I’m overjoyed to bring you this wondrous reflection on Owning Your Story by Tania Pryputniewicz. Like Cathy Shap’s and Nancy Westaway’s two recent posts on the WONDER Compass, Tania’s must be savored with your favorite winter beverage and your journal. Read on, dear Woman of Wonder. May you enjoy her words, her poetry, her prompts for writing to heal following trauma. Above all, may you be inspired. xoxo Ginny
Why do we as women who’ve experienced trauma need to own our story? How can we transform it into something of beauty? What happens to us when we do?
Owning Our Stories: Words as Spiral Path, or A Version in Which Girls Choose
By the end of the summer of my 14th year, between eighth grade and high school, I had at least two versions of my story. The first was the one I told my best friend when she returned from vacation in Hawaii. Before she left, we’d seen the movie, Little Darlings, starring Kristi McNichol and Tatum O’Neal, in which the friends bet to see who will lose their virginity first. So we made a bet too. When my friend got off the plane, I told her breezily, “I won.”
She was a year older than me. I looked up to her. I wanted her to think I had it under control. No big deal. This was one of many attempts to minimize the rape. As she listened to my story, she turned to look right at me, her breath rushing out to push her bangs off her forehead. “Hey,” she said, taking me by the shoulders, “I don’t think that counts. Are you ok?”
Then there was the version I told my brother, who overheard me crying in the bathroom, “I took a drink, so it was my fault. I’m over it. You can’t tell anyone, ok?” The way I told my story changed over time as I searched for a way to exert some control, to stop feeling so powerless.
I began to own my story as I talked with my family, friends, counselors, and lovers in trust-damaged relationships, but most importantly as I began to talk to myself between the pages of my journals. Words saved my life; words have created a mirror, leading me down a spiral path inside, restoring beauty and uncovering an unmarred child self I couldn’t otherwise imagine existing.
For years I was furious my story crept into everything I wrote. But owning it in public took over 20 years, finally taking form in my poetry collection, November Butterfly (Saddle Road Press, 2014). But the greater surprise was that as I wrote each painful memory down, life-affirming imagery that continues to sustain me and heal the way I see the past emerged simultaneously.
I wrote “Absolute Power” 14 years ago, not long after the birth of my daughter. The poem describes the experience of going into labor while family members in the adjacent room watched the movie Absolute Power. It stars Clint Eastwood as a robber and Gene Hackman as the President.
Absolute Power (after the film by same title)
Eastwood, as robber, in shadows
trapped watching Hackman, as president
methodically beating the mistress to death.
I ask them to turn it down—my husband,
his mother—watching TV in the next room
as cramping swarms the dromedary
hump of my frame, dull cudgels of first
contractions and the boxcar blinks
of the seconds of rest to tolerate
alone, an hour that repeats for thirty-six,
so much harder to bear than a few stabs
that afternoon years ago, the minimal
blood, the acned face of a stranger re-clasping
his belt, the things I told myself to calm
down as a kid. How dare the old trespass
trespass now, unable like other good mothers
to birth without epidural–the relentless
rhythm of pain fissuring the halves of my
brain–how could I stay, give in,
allow it to repeat and nowhere like then
to run. But at last they placed her,
tiny, hot, against my breast, my life
mine again. Bless the robber, bless
the president, the mistress on her way
to heaven, the three days of crushing
my husband’s hands while he counted
me home, the streets we drove to get here
and back, the egrets in the meridian–the grid
of the city—everything—suffused
with a light I no longer refused to see.
Listening to the President’s mistress being sexually mistreated while I went into labor triggered me. What should have been an amazing time, the birth of my first child, was marred by the body memories; “the old trespass” trespassed again. I also struggled against the prevailing idea popular in some birthing communities that I was weak if I requested an epidural, a notion I finally gave up on after hours of prodromal labor.
When at last they put my daughter on my chest, something had shifted. Later, I remember driving home from the hospital radiantly aware that everything had changed:
the streets we drove to get here / and back, the egrets in the meridian—the grid / of the city—everything—suffused / with a light I no longer refused to see.
The poem revealed to me that I’d locked up physically against life without realizing it. But the intensity of the labor and the birth freed me, as I had no choice but to persevere through the old pain to get to the gift of a child. Further, I had a new reason (my child) to participate in life again, to find a way to trust again. The poem helped me celebrate.
