|Art by Diane Goldie|
IF WE WERE TO LOOK at our childhoods, really look at the horror of them, we would turn to stone.
As we get to know our friends, the layers strip back between us and another version is revealed. The drunken parents who forgot their middle child’s birthday. The mother too depressed to get out of bed, or who laid on the couch crying for a year. The fathers who were absent, violent, or addicts—or the stepfathers who took their places and were violent, alcoholics, rapists. Having the wrong clothes at school, or no lunches, having to pretend everything was all right while at home terrible scenes were enacted weekly, monthly, daily. The danger, the fear, the wounds inflicted physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.
If we were to really look, to open our eyes and see what was there, as an observer or maybe to reclaim it through the eyes of the four-year-old girl hiding terrified in her room, hoping somehow the waves of shouting and crashing pass over her; the toddler who couldn’t be taken to hospital during her epileptic fit because all the adults were so high they couldn’t drive; the seven-year-old struggling to be self-sufficient; the ten-year-old looking after younger siblings; the teenager trying to stay in school while caring for a parent who was alcoholic, disabled, depressed; the daughter not fighting off her brother, or father, or cousin, or uncle—believing that it kept the family together, or because she wouldn’t be believed or would be blamed… the children put into foster care to be neglected, abused, traumatised by unrelated adults or shifted endlessly one home to the next. If we were to really see all of this we would surely turn to stone in horror, outrage, disbelief, of utter heart-breaking tragedy that cannot, cannot be borne.
Rape. How many, how endlessly many of us carry that story? Carry it in our flesh, our memory, our very cells recording the violation the near-obliteration of our selves, our fragile child-bodies, our resilient child-minds, the selves of us formed in torment and still this endless desire to survive. Rape by fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers—how many incest stories have I heard by now? Sexual abuse by older siblings, cousins, gangs, sometimes mothers even; violence and horror and deep levels of manipulation practiced casually at the tortured edge of life and death, those children learning deep within them how to live on the edge how to somehow grow up despite all that; this would turn us to stone if we really looked at it. The statistics—up to one in three girls, up to one in six boys (this was in Australia in 1999, somehow I don’t believe it’s any less in 2017)—experienced sexual abuse of some kind before their eighteenth birthday. Do you feel the chill in your flesh setting in; your thinking beginning to grind to a halt; your movements slowing, stuttering, the breath coming more shallowly? We’re starting to turn to stone, reading or writing this, thinking about it.
Then there was the ordinary, almost dull level of humiliation and defeat inseparable from childhood. That casual, merciless way we were subjected to the power of others in the everyday, dragged along the street crying with hiccups, face a mess and unable to coordinate my feet under the stress; being told-off publicly, humiliated in front of our friends or family; the way it was assumed we couldn’t hear or wouldn’t understand when they discussed our faults; the preferencing when they gazed with eyes and words of praise at our brothers or sisters and glazed past us – how do any of us come out of it as half-way presentable human beings? Remember that they lied, neglected and beat us; remember that they did not rise in our defense when we were attacked outside our homes but instead brushed it off or told us to grow up, which desperately we tried to do. Remember how dangerous life was. We were lucky to survive.
We may have turned to stone somewhere along the way, in some subtle shifting manner so we don’t fully realise it. We just block that part of our lives out, build a wall or two. Encase ourselves in a fort, a high tower, an underground bunker. Stone is good for all that, walls and towers and bunkers. When our friends start to reveal their childhood miseries and shames we retreat, back behind our own wall and shore up the chinks, so the horror doesn’t seep through. It’s contaminating. I can’t hear about your nightmare without remembering my own. So I don’t want to hear. Not that I can forget my own—it visits me in a hundred ways; at night in the landscape of dream, or during the day when I see a child encased in misery in the street or supermarket and sneaking into my relationships or even in the memory of how I sometimes was with my own child.
I’m looking at my childhood and I’m in the process of turning into stone. Or turning into something—maybe stone is just a transition point and then I’ll erupt, spewing lava, molten stone, magma and it will be so fierce I’ll cover everything with it and even the memories will melt.
I read Tarot cards for a young woman, seventeen maybe, and the cards were horrible. I noticed her nervousness, and in her hands, she was wearing a piece of cheap jewellery where a ring is attached to a chain that links to a bracelet around the wrist. A slave bracelet, it’s called. When I asked why the cards were so dreadful she told me her father came into her room at night and sexually abused her—raped her, a couple of times a week, had for years, maybe five or six years. I told her the name of her bracelet, she fumbled with it, trying to get it off. I asked why she didn’t leave and she said she had a younger sister, maybe even two of them, I forget the details by now. She said as long as she stayed, they were safe from him. I asked, “how do you know?”—and saw a new level of horror enter her life. I hope she did something. I gave her phone numbers to call. I hope I reflected her horror enough to get her attention, that snakes rose up out of my hair, in her eyes and she was spurred into action. This was not the only time I heard that story.
