The mother you need

Elisabeth de Mariaffi with an essay from the collection 'Whatever Gets You Through: Twelve Survivors on Life after Sexual Assault'.

I was twenty-seven years old by the time I met her. I was, at that age, a mother of two, a homeowner – a mortgage-holder. This is important. I’d spent my early twenties tangling myself up with all the markers of adulthood. Adults are sovereign and powerful. If you have children yourself, you are safe from the powerlessness of childhood. Aren’t you? 

Ingrid was my doctor’s wife, a pretty woman maybe twenty years older than me with a New Zealand accent, both foreign and immediately intimate. She was old enough to be my mother, but barely. That part is important, too, I think. That part is the point. 

***

I was at the doctor’s office. I can’t now remember the context exactly, though I doubt this was an appointment I made with myself in mind, but rather one of those endless family doc visits you find yourself on when you have small children. Small children are forever getting sick. I know that I was exhausted, something he could surely see. 

I would not have chosen a male doctor, but we were living in a town about an hour outside of Toronto. Family doctors were scarce. We were lucky to have him, but luckier still to have found someone so kind. So when he asked me how I was – But, really, how are you? – I told him. 

I think something’s wrong, I said. 

My daughter, my eldest, had just begun nursery school, a lovely cooperative school with tiny classes and an experienced teacher and only the most generous-hearted parent volunteers. My daughter loved the school. But I could not stop crying. 

I could not shake the idea of what might happen to her, small and alone in the world, and a girl. Two mornings a week I left her there and walked away, her baby brother strapped to my chest. I was not afraid of the teacher, or an accident, or even of her loneliness. I was afraid of the fathers. 

The fathers: men who might stay and volunteer for the morning. I was sure I could not trust them. At night, I stood in my kitchen, trembling in my wrists. I had become convinced this meant I wanted to slice them through. 

Postpartum depression, I told my doctor. It is, isn’t it? 

The anxiety was so bad, at times, I felt I could barely stay upright. 

This is not really what postpartum looks like, he said. (You remember I said he was kind.) There was a pause. Then: Did anything happen in your childhood? My wife is a therapist. I think she’s very good. 

This may seem unconventional, but remember, we lived in a town, not a city. The same doctor gave me his own daughter’s hand-me-downs for my little girl. 

Did anything happen in your childhood? 

I told him it was pretty normal. Middle class. Only child. Apart from this thing where my best friend was raped and killed when we were nine. 

This essay is not about that.

Except, of course, it is.

This essay is not about one terrible assault, and how I fought my way through the aftermath. I want to say up front that I know many other women have been through traumas greater than I. 

(As I write this, I am aware of how cheap and terrible it is to have to play the brutal game of Hierarchy-of-Abuses, a game that is forced upon women by the same authority that demands of us a flawless victimhood, without which we risk condemnation as liars or drama queens. First, there is the question of whether this authority will believe our assault happened in the first place; next, whether it was horrific enough to warrant concern.) 

What I want to talk about is the death by a thousand cuts of many small assaults, how they fold over onto each other, and how I (mostly) shook out the pleats, managed to (mostly) lay them flat. There were many smaller assaults, a lifetime of assaults, really: this experience makes me similar to every woman you know. And I got through not by myself, but because someone helped me. 

***

Despite my being a writer by trade, I’ve never believed in writing my way through it. Or I don’t believe that I can. (I know this works for other people.) I learned over time to tell my stories in casual conversation by paring them down to the essentials, diminishing them, sometimes going for the laugh, separating them from me and my very real body, my body that actually is me. That kind of storytelling operates as a device – something to keep connection at bay. The hardest writing work I’ve done has attempted to translate the worst moments of my own story into a story that can be read, by someone else. Something meant, in fact, to breed connection. 

I have to do the work first, and even then, I struggle through. I’m struggling now. Write a scene. Begin with a scene. 

This game, Hierarchy-of-Abuses, is where we began, when I first started seeing Ingrid. I told her that the thing I feared was postpartum depression – PPD was getting a lot of press at that time. What she wanted me to talk about was my friend’s murder. 

I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that someone else’s death could be a trauma that affected me. It was my friend, after all, and not me who was left alone in a playground during the coldest month of the year; she who had welcomed the conversation with a grown man, who had agreed to follow him back to his rooming house; her screams, not mine, the neighbors had overheard. Her body that was folded into a freezer and left behind. 

As a child, I was a precocious reader. I told Ingrid I’d followed the case minutely, reading the details about the search as they were laid out in the Toronto Star: the door-to-door, the witness statements, the dogs let loose in the city’s ravines. And later, the discovery of my friend’s body. 

How did you get your hands on the paper? Ingrid asked. Where were your parents? This was not a question that had occurred to me before. 

You were a good reader, my mother said. We couldn’t stop you. 

