Every two weeks, I will be publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s essay is “Lana or the Wazhazhe ie word for ‘guilt’” by Chelsea T. Hicks. Chelsea T. Hicks (Xhuedoi^) is a recent graduate from the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She is at work on a collection of stories incorporating her ancestral language of Wahzhazhe ie, or Osage. She facilitates workshops for heritage language creative writers as well as language acquisition acceleration courses and received a 2021 Ford Foundation Honorable Mention for promoting indigenous language creative writing workshops. She is an enrolled member of the Osage Nation (Pawhuska District/Waxhakoli) and belongs to the Gentle Peacemaker Clan. She is of mixed descent. This essay was edited by Meg Pillow.
“How disquieting, to imagine that someone has kept your memories. How painful to imagine that someone holds what you have forgotten.” —Katherine McKittrick
My confession: sometimes I fear that my father did not hurt me. Sometimes I fear that in traveling alone with me on weekends to hotels where we shared a bed, he was innocent. But dreams and memories show me what I do not want to see. This is supposed to be called denial, but I wonder if it’s something else.
Question. Would it help to ask my father if he hurt me?
My mother answers for him. We talk via video chat. She reports his denial with her brow furrowed, her eyes squinting and meeting mine, her chin bobbing. She tells me that he said he has “never, ever been attracted me, in any way.” She is determined and emphatic. I don’t believe her, or him. Instead of relief, I feel a powerful anger and their desire for control. I thought it was weak of me to ask him through her, but when my posture crumples and I lose my steady breathing to a burst of sobs, I know that I am strong, and I am right.
My father used to say “methinks thou dost protest too much,” misquoting Hamlet. His flat and absurd denial confirms my worst fears: that what I remember is true. If his answer had been nuanced, I might’ve believed his minimizations, no matter how much they contradict the knowing in my body.
Question. What would it take to validate myself?
I fear that my father’s abuse is a foreign agent. I’m afraid the idea was planted by a frustrated woman abandoned by those who said they were there to help her, a Native elder from my community who wished to have a daughter but lost the ability to give birth due to stress, abuse, and disease. I’ll call her S. I started writing a book with her in 2017. We completed a manuscript over the course of three years which publishers accepted before she decided to retract it. During our time working together, we became close. I wanted to honor her contributions to Native representation by collaborating on a book to tell her story, but I was not prepared for her insistence on reframing my view of myself as family-less, child of abusers, irrevocably separated from close parental bonds. She eventually used what we unearthed of her story for an interview and article about her; that was her choice. What was not her choice was defining my relationship to my own family for me.
I met S. one night in August at a talk in San Francisco on the history of Alcatraz. She liked that I was teaching at UC Santa Cruz and had a master’s from UC Davis, so she asked to show me a letter she had written to her deceased mother. I listened to her, in awe, and told her that the letter reminded me of my relationship with my father. Tears came to my eyes, and to hers. We grasped hands, cried, went to dinner, and then made plans to meet again.
Our collaboration began in drives to spots she’d lived throughout the Bay Area, and soon, she began to tell me some of her story. Soon, our writing sessions turned into trips to the laundry room so she could re-teach me how to do laundry. The same in the kitchen, with chicken noodle soup, salmon, and an entire theory of dish towels and recycling. She told me I could no longer be vegan and cooked me steak and salad. I didn’t like what was happening, but I was unable to tell her because I had been conditioned by my father to obey my elders at all costs.
S., I think, wanted to rescue me. She insisted that I come to her house multiple days a week, for hours; I went on errands with her when she did not feel like writing. I went along with it and endured stomachaches, dizziness, and nausea. I complained of these feelings to her, and she urged me that I needed to “release.” She wanted me to cry in front of her, like she sometimes did when telling her own stories, but I did not want that kind of intimacy. Since my father had hurt me at a young age, I never had. I was twenty-six and married to a man who had taken me away from the supposed dominion of my father. My husband told me he was a feminist, let me convert him to Christianity, and yet, still, in Biblical terms, he owned me, and was steward of my body, heart, and soul. Everything I was doing was toward achieving safety, and I wanted to learn from Native women. My own mother was mixed-race creole of African descent, and along with my grandmother, they sought to passer à blanc. For them, protection was in men, but for me, this strategy was running out. I thought S. was maybe the one who could teach me strength.