Thirteen more years passed before I could own the next part of my story and write the poem, “Peer Counselor” (originally published online at Chaparral):
The Peer Counselor
It was my fault. I took a drink, angels offer
no velvet cure, nor peaches in their laps for me
nor girlhood span of years to doubt their choices
at the crosshairs of one chronic location. Barefoot
in a shabby chair in a borrowed office on campus
she lets me finish the rehearsed poem of blame, numb
veil down arm, the quiet no to acned chin approaching
mine, the instant assessment of his intent and the decision
not to feel. Angels tuck like every doe, their necessary
hooves beneath themselves, fur side facing fawn
to better rest in shade of tree. But I’m no fawn, this girl
too young to be my mother. Beyond cracked door a man
in toolbelt gripping toolbox enters without knocking.
Of my stiffening she apologizes, He’s here to fix the copier.
His back to us, he does his job while she resumes
hers, folds her legs, grasps her ankles
leans towards me, her little voice encircling us both
like a cocoon or some indigo dusk’s moon ring or crystal
astral pod feathered white like Midwest windows in winter
in which I could suddenly see the holographic self
portioned out like a broken mirror held loosely in its frame
There were two of you with bodies in the room–
Which one of you chose to enter yours by force?
“Peer Counselor” opens with the classic blame-filled misconception many a counselor will diligently work to help a survivor stop believing: “It was my fault…I took a drink…”
To write those lines–and then to publish them–was a relief, though I think writer/ survivors share a unique set of challenges when their work goes “live” or public because of the potentially triggering nature of exposure. (I wrote about it here in First Poetry Publication, Reckoning with Exposure, and Astral Rubbernecking.) But as I mentioned earlier, I also discovered life-affirming images I’d buried. Such as the image of this fiery, tiny but mighty girl my age. I can still see her, intently focused on my face, can still sense how badly she wanted me to see that the boy made choices he translated into actions against my wishes.
I kept writing, and what emerged next on the page were images from nature. Despite my various states of emotional and psychic paralysis, nature had somehow managed to pervade my awareness in a lasting manner. And to resurface, as here, in the metaphor of the counselor’s voice “encircling us both/ like a cocoon or some indigo dusk’s moon ring or crystal astral pod feathered white like Midwest windows in winter.” The turning point in my thinking took hold, recrystallizing as I wrote the poem,“There were two of you with bodies in the room. Which one of you chose to enter yours by force?” I was able to finally hear, and take in the peer counselor’s message, shielded as I was at the time by her intensity, shielded in this new lovely image of a “crystal astral pod feathered white” like windows covered in frost.
Another way I found the strength to own my story was to step into the story of someone else who survived. Odd as it sounds, I found comfort in the story of Camelot’s Guinevere, or many versions of the story of Guinevere. The middle section of my poetry book tracks my obsession with Guinevere. Eventually, though, she left, or failed to appear–leading me to face my story in yet another way as in the poem, “(25) Floors Up An Open Balcony Guinevere Fails to Appear:”
(25) Floors Up on Open Balcony in Seattle Guinevere Fails to Appear
Feet firm against plummet as when entering house (14),
in love with dark-haired boy (19): moccasins, gold cross,
jeans. Fate’s acne-faced boy (17) answers door instead.
Palm fits shot-glass and rum slides pale as streetlamps
on brontosaurus stems, necks lit grey as sheen in dream
of hem of Jesus vanishing at corridor’s end
crepe in fist, cinched, stained by grip, as when stepfather
stops me without regard for twins I babysit. Joe (6) on left,
Annie (6) on my right. He (45), shaking, says he thought
better of me ….Don’t you know, you were just
another notch in his belt. He used an awl
to poke holes for each girl he raped. What you thought
hurt more than what went down on dirty bedspread,
faking sick to skip school, Please don’t tell
my mother. In the embryonic forest of pre-incident
brain, there’s a version in which girls choose when,
where—hear me Jesus, Guinevere, God—I promise
(this time) I won’t lust for a man while I’m still just a child.
This poem is really about the struggle with the edge, the perimeter, the ways pain lingers. I found myself in Seattle, surrounded by loving women writers, attending my first AWP conference, and yet I was too afraid to walk after dark, afraid to navigate the unfamiliar city by taxi. I felt hemmed in and stayed behind one night.
