Today I’m tired. There are endless roots to this exhaustion but today’s is Mother’s Day, which was 4 days ago. I never know when never know when our shared trauma will come pouring out my Mom’s mouth, but it did this Sunday. I’m too tired to write pretty words about it right now. Grief and trauma are messy, eloquence fails me. So this essay will be fragmented, possibly with typos or make obvious my lack of understanding around punctuation. It’s not because I don’t care enough to change it, it’s more that I’m striving for something honest and honesty in my family is pretty fucking revelatory. And as a political stance I’ve made it a practice to be transparent about my emotional states as a survivor, to create more space for us to exist, to resist our continued erasure and destruction. So this is where I’m at today. To make things simple in this moment I’m going to paste a (sort of) poem I wrote several years ago that (sort of) gets at what I’m talking around. I wrote this during a day-long series of workshops called Time Is Not A Line and what later became the What Would An HIV Doula Do? Collective. Timothy DuWhite facilitated a session called HIV and the State and gave us this writing prompt: “Since the State is so interested in how we have sex, what else do you want the State to know about your sex life?” I wrote:I fear what the State already knows (or assumes it knows) about my body.I don’t want the State to have anything else of mine,to take anything else that should be my own.But then I think of what it means to conceal,What it means to be in hiding,What secrecies have already harmed my body and spirit,What I've been told not to tell-
That I’m a survivor of sexual abuse and incest That it’s been imposed upon me that my history as a child survivor “means” I will be queer I will be a sexual deviant I will myself succumb to the medicine of secrecy I’ve been fed and become an abuser myself.
If these assumptions about the connection between my abuse history, gender identity and sexuality were true – If abuse makes queers and gender fuckers – How many more people would be queer? How many more women? How many more people of color? How many more colonized communities? How many more people with disabilities?
Generations upon generations of State-sanctioned violence.
Dorothy Allison already asked a version of this questionin her book, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, so –Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them isI don’t want the State inside my body.
For the past many years I’ve been thinking about the impacts of intergenerational trauma. So right, we’ve established that abuse doesn’t necessarily produce a bunch of kinky queers and can let go of essentialist thinking. But something does get passed down and this part feels tricky. Some cellular residue, blood memory. An inheritance we didn’t ask for that lives inside our veins and wrecks havoc on our adrenals. I read an article recently about the scientific study of epigenetics in relation to PTSD, which to my understanding looks at the changing of DNA structures when a trauma history is present in the subject. These particular scientists did a really fucked up study where they traumatized mice to better understand if there’s a link between PTSD, DNA and phobias. They did this by administering electric shocks accompanied by the smell of cherry blossoms so that the mice came to associate the two, cherry blossom scent = pain. Later, when the scientists emitted the smell of the cherry blossoms into the mice cages without the presence of electric shock, the mice (of course) still responded with high levels of anxiety and possibly even experiences of psychosomatic pain. When this generation of traumatized mice had offspring, the scientists immediately removed the younger generation from their parents so they would not be able to inherit any learned behaviors (adding a new layer of trauma – make no mistake – colonialist thinking and rationalizing lives on in the sciences). As this younger generation of mice grew up, the scientists emitted the smell of cherry blossoms into their habitats without the presence of electric shock and witnessed these offspring enact the same anxiety responses as their parents without having ever experienced the direct pain from electric shock themselves. The mice had inherited the fear of the cherry blossoms’ scent, likely as an evolutionary effort to warn them of the danger. The scientists repeated this for three generations and the blood memory persisted.
In truth, the notion of blood memory comes from indigenous communities who have known that the presence of instinctual behaviors in all forms of life is proof enough to validate that memories tie themselves to genetics. No violence necessary. In a presentation by Shy-Anne Hovorka, the Aboriginal musician and humanitarian said –
“It is not that Western education does not agree with [the existence of blood memory], it is just they want proof.” […] “When understanding Indigenous research from a holistic standpoint, and understanding [that research to be] epistemological, one must also be aware of the types of knowledge that are available. One of the forms of knowledge is blood memory and [it] is readily accepted by the Aboriginal/Indigenous population [because blood memory] is part of our way of knowing. It is like knowing how to breathe when we are born, knowing the process of learning to walk. Or let's look at animals like turtles - they don't have a parent to teach them, it is just ‘known’ to them at birth what to do. Same with fish and many other creatures of the Earth. Blood memory is very real, and the world around us proves its legitimacy.”
