On Brokenness, Junot Diaz, and a Big Wheel
My hard road to recovering a repressed memory of childhood assault
There’s no denying that what was once just the Harvey Weinstein story has taken on a life all its own in #MeToo. While Tarana Burke has been working on Me Too as a social justice cause for more than a decade, it took the coming out of harassed and abused White women of relative privilege for it to become a movement. That White women have empowered themselves to reveal the abuses of powerful men is a step in the right direction for eradicating sexual harassment and abuse.
The lengthy sentencing phase for convicted sex abuser Larry Nassar in January was but one example of this fact. More than 150 women gave statements of the abuse they suffered at the hands of this once well-respected sports doctor for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics. So, too, were the recent trials and last week’s conviction of America’s Dad, the great comedian and rapist Bill Cosby. It took a Hannibal Buress joke and 60 accusers (mostly White women) to bring the story of Cosby’s drug-fueled rapes over a five-decade period from the rumor mill to a jury willing to put him in prison. If one is a White female or has a platform from which to speak out, #MeToo is one way to get justice, or at least, some conclusion to years of brokenness and pain.
One story that went underreported in the rush to single out Weinstein’s crimes was Terry Crews’ Twitter revelation. Crews admitted that an unnamed Hollywood executive groped his genitals at a public event. And, like so my of Weinstein’s victims, Crews chose to not pursue a legal case against the executive. ““Who’s going 2 believe you?,” Crews explained in one of his tweets.
Like Crews, most Americans deal with their brokenness through harassment and abuse by either burying the experience or by lashing out at others, morphing from an abuse or rape victim to a perpetrator. Novelist Junot Diaz’s piece “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma” in The New Yorker last month is an example of both responses. Diaz’s story of being raped twice at the age of eight was raw, gut-wrenching, and traumatic and triggering for anyone who’s ever been sexually assaulted or raped. But while many see his unrelenting admission as courageous or brave (and in many respects, it is), I don’t see Diaz as particularly brave. Not because revealing a childhood rape isn’t brave. But because of all the damage Diaz wrought in the process of taking off his “mask,” knowing that he needed help, but refusing to seek it. Diaz never seemed to take a moment, to make the deliberate decision to not take his pain and inflict it on others, in his relationships with women especially. That Diaz eventually got it together after years of suicidal thoughts and self-destructive tendencies with so many women. For this, he deserves all the kudos and accolades. But that F5-tornado path of destruction Diaz took to get there. That, to me, isn’t brave. That both saddened and angered me, for all the men and women Diaz damaged as a result, and for Diaz as well.
Both Crews’ and Diaz’s truths reveal how it is normal for most Americans to hide their abuse and rape, to not pursue punishing those who perpetrate these crimes. The myriad ways in which the marginalized are the most broken, especially women of color, poor women and men, and poor children of color, who must also bare the brunt of systemic racism and poverty in America, gets scant attention. “Black people of all ages and genders are walking around with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and survivor’s guilt…We attempt to heal our broken insides with whatever is available,” Mychal Denzel Smith wrote in Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching. But there are nuances to being broken. There’s broken into a million pieces. There’s broken in half. There’s a crack here, a chip there, a bruise hidden somewhere else. All this brokenness can push people past the point of resilience, and if left untreated, often results in self-destructive and in predatory behavior, perpetuating a cycle of brokenness. This is something that also goes unaddressed in the race to unearth abuse.
Unlike Crews and Diaz, my story is far more meandering. It’s the case of me a Black boy who did tell. Unlike Crews, I wasn’t believed. Unlike Diaz, I was made to forget my assault, which remained buried in my mind for thirty-eight years. But, like Crews and Diaz, I’d been taught that “‘real’ men are not helpless,” that fear isn’t masculine, that “real men ain’t scared,” as talk-radio host Esther Armah put it.
My story begins and ends with a Big Wheel and Mount Vernon, New York. My mom bought me a Big Wheel for Christmas and for my sixth birthday in 1975, a two-for-one gift, because my birthday comes two days after Christmas. I had begged May-wa (my early childhood gibberish form of my mom’s actual name) for this ride for months, at least as early as that July. I was so happy that as soon as I could, with my dark blue winter coat and all, I rode up and down South Sixth Avenue’s blue-slate sidewalks with it. I thought I was the coolest kid on my block!
The 400-block of South Sixth on Mount Vernon’s South Side was one of two and three-story homes with 150-square-foot lawns surrounded by interlocked steel gates and ample, overgrown backyards. It was a small suburban oasis a mile and a half from the Bronx border. But there were few kids for me to play with, at least kids my age. This despite Nathan Hale Elementary holding up the southeastern end of the block.
By the end of first grade, a girl in my class named Diana had taken a liking to me. She had skin the color of butterscotch, and bright hazel-green eyes to go with her puffy lips. We kissed several times, in class and on the short walk up South Sixth back to our homes. We even attempted to French kiss a few times, including once in class before being caught by our teacher Ms. Griffin. When I’d ride my Big Wheel after school, and see Diana on the rough and bumpy asphalt playground between my house and Nathan Hale, I’d let her ride on it.
