My thoughts are as free
As wind o'er the ocean
And no-one can see
Their form or their motion
No hunter can find them
No trap ever bind them
My lips may be still
But I think what I will
I first heard this old German song when I was a small child. I was told that, during World War II, Jewish prisoners in concentration camps comforted themselves with its lyrics. I too found comfort in the sentiment in these words. My body was indeed bound, often literally, in the confines of extreme sexual abuse and sex trafficking. There was no way I could be free in body, but this song told me that I could be free heart, and soul.
I was a slave but I managed to rebel against my bondage in many secret, silent, invisible ways, my lips still, but my mind free.
Some of my rebellions might not make much sense to someone who hasn't lived in bondage. Take my fondness of the colour pink, for example. As a tiny child, I was told that I should not like pink because it wasn't feminist. At the same time, though, Smother was sexually abusing me and passing me around for her pals for them to sexually abuse me ...
... which is, I'd say, pretty much the antithesis of feminism. Instead of pink, my first bedroom was painted and decorated with purple, a genderless blend of pink and blue, the colours generally assigned to girls and boys, respectively. Purple was okay. Pink was not.
So I liked pink, secretly, rebelliously. I still do.
I still like purple too. So does Beau. It was one of our chosen colours at our wedding. Indeed, for Beau, with its slightly bohemian associations, wearing purple was one of his quiet, secret, rebellious assertions of his identity in opposition to the extremely restrictive, hateful, doomsday cult in which he was raised.
But, for me, it was pink, and I was sure to wear pink at the wedding too.
I got to thinking about all this after Beau gave me, or more accurately, gave my child selves, this present the night before our wedding. I was delighted and giddy, like I would have been if someone had given me this when I was three. Why?
People in dire circumstances will find comfort in the most unlikely of sources. We've all heard of such stories: a tortured political prisoner befriends a mouse, an abducted child cherishes the pine cone she grasped just before her abduction, a slave adores the sound of freedom in a pop song. During my undergraduate studies in Communications and English, I heard of the theory called "reader response theory" which, in a nutshell, posits that people will understand pop culture in the way they want or even need to, regardless of how it was intended to be understood. I did that.
As a small child observing fashions, television shows, movies, and music around me, I found many vehicles for my heart's rebellion against my own adversity. The enslaved can be very innovative indeed in their determination to preserve the independence of their souls.
|Shirt: Reitman's; Boots: Ecco; Belt and hair clip: boutique; Skirt, jacket, earrings, necklace, and bangle: vintage.|
I wore this outfit on a Sunday. My back, long ago injured by those who had so frequently and mercilessly raped me, hurt terribly. You see, in the wee hours of Saturday morning, I'd had a terrible panic attack, that saw me writhing and clenching so violently that it hurt my back badly.
I even unconsciously gripped my own arm so tightly that I left this bruise.
Have you ever had a panic attack? They're bad, really really bad. They feel as it would feel if you were in a plane that suddenly began careening downward toward a mountainside at great speed. Your heart leaps up into your throat, you tremble, you break out in a drenching sweat, you become flushed and unbearably hot, the world spins, your bowels turn to water, your stomach heaves, your limbs grow heavy and numb and useless. And you whole being is filled with unconquerable terror. The plane goes on careening and spinning downward, endlessly. The many sensations of terror go on and on and on.
Panic attacks are so terrifying that many people end up in emergency rooms the first time they have one; they and those around them are quite sure they are dying of a severe heart attack.
They are just one of the many symptoms of PTSD.
This is the legacy of the abuse I endured as a child.
So, yes, way back then my little girl brain and heart searched for ways to fight back and find secret comforts in hell. And pink was one of those things that helped. You can tell by my posture here that I'm in more pain than usual. But you can also tell that I put thought into my outfit. Often, when I feel most angry and helpless about my childhood, I wear very "girly" outfits -- and a lot of pink. Smother would have hated it.
So there! I might be the only woman you know who wears pink as a rebellion but it makes sense when I explain it, doesn't it?
Some unfamiliar with child abuse might ask why, instead of my little, ineffective, inner rebellions, I didn't tell anyone what was happening to me? Well, I did try. People did know what was happening but they didn't care. You can read about that here. There was no help, there would be no rescue.
The even more insensitive might ask why I didn't run away. Actually, I did try more than once: the first time, when I was about three, I walked into the woods away from my home, with no plan, no destination, no idea where I could go or who might help.
I came upon a little house that, to me, looked like the witch's house in Hansel and Gretel. Indeed, I believed it was that house. I was three.
We all know how dangerous that witch was. Given the horrors in my own house, a witch fattening up a child to cannibalize him did not seem at all out of the range of possibilities.
I got scared, turned around, and went back home. Does anyone seriously think a three year old has the wherewithal to successfully run away? I had nowhere to go.
But I could sometimes find interior escape, into a world of my own making, often washed in pink.
Beau's gift of a kitschy, moon-glow parure was like time travel for me. Suddenly, I was five years old again. I was so delighted, I cried.
The glow in those little bits of pink plastic reminded me of the glow in the pink plastic handle of an umbrella I was given for my birthday when I was about five. Because it was pink, it was rare gift. I loved that umbrella. It made me tingly with delight. I felt transformed by it.
I felt like Christopher Robin, (the real one, drawn by Shepard, not the Disnified version thereof) ...
... or like that little girl on the salt boxes. You remember her, right?
I felt that about the parure Beau gave me but, given how little girly it was, I thought I wouldn't actually wear it, but I did, and soon. In fact, I based whole outfits (yes, more than one) on those little glowing pink beads.
It just makes me happy -- and proud, as I remember the small ways in which I fought back against my abusers.
