There’s no way to make everyone happy about transgender bathrooms and locker rooms. So the priority ought to be finding a way to keep everyone safe.
A few months ago, I registered for “The Story Workshop” at the Allender Center in Seattle. Primarily aimed at helping survivors of sexual abuse find the purpose and weight in their fractured personal narratives, the conference promised to be intense but deeply healing.
So when three unrelated friends randomly mailed me substantial checks with notes that said, “I don’t know why, but I think God wants me to give this to you” all within the same week, I took the hint and signed up for the workshop. I had been waiting more than seven years.
I don’t know exactly what I expected. I was naively hopeful that I would get a few good writing tips that would enable me to beautify my past and approach it like one of Aesop’s fables—third-person fiction with a perfect little moral at the end of the story.
Hating the Little Girl I Once Was
That’s not what happened. One of the pre-assignments was to write 700 words about a painful childhood memory. I was surprised at the one I chose. It wasn’t a heavy hitter, so to speak. I wrote about a Polaroid picture I kept rediscovering in a shoebox at my parents’ house, and my inability to figure out why looking at it made me want to rip it to shreds.
I’m about ten years old in the picture, with scraggly hair, pale skin, and a vacant expression. I’m wearing my mom’s oversized knit sweater and Oxford shoes my dad had bought me. In my hands is a piece of green felt I’d cut into the shape of New York for a school report about a U.S. state. Coincidentally or not, New York is the place my abuser had recently moved. I think I wanted to be closer to him. Don’t try to understand it. I still don’t.
My small group dissected the story with grace and insight that could only be offered by those who spoke the same horrific language of shame and rage and grief. I felt nothing as I spoke about it. “It is what it is,” I remember saying, committed to my ambivalence. My group leader brushed away a tear and said, “Kaeley, this story breaks my heart. Why do you hate the little girl in that picture so much?” I couldn’t access her understanding or her empathy. I recognized the accuracy of her assessment, but I didn’t know how to change it.
Later that evening, one of the workshop presenters tasked us with a seemingly benign activity. We were instructed to play with crayons and miniature tubs of play dough on the tables in front of us. I hated these types of exercises. I thought they were such a waste of time. I reached for a purple crayon and reluctantly complied. I drew a picture of a flower and rolled a snake out of my play dough. And I burst into tears.
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