Published on October 19th, 2021 | by Cheryl Klein0
“Ew! YOU survived THAT!?”: Author Kimberly Dark on Tools for Talking About Trauma
Kimberly Dark is a shapeshifter. She is a queer mom who raised a son with a gay man, a fat yoga instructor, and a writer who can be personal, playful, and prescriptive all in the same space. In her new collection Damaged Like Me: Essays on Love, Harm, and Transformation (AK Press), she describes speaking about being an incest survivor at a conference for mental health professionals. In finely attuned detail, she depicts their discomfort with the notion that a case study could also be a leader in the healing of others. “[They] didn’t see me as a colleague. They saw me as an articulate client…. There I was, talking about damage as though it was a site of wisdom, and to them, that was nonsense.”
This quality of surprising her audience, then inviting them to join her in new ways of thinking, runs throughout Damaged Like Me. The author of three previous books spoke with MUTHA about her unique (though perhaps not as unique as the Forces That Be would have us believe) approach to life and writing.
For an excerpt from the book, go here.
I like the way you frame “damage,” pushing back against the idea that “those who are ‘damaged’ by abuse seem worthy of dismissal—a self fulfilling prophecy by which the abused deserve more abuse…. We could, instead, begin to see those who have experienced stigmatized events as experts.” As a writer and as a mother, how did you approach the work of being an expert eye-witness?
I love that you’re orienting this question toward my role as a mother (well, it is sort of your job!). There are so many moments during parenthood when we could be sharing more of our challenging life experiences with our children, in order to help them grow and understand the world. And yet, we don’t have much practice talking about certain things, so we just don’t do it.
I remember taking my son to see a play when he was about eleven. The storyline included a rape and the while the scene was not graphic, it was really well done for the stage. That is to say, it was terrifying. I felt so protective of him during that scene in the play and realized I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss it with him later. Then, my next realization really stunned me. These are life events with which I have direct experience, and I’ve not mentioned the peril that most women feel around men at some point (or many points) in our lives. Wow. That’s deep.
And it’s not enough to wait for the kid to ask (which I think is a fine approach with discussing things like healthy sexuality). It doesn’t work with events that cause trauma, because children learn very early which themes they should avoid with adults. They learn so profoundly, and so young, that they know not to bring up something with grandparents that they can discuss with mom, and then, maybe not with dad, but hey, Aunt Becky would totally be okay to talk to. No. We have to discuss trauma in age-appropriate ways. So I did.
As we discussed the scary scene in the play, I started by asking him if he knew what was being represented there and we discussed basic definitions of what rape is and then, how many women and girls and people of all genders have endured that, and how it’s usually men who do that to others. When I finally got around to saying that I had also survived that kind of abuse, it was difficult for both of us. I don’t want to see him sad or afraid. I really want him to have a good, rich life, however, and that means living in and learning to shape the real world as an actual participant.
You write: “My son was born during the height of the AIDS crisis. Politicians were threatening concentration camps for gay people and I was afraid my son could be taken from me and his father because of our queerness.” As a queer adoptive parent myself, I have this fear too, even though I feel fortunate to have legal protections now, as well. But that current of cold fear is always there, and I found it made me even more wild with rage during the time families were being separated at the border in huge numbers. I’m curious how having a family structure that wasn’t sanctioned or accepted has informed your parenting, writing, and activism.
Here’s what your question prompts in me: Some people who are traumatized by marginalization grow up in families where the stigma is shared. Black families, for instance, often know how to create a solid sense of self in their children as they face racism because everyone in the family shares that marginalization and they know darn well who they can trust and when and how to shore up their humanity when it is eroded. This is also true with queer families—those where the parents are queer and the kids receive that same anti-queer stigma as “a courtesy.”
So yes, being active for human rights during the AIDS epidemic was important for my family. Here’s the tricky part though. It’s also possible for a queer white family—and especially a queer white male family—to cling to whiteness, to cling to the legality of marriage, to cling to state-sanctioned criteria for humanity and FORGET TO TEACH THE KIDS THEY ARE PART OF A BROADER SOCIAL ORDER. Sorry to yell, but holy crap this is a problem.
It’s the kind of thinking that says, “But we’re normal, except for being gay.” And wow, that “we’re normal” part fails to unpack cultural racism, cultural misogyny, cultural ableism, etc. It’s also possible to be the only one in your family traumatized by a certain marginalization—like the fat kid who is constantly put on a diet because everyone in the family wants to fix him. That’s a kind of marginalization without allies in the family (and likely the community) at all. Whew! All of these things inform my parenting, writing, and activism and the way I encourage people to look at marginalizations and trauma as moving, dynamic experiences, not just stackable events.