Based on my own history, I wonder what innate behaviors come naturally to me? Among the inexplicable things I’ve inherited through my DNA include OCD, Bipolar II, a fear of heights and inability to swim. Are these genetic codes of protection? Evolution run wild?Certainly so much about the cycles of abuse are in fact learned behaviors. My father was abused (beaten) by his father, my Papou. This is well known within my family but never discussed openly. My father went on to sexually abuse his sister, my mother, me and there may be others. Also heavily denied and kept secret. The pattern – lack of bodily consent, lack of bodily control, enforced silence and then asserting a sense of control by dominating and invading the bodies of others, repeat. As a survivor I have committed myself to the task of stopping this cycle of abuse, but some days like today it feels as if the toxins I’m carrying in my body are too much for me to hold. I know I can’t do it alone.
Amita Swadhin (well-known QTPOC survivor, educator, storyteller and healer within the movement to end child sexual abuse) posted an image to Instagram the other day that read,
“Trauma that is not transformed will be transmitted.”
In their post they wrote:
“I sit with this reality everyday […] thinking about how unhealed trauma shows up in our relationships, at home, at work, even in movements for social justice. If youneed extra motivation to prioritize your own healing today, please remember this truth, and know it refers to both social and epigenetic transference of trauma.”
Acknowledging that they did not know the source of the quotation they shared, Amita credited “Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, a Lakota professor of social work, for coining the phrase ‘historical trauma’ in the 1980s.” These words, coupled with indigenous understandings of blood memory, put a name to an experience that Native Americans, Black Americans, and so many others impacted by forced migration, mass murder, war, and persecution have known for generations – that unhealed wounds live on.
After a bit of research, I found that the quote Amita shared is likely adapted from the Christian mystic Fr. Richard Rohr, who wrote in his book Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality: “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” I’m not exactly sure why, but I was a little disappointed to learn the source. Maybe because the notion of enlightened white Christian men feels violent and honestly makes me roll my eyes. I still like the quote though.My father and his father and presumably many fathers before were all self-proclaimed spiritually enlightened men. My Greek/Turkish ancestry is complex with roots near the Black Sea and a tiny island off the Western coast of Anatolia (now Turkey). After the Pontic Greek genocide, end of the Greco-Turkish War, fall of the Ottoman empire and massive population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923 which displaced over 1 million Christians and 500,000 Muslims, you were considered Greek if you practiced Orthodoxy and Turkish if you were a follower of Islam. It didn’t matter what language you spoke. My Orthodox family ultimately made their way to the US as refugees, bearing many stories of rape and death. My Papou, who beat his kids, was the choir director at our church and my father, my abuser, took his place after he died to uphold this roll of honor within the church and our family. I remember sitting for hours in the pews waiting for the service to end, listening intently even though I was never taught to speak Greek. My Yiayia Mae forbid anyone to speak anything but English, even at home. “We’re in America now” she’d say. I don’t know which dialect my family spoke, but because our ancestral home is near the Black Sea it seems likely to have been a version of Pontic Greek or perhaps one of the hybrid languages that included many Turkish words, which would have been particularly shameful in the eyes of my Yiayia Mae. So I sat in church, numb and daydreaming in English. I remember one service in particular when my father scolded me for sitting with my legs crossed at the knee instead of at the ankle, “Only sluts sit that way!” he said under his breath. His gaze and wrath, snatching me out of my private word, my place of respite, generations of misogyny and rape pouring out of his mouth in the form of piousness and proper manners as I tried to escape my body, just as my ancestors were forced to flee their homes. Can a whisper also be a shout?
I tore myself away from my father and my Greek family at age 16. Unheard of. “How can you abandon your blood?” I could ask the same question. Instead I’ve created queer kinships, deep deep ties. You are my family if you have earned it, if we have lovingly worked at it together. Blood supremacy is not welcome in this house (1).
Recently my partner and I started talking about building a family that includes little ones. This is a terrifyingly new idea. I’ve always been hyper-aware of the ways my blood feels inflicted with inherited trauma and I’ve never wanted to pass on any of this shit to kids. But here I am, lots of therapy later, dreaming up this new life, these new possibilities, wanting to find faith, wanting to feel like this is something I could build well if I choose it.
The rest spills out like a waking-dream…Three years ago my friend Marýa returns from Istanbul, bearing a gift – an amulet we call mati in Greece, Khamsa in Turkey, the evil eye for protection. I accept the gift but had a strong visceral response; it doesn’t feel like it’s mine. I don’t mention this to Marýa. It’s the same weekend as Trans Day of Remembrance and we build an altar by the beach to honor our dead; we bless the Khamsa by the ocean.
Years later a student of mine visits Greece and asks if she can whisper my name to the water there, to open a door for me to return to a homeland I don’t know. I accept this gift. She tells me everyone in Greece has a pomegranate in their home, so I put pomegranates in the windowsill and give thanks.
