The Survivor from Stanford, Muhammad Ali & A Little Life

muhammad ali

Some days are just hard. I’ve struggled with times when trauma starts to form a mass and become like a malevolent spirit that takes on weight and gravity and wants to pull me down. Trauma grows a body inside of my own body and I cannot carry us both.

The letter from the Stanford Survivor today triggered just such a sense of the tumor of trauma crowding out the normal freedom and space within myself. If you haven’t read the letter, you can read it here.

I’ve experienced multiple traumas in my lifetime. This in itself can be really stigmatizing because it immediately raises suspicion. One of my all time favorite books is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. When it came out last year I read it straight through and the rest of my life nearly shut down completely. I felt such elation. I know others connected to that book very deeply as well. People were sobbing all over the country and tweeting about it, on subways and in their rooms and in libraries and coffee shops. I know for me it touched a nerve powerfully, electrically, more than any other book I’ve engaged with recently, and particularly and specifically with regards to the experience of trauma and survival. The book got a lot of attention and rocketed to many Awards lists–including becoming a National Book Award finalist. It was so incredibly beautiful and the accolades were well-deserved. But then came the backlash.  The criticism was that it was not believable. This made me so angry. Because it mirrored exactly what trauma victims hear all the time. I read one of the other books that was a finalist and enjoyed it, but it was just as “unbelievable” in its wild plot turns and no one was complaining. The complaint about A Little Life seemed to be that nobody could go through so many traumas in one lifetime.

a little life

But of course, people can and they do and even worse. Much worse than what I experienced. Most human beings on this planet experience unbelievable pain. Most of us in the literary or academic or just plain privileged world of the West are lucky in comparison. I’ve walked with survivors of wars in Bosnia, in Iraq and Syria. So I understand perspective. But even in the midst of gratitude for so much, many of us still do face down multiple demons of early childhood abuse, neglect or abandonment which then leads to vulnerability and trauma in childhood, which then leads to vulnerability and trauma in adolescence etc. For me, my father’s abandonment pushed my mother into deeper poverty and instability,which led to a hasty and volatile and abusive second marriage, which led to further assault in my youth outside of the home. Wounds often lead to infection. This was my experience in the early part of my life.

In adulthood, completely unrelated to anything in my past, I was the victim of a forcible rape by a stranger. It was random and violent. But when 1 in 5 women are raped, there’s no reason why my early trauma would act as some kind of magic shield and buffer in my later years. There are no gods saying, “Well, let’s see, Heather’s already had her allotment, so she’s clear from here on out!” Many women have been raped more than once or experienced multiple traumas.

I definitely blamed myself. I shouldn’t have been traveling alone. I shouldn’t have been out late. I was nice to a stranger. I talked to him. I might have smiled or laughed. I didn’t fight back hard enough. The worst part of it, beyond anything I can comprehend and that to this day I still am obsessed with parsing and trying to figure out, is that I comforted my rapist. I understand it on one level. I was trying to soothe him so that he would be calm and wouldn’t kill me. I said to him everything is going to be OK. Everything is going to be all right. But the truth is that I also actually felt guilty and worried about him. I know that this comes from my earlier abuse and earlier childhood trauma. I know I reacted to my rapist the way I did, because I had already been so traumatized as a child and indoctrinated to respond this way to men in general. It just continues to traumatize me when I think about it now, six years later. It’s terrifying because it’s so scandalous and used to make me afraid of what other victims would think of me or say to me. I mean maybe they would be angry at me and say, well I never did that. It’s incredibly isolating. But that’s the thing–it always is. Every single rape is like this. I’ve heard this from other victims and survivors. And so often victims don’t act the way other people expect they should act in the aftermath or the way victims themselves imagine that they would have during the rape. There’s always something that traps the victim. There’s always some reason why it must be that she is guilty somehow of something.

Muhammad Ali died today. A few months ago, my friend Chris, a great artist who also writes and boxes, recently reminded me about Ali’s poetry and his Vietnam war refusal. Then I learned more about his engagement in other revolutionary movements and his fierceness in speaking out about injustice. His love of poetry, though, is so wonderful. Here he is with Marianne Moore.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about poetry and witness and the body. Poetry has been a huge part of my reclamation of my self and of my body after violence. Writing poetry is like wrestling with the angel, a physical act. I feel poetry in my body the way I feel intense emotions– panic, rage, terror, desire, and love and I write out of those places.  But when I am triggered, I often shut down and it’s in those times that I think of boxers as guides for me in my fight against these demons that swell up and sometimes take over. When I’m triggered I also want to hurt myself. A lot of trauma survivors deal with this compulsion. It manifests in a lot of ways, making myself too vulnerable, too open sometimes. Maybe I’m even doing it now, It’s hard to tell. Sometimes it’s worse than just being open. Sometimes it’s actually harmful or dangerous. But look, here we are in this awful place of the victim as pathological, the victim as damaged. I think of Ali, almost completely swallowed by disease, and yet still he spoke through it in his tremulous voice, “I am the greatest.” I need to keep fighting to summon something of that spirit up.



The worst part of surviving rape and other kinds of trauma, for me, is the aftermath. I could tell some people some things–but not the full story. I could maybe talk about my earlier trauma–but not the more recent rape. I was used to violence. I can get hit. I can take chin, as they used to say in boxing. I can be knocked down and get back up. But I desperately need friends to walk beside me and know the truth. And I need to be able to be fully myself, admitting my pain, but not thought of as damaged by any of it. I guess that’s what being a survivor is all about.

Even though I was triggered today, It felt so important to read the letter and to help pass it along.  She talks about being  “closed off, angry, self deprecating, tired, irritable, empty” and yes, for me I chose to hide for five years and not write poems or travel or be who I once was. I became more religious again as a way of feeling safe. I’ve also been hyper sexual as a way of replaying the narrative and reclaiming power, a common and misunderstood reaction to trauma that just compounds many victims’ stigmatization. I am now at a point where I feel strong–most of the time. I do feel an incredible attachment to people who feel safe, and I sometimes feel ashamed for being “needy” but I’m grateful for so many  people who have stepped in to stick with me for the long haul. The way that I am able to go back out into the world is through collaboration with other people who walk with me. That is a really amazing gift that I am most grateful for.

And thank you to the survivor from Stanford for such a beautiful letter. She writes this,

“And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you. As the author Anne Lamott once wrote, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you. Thank you.”