“In the darkness men leave behind the women and emerge in the light clean and free”
Having finished reading Junot Diaz’s piece about his rape as a child and the years of sexual, romantic and relationship trauma and toxic patriarchal behavior that followed, I am left with a lot of conflicting thoughts and emotions.
I applaud that he’s opening up about and owning to some really deep, dark trauma on a significantly large and visible international platform as a Black Caribbean man from the oldest African diaspora. This is no small feat. As a fellow Afro-Dominican, even as someone who has not been the victim of rape but has survived other types of physical abuse and sexual assault, his narrative was still really relatable, raw, honest and compelling.
And yet, many Black women in online spaces I’m in have pointed out, it is hard to hear him dissect and discuss the harm he then went on to cause towards the nameless Black and Brown women he dated on his journey of dealing with the effects and aftermath of his assault, reduced to objects that are mere footnotes in his journey, operating as tools to animate and move him forward at a time when he needed life and love and couldn’t make such decisions for himself, mere testaments, lessons of what his messed up behavior lost him.
It leads me to ask what were Diaz’s ex partners surviving and going through both in that relationship and as just their own autonomous beings with their own histories and past? What was it like? How have they healed and moved forward, if they have? Did their families and friends know why their relationships with Diaz ended so abruptly and poorly, or is his piece a rude wake up to the kind of harm the women stomached and bore with in silence? What were they feeling and thinking then? What are they feeling and thinking now?
But none of that is the focal point because it’s Diaz’s narrative, not theirs, even if they’re featured prominently in it. Even what he put them through isn’t about them, but him ruining relationships with people who treated him well, showed him how to have sex and made him feel good and loved despite his trauma and that he liked very much for it.
I get that Diaz was discussing how his experiences manifested and were destructive in his life and he’s trying to be transparent and effacing, not self-aggrandizing, about his behaviors. Part of me feels like even naming any of this is an asshole move, like I’m dissecting or questioning someone’s really vulnerable and hard-won #MeToo narrative just because it isn’t perfect. It feels kind of bullshit to be someone who always demands men do more to step up and be upfront about their behavior, feelings and experiences then become critical when one finally does in such a sincere and powerful way.
But then I remember there’s a reason for that reticence-Black and Brown women, trans and queer included, in families, friendships and relationships with traumatized and fucked up men, are always having to be mules, footnotes and the main beneficiaries of violence and bullshit in their journey and trajectories. We’re scaffolding, light, stage and financial support for men’s show of suffering, pain, loss and darkness, then realization, learning, healing and growth, if they’re even on such a path. And our emotions are constantly dismissed and diminished throughout, and taught that we’re the ones in the wrong if we push them towards accountability or healing, or cry out when hurt by their trauma-informed actions.
Struggle love-complacency, loyalty, faithfulness and a “no snitching, nagging or being too demanding and difficult” philosophy no matter what is happening-is a value stressed upon Black and Brown women regardless of sexuality, especially in relationships with men. We then will either be the person closest to someone with a deep, dark secret or set of experiences that wreaks havoc in all aspects of our lives and relationship, or one of a few or the only person to know the truth, which is its own immense burden. We’re expected to protect men from the world, their memories, their own behaviors and its consequences, and suffer whatever for their sake. Our trauma, mental illnesses, struggles, issues and desires be damned. They’re not even considered. We’re not extended that much humanity.
Speaking to that, are we to assume he only dated women with no personal histories of romantic, emotional, domestic, and/or sexual trauma and abuse and thus were clean slates not triggered or impacted by his own behavior and trauma? Realistically, the chances of that are slim. He related that they were all of color, so there’s already that colonial inter-generational trauma aspect that Diaz is known to talk about that has definitely impacted them, along with the impact that living under a white patriarchy has on women of color.
