Take Back The Night Speech

So I wanted to start out with kind of a funny story. March 15th, 2017. It’s a Wednesday afternoon and I’m with the children I nanny part time in Manhattan, on a bus from school to their apartment. One of them asks me “hey, Marissa, guess what??” and I say “what?” “chicken butt!” she yells and all the elementary school children giggle and I’m like damn yo how did I fall for that one again? It’s sunny and I feel happy; I’m texting a girl making plans for a date that weekend. It’s been a hard couple of years, but today — I am alive.

I get a couple of phone calls from a blocked number and on the third try, I decide to answer. They ask “hello, is this Marissa Johnson?” and I’m all smiley like “yesss it is!” “Miss Johnson, this is the FBI.”

And I’m like, yeah, whatever, bout to hang up on your scammin ass. And then she starts spouting off some identifying information and my heart stops. I am overcome with this enormous, irrational feeling of guilt and racing anxiety. In one second I convince myself that I must have committed some serious crimes that I’ve forgotten about and it’s all catching up to me and everything I love is going to slip through my hands. She starts talking and I am just like OH FUCK, I have seen Scandal, I have seen Quantico, I am totally screwed.

“Marissa, The Spanish National Police have contacted us through the help of the US Embassy. They’d like to know if you’d be willing to come in to our office to do a photo line up of suspects in your sexual assault case in Madrid.” So I agree to do it and she says “I’ll just text you our address and confirm the date and time.” And I’m just like WTF the FBI texts? I text her back to confirm and she sends me a smiley emoji and I am just so baffled, my boo the FBI is texting me fucking smiley emojis.

And then I feel tears well up and I look over at the kids and it’s time to get off the bus and go play. I force a smile and fake joy through the rest of my shift. This is nothing new.

A week later, I go to the FBI, I do the photo line up, all the photos are dark and blurry, clearly taken off a cell phone, but one of them looks like it could be him, I initial the photo. I ask the two FBI agents what happens next. And they don’t even know, didn’t do their due diligence to ask Spain about the possibilities of what will happen. They have no answers for me whatsoever. Nothing. I explain to them how jarring it is to try to move on with my life and get a phone call a year later with no warning and to still have virtually no answers. But then again, this is what happens when a political system values bureaucracy and optics over human dignity. They get nervous and stumble on their words telling me I’m brave and thank you for coming, I can see they’re desperately uncomfortable, and so I do what I always do. I smile. I convince them of my admirable strength, I shrug it off, tell them I’m doing well, it’s really okay.

I am out in ten minutes. I go get my blood drawn to check on my reproductive health, I go pick up the kids, I get stared down by a man on the street licking his lips as he watches me walk by, I go home, I brainstorm with my roommate how to confront her boyfriend’s friend about his misogynistic comments the other day, most of my friends forget to ask me about the line up.

And it all just feels so exhaustingly woman.

I’ve gotten very good at concealing my emotions. I have learned that control is, in some instances the only way I will be taken seriously, and in others, how I keep everyone around me happy and comfortable. Maybe if I got paid for all the emotional labor I do for men (and women alike), it would make up for the wage gap.

Maybe most of us won’t get a call from the FBI in our lifetimes, but there is nothing unlikely or special about my story. In fact, it is all too common. When I got asked to come speak to you all today, I got nervous because what happened to me was not as bad as it could have been. It does not fit the very singular, horrific story our culture has about sexual assault. And I have spent a lot of time thinking this makes me undeserving of empathy, barred from identifying as a survivor, stupid for sometimes being afraid and paranoid, and silly that I even have a case still ongoing. 


The DOJ defines sexual assault as:

“any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”


In February, 2016, I was sexually assaulted coming home from work on the metro in Madrid, where I was spending my year, post-grad, teaching English. I’m not going to go into the details of my case that may surprise or disgust you, because I want to talk to you about some of the other, less talked about issues survivors deal with in the aftermath. I am angry at the person who did this to me, but I am even angrier for a lot of other reasons.

