In a heartbreaking essay published by The New Yorker online today (April 9), author Junot Díaz writes about the childhood sexual abuse that he has grappled with alone for decades.
He opens the essay by addressing a reader who approached him to have a book signed at an event and asked if the characters who survived sexual abuse in his books were representative of his own experience.
I wish I had told you the truth then, but I was too scared in those days to say anything. Too scared, too committed to my mask. I responded with some evasive bullshit. And that was it. I signed your books. You thought I was going to say something, and when I didn’t you looked disappointed. But more than that you looked abandoned. I could have said anything but instead I turned to the next person in line and smiled. Out of the corner of my eye I watched you pick up your backpack, slowly put away your books and leave. When the signing was over I couldn’t get the fuck away from Amherst, from you and your question, fast enough. I ran the way I’ve always run. Like death itself was chasing me. For a couple of days afterward I fretted; I worried that I’d given myself away. But then the old oblivion reflex took over. I pushed it all down. Buried it all. Like always.
Díaz goes on to share how his rape at the hands of an adult he knew shaped the rest of his life.
That violación. Not enough pages in the world to describe what it did to me. The whole planet could be my inkstand and it still wouldn’t be enough. That shit cracked the planet of me in half, threw me completely out of orbit, into the lightless regions of space where life is not possible. I can say, truly, que casi me destruyó. Not only the rapes but all the sequelae: the agony, the bitterness, the self-recrimination, the asco, the desperate need to keep it hidden and silent. It fucked up my childhood. It fucked up my adolescence. It fucked up my whole life. More than being Dominican, more than being an immigrant, more, even, than being of African descent, my rape defined me. I spent more energy running from it than I did living. I was confused about why I didn’t fight, why I had an erection while I was being raped, what I did to deserve it. And always I was afraid—afraid that the rape had “ruined” me; afraid that I would be “found out”; afraid afraid afraid. “Real” Dominican men, after all, aren’t raped. And if I wasn’t a “real” Dominican man I wasn’t anything. The rape excluded me from manhood, from love, from everything.
The “This is How You Lose Her” writer goes on to chronicle the relationships he’s had, and how they buckled under the strain of his secret, how his trauma pushed him into unhealthy behaviors that left him suicidal and alone, and how a friend prevented his second suicide attempt:
When I was a kid, I heard that dinosaurs were so big that even if they received a killing blow it would take a while for their nervous systems to figure it out. That was me. After I lost Y— I moved to Cambridge full time, and for the next year or so I tried to “walk it off.” For a little while I seriously thought I was going to be fine. The mask had exploded into fragments, but I kept trying to wear the pieces as if nothing had happened. It would have been comedic if it hadn’t been so tragic. I tried to use sex to fill the hole I’d just blown through my heart, but it didn’t work. Didn’t stop me from trying.
I lost weeks, I lost months, I lost years (two). And then one day I woke up and literally couldn’t move from bed. An archipelago of grief was on me, a wine-dark sea of pain. In a drunken fit I tried to jump from my friend’s rooftop apartment in the D.R. He grabbed me before I could get my foot on a nearby stool and didn’t let go until I stopped shaking.
He ends by writing about why his road to healing includes sharing his story:
Toni Morrison wrote, “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.” In Spanish we say that when a child is born it is given the light. And that’s what it feels like to say the words, X—. Like I’m being given a second chance at the light.
Read the full essay here.