Maybe You Should Tell Someone
Regina A. Bernard
In Caribbean cultures, we tell stories to remind ourselves, each other, and strangers, of the people, places, and events in our lives. It helps the spirit and the soul to remember those things we treasure. Our tradition and common practice require us to tell the stories. This is particularly true when there’s grief involved. When we are grieving for a loved one who seems lost to us, we frequently recall our time spent together. We recount these memories in a story told to someone else, or even to ourselves when we are quiet and alone. “Remember when Daddy did this?” we ask our siblings, whether the story was a rotten truth or a loving gesture. We long to share these vignettes with anyone who wants to hear them.
Yet, also occupying space in my mind, especially on days when I’ve been overwhelmed by human contact, are the stories I ultimately hope to forget. I don’t know how to deal with these stories and the people, places, and events associated with them. Years ago, I thought a brilliant technique was to train my mind to redirect bad memories and block them all out. We know that this method only brings them back in a wave that swallows everything and leaves you gasping as it recedes into your subconscious, waiting to attack you when you are least prepared. Even if you tell the story you want to forget, would anyone believe that it happened? How does telling become healing?
A few years ago as I taught my undergraduates in a weekend workshop, a student revealed the story of her mother. I cannot recall how we gained entry into her private life but she began to unravel in front of fifteen other twenty-something-year-olds and me, her professor. The student was relatively quiet all semester long except for one morning when she told me that her older sister had tried to commit suicide. The chaos that ensued among the family prevented her from coming to class regularly.
“I’m so sorry about my absences,” she said.
She had to watch her sister who was weak “from all the loss of blood.” I reached out my hand for her to hold as she recounted discovering her sibling’s attempted suicide. Her hand was so rough and hard that I knew she had no time for self-care. I gripped her tightly. I used my other hand to dig into the pocket of my jeans to find a tissue. I didn’t have one, and so I dried her rolling tears with my finger and then the back of my hand. She continued to shake and her lips quivered as she told me the rest of the story. I pulled her into an embrace and held her as she cried into my shoulder.
Looking straight into my eyes as we pulled apart, she said, “Other professors don’t care.” The tip of her brown nose was red as I became fixated on a burn mark on her neck.
“Maybe they don’t know how to. We’re all so caught up in ourselves,” I struggled to hold my tears in as I told the truth about some of my colleagues.
“They think I’m making excuses for missing so many classes and being behind in my work,” she said.
“I know. We hear many things, we forget to believe that there is truth to a lot of them,” I said.
“It’s not a lie,” she said.
“I know, love,” I said squeezing her hand tighter. “You just have to breathe,” I said as I held my breath.
She wrote to me a week later and told me her sister was recovering but she was on a strict suicide watch.
“You know, in case she tries again,” the line in the email read.
On the day my student decided to share information about her mother, there was loud chatter in the room, and the class was busy working on their final projects.
“My anxiety is at a max today,” I texted my husband.
“Be anxious for nothing. Try to breathe,” he wrote back before I clicked the off button and placed my phone face down on the desk.
“It’s not just white girls. My family is a great example of that,” my student said as she placed short strands of brown hair behind her ear.
“Sorry guys, I was distracted. What are we discussing?” I asked, noticing how serious the room had suddenly become.
“Just last night, my father slapped my mother for talking to another man after church,” she said without any expression on her face.
“What! Did you call the police?” her classmate sitting next to me said.
“Of course not. That makes things worse,” she said. “Listen, the point is that this is not a white girl issue but they get the most out of people knowing. People think our abuse is cultural, but like the professor said, there’s something bigger, historical, happening to our brown bodies. That’s not culture, our culture is silence. Last month he chopped her hair off for what he said was insolence.” The girls in the room gasped. “Then when I tried to intervene he did it to me too,” she continued as she flicked her hair as proof.
“I would never go for that,” said another student who was typically very vocal. “He’d be dead. Just like that,” she clapped her hands against each other.
“It’s easier to say that than to be in it, I imagine,” said one of the male students.
My eyes danced around the room as I saw another brown female student silently close her eyes and swallow hard.
“He beats my mother all the time, and you know why he gets away with it? Because everyone thinks it’s how our people are. Because no one knows there’s a scripture in our religion that promotes it, because they think we are backward immigrants so no one intervenes. What should I do about that?” she said, throwing her pen onto the desk. “She reports it and he goes to jail and that’s shameful where I come from. ‘How you threw your father in jail?’ they will say,” she said, mocking the sound of an imaginary person.