I was so angry (and still am) with the way I was treated by the police and all the other systems and institutions that were supposed to help me, who were supposed to know better. How I was treated after was worse than the actual assault. And I know that I’m not alone in that experience. I am angry that for all the friends I felt I’d always been there for and given so much to, many of them did not show up for me. I was angry that the only agency I’ve been given is to look at some photos rather than tackle this messed up system, that not once has anybody asked me what I want, that I still live in a world where I feel I am under the gaze and threat of sexualization and violence on a daily basis.

And this birthed a resentment in me, a resentment towards everyone involved in my case, towards a whole country, towards some of the people close to me, towards the world.

I realized that I have a sort of documentation of my feelings and thoughts, through my personal blog where I post a lot of my writing. And so I wanted to read some excerpts to you, because a lot of what I want to say today is in these posts and they work to tell more of the story than meets the eye:


February 9th, 2016 (a few days after)

Friends make us tea because warmth

is always good.

Bosses calculate their empathy

based on how much our traumas

will cost them.

It is all so costly.

Inconvenient.

There is too much sorry.

Always “I don’t know what to say.”

There’s the before and there’s the after and

sometimes we think they are the same but

then there is the remembering.

And it is all different.

The anger where there wasn’t before.

The heartbeat in our throats.

The clenched fists.

The third eye on the nape of our necks.

How the men all look the same, anyway.

Is it still paranoia if our fear has proven rational over and over?

How could we forget that as long as we have our bodies,

there is always more

to be taken from us.


February 22nd, 2016:

For the first time in my life, I was feeling good about my body. I cared for it more. I loved it more. I opened myself to feeling sexy and young and enjoying myself, to owning all of this, to wearing things I never thought a body like mine could wear, to not giving a shit about what anybody else thought. And then my body was used. And all that stuff started to fall away. But I’m not going to let it anymore. I refuse to shame myself for my body, for sometimes feeling crazy and paranoid and small and anonymous — all the things I’ve been most afraid of being my whole life.

And I hope, as survivors, as non-survivors, as people, we continue to support each other. Until we are all free.

So, here we are.

Learning how to love ourselves not despite our traumas, but wholly, with them.

Learning how to give ourselves after what’s been taken.

Learning how to be sexual and yet not sexualized.

Learning how to be a body that can feel its memories.

Learning how to exist alone and here and together and there.

Learning how to hold our own hands, to take care of ourselves the way we would each other.

Learning how to build back a dignity that isn’t going anywhere.

Learning how to stop apologizing.

Learning how to breathe and breathe and breathe ourselves into a better world.


May 10th, 2016

The truth is, your education doesn’t prepare you for your personal life. Your attitude doesn’t protect you from a fist. Your voice can’t always stop the violence from happening.

I’m not saying this to be depressing or hopeless. I do believe we have more power than we know; we are strong and loud and capable. I walked away thinking about all these small moments that go unaddressed every day. How I will remember this, add it to my growing folder of experiences of misogyny.

It’s been my first year out of the bubble of my women’s centered college, and I have experienced more violence, looks, and comments from men than I ever have before. And I’m not ashamed of saying it — I’m scared. Let’s not think our empowerment means it is shameful to be scared or sad or silent. Imagine all the little and big moments women experience throughout their lives and all the memories they collect. All the looks, comments, insults, catcalls, threats, and abuse we experience, from the street to our beds, reported and unreported, reportable and unreportable, noticed and unnoticed. What does it all add up to and where does it go? Because I am just trying to keep my head above them all, high enough to still see the sun. To still see the good. To still see myself.

And I can’t help but thinking.

Is this what it means to be a woman?

To be hunted and haunted?

To be prey of both men and our memories of them?

I refuse to believe gender violence is an inevitable, unchanging part of society. I do not accept it as a fact of our world. But I am also not naive enough to think it will disappear in my lifetime, to simply relish in “progress,” to trust a damn thing without one eye open. We are in some middle place, we are out on a bridge somewhere with fog too thick to see what lies ahead. I do not know where that is or how long the journey may be. I just know I’m going to keep walking. 


