When I was about five years old, an older cousin molested me.
But don’t worry. This is not a story with a sad ending.
Like many people, I like to think. I like to think about life, what the hell the point is, and what makes humans peculiar in the context of the tree of life’s immense network of branches. Although I am certainly not of the speciesist mindset that purports any sort of superiority of humankind over other life forms, it feels at least subjectively obvious that there is just something different about us.
Some of the obvious candidates for that elusive, uniquely human quality are as follows:
- Humans are capable of using the tools of logic in order to understand the reasons behind why things happen.
- Comprehending cause and effect entails as well that we have a specific concept of time—we understand that what has happened in the past carries consequences into the current moment; that what is happening in the present will become the past for some future version of ourselves; and that the progression of time moves (at least according to our experience) only in one direction.
- We can also communicate with each other about these events in time and their logical implications; consequently, our linguistic ability is another a prime contender for the top spot in what makes our species special.
- Language is also a cultural artefact—a meme, meaning that it is something that replicates within a population by non-genetic means. Culture in general, itself essentially a vast complex of memes, is another obvious propensity that tends to express itself exceptionally strongly in humans.
- Art, in particular, is a cultural trend that often appears to our minds to be a uniquely human capacity.
Nevertheless, while all of these qualities do manifest themselves with a high degree of what we might call “sophistication” in the human race, it is something of a stretch to say that they are unique to us. If anything, the capacity for any creature to reason, understand time, communicate, participate in a culture, or to create art occur, upon closer inspection, on a spectrum. Yet the understandable (if under-examined) assumption that humanity is so especially special leads quite easily to the less forgivable assumption that these talents are ours and ours alone.
Subjectivity is a hell of a drug. The undeniable fact that each of us, in each moment, experiences existence from a very particular point of view is precisely what makes each life so precious. But this selfsame subjectivity has often served as both a prison and a platform from which to wreak rather heinous havoc. This is because the qualitative experience of living through our own particular point of view often feels so much more real than anything else possibly could be. Yet there is an extra layer, an additional trick, that can intensify subjectivity’s egoic, ignorant, and domineering qualities. It is why René Descartes found it so easy to say that human beings were the only creatures who possessed a soul, and that animals were simply “beast machines.” It is why most of our ancestors had such a difficult time accepting the idea that the heavens don’t actually revolve around the earth. It is why tribal leaders, politicians, and warlords throughout history have been able to convince their followers to destroy and/or enslave the barbaric enemy.
The trick is this: as history has shown time and again, the only thing capable of overcoming the entrancing hold of the first person singular is the even more entrancing hold of the first person plural. Yet this trick works only within some rather narrow limits. Unless I am a psychopath, I am certainly capable of recognising that my reality is not actually the ultimate reality; nonetheless, expanding what counts as real beyond my immediate and familiar tribe—beyond those who are most likely to have largely similar subjective experiences to my own—is just not something that comes naturally.
Of course, we are not the only species subject to the phenomenon of groupthink either; however, mother nature has bequeathed us with a unique way of consciously calibrating the balance of power between the individual and the tribe. Having considered the question of what it means to be human from many angles and over the course of many years, the best answer I can currently provide is that the synthesis of all of these qualities—reason, time, language, culture, and art—gives us what I would consider humanity’s true superpower: storytelling.
As far as I can tell, we sapiens are the only creatures who are capable of telling stories. In fact, storytelling is so thoroughly human that it can be easy to overlook how interwoven it is into our experience of life. And although it does very much appear to encompass all of the other attributes I have mentioned, it seems to be, in and of itself, something that we have an intrinsic thirst for.
