I’m making peace with the fact that there’s no objective truth.
If you ask several honest witnesses for their account of a crime, each will give different details. Even subatomic particles, when closely studied, change their behavior so you can never know what they really do when you’re not looking.
It’s been two weeks since I dropped my big truth bomb: my dad molested me and generally had poorly defined boundaries around sexuality.
Many women reached out in comments and privately to tell me how much my story meant to them, often because they were holding a similar burning ember.
Since then, I’ve felt much lighter.
I’ve also thought a lot about whose truth this is and why I told it.
News about the non-consensual nature of the Last Tango in Paris rape scene conspired with some cold snap in the air or internal rustling, giving me the entry point I needed to finally write about the ways I felt violated by my father.
Now I wonder should I say I was violated or that I felt violated. Do I wish to state that this is an objective reality or (just) my perception?
This is the strange thing about my experience, and that of many, many women.
We are left not knowing what is real and what is imagined. We don’t trust our gut.
Also, it’s complicated to process our experiences. I have a core belief that no one is all good or all evil. It’s at the heart of well-crafted writing, right? A villain isn’t believable if they’re always plotting to destroy. They have to stop once in a while to slip a twenty into the hand of a homeless person or paint a work of art that is divine to behold. Or maybe they are just vulnerable, worrying about their graying hair or suffering from fraud complex at work.
My dad checks off many of these boxes. As I wrote in my letter to him, he cultivated the artist in me. He did give his money, time, and presence to the homeless and downtrodden, even when he had very little himself. He is witty and an interesting writer. About once a month he’ll send a poem out to his “fans,” which include me, his siblings, his professor friend, and a niece and nephew. Sometimes they don’t make sense to me, or else I can see the structure of it too obviously, like a boom mic caught on film. Occasionally, his words are perfect and surprising, conveying human themes in visceral tingles and gut punches. The nonstop expansion and contraction of the universe and the temporary nature of our human experience are recurring themes.
My dad is handy. He has tools and he will bring them to my house and fix what needs fixing, sometimes unasked. He makes food and has overall done what he could to make my adult life as a business owner and mother of three easier.
So how could I write this public letter to him about something that seems to be so subjective? How could I take a chance that I’ve interpreted the facts, and my gut, and incorrectly maligned this loyal, talented father and grandfather?
Truth is further distorted by the fact that there is almost always some level of gaslighting going on in a situation like this.
We are told either that things didn’t happen the way we remembered them or that they aren’t as terrible as we think they are.
Martha Beck has written about a gut-checking tool she refers to as “shackles on” or “shackles off.” If you think about a time when you felt trapped or unhappy, let it drop in and define the physical sensations you have. For me, it’s a constriction in my chest and shoulders and a kind of sick feeling in my stomach along with a sense that my physical existence is centered in my chest and head. Do the same for a time when you felt totally free, totally yourself. For me that’s dropped shoulders, and open chest, and an awareness of my whole body. Beck posits that this can help you regain awareness of and trust in what I call my compass, the instincts we’ve honed as a species for millions of years of survival—an ear for that still, small voice inside you.
So, the most accurate thing I can say about writing the letter is that it felt completely “shackles off.”
The amount of weight that dropped from my shoulders, even as I shook with fear at hitting the “publish” button was astounding to me. And they relaxed and moved more freely and I felt even a joyous rise in my heart as I not only received support from so many but repeated cries of, “Me too! Thank you for putting words to something I could not or dared not name.”
Of course, my revelations were shocking to many of my friends and family.
I emailed the post to my husband. A day went by without comment, so I asked if he’d gotten it. He just said, “Yes.” He has known about my experiences for years, and has seemed to never quite have a handle on what to think of them. Or maybe he can’t reconcile what I’m saying with the goofy, helpful grandpa who spends hours cooking for us most Sundays; the devil’s advocate who argues to my husband’s devout Muslim self that there is no God.