Today, April 6th, 2017

This may not be the most beautiful or empowering thing I can say. I don’t think empowerment is something to be given, it exists within us. And we already know the truth. We can speak a better reality into existence, but first we must have the audacity to imagine it. So I just want to share three key things that I’ve learned:

      • 1 – We need to figure out what we need and want (and not knowing just yet is okay)
        • We often know how to support others and even prescribe self care to the people we care about and yet we don’t allow ourselves the same care. Think about what you want and need. You likely will not be asked, but if you want to fight for yourself, you need to know what you’re fighting for. We’ve all been taught the phrase “treat others the way you’d like to be treated” how about we also start teaching “treat yourself the way you’d treat others.”
      • 2 – We must amplify the voices of those at the center of this issue and actively create spaces that allow for people to speak up and out.
        • Take a moment and think about the last time you were truly moved by something, that something caught your attention, that you felt you deeply cared about something. How many of you thought of a story? Personal narrative straight from the mouths of those most directly impacted by an issue is deeply effective. Storytelling is one of our most powerful social justice tools, and we should center it as such.
      • 3 – We better learn how to listen and fight alongside each other for our collective justice (and a justice that is not one single pathway).
        • human dignity should be the nexus from which we design and execute all of our prevention and response work — for everyone involved
        • according to Vera Institute of Justice’s latest report, policy and practice should be: survivor-centered, accountability-based (both on the perp and our society), safety-driven, and racially equitable and should be community led approaches. And I could not agree more.

The common theme among all of this is empathy. So what can a culture of empathy do?

      • Empathy can make men care about women’s issues not because a woman is their daughter, their sister, their mother, their wife, but the way one should care about the oppression of other whole human beings. Shocker: Women’s existence is not only relational to men.
      • Empathy can change our toxic ideas of American masculinity, and also allow men and others to come forward about their own experiences with sexual abuse and violence.
      • Empathy can replace old and ineffective systems.
      • Empathy can initiate new policies and programs by, for, and about survivors.
      • Empathy can develop restorative justice programs, anger management and violence prevention programs for people of all genders.
      • Empathy can make us all accountable to being better listeners, supporters, advocates, and change-makers, to name a few.

I could go on. I do not have all the answers. I am still out on that bridge somewhere, in between a disturbing reality and a daring future of magnificence and justice, but I am literally and metaphorically marching on, persisting on, anyway, with a whole lot of other amazing human beings.

To anyone and everyone who may be experiencing domestic or sexual abuse, whether it be in the past, the present, or the looming fear of it in the future, I just want to say — I see you. I hear you. And I am with you.

I am not what happened to me. I am not a tragedy; I am not America’s blind eye turned. Maybe some of the people in my life and the system and the president don’t care about me as much as I’d like them to but I care about myself. I will fight for myself. I love myself. And that is the most revolutionary thing I have ever done.

This is just a part of my story, my future will surely be a mosaic of joy, loss, successes, mistakes; just like all of us but always, always, the light will pour through the cracks and the colors alike and narrate our lives in vibrant survival. When shame and pain transform into power, we become the authors of our own lives.

I believe stories can change the world because they start by changing hearts and minds. And frankly, as with all oppressions, it is on all of us to listen, to create a culture of empathy. One voice can make a difference, yes, but a whole nation of listeners is unstoppable.

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After Reyna Biddy

the months keep passing and I am afraid you have forgotten me altogether.

there’s a little death in that, isn’t there?

I want to live somewhere, still, in your head, in your heart

I hope you have not mistaken my anger for no longer needing you

my silence for lack of grief

I swallow my agony whole and

fix my face and

hold my own hand

I like to think I am starting to forget you, ‘cause

I only miss you

when I breathe


I’ve practiced how to hold my tongue long enough, I’m afraid I forgot to say goodbye


& I hate you for loving me better than anyone ever has

for knowing me

seeing me

and then shutting the door in my face

you know

nobody’s ever loved me constant

and I am so tired

of sitting on the other side of the door

wondering if you’re leaned up against it, crying, too

or oceans away by now

and even then

busying yourself to forget then suddenly startled

when you eye the stars or cocoon in the empty

in you we both know you hide

behind closed doors or right out

in the open, waiting

for someone to see you the way

you know I always have

do you hate me, too, then?