My story isn’t that bad. But isn’t that the way we diminish the grief of it, measuring against others and saying, oh well it isn’t as bad as that. We survived after all and mostly we had homes and went to school and mostly our lives are better, now. Shored up with all that stone, perhaps, and the way we let our eyes glaze over and stopped thinking feeling being almost just barely breathing until it passed over us, like a storm or through us and then we came back into our bodies though our bodies weren’t the same any longer that cortisol still streaking through us changing the way we dealt with shock and pain, numbing us like stones to our own feelings, our own sense of danger til we couldn’t properly tell, any longer, which situations were good for us and which weren’t, we were drawn to danger maybe for the thrill, that’s what it took to spike our dulled emotions into feeling something or—even more sinister—for the familiarity of it.
This is all just in the ordinary suburbs of civilised Western life. This does not take into account actual war, genocide, child soldiers, slavery, child brides, genital mutilation, child prostitution, most of the world really. Medusa—where are you? When the patriarchy cut off your head was it to prevent your telling these stories, the stories of women and children and drawing all eyes to the horror of them? Was it to take your terrible powers and turn them onto those who are already the victims? To stop the power of serpents and stone that paralyse the perpetrators and let the innocent transform their suffering? When we reclaim Medusa’s heritage what shall we turn to stone? And then we shall slither free, out of those cracks in the walls or from under the foundations, shedding our skins as we go and becoming bright and beautiful. We will shed those childhood skins, the shapes of our suffering, and in with our knowledge, we will become healers and artists and activists.
Perhaps you were not one of those children. Maybe you had an ordinary safe loving nurturing amazing or just uneventful childhood. Can you listen to these stories, watch them playing out in the adult lives of your friends and lovers and not find yourself turning somehow toward stone, the contamination reaching out and into your ears and eyes as you are forced to consider how people treat the smallest amongst us, most helpless, dependent and fragile beings? Do you turn away, refuse to listen or do you try to hold these stories within your largess and if you don’t turn to stone, what happens then? Can you convince us we are safe, now, listen long enough to still the demons, step up to the challenges we throw at you, untrusting, unsure? Can you stay present to help weave a different story for us, for those who have been turned to stone, somewhere on the inside?
What would it be like to reclaim these histories and breathe through them, to let them out into the open and not have to carry them with us, like stones on our backs, in our hearts, blocking our eyes and ears and freezing our brains? What would it be like to wield the Medusa power of stones and snakes? Look into my eyes and know the truth of my childhood, of all our childhoods, the wounded ones and I think that’s most of us by now; I’m really not sure who there is left to turn into stone. So perhaps it’s the institutions, the nuclear family or just the family, the schools that don’t notice or can’t do anything for the blasted children who inhabit them, the systems of work and economy and poverty and pain that grind down the adults responsible for these small ones til they can’t think and can hardly love and have nowhere to turn and no answers and no resources and clearly it’s all utterly terrible; what if those institutions turned to stone and we were set free?
Because if we don’t turn into stone, or we turn into stone but then we keep turning, there’s a transformation, a transition, a snake-like twist and turning—and serpent-like we hiss and rise and maybe strike, paralysing our enemies or maybe we just slither off elsewhere, somewhere more interesting and rub up against a few difficult places and slip our skins and are reborn.
Medusa. Hiss her name out, like snakes. This is the worst, the most terrible thing—and if we can face that and still reach out to each other, if we can look it full in the face as it happens all around us in the houses and supermarkets and families we see on buses in the parks, in our own street and presumably in the houses of our friends and colleagues and our own families, happening still—if we can face it and not be turning into stone then we can strike. Let the serpents rise from my head, many bodied, writhing. Let them call out what they know and mark it as an act of horror, like thoughts that finally have to speak themselves. And shouting, singing into being, let us finally honour this ancient goddess: the mystery of facing terrible truth. Medusa’s head was cut off, but let us reclaim that—this ancient knowledge: the power to see and know the truth.
Oh Medusa, I’m calling you in. I invoke you. I invoke you into the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, I invoke you into my own life and the lives of my friends, I invoke you into the houses and families of childhoods everywhere. May there be a Royal Commission into the Family. Into childhood abuse in the home. Well might our faces be masks of horror, well might we feel parts of ourselves turning to stone as we confront what awaits us. Feel the shivers down your spine, the hairs rising on your arms and neck. Bring your qualities Medusa—it is time. It is time serpents were released and wildness broke the stone face of what is acceptable and we saw behind the masks and those who raise spear or shield against you were struck with the power of truth.
An excerpt from Re-visioning Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom