Nine years ago I pushed a baby into the world after nine months of swelling pregnancy and fourteen hours of heaving labor. The valley was in the early hours of what would become a ferocious ice storm when my water broke. Sweetie drove me to the hospital around the mountain we’d expected to drive over; the roads were sheeted with ice. In the eerie mid-night we passed a function hall. In its all but deserted parking lot a man in shirt sleeves and a bow-tie talked on a cell phone. I wondered if we shouldn’t stop to help, maybe it was some kind of emergency. Gradually I remembered we were some kind of emergency: I was a woman in labor, driving to the hospital in an ice storm.
The sense of dislocation I had during that surreal drive did not dissipate in the weeks following my daughter’s birth. I was still caught in the experience of birthing her—from the yellow brine that splashed out of me onto the wooden floor to the pile of dirty linens stacked beside the birthing room toilet; from the icy sweetness of the fruit punch my doula held to my lips to the surgical light that pierced my eyes when the midwife stitched my perineum; from the contractions that moved like fire across my belly to the sweet absence of all self consciousness when a room full of women cheered for me to pee.
Some weeks afterward I remember walking in town with my little bundle of baby tethered to my chest and marvelling at all the dressed and upright people. How is it that we move through the world like this, with modesty and decorum and any sense of propriety, when so many of us have recently been naked and sweating in the presence of God and medicine and the brand new people we grew in our bodies? I wondered how women come back from those months of hemmorroids and urinary incontinence and heartburn and breasts with aureoles the size of dinner plates, let alone that night of blood and shit and screaming pain, to ever pretend that mustache bleaching or nail tips have relevance. I walked the city street, changed my baby’s diaper, drank a coffee, but some part of me was still in that night I would describe as ”sexual and religious ecstasy.” My baby was out, a girl growing in the world, but I had not left that labor room.
In the wake of the Penn State child rape scandal I’ve been thinking about—and feeling—this kind of dislocation again. Suddenly the airwaves, the internet, the newspapers and water coolers are flooded with the reality of adults hurting and failing children. Incredulity is the affect of the moment as the world comes to common consciousness of the fact that adults hurt children, and other adults let it happen.
But for those of us who have been perpetrated against—and those of us who believe those who have been perpetrated against, and who work with and serve and advocate for those who have been perpetrated against—there is nothing new about the reality of sexual violence against children. Wherever we are—at the gym or the coffee shop or the supermarket—some part of us is always caught in the reality of violation and cruelty. Survivors move out and grow in the world, but some part of us never leaves the moment of our most grievous injury.
And like the army of women who have gestated and birthed, the army of those who know the truth about child predation is legion.
What I’m puzzling now is the paradox of this incredulity and widespread knowledge. How the culture can be surprised by the truth of child sexual abuse while such vast numbers of us already know it, having learned in the very cruelest way. What I’m puzzling now is how any of us are compelled to be upright and dressed, to move through the world with modesty and decorum, knowing that adults routinely violate children and other adults let it happen.
The question for me really is not why Penn State football fans rioted in the streets when their beloved football coach was fired. The question for me is why those of us who have been wronged do not riot in the street every day. If our private grief were made public, our anguish and keening, the red light of our rage could burn this world down to the ground.