for knowing you

seeing you


I swallow my hurt and you swallow the truth, each of us

disappearing whole worlds in the pits of our stomachs, the history of us

so hard to digest, my back

holding up this door between us, hoping

you’ll come knocking, that

we will sit nestled on a bench somewhere, side by side

speaking a universe back into existence

at what point does this become pathetic?


you have made me

a begging woman.


the months keep passing and I am afraid

I still love you

The Minimalist Lifestyle, Self-Care, and Learning to Invest in Myself: A Personal Essay

Over the summer, I got rid of about 85% of my belongings. I did this with the intention of living a more minimalist lifestyle, freeing myself of all the things I do not use, want, need, or could stand to live without. This was not for the sake of bending toward the trend of being a ‘minimalist,’ rather it was more about a letting go and a honing in on many different levels. Now, everything I own is what is in my small, Brooklyn apartment bedroom. That is all. And it feels so good. Especially as someone who has moved more times than I can count, whose sense of home has been so transitory and temporary for so long, all my stuff gave me so much anxiety; I would go to bed stressed and mentally planning how I would move it all months in advance of every upcoming move — which was basically all the time. So doing this felt so freeing and clarifying. But the journey did not end there. In fact, it was just the beginning.

What I love about minimalism, or whatever you want to call it, is the focus on self-care, authenticity, passion, purpose, and fulfillment as a lifestyle. On decluttering your life, rather than just decluttering your house. Because to be real, life does not get in the way of things. Things get in the way of life. And I don’t just mean physical objects or possessions when I say ‘things,’ I also mean relationships, self-talk, baggage, socialization, you name it. All restrict our ability to live full, authentic lives. Figuring out how to do this is really hard. It takes an endless amount of checking yourself, of unlearning, questioning and challenging your own mind. But it is so deeply necessary.

Getting rid of most of my shit was the first step and now I’m focusing on living better and more intentionally. So, how did I get here? Well, to be blunt, I’ve been really unhappy. I’ve been tense and anxious and stressed. I have been and am utterly alone in so many ways. I feel deeply lonely; I’ve been sad and angry and I’ve been sad and angry about the fact that I’ve been sad and angry. I’ve been tired. I’ve been feeling frustrated and empty in a lot of my remaining relationships with people. I’ve been at my wits-end about what to do about all this because I usually think I’m really hard working and very giving in all these aspects of my life. A few weeks ago, I was so restless and at a bottom with these feelings that I decided I really needed to be proactive, strategic, and honest about where to go from there.

So I went to my favorite cafe in Bushwick, down the street from my apartment and wrote “things that make me happy” at the top of a page in my composition notebook. I almost gagged at myself for this because it seemed so flowery, and for someone who has struggled, I’d like to think of myself as a bit more hardcore than this. Anyway, I tried not to wince at how hokey this activity was and to just take a breath and think about what brings me joy. I wanted to call attention to these things, to feel grounded, and to take action on it by seeking out opportunities for those things or making the time to do them more. To prescribe self-care for my own self, rather than reserving it as this thing I tell other people to do. I literally wrote sessions of self care into my Google calendar to hold myself accountable, like every Wednesday I take a bubble bath and moisturize because, God, have you ever taken a bubble bath? HOLY SHIT. The act of being submerged in water, enveloped in soothing smells and heat, forcing stillness deep into your core — damn. Heaven is a fucking bathtub. Other daily calendar events include a ten minute guided meditation and reading poetry for at least ten minutes a day. At first these sounded silly, but being real with myself that I truly do have 20 minutes a day for self-care really helped me hold myself accountable to actually doing them. I even bought an adult coloring book that is currently coming to life with various hues.

And what ended up on that list of what makes me happy? Poetry, art, music, food, being outside and in nature, traveling, social justice events, political talks, podcasts, deep conversations, learning, cultural immersion, dancing, leading, mentoring. All of these things are not things. They’re activities. They’re experiences.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not entirely un-materialistic. I love finding clothes or accessories in a way that may come off as vain, but it’s more about how they make me feel. So, even then, it’s not just about owning whatever that article of clothing may be for status or show, but rather how it makes me feel, the joy it brings me, the way it reminds me to carry myself. And I think that’s great.