At the end of June, Diana and her family moved away. I felt sad to lose such a good friend. But I still had my Big Wheel. For weeks after the end of first grade, I rode it around the block and on the school playground.
Four Twenty-Five South Sixth was where we lived. Inside was our second-floor, two-bedroom, and one bath flat within the three-story tan and off-white house. We had a separate entrance, giving us the appearance of living in our own home while not actually owning the place. It sometimes seemed spacious, except when my mom and dad would fight, or when my older brother Darren would take my toys, or when my Mom went into the kitchen and made fried porgies and whitings or chitlins. On many a day I stared out the front window at cars, parked or rolling down the street. An avocado-green ’68 Chevy Camaro here, a grape-colored AMC Gremlin there. That summer, though, my mom and dad weren’t home often to engage me in the car-model guessing game that I liked to play when I was bored.
My father, a night janitor at Salesian High School in New Rochelle and a binge drinker, had never been home for more than a few days at a time. My mom’s shifts at Mount Vernon Hospital varied between mornings and nights. When she was home, I was on one of my Big Wheel adventures. Darren was in summer camp at his Clear View School in Dobbs Ferry, and wouldn’t make it home until 4 or 4:30 in the afternoon. Sometimes my dad was home, suffering from a hangover or tinkering in the backyard. Sometimes, I was with my babysitter Ida, or with one of my dad’s drinking buddies.
And there were days I was at home by myself.
On a lonely Wednesday in mid-July, a week after the bicentennial celebration in the city, my mom left for work, the 3 pm-11 pm shift.
“Keep your butt in the house while I’m gone,” she said.
That day I did what I typically did when left alone. I got on my now nearly worn out Big Wheel wearing my blue and red-striped t-shirt and dark blue shorts, and rode it down to the school playground. It had rained earlier that afternoon, and the street was still wet from the summer showers.
As I skidded along the asphalt on the playground, the air still smelled of rain and ozone, even though there were breaks in the clouds. A group of four older Black kids had taken over the swing area. Something told me to not go over by the swings, but my Big Wheel’s skidding and sliding brought me over there anyway.
As soon as I ended up near the swings, the four teenagers surrounded me.
One of them grabbed me off of my Big Wheel, while another took my ride.
“Give it back!” I yelled. “Give it back!”
The lightest skinned one in the group, their leader, it seemed, came up to me, and unzipped his pants.
“You get it back after you suck my dick, muthafucka.”
I shook my head. One of them threatened to bang my Big Wheel on one of the swing poles. Two of the twelve or thirteen year-olds grabbed me. I started to cry. One of the boys pried open my mouth.
The light-skinned leader then stuck the tip of his penis in my mouth.
I felt the dry meat on my tongue. I wanted to throw up.
“The little muthafucka’s sucking my dick!,” the light-skinned one yelled while laughing.
The other teenagers started laughing so hard, they loosened their grip on my arms. I pulled myself away from them, grabbed my Big Wheel, and ran.
“You a faggot!” they yelled as I ran and rode. “You a faggot! You a dukey!”
I rode straight home and tried to forget what just happened. But I couldn’t. My Big Wheel now had a crack in it, between the back of the black seat and the back axle. My mom noticed it a few days later. I told her about the Big Wheel and the older boys trying to break it. I didn’t tell her about the other part.
“That’s what you get for leaving the house!,” May-wa said.
It took me three weeks to tell my parents. It was a Saturday afternoon in August when I finally learned that my mom had filed for divorce the month before.
I complained that Darren’s bigger butt had been the final straw for my Big Wheel. It had broken in half after he tried to ride it earlier that week.
“He did break it. It says ’90 lebs’ on it. Darren was too big,” I said.
“You broke that shit weeks ago!,” May-wa yelled.
“I didn’t break it. A bunch of kids did.”
“You didn’t try to stop ‘em?”
“I did try to stop ’em. But they took it and one of them stuck a pee-pee in my mouth.”
“I done told you not to leave the house when I’m not here!” May-wa screamed. “That’s what you get for not listening!”
I was so shocked by how angry she was. I didn’t think. I just ran down the stairs, out the house, and into the middle of the street. I saw a tan Chevy Malibu coming down the street and I just stood there.
The older, salt-and-pepper-bearded and balding Black man didn’t slow down until he realized I wasn’t planning to move. He slammed on the brakes and came to a stop about three feet in front of me.
“Boy, what’s wrong with you?” he yelled. “Are you tryin’ to get yourself killed? Where’s your mama?”
He grabbed me by the back of my chocolate-brown t-shirt and made me show him where I lived. We marched upstairs to the second floor, where he told my mom what happened.
My mom took the older man’s belt and beat me with it in front of him, with Darren and my dad watching.
“Thank you,” she told the older man. Then she sent me to bed without dinner.
“Don’t you EVER do that again!,” May-wa screamed.
Nine months after the bicentennial summer, we had moved across town to 616 East Lincoln, a five-story, Tudor-style apartment complex. After going to Darren’s summer camp for the first time, we went outside on 616’s grounds, also for the first time. The kids who lived at 616 chased us around the vast multi-building complex while throwing rocks at us. Scared, me and my brother hid behind the big, wooden, dark-brown front door and huddled, hoping that the kids wouldn’t find us.
