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By Lina Chhun
Today I sat in my car and I waited for the sun to set. I can’t remember the last time I did such a thing.
I am not well.
I recognize that I have not been well for a long time.
This is my attempt to do what I can, my attempt to do what I can on that spectrum of what we all can do in this moment to offset our paralysis. So I write.
I waited for the sun to set.
Sunspots dancing in my field of vision.
Fading in and out my memories like those sunspots.
“You can do anything…”
“Grab them by the pussy…”
“You can do anything.”
When the audio recording leaked back in October 2016 of then Presidential Candidate Donald Trump engaging in what he has called “locker room banter,” I immediately contacted my sisters.
I was disturbed.
Disgusted certainly by the overt misogyny in his words but also deeply disturbed by what soon came after: the exceptionalizing of this sexist speech and the perhaps inadvertent reinforcement of the specter of the “perpetrator of sexual assault.” This narrative framing, embodied in the at times comical (though certainly less comical now), all the time (at the time) unbelievably bombastic figure of Mr. Trump, pushed us further away from a reckoning with the ways in which the racist, heteropatriarchal ideologies he espoused then and now, permeate our everyday.
I remember thinking at the time that this moment could have been a moment of intervention. A moment we took to recognize our own complicity in the thing, to recognize such unsaid understandings in those around us—perhaps even in those around us we love. I thought about several cis-gendered men in my own life, one male feminist former friend… “Does feeling this way make me a pussy?” And some of my own women of color girlfriends. “Women are encouraged to hate women,” as Cherríe Moraga said at a post-election teach-out.
I thought about those easy equations of the feminine with weakness, with existential undesirability that I have heard in casual speak… that derogatory pussy discourse… I am not that. A disavowal of femininity intimately tied to the violent epistemologies that erupted in this moment when Trump reminded the nation that many of us could never be seen as fully human.
There could have been a moment of intervention. But instead, we became reactionary. Just as easily as many men and women perpetuate misogyny and denigrate the feminine in everyday speak, consciously or unconsciously contributing to the dominance of white heteropatriarchy, we just as easily said I am not that… and just like that, Donald Trump became an aberration.
I was sixteen years old when I became involved with my first partner. Fourteen or fifteen if I count the years of friendship before we became more intimate. I was young, and this person became incredibly dear to me.
We grew up together.
At the time, he introduced a (limited) racial and class analysis to my burgeoning liberal feminist consciousness… (I have since forgiven myself for that initial investment in single-issue feminism; I was only sixteen after all).
In those initial years, he helped plant the seeds to what would eventually become—perhaps a bit ironically—the key to my mental salvation; the seeds to what has since become a more radical, intersectional feminist praxis neither he nor I could have imagined at the time.
He introduced me to love. I had always known love growing up but as the daughter of genocide survivors, that love was oftentimes paired with fear. And that fear contained the palpable whispers of a historical trauma that I was too afraid, at the time, to breach. He introduced me to a love that felt less conditional. Or at least, a love that felt less overdetermined by historical violence in the forms it took. And initially, he helped me to be less afraid.
It’s difficult to articulate the when and why. When and why things became so toxic.
It’s been almost impossible to articulate. So many starts and stops over the last ten years.
When you don’t trust your mind, it’s almost impossible to articulate.
I don’t remember in linear sequence. Several years into the relationship, I began losing whole chunks of time. Forgetting. Events and memories trickling in and out of my consciousness. Sometimes, I attempted to capture them. But mostly, I let them go.
Always knowing they would return.
I remember the moment when I first felt my theory and practice collide, standing still at a crossroads.
It was in one of my early women’s studies courses as an undergraduate. We were studying gendered violence, and we were given a handout diagramming cycles of intimate partner abuse.
I remember thinking to myself at the time, as I know so many women do…
This feels familiar, but this cannot be what’s happening to me.
I remember thinking that my partner was progressive—liberal leaning at least—and thinking that he had never hit me.
I also remember thinking that I had made mistakes myself… so many mistakes; my young age leading to a dependency on this other person that terrifies me still when I think about it today.
I was crazy sometimes, I remember thinking to myself. I likely deserved how he talked to me when he was upset with me, I thought to myself. Sometimes I was pathetic. Sometimes I was disgusting. Sometimes I was simply too much.
He never hit me.
What did it mean when you mentioned suicide after an argument right before you left the country?
When you went radio silent as I desperately tried to reach you in the weeks after?
What did it mean when you later demanded I conform to your normative standards of femininity? Hounded me until I gave up? Made me question my own commitments to feminism.
I finally let you shave me the day before your graduation.
I finally let you mold me into your notions of feminine pussy. Let you take a razor to my most intimate parts.
And you cut me.
You cut me.
It wasn’t until much, much later that I admitted to myself that this felt violent. That moment and all the moments leading up to it, felt like violence.
These moments continue to affect my relationship with myself, and my self’s relationship to my body.
My college graduation.
I remember you showed up drunk, knocking on my window the night before my graduation weekend.
You threatened to drive drunk unless I let you in.
You slept with me that night… I slept with you, too… only you continued on to sleep with someone else later that day.
You missed my graduation.
There was that time I threw out my back after having been in a car accident. My body seized up in pain.
I called you, panicked. You came over to fuck me. And then you left.
Sometimes there were moments when I went to someplace else.
My mind transported to someplace else, hovering right outside my body. Those handful of times I didn’t respond. The time you whispered that I could have been any other bitch. You were generous enough to name some names for me. I didn’t respond.
Sometimes I cried silently.
There was that time you wouldn’t let me sleep. You didn’t hit me. You never hit me.
But you berated me Intimidated me.
I lay bunched up, crying, hands and feet tucked, rocking, asking you to stop.
Asking myself how
I could allow this to happen.
And of course there was the time you barely remember, that night you barely remember.
There were all those times you told me I was crazy. Blamed me for your insecurities. Made me question my own sanity. I asked you why you hated me so much.
Only much later did I understand what happened to me as gas lighting, as abuse.
Only much later did I begin the slow process of forgiving myself for my inability to move the fuck on.
Because you see, my body could not forget.
I know what it’s like to feel less than human. To know I wasn’t seen as a whole human being, allowed complexity… instead, reduced to a thing.
I used to write myself notes on slips of paper.
Left them in places for my self to find.
Reminders Don’t forget…
But I would.
Inevitably, I would forget.
Love became forgetting the harm.
I was angry for a long time after.
After several years, I also lost my ability to lose myself in the writing. What was once there was gone. It was as if you stole the most precious thing from me… my voice. My ability to translate… to materialize… to connect with myself and with others; writing as an act of communication.
What happens in that moment when thoughts become words on a sheet of paper?
There is an element of violence in writing… the lengthy process of extraction. But communion, too I’m sure of it.
A… please share these thoughts with me.
Reduced to a thing, I nearly lost my mind and continue to work through my faith in my own understanding of reality. I continue to mourn the loss of my ability to write… unobstructed.
This writing not graceful, not flowing, not smooth… but ripped from my fingers as the hours tick by.
A decade later and my body is still transported.
For Part Two and Three:
Lina Chhun is a PhD candidate in the Department of Gender Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Lina’s research addresses war, militarism, violence, and trauma, focusing on the processes of memory and history-making in regards to U.S. empire in Southeast Asia during the Cold War. Lina’s dissertation project studies narrative silences and the dynamics of remembrance regarding the U.S. bombing campaigns of 1964-1973 in Cambodia, connecting understandings of the bombings to registers of commemoration regarding the Cambodian Genocide of 1975-1979.