And so, what if I refocus my time, energy, and finances on experiences, on what showed up on that list?

And so, what if I refocus my time, energy, and finances on experiences, on what showed up on that list? I thought I was previously really good at this and super aware, that I’d had my priorities in the right places. I mean, hadn’t I just spent a year abroad, basically living out of a suitcase, pretty much alone just ‘doing me,’ not doing any of the things I’d just worked four years to get a degree in? I suppose. But, there is more work to be done, and I wasn’t even happy then, either. I need to work more on pushing past doing things for measurable success and goals and getting ahead in school or at work. I need to stop confusing things that simply excite me with things that are my true passions. I used to focus so much energy on throwing myself into every opportunity I could, setting my breaking point to further and further end points, amazed at how much I could get done, no matter the cost to my physical and emotional health. A lot of this came out of trauma and struggle — needing to be the best, to control whatever I could, to secure my future, to sacrifice so that I did everything I could to be successful and take care of myself on my own. I understand why I did that and why, still, I instinctually lean towards it. But now I am trying to live from a different center and to resist the anxiety that pulls me back to that place. I need to find a balance that honors the intellectual with the physical with the emotional. I need to see me as a whole and living being.

I need to recognize all the ways I have neglected myself physically and emotionally. To apologize to my body, my mind, my heart, for all of it. For at times both the glutton and the starvation, the idleness when my legs beg to move, the doubts and insecurities, the myriad ways shame and fear control me. My silences and the disservices I do myself simply to save face or keep other people happy and comfortable.I want to be more tender towards and liable for, me. How many parts of myself have I let die simply by not listening to what I needed? By failing to honor the importance of every part of me?

When I truly listen to myself and stop ignoring or pushing down what I want and need, I recognize the places where I’ve faltered and where I can do better. For me, so much of this is focused on the body and allowing myself certain experiences.

I want to be more tender towards and liable for, me. How many parts of myself have I let die simply by not listening to what I needed? By failing to honor the importance of every part of me?

For example, the other day I “splurged” and got a Groupon for a 60-minute deep tissue massage. The amount of time I debated about buying this for myself was ridiculous. And after I did, I literally was like, “oh, you know what, I should give this to someone else, that would be so nice.” BISH, WHAT? You know what would be nice? Giving it to ME like I intended. So, anyway, I went and got this massage and Dear. Lord. Almighty. If my face wasn’t pressed up in the face pillow thingy, I would’ve been making some serious facial expressions. The masseuse went IN on my body. She ground up like a decade of stress and knots in my shoulders and back. It sounded like someone was stomping around on some crunchy ass snow. There was oil, warm towels, and hot stones; chiropractic cracks, twists, and strong kneading and pulling and stretching of my muscles, from my arms to my legs to my head to my back. And her hands were all up on my BUTT! I mean, she really went for it. And I was naked, and at first tensing because I was embarrassed and self-conscious and had never been touched or cared for like this, but then I just leaned into the discomfort and let it happen. And it was fucking amazing. Earth-shattering.

It made sense, though. I have for so long ignored my body and my body’s experience of this earth. For so long, I have ignored myself. Thinking back on a lot of the things I’ve been missing and needing, like nature and physical movement and care, they are also all reflective of some of my best memories. In my past year(s) of traveling, it was never the cities that filled me with something indescribable or marked my memory, it was the Earth and the cultures that grew from it, and the way my body existed and felt in it. It was lying on the beaches of Croatian islands, traversing the valleys and mountains of Morocco, the strangers I dined with in Rome, paragliding off the cliffs of Gran Canaria, the generosity of people in Greece. These were so much of the body and of the heart. These simple things, like relaxing on the beach, felt glamorous and self-indulgent, just like the massage did, at first, yet they are so clearly what I desire and yearn for.

I am still alone, and I am still sad. But I’m trying to make myself the best me I can be regardless of who is or who is not around, and I am doing what I can to self-cultivate joy, but more importantly, fulfillment.