Our desire to understand our purpose on this planet, to glean some form of meaning in our very being, is rooted in our compulsion to tell and hear stories. It is through stories that we come to understand ourselves, both at the level of society and the individual. A culture’s story is often its most treasured possession. Most of the world’s religions sprang from our basic desire to understand how our own stories began. The kernels around which most religions grow are often the origin stories, and I would argue that these myths themselves—and not the gods they speak of—are often what we are actually worshiping. Joseph Campbell was quite fond of pointing out the cross-cultural commonality of motifs and archetypes such as angry gods who have destroyed their creations in order to start all over again from scratch; virgin births; men and women who have died and been resurrected. The personalities within and the scenery behind these tales have been swapped out countless times, but the stories themselves remain.
Stories can bring life to life. This is why we all so eagerly consume theatre, films, television series, novels, and journalism. As Aristotle pointed out two millennia ago, engaging in a well-told story can grant us the experience of catharsis, a kind of spiritual or intellectual clarification. Something in us seems to know this deeply.
Yet our compulsion for telling stories, like any other compulsion, can often turn against us. Sure, the stories we hear can be transporting, and uplifting, and inspiring; however, they can also do just the opposite. They can make us feel stuck. And downtrodden. And hopeless. This is what sometimes happens with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
As do all animals, we have a negativity bias built into our genes. Natural selection designed us to pay more attention to the bad than to the good. This is how every single one of our ancestors, all the way down the 3.5 billion-yearlong chain of life, survived long enough to allow us to be alive right now. However, in combination with our compulsion for storytelling, this negativity bias makes us a race of regretters. And resenters. And worriers. Our capacity for organising the things that happen to us into stories—and, importantly, our immense tendency to basically have religious faith in these stories—can compel us to believe that our lives are filled with more bad than good. And our fallacious tendency to apply inductive reasoning can easily lead us to interpret the bullshit we have heretofore experienced in our lives, and the bullshit we are experiencing today, as a prologue to the avalanche of bullshit yet-to-come.
Thus, while we share an inbuilt negativity bias with all animals as a way of navigating the external world, we are the only creatures who habitually create our own negativity from the inside. This is the curse of being storytellers.
Yet does this mean we are all doomed? Not at all.
One of the great tragedies in life is the fact that most people, at some point or another, stop experiencing the vivacious sense of fulfilment that comes with owning their own stories, in their own bodies. There are a number of catalysts for this lamentable loss—many of which are beyond the individual’s control. On a personal level, instances of trauma—for example, the violent loss of a loved one, parental neglect, physical or sexual abuse—are more common than most of us have cared to admit. Longer lasting and more endemic forms of trauma have come in the form of sexism, homophobia, racism, and economic oppression. Aside from the obvious psychophysical pain these factors have caused throughout the entire history of humanity, they have also caused individuals to abdicate their rightful places at the centres of their own stories. In fact, many of these factors exist—and are either actively advanced or passively permitted by "the powers that be"—precisely in order to achieve such an outcome.
Sure, much of life is rather random. Things happen to us all the time—things over which we simply have no control whatsoever. This is a fact that we would all do well to accept. I have recently come to recognise the danger and the insanity inherent in the superstitious (yet all-too-common) idea that we have any kind of control over or responsibility for any force outside of ourselves. Yet the hierarchical nature of our society generally encourages us to capitulate our own inner lives and our own bodies—the very aspects of reality about which we can and should feel a sense of both responsibility and delight—to some individual, entity, or group whose story has been preordained as inherently more important. If I am correct in my supposition that our capacity to engage in storytelling is the most human of human characteristics, it follows that the loss of that capacity about our own psyches and somas will have the inevitable effect of robbing us of the very ability to fully experience what it is to be human.
One of the defining phenomena of the last year has been the wave of people who have come forward with disturbing tales of having survived demeaning and debasing experiences at the hands of sexual predators. I was not only moved by the mettle of these stories and their tellers, but I was also deeply triggered. I felt compelled, on the one hand, to add my voice to the courageous chorus. On the other hand, I was simply not feeling altogether courageous. Much the motivation for this fear stemmed from an internal insistence that the addition of my voice into the mix would be neither welcome nor warranted.