I think it more likely, now, that my parents were themselves poorly equipped to deal with the reality that had been thrust upon them. Immigrant families run small, and ours was no exception. With extended family almost all overseas, there was no wealth of aunts and uncles and cousins to share the burden. It must seem grossly unfair to escape war and build a home in a new, promising country, only to have trauma follow you there. 

Anyway, an only child is always a de facto small adult in the family. So what if I wanted to know every detail? Maybe reading the papers every day gave me a feeling of control. 

The facts of what had happened to my friend built up in my own body, sharp-sided and expanding. I closed off, sealing myself in with it. I had a safe male teacher, a good and decent father, two jovial godfathers who often came around. I don’t remember feeling uncomfortable around men before the age of nine, but the change, when it came, was stark and immediate. 

***

Two years after my friend’s murder: I’m playing in a public swimming pool when a man swims by, slides his hand inside my bathing suit, and tries to penetrate me with a finger. 

I would like to say I spun around, yelled out, held his head underwater. I did not. I froze. I know that he was under the water; I know that he swam away. I never saw his face, and it happened so quickly I couldn’t have identified him, anyway. You have to be operating in a state of vigilance to mark identifying details in a moment like that; most eleven-year-old girls have not learned that vigilance yet. This is why they are such common targets. 

My mother was not far away when this happened. I got out of the pool, pulled her aside, and did what eleven-year- old girls are supposed to do: I told. I remember that I was crying. 

Oh, she said. That’s just a thing men do. She sent me back in. 

***

I’m writing this during a time that feels both galvanizing and exhausting. It’s been a rough year for women. After months of #MeToo, a mass public disclosure of sexual harassment and assault, there’s something restorative in being asked to talk about healing. Therapy is a long road and, at times, an indentured one: you’ve got to get in to get out. It wasn’t the first way I got through, but it was Ingrid who helped me to finally put my own puzzle together. By that time, there were a lot of pieces. Part of this is because trauma breeds trauma, maybe, or makes you more vulnerable to it. You are taught to fear, and your look of fearfulness marks you. 

Where were we? Ah: here I am, poolside, sliding back into the shallow end. Drowning a little. I’ve relived the moment a million times through my daughter’s childhood. There’s a difficult piece here that is about a woman in my own family who did not stand up for me. How is it possible that she did not? Speaking now as an adult and as a mother, it is unfathomable to me that my own mother did nothing that day. I felt I had been dropped from a great height. 

After the incident at the pool, I closed off a little more. Other, similar, incidents came around and found me. (You are taught to fear, and your look of fearfulness marks you.) By the time I was fifteen, I had learned to keep my body firmly in my own control by starving it. At 97 pounds, I was admitted to hospital, something that could, I guess, have also been traumatic but in fact gave me a month of breathing space. Time out. At 102 pounds, they let me out again. I had by that time decided that anorexia was not the form I wanted to occupy in the world, and I learned to eat by applying the same discipline I’d used to starve myself: the steel-eyed resolve of an athlete. 

The guidance counselor who’d come to bring me my homework twice a week was also, by chance, the high school cross-country coach. At 115 pounds, I took up running. Every footfall brought me again to earth, the same earth, every time. I learned to make time on the downhills by stretching long and allowing gravity to pull me. I leaped downhill. Falling did not scare me. Running taught me not to fear it –not to fear being dropped from a great height. The earth rose up to meet me, consistent and reliable and hard-packed. I ran the city finals. I was nominated MVP. A decidedly better way to get through. 

A year later, I was eating dinner with my mother in a foreign country. The restaurant owner, a man in his late forties, came around to our table maybe a bit too often; my mother commented that he seemed to like me. Later, he followed me into the bathroom, pushed my face against the wall, and took his cock out. The rough feel of his hand in my pants. 

This is a near-miss story. I can’t remember what I did to talk my way out of there, without yelling, without making a scene, my cheek against the tile. I was clever and calm and brash. I was drowning, a little. 

I came back to the table, finished my dinner, and said nothing. I knew, by sixteen, not to bother. This was just another man. Just a thing men do. I’d learned to manage it. 

***

Gloria Steinem says some very smart and empathetic things about mothers. We “spend a lot of time denying our mothers,” she says, speaking to Interview back in 1984.

“We understand other women earlier than we understand our mothers because we’re trying so hard to say, ‘I’m not going to be like my mother’ that we blame her for her condition. If we didn’t blame her for her condition, we would have to admit that it could happen to us, too . . . Even if they raped us, we will blame our mothers for not protecting us instead of blaming [the men] who actually did it.” 

I mean, that’s true, isn’t it? The villain here is the man who killed my friend, or the man in the swimming pool, or the man in the restaurant. I am quite sure my mother did not mean to abandon me. I do think it’s possible that she didn’t see any other options. Some of this has to do with her own fear, or else self-preservation. She had grown up with a wildly abusive father, slept two years in a refugee camp, another two in rooming houses as a new immigrant. At fourteen, she stepped between her parents, defying her father, and saved her own mother’s life. Maybe, by the time I came of age, there was no saving left in her. 