And the thing is, I would buy or do these things for other people in a heartbeat, but before I never would for myself. Why? Well, honestly, partly because I feel undeserving. That I need to keep my head down and will deeply guilt myself for any way I treat myself or invest in me, to see this as irresponsible, selfish, and frivolous. And is this not just so typical for a woman? I’m pushing back against these notions. I’m gonna buy myself a god damn massage every now and then. I recently enrolled in a five-week poetry workshop and it will not be the last time I do so. I want to buy a new trumpet and play in a jazz band again after all these years. I will continue to juice and take the time and care to make healthy and wholesome food. Catch me in the bath every Wednesday. Or deep in the woods somewhere, on the sands of another country’s ocean’s edge, writing in a cafe, asking panelists questions in some lecture hall, eyeing the art on gallery walls, hiking whatever literal or metaphorical mountain that presents itself. I will bear witness to the world, and I will bear witness to myself. I am still alone, and I am still sad. But I’m trying to make myself the best me I can be regardless of who is or who is not around, and I am doing what I can to self-cultivate joy, but more importantly, fulfillment.

I will allow myself to come alive in every way I crave to. After all, it is so lucky that I am here, now, alive; alive to see, hear, know; alive to ache, want, struggle; alive to enjoy, inspire, and love. In every possible way.

 

 

my mouth

when I was a child

my parents marveled at my obedience

looked at other people’s kids and

gave thanks for how good I knew how to be

my mother told me

I was good without coercion, easy

like it was innate

but 

it was my mouth, she said

my mouth would get me into trouble

that I never knew when to shut it

always had to get in the last word

push

and push

that I made the mistake of thinking

being right

meant 

being righteous

made the mistake of thinking

that justice

meant they couldn’t come for me

always did

salt truth in the wounds of the wrong people

I wound

I wound and call it being real

I wound and call it honey drizzle

taste nothing but ash and blood

we’re all black and blue

we’re all black and blue, anyway

I harness smiles on my face with tired hands

until my jaw is a ready casket disguised as sugar

I like the way life feels in my mouth

pulsing

needing

wanting

I am afraid that soon

they will sanction my wanting, too

my lips, part wide

more divine than legs, cavern

darker secrets at their center, bleed

regularly just the same

I am wounded

I am wounded and it is called collateral

I am wounded and it is called deserved

there are so many names for hurting

for hurt

I see pain and it turns to water in my mouth like

sustenance for the struggle, my teeth 

bite back all the dark in me 

I am still good

but I got dark in me

my teeth

28 comets blazing

we’re all burning

we’re all burning, anyway

I wound

I am wounded

the biggest wound of us all is the world

so I hold it in my mouth

settling in

Processed with VSCO with s3 preset

22 cities later and sometimes I feel like it didn’t even happen. Like it’s a dream I can no longer remember the details of but know I once had it. My feet stand in one place now. Sometimes I don’t recognize myself. Sometimes I don’t recognize anyone around me. Sometimes I still feel like I’m just taking it all in, watching, listening, and becoming a stranger time and time again like I did in all these places. It can be a beautiful thing to be nameless. To slip in and out of focus. To be seen and unseen. To see pain. To see love. To see it all glorious but without glory. I don’t know how to hang that all up like photographs but I will adorn it the same.

The Days After the Women’s March

My birth was a revolutionary act, and I try to spend every day of my life living up to that. I believe I was given two shoulders to carry both of my mothers forward with me, one on each side of my head, bearing down on the future, looking straight on, forever hoping, forever wanting, needing, fighting, always fighting. I see pain and it turns to water in my mouth like sustenance for the struggle. When my heart gets too heavy, ocean-swollen with grief, I swing it over my shoulder, carry it on my back like my spine was made for this. My spine was made for this. My march started in the womb, was learned in every step my mother took, this is to say that this marching has always been a practice of existence and our right of it. Our worthiness of it. It is a stance. An offering. A hand reaching forward. A hand reaching back, for others. A firmness. And a quiet. And a roaring. Sometimes it feels prophecy-made. Sometimes it feels like nothing. But it is all heart. It is always all heart.

Dealing with past trauma in the era of Trump

This is gonna be a 100% rant, but I need to get this confusion and my swirling thoughts out somewhere.

