This photo of me was taken a few weeks ago by the same brilliant photographer who shot E and A’s wedding last summer (Hannah Hall Beddoe/Cuts the Mustard). I have known for a while that I needed new author photos, as the wonderful ones I had (by friend Nancy Wilson Fulton) were over 10 years old.
After discovering that my work was shortlisted in the Bridport Memoir Awards this year, I needed author photos urgently. I’ll say more about the awards in the next post, but suffice it to say I’m thrilled to bits. Child Sexual Abuse reaching the top five in an international, open competition. This is a win no matter what.
But back to the photos. I went to see Hannah of Cuts the Mustard because I trusted her. She was in the Lakes (six hour drive from here), so a bit of a haul over a weekend, but I knew I couldn’t go to a stranger. Especially a man. That was not ever going to happen.
In the couple of weeks which followed the shoot, I tried to identify my feelings. The process of doing them had felt harder than I anticipated. I felt on the spot. I felt awkward. And at some point, I realised that I felt scrutinised. Not, I hasten to say, by Hannah — but by the camera itself somehow. I tied myself into a knot trying to appear ‘normal’, all the while feeling so very ‘different’.
It’s not rocket science to figure out what is going on here. Being forced to appear ‘normal’, to perform, when really so much is NOT normal under the surface. Really you want to run away forever.
To Hannah’s enormous credit, I began, as the session went on, to see the person behind the camera for who she is: a friendly face, a face which means me no harm, a face which believes in me. Hannah knows my history, and I began to think ‘oh, just be how you are every day’ — she likes you! You like her!
The shoot improved exponentially partway through. I can identify when I began to ‘risk’ showing myself. I realised she wasn’t going to use anything against me. That I did not need to hide.
Because that’s what my father would do. Swoop into any show of my ‘true self’, try to weasel his way in, try to ‘steal’ it — or so it felt. So I learned to hide the way I felt, nothing showing on my face. I learned to live with scrutiny, with my father seeming to examine my face, my movements, for anything he could bring up later, in my bedroom, that night. Anything to get ‘closer’ to me.
At some point, in my teens, while the abuse was still going on, my father took pictures of me. They are not explicit pictures, but they are agonising nonetheless. They look grown up, so focused on me, the camera’s cold gaze. I was frozen, yet required to be ‘relaxed’. A child forced into grown up poses. Thinking about it now, I feel just sick, sick to my stomach.
Somehow, these experiences led to me being convinced that I do not, under any circumstances, ‘take a good picture’. My children and husband are ‘photogenic’. I am not. I have felt this way for as long as I can remember.
When the photos come through from Hannah though, I am gobsmacked. And elated. There, on the page, in so many photos, I am myself. I recognise me. My husband recognises me, seeing in my movements and expressions so much that is ‘typical’. I look: yes, I am happy with that kind of ‘typical’. I am happy with how I guess I must appear to the world. This is me.
I have always hated representations of myself. They feel so far away from my nebulous idea of ‘me’. I harboured a fear in fact that I always looked fake, that there was always some of kind of ‘wall’ between my interior self and my external appearance, and never the twain shall meet. I honestly had zero idea that these photos could be ‘me’ in the world. But my friends and family assure me that they are.
So what happened? How did I arrive here? Later, I spoke with my good friend Clare Best (another CSA survivor) about this. It turns out that she wrote a blog post herself about having author photos taken — by her son in this instance — and how this led to a sense of growth, of being more rather than less grounded, connecting with the self in profound ways.
Clare mentioned the idea of ‘post traumatic growth’. I’d never heard of it. But reading up on it: this is clearly what has happened to me, in particular ways, over time. The latest one being finding my way through being photographed, and experiencing it differently than ever before. There is a part of me that might have turned away completely from having these photos taken. I did find it gruelling at first, extremely emotionally challenging. But at some point, unawares, I grew past/through the initial, old trauma. I can now see that I have done this a number of times in my life, around very specific things. It is patently obvious that PTG is by no means the inevitable outcome (‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ — NO!), nor should there (as the above linked article is careful to point out) ever be an expectation or imposed narrative of certainty around PTG happening. Because we all know that there are some things about having been abused which will always remain raw — different things for different people — but forever traumatic and triggering. It’s just that for me, surprisingly, being photographed is now not one of them.
Last night we went out to dinner to celebrate the Bridport prize. My husband took a picture of me in front of some nice food, to send to the kids. He showed it to me — ‘you won’t let me send this, will you?’ After 37 years together, he is prepared! But I looked at it and thought: nah, I don’t care. Send it! So he did.
The following excerpt from my memoir LEARNING TO SURVIVE, recounts being scrutinised by my father. This particular event happened when I was over 18, but it is one of many such occurrences throughout my teen years.
That same summer, the household in Blacksburg acquires a set of weights and some gym mats. They are in the basement, in the half of the downstairs sitting room which has never been used for much. After a serious knee dislocation during a modern dance rehearsal at Oberlin College, I am in rehab, building my leg muscles, generally getting back into shape, and I use the weights every other day, doing sit-ups and stretches as well. When he’s home, my father comes downstairs to watch me. He says he is learning about weights, and smiles, laughs a half-laugh. But I know he’s simply coming down here to look at me. When [my stepmother] comes home, he quickly gets to his feet, goes upstairs.
Encounters like this are common, I realise now. From age 11, when the abuse starts, right up until the last time I see him, at age 21, every time we are alone he behaves as if I am party to a secret, a secret between us. He behaves, I realise now, as if we are actually in a secret relationship. As if external forces ‘keep us apart’, but we still ‘long’ for each other.
For me of course, nothing could be further from the truth. He repels me, disgusts me. His laugh, his hands rubbing together, fingers clasping. His physical awkwardness. I have a hard time being around him at all. I have no wish ever to see him again. Yet: here I am. Here is the family. Here is Blacksburg. Here is where I grew up.
What I struggle to accept now is my tolerance of the situation. How do I not storm out and never come back? How do I eat in the same room? How do I smile? How do I breeze in and out every day? Secrecy, I guess, is hard to break the surface of. It holds firm, membranous and tough, despite the liquid chaos underneath.
And I suppose, if I’m honest, a part of me still hopes. I hope that all of this will pass, and I know that some part of me is strong enough to last until it does. I continue to hope – for years – that he will change. That he will seek help in the ways that perpetrators I later witness are forced to seek help. I know – deeply and with real regret – that everything about his attitude to his relationship with me is wrong. What takes me so many years to do is give up on him. Give up on the family, give up on [my stepmother]. And it’s this giving up which brings lasting pain, to this day.