Eleanor Roosevelt was sadly mistaken. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” she said. With all due respect, Mrs. Roosevelt, I never really consented to anything. At age five, I never knew that I even had a choice. There were only the taut, puppeteering strings of intimidation and coercion, and the inherent inferiority that dwells inside those who endure the silent shame and denigration of sexual abuse.
I never dared ask why he did it. I just assumed it was because I was less.
Less worthy, less deserving, less human.
Irrespective of consent.
By the time I reached third grade, I had already buried that reality deep and prayed that no one would ever detect its sickening, decomposing existence. Like those molded plastic sand-art creations I made at school, I submerged that abominable cement block of a truth under alternating layers of artificially rainbow-colored granules.
I knew nothing about being powerful, being beautiful, or being hopeful.
Until she called me over to her desk that morning.
Miss Daniela beckoned me—calling my name as if it held some dignitarial importance. “Kim, please come to my desk when you finish your work.”
My body stiffened in my cold metal desk chair, preparing for the onslaught of criticism that I had come to expect. The inventory of my faults continually rotated in my mind like the cards of a Rolodex: sloppy, ugly, irresponsible, impure, less. A steel, unbuckling infrastructure of septic messages constructed the empty shell in which I resided—an abandoned carcass that hid any vestiges of innocence.
At age eight, unblemished promises of childhood lay in tatters at my feet. During this time, I fried chicken cutlets for my siblings and folded mountains of underwear and towels. I tried to protect my family from being swallowed whole by his unrelenting, scotch-fueled rage. At eight, I had been thrust into the innermost edges of his maelstrom—the place where his most punishing winds persisted. As a recipient of sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse, I learned to just hold on tight. No questions, no reflection, and no consent. Just survival.
I couldn’t tell anyone (and didn’t want to tell anyone) because I subsisted in a spiral of terror and filthy shame—the kind that permeates the very fabric of your essence.
What could my teacher possibly want to talk to me about? Did she know? Her tone was different that day.Children always know. I always knew.
Tugging at my plaid Catholic school jumper, I shuffled over to Miss Daniela’s desk. Hang on. Brace. Weather.
Her sky-blue eyes were a welcome invitation, assuring me that I was not in trouble, that I had done something right.
“I have something to give you, Kim. Something that I have been meaning to give you for a while now,” she remarked.
I watched as her portly hand delved into her metal desk drawer. What emerged was a little red journal with a floral gold design on its hardbound cover.
“I bought this for you.” She placed the hardcover book into my unfurled hands. I loved how newly stiff it felt: untarnished and unsullied.
I clung to the solace of every gentle syllable she directed at me. They were a momentary relief from the soul-breaking winds to which I had grown accustomed.
“What is this for?” I asked.
“Read the first page.”
She must have sensed my reluctance and nodded for me to pull back the cover.Her words were delivered in red ink, but bore none of the usual punitive intent:“My dear Kim,You are a good writer. Maybe to the Earth you are a dot, but you can think and write and the Earth cannot. Write down some of your thoughts and feelings and maybe someday, you just might be a poet.”
I peeled my eyes from the sharp peaks of each handwritten word and looked directly at her face. Maybe she knew, maybe not. It didn’t matter. What mattered most in that moment was that someone understood, someone reached out, and someone dared to cajole the bunkered voice out of a little girl who never even knew she was entitled to one. In that framed moment, I began my lifelong transition from the embalmer of a terrible secret to someone who uncovered the galvanizing power of words and voice. When Miss Daniela handed me that journal, she gave me the courage to speak. And to heal. And to forgive.
As years passed, I clung to that journal and to the notion that Miss Daniela thought that I, despite being poor, abused, and neglected, could change my life with an education and unfetter myself from ill-fated statistics with my own transformative thoughts.
I recalled that notion when I won a scholarship to a private all-girls high school. And when I sat in an adult survivors group in New York when I was fifteen years old. And when I left home (and never returned) for Boston University and Universita di Padova. And graduated magna cum laude. And when I walked onstage to accept my master’s degree from Harvard. And when I was featured in a magazine for helping my own student, a teenage mother, discover the power of her own words too.
In such moments, I remember Miss Daniela’s face, hear her voice, and see the gold-flecked cover of that little red journal.
In other moments, I remember those who manipulate, desecrate, and undermine beautiful and burgeoning spirits to make others feel less worthy and inferior.
At age forty-one, I now understand that.
But I no longer give my consent.
Nothing But The Truth So Help Me God: 73 Women on Life’s Transitions, Compiled by A Band of Women. Published by Nothing But The Truth, LLC, May, 2014.