I’ve struggled with words for weeks, scribbling and setting aside an account of the peaceful protest I attended October 1 outside the Ingham County Prosecutor’s office; see my photos on Flickr. I cannot capture the essence of that experience and have found dissatisfaction in the attempt. But in the process I’ve reflected upon my healing journey, crossings with survivors, allies, advocates. And I am grateful for the integrity of journalist Todd Heywood and media source Michigan Messenger for reporting a survivor’s story that otherwise would be buried by the legal system; see the breaking story from Sept. 29 and a follow-up regarding the legal system Oct. 6.
>>>>>While I’m unable to convey the amazing hours among kindred spirits last month, I pass on this story with recognition for the Coalition Against Sexual Violence, which calls upon the administration at my alma mater Michigan State University to hold its students and athletes accountable for sexual assault. In sharing the story, I support those who are able to join CASV this evening, November 2, as they peacefully protest in tandem with the MSU men’s basketball game. For those who cannot attend, please join me in a prayer of peace for safety at their event and for healing as well as justice…
We sit outside, wrapped in layers. Late October chills. We chat as leaves ride bursts of wind. Mama dog enjoys attention from a new hand, a balding man with big framed glasses and no teeth. I sit on the concrete, he on a bench, and Mom on another bench. These final minutes of our monthly visit are bright. He hasn’t handled a dog for years, and I hear joy in his voice as he talks with Mama dog.
>>>>>The man is my mom’s brother, my only living uncle. He is the youngest of four siblings, and the only son of late parents. He’s been living in institutions of one sort or another most of his life. He also is the person who sexually assaulted me when I was ten years old.
I scan pages at the computer as my sister talks on the phone. We just saw each other at our brothers’ weddings. Her kids resist homework time, and she pushes back at their protests. I tell her about visiting my uncle. She quizzes, “Your uncle?” since the uncle we shared through our late father is dead. “My mom’s brother, my only living uncle,” I explain. “You mean the one that–” and I interrupt, “Yes, I’ve been visiting him for a year and a half.”
>>>>>She’s stumped, “I didn’t know that.” I wonder to myself, “Wow, have I really not mentioned it?” Info possibly lost in the shuffle of life – hers on the West Coast, mine between Belgium and the Midwest. Undoubtedly I speak little of the visits, as I still absorb their significance.
It’s winter in Belgium. The morning frost thaws by midday. I rummage among papers below a wooden beam, one of two that run along the ceiling. From my writing room I speak with Mom by computer and ask, “Has anyone heard about him since Grandma died? It’s been two and a half years.” She shares the news, “Actually he sent a letter not too long ago. He had surgery and is doing alright.”
>>>>>We talk more about the letter, the first word since he refused contact of any kind with anyone for years. I tell Mom, “I want to see him.” I don’t know why I want this, but I do. Grandma would want him to be visited, but I am motivated by my own purpose, opaque yet tangible.
We arrive early to the facility – new, massive, in the middle of nowhere. Wire and a tower surround its perimeter. He’s been here for years while the courts take their time ruling on his sanity. He was charged with arson after baking clothes in the oven of his boarding room. Mom and I wait around the check-in counter. A few more visitors join us. We sign in and are subject to screening. The photo album I brought as a gift sets off the alarm. The cover is the culprit – shiny purple foil.
>>>>>We must visit one at a time and I go first, escorted to a secured room. I’m directed to pick a seat facing a thick transparent barrier. He emerges from a door in a jumpsuit, sporting a shaggy white beard, more hair on his face than head. An image of ZZ Top flashes. Our voices are muffled by the phones hanging from the barrier. Our words are few. In short order he relays, “I’m ready to see your mom.” And so I am led again to the outside world.
My sister doesn’t ask for an explanation, yet her surprise begs one. Words are insufficient. Still I venture an impression, “I think the visits are about healing, but more his healing than mine.”
>>>>>I have felt healed – more than less – since learning to speak what once was unspeakable, not just the assault but most anything connected with the body. Less and less am I showered by shame, an internalized assault that radiates the entire body, which used to strike with every menses and sexual experience.
Wearing an A-line dress, a gorgeous find from the thrift store taken for my brother’s wedding, I stand in front of the hotel mirror. The bodice is snug, showing some cleavage. My mind knows the dress fits perfectly, while my emotions burn in shame. A friend loans me a thin sweater, and I wrap a scarf around my neck.
>>>>>The naked feeling wears off by the reception. As the music starts, I set aside my accessories and hit the dance floor. I twist and shake with my eleven-year-old niece to oldies, which my father would sing if he were alive. I celebrate being alive in this body and learning how to overcome the shame that lingers.