You write about incest as a social problem, as opposed to simply an individual or familial problem. In what ways can people work to change incest culture? What should we be looking at or calling out?
It’s really hard for people sometimes to hear that we live in an incest-supporting culture. In one way, we totally don’t! If you ask anyone on the street, is incest good or bad? Should it be excused under some circumstances? Most people will say, no, definitely not. Incest is bad.
But wow, anyone who’s ever become interested in media-analysis (as a scholar, or just an observer) knows that our culture glorifies childlike attributes in women to the extreme! Child-sized bodies, youth, child voices, wide innocent/confused eyes, acting less intelligent, hairlessness, obedience, helplessness, skimpy clothes, etc. are all unquestioned aspects of female desirability. (Again, some will say they don’t “seek” those things, but feel it’s a bonus if they happen to get a woman who just “naturally” has that little girl voice. Well…) You also don’t have to be a legal scholar to look at the trends in incest reporting, convictions, non-legal sanctions, etc. So, all of this is about culture—not laws. Those we have.
As with so many topics, we have to practice seeing what the culture normalizes. Really look at patterns and see them. And then, how are you going to talk about those things? There are numerous essays in Damaged Like Me (and my previous essay collection, Fat, Pretty and Soon to be Old) where I’m offering the reader models for how to communicate about a difficult topic. This is what’s wanted. Talk and listen.
We all know that a story told in a whisper to a close friend becomes stronger the next time it’s told, more audible, more trustworthy. Talking (and writing—but most people are more adept at talking) helps us to clarify what we felt, what it means, what we think about it. It also makes us more ready to listen to common retorts.
Look, there’s no question that those who want to uphold the status quo are adept at tearing down the humanity of anyone who asserts sexual harm. Read that line again.
If a woman says she was raped, we already know the line of questioning that follows. (Basically, how did you invite the rape.) We need to prepare for those discussions ahead of time and continually reframe discussions about incest as being about protecting children. Again and again. That’s how we’ll make headway in changing the culture: make individuals and institutions live up to the values they claim they already have.
One of my favorite things about this collection is the playful, open approach you take to language and identity, especially gender identity. How do you bring joy and play into work that often deals with harm and oppression?
Thanks for noticing the play and openness; I appreciate that. Hey, no life unfolds without trauma, or without chances for joy. Even if I’d never been sexually assaulted and grew up in a world without racism or body hierarchy of any kind, there would still be moments of trauma. It happens when those we love don’t regulate their emotions very well, or try to manipulate us. It happens when a hurricane comes and wrecks the house, or your mom gets cancer.
Trauma is part of life, and I think we’re meant to share the wisdom we gain, rather than being told—as we do now with sexual assault—ew! YOU survived THAT!? Similarly though, every life contains humor and joy and if I’m writing about life, it’s all going to be there!
Things like gender are absurd and hilarious. The way we treat non-gender-conforming people can be tragic, but it’s also so incredibly beautiful to conceive of oneself outside of the confines of social standards. How gorgeous that there is human diversity we can’t even yet name! I think it’s a mistake not to focus on a full range of human emotions and ways of framing events, if we seek to understand these lives.
This collection struck me as formally unique—a mix of memoir, theory, sociology, and a bit of advice. How did you arrive at this hybrid form? I feel like it opens up a lot of possibilities, but I’m also curious if you encountered any of the marketing/publishing obstacles that often come with the territory of work that doesn’t fit into an obvious box.
What’s that you say? Possibilities that can be immediately shut down by convention? Now here’s a topic I know something about.
Yes, for sure, marketing and publishing is harder when things don’t fit in an obvious box. But let’s be clear, marketing and publishing is easier when there’s a load of money behind a project so that hybrid forms can be explained. But that’s risky. So, as with my work so far, unconventional writing is usually the domain of independent presses. The way I write emerges from the life I’ve had, and my commitment to using memoir-style stories comes from the fact that wow, if we’re going to talk about being fat or disabled, it’s a lot more polite to talk about me than to talk about YOUR experiences with those things!
Also, I learned from decades of storytelling on stage that this combination of things works to move an audience. They become able to understand the topic, see it at work in their own lives, and then able to discuss it. Sometimes, they even figure out how to work together and act. That’s long after they’ve left the theatre or put down the book though. I can only hope it happens.
What is your writing process? What’s your recipe for a good writing day?
For me, writing isn’t just about having something to say, it’s part of how I understand things. I write to make meaning, to understand and to integrate things I’m reading, experiencing, and seeing. I am happiest when I’m writing every day. And I love feeling entitled to write anything I please. Social media posts count! A funny little poem about the salad I had for lunch counts! So do books and articles. When there’s a deadline or editing needs to happen, that’s work and it goes into my calendar as concentrated time on that project. Those can be good days too.