ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women, trans, and nonbinary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
The series runs weekly, most often on Tuesday afternoons. Each week, we will highlight different voices and stories.
The Color of the Cast
When I was about seven years old, my father broke my older sister’s arm. I was there, watching. I saw the fight they had. I recall when my mother asked me what had happened after, and I tried to defend my father, who never hit me, who I loved. I can still remember the green cast my sister wore on her arm that summer, which matched her lime-green polka dotted bathing suit. She wrapped the cast in a plastic bag to get into our above-ground swimming pool. I remember it down to the last detail.
“That never happened,” my mother said dismissively, when I brought it up much later, when I was in my twenties. “You make things up. This is just one of your stories.”
This was a common refrain throughout my childhood. I was precocious, writing novels since I was able to read them, spending hours pounding away on a manual typewriter I’d found at a yard sale. As a child, I did sometimes make up stories: a shadowy man lurking outside the next-door neighbor’s house who I admitted was an invention when my father said he’d have to call and tell them there was an intruder; an invisible friend I was mimicking from reruns of some Nick-at-Night sitcom with children. But whenever something was too hard for my mother to confront, to look at directly, she would deflect by telling me I had made it up, that I read too much for my own good. Childhood is a space of openness, of testing. Our parents should tell us there is not a ghost in the neighbor’s yard, but they should not use this same policing of boundaries on the hard-to-talk-about.
I thought about my sister’s cast throughout my youth. I remember my sister and my dad fighting. I do not remember him hitting her in such a way that might break her arm. But it was such a flurry of violence, I was so young. I remember her arm being broken. I knew at least that was true, despite my mother’s claims.
My sister and I do not talk. This is understandable, as she spent her childhood suffering from physical abuse and I was saved from it by my father moving out shortly after I was born (he spent a lot of time with me, but left when he lost his temper). She is eleven years older than me, and even if she was the kind of person who could ever consider me anything but a little brat sent to annoy her (she’s not), I suspect she’s always hated me because our father never hit me like he hit her. She inflicted a lot of the violence inflicted on her back on me in my young years. But once, when she was visiting our mom’s house in Pennsylvania from California, where she’d run off to the minute she was able, and I was visiting from New York City, where I’d run off to the minute I was able, I asked her about the summer her arm was broken.
“Did Dad do it?” I asked.
“No,” she replied. “I punched the wall because I was so pissed off at him. Me and Gram made up the story about it being his fault to make him feel bad.”
It’s enough to drive you crazy, to grow up in a family where even the always-fractured truth is broken into even more unfixable pieces. For a long time, it did drive me crazy. I spent my twenties in and out of mental hospitals. At one, I cried in the bathroom all night, sure my mother had died. When the doctor asked me how I could know such a thing, having spoken to no one since I’d been there, I asked him how you could ever know anything was true, ever.
I came out as transgender when I was nearly thirty years old, but I knew I was transgender when I was five. I was open about it when I was young, able to discuss that I did not feel like a girl at all. But the mind of a child is easily discounted, especially in the case of transgender children, even today.
The detractors of transness presenting in early childhood say, How could they know what gender they are? Children think they’re dinosaurs, they don’t even know what they want for lunch.
Gender, as an experience, is something deeply personal. I could not tell you how I knew I wasn’t female-identified at five, just that I did. It wasn’t just about GI Joes and race cars instead of Barbies and baby dolls. It wasn’t about baseball instead of cheerleading. When I would argue with my mom at the department store, convince her in my relentless child way to buy me underwear with superheroes and a front-flap on it, it felt right. When I shopped in the boys section, I saw the person I wanted to see in the mirror.
Around the same time, a gay coworker of my mom’s was murdered, and suddenly my gender expression was no longer allowed. I understand it now as fear, but it’s hard to look at how that fear came out in enforcement. My siblings policed my imagination games and drawings. “Mom,” my brother would call, “she’s pretending to be a boy again!” My sister would throw a fit about how embarrassing I was to the sympathetic audience of my mother when I didn’t want to wear a shirt. I had previously gone around bare chested and free, somewhat tolerated for my eccentricity to that point.
As clearly as a child knows their own mind, their mind can be molded to believe the things they know of themselves are wrong and inexcusable. It’s standard gaslighting, telling someone what they experience is not the truth, thereby making them question their own sanity. Gaslighting is often done by abusers to keep their victims in line. It’s done to children—not just trans children—all the time. “I’m hungry,” says a child. “You just ate, you can’t be,” says the parent. What you feel is not real; what you see is not there; what you are is incorrect. There is a direct connection between the culture of silence and violent “correction” of childhood my older sister experienced through physical abuse, and what I experienced as a trans child told they could not possibly be who they knew they were.
