This essay was written for CHILD USA by Kimberly Ann Priest.
Kimberly Ann Priest is an autistic writer, and author of Slaughter the One Bird, finalist for the American Best Book Awards, as well as chapbooks The Optimist Shelters in Place, Parrot Flower, and Still Life. Winner of the New American Press 2019 Heartland Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, Salamander, Slipstream, The Berkeley Poetry Review, EcoTheo, Borderlands and other journals. She is an associate poetry editor for the Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry and assistant professor at Michigan State University.
In “The Psychic Space in Trauma,” researcher Norma Tracey beautifully defines trauma as a “psychic wound caused by a violent intrusion.” “An excess of psychic pain floods the ego,” she continues, “[…] [that] becomes unbearable and there is fear of fragmentation and death. …unthinkable fear, so there is no thinking, and hence no symbolization. The experience of negative feelings is greater than that of positive ones, causing …denial and regression. What is left is a non- living space, where knowing would be if it could be known, where thought would be if it could be thought.”
Anyone who has experienced sexual trauma feels, acutely, what this explanation so perfectly expresses. Though there are many other theories on the ways that assault affects mind and body, those of us who have experienced intrusion understand the truths of fragmentation, denial, regression, and a “non-living” space. One does not need to be a therapist, scientist, or medical professional to comprehend these feelings nor to recognize a victim’s need to symbolize the void and give shape to experience and pain.
When I was eight years old, I was molested by a baby-sitter, but I didn’t remember this experience until my early thirties while married to a violent partner. When the memories came, I suddenly had vivid images and explanations for an absence or void—a feeling that something was missing in my memory for which I felt shame—that had haunted my psyche since that first intrusive experience. Sadly, however, as soon as the memories came, they had to be set aside to survive a situation of domestic violence until about six years later when I finally got out and began a graduate program in English at a local university.
That was over eight years ago when I finally began using language to express the “excess of psychic pain” that flooded my emotions and demanded attention. While, later, I would have to process the pains of domestic violence, the first poems I wrote in my MA and MFA programs about violence were of that childhood assault. I wrote anything and everything that came to mind, allowing emotion to drive the narratives, and intellect to shape the art. In the end, I produced several books on my experiences, allowing me to carry out a conversation with the parts of myself where the pedophile “resided” and reminded me of his violence.
I was never going to see that man again. He acted once, and gratefully, he never returned to my parent’s home. In my thirties, I had neither desire nor means of discovering his location even though I remembered his name. Legal justice was the furthest thing from my mind. I was busy raising two children, dealing with an unstable husband, and far too many other things to consider retribution. What I needed to know was the story of what happened over the long-term. How the event had changed my personality, affected my choices, and altered my history, and how it was going to affect my future.
I needed narrative justice; the ability to untangle my psyche from the pedophile’s entrapment and gaze while giving voice to my anxieties. And I needed this to be written down or orated from beginning to end. There needed, absolutely needed, to be an end, and I was only going to get there by starting at the very beginning, the very source of my pain.
Slaughter the One Bird, Still Life, Parrot Flower, and White Goat Black Sheep are the books I have published right now, each addressing the pedophilic act from a different angle. Slaughter and Still Life specifically, offer a representation of the pedophile that feels nearly embodied and the moment I held Still Life in my hands, each poem beginning “my pedophile,” I felt that I had finally encased the predator and his behavior in a slim object of twenty-six pages, a mere fraction of the size I was at eight-years-old and am now. He was now under my control and could have no more control over me.
The startling truth of that moment was this: I could crush him or place his slim figure on a shelf and give both space and expression to this moment in our shared history. Justice. Not retributive. Not legal. Not reparative. But a justice of the heart that acknowledges that there are moments, sometimes many moments, outside of our control; and while the consequences of those moments may not be ok, it’s human—so very human—to have those moments and be vulnerable and helpless in the midst of them. This is ok.
“Gaining personal power,” says Beverly Engel in It Wasn’t Your Fault, “cannot heal the debilitating shame from childhood abuse. The truth is, one cannot be truly empowered until the shame is brought out, examined, and healed by compassion.” All my writing had not only introduced me to my pedophile, but it had also introduced me to the tiny girl who hadn’t a clue what was going to happen to her alone with this man in her parent’s bedroom. From the vantage point of the poems, she seemed so fragile, lithe, and terrified. And now the book in my hand seemed equally so.
How small we all are in our origins, our journeys not yet clear or decided. Who was the boy in the man who didn’t know he would grow up addicted to desiring little children? Compassion is a universal need.
Looking back at my life, legal reparations might have been incredibly useful in the most practical ways. I never had much and lost more and more and more until now as I write this, and circumstances finally look like they could change. But reparations couldn’t buy me compassion. That’s something I need from myself and others. Something we all need.
Now a woman, I, the little girl in the books, shamelessly tell the story in rooms of listening people. I give symbol to emotion, explaining the positive effect of claiming my narrative that, through the act of writing, has erased the post-traumatic stress symptoms I used to experience sometimes violently. There is no excess of negative feeling anymore and the rooms where I tell my story become tranquil, attentive living spaces. My audience makes them living. I make them living. I am living. And each time I read the story, the pedophile is admonished to listen and acknowledge his shame publicly and learn from me.