“Do you understand me?”
My abuser sat on the other side of the table, silent, looking down, clenching his jaw. Seconds passed. I once heard that the first person to speak after setting a price in negotiations loses. This wasn’t a negotiation. This was a confrontation. I restrained myself, still, feeling comfortable in my own skin– maybe for the first time. Then I repeated myself–
“Do you understand what I just said?”
Dan continued his silence– the quietest I had ever heard him. For the four years he took over my life, he could talk over any situation. He’d made himself invincible with words, chattering over my protests, my fears, my guilt– pummeling these feelings back and stunting them in my core. I would carry them for years. I was sitting across from him after these 12 years so that I could finally voice them– to say what I couldn’t say when I was 15, 16, 17, 18, 19. I was here to hand over the shame he had instilled in me, too. His shame. But first, I had to make sure he was comprehending what I was saying. He could have fit a entire confession in the amount of silence he was keeping, now. He was.
“I’m not asking if you if you’re here to admit this to yourself, yet. I’m just asking if you understand what I just said.”
His hands shook. His entire body quaked all the way down to his Christian tattoo.
“I understand what you are saying,” he snarled.
I didn’t need this guy to admit anything aloud to know what he’d done. And that what he’d done was wrong.
“Good,” I said. “Then I’ll continue.”
“I’ve been thinking about movies,” my Someone had said, “and how when someone is confronting someone else at a table, there’s always something keeping the other person there.”
“Like money?” I asked.
“Like money. Or threats on their life. Or something that makes the accused stay at the table and listen to what the person accusing them has to say.”
“Why do you think Dan is coming to the table?” I asked.
“Because he’s guilty,” he said.
“Because he’s guilty,” I repeated.
I listed the ways he had physically abused me. The rape, the way he watched me cry when he touched me, the time he gave me a black eye or cracked my head open on Mother’s Day, which sent me to the ER instead of to the banquet I should have been attending with my mom.
“Do you understand what I just said?”
“I understand,” he said.
Then I listed the emotional abuse. The manipulation, the extra phone he bought me to side step my parents’ watchful eye, the sexual propositions with himself and his friends.
I paused. I breathed. This was not something I needed to rush, I realized. Dan was unwilling to admit to anything directly. He kept his words calculated, veering close enough to satisfy my question without landing, like someone who knows he’s being recorded. He wasn’t wrong. My Someone kept a small recorder in his front shirt pocket. Days before we’d decided to take it. Not because I needed evidence, but as a marker to prove that it really happened. Because even if this man covered all his tracks with But-I-Loved-You’s or Never-Would-I-Ever’s, he couldn’t change the truth being spoken in front of him. And that he showed up to hear it.
The truth is what brought him to the table, and the truth is what kept him there. When the stakes are as high as these, it is nearly impossible to stay silent when confronted with lies. But the truth had him panting.
“You fucked up my life,” I said. “Can you please look at me when I tell you that.”
He looked at me.
“You fucked up my life,” I repeated. He looked back down. I listed what I had lost– my family, my church, my town, my formative years. I listed the fear I lived with. I listed all he had not lost. He tried to protest. He tried to say that he had lost, too, but I stopped him.
“No,” I said, “No, not yet. You don’t get to. You spoke over me for four and half years, and in all my nightmares since. You don’t get to do that, anymore.”
I paused. In the recording, listening back, I hear myself sigh. I remember this moment as it sounds. A slight breeze and a huge shift. I was off book– off of the list I had prepared– and had been suspended from it for some time. 15-year-old Mallory sat wide eyed and expectant within me. The Mallory from two days ago who had prepared this list held her breath, too. This was us– this was for all of us.
“You did not love me. Love does not look like that. You can ask any grown up. Any grown up,” I stopped, realizing. Then, “You can ask any child, if that’s love, and they will tell you, ‘No.'”
My friend Danielle encouraged me in the days before to remember to breathe. She told me to not lose the lifeline between myself and myself– to keep breathing, keep the airway open and clear to ensure the connection to who I am now. My friend Ann told me to yoga like crazy. To lose myself in this moment would have been to lose the moment. And I had to use my body in order to do it. My body, which I had blamed for years for betraying me. My body, which I’d covered and obsessed over– what it looked like, what wrong message it was sending out without my knowing, what ways it was failing me– was the thing that I depended on now to keep me present. To keep me accountable.
I trusted my body to breathe, and it breathed. I wondered at the feeling of the blood moving through my limbs during yoga the mornings preceding. This redemption was a full baptism. I forgave my body from hair to toe, and thanked it for hanging in there. And I welcomed the reunion. My body’s return to me came with no time lost, forgiving and willing.