The effects of sustained gaslighting are often traumatic. Low self-esteem, depression, the inability to test one’s reality. Psychosis is a more infrequent effect, but one I experienced all through my twenties. I walked through the world feeling that everyone knew more about me than I did. And in some ways I was right. When I went to my first therapist, and he recommended I try a gender identity clinic, I was shocked. I couldn’t be one of those people. Didn’t he see the long hair I’d begun straightening and caring for in my twenties? The lip gloss boyfriends had told me made me look so much better? I was not what this therapist thought I was, I was convinced.
But I was. I always had been. I had been so effectively told I was not, that such a thing was then out of the realm of my constricted imagination.
Fairy tales are part of childhood, and the absence of parents in them is what allows the fantastical events that befall the children in them to happen. Mothers are missing, fathers are dead, and children are left without guidance. There’s also the wicked stepmother trope (see also: missing birth mother) that allows for and inspires many of the cruel fates in these tales.
There’s a famous assumption about childhood and fairy tales and psychology that proclaims they are safe grounds for exploring terror because the terror is always somewhere outside. The terror is in the woods, or the haunted house, or the castle. The absent parents are something we don’t worry about tucked into our safe childhood beds, being read the story by our mother, if we are lucky. The woods are dark and deep, but they are far away.
But what if the terror, even in our safe beds, is that which comes from those who are supposed to protect us? What if our parents are not absent, but convinced of another reality in which our fears and truths do not exist? What if we asked them to believe us and they said, No. What if they said, You are crazy. What if they said, You are not the person you think you are. What if you then walked through your life looking at people who, deep down, you knew you were like—obsessing over them; watching every film and reading every book with a trans character, fascinated, making mental leaps about these obsessions, your own nascent bisexuality, vague queer community connections, allyship, and support—while never being able to imagine yourself as one of them? Who you are is suddenly outside, what you once knew was true is the looming terror you cannot face, nor look away from.
It took me decades to undo the tangles of growing up in an abusive family who strove to keep a bright coat of paint on our white picket fence. It took me years to recover from the trauma of being raised by a transphobic family. The combination of the two were disastrous. My family is mostly shipwrecked and separated. I do not speak to any of these people anymore, for my own sanity. There is only so much you can take of your reality being questioned and disregarded.
I wonder how many other people my age have experienced this. Not just the ones from abusive families, either. Even my lifelong best friend, who was raised by loving and accepting parents, would worry that if she saw a ghost, she would have to live with it as a fact of reality that no one else could accept. That she would have to walk through life facing horror that no one else thought was real.
There is a certain terror in that.
The terror is greater, however, when you have become convinced that that which is solid and real is the ghost you invented. When you can remember the color of the cast, but you cannot remember, for twenty-five years, who you once knew you were.
I can remember the time of childhood testing when I knew the difference between fact and fiction, no matter what my mother tried to tell me, no matter what I raved in mental hospitals. For a time, between the combination of drug use and what’s only recently been diagnosed as C-PTSD from extended childhood abuse, fantasy and reality grew fuzzy in my mind, collapsed under the weight of what I was told, who I was made to be. It was only when I was nearly thirty years old that I stopped being paranoid from what I was hiding from myself, began to parcel out fact and fiction into easily identifiable categories.
How do you undo the damage of not being believed? Hope lies in trusting the knowledge beneath the soft layers of animal flesh that make up our bodies. In bringing forth these stories, no matter at what cost, no matter how painful. In whispering difficult facts along with the stories you create.
And you keep telling your truth. The louder and the longer it exists, the harder it is to lock behind a dingy white picket fence. You whisper about your ghosts until you find someone who has seen them, too. You learn to fight battles you can win—perhaps you cannot call your mother a liar about the green cast and the broken arm to her face and get through to her, but perhaps you can walk away from that house, from those people, from their fractured versions of reality and find your own.
You remember, you write down, you do not forget the color of the cast, even if you were told it was never there. The cast is a lifeline, even though it seems like a symbol of trauma. The cast is how you will know you didn’t make it up. And when you begin to question whether all the people in your life exist, whether you are in some schizophrenic fantasy populated by your delusions, remember that the cast was the same color as her bathing suit. You were too young, too bowled over by this impression, to have made it up. Remember the color against the blue sky on a summer day. Hear the plastic bag crinkle around it as your sister attempts to keep it dry while swimming.
Trust these moments, trust that they were real, even if you cannot make sense of them. Keep these details, as if you will be questioned on them later. You will. When you are questioned, you will know that the cast matched the bathing suit and you will remember how you felt when your mother let you buy the Air Force shirt instead of the pink one. You will identify the longing in yourself as real. Eventually, you will learn to trust these things again.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women, trans, and nonbinary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.
Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.
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