They were almost the same age when catastrophe smashed into their young lives. The little girl was eight, the boy a year older. Both of them, their budding inner selves, lived miles and years apart, but were touchingly, profoundly, close in their fragile acquaintance with honesty. They had been taught to tell the simple truth.
Suddenly each child had to cope, and quickly, with a shattering secret.
The girl was raped by a close family friend, her mother’s lover. The boy was raped by a drunken aunt, his mother’s sister. The girl was attacked only once. Luckily, she spoke up, told her mother that very day. She stammered words – what words, we wonder -- to tell of inexplicable, violent conduct that had occurred in secret. Her rapist was killed by members of her own family a few days later. The thought of her secretly buried attacker lingered for years in the girl’s mind, like a strung up ghost,
The boy never told anyone. His aunt most probably threatened him with terrible consequences if he told anyone. Most sexual predators do. But unlike the girl, the boy knew that among his adult relatives, there was no one he could trust enough to speak out about the baffling, guilt-filled pain the drunken aunt had thrusted upon on him. He already understood that his self-absorbed, vain mother, would not listen, let alone hear, nor his preoccupied uncle, nor his absent father.
In every continent, country, town or village, these crimes are committed daily, acted out by the children’s relatives, family acquaintances, a wide range of attackers, from Roman Catholic priests, to total strangers. Mass rapes, or single rapes, they leave behind a trail of helpless guilt in each and every child. Many are threatened with death if they tell.
And so the boy’s aunt assaulted him more than once; he never told anyone how many times. Mercifully, when a bit older, he was sent off to school, but his boyish trust, openness, and honesty had been shattered, secretly buried alongside the crime. He learned to compartmentalize parts of himself, was a brilliant Phi Beta Kappa college student, a fast track runner. And a first class liar.
Sexual abuse, when not exposed, confessed to another person’s caring listening, turns into disfigured shame. The child’s guilt expands in the dark, too repellant and shame-filled to speak of, help, or remove
The girl spoke up, the boy hid in his guilt-ridden silence. And so each child’s self-esteem was sealed in the assault’s immediate aftermath.
The raped little girl became the magnificently eloquent poet, Maya Angelou, who famously wrote about her assault in “The Caged Bird Sings.” She describes how her revelation to her mother of the assault, her words, had a price. They led to her attacker’s quick and violent death. From her child’s perspective, Maya, the victim, nonetheless had to pay.
“I thought my voice killed that man,” she later wrote, explaining how she’d resolved to imprison her own words, her special gift of making words flow. She imposed upon herself a five year stint of penitential silence.
What emerged when she spoke again, was the polished fruit of her silent years. She had memorized practically all of Shakespeare’s poetry. And much else. From then on, the richness and elegance of her flowing words only expanded. Therein lay her future freedom.
The boy, like Maya, is now deceased, after a long career of also skillfully using words. He became an accomplished writer and editor in the news profession, writing honest, fair-minded articles. He wrote and spoke of his subjects in the same, always forthright, way.
But his guilt-ridden secret, left unaddressed in darkness, grew, festered, and hardened. He became a closet misogynist, a skilled, smooth-talking deceiver in his intimate relationships, wives and friends alike. He married numerous times, deciding to confess his lies and promiscuity to his various wives when he sensed they’d had enough of his variant ways, his mysterious, frequent absences, his startling anger, prone to violence.
Maya’s youthful decision to “punish” herself by memorizing magnificent poetry in silence, taught her to feed her soul with hope, majesty, and the need to be truthful, even forgiving. Her self-imposed penance let in the light. When she spoke again, her words already had that unique musical rhythm, a wide and heartening optimism[MP1] . It never left her. She wrote, “It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody,” she said.
The boy’s self-punishment for the shame he kept secret in his airless, lonely cellar, inevitably warped into a conflicted, dual personality.
Maya’s honest exuberance allowed her to unabashedly acknowledge publicly her various foibles and fears. She held nothing back, with contagious results in her listening audiences. The boy matured into a straightforward, outwardly confident newsman, who carefully kept his split off, guilt-filled self, buried. Where it grew and festered, never examined, let alone set free.
But Mya knew this, too, telling us, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Stories, our stories are told in words and so of course they have power. We give it to them. But whether they’re angels’ wings or swords, benevolent or deadly, strung together or alone, they’re still just words. It is what they convey that touches or horrifies us, heals or destroys, often with spectacular effect.
And so Maya’s large spirit learned how valuable, commendable, it was to speak out and she did, on multiple, universally acclaimed levels. Her purpose was to share, not only her joys, but her fears.
With only half of him exposed to the world, a sizeable portion of the boy’s essence developed into a guilt-ridden liar. This writer was one of the wives. A few years ago I drove through a wintry storm to visit him, lying wordlessly in a hospice bed. I hugged and murmured Godspeed to this long-forgiven one time companion. He smiled, then grinned, in silence.
“Music is the silence in between the notes,” Isaac Stern wrote.
Maya’s free spirit lifted us collectively with words into multi-layered truths that enriched us as we shared them. A sharing as effective as Goya’s choice for a specific shade of blue, or a collection of Beethoven’s sublime notes. Words can steer us toward an experience beyond words, art or music.
What that shared silence contains is a deep, freeing, even forgiving, stillness. Beyond the limits we’ve carelessly placed on ourselves. How wasteful it is to use them otherwise.