Like AOC, I’ve been told to “Move On. To forget.”
“Move on, forget about it.” I was told when I was 19 and viciously sexually assaulted on a warm summer night in the balsam-scented woods of suburban N.J.
“Put it out of your mind, and let it go,” was the advice I got when I was attacked at knifepoint and raped in my Manhattan apartment at 24.
“Move on, and leave it in your past where it belongs,” was the oft time comment said by well-meaning folks when I eventually revealed my childhood sexual abuse.
But the past is always present if you are a trauma survivor. And when trauma happens, the past pounces back to life in blooming color. You do not move on. But you do need to use your voice.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a survivor. Not only of one of the most violent and traumatic episodes in our nation’s Capitol but of sexual assault.
AOC is using her voice. And it is one everyone should listen to.
In a heartbreaking and riveting Instagram Live Chat on Feb 1, the N.Y. Congresswoman spoke of her terror hiding in her office during the Capitol riots. It was so heartbreaking I am almost at a loss for words.
Recounting in vivid details what she had described as a near death experience, she rightfully compared lawmakers like Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley whom she accused of trying to play down the seriousness of the riot, to abusers who attempt to silence and undermine victims.
“I thought I was going to die”
“They’re trying to tell us to move on without any accountability, without any truth-telling, or without confronting the extreme damage, loss of life, trauma,” Ocasio-Cortez said of Republicans who opposed impeaching President Donald Trump and who now want the country to move on from the Capitol siege.
“The reason I say this and the reason I’m getting emotional in this moment is because these folks who tell us to move on, that it’s not a big deal, that we should forget what’s happened, or even telling us to apologize,” AOC said close to tears. “These are the same tactics of abusers. And, um, I’m a survivor of sexual assault.”
The Capitol insurrection compounded her pre-existing trauma.
Backlash came quickly as it does to women who reveal their painful truth.
Journalist Michael Tracey blasted AOC’s remarks as “a master class in emotional manipulation” dismissively tweeting “ Good to know that any loopy delusion expounded by a politician must now be respected and ‘believed’ under the aegis of ‘trauma.”
When you dismiss Ocasio-Cortez’s trauma from the events of January 6 you are dismissing the trauma of every woman who’s ever feared for her life because of an angry, entitled man.
Which is a lot of us.
Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s understands something profound, explaining that she was told trauma victims should tell their stories as part of their healing.
At A Loss For Words
There are profound consequences when we are told not to use our voice. My own story is just one of what happens when you can’t tell yours.
For decades I identified myself as inarticulate.
As a child, I kept my voice in reserve, like those special small decorative soaps my mother would bring out to leave in the bathroom when company came. They were for special occasions and to be used sparingly.
I was awkward around words. They eluded me, or I them. A late bloomer, I was slow to crawl, slow to walk and didn’t utter a word until two and a half long past the expiration date of normal expectations. Complacent, I was never going to be the Christopher Columbus of the crib set.
Once found, using my newly discovered voice didn’t last long though. I was abruptly silenced by a sexually abusive father and the words to express myself receded into fragments, perceptions, and body sensations. I silenced myself into a dissociative state to hold the horror for me.
There would be no concrete memory of the trauma, so there was no need for words to tell. The feelings and the words that went with it went underground like some buried missiles waiting their time to soar.
The family mantra “If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all,” dovetailed perfectly. Things weren’t so very nice, so I didn’t say anything. Who would believe me anyhow?
Because I was unable to give voice to my feelings with words, they atrophied and became insignificant. I was literally lost for words. Painfully shy, I remained a silent observer storing nuggets of information away for the future.
Turning to art at a very young age, I would learn to bypass words to give me a voice through crayons, paint, and pencil. My storytelling talents as an artist were honed at an early age. Somehow I was drawn to the exotic locale of Paris as far from the split levels and shopping centers of my Long Island childhood.
From the tender age of three until about seven, I was known as “Pierre, the Artist.” More precisely I insisted that members of my family address me by that name only. The sheaves of childish drawings and paintings of Paris saved from that period attest to my commitment to this identity. The city of lights offered me just that.
Enchanted by the visions of this grande dame of world cities gleaned from technicolor movies, Looney Tunes cartoons, and splashy pictorials in Life Magazine, these stories seeded my imagination, transporting and transitioning a little girl from the South shore of Long Island to the thriving left bank of Paris.
Donning a requisite woolen beret, a striped French sailor shirt and a clip on mustache to authenticate my Parisienne look, Pierre affected an accent that was a cross between Pepi Le Pew and Maurice Chevalier.
While neighborhood girls played house with their dainty toy tea sets tending to their Tiny Tears dolls, I fancied myself a struggling artist in Montparnasse holed up in a cold-water flat reeking of linseed oil and turpentine. Expressing myself.
But words still mattered. Especially when grade school started.
Because I struggled to articulate my thoughts with words I devised a way to find just the right ones. I would read through a Merriams Webster’s Dictionary as casually as one might read through an Archie Comic Book.
Discovering some discarded musty dictionaries in the basement I would flip page by page, ripping out the random words that resonated for me eventually arranging the torn tatters of paper on a large piece of grey cardboard saved from Ming’s Chinese Laundry who delivered my fathers shirts ever week in brown Kraft paper and cardboard.
The printed words that seemed to have no rhyme or reason would as if by magic move from place to place on the stiff board, arranged to form a coherent thought, as though it were a Quji board and a mystery force-directed my fingers to place the words so. Sitting hunched over on my bed for hours, the pink chenille bedspread would become littered with dozens and dozens of random snippets of paper. Yet inevitably a story would emerge from these seemingly disparate worlds.
Only recently would I learn of the cento a poetical work composed of passages taken from other authors and arranged in a new form or order.
Dictionaries remained in my life even as an adult.
Many years later the only way I was finally able to tell the story I was silenced from voicing at such a young age, was to find the fragments and put them together piece by torn piece. The pieces of paper found in the dictionary as fragmented as the shards of my internal self, when put together formed a complete picture and story.
A dictionary full of words and meaning would tell the story I didn’t know I had. And the dictionary words put on paper became my voice even when I couldn’t say them out loud. Especially since I couldn’t say them aloud.
Words Do Matter.
My skills as a visual storyteller had dovetailed perfectly in my career as an illustrator where I deftly expressed other people’s words.
In time the need to express my own stories as a woman in this culture brought me to a new phase. The aging internal infrastructures that had kept my words down for so long began to erode and I longed to write. I needed to write.
With the pain of losing my mother over a decade ago, the words suddenly came in a torrent rising up and out of me. Dormant for decades these words had been buried in an underground silo like a nuclear missile biding its time. And when they would be released it would be powerful.
I will not forget your words AOC. We must not forget her words.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2021.