Today the US Embassy in Madrid contacted me because apparently the Spanish Police have been trying to get in touch with me. They want me to do a photo line-up of suspects they believe may have been the one who assaulted me last February. It’s almost a year to the date, and I am so surprised. I really thought that was long gone and done, that they didn’t give a single shit about it. I haven’t heard anything from them since last year, the first time they asked me to come in and do a photo line-up where it was clear they hadn’t listened to one thing I said in my description. I had no hope for this case whatsoever because of many reasons.

From the beginning, I was appalled by the way I was treated by the police and agencies there. It was very clear to me, instantly, that I was on my own in this. It could be seen in the way I was surrounded by ten male officers in the backroom of the metro, trying to give my statement in Spanish without being given a translator. Meanwhile they all laughed and talked, having their own private conversations while I stumbled to find the words, being handed a cell phone to talk to the metro agent’s girlfriend because she spoke some English, just to make sure I really meant sexual assault, that that one phrase wasn’t lost in translation because it was just so damn unbelievable to them. How they told me over and over “no pasa nada,” no worries, it doesn’t matter, you’re not in danger, there’s no need to be upset. That I had to compose myself into unfeeling apathy in order to be taken seriously or heard at all just moments after this happened, when I was completely alone in this room in a foreign country at 22 years old trying to keep my shit together. And I kept it the hell together, but that didn’t matter much.

The whole time, I was so angry. Angry at the perp, angry at the police, angry at Spain as a whole. And I kept thinking to myself, “this would never go down like this in the U.S., I know we have an even bigger issue of sexual assault but I would have resources, they would care, they would have a sense of empathy and compassion, there are basic things that they would just know to do differently!!”

I felt so deeply wronged.

To be completely honest, my first reaction in hearing from the Embassy was excitement. I was excited, thinking this messy, unfinished, open box I’ve tried to store away in my head somewhere could be neatly closed for good. Immediately after that, I thought, “wait, but would that mean he goes to jail?” Because that’s not what I imagined in this moment of fleeting happiness where I got my hopes up. And almost as instinct, I thought, “no, that’s not right and that’s not what I want.” I began to question myself — why do I feel this way? I tried to think back to when this was fresh last February, when I toiled with it in my head walking the streets and enduring long subway rides in the heart of Madrid. I was angry and afraid and hurt, but I don’t think I ever once wanted this person to sit in a jail cell. I’m not sure what I wanted.

This brought up a lot that I’ve been grappling with lately. How do I navigate being a survivor as someone who believes strongly in prison abolition? And does that or should that look the same in Spain, a different country, history, and system?

So, now I’m asking the most complicated questions I think we all need to think deeply about — What even is justice?

Compassion is easy when we think about people we like, people we can see ourselves in, who are aligned in some way, even remotely, with our values, preferences, aesthetics, etc. but what does compassion look like for people we despise? Who we can’t find these things in?

Can we collectively imagine a justice that is removed from punishment? In which justice is not a term applied when we really just mean vengeance?

So, what did I want back then? I wanted him to know what he did was wrong and that he was being held accountable, that this community saw him for what he was, that he was somehow outed for his actions. I wanted him to learn to be better and do better, I wanted him to get treatment. And I wanted to feel safe and supported.

But most of all, in the days and weeks following what happened, I wasn’t even angry anymore at him. I was so angry with the way I was treated by the police and all the other systems and institutions that were supposed to help me, who were supposed to know better. How I was treated after was worse than the actual assault. And I know that I’m not alone in that experience.

And now, well, here we are in America, and all those resources I thought about in those weeks of furiousness are being cut, and the person in the highest office in the land brags about sexually assaulting women. So honestly, I don’t know how to feel. I have felt more in danger and under threat and afraid (for very real reasons) in the time since coming home, right here, than I ever did abroad, even taking all this bullshit case stuff into account. I just realized that and, wow, just wow.

I’ve been angry, still, in all the same ways. I’ve been so maddened by how women and their bodies have been talked about, surveilled, ranked, judged, pushed down, thrown out. How survivors and the way they feel about this election has barely been talked about, taken seriously, or supported beyond some signs at a march or a side note on a newscast. How over and over, they have not been centered and central. I know that they have been some, but I don’t think it’s enough.

