My Relationship With Words
How my childhood turned me into a writer
As a toddler, I had been fluent in several languages. This was a reflection of the multicultural society that had been part of my nomadic upbringing, and it is with some wistfulness that I recall this dimly in my mind. When I was 4-years old, however, my ability to communicate began to deteriorate. The reason for this was straightforward — I was sexually molested during the year that I attended kindergarten. Notably, I was informed that my eyes would be removed with a spoon if I spoke about these occurrences. Without support from home, I did as I was told.
I lost the ability to speak my native tongue. Indeed, my constant memory of my relatives were their pointed comments about me, often in my presence —
“Why can’t this child speak like us?”
“Why does she only speak in English?”
I lost my expressive ability in every language apart from English. My family, already looked down upon by our extended clan, could not understand this deterioration. I became the black sheep of the black sheep. No one else in our family spoke English and our communication was, and still is awkward. My mother claimed that she had found me in a rubbish bin behind the local market. Sometimes it seemed to make sense.
As far as I could remember, I had always been able to read and speak English, despite the dearth of fluent speakers in my community. I remember being disappointed at 5-years of age to receive “Andy Pandy’s Kite” during a school prizegiving. I had been reading Jeffrey Archer and Stephen King novels by this age. However, my relationship with English had not always been positive. I remember being whipped as punishment for getting 98% in a spelling test. At these times, my loss of language had been complete. Sometimes I still hear my own wordless, keening sounds on the threshold of my sleep.
My overdeveloped understanding of English had an unexpected effect. I could understand the pornography that was casually left around the house by a visiting aunt (e.g. Harold Robbins novels and hardcore pulp books), as well as the pornographic movies that were watched by the silent men that smoked and breathed heavily in our lounge. Sometimes they breathed heavily on me. The effect of these incidents, coupled with my earlier abusive experiences was significant, although still difficult to articulate. It was, however, not something I was aware of until I became an adult, when I was debriefed for vicarious trauma as part of a clinical incident at work. I thought I had a typical childhood. Perhaps it was, but the Psychologist taught me a new word — parentification.
My mother considered me to be her best friend. But she also considered me to be vicious, saying that I was a typical Gemini — that “words were my weapons and facts were my armour”. As a child, I was informed that I “really knew how to hurt her” and that she was afraid of what I might say. However, she knew how to remove those words — with fresh, cut chili, rubbed across my lips and a whip across the back of the knees. As I became older, my mother tried to take me to a hypnotist to take away the words. I often said them anyway.
As an adult, it is difficult to reflect on those times. For all my vocabulary, both personal and professional, I am still mute when I attempt to speak about my past. My long-suffering Psychologist endures bouts of silence when I open my mouth and nothing emerges. Sometimes I feel a male hand covering my mouth, but mostly, I feel a catch in my throat and the inevitable void of my brain dissociating — thinking about anything else but my past. I lose time. My childhood is a piecemeal collection of shuffled images and I struggle to sequence my experiences. Dates often mean nothing. The Devil hides in my details.
One day, I stumbled upon a improv poetry chatroom. I learned to write, and write badly. However, poetry matched the piecemeal imagery in my head perfectly, and I was able to write about my experiences with relative coherence within its short formats. I did not want pity, especially self-pity. I needed to see my own words so that I could say them aloud. Somehow it only works with poetry.
The past still sneaks up on me these days, but the words are getting easier to come by and articulate.
An Ear To Lend
Sometimes I hear her voice
with all its own distortions;
the nakedness of her anger
that birthed its own static.
Why can’t you try harder
you stupid, lazy fucker…
Why can’t you be perfect?
The sound and the fury…
My ears, so well boxed
I was not smarter,
but bleeding; begging
trying to carve a reprieve.
Tinnitus was the bees in her mouth,
waiting for her arm to weary.
The doctor pushed a needle
through my ear yesterday.
The contaminated humors, like worms,
boiled forth as though exorcised by faith.
A bruised lobe like an outsized earring
or a mangled antenna,
that suddenly brought back
the voice and the static.
It’s not so bad, the doctor had said.
Just try to look at it.
Another gaping hole in my head;
another mainline into pain.
Hand over mouth to keep it all in.
I thought that I was rid of
my contrite genuflections;
starved the air from my blue reflections…
Stopped my frantic, mid-slumber defensive motions.
But the mirror lingered
outside its frame just the same.
It hung askew — all I saw
was an unbalanced head
clutched on a scarecrow’s imperfect frame.
As a publication, ‘Juxtapose’ is perhaps the most accurate representation of my sense of self — two halves of a damaged coin. I am starting to see the validity of both sides, whether I finish the day face up or down.
I still cannot speak my childhood languages. Somehow, I think that door to my life had closed. However, my mother may be right — words are my weapon and facts, my armour. I use my words to guide my decisions and to do the best that I can with my clinical caseloads. I can wryly attest that I sometimes take on a social justice role that gets me into trouble. When the words no longer make sense, I put them down and provide respite support for a child. I try to remember that childhood can have happy silences too.
But in my quiet moments, for better or worse, I do what I had become… A writer.