The Vandal in the Cathedral, Part Whatever
It Used to Make Me Paranoid to Know I Was the Center of the Universe Until I Realized So Are You and You and You and You...
I assume you've had enough of this rambling story about memory, the mind, LSD, and paranoia because I certainly have. But there are two open threads that need to be sewn up.
I Survived a Sexual Assault (Or Did I?)
There are many examples of the Hero's Journey to be found in paranoid cinema, but the one that most closely parallels my paranoid experiences and dreams is The Wicker Man, from 1973. In it, a detective visits a remote island farming community to investigate a case of a missing girl. For a period of a day or two, he interacts with various islanders, most of whose behavior seems oddly pagan and mysterious. He discovers clues and follows evidence that leads him to conclude that the missing girl is being held captive by the islanders themselves. He further deduces that the girl's fate is to be burned alive in a ritual fire, as an appeasement to their harvest gods, after a season of failed crops.
He succeeds in finding the girl, and as he is leading her out of her cave of captivity, the two of them encounter the islanders, who have been waiting for them. As the girl returns to the islanders, it is revealed that the detective was only part right. The entire search and discovery was a charade orchestrated to trick the detective into becoming the actual victim of the sacrifice. The movie ends with the man and a bunch of animals burning inside a giant 'wicker man.'
Many paranoid thrillers take this trajectory, but a more common version ends with the protagonist managing to somehow escape and survive. See the 1997 movie, The Game.
There's another kind of paranoid film plot that employs a different twist at the end, from ritual death or miraculous escape. This version is exemplified in Jacob's Ladder (1997) and The Sixth Sense (1999). If you recall, my reaction to seeing Jacob's Ladder was to have an emotional breakdown without knowing why.
The knife was at my throat. It was a sexual assault. Until it wasn’t. I blacked out. I blacked it out. I don’t know what happened. I didn’t know what happened. Everything vanished.
So, here's ten-year-old me about to be molested and threatened with a knife. I have no idea what my young brain knew about sexual violence. I may not have been able to conceive what was about to happen in that regard. But I can remember the fear I felt. That part has never gone away. I have felt that fear for my entire life.
There's a book by Babette Rothschild called "The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment." I haven't read it. I don't need to read it. The missing link to my recovery was hiding in plain sight, the key was always on the mat, not under it. My body has never forgotten what happened, even as my mind shut it out. I had spent years trying to access a memory that wasn't there. Talk therapy, which I had been utilizing for years, was never going to be enough. Every time I went back to the coop in my mind, the exact same thing happened. I can feel how close it is. I'm on the threshold of remembering. Boom! The fear in my body shuts it down. My mind shuts off. Body says to mind, "if you open that door, you will die." Blackout.
The fear I felt that day wasn't only about the violence that was taking place. The proximity of that knife to my throat and face meant I was afraid I was about to die. My mental blackout protected me from the particulars of the sexual assault, but it came with a catch. In addition to not knowing exactly what form the rape took, I walked away that day, partly as a ghost. I don't mean 'part of me died.' I mean that I couldn't know that I didn't die. The blackout moment itself was my death, and everything that happened afterward was in denial of that fact. Remembering, therefore, would be a death sentence.
This is the realization that comes to the characters at the conclusions of Jacob's Ladder and The Sixth Sense. It's not paranoia if you really are dead.
Crossing the Threshold
It was bodywork that catapulted me to the end of the recovery line.
In 2013, I registered for my first 'Weekend of Recovery' healing retreat for male survivors. These weekends are designed to help men break their silence and learn to tell their stories. As the date of the retreat neared, in addition to the understandable nervousness anyone might feel, I was worried that my story was too incomplete to be able to tell. In fact, I was sure that I was going to 'fail' the weekend. What if I was the only guy who didn't know what happened to him? What was the point of learning to tell a story that didn't have an ending? That was void of a specific act?
The retreat was in rural Ohio, and one of the facilitators was a Columbus-based body awareness educator and sixth-degree black belt Aikido instructor named Paul Linden. He's also a Feldenkrais instructor and has a Ph.D. in Physical Education. I've written about him, and my work with him, previously but I haven't told this piece of it.
I made a road trip of the week and arrived in Columbus a couple of days before the retreat, so I could work with Paul. We spent two afternoons together before I drove on Thursday to the retreat. I hadn't met him before. I don't need to describe his methods or the details of how we worked together. Just know that his methods are unique and, in my case, very physical. In one exercise, Paul had me lie down on the floor. He lay down on top of me and instructed me to physically push him off of me while verbally commanding him to do the same. I don't remember the exact words. We repeated this many times.
We also did some exercises with Paul holding a wooden knife and me doing defensive maneuvers. The work was interesting, and Paul's approach and attitude made it fun. It became revelatory on the second afternoon as we were nearing the end of our sessions.
We were working with a wooden sword this time. We stood a few feet apart. He had taught me some rudimentary Aikido stances, and we were facing off. Paul held the sword out in front of himself in an attack position. He instructed me to take hold of my end of the sword with both hands in a firm grip. We held that position for a few seconds when suddenly Paul took a half-step forward, simultaneously thrusting the sword toward me. In an instant, I was back in the coop. I dropped the sword and my stance. I didn't fall down, but I was off-balance. Disoriented. I was emotionally distraught, but I wasn't overcome with fear. It was the first time I arrived at this threshold without freezing or blanking out. It was the moment I knew what was done to me. It wasn't exactly a memory. It was a physical sensation. It was an understanding that came from my body. Despite blacking out mentally, my body remembered. That bastard put his cock in my mouth. (And I didn't die.)
Telling my story that weekend to a circle of men I had only known for some hours was among the hardest things I've ever done. And it was the most liberating.
I have a timeline of my life in a spreadsheet. I have difficulty remembering sequences of events as well as placing memories on a timeline of my life. The spreadsheet enables me to tell you that I remembered what was done to me in October of 2013. I was... hang on, because I have to look it up... I was 54 years old when I remembered what was done to me when I was... 10 or 11 years old. For more than 40 years, I existed in a state of shock, in fear of my imminent demise, in a pseudo-death, as a ghost. Those years of confusion, denial, and silence damaged me more than any single incidence of abuse or neglect.
I often say I have no regrets because now, at 63, I'm no longer afraid. I have found peace. I finally love myself, and I cherish the ways in which I am able to care for myself and to reconnect with the childish joy of discovery and self-expression. I know I wouldn't be the person I am today without the sum total of my experiences, including the bad stuff. Especially the bad stuff. I am sensitive, empathetic, resourceful, resilient, generous, kind, patient, and forgiving. And I know that my abuse, I know that surviving my abuse, is the source of much of that. Should I be grateful for that? Am I?
I do have regrets. I regret the void in my brain. I regret the neglect, the loneliness, the confusion, the wanting, and the violence. I regret how the reverberations of my abuses spiraled outside of me and hurt so many people just for loving me.
On the plus side, I've met my shadow and realized he's not to be feared. The Prince of Darkness was never my foe. He was just me.
I believe I’ve pulverized this particular horse story to dust. I’m going to continue the newsletter but the focus is going to expand. I’ll say more about that next time. As always, I thank you for following along.