I was involved with a white man like how Diaz describes himself. Brilliant, observant, intelligent and introspective but deeply traumatized, mentally-ill and distorted by that trauma. He was patriarchal, detached, callous, mean, destructive, alcoholic, toxic, cold and intentionally out of touch with his experiences and emotions and those of others’. He was capable of consideration, empathy and kindness, but it cost him too much and felt too intimate. He punished himself and any person who got close to him, and that generally meant the women he slept with or dated, as those were the only people he’d ever bother to get close to. A white atheist with interest in LaVeyan satanism (the libertarians of the occult), he considered himself a metaphorical island of a man who didn’t need anyone or anything aside from himself and whiskey. I quickly came to understand that he was both afraid of letting people in and risking them seeing parts of himself he worked hard to keep hidden, and of being accountable and beholden to those around him if he did decide to form relationships with them and enter social and relational contracts that couldn’t be so easily broken like his own commitments to himself could be.
This man never liked to talk about his past experiences or even his life before his family moved to the United States (he was an immigrant who came at around the age of 10) and he hardly told me anything personal, much less about a traumatic part of his past. He’d sometimes tell me little things here and there, especially if he had been drinking, and I’d realize and notice some details based in my own experiences. However, mostly, all I got was that men don’t get like this, men don’t become vulnerable or expose the parts of themselves that hurt, you’re asking too much and we’re not even that close, you’re asking too much because you’re desperate. At night he’d text me affectionately and send me poems then spend his days dismissing his messages, mocking that I imagined to derive any meaning or feeling fro them, gas-lighting and ignoring me. His drinking, already bad, worsened, and he had an occasional recreational opiate problem as well. His trauma and meanness triggered easily, and would in turn trigger mine.
It goes without saying that that dynamic didn’t last for long nor was it in any way, shape or form healthy, and how it ended is its own story. But I realized a lot about how it is like to be an Afro-Latina survivor of domestic and emotional violence and abuse and be in relationships with men like that. How much time he spent hiding, gas-lighting, dismissing and yet extracting from me emotionally, socially, intellectually, sexually, and pushing me away at the same time.
The white guy is a writer (though he always doubted his talent). I always dreaded he’d grow out if his self-doubt and pull exactly what Diaz did. He’d come out with his new life and his partner that he could be healthier with than he every could be with me and tell his story of triumph and growth, centering only himself and perhaps his new partner and how much better it was now and only quickly mention the women and relationships he maimed along the way. I’d be a footnote in his grand tale of misery, darkness and pain breaking into the light of self-realization, love, healing and growth. A corpse on the shadowy road of his tortured journey.
Diaz’s #MeToo coming out is yet in many ways the breaking of a barrier and presumptions about what the typical victim and survivorhood looks like and challenging the the white cis straight womanhood mold. It is necessary and valid and something I don’t want to discount. But I can’t help but feel bitter on behalf of his nameless exes, especially as I see myself in them. When you are involved with damaged men, you’re expected to put away your own trauma and carry them. And when they get rid of you, you’re supposed to internalize why they did and just disappear. Watching men like that walk into the light, beyond you or to better relationships wherein they are making strides in their healing or at least learning not to act like total and complete fucking monsters, and get praise for it, hurts. At best it seems in some ways like a Pyrrhic victory, at worse it’s just them mining the ways they hurt you for all its worth for their benefit.
I’m not saying that a person can’t be on a journey or make strides in their healing unless they’re open and accountable to every single person they’ve ever hurt. But after realizing and honoring the harm and hurt that happened to you is not your fault and going through that healing process, accountability for actions and behavior that are your responsibility is often a terrifying and yet important part of the next one, interconnected to the last. Men have the startling ability of specifically hurting every woman around them while they’re hurt or learning to be better, then spinning their own tale to very conveniently save them face and keep the ball in their court all throughout and skip accountability. They don’t lose as much or get as low as women of color survivors do. They aren’t honest about what it was like for us to be around or with them because they aren’t willing to share the spotlight and look bad.
We deserve more complexity in these narratives. As corny and played out as the phrase is, it is true that hurt people hurt people. One can both be a survivor and a perpetuator of harm, especially if their trauma compacts with patriarchy. I would love for more attention, gratitude, credit, agency and space be given to those women who helped or loved or were hurt by those hurt men along their way, especially Black women. We deserve it.