Instead, a couple of young Black guys saw us and took us upstairs to my mom and my eventual stepfather. The two young men said that they saw us doing “the dukey.” I had no idea what they were talking about.
Next thing I knew was that my mom and stepfather proceeded to whip us as if we’d gone to the grocery store and stolen $100 worth of candy and soda. Both “dukey” and “faggot” were part of my vocabulary — again.
It was part of a two-and-a-half-year period where I’d bite my fingernails down to the nail bed. Or I’d sometimes stuffed uneaten sandwiches into holes I had carved into the insides of my winter coats, leaving them there for months. I started picking at and eating boogers when I got nervous, especially when I caught a cold. One day in second grade, I pulled on a loose thread from my blue and red-striped t-shirt during recess, the one I’d worn on the day of my assault, and began eating it, until I had swallowed more a third of the shirt. My mom responded to all my strange acts with “What’s wrong with you, fool?” ass-whuppings. That was the only remedy she could think of for a broken Black boy. She beat me so that I would forget. And I did. And with that, I stopped calling her May-wa.
Me repressing the memory of most of the incident allowed for some mending. But even with precision tools and superglue, picking up the pieces and rebinding them meant that I wasn’t the same happy kid anymore. I was risk averse when it came to being around Black male teenagers for years after that, especially on asphalt basketball courts. My mom, my stepfather, and my dad were all raising me to be a hypermasculine, heterosexual misogynist, such was their hatred of my “dukey” traits. I’d become a deliberately shy human, too scared to share my feelings with anyone I liked or loved. I knew myself well enough to know to not entertain serious relationships (no matter how badly I wanted them) until I was ready to love myself, warts and all. That didn’t happen until I was 24.
The layers of being chipped here through witnessing domestic violence, cracked there by physical abuse, and the debris of psychological torture from other broken pieces covered up those original shards. Those layers were all beneath the everyday grind of poverty and racism that was my life before college. I managed to bury those without burying all of my other memories, or at least, without burying the ability to remember almost literally anything else I wanted to remember. Ironic, because my memory was the one ability I fully developed as a child. It was my ticket to college, my passport away from the assault I couldn’t remember, and the growing up years I couldn’t forget.
One night in December 2014, I had a really bad trying-to-escape dream — again. This time, though, I remembered the taste of a penis in my mouth, and then I saw the light-skinned teenager.
After I woke up, a flood of images erupted in my brain. The Chevy Malibu and me standing in the street. Seeing the light-skinned kid who assaulted me on the playground at 616 on the same day the other kids chased Darren and me around the building while pelting us with pebbles and rocks. The wall of fear that my Mom had on her face when the neighbors told her that they thought Darren and me were “faggots” because we were standing so close to each other that we looked like we were “doing the dukey.” My Mom’s constant fear that I’d turn out gay. My dad constantly calling me a “faggat” (as he pronounced it when he was drunk, which was often) from the time I was fourteen until I went off to college because I didn’t “get my dick wet.” My mom giving my one-time idiot stepfather carte blanche to “turn” me and Darren “into men” through Isshin-ryu karate and draconian physical abuse.
At some point I realized I was surrounded by broken people, regardless of their power and authority. My mom had been cracked by her parents in Jim Crow rural Arkansas, and broken by my shattered stepfather. My alcoholic father had been broken by New York and its winners-and-losers sorting machine. My older brother was also broken, as my parents had him committed to a school for the mentally retarded because of his shyness. All of us experienced toxic masculinity, one that caused me to want to take my life at six, and again on my fourteenth birthday.
“We essentially raise boys in a culture that asks them to disconnect from…their desire for relationships and all sorts of things the boys articulate that they want,” wrote Niobe Way, author of Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships And The Crisis Of Connection. Way says that this cycle of emotional abuse leads to a culture that accepts lonely and aggressive boys, and ultimately puts them in positions of power to perpetuate such abuse. Diaz acknowledged this. “And always I was afraid…afraid that I would be ‘found out’…‘Real’ Dominican men, after all, aren’t raped. And if I wasn’t a ‘real’ Dominican man I wasn’t anything. The rape excluded me from manhood, from love, from everything,” Diaz wrote.
Now that I remember everything about the physical and the sexual abuse, what do I do next? It’s been forty years since I first found out how horrible life could be. Forgiving my abuser could be at the top of the list. It would be difficult to be angry at someone whom I’d forgotten about for nearly four decades. But you know what? If I could just punch him in the throat and then knee him in the balls until one fell out and rolled down the street, that might give me additional satisfaction.
But despite Bill Cosby and R. Kelly, let us not make rape culture into another stereotype of Black cultural degeneration. This is an American issue, one of hypermasculinity and White patriarchy, of homophobia and transphobia, of equating sex with power and equating weakness with being prey. Rape culture and toxic masculinity are rooted in every segment of American society, and everyone who wants and needs to discuss it should. Especially those who’ve been broken, who’ve not been given a voice, who aren’t the media’s focus. And not just those who are White, female, or relatively well-off.