While it seemed like I had a lot to relate to, I also felt as though my own story had an extra burden—a piece that made me feel both more ashamed and more afraid to speak my truth. While I recognised and shared the pain of the many individuals who had suffered the long-term, damaging consequences of having been preyed upon by then-powerful men, what made the burden on my psyche particularly shameful for me was that my abuser was a family member. He was the nephew my mother had entrusted to share his bed with me. The older cousin to whom I’d looked up. Someone with whom I share around 12.5 percent of my DNA.
And he used my little five-year-old body for his own pleasure.
My mother was the youngest of fourteen children; that is, her mother and father had fourteen children together. Her father went on to remarry, having an additional three children thereafter. The existence of so many aunts and uncles has naturally led to a fair number of cousins as well. Like most children, I was raised to believe that family members were people I had every reason to trust. And like most people, I have been driven by the notion that my story is so deeply interwoven with that of my tribe, that it was simply not in my own best interests to speak ill of a family member. Even if I felt as though something was not right about what happened. This feeling has followed me for the vast majority of the last 30 years—the feeling that, in spite of the fact that my life has absolutely nothing to do with most of the characters to whom I am biologically related, I owe it to my massive extended family to keep my mouth shut. What has followed me, in other words, is the feeling that my story does not actually belong to me. (Remember: the only thing capable of overcoming the strength of the first person singular is the strength of the first person plural.)
However, I have come to the realisation that I did not choose those people. I have come to the realisation that I owe them absolutely nothing. I have come to recognise the impossibility of carrying this shame any longer. This shame that has been a burden of immeasurable proportion on my emotional life, my mental health, and my relationship with my body. This shame that has crippled my ability to trust—and to truly enjoy intimacy with—other human beings. However, as I mentioned at the start, my story is not going to be one with a sad ending.
Yes, perhaps the abuse I received is a contributing factor to the sense of disconnection I felt from my body for most of my life. Perhaps it is a major reason why I was so terrified of sex for most of my life; why I avoided sex until I was in my early twenties. And this abuse was almost certainly the reason I have always been uncomfortable receiving oral sex—some part of me has feared subjecting my partners to the sense of shame I underwent as a small child.
Yes, I can recognise that this shame, this confusion, and the frustration I felt due to my exposure to such degradation have led me into negative patterns. The pain I internalised from an age at which my little brain was still developing more rapidly than it would at any other point in my life—the pain I continued to carry with me subconsciously for many years thereafter—swayed me to behave in ways that I know have been emotionally confusing and painful for others throughout my life. As a person who genuinely cares about the people with whom I have chosen to surround myself, the guilt I carry from each of these semi-conscious instances of coldness and meanness is tiringly heavy.
Yet in looking at my own past, in undergoing the raw and excruciating process of dismantling the ballast of my burden, I have begun to recognise that the actions I performed out of this pain do not represent who I am. As Brené Brown says, the guilt of my past unwise actions does not need to be a sense of shame about who I am. I can and should bring the remorse for these actions and patterns into the cold light of consciousness, own my role in them, and make amends where I can. Yet first, I have had to realise that a major motivating force for those patterns has been something over which I had absolutely no control. I have had to recognise that what happened to me is an important part of my story; however, I have also had to recognise that the abuse I suffered is not the main part of my story, nor is it any part of who I am as a person. As long as I believe it is a secret burden to bear all by myself, I will always remain identified with the event. And as long as I remain identified with the event, I will be incapable of perceiving my own potential to move beyond both it and its effects. In other words, I will remain unable to accept even the possibility of forgiveness as long as my heart is locked down under the crushing weight of shame.
So this is how I am reframing the narrative of my own story. I am telling it aloud, shouting it from the proverbial mountaintops, making it public, so that its weight no longer sits on my shoulders alone. And I am finally (I am almost tempted to say “miraculously”) ready to acknowledge the aspects of this story that make it a remarkable triumph, rather than a tragedy.