Several months ago I have a dream I am walking down the halls of a nursing home. A man waves at me to come into his room and says
“You have offerings for me.”I enter the room and think, “I do?”
He says “Look in your pouch.” I look down to see I’m holding a small leather bag that belonged to my partner’s father when he was still alive. “In the front pocket are apricots from your grandfather and in the back pocket there is tea from your grandmother.” I open it and sure enough everything is there. I hand him the offerings, kneel at his feet and he says,
“I have messages for you.” And then I wake up.
I call my Mom the next day to tell her about the odd dream I had about Gramma and Grampa. “Did apricots or tea mean anything to them?”
“No, not that I’m aware of honey, they were more coffee drinkers. Sounds like a nice dream though, like they’re trying to communicate to you in some way.”
These were my Mom’s parents, my Irish side. But then I realized – the man in the chair, he was Greek! The offerings were for him. Apricots and tea make much more sense in the Mediterranean. The spirits of my maternal grandparents and partner’s father were helping me make a bridge to my paternal side. I decide to eat dried apricots and drink tea everyday as I think of him, hoping his messages will come through.
On the Full Moon I look through my large shelf altar for some magic object that will let my ancestors know I’m listening. I see the Khamsa that Marýa gave me collecting dust all these years. I wash it off and hang it by my entryway, where it belongs. The next day a hotel in Istanbul starts following me on Instagram. This is pre- my doing any google searches into my Greek and Turkish history (which came later), so truly just a weird fluke. I called Marýa to tell her of the bizarre coincidence. She asks me for the name of the hotel so she can google it and then discovers that it’s located literally within a few blocks of where she bought the Khamsa.I’m listening, ancestors. I’m scared of you though.
I get invited to be a resident artist at Zil Culture Center in Moscow, my first residency abroad, all expenses paid (2). When I go to purchase my plane tickets the cheapest airfare by far is through Turkish Airlines with a layover in Istanbul. I extend my layover as long as I can (a day on either end of my trip), pay the $20 it costs to get my e-visa into Turkey and go. I even splurge and stay in the hotel from Instagram. I drink tea and eat many apricots. I speak to you, pray to you. During my residency I learn the zeimbekiko, the mourning dance of the Black Sea. I remember the byzantine chanting of my youth. I learn the chants for funeral rites and sing them everyday.
I’m home again and it’s Mother’s Day and my Mom asks if she abandoned me. I’m measured in my response. We talk at length until she feels better. I’m as honest as it feels safe to be. It fucks me up for days.
I finally talk to that psychic medium I’ve been meaning to get in touch with. She says, “A wall of men are here.” She’s asking for my guides to present themselves and the men say “We’re the guides!” and she says “No, you’re the ancestors” and they repeat “No, no it’s us, we’re the guides!” and she says again “No, you’re the ancestors. Please sit down and I’ll get to you in a moment.” Eventually when it’s their turn, they come like a flood, how very Greek, how very Turkish. “Please excuse us, it’s just our way. We like how things are changing, we’re on board.” Then they all get down on one knee. They remove their hats, bow their heads and put one hand on the ground. The psychic says she sees a vision of me trying to kneel down too. They say “No” shake their heads and gesture for me to rise. They bow their heads and say “We are sorry for the harm we have caused. We chose to look away. We did not know how to look. We are sorry we have hurt you. Please forgive us. We have listened to your songs. Please forgive us. There is goodness in your line. Let us prove ourselves to you. We did not know, we did not have the courage to know. Forgive us. We promise to end this cycle within our line now. You have our word” And then they remained, still and unflinching. The psychic said they will not move, will not rise, will not leave my feet until I am ready to receive their words as truth, to receive their love. And I have to be ready, it can’t be rushed. She said “You can’t feel it yet, but they’re not moving.”
I wonder if my pulse will change, will it be easier for doctors to draw my blood? Will I stop fainting? Will the burden of intrusive violent thoughts be lifted? Will my body become so light I levitate? Or is this what it’s like to have roots and blood family who will do the work, even after their bodies have vanished? No more blood in their veins, but here we all are, committed to transforming our blood memory.
(1). To the best of my knowledge, Amita Swadhin coined the term “blood supremacy”. Amita has been using the phrase in public talks, but has yet to write about it. I understand blood supremacy to be our society’s tendency to place greater value on biological family ties rather than holding other forms of kinship as equally meaningful.
(2) The residency at Zil Culture Center was supported by the GPS/Global Practice Sharing program of Movement Research with funding from the Trust for Mutual Understanding.