Hollow Threats | The New Engagement
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Hollow Threats

By Mary Gustafson

Before I was healed by intensive therapy, medication, meditation and traumatic events that forced me to look at my past, I had an image jammed behind a sharp corner in my conscious mind. Usually I was unaware, but once in a while, I would see her; a naked 8-year-old girl standing in a forest fog, filled to the brim with shame after being assaulted by a stranger. My bruised lips were the worst part, plumped up with abuse and ripped from the lofty perch of innocence too soon.  This image was so awful that I couldn’t even talk about it until I met a talented therapist, who called that innocent girl up and out in front of both of us.

Turns out, I was brave. Small but mighty and ready to help me get out of my own way.  I did not think this was possible, but over time I began to heal from the inside out.  I learned that my weakest, most vulnerable state of being is twisted into an ironic knot with my strongest, most courageous self.  They hug each other close and when I try to come between them, they retreat to their respective corners in my mind and stop functioning. They can’t live without each other.

The election result was personal to me. As a woman who survived sexual attacks, I reacted to the video tape of Trump’s vile words as if he was talking about me. I’ve been “grabbed” and someone did “whatever they wanted” because they were mentally and physically stronger than me.  When I pulled into the parking lot of the health club on November 9th, I felt as if the world was spinning past me while I was thumped still. I had a hard time getting out of my car.  Ancient shame roiled up and yanked me back. It was all my fault, again.

“Why did you cross that damn?” I couldn’t answer, sitting in the back of the enormous police sedan, while the cops drove me back to the woods so I could show them where it happened. They persisted. “You know you weren’t supposed to go over there, right? What happened?” I didn’t cry, or get upset. I just told them I was stupid, and no one disagreed with me.

The man called out to me and my best friend. We crossed the dam to the “other side”, and he got me. I thought he was holding a snake. We were all banned from the forest preserves that summer and most of the kids blamed me. I did too.  Essentially, I got stuck with the story of myself as a bad thing, for life. 

For decades, I carried this idea around: I was in it together with him. I grew up as a girl and then a woman who had no physical boundaries. I was French kissing boys by the time I was ten. I already went all the way in my mind. I had no good answer to the question, “Why not?”

When I told my therapist that “we were in it together,” she gasped. “He was at least 20 years older than you!” I argued with her. I told her that I could have run, that I was too easy.

She persisted for months, eventually shaking the truth down from the fault lines that had framed my life story. Fissures patterned after the actual capabilities of an 8-year-old girl cracked into the hard mud of my endogenous view, and I began to see symptoms and reactions rather than inexcusable bad choices. I started to understand the impacts of that original assault on my life. I could finally picture that little girl without fear of death or discovery. I wrote an essay about her. I was rewarded with a pushcart nomination for my truth telling.

And just like that, the day after the election, my healing path disappeared.  I wrapped my hands around my waist with a new need to cover up as I stumbled into the suddenly towering doors of the health club. The tin foil shards of Trump’s win shimmied through my ears; loud shovels pierced into self-abasement and jangled up the old story. When I walked into the club, I had the thought, “Well, maybe if I would have worn a sweatshirt over this…” I felt like a big loud purple cunt. I imagined myself as despicable. Everyone KNEW.

In an odd way, I am thankful for this recent spate of political craziness because these events brought that terrified survivor back to me, where I can once again help her heal and recover her greatest strengths. I am back in therapy, remembering that my most vulnerable self is my strongest self. This might be exactly what people see in Donald Trump. I don’t think he knows this, but I am betting that many people support him because he occurs as a person unable to restrain himself from being himself. We must be equally unafraid to be ourselves or we will fail in our quest to maintain our hard won gains in the race for equality, dignity and peace.

If only light conquers darkness, then only vulnerability conquers oppression. The true brave me that resides in the recesses of my mind is ready to rear up and stomp down on anything in my way but I have to be willing reach back and find her, down there where my financial wreckage occurred, up over there where I purposefully hurt myself and others, way back there where someone really, really hurt me.

Those are the birth places of the unstoppable survivors that we must call forth; Who did we have to be to forgive and function? The long years of surviving and the endless moments of final truth-telling are actually the strongest points of our lives. Years later, we don’t remember this strength. We lose the opportunity to practice the kind of grit and flexibility that it takes to survive a prolonged internal or external war. We don’t need the courageous voice that we used to escape, tell, and heal.

But only our small but mighty armies of REAL can win. That little girl in those woods is surely the bravest person I know. The woman who uttered that young image out of her tattered shroud is an un-thwarted warrior, shouting across generations of whispered lies.  We must plunge down and push our hidden, private parts forward in black unison to drive acceptance deep into the center of the reasons for equality and justice.  No one belongs in my body without my permission. It is not possible to judge the actions of another without being on the inside of their life experience.

The ties that bind us are actually the thinnest strands of our shameful secrets and biggest regrets wound together into a braid so thick that it cannot be broken, even by death. The insulated front that I present to the world is not armor for battle.  Even a small threat carries ruin as it chews through my muffled baffles of inauthenticity.

When I reach out and connect from my deepest self, I will remain forever undefeated from behind the protective chain of soul connections that embolden free speech and consistent protest. No matter how solid seeming the wire cutters of prejudice and hate, links at the soul level cannot be separated.

We are not hollow at the core; we are already exposed. We need no insulation to function. Our sharp edge tears through the layers of falsehoods sewn up in a flimsy fast cover over the wrong side of history.  Eventually, we’ll arrive at the empty middle, easily traipsing over the vacant, windblown fields of fraudulent power. My 8-year-old soul will run amok and frolic with the hard won freedom to be herself.

I am determined to be real. I am expressing my hurt, fear, and sadness about the violent verbal and political slams that shrank the platform of respected difference and viable privacy into a square too small for someone “like me.” I will honor my personal reactions and share my deepest feelings in the quest to help others express their true feelings and fears.  In this way we can intertwine our vulnerabilities into the impenetrable shield of elevated human being-ness.  All else is hollow at the core.

If I am hurt, I will say so. If I am afraid, I will ask for a hug. If you are hiding out in fear because you voted for you know who, know that I love you more, not less than before this. I want to know your reasons. I want to know YOU, so you can know me. I will try my best to remember that you might be scared too.

I am safer and more influential when I am laid bare. It is almost impossible to remember this but in all the safe spaces in my life, I can start with the practice of being me. 

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