My family did know a little of my love of pink because I could not hide my joy in seeing Adirondack sunsets, which I called "pinkapink." But they neither knew nor encouraged the extent of it.
I loved the pastels of illustrations for children, though I was told that they represented the bad, conservative world of the evil 1950s. What did I know of the 50s? I only knew that I would have loved a bedroom like this one, so cozy and safe and clean, free of the sexual fluids of my abusers, and free of fear.
When I was five, my own bedroom didn't even have a door. I remember lying in bed watching two adolescent boys in my family fighting over who got to molest me that night: when one pulled a switch blade and put it to the neck of the other, he won. That was my life. I was completely and totally trapped.
How nice to look at and, in the dissociative way learned by all abused children, crawl right into images of a world I would never know except in my imagination... and in the images that gave me so much comfort.
My therapist is helping to understand that I had (and still have) a skill that those around me seemed to lack: I noticed beauty in everything, everywhere. She's helping me see that, far from being frivolous, this is one of the things that saved my life and is part of why style is a form of therapy for me to this day.
Some of the beauties were not forbidden. I was allowed to collect red maple leaves as big as my head each fall, and no-one faulted me for liking the beauty of a sunset.
But even the permitted beauties were often not noticed by others, like the roaring of those maple trees in the wind ...
... or, later, when we moved west, the wild beauty of the mountains. As with the maple trees, I felt that the mountains befriended me, bore witness to my hell, mourned for me, and comforted me. (If anyone bothers to ask if I believe in God, and really listens to my reply, I'll tell them that my God has always played a similar role in my life: witness, comfort, and guide, without whom I know I would have died. I have never believed in a God who "let" those awful things happen to me as part of some inscrutable "divine plan.")
So not all beauties were forbidden, but I think I had an even deeper thrill when I enjoyed beauties that were denigrated and forbidden in my home and amongst my family's friends, many of whom also abused me. Kitschy pink confetti jewelry like this bracelet? Brilliant!
These were things that, at least in my heart, if nowhere else, belonged to me alone. In the life of an abused child, some secrets kill, but others help her soul survive and even thrive.
I still feel rebellious when I wear pink, all these years later, but I feel apologetic too because I still sometimes believe that it's not feminist. I'm getting over that, but the feeling never goes away completely.
Don't get me wrong, my love of pink and frills was not just a form of rebellion. I would have liked pink regardless of what was going on in my home. It's who I am, not because I'm a girl but because I'm me, Charlotte.
I so wanted a pink tutu but, alas, I never got to have one.
I suppose that's probably why I keep going for skirts that look like this one. The allusion to ballet is unmistakable.
As I sought, in my own way, to establish my aesthetics and identity separate from my family's, my tastes were informed by the fashions of the day. Some of them were more than a tad kitsch, to say the least. One of my first memories of liking pink was my adoration of my uncle's girlfriend's frosty manicure.
She also had the long, super straight hair of the day and I thought she was the most glamorous woman I'd ever met.
And then there was Cher.
I wanted to be just like her, or, if not her, than her little daughter, Chastity, who got to wear all those frills and pretty colours. (The incredible irony is that poor little Chastity was miserable in those clothes and, when grown, became trans man, Chaz.)
The ruffles! The pink! The long, straight hair (which I thought superior to my own curly hair for years), the finger nails! Swoon.
I even loved the Laurence Welk Show, which my family loathed as the epitome of everything that was wrong with straight, mainstream culture.
Some variations on all this frothy, pink femininity do not appeal to me at all today.
But I can easily remember why they did. It all came flooding back to me when Beau gave me that pink parure.
It showed me an alternative world, a different direction that I might choose for myself if I lived long enough to be free not just in my mind but in my body as well.
Except in a few, brief encounters with my paternal grandmother before she died, I had no encouragement in this different vision of beauty. I remember her chiefly as the lady who dabbed my face with a sweet smelling, impossibly soft, pink powder puff ...
... which she kept on her gold and white vanity table ...
... along with with little containers ...
... and bottles of such loveliness, I couldn't even close my mouth for the wonder of it all.
She let me wear her 1960s baubles, which dangled down to my knees ...
... and were nothing, absolutely nothing like the hippie beads my family wore.
Oh bliss! If I'd been just a tiny bit younger, I would have wanted to put my grandmother's beads in my mouth to see if they tasted as good as they looked.
All this was exactly what my counter-culture family rebelled against.
And, in my rebellion against their rebellion, I secretly embraced it.
The secret, little, girly girl in me was most decidedly not who they taught me to be.
But my blood absolutely boils when I think of their dangerous hypocrisy! Even as they taught me not to be a girly girl, because that wasn't feminist, they handed me around to pedophiles and told me, outright, that my little body was extra appealing precisely because it was so pink and white and girly, so very peaches and cream. What does a small child do with such insane contradictions in her family's behaviour?!
What happened to their professed feminism when they passed me around like that, when they took money for it like that, when they themselves touched me in all those nasty ways?
So I'm proud of my rebellion. It was my own tiny self finding real feminism, real autonomy even while I was in real slavery. I was learning to be free, on my own terms, even while I was a slave.
I was expanding my world ...
... and learning new ways to define myself.
Thus a slave revolts even while her body is forced to submit and her lips are still.
I was readying myself to walk away if and when the opportunity arose, not just in body but in spirit too ...
... my soul bruised but intact ...
...and my new world my own.
(I'm sharing this with Not Dressed as Lamb, Sydney Fashion Hunter, Style Crone, Happiness at Midlife, Fashion Should Be Fun, Rachel the Hat, Adri Lately, and Not Dead Yet.)