Sleepless in America: Awake in a Rape Culture

Then some of his promises came true—knife, speeding car, footsteps on my roof.
Me belly crawling through my dark teenage room into my sister’s—“help.”
Lights on.

He took to the shadows—he still might be there.
I can’t remember his face, only his weight bearing down.
A body remembers.

~MMS, Let the Bones Dance (WJKP, 2010)

I can’t sleep. In my 49 years I have had countless nights like this one. Awake in the thick quiet of the world around me sleeping. I wrote a lot of my first book in this liminal time—when I needed sleep, but couldn’t sleep. I felt the poetry of a body healing telling me to get up, speak up, write, and connect with a world that can’t sleep forever.

I wrote about being raped. I wrote about living with rape all these years—most of my life. I wrote about motherhood and racism and fear and grief and faith and healing.

I was fifteen when it started. Rape isn’t a once and for all event in one’s life. It is not something that happens to you and then is over. It is something that changes you forever—something that has haunted me, held me captive, and diminished what I can feel and do and even be.

A long time ago I found some freedom from some of its weight—and I made my peace with the fact that all of the weight will never be totally lifted.  Carrying that weight for the rest of my life is because my rape is not just mine, it is ours—the world’s.  And the weight I carry is ours—the weight of a world so full of violence, so hostile to certain bodies.  I can never be fully free of it until everyone is free from it.

So I am awake, heavy with the memories, the sensations of not being able to breathe or move or speak. I am awake, activated by the hyper-vigilance that trauma embeds in my muscle fibers, my shoulders, my eyes, my ears, my spirit.

I am awake also with anger and grief, with a deep sadness from all the chatter of patriarchy and white supremacy and misogyny that is turned up too loud for me to bear right now. I despise the way women’s bodies become chess pieces in political battles and power struggles. I grieve the way it chips away at the humanity of all of us when someone tells the world about their pain, and then the world just inflicts more pain on them.  The brutality of it is enough to unlock a deep despair. That brutality tries to break us, tries to tell us to shut up, to stop disturbing the diseased slumber of a world’s willful denial.

Through the years, writing has been one of the things that keeps me alive. I write to practice not giving up on the world; I write to practice not giving up on healing and freedom and joy.  And whenever I write, connections follow. Total strangers write me and tell me their story. People I’ve known for decades tell me they, too, have carried the shame and pain of sexual violence.  A portal opens up and voices whisper, #metoo.

Maybe I am writing right now because I need to connect.  But, tonight feels different than other times. Tonight I am writing because I am so tired of the horrible spin cycle that jerks us all around every few days.  While the #metoo movement has been empowering for people like me, it has also been exhausting and re-traumatizing.  And it is the age-old story that I am so tired of—someone in power abuses his power, everybody knows about it, he gets away with it and is, in turn, given more power. I am so done with this abusive cycle. And I am not alone. So I am awake tonight because a lot of us don’t need so much sleep anymore. We need change more than we need sleep.

And the change I need is for white men to take responsibility for each other—for your peers, your fathers, your sons, your co-workers, your neighbors, your teammates. Stop protecting this thing that is killing us, that is brutalizing us—that is heaping the weight of violence and oppression onto bodies that have already been carrying your load for you and then some.  I am ready for you all to take some of it—take some of the weight of this insanity that you tell us is in the service of “fairness” and “procedure” and “merit” and “qualifications.”  Take some of the weight that your bodies’ entitlement to other bodies and your freedom to move about the world as you please and your ability to talk your way out of criminal behavior and your denial of the pain that ravages other bodies has loaded onto black and brown bodies, female bodies, LGBTQIA bodies. You carry this weight for a while. Take your turn, do your share. Because others have been doing your share and then some for too long.

What if this time we interrupted the nightmare and ended it differently—instead of giving the man who abused his power more power, how about we invite him to use his time to pursue some long over due work on himself and his cohort. We don’t need Mr. Kavanaugh’s skills and experience on the Supreme Court; we need his so-called integrity to actually show up for the planet earth. Show us something different, something new, Mr. Kavanaugh.  Because you ceding some of your power and using your energy to embark on a healing journey from the diminishing returns of patriarchy and white-supremacy will make us all sleep better at night.

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