I thought I would happily dance on his grave. I had the quote all ready for this year’s calendar.
“Every step I take for survivors feels like I’m dancing on his grave.”
Jena and I lined up the shot. I was going to walk like a bad ass between some headstones in an old cemetery. The lighting was perfect and I asked Heather to use her hair and makeup artistry to make me look like I wanted to get into a fight.
Whatever that means.
It was in this moment that I realized that I am not the kind of girl that goes dancing on graves. I don’t make a habit of adding insult to injury. I love restoration, healing and connection. I wish the bad guys well in their fight against their personal demons.
Every year, the Soulfire Project brings new revelations. This is why I have decided to honor the stories of survivors through the online collaborative story telling series of Why I told again this year.
Last year, many of you shared what inspired you to disclose the sexual trauma you endured. You spread the word across every social media platform. You inspired and encouraged survivors and allies to break the silence.
Let’s do it again!
Where: Share your #WhyItold story on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
When: Midnight on October 20th until Midnight on October 21st.
How: Join me on Sunday, October 18th at 4 p.m. EST in a Google Hangout. Click here to sign up. I’ll be there with ideas, prompts and guidelines. You must be over 18 to participate.
For those of you who have never shared your story before, I’ll be there to encourage you. I’ll also likely have a glass of wine, some light snacks and a comfy place to sit. I suggest you do the same.
Can’t make it? Sign up anyway and I’ll send you some sweet info to get you started.
The Twist: I will be turning this year’s collection into an Anthology! If you’re interested in contributing something you’ve written, you can check a box during sign up and I’ll send you guidelines shortly.
I will be reflecting on why I don’t dance on graves. What will you share?
I’ve been struggling all day with how I am going to break this story down and give it to you in short form. This weekend I went to the Bronx for my first official research trip. *trumpet blast*
It was a trip full of deep emotions and strong words. Words like;
Villain. Deliverance. Refract.
Other phrases followed me in the door as I arrived home. Like the scarves you tie to luggage to help you identify your belongings in a crowded baggage claim, they wafted off of handles and out of pockets.
The Land of Make Believe. Parallel lines.
Let’s begin this story with a new platitude that I feel very strongly could become the next big thing.
Nothing bad ever happens over a slice of pizza.
Like all other platitudes and positive affirmations, there’s exceptions to this rule but dang, don’t you agree that this should be a universal truth. If bad stuff happens, it should never happen over pizza.
Over a slice of pizza, my friend Jena told me that she was shooting a wedding in New York and asked me if I’d like to come along. I said I’d check my calendar and see if I could swing it.
“I have to do some research there anyway.”
It took a few weeks of moving things around on the calendar but in the end, it worked out. I didn’t tell anyone I was going. If you know me, you know that there’s not often a thought that passes between my ears that I don’t blurt out.
I was nervous.
Technically, this was the first trip I had accidentally planned for the specific purpose of researching my father’s life. At the time, it seemed like a convenient, economical way to begin the process. Plus, I’d have the support of my friend to help me through any of the rougher spots.
Every idea seems like a good one at the time. (It was a good idea but we’re not at that part of the story today.)
After 15 hours of traveling, Jena and I approached the city in our rental car. She squealed, “Yaaay, we’re almost there.”
I sheepishly squealed back. Or maybe I said,“Baa…”
Nope. It was definitely a squeal.
Suddenly a tsunami sized wave of self-doubt came crashing into me. Hard. I felt a shortness of breath as I looked at the city stretching out around us for miles of darkness marked by sparkling lights. I was suddenly confronted with a very harsh and unrelenting interrogator.
Who do you think you are? You think you can just come into this city and ask questions? Who do you think you are that you deserve answers at all?
The voice in my head kept berating me and I slowly leaned over, put my head between my knees and started to do some deep breathing. I steadied myself and eventually, the voice quieted down a bit. At least it quieted to a volume that allowed me to hear my own thoughts.