I can get that. Denial is not a complicated story. The reason for disbelieving, or diminishing, is simple: we don’t want these stories to be true. We don’t want it to be true when it’s our friend who has assaulted a woman; we don’t want nice-looking varsity swimming stars to also be back- alley rapists; we don’t want it to be true that enough men regularly and casually assault girls to make it unsafe to take your eleven-year-old to a public pool on a hot Toronto afternoon. If it is true, then it is terrible. In this way, I can see diminishment as a kind of defense mechanism. But diminishing, or disbelieving, in this defensive way only reduces women to casualties in someone else’s story – the story that’s about men, not women; the story that’s about accusation, instead of about harm. 

I am aware that I am leaning hard on mothers here – why does no one ever ask, Where was the father? – but the reality is that when you’ve been assaulted by a man, that experience changes your relationship to all men. This reality makes me sad, but my sadness does not make it any less so. We need to depend on women listening, because it’s probably only women we will feel safe enough to disclose to. 

Our mothers’ absences don’t lessen our need to fill those spaces. I am not writing this to indict my mother, or to drop her, in turn, from a great height – though, let’s face it, I may not tell her about this essay. (What would it serve?) I’m writing this because I think we all have to find the mothers we need, at different times in our lives. I think it’s okay to go looking. 

***

It’s no coincidence that the moment I needed saving the most was the moment my own daughter was just old enough to begin navigating the world without me, off at nursery school on her own. I see now that the anxiety I was up against was not only the old boogeyman fear– What if something happens to her? – but also something more piercingly intimate: What if I fail to protect her? 

As a girl and a young woman, my focus had been on getting through by getting control over my own body – in ways that were healthy, or not. But now, with the loveliest three-year-old girl in my charge, I had a new assignment. I wanted her to be safe. I also wanted her to be fearless. This seemed an uphill task in a moment when I felt crushed by anxiety myself. In order to teach her how to not be afraid, I had to model it. But to model it, I needed some mothering of my own. 

There were things that men did that almost derailed me entirely. What got me through was a woman. 

***

The sort of therapy Ingrid practices is called bioenergetics. If this sounds to you like the kind of thing that requires crystals and/or caftan-wearing, then you are not alone. I’m a practical-minded daughter of immigrants. No one in my family had gone to therapy. In my family, we suffered through

In fact, the premise behind bioenergetics is simple: psychological trauma moves into the body. You can use your body to work it out. As someone who had been using her body to work it out, one way or another, all the way along, the practice made sense to me. We began most sessions with a grounding exercise – not unlike yoga’s mountain pose – and some deep, loud sighs. 

The purpose of grounding is connection: to the moment, to yourself, but most importantly, to the ground beneath your feet. When I first started running, I loved the feel of the ground rising up to meet me. Good ol’ earth, steady and reliable. Feel your feet, Ingrid said, which sounds silly out of context, but anxiety can feel like falling – like you might fall forever. Feeling the solid ground at your feet is a pretty good remedy for that. 

There were some other techniques on offer – things you might more easily associate with therapy – a kind of primal screaming, and that thing where you tap your wrists and temples. But what actually grounded me was the more important reliability: knowing that every week, Ingrid would be there. There’s no therapeutic fast track. It’s about time, and it’s about willingness, and work. For me, it was equally about the shepherd. Sometimes we just need someone to listen and look after us. Ingrid was that woman for me. What I remember most is the mother-care. 

Some of this mother-care was a bit tough: I wanted an easy answer. For a long time, I insisted that the problem had to be related to those post-baby hormones. I liked the idea because it was the sort of problem that, if you wait long enough, might simply go away. Hormones eventually regulate. Ingrid shook her head, equally insistent: I had a kind of posttraumatic stress. 

Some of the mother-care was about acceptance. A thing I learned: you can tell a story over and over, in truncated and practiced ways, and use that practice to separate yourself from it. Maybe this is more true of writers than other people, or maybe, as I said earlier, it’s just me. This is where I figured out that I’d been using my way of relating my own stories – anecdotally, throwaway – as a distancing technique. The opposite of writing-as-therapy. I’d been steadily fictionalizing them. 

Therapy is mostly a slow burn, but if you want to hear about a breakthrough moment, for me it was the day I realized I’d been telling these stories, both my friend’s murder and whatever had happened to me, for years, as though I was reporting the news or, sometimes, glibly repeating some satirical internet fare. Ingrid said something like: This is your story. The realization hit me like a wave. 

Wait, I said. This really happened. To me. I was that kid. 