On top of this, I wanted to help S. tell her story in her own words. The FBI had blacklisted her for drawing attention to violence at the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973, and most people who knew of her actions did not know of their consequences. As a lifelong Catholic, she dreamt of canonization as a saint to acknowledge her suffering. She deserved recognition. She worked with Mother Teresa to establish an AIDS Indian center, and few know the extent of her lifelong advocacy for Native people. Together, we wrote the story of her life of humanitarianism.
S. is a good woman, but our relationship degraded as we wrote. We got into arguments. She told me that my ambition hurt her. She told me that I was not a great writer yet, and though one day I would be, I needed to make our book my sole focus and cease writing of my own for the time being. This seemed unconscionable. Not only given the obscene time commitment of our collaboration, which she insisted occur on her terms, but on top of this, I was in an MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. I had a novel of my own out on submission with an agent, and I was working on a second book. Her words reminded me of a writer who once told me, in writing about my experiences in auto-fiction: “this character, or you, have accomplished nothing. You are defending them.”
Harsh upbraids like S.’s and this teacher’s, meant to force compliance, do not impress me. I grew up in the Baptist South, in a Baptist school, where fundamentalist teachers forced us to wear skirts and acknowledge that our fathers were given the authority, by God, to decide everything without question. I broke with their worldview when I crossed over the Mason Dixon line and moved to California, but I did not give their authority to older women who seemed resentful of my ambition and who wanted to co-opt my life and time in a way that reminded me of my father.
In my creative life, between meetings with S., I treated men like peers. A male Native author had befriended me, as did an editor who employed me. When they touched my arm and back, took off their wedding rings at parties, I made excuses. They broke my heart. I cried bitterly and felt alone. I divorced my husband. I became polyamorous. I went to Oklahoma for work, where I dated three men in an attempt to not fixate too much on any one of them. I was inspired by Dr. Kim TallBear, who wrote about ethical polyamory and who I wanted to emulate. But I felt so broken, and polyamory itself disoriented and exhausted me. I felt like I wasn’t doing anything right, least of all feminism and supposedly healing from a life of abuse.
“Why are you sad?” coworkers asked me. I didn’t know it showed. What I felt was anger, enough to choke on the school lunch.
When they asked me what was wrong, I replied, “My mother is sick.”
“Go be with her,” a co-worker urged.
“I can’t,” I said. Tears fell down my face. I was so angry at myself for crying at work and possibly jeopardizing my job. I had experienced a breakdown before, and the trigger was crying while in the middle of delivering a lecture. The sickness I was referring to in my mother was denial, but there was also a sickness my father had inculcated in me through his abuse. It was a profound and debilitating sadness. When I felt it intensify, I listened to Lana Del Rey. I read Louise Hays. Books raised me, and so did violence. I believed in both. I wanted to keep the books, but I tried to stop believing in violence.
I want to write, “After the pandemic, men refuse to take their women out to restaurants, bars, museums or downtown areas, because they fear their women’s eyes on other men.” Words like they and one allow me to divert the sentence from what that one writer told me is the ugly “I.” Instead, I should write that I miss every man who was ever my friend, lover, cheater, boyfriend, or husband.
I do not miss my father or pretending to love his attention. I had to make myself twisted to live in that house or answer his calls, to enact behaviors which represent how to act if I’m to be considered “a good daughter.” I ask the same questions Toni Jensen asks in her memoir, Carry:
What does it mean to be a good daughter, a good mother, a good girlfriend or wife? Where in this ideal, this notion of good, is the room for honest emotion? Where in this ideal is room for struggle or for a graceful exit?
Rather than grace, I have known a sense of false guilt, and the wish to cut myself, to die, to leave whoever was kind to me; to be left alone to destroy myself in private; to have revenge on those who showed me my denial. I have wanted these things. What I want more is to be kind, and to live.
Now, I am interested in the difference between what is said to be and what is true. One in four people experience sexual abuse, but not many identify as past abusers. Or to state this more directly: I as a woman claim to be strong and to cultivate a practice of feminism, but how many problematic men have I released, and how long did it take me to do so? Nearly half of Native women experience sexual violence, physical violence, or stalking in intimate relationships, but how many are able to talk about it? People write about the value or the perceived lack of value of Native women. Why is this a question worth entertaining?
My coping mechanisms still involve seeking safety through men. On some level, I am too afraid of my father finding me when it’s time to sleep unless I know there is someone there to block his closeness and his invasion. Though he does not know my address, I still crave protection. My boyfriend’s grandmother recognized it when we visited his family. As my boyfriend chased their rez dog away from me, his grandmother spoke to me.