To be absolutely clear: I do not believe there was some divine purpose behind my getting molested as a child. I genuinely do not feel that it is what needed to happen to me in order to make me strong, or sensitive, or creative, or in any way to become the person I am. Nor am I willing to entertain the notion that any of the horrible things that happen to people in this world are a part of God’s Plan. (Such a plan would be plainly seen as truly sick if it were to be implemented by any human being; why we shouldn’t have the same opinion when ascribing it to a supposedly loving being who ostensibly has the power to shape reality in literally any way he wants to is just something I’ve never been able to wrap my head around.) The positive things that have come about in my life have been entirely due to the fact that I have been primarily surrounded by truly good people who have been willing to keep showing up for me. Even through the unexplained temper tantrums I threw as a schoolboy; through the pretentiousness I put on as an art student; through my darkest moments of despair. I have a father, a stepmother, and two siblings for whom I would unhesitatingly lay down my life—not simply because they are my relatives, but because they are wonderful human beings who make both the planet and my life better every single day. I have a collection of friends whose very existence makes me feel safe in a world of uncertainty. With the help of these patient people, I have become who I am in spite of what happened to me. Not because of it. I recognise that not everyone is so lucky.
In spite of struggling for the vast majority of my life with my sense of self worth, my conception of and connection to my body, and my ability to trust most other human beings—I have reached an ending point for the part of my story in which I am willing to give these issues more weight than I can comfortably give to the abundant positivity to which I am lucky enough to have access. The remarkable part of this story is not that this awful thing happened to me; unfortunately, and devastatingly, I recognise that things like this—and things that are far more chronic and harrowing—have happened and are happening to heartbreaking numbers of people all over the world. For me, however, the remarkable part of this story is the fact that I have, in spite of a burden of shame that sometimes felt physically crippling, a beautiful life.
I have people in my life whom I admire, who also admire me. I have people in my life whom I love, who also love me. And after almost thirty years of feeling incapable of giving and receiving this love in a healthy way, I finally feel as though I am learning how to let love into and out of my heart successfully.
Even more basic: after almost thirty years of treating my body as a burden, as a target of shame, as a prison to be escaped, or as an object to be punished—I now wake up every single day and experience a flow of gratitude toward this amazing assembly of cells. Toward this miraculous organism that continuously cares for me, relentlessly repairs me, regardless of how poorly I have neglected it in the past, regardless of how I or others have abused it. This body showers me with soul-quenching grace, for which I can only be grateful, and by which I can only be amazed. Amazed at how awesome I am.
Yes. I am awesome. I am actually in awe of me. I don’t know how these molecules come together to make up my mind. Or how energy comes out after I put in some nachos. How I breathe even when I don’t remember. How my heart beats even when I forget it’s there. How my brain turns rhythm into time. How what I’ve seen inside my skull is, to some degree, unlike anything you’ve ever dreamed. Unique. Unrepeatable. Close enough to infinity that I know I cannot begin to approach its limit. It’s all magic, as far as I can tell.
To say I am awesome is just another way for me to say that I am grateful. And my greatest wish is that you might see yourself in the selfsame light.
My body has become my favourite story, and it is my story to tell. It may have only taken someone mere moments of his own life to plant the seeds of shame that would cause me to disown this story for so long, but I now have the rest of my life to tell it in my own way. I’ve missed a lot of time. I have a lot to make up for. And I know that I am not the only one who has felt imprisoned by this kind of experience. If other victims never hear these kinds of stories being told, they will be far more likely to refrain from telling their own. Such silences end far too often in tragedy. And as long as the abusers of the world know that their victims are too afraid to speak out, they will assume that they can continue their disgusting actions with impunity.
Perhaps, as small as it might seem in the grand scheme of things, my willingness to own a story that is my own may help others to understand that—as bloody difficult as it may be—they have options when it comes to framing their own stories. Perhaps, through establishing connections with others who have had similar experiences, the power of the third person plural can begin to reacquaint the personal narrative with an empowered, embodied, and enjoyable connection to its own humanity.