The days that followed found me challenged. I asked questions that resulted in 3 different reactions.
Here is your answer.
You don’t want to know.
I don’t remember.
And maybe there was one more.
4. You’ll never understand.
For the answers, I was grateful. For the rest, I was insistent. I tried to balance being respectful of a place in time many didn’t want to revisit and honoring my own right to know about my father.
It felt like balancing on a tight rope at times. The tension in my own spirit was difficult to carry and the self-doubt kept revisiting me every time an answer was hard to extract. Always reminding me that I would never find the answers I was looking for. Always cajoling me to move on and let it go.
I was not my father’s only victim. I have known that for a while but I was not aware of the full story. I was able to hear more than I ever heard before. I was able to look into eyes, hold hands and drink in the energy in the room.
As a side note, that story only came to be known through my willingness to share my story. From that, there was a seeking of deliverance and healing.
Dear Self-doubt, Suck it.
I learned that they called my dad by the nickname, ‘Country.’ He came to the city by way of Anderson, North Carolina. He was a big, strong, country boy that people feared and loved. I saw the hospital where he was born. I met friends who knew him as a teenager. When I asked one friend about his gang life, he told me that my father was a villain but he loved him very much.
It lead us to have a conversation about how we all have a dark side. It made me think of all of the people in my life that I had loved regardless of serious character flaws. It made me wonder how his friends would feel if they knew what he did to me.
I didn’t tell them. I’m not sure why.
I think we all tend to think of good and evil as parallel lines. We think of them as living in a 3 dimensional space and never intersecting. But they do. They are as intertwined and inseparable as bones and flesh.
I am tired today. I’ve spent much of the weekend trying to do the opposite of what I want to do: shut down.
I’ve cooked healthy foods for myself. I’ve allowed myself to get completely sucked into mundane tasks. I’ve listened wholeheartedly to my children. I’ve been to yoga and gone on walks. I’ve returned to my blessed present.
I even watched a few movies and was hit by this phrase from Cold Mountain.
Bird has a job. Shit has a job. Seed has a job.
As I stood outside of the housing projects my father lived in, I listened to others talk about their experiences living there. I remembered how much my father wanted the lives of my brother and I to be better. He never wanted us to return to the place where he lived as a villain.
He wanted us to live in a home where the Cosby’s were our role models. He wanted us to live in a community where drugs wouldn’t be involved in our daily interactions. He wanted us to speak properly and stand up straight. He wanted us to be educated and took us to museums we passed on road trips.
He gave us a good life amidst the evil he was doing in secret.
Shit had a job.
On Sunday afternoon, I practiced yoga in the back of the class with 3 young survivors of sexual trauma and their parents and guardians. On their way out the door, I gave them new art sets and neon sparklers. I chose not to write them a note inside it. I left the pages blank in honor of their ability to tell their story in the way that they want to.
Seed has a job.
After my travels were over, I said goodbye to my friends and sat on my couch. Other than to meet my basic needs, I didn’t get up again until that yoga class forced me up and out the door. I sat shell shocked watching episodes of Parenthood.
If you’ve ever seen that show, you probably already know that as far as a tool to wrench choked back tears from your body, that show is the top of the line. On a normal day, I cry at the end of every episode.
Seriously. The show has some tear inducing magic spell attached to it.
There’s always a sort of hangover effect that comes with doing this research. It’s like my heart gets locked up, my tears are frozen to the inside of my eyelids and I can feel my body twisting into the knots sailors must’ve used to keep their sails tied down in the worst of storms.
I have learned through this process that it’s my job to unlock, defrost and untie. It’s my job to unbind myself from any negative energy, any scary remnants of the past and any emotions waiting to be released in a safe space.
I sat on my couch and I waited to cry. It took an episode or two but sure enough, Max got into that really great school and I cried. Once the dam was broken, I jumped into the waters that rushed through. I was gone. Crying my eyes out and it felt good.
