“I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse,” are words that lend themselves to whispers in the night, a disclosure between friends over a glass of wine. But these are not words that are meant to be spoken by a professional woman working in academia, for they break a social contract – the life of the mind – and raise the specter of the body, its misuses and betrayals.
I found myself over the past two years in the unexpected position of disclosing this personal and painful part of my history at work because I am the director of a special collections library – The John Hay Library at Brown University – that has quietly begun collecting material on childhood sexual abuse advocacy in the 1980s through the early 2000s. The personal is political, and the historical is personal, and never have I felt these words more clearly than in the collision of my own identity and history with the careful work of curating archival collections. I carry within me a scared, traumatized girl that poet and friend DaMaris Hill so beautifully describes about herself: “the Black girl self I carry on my shoulders.” This girl, or fragments of her, are spread through my veins, under my colorful blazers and vibrant dresses, red lipstick, and what my aunt lovingly refers to as my “Rachel Maddow” hair. Her voice quakes within my self-assured tone and pitches low at the bottom of my laugh.
At work, I cultivated my femme self in a hyper-masculine space that scratched my skin because I could feel in the architecture and the founding collections a denial of anything other than the (male) life of the mind. I brought myself into the space in ways large and small, from replacing the director’s desk chair that was so large that my feet couldn’t quite touch the ground to working with a fantastic team to reimagine the modes and content of our publicly accessible collections.
The collecting initiative on childhood sexual abuse (CSA) advocacy and survivors began early in my tenure, perhaps four months in, before my father died and before I allowed myself to know a truth that had been resting in my bones since I was a girl. It was cold by then, the New England winter demanding layers of down and wool. I agreed to move forward with this collection, and with my body on full alert, I spoke with the University Librarian, gathered advice from trusted colleagues, wrote memorandums, and consulted with senior administration. The University was ready, the Hay was ready, and I thought that I was ready.
The sudden onset of COVID derailed this collecting initiative and set me on a course to confront my own history. As we took to our attics and dining room tables and held our colleagues’ hands through Zoom screens, the personal and professional spheres collapsed. We bore witness to the messy detritus of life that usually held no place in the workplace; unfolded laundry, lunches, outdoor spaces, wall art, mental health struggles, and more. My world shrank from an 87,500-square-foot marble library on one of the most beautiful campuses in the country to my much more modest home. The schedule was crazed; I offset my work from 5:00 am – 2:00 pm so my husband could work in the afternoon and one of us could pretend to parent our then three-year-old son. This collision and collapse blurred the lines I had carefully constructed between my work and myself, and it was in my work from home that I finally confronted my past.
He died. In late August 2020, my father and abuser died at the age of 94. I felt him depart this world with a great wrenching in my body. Minutes before the call, I already knew he had left. And then, as Toni Cade Bombara recounts in the gentle cadence of her grandmother’s question, “What are you pretending not to know today, Sweetheart?” A firm, gentle voice from deep in my body – my firm gentle voice – asked me the same question, and I could no longer pretend not to know. And what happened inside of me, what continues to happen as I reckon with this most fundamental, brain-altering betrayal and trauma is an earthquake, but a quiet one that only a few of those who look past my carefully poised eyes can see. Though the world has regained some equilibrium from the early days of COVID, for me, time has ceased to have the same rhythm or meaning; weeks, hours, minutes, months, and years blur. Trauma affects the way memories are stored and retrieved in the brain; instead of being linear, time is like a puzzle that has been scattered on the floor. For me, trauma feels like its own special type of time travel. Washing the dishes and humming to music becomes laying on the ground shaking, a little girl trying to keep herself safe. Heart racing and cold sweats. Time and space bend at will as smells, sounds, heat, and cold wake the body’s memories and the body screams, “Now, now you will know. Now you will remember.”
But as we know too well, time does not stop. It continues, and the days roll forward and with them our lives and responsibilities. In the middling days of COVID, I returned to my mahogany desk and the walls of the library stopped being silent and soon echoed with laughter, the bumpity-bump of rolling carts and the distant voices of classroom conversation. The collecting initiative returned, expanded by the fortuitous connection between a precocious student, the life’s work of a faculty member, and the Hay. The groundwork had been laid on his initiative, but now I tread it with a new awareness. I disclosed my truth – “I am a childhood sexual abuse survivor” – one by one to the colleagues and students working most closely on the collections. I led discussions on ethics and spoke with the voice of a well-trained archivist, a confident leader, and that of a survivor. It was the practice of years that kept me going during these conversations as my vision tunneled and the room began to tilt. As during the early months of COVID, the careful boundaries and personas I created to partition my past from the present and my personal from the professional evaporated, and the ground shifted under my feet. I would later learn the clinical word for this phenomena – integration. I like to think of it as healing.
This essay does not have a satisfying end or resolution because grappling with my survivorship will be the work of decades. The collections will open to research soon, and we hold space for more collections that are yet to come. Survivors and advocates will have a voice in my library, nestled with rare books and contemporary ephemera, housed in acid-free boxes and folders that are neatly labeled in a careful hand. There will be redacted copies and some closed materials, shepherded by long-established archival practice around third-party privacy and sensitive topics. Researchers will visit, and some of them will probably be survivors or advocates. Maybe they will sit in the reading room with time collapsing inside them as the past and present collide in the words on the neatly stacked documents.
But here is what I have learned so far. There is space for my trauma in the archives and for my full, complete, and painful history at work. Shame is the handmaiden of trauma, and it serves a very useful and protective purpose. So I will hold shame’s hand and clutch courage in the other as I continue to navigate my work. Leader. Director. Survivor. Mother. Child. Friend. Let us be open in the spaces where we walk to the full stories of those we see every day. COVID has laid bare our physical health and vulnerabilities. Let us too be able to choose what to show of our internal lives. It is brave work and painful work, but it is necessarily transformative work – for us as individuals and for the physical and intellectual spaces we inhabit.
- Lana Lawrence papers, 1986-2014. Mary Anne Reilly papers, 1970-2011. Open for research January 2023. ↑
- DaMaris B. Hill, Breath Better Spent: Living Black Girlhood. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022, xiii. ↑
- “The Education of a Storyteller,” 246-7 in Bambara, Toni Cade. Deep Sightings & Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations. 1st Vintage Contemporaries Ed edition. New York: Vintage, 1999. ↑