The Silence of Violence

During a decade of painful and regenerative learning, I climbed out of the silence following violence. And in following years, I continue to do so. This silence is the echo after an instruction not to tell, not to speak; following the lie that ours is not a legitimate basis on which to stand. These words and actions are destructive–even violent–and often delivered by people entrusted to build us up. Yet this girl who once raised her hand to silence her mother’s talk about menstruation has learned how to speak, be in this body, and listen to women who’ve broken their silences.

As too many of us, my body has been the site of abuse: an uncle’s sexual assault, my father’s and an ex’s physical and emotional abuse, and authorities’ violence through cowing its ancestral legitimacy. Surviving each act of violence in word and deed gives honor to this body, but the harder challenge has been surviving the silence of violence. The sickening quiet that follows a blood-curdling scream, hesitation engraved into a battered body and mind, self-doubt planted by others that weights one’s lips shut.

I told my mother at 10 years about being sexually assaulted by her brother, despite him telling me not to tell. Despite my truth telling and Mom telling her mother, Grandma called me a liar (not to my child’s face but to her own daughter’s). The sexual assault became invisible within the family, even after Uncle was convicted for the same violence against girls outside the family.

The routine of silence continued into adolescence, as Mom urged me to “take care” around Brother with his explosive anger. I was trained to endure belligerence and aggressiveness, and to watch her endure the same from her son. My chipping away of silence came slowly through years of counseling. Eventually, breaking the silence of violence became a matter of survival and healing.

In the Pulitzer Prize nominated A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War, Susan Griffin concretely conveys the trembling of girls who have survived incest. It is the kind of trembling narrated by Evelyne Accad in The Excised, a novella of prose and poetry that stories female genital mutilation (FGM). I visualize this trembling as aftershocks of an earthquake, which has at least shaken structures mistaken to be secure, if not torn them apart and the earth beneath. And so it is, after violent words or deeds that the body may appear to be whole–one piece and un-fractured–but the foundations are cracked, rendering the fragmented structure unsafe for living.

A Chorus of Stones and The Excised also reveal a stealth yet stable part of the cycle of violence. In Accad’s fiction inspired by real life, women of a North African village restrain a girl by hand as an elder woman cuts the child’s clitoris, despite the fact that the women endured the same violence in childhood. In Griffin’s creative non-fiction prose, incest-surviving mothers in Appalachia warn daughters not to be alone with male relatives, yet wait to send their daughters to safety until after the girls are raped.

These stories reflect my encounters with violence, its silence, and the roles that adult women have played in both. I see how my mother’s silence and her mother’s denial have impacted many parts of this girl-become-woman. Yet a recent lesson from adulthood reminds me about the ongoing challenge to overcome the silence of violence, and I am challenged to be a woman who does not repeat this cycle. (^See note below.)

It was during graduate school that I owned up to being Cherokee. (For part of this story, see “Cherokee”.) By “own up”, I mean “come into”: accepted who I always have been but had denied, having been separated from this understanding. And it was through writing about my experiences being racialized as nonwhite that I came to confront my ancestry. Yet learning how to speak this understanding (also called “identity”) is one of the most difficult challenges in my life. My first public step was to perform a piece at an academic national conference; in that performance I “identified” as mixed race of Cherokee-descent.

In preparation for this conference, I received assistance from committee advisers including two American Indian women, one of whom is Cherokee. Yet a full year after this conference, the same pair reproached me for identifying in public writing as Cherokee. What changed in that year’s time? Not my public identification, except that I had become more vocal through writing about my experience, which in academic circles is often called “identity recovery.”

The subsequent internal “shut-down” I experienced from their reproach parallels the damage I know from other acts of violence. The content and delivery of their reproach provoked shame and fear for speaking the truth. Consequently, I felt panic to speak the truth about being Cherokee for quite some time, especially with native people. And it is only in recent months that I have begun the public writing of these events.

Overcoming violence and its silence is a process of rebuilding: sometimes foundations are repairable; other times they are completely re-lain. In an odd sum of years, I have become grateful to write prose and poetry, and to perform words from this body. It is my hope to continue celebrating our voices, to keep performing from this body even as it is a site of ongoing contention.

And I hope to keep learning how to
  • speak–and repeatedly learn how to speak, because for every set back there is a step forward;
  • be in my body–to embody my words, to speak from this site despite the harm done to it;
  • and listen to women who’ve broken their silences–in their works, in stories about their lives, in live communion, overall to be a witness by listening to testimonies of violence and survival.

^In this essay, I consider the role women play in such cycles. Also at play are the role of men and the patriarchal system circumscribing parties and behaviors.

Breaking the Silence is a series of essays by Melissa Dey Hasbrook. The series’ concept is explained here: What Do You Think?.

Post updated: 28 January 2009.

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The Silence of Violence by Melissa Dey Hasbrook is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

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