It started with trying to take someone else’s words – words that had been used against me – and make them my own. Project Unbreakable* is for survivors of abuse and the premise is that you take the power, the secrecy, the lies, the fear and the validity out of your abuser’s words by showing them to the light. Victims write what their abusers said on cards and then hold it up and are photographed with them, showing how words that once terrorized are now as meaningless as a piece of paper. While I think the theory is a good one – and it does seem that much good has come of the site – something about the execution bothered me. So many of the victims held the paper obscuring their face, their abuser’s words still obliterating the most human part of themselves.
But it seemed to help some and I liked the idea so much that I tried it. I wrote down all the terrible, awful things that he said to me. The things that broke my spirit and my will. The things I can never forget and still sometimes haunt me in my weaker moments. I said them out loud, many for the first time, to my therapist. That was good. Then I photographed myself holding them. And that wasn’t. I’m in no way condemning the choice the other people on the site made to put up their pictures but I realized that for myself, I no longer want to hold his words in any way, not even in my hands. They aren’t mine. They never were. They belong to him.
“I made a list of one hundred ways to kill you. And then I ate it so that I’d always have it inside me.” He said that to me. And I answered him not at all. When I first wrote about it several of you questioned how I could not even reply much less not fight back or run away. At the time there was nothing to say.
Words do have power, yes, but silence is the force behind them. Sometimes silence is an animal lurking in the dark, a presence all its own. But there are so many many types of silence. As I thought about my silence that night and my wish to preserve it, I thought about how many times in my life silence has carried me, lifted me, protected me, even beautified me. Sometimes silence is heartbreak. But much more often silence is a gift.
When my daughter Faith was born – still – the silence was deafening. A baby should never be born quiet. But the hush in that delivery room was so full that there was no room for words. She was as present as any of my other children were at their births and I think I felt it more since there was none of the usual hustle and bustle that surrounds a new one. Everyone waited – a pregnant pause, forgive me – for my reaction. I had no words. I had to wait for others to give them to me. “She’s so beautiful.” “I think she has your nose.” “Here’s a blanket to keep her warm.” The next day I still had no words. I barely had breath. And then the funeral. Who has a funeral for a baby that hardly lived? What could I say about a person that nobody really knew but me and even then my knowledge was limited to cravings for frozen lemonade and kicks that felt like flailing fish? I wanted the funeral but I didn’t speak at it. She was silent; I was silent. I remembered my grandfather whose dying words were, “It’s so beautiful! Can you hear them singing?” We couldn’t, but he could. Sometimes silence is a song to carry you home.
Another day I stood in a crowded outdoor market, looking for a cousin I hadn’t seen in 20+ years thanks to a family feud that separated us as children. I had not seen a recent picture of him and yet as I scanned the people around me, my eyes lit on a man with a strong, stocky build, a shaved head, piercing blue eyes. Without saying a word, I knew it was him. He looked like my brother. He felt like my family. What happened all those years ago? I didn’t know. I still don’t, really. Sometimes silence is a terrible chasm. But as I hugged him and met his beautiful wife and daughter, the weight of the past slipping off our innocent shoulders, I knew it didn’t matter anymore. Sometimes silence is the bridge across.
Silence is hardest for me when it means biting my tongue (sometimes literally) and watching my children struggle. It would be so easy for me to give my son the answer to his math homework that he has been crying over for an hour, and yet then he wouldn’t learn how to do long division. Or how to persevere even when things don’t come easily. I am so tempted to jump into my kids’ fights – to prove to them that nothing will ever be fair and by golly if they think an extra three raisins on their sister’s plate is bad then just wait until their best friend steals their girlfriend in college – but then they wouldn’t learn how to negotiate emotional waters with other people. I want so badly to help Jelly Bean, so independent, to figure out this world and yet just tonight she put her tiny hand over my mouth and said “Mommy shhhh! You go out now.” Because she needs the silence of her own thoughts without the baggage of mine. Sometimes silence is permission to not have all the answers.
I’m a girl who likes to talk a lot. A lot a lot. I hate romantic comedies simply because 99% of the plot lines are based on the hijinks or horror that ensues when people don’t talk to each other. When in doubt I err on the side of saying too much rather than too little. But words are only as powerful as the silent spaces that contain them. If there is no silence, they run together in one frenetic blur. So learning to appreciate the power of silence – of stillness – is one of the great lessons of my life. Sometimes – just sometimes – silence is the answer to the prayer we didn’t think anyone heard.
*If you choose to click through, be warned that it can be extremely triggering and difficult to read. I don’t regret reading it but it can be a lot to take in so do it when you have some time to yourself. And don’t read it all at once. I want to reiterate, however, that while this didn’t feel good for me personally to do I still think it’s a great project and am not judging anyone for having a different reaction than mine. Also, silence is not good all the time. If you are or have been a victim of abuse talking about it is hugely important.