest in peace.
The Dead Parent Club is a thing. I can recognize children of dead parents from a mile away. It’s the depth in our eyes and the ferocious courage with which we love that makes us magnets, pulling or repelling with some mysterious intensity. We are the ones who grew up knowing the secret that all lives end one day, and who can taste exactly what that means for the ones left behind. Our solace is the knowledge that grief, like time, is a ripening agent, growing us into a deeper, fuller humanity.