My breaths. I wasn’t breathing. I was forgetting to count my breaths. Under the table, my right leg was bouncing up and down as though I was trying to push past the urgent need to urinate. I looked at the student who still had her eyes closed. A tear streamed out of her left eye and dragged streaks of makeup down her cheek. Since she was close enough to me, I wrote a note and slipped it under her perfectly manicured and long red nails. Are you alright? My purple ink said. Picking up the pen that she could barely hold because of her nails, she wrote, I’ll be okay. Thanks, Professor.
Seventeen years I’ve been doing this job. I’m tired. This trauma. These stories. How do you teach into or past this? I wondered.
The student whose mother’s story was in the atmosphere seemed to go limp. “That’s the first time I told anyone that story about him, my father. My mother told people she wanted to change hairstyles after he cut it off,” she whispered to me. “I just told so many people at once,” she said shaking her head in self-disappointment.
“Your mom should tell someone what you just told us,” I said.
“She won’t. My father has gotten better,” she said smiling. “He stopped drinking so much and she just doesn’t bother upsetting him.”
“Better?” I still couldn’t breathe. This beautiful young girl watched her father slapping and tormenting her mother and chopping off her hair when his dinner wasn’t prepared properly, and she believed that he had gotten better. I wondered what the darker times had looked like. I wanted to ask her if her sister’s suicide attempt had been related to all the violence. Did this trigger her anxiety and her pain?
Told loudly and clearly, her story tumbled out of her body. Her powerful words and images made me want to forget almost instantly what I had heard, and how many stories like hers I have listened to over the years. Countless students, male and female have sat in my classrooms and recalled the abuses of their bodies. They have shared stories as historical narratives about our brown bodies. They have not yet gotten to a point of sharing stories for freedom. Not yet.
“Tell your mom the story you told us, and use someone else as the example, but tell her the story,” I said before she left class.
“I’ll try,” she said smiling. “Thanks, professor. I appreciate you,” she said, touching my shoulder.
“What do you need for me to do? Do you want me to try and get you all some help?” I asked.
“Oh my God, professor! That’s so kind of you. No, please. I’m so embarrassed. Please don’t report it to the school, I could be in so much trouble at home and make it worse for them,” she said, trusting me to remain silent.
“Classmates may tell,” I said. “Be ready.”
“They won’t. People don’t care about this type of thing, not with our people anyway. If I was a white girl, you’d see how fast this would be world news. I even told my mom we should just leave him. She won’t. No tools.”
220.127.116.11.18.104.22.168.9.10. Be still. Breathe. Ground your anger. Pull your shoulders back. “I’ll email you a number to call.”
“Can I see you for a minute?” I asked the other student with the long red nails just before she exited the classroom.
“Of course, professor,” she said smiling, revealing perfect white teeth.
“What happened to you back there?” I asked.
“When? When she was telling that story about her mom?” The smell of her thick floral perfume wrapped me in a fog as she spoke.
“Yes,” I answered looking right at her.
“Girl, you don’t want to hear my story,” she said, throwing a smile on and off her face rather quickly.
“I have time,” I said. “If you want to tell me.”
“One day, professor. It’s not good, and she already brought the mood down so far that I’m like crawling already,” she said, still locking eyes with me.
“Here if and when you need me,” I said.
“I know. I’ll be okay. I promise.” she said. “Go get you some family time, professor. It’s already five o’clock in the afternoon on a Sunday.”
After class that day, I decided to walk to the train station, twenty-two blocks with a heavy tote bag. I walked and tried to think of a way to help someone who asked me not to tell. My student was convinced her mother would do nothing. This made me wonder if her mother ever considered her body as her own. My student warned us against believing these incidents as products of culture. But it was clear that she was indirectly angry at her mother for raising her to believe this. As much as I wanted to erase my student’s story from my mind, I couldn’t. There is a deeper purpose to stories that we don’t want to hear. My student’s mother’s body belongs to a group identity; its care or harm belongs to a story that isn’t just her own. I knew my student had to share her story if only to rescue herself. Some of us are buried under these stories, and ever more anxious because of them.