Though I have perhaps twenty people from my in-laws’ side of the family as Facebook friends and I shared the post publicly, not one of them liked it or commented. I don’t take this too personally. Sex itself is a taboo topic amongst Hyderabadi Muslims and, really, much of Indian society. I’ll always remember a sign at the Ashram I stayed in at the Hindu pilgrimage town of Rishikesh. One line on there, intending to forbid public displays of affection amongst Westerners, informed, “Lovemaking is not part of the Indian culture.” To which my inner voice cheekily responded, “Then why are there so many Indians?!”
My sisters-in-law reached out privately after a day or two to express support. Upon further questioning, my husband said it was just so painful and hard to think about that he didn’t know what to say.
It’s a weird feeling when your lived experience is too painful for others to discuss.
On my dad’s side of the family, two of my cousins did reach out with strong support the same day and it was welcomed. My aunts aren’t on social media. One of them reached out to say that she’s concerned about me and can’t ignore the needs of her brother (my father) or her niece.
My friends, however, freed from the conflict of knowing my dad, gushed support.
I had more than 60 comments-in-solidarity on Facebook and several on the blog itself (not being a social media “personality,” this was much more than I expected). Each expressed sorrow for my experience, admiration for my courage, or understanding as a fellow member of “Tribe of the Sacred Heart, Scar Clan” as Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes describes us.
I haven’t yet heard from my dad, except that he sent me a wordless email, having only attachments of photos from his phone. The photos were of my children and of my in-laws’ recent visit. Was he trying to remind me of all he’d done, playing with the kids (one of the photos he staged, modeling the work of a German choreographer he’d come to admire), cooking for us, spending time with us? Was it a message that he was purging me from his phone? His life? I decided not to try to interpret it.
Through his wife, he said he was mischaracterized.
There were only two incidents and one may have involved alcohol. He wished I’d spoken to him about my feelings. But I had twenty years ago and they were completely minimized by him and then by me.
I didn’t want my experience minimized.
I didn’t want to “go to court.” I just wanted to get it off of my chest. This was for me and for everyone who has been in the same position. We have that right.
Also, his “just two incidents” story has many logical and moral holes, which I won’t detail here as I really don’t wish to have an absentee trial.
There are so many reasons we Scar Clan don’t tell our stories. Some I’ve danced with have been:
- Fear that spouses or other family members won’t be able to deal with it
- Possibility of losing the “good parts” of the relationship you have with the person who mistreated you
- Not wanting to identify as a victim
- The possibility of being judged
For me, the part about identifying as a victim runs strong. I grew up in the Midwest, raised by working-class parents who were the first in their respective families to go to college. They were raised by people who’d lived through the depression and World War II as farmers, coal miners, steel workers, soldiers.
There was a strong urgency to pull myself up by my bootstraps, tough it out, not complain.
There is benefit to this ethic. It saves you from the tar pits you could get stuck in if you wallow.
But after going public with my experience, I think differently about what it says about my identity. I feel like I’m leaving victimhood behind by sharing this and maybe planting the seeds for others to do so too.
If this defines me, it defines me as a truth teller, something I must be as a writer.
Not telling my truth, not having integrity and confluence between my words, deeds, and actions has held me back in every area of my life.
And we return to the question. Who’s truth am I telling? My father has a very different version of this narrative, and I’m pretty certain he believes it. My stepmother, a former paralegal, has lent me support but also said that she’s trying to look at things objectively. When so much is at stake for her, I can understand that.
But my truth is the only one I have.
I was given my experiences and perspective and they are what I give back. It’s not my place to judge them. It’s my place to listen to them, to trust them, to reclaim my compass.
In this interview, Guru Singh says that living a mystical life requires faith because there is no double-blind study to prove that it’s any more meaningful that acting from a completely logical place.
Truth might be like that. I’ll never know for sure if my truth is objectively true. But I must live as if it is in order to have a sense of meaning, direction, and heroic journey. If I question my own truth, I become mute and unmoving or a puppet to others’ objectives.
I have this feeling that if we all did tell our own subjective truths, that we could get at the universal. I think poet Muriel Rukeseyer had it right when she wrote:
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open.”
I can already feel the tremors beneath my feet.