Once or twice a year I still sneak back to see the siblings of mine who
never made it out of that house.
I still rendezvous with them under the cover of night.
I smuggle back for them gifts and food and this is NOT a joke—
noise cancelling headphones and surround sound stereo systems
(Our weapons of war m8)
And in the midst of tremendous violence, in the midst of torture and explosions and always —ALWAYS the fear of being caught
We create—quite literally—a space of hope.
A movie theatre on the outskirts of town, a food court in a shopping centre, a Maccas with booth seating
Never an open park or street with a clear view from the road and NEVER, EVER near the suburb of _____________
But certain locations, where we can have well-rehearsed drop-offs and pick-ups and exchanges
This is where—by literal inches—we spatialise hope
And I only travel to these places on certain public transport lines
And mostly—I travel by car
Dark tinted vehicles with bulletproof windows
No, I get Ubers and I set the drop-off location at least 1 street away from wherever I’m going so I can approach on foot and scout the location first.
And I—I have never been caught on these trips. But let me tell you. Others, others in my family have. Other sisters who were just as careful, who were just as brave and courageous, who were orchestrating honourable missions of childhood (first dates and sleepovers mostly). They have been caught and I don’t need to tell you – what our parents did.
And of course now—after many years. Even if we all make it out, even if we survive and get to leave that house and become adults who have access to protection. Those days will still haunt us. We will still discipline ourselves. And this is what I truly fear for my siblings, for myself.
I still remember the first time I read about this idea. Gasping in the library at Sydney uni. This one line. About how power, violence in modernity is no longer about brute force or physical abuse. But that it is this more productive kind of violence. The way a body is made to internalise its own worthlessness and subjugation. The way you learn to bury what happened to you and to feel shame. And then, the final line—’a body comes to discipline itself.’¹ Oh man, I can’t tell you what this idea did for me.
Because it was true. It was never JUST about the physical violence. It was about the mind games, the manipulation, the making you feel like you had no power, no capacity to build a life without your oppressor.
There are two battles you see. The first battle is one of survival. You keep your head down, your limbs close to your body, and you get GEED UP to literally fight. You will have to JUMP! And duck. And sometimes, swing back. You will have to keep yourself alive—however you can. And you don’t—you CAN’T—think too much about the morality of war. Because you are in the midst of it. And instincts will carry you through, if you trust them. You cannot be thinking about the ethics or psychology or symbolism of your actions. You are in the jungle. You are in the trenches. You are in the corner of your bedroom. And the enemy is coming. NOW NOW NOW.
But then. And this is the truly tragic thing that anyone who has survived will tell you. There is the second battle. The one that comes just when you think you have finally made it out. That first day of freedom, when you are out in the world—and you have your own house and your own keys and your own lock. That first day it hits you like a motherfucker. And you expect joy, excitement but what comes instead – is really more like a —— flattening sensation. Why can you still not go out? Why are you still nervous about going on dates and sleepovers and staying out late? Why do you still feel guilty about doing these things? Why do you keep disciplining yourself? What is wrong with you.
And this—this battle. To take your own foot off your neck. Oh man, this battle. It is like nothing you have ever fought. An enemy you cannot see, or hear, or smell or touch. Within your own skin. These skin walls. And the more you scream at yourself—to stop it !!!, the more the self screams back.
There is chaos and there is pain and there is suffering like you would not believe.
And I wish I could tell you that by a miracle—something changes one day. Like—enough time passes and you just realise you are no longer in that house. Enough time passes and you are out in the world and strangers give you love and I don’t know—something heals through the magic of time.
But as I’ve written about before (as I will probably have to write about again)—nothing ever comes to save you from the war. C’est La Guerre man. It’s every day and it’s every night. And you survive not by a miracle, not by magic. But through tremendous self-knowledge and creative efforts.² You go to therapy and you talk to your m8s and you talk to your luv. And you keep visiting your siblings—all of whom are a living record that affirm your own trauma. You work very hard. You write story after story after story.
And you repeat—at least once a day to yourself. As if you have a post-it-note permanently stuck to the inside of your brain.
“I AM NO LONGER IN THAT HOUSE.
IT IS 2021.”
¹ See Michel Foucault (1997) ‘docile bodies’ in Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison.
² This line is from Ocean Vuong – who said in an interview, “we often think of survival as something that merely happens to us, that we are perhaps lucky to have. But I like to think of survival as a result of active.
This story was commissioned by Diversity Arts Australia as part of the I Am Not a Virus project. Supported by Australia Council for the Arts, Create NSW, Creative Victoria, City of Sydney, City of Parramatta and Inner West Council.