“Looks like you found a guard dog, too,” she said.
I love him, but I feel guilty for the way I depend on him. And what of other male bodies I have sought for cuddles, for protection, or for labor, shelter or money? I call this my “problematic womanhood,” and I do not know if leveling this judgment against myself is fair, or if it is internalized shame that it took me so long to leave my problematic men. My current boyfriend asked me to break up with the others because he said he couldn’t take the lack of commitment anymore. I was committed, but not in the way he wanted; yet I still appeased him because he gave me a sense of safety and my monogamy was the stated cost. I became monogamous again for him, because I sensed I was nearing a breakdown. I quit my job in Oklahoma and let him convince me to move in with him. There was no place to park my car, so I let my brother borrow it. Every few months, I came up with a plan to leave and go stay with a friend, but each time I abandoned it from a combination of logic and bodily feeling. It was safe to stay with this boyfriend; he noticed my unease, and he kept making small changes until I felt better. Still, I wanted my car back from my brother. I have always wanted and always will want to be able to make a genuine choice.
I still want my car back. I would like to turn on my car stereo, which plays an electronic sound art meditation created by an astrologer, droning oceanic sounds meant to evoke the feeling of being underwater and in the realm of Neptune. In listening to this mildly dislocating trance music, I am trying to cope with details. Like the detail that my brother is still borrowing my car, and that he is slow to return it though I ask and ask. It would make me feel better to always have my own getaway machine. I try to grow what seems to me like heartlessness, meaning boundaries. Meaning I don’t have to speak to this older woman or worry about her needs anymore. Meaning I try to choose myself through the power of my mind and tarot cards. This is called “self-care.” I do love running and walking and swimming and being outside, especially being submerged in water, but I feel confusion and not love toward myself, even as I visualize love as a pink wind swirling about my bed, the room, the city, the country, the continent, the oceans, the earth.
Abuse occurs in a moment, or in a series of repeated moments, and the abuser may repress the memory just like the abused often do. I have not minimized what my father did to me or exaggerated my memory of panic on the Motel 8 sheets. Conversely, I simply view it as important to acknowledge what happened. I continue to hold that memory in a state of mutually acknowledged reality, including the fact that his mother was sexually molested by nuns in boarding school. His behavior makes sense when viewed in the framework of generational trauma.
The result of all this is that my father and I do not speak. If we were to speak, it would be to argue, or worse, for him to make arguments where he could repeat his offense of, at best, emotional incest. My refusal to speak to him is predicated on the caesura of his abuse. And what of employing boundaries? I send him Happy Birthday cards. I hear he is growing his hair out. As for my mother, she tells me she didn’t understand how anything I told her he did to me was sexual abuse. After talking about this over a video call in front of my grandmother, we agree to not talk about it. This is disappointing, but it is also merciful.
My grandmother says to me, “I am sorry for your broken heart.”
I cry, but this time the tears are healing.
So far, at thirty years old, what I know of love is that I want a man who doesn’t cheat, who isn’t demanding about food, and who also isn’t afraid of Oklahoma, or of himself. I do not want to be fed bullshit, in which I am fluent. All I’ve had is a series of graceful exits and disappearing acts. But now I need to learn the graceful entry.
After my father’s betrayal, how could I love any man? I try to give my pain the attention it deserves. The plans I want to hatch for the future? I need to expand them. My inner child wants a home in Oklahoma. Otherwise, I think I wanted to just sit with the pain I feel. My father erased me but I am still here, written in invisible ink. I have a self but it was obscured by fear. Now I am shining a light on myself in the dark, and I glow.
I prayed to my great great great great grandmother D’Achinga.
“I need your help,” I told her.
After that, I ran out of inspiration. Tarot cards are meaningful to my people, so I took those out to help me with body, mind, and spirit, corresponding with past, present, future, or a braid.
BODY MIND SPIRIT
Justice Ten of Cups 3 of Pentacles
I forgive my father by acknowledging what I remember. I also acknowledge that he was in denial, did not remember it, and was not capable of doing so, and that my mother was more or less standing beside him.
As a result, my body is palimpsest: it bears the injury, the anger, the truth and the acceptance of all its past events. My mind is freed through the practice of grieving. I am cleared of excessive rage. Now I let a new man, my man, in to the garden of happiness.
At least, that is how I interpret this tarot reading.
Now, I only have to invite my boyfriend to come to Oklahoma. With this display of bravery, my heart would be pooled teamwork, purified healing, my spirit continuing forward, to live forever.