My grandmother approached the topic like an airplane coming in for a landing. She circled the point with a story about a talk show episode she’d seen. As I listened, I met a friend at the door and silently motioned for her to come in.
Fridays have become an experiment of accountability at my place.
I’ve created a writers group of sorts. I’ve set aside a large window of time and offered an open invitation to some friends that I deem “writerly”. I’ve promised free wifi, hot water for tea, coffee and at least one clean bathroom. Aside from the recent string of snow days to have hit the Torok household, it is going well. I use the time to write and when necessary, to do some research.
On this day, I had called my grandmother to ask her about who my father was. This month is all about building his personality profile.
Who did my family think he was?
What does it mean to be a pedophile vs. a perpetrator? Which was he?
Was I his only victim?
What did he like to do?
Where did he like to go?
You get it.
To tell a better story, to understand him, I need to think about who he was beyond my abuser.
Yes, to answer the questions rolling around in your head, this is creepy. No, it is not fun. Yes, I do think it’s necessary. My mother says my dad* is worried about me, which in our family is a sign that you may be going to far. I’ve added some #militantselfcare to my life and I’m okay.
Dad, if you’re reading this, I promise.
My grandmother told me that she had been watching Maury Povich the other day. Their was a little girl on the show talking about a man who touched her private area. I wasn’t sure where this was going and then she landed.
“I’ve never asked because I didn’t want to bring it up,” she said. ” But is that what your father did to you? Did he just touch you or what happened?”
This is what happened in my head.
Shit just got real. I turned on my heel to head upstairs and away from my guests. In that moment, I realized we’d never talked about this before. When I was 21 years old, I told her that my father had sexually abused me. Most people who knew me, knew this to be true but because of distance and a bit of a strain on our relationship since my father died, she didn’t know and neither did any of my father’s family.
If you were to ask me now, I would tell you that using terms like sexually abused or molested are correct and socially acceptable but they don’t define an experience. Those terms don’t tell the whole story. How could they?
When I was 21, I chose to tell my grandmother because I realized that I could never be fully me if she didn’t know. I realized that if I truly believed that the abuse was not my fault then I deserved to live shame free and in the truth.
CAN I LIVE?
Damn straight I can.
So sitting on my little stoop, sunning my legs, I nervously told her the truth. Only after she very directly told me to get on with it. She knew something terrible was on its way and she wanted me to let her face it head on.
Once the words tumbled out, she was sorry for me. She told me that she wished that she could have been there for me. There were probably more words that I can’t recall now and then I quickly got off the phone to escape the awkwardness of telling your father’s mother that he was a child molester. Because good times, am I right?
Now she asked for the details and I found myself saying, “Grandma, he raped me. Often and repeatedly.”
She said, “Didn’t he hurt you? How could that have happened? Weren’t you such a little girl?”
“Yes, grandma. I was six. The only thing I can say is that it must’ve happened so often that it didn’t hurt anymore. I think it probably started happening before I could remember.”
I was reporting. These were facts. The hard kind but the kind I know as my past. This is my story and I am, not comfortable but accustomed to the truth of it.
She is not. This was the first time she’d heard it. These truths were landing around her for the first time and I could almost hear them shatter as they hit her skin and fell to the ground. There was the sound of anger and pain in her voice.
“He would have gone to jail,” she raged. “Grandma would’ve seen to it.”
And it was those words, spoken to me as if I were still a little girl that broke my heart again.
Just this week, I spoke to a class of sociology students at Michigan State University and one of them asked me if I had forgiven my father. This topic comes up a lot. We know that forgiveness can offer healing. We are told that it is about you not the person who hurt you. I believe those things to be true.
However, painful, brokenhearted moments like this one is why I also believe that forgiveness is not a one act play. It’s a long running series. Forgiveness is kind of like the never-ending run of those tragic daytime soap operas that we have only recently given up.
