Let’s call her Deirdre. This Deirdre wrote stories, one an award-winner centered around a child who broke her silence about being sexually molested. Even as Deirdre wrote that story, however, she had not yet confronted her own past. She had not yet begun to remember the terror and shame of her father’s sexual abuse.
When I went through my own crises of abuse, denial, and separation, Deirdre gave me the support and attention you can’t bring yourself to ask of a friend—and thus appreciate deeply when it comes unbidden, like rainbows or bird song: gestures of gratuitous grace you feel you cannot possibly deserve. As I grew stronger, Deirdre drifted off. I was puzzled that I was seeing her less and less, but since I was back on my feet, I decided she must be busy catching up with all the others in her full life. Later I would learn that she kept to her husband and daughters and saw few friends for nearly a year.
Winter bloomed into spring. Spring warmed into summer. One day she dropped by, looking solemn and pale, to say she needed a favor—but that there were conditions I must follow. “Anything,” I told her, with the relief we feel when we can finally repay a little of the debt owed to the truly good people who lighten and strengthen our lives.
She prefaced her request by telling me she had begun to have sharp, fragmented memories of sexual abuse that began before she went to kindergarten. She waited for my shocked reaction, but for me all the tumblers were finally clicking into place in the only locked door left in this complex house, my friend. My first reaction was a selfish flush of relief that I would no longer feel guilty about the revulsion I felt when I met Deirdre’s father. His eyes had locked mine into a staring contest. Initially startled, I quickly grew hard and stubborn. He was the first to look away.
I took Deirdre’s hand and promised to do whatever she needed. The favor she asked was a simple one: would I pick her up from weekly sessions with her psychiatrist? She was never to drive herself there. Her husband could drop her off on his way to work, but she needed someone to pick her up two hours later. The psychiatrist wanted me to adhere strictly to this plan: wait until I saw Deirdre come out of the office, open the car door for her, safety-belt her in place, then drive her home in silence, seeing her to the door and no further.
Silence was the most important of these conditions. According to the psychiatrist, I was not to speak to Deirdre because often I would be ferrying home “a wounded child.” After an intense session, my friend might need several hours “to resurface.” She could do this best alone and in the safety of her home, where she would return to the demands of her present life at her own pace. Engaging her in conversation might jerk her back too roughly, too painfully.
I could do this. In fact, this was too easy—disappointingly easy. It was nothing like the heroic measures we imagine we can and should take for those we love. In myth and fairy tales, the trouble with tasks that seem too easy is that they trick you into complacency and, therefore, into failure.
The day I failed my task for Deirdre, the bay snoozed under its summer comforter of gray fog. I picked her up as usual and drove along the stretch of highway linking the city to her small town. We made it in silence to the long row of eucalyptus trees that streaked past the car with the hypnotic regularity of pickets in a giant fence. At the edge of my vision I saw my friend’s arm dapple with the trees’ shadows.
Shadows? I realized at once that such thick fog permitted no shadows. Puzzled, I glanced at my friend’s arm. Several spots larger than quarters were blooming on her flesh. Bruises. Bruises were forming and darkening as I watched.
This is when I forgot the chief condition placed on my task: silence. “Jesus Christ!” I cried. “What is that?”
Deirdre did not jerk roughly from her far-off place, as I had been warned she might. She came out languidly, saw what I stared at between my desperate glimpses at the road ahead, and answered me like a weary traveler too long on her journey. “So that’s what they mean,” she drawled, “by body memory.”
I think she must have smiled. Perhaps I need to believe I can still hear a soft smile curving her voice. I remember clearly her next words: “it’s odd you should mention Christ.” She went on to tell me that stigmata—the echoing of Christ’s crucifixion wounds on the bodies of ardent believers—may be related to the body memory of an abuse victim.
What neither of us mentioned was the configuration of Deirdre’s bruises. When she turned her arm to wonder at them, my stomach roiled. I could make out five bruises in all, four in a semicircle and the single, elongated bruise opposing them. Four fingers and a thumb, grown obscenely larger than possible, unless you imagine them, over the years, stretching to maintain their proportion to the tiny arm held down, so long ago, by force.
On the day I failed my duty to my friend, I saw for myself how the body can serve as the reservoir for the unspeakable abuses the mind cannot or will not struggle against one a day when that battle is already lost. The body that bears brutality can also bear witness—and can do so years and years later. What was it in my friend’s harsh healing that finally called forth this silent witness? Was her body reassuring her of the truth of what she was remembering, reassurance needed in the face of her father’s denial and lies?
A bruise is the complaint of blood and flesh for what we have suffered, whether such abuse is accidental, like a bad fall, or inflicted on us with vicious intent. The flesh can serve as the reservoir for our deepest pain. The blood pools there and darkens, pumped into that reservoir by the heart, that stubborn muscle our folklore insists on calling the seat of our emotions. Perhaps the heart knows when we are ready to confront the terrible events the mind once needed to escape and forget.
“Take heart,” we tell one another in trying times. And we must take heart when that pump fills the reservoir with something we need to see gathered and held still so we can finally plumb its depths. Otherwise, those memories might rush off, like water the hands cup from a river but cannot stop from slipping through our fingers. That water trickles back to the dangerous river, the river with the power to flood us out, again and again, from the self’s fragile house pitched too close to its banks.
When I remember that day with Deirdre, I no longer picture ugly bruises. Instead, I see the stigmata of her body’s faith in her. When the body reaffirms a history we must confront and understand in order to overcome, we have a choice. We can shudder and curl up in misery or we can square our shoulders and take heart. If we choose the latter, we have a better chance to find, as my friend is finding, the path to healing.