For the first time, I had, as the storyteller, empathy for the girl in the story while comprehending that that girl was also me. It sounds simplistic, but this was a radical shift in my thinking. A bright, painful moment. 

The bottom dropped out. I went outside and it was snowing, and I sat in my car and cried. The radio was playing Weezer’s “Island in the Sun,” a song I still think of as profoundly sad, a song that for me is about loss. Things got harder then, for a long time, but it was the beginning of things getting better. 

***

Therapy is a tricky thing. It’s mostly about finding a therapist who is really listening. I don’t mean just listening as you sit in a soft chair and tell that old story, but really listening, listening for what’s underneath. Someone who will pick out clues and use them, strike the fine balance between comfort and discomfort, lead you back through the most difficult moments in your life and out the other side. 

What I needed was the right someone to say the right things at the right time, and so many of those things seem banal in this context. It’s okay, it’s all right. But when we say, It’s okay, we accept that things have not been okay. That acknowledgment washed over me like relief, like a soft hand at my brow. 

Or maybe it was the right someone to teach me to say the right things to myself: This is just my anxiety. When you’re living with anxiety, one of the worst worries is that you will start worrying. In a moment of relative calm, my sharpest fear would kick in – the fear that I would start feeling afraid again. If that sounds like a crazy-making cycle, you’re right. It is. Cutting it off at the pass worked for me. It’s okay. This is just my anxiety. 

This basic loving-kindness, in combination with a stead- fast validation of my own experience, is, I guess, what I mean by mother-care. If that seems overly simple, it’s because most of the work of therapy is done by the survivor, and it’s lonely and it’s arduous and it takes years. So, yeah, you need someone lovely to hold your hand through that. 

Before we parted ways, Ingrid asked me the most important question of my life, a question that hung briefly in the air before catapulting me out of an abusive relationship and into my life as I know it now. The details of that marriage and that question are surely a topic for an essay of their own, but she was able to ask it because she had spent, at that point, years listening to me. Listening not just to what I said, but truly listening to who I was. 

***

A few years later, I moved away from Ontario, and this gave me the freedom to write about the Toronto that made me afraid. The resulting novel, The Devil You Know, is in its loosest terms a story about women and fear. It felt, in the writing, very much to me like a book that was equal parts a love letter to home and a portrayal of the scariest time in my life. 

In 1993, the arrest of Paul Bernardo – the highest-profile serial killer and serial rapist in Toronto history – brought ten years of citywide panic to an end. Boogeyman, indeed. The papers had named Bernardo the Scarborough Rapist; those attacks were the news of the day when I was coming of age. The media furor through those years, and the accompanying message – that to be a woman is to be a victim, that to be female is to be afraid – formed the historical and emotional backdrop of my novel. 

Writing this book was not therapy. Writing this book was something I could not have done without the years of therapy that had gone before. Without the work, without my therapist’s guiding hand, I don’t even know if I could have written it at all; certainly, I would have been writing from a place of fear, rather than trying to create a place of connection. 

I still carry Ingrid’s voice along with me – she had that lilting accent, so I always know when the voice is hers – and it’s this voice that I’ve relied on to get me through mothering my own children, especially my daughter. Her words that I use when my kids need help, and when friends come to me, and when strangers come – and they did come, taking me by surprise, after Devil was published. 

In the wake of the book’s release, I was prepared to answer intimate questions about the murder of my friend. What I didn’t see coming were the letters from readers: other women looking for that same listening ear and gentleness I had found in Ingrid, women looking to disclose their own sexual assaults and their fear to someone who would listen. I tried to follow the model that had been laid out for me. Listening, a genuine response. It was unexpected. 

If we’re trained to deny our own experience, it is much easier to then deny the experience of someone else. It is easier to diminish than to listen, because these stories encroach on our own lives. If it is true, then it is terrible. It means we must all live in fear. It makes fear our only birthright. This is why the public rhetoric around believing women is more than just politics. What I learned from Ingrid was the value of caring mentorship. A hand extended. We all have to find the mothers we need. 

I keep my own goal clear: be a safe woman for other women to talk to. I am no therapist. I often worry that I am not able to do enough. But I can at least reach out and take your hand. I can refuse to send you back in. 

***

I live by the ocean now. It’s not a calm place: the Atlantic is not something you live companionably alongside. My mother moved to be close to me; at the same moment, my daughter moved away to begin her own adventure. I still run long distance. It’s rocky here, but there’s something extra grounding about that, weather and a landscape that require my attention. 

Ingrid is long-lost to me now. In theory, I do not need her anymore. We all leave our mothers. I am both grateful and heartbroken, it seems. 

- By Elisabeth de Mariaffi, from the essay collection Whatever Gets You Through: Twelve Survivors on Life after Sexual Assault, edited by Stacey May Fowles and Jen Sookfong Lee and published in April 2019 by Greystone Books.

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