Unless you have the Soap Opera Network. In which case, #neverforget.
Forgiveness for me has had to be approached with the acceptance that it is a process for repeated, long term injuries.
When my children offer to include my father in the list of the dead they want to pray for, forgiveness prevents me from screaming that he doesn’t deserve their prayers. It allows me to sit back and recognize that if there’s any one soul in need of prayer in the afterlife, it’s probably my father’s. I can’t imagine there’s much peace or rest for him.
Forgiveness is not pity or absolution. It does not mean there are no consequences. It just means that I forgive. Rage, sorrow, relief – everything else is still on the table.
Grandma, cannot see to anything in the past. I can tell you that her assurances that she would have seen to it if given the opportunity, spoke such kindness to the little girl in me. There’s some comfort in the idea of my grandmother pursuing justice on my behalf.
I never imagined that she would choose me over her son. Before I told her my story, it was the burden that weighed the heaviest on my heart.
Why would my father’s family trust me? Why would they choose me?
As we begin to end our phone call, I headed down the stairs and towards my friends.
“You call me anytime. I know that what happened was horrible but I love you. Please don’t shut me out.”
And there is the answer to it all.
The answer to who I am, how I have survived and why anyone would believe me. The answer to why I do what I do and go where I go is in those words.
I am tremendously loved.
I have called her anytime. I have chosen not to shut her out. I have chosen to pull the tentacles of darkness that have seeped from my father’s legacy out of the relationship that I have with his family because to forget him, I have to forget them. That would be my easy. To remember him, is to remember where he came from. That is my difficult.
“Goodbye, Grandma. I won’t. I love you.”
I sat down at my desk, turned to my friends and said, “Guys. My grandmother just asked me what happened for the first time.”
Stunned I murmured, “I guess I’m not the only one asking the difficult questions around here.”
PS – I know I opened lots of room for discussion in this one. It’s only going to get deeper. Hit me up in the comments.
* For clarity here, I will admit that the man I call dad now is my stepfather. He will hate reading this. (Hi dad. I know I’m your baby girl. Pretend like you didn’t see this!)
I don’t always have success when searching our archives, but was able to locate your father’s obituary. It published Oct. 18, 1988 and I have attached a screen shot of the page. I hope this helps.
My father’s funeral was on a Wednesday afternoon. I didn’t know that. This is not exactly headline news but I enjoy the details. Our family greeted visitors between the hours of 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. After nap time but before dinner. I wonder if that was a consideration.
He was addressed as Sgt. and I was called Tashmica. That seems formal for a time when everyone called me ‘Tasha’. A little girl nickname for a little girl.
There’s more. Names I recognize and a few that I don’t. The name of the jump school where he died. The information about military services performed and by whom.
Every sentence, a snapshot of our lives at the time.
I didn’t think I would be able to get this information. I don’t know if you guys know this but, it is now the year 2015. Why in the world do they even keep this stuff?
Answer: People like me.
People who make the phone calls to ask the questions that may lead people to laugh at your foolishness. Turns out, no one laughed. Not the obituary staffer and not the funeral home representative.
They went to work. They did some research and now I have more answers that inspire even more questions. As a matter of fact, I have strong indications that a gentlemen may be searching a secondary location’s files to help me answer questions I never mentioned to him.
Curiosity. Gratitude. Progress.
Although I am a little disappointed that I won’t live up to the romantic image of visiting some library basement and sifting through microfiche to find clues about who my father was.
I am processing the information. I’m thinking about the leaves in October and the dirt road that led us from my grandmother’s house to the funeral home. I’m hearing the gun salute that shook my mother into tears and the flag folded in her lap. I am also wondering how many other clues will be so easily uncovered.
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
― Alice Walker, The Color Purple
I have been in a haze for the past 48 hours. Trying like hell to take it all in. To consider the accomplishments of the evening, of the year, of the past 18 months. I have been trying to grasp what it was to look around the room of our gallery and see the faces of strangers change as they saw soulfires, as they read their stories, their words.