In all honesty, closing this case means nothing to me. And shouldn’t it? Shouldn’t it?!?

But I feel nothing. Because there is no way I will feel safer, happier, empowered, or supported when we are here, in this place, in this real, immediately threatening country I call home. Here, I feel everything.

Yesterday, I signed up for a self defense and mixed martial arts class so I can feel safer protecting myself and standing up for other people. Today, I received this news about my case from thousands of miles away while I read about all the ways Trump is cutting funding and resources to organizations and initiatives working to end violence against women and help survivors. And I keep seeing that damn transcription of his comments about grabbing women by the pussy, bragging about sexually assaulting women everywhere I turn. Tomorrow, who the hell knows. Through it all, I am so, so angry. Maybe that sounds too simple. But I am just so angry.   

Holy

When I fell in love with you,

I finally knew why people believed in God

but it wasn’t Him who made the world sound like gospel

or the sun glow through tree lines or glitter off icy sidewalks

or made the rain smell like coffee in the morning

or every song and poem speak to me

or sex feel like becoming

it was all you.

It has always been you.


And maybe I am not your woman but I am always your woman.

No matter the one you sleep beside now.

I am still your woman.

And I stand in front of you,

ready to kneel to us,

the way one does before an altar,

the way one does when they are offering themselves

to whatever is holy to them.


Somebody asked me what I will take with me

when I die.

I don’t think life has ever been about the taking

death is not a matter of us leaving

it’s a celebration of all that we leave

what we have given and given and given


and if I have given you joy,

if I have grown smiles across your brilliant face

like white daisies splashed easy on river banks


if I have given you love

naked and holy and whole

all learned together and self-taught

and stubborn for survival


if I have given you grace

if you have found gratitude in your falling

and power in your rising

if you have been willing to let the world

bear witness to all of you


if I have given you courage

to face yourself, to face the ones who want to condemn everything and everyone you love

calling yourself queen

calling yourself worthy


if I have given you comfort

if you have made bed of my chest

and not run from fear but embraced it

the way my arms did you


if I have given you belonging

if I have given you everything

you have given me

that will be enough.


All this is to say that

loving you has been my own religion

your eyes, northern lights

your touch, the sanctuary of grand cathedrals


and I miss you, like a child

who has seen death in far too many

unjust ways

to believe in anything beyond his pain

and the knowledge that it is coming


but I believe.

I believe.

Sometimes this life feels like a succession of funerals

like the more we live, the more we are losing and have lost

the more that has been taken

but loving you

loving you

is like leaving everything I possibly could behind


to be nothing but soul.

standing alone in irving plaza

I have not spoken of you in months. The other day I was trying harder than usual not to think about you, and failing. I was supposed to go to a concert that night, a band I discovered two years ago when they opened for the woman who played the song you said was ours. We were both in the concert hall that night, but not together. Still freshly broken. Their music played on repeat for months as I watched you fall for another girl in the city we shared, then. I always skip their songs when they come up from the pain of it, how their beats and melodies could instantly bring me back to those first weeks of losing you more and more. But I bought the ticket. And I have not spoken of you in months. Until that morning when an old friend asked and I couldn’t help but admit to our latest end in contact two months ago. That same day, in the middle of the concert, you messaged me and I felt half my torso sink right there beneath the club lights and familiar inflections of the singer’s voice. My friend replied to my frantic text, said “you’re speaking shit into existence.” Somehow, we are still hardwired for our connection. Call it telepathy, call it coincidence, call it nothing at all.

I stood motionless and entranced as he sang:

“I’m gonna tell you, tell

I’m gonna tell you how I feel

I’m gonna love you, love

I’m gonna love you till you’re here

Try to leave my heart alone

You’re the one for me

(Did you know?)

You’re the one for me

(Can you show it?)

Show me where the love is gone”

I don’t know what to say but everything he’s been belting out our last two times around the sun.

Do you speak of me? Are you still running the way I was from those lyrics? Did your heart race when you pressed send? Did you close your eyes in loss at my reply or did they roll in frustration? Did you tell yourself you hate me either way? Do you still hate me either way?