Alone in the flat, with my poetry book deadline looming, I managed to burn a couple pieces of toast. I opened all the windows and stepped out on the balcony. I was acutely aware that I was choosing to live, no one to save me but me. If I could be concrete about how many floors there were, how high off the ground I was, I could try to be concrete about how old I was and how old the boy was.
Giving numbers made the past real and dislodged a bit of forgotten truth as well: I didn’t come to the house looking for the rapist, I came looking for his friend, a handsome older boy who was too kind, aware of our age difference, to ever touch me. But he wasn’t there that day. Listing his cross, his moccasins, and his jeans jarred awake that memory of the early budding sensuality that was annihilated by what came after.
As I wrote, to ground me, I drew on imagery of walking the rainy streets of Seattle earlier that day; seeing the damp arching necks of the streetlamps tall as brontosauruses reminded me of the fluidity of proportions, how small I felt at the time of the incident in the room. The depth of shame found metaphor in the dream of seeing Jesus vanish around a corner, the feeling that I was only worthy of touching the hem. I wanted desperately to be pure, whole again.
Naming the little twins I babysat before brought the conversation with my stepfather into view. To realize he’d heard about it from the neighborhood gossip was a second assault, shame, to hear from him that the boy who raped me had raped others and that he poked holes in a belt. But if I hadn’t remembered and owned those details, written them down to see and consider, I wouldn’t have arrived at the next startling realization that, “What you, stepfather—thought, mattered more than what went down on dirty bedspread…” Wow: I was more worried my mother would find out than worried about what happened to me.
Currently my favorite line holding a healing idea is this one:
In the embryonic forest of pre-incident / brain, there’s a version in which girls choose when, / where…
Can you imagine, a world in which a girl chooses at what point she decides to move along the spectrum of desire? Chooses to reach out and touch her lover? Chooses the how and where of her first kiss?
Living into that question has brought me joy. For some time now, as an artist, I’ve wanted to try to draw a depiction of the “embryonic forest of pre-incident brain.” Writing this post for Women of Wonder gave me the opportunity to do so. As I wrote this post, I found traveling so closely through the poems again to explicate them called for taking it easy. I took breaks as I wrote to color the pre-incident image.
Originally I imagined the pre-incident brain as some kind of dendritic tree with branches sturdy enough to support a swing. What I actually drew seems to be part eye, part wheel, part tree. The two figures sprang out gradually. First their fiery heads. I knew, since healing for me happens in the presence of others, that surely they belonged to a couple of sisters, each helping the other navigate what it means to be female, here and now.
Writing poetry gives me an active experience of passing through doubt to recover a fuller range of my memories, including beautiful ones. It helps me connect with an innocent child self exploring her attractions. I’d like to close with a few ideas for ways to use writing to heal.
Shop around for a blank journal, one with a cover you love, or consider surfing magazines or notecard racks for an image on a greeting card you’d like to cut and paste onto the cover of your journal. Write when you can. Use colored pencil on days you don’t want to write. Let yourself draw or color. Maybe you doodle to create borders for your pages.
Take a walk in your favorite nature place. Photo document as you go…maybe you take your camera or phone with you to record what you see. Print your favorite images and place them in your journal and write a paragraph or two about how you discovered each spot.
Spiral Word Play
Draw a spiral on the page. Write along the curving line til you reach the center. Think of the words you write as a means to travel to your heart. What does the spiral path reveal today? Start by writing “hello….(your name)”…and keep writing, spinning the page as you go til you reach the center.
I often think about the Peer Counselor who helped me; I have no idea who she is or where she is today, but the poem is my thank you, or tribute to her. Write a letter to the person who has helped you through any portion of your journey; you likely have more than one!
More about Tania:
A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Tania Pryputniewicz is a co-founding blogger for Tarot for Two and Mother Writer Mentor. Saddle Road Press published her debut poetry collection, November Butterfly, in 2014. Recent poems appeared or are forthcoming at Extract(s), NonBinary Review, One, Patria Letteratura, and TAB. She lives in San Diego, California with her husband and three children. She can be found online at www.taniapryputniewicz.com.
Photo credits: Jamie Clifford for the terrific head shot of Tania. Robyn Beattie for the gorgeous frosted rose.
Comments are deeply appreciated, as is sharing Tania’s words with others who are in the process of writing to heal themselves from sexual trauma. That statistics are chilling: One in five women have experienced sexual trauma. But there is hope. Together, we can heal the statistic.