I saw them breathless. I saw eyes brimmed with tears and hands held.
The logo for the foundation wasn’t going to be a tree. It was going to be a child’s hands holding light. A friend changed it. Her insight became my truth. From the roots to the tree, let it be.
And so it was and is.
I am never going to be able to take it all in. There is no measurement of what the survivors experienced. There is no yard stick for 4 children heard and treated by a loving therapist.
There’s a reason why I have to go place my hand on a big tree when I am overwhelmed.
Old, thickly rooted, wildly growing trees remind me that I am small.
This work is big but I am still small. I am still here feet on the ground, breathing deep and fine with letting the sparks fly beyond where I can see them fall.
I can’t measure it. I can’t hold it in my arms. I can’t define it. There is no vocabulary for this thing that I find myself in. This role of healer and heartbreaker. This job as fierce advocate. This magical vocation that allows me to whip generous beings into a frenzy of deep love and respect for survivors of sexual trauma.
Whenever I try, I weep. Because I cannot believe my absolute luck.
I cannot believe that I have the privilege of enjoying the confidence of these survivors.
I cannot believe that I was able to find my teacher 25 years after she set me on this path.
It astounds me that I get to share grilled cheese sandwiches, cupcakes, the floor of a bathroom stall, warm hugs, the best coffee in town, post cards, yoga poses, the office dog Lucy and hundreds of sparklers with all of you.
This is my honor.
I am heart tired and mentally dialed back.
I am connected and encouraged.
I am ambitious and cautiously optimistic.
Here it is.
You are the purple. You are the purple and I believe that God is just pissed off that someone hurt you and kept walking. You are the purple and I am only calling attention to what the world should have been in awe of in the first place.
You, my dear soulfire, are the purple.
Thank you for bringing your vulnerability, your truth, your pain, your experience, your support of one another, your tenacious faith – your being-ness to this amazing, community changing project.
And today, I am resting in red lipstick and stretchy pants. I am drinking from a mug that carries the image of a caped and masked squirrel. I am enjoying that my truth, my purpose gets to be my life and you play a role in giving me this gift.
Dear God, let them be loved. Let their family and friends believe them and hold them. Let their words be heard and their journey honored.
Days like this find me praying under my breath before I’m aware I’m doing it.
Because of you.
However, I watched. I read every word and then I read the comments. Holding my breath, I placed my faith in your community. I waited to see if I bet on the right horse.
Your friends posted little hearts, solidarity fists, kind words and offers of support. Your allies said they heard you and that they believed you. They congratulated your bravery and some stood with you by posting their own pledge in your honor.
Do you see?
Do you see how loved you are?
Of course, these were just the public responses. I am not naive enough to believe that the private response will always match.
If you were not met with compassion or if you just need a listening ear, check out this list of local and national resources.
Today, as I sit in my favorite coffee shop with a hot mocha in my hand, I choose to bask in the steady stream of tiny emoticon hearts posted underneath all of our storytelling.
It has been 3 months and 10 days since I announced that I was desperately seeking Quick Draw McPease.
During that time, I have requested my father’s military records. my school records, interviewed family members, rambled memories off for my husband to record in one of my many journals, had crazy dreams, drank a lot of wine and sought a lot of professional help.
I sent an email to my elementary school and waited. I had plenty to fill my time until they responded.
Until they didn’t.
So, I emailed again and again.
I was kind of avoiding calling because – well – I didn’t want to tell random secretary lady why I wanted my records and information about a past teacher.
I felt kind of like bathroom-stall-over-sharing-girl.
If you have ever been in a women’s restroom then you know that girl. The one that shares details of her life with you as if you are best friends and you’ve only just allowed her to use the soap dispenser ahead of you. You didn’t realize that politeness was cause for a speech about her current relationship or worse yet, her intestinal issues.