It turns out my body had never betrayed me at all. The sick, sad man in front of me did.
“That was not love,” I said, “That was not anything that you can call anything else– that was abuse. You abused me. You took advantage of me. You stole some of my best, most formative years from me.”
The day was beautiful. In the recording, you can hear an abundance of Western Pennsylvania bird calls in perfect sway. I didn’t hear them at the time, but I am happy to know they were there. I remember the temperature was perfect, the sun was out on a rare cloudless day. No mosquitoes. The old shut down steel town was starting to shine. I felt myself turning a corner. I was growing tired. Not of doing the right thing, not of myself. But I was growing tired of my anger. It was too beautiful of a day to waste on being angry at a picnic table when I felt my life just starting again. I could hardly wait– there was so much left of me. More, in fact. I had to go soon. My heart would explode with impatience if I didn’t. I remembered again to breathe as I spoke, and continued to tell the story of what happened, what was taken from me, and what I needed back.
I asked if there was anyone else that he’d done this to. If he’d molested any other children. He said no. I focused. I didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt, but I believed him. He seemed horrified that I’d asked. I was horrified that he didn’t think I would. I was grateful, and then I become angry again– to be grateful to someone for simply not raping them.
It was time to up my standard.
My friend Kelsey explained to me that children, after experiencing trauma, even at a very young age have an involuntary need to tell the story of what happened to them. Again and again. They need to play out the situation, recalling more detail, and have the story affirmed and told back to them. This is what we do in therapy. And the more we tell the story, the less power it has. Eventually, it runs its course. It finds its place in our brain and in our timeline where it can live without infiltrating our remaining experiences and feelings.
It sounds simple, but there are several myths that accompany us to keep us from retelling our story. Myths like,
I’m too much. I’ve already told it. They’ve already heard me. It doesn’t matter. I’m safe now. Get over it. But you’re with a good man, now. Don’t punish him. Be happy.
In the past decade, when new memories would come to me, I would say them out loud. But then, I would adhere to one of the myths, and shut it back down. These memories would then fester, creating a network of underground trauma that would misfire and misinform my remaining experiences. This kept me in a constant state of distraction and movement, evading the dark underbelly. Which also meant evading who I am— because Who I Am was trapped under What Happened to Me.
And it goes one worse. The inability to hear myself– to hear my own story– made it almost impossible to hear other people’s stories, too. It is difficult to have empathy for others when the empathy I had for myself was in short supply. So I inwardly began repeating the myths instead of the stories–
It doesn’t matter. It happens to all of us. Get over it. You’re out now. Just go get some ice cream and suck it up. You’re making us look bad.
I was suffocating. But not anymore. Time was up. That girl trapped under that trauma– that tiny little air deprived me– was busting out. And the story started back up again. It rotated through the last year, building momentum, gaining detail. And the only way to let loose the dam was to go to the dam itself with a goddamn hammer.
“I came here today, I think, because– because it was time. Because it was time for me to not be ashamed, anymore, of that part of my life. Because I’m not the one who should feel ashamed. You can’t spin that. You can’t turn that. I have carried around your shame and your guilt for all those years, and they’re not mine to carry. I came here to give them back to you. I don’t want them anymore. I’m happy, and I’m healthy– finally. And, your shame and your guilt has no room in my life, anymore. And that is– that is the least I can do for my 15-year-old self right now.”
I stopped. I remembered something.
“You owe me an apology–”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so, so sorry.”
How I had meant to end my sentence was, “but I don’t even need that from you. I don’t need anything from you.” I didn’t finish that sentence, though. I didn’t need to. I hoped, instead, that his apology sounded as pitiful to him as it did to me. And that his apology was drowned by the sound of the truth rushing over a crumbling dam.
“Don’t do this to anyone else. I would spend some really good time being able to use those words to apply to yourself. Because they are yours. I came here because you have been a monster in my life– an absolute monster. Like, wake up with night terrors kind of monster. And, I wanted to see that you weren’t. And you’re not. You’re just an aging– an old man. An aging old man. Who, had I been of age and right mind, and not at a pliable 15-year-old age ripe for picking– I never would have picked you. It makes me feel sick to my stomach. But that’s not even mine, anymore. That’s yours. You can keep it.”
He shook. I remained still. I checked in with all of me. Is everyone okay? Is everyone ready? I felt all of me together. Okay, gang. Time to party.
“I’m going to go,” I said. “Scott promised me a pizza party if I didn’t kill anyone. And I’d like to have that, now.”
My Someone and I stood up. We walked away. I let the sound of the water rush behind me.
And I couldn’t. Stop. Smiling.