I didn’t want to be random-over-sharing-girl.
I wanted them to simply send me the information without any trouble.
I never received a response.
Earlier this week a friend decided to go Magnum PI on google and prompted me to look into some things I hadn’t. We found some options but I had to call.
Of course, I sent another set of emails just in case.
Today I got a reply in my inbox with the last known address and phone number for Mrs. Pease.
I sent a quick note of gratitude and then dialed.
The suspense was a killer – especially when I had to leave a message in a generic voicemail box.
“Hi, my name is Tashmica. My phone number is XXX-XXX-XXXX. I think you were my fourth grade teacher. *nervous laugh* Would you please call me either way. Thanks!”
I had been making random phone calls with no reply for about two weeks now. I did not expect an instant reply.
At about 3 o’clock today, the Mrs. Pease called me back.
I am still processing our conversation because it exceeded my every expectation.
She didn’t remember me right away. I was 9-years-old the last time we saw each other.
One thing is important here.
When I told her that I was looking for her because she was the first person I ever told that I was sexually abused and I wanted to thank her, she said,
“So many of my students told me that.”
I never imagined that. I never thought about her role as an advocate for others. It speaks volumes that she was the trusted confidant of abused children for decades. Also, it makes me so deeply sad that there were so many abused children coming forward, she needed more details to pin down which one I was.
We chatted. I gave her some details about my family in 1989. I told her my maiden name and how my father had been dead for a year by the time I told her my story. She asked me to remind her of how I told her.
“I hope this doesn’t offend you but are you black?”
I laughed hard and told her yes. I had forgotten to mention that one, tiny identifying factor.
She remembered my hair – how my mother twisted my pig tails instead of braiding them. She remembered my constant smile and told me that the world wasn’t right if I wasn’t wearing it.
She asked me to tell her everything. I tried.
I told her how old I am, where I live, that I have been married for nearly 9 years and am raising three boys.
She laughed and kept interjecting,
“I am so proud of you. I am so proud of you. Good for you! I am so proud of you.”
I told her the most important thing.
“You were a link in the fence that saved my life. Statistically speaking, I am not supposed to be doing so well. You believed me, supported me and advocated for me.
My life would have been very different without you. Thank you.”
She said she was so grateful for my call and that we should stay in touch. (As if that were ever a question.)
Lisa, that’s the name grown-ups use for her, had a lot of wise things to say. She quoted statistics about child abuse. She knew that healing has its own time and she cursed – which of course made me giggle.
More than twenty years later and in one conversation I am convinced that she was placed in that classroom for me. And now I know she was placed there for so many others too.
It has not been an easy time for me. Looking into my past and asking questions has been quite terrible actually. The memories are dark, scary and full of problems I cannot solve now. I only look to understand bits and pieces of a mismatched puzzle. None of it makes sense.
The fact that I was sexually abused will never make sense. No matter what I find in my research, my father made a horrible choice and there’s no explaining that away. It is a hard thing to remember.
It is painful, therapeutic and important but it is not awesome.
This story is different.
I don’t want to drown myself in wine and fall asleep. I don’t want to go to counseling to work through something caught in my throat. I don’t need to decide if I am angry, hurt or ask “Why me?” for the millionth time. I don’t want to run away.
Today, there is joy in remembering.
Mrs. Pease said one more thing that I will never forget.
She said that after all of these years,
“We never stopped knowing each other, did we?”
It’s true. She was a part of my story and I am a part of hers.
I am so grateful for the ability to celebrate a memory.
It is good to remember that although I was treated despicably, I was tremendously loved and that is what made the difference.
Love is what always makes the difference.
I am still kind of overwhelmed and exhilarated. At first, I didn’t even know how to celebrate but then I figured it out.
I celebrated a joyful remembering with song and dance.
I truly am blessed and highly favored.
PS – Thank you to all who shared the original link or tried to help my search in any way. I appreciate you.