Recently I co-taught a university writing seminar in which a talented student from a wealthy Chinese Singaporean family presented a short story of harrowing childhood sexual abuse. A twelve-year-old girl’s vulva — her hairless skin folds, or labia, plus the glans of the clitoris — was the main subject of the story. A girl becoming aware of how her labia brushed lightly against her thighs. A girl who viewed her young body in front of a mirror naked before offering herself up to her father, giving him endless blow jobs that seemed endlessly described. Violent sex within the violent context of incest. The delicate skin of a pale, young, flawless neck marred by an official caregiver’s deliberately inflicted bruises.
In the class meeting dedicated to that story — a meeting that came halfway through a semester-long seminar in which we had thus far avoided angry explosions or even grimaces — the student talked about these rape scenes with a brusque, at times aggressive style: Like there was no other way to talk about incest honestly. Like there was no denying that the in-your-face quality of her writing made her not only talented but brave. Like there was no possibility that silence, both on the page and off, would be a more logical response to having been invaded by a parent. To having been forced.
My co-instructor, Cherie, absolutely loved this student’s “brave and bold” work. Cherie was a Black woman whose parents were highly educated immigrants from East Africa. This feted writer, in published interviews about her own fable-like work, had spoken endearingly about how grateful she was to have parents, cousins, aunties, and grandparents who were all proud of her. So proud. She was much older than me, but when she spoke of these relatives, she sounded like a young girl.
The Chinese Singaporean student, too, had parents who were proud of her. I knew this through the artificial platform of social media, on which the student had been following me for years and on which I presented an uncomplicated, optimistic, loving personality. This student had posted photos of her mother’s face, captioning them with what seemed to be real and effusive declarations of healthy filial love. She’d also written personal essays talking about the Eurasian and Szechuan delicacies she’d grown up eating, meals made with care by her beneficent father. She’d always had the support of both her parents. They hadn’t even objected when she’d quit her corporate job in London (obtained through their contacts) to take up writing. She’d publicly grieved the death of her mother, who’d remained gentle and uncomplaining even when her body had become emaciated from untreatable cancer. She’d wanted her father to remarry even before he did. Rather than expressing any rage toward her parents, toward cancer, or even toward her stepmother, this student expressed anger only toward colonial and postcolonial white “outsiders,” including the myriad white men she described, in her online essays, having anonymous sex with and then eviscerating roundly with her mocking words.
Our class that day was held outside, in a small clearing under a tree, the students sitting on folding chairs, the breeze that swept the expanse of well-kept college lawns ruffling pages but not the unrufflable and clearly fortunate students. The talented student, who was named Marie (after the Blessed Virgin), had never been abused — she told us this — but she knew people with such a history. She laughed in the middle of confessing that she was free to write such tales because she had never been abused. Then she looked sheepish. “I suppose I didn’t have to come out and tell you that,” she said. “But people might not realize . . . I mean I don’t want to claim . . . I don’t know.” She smiled at me as she spoke. I had to remind myself that this didn’t mean she knew anything.
Marie’s complexion was like cream, so much lighter than mine. In Marie’s story, the father compared his daughter’s skin to the most delicious, lightest whipped cream, repeatedly. So at least this part of what Marie wrote she knew firsthand. She was white enough to have to wear a wide-brimmed hat in the sun; white enough that the exposed skin of her back showed red, like an angry lobster trying to escape boiling water; moon-lustrous enough to attract the — very unrequited, she told us — lust of the very darkest-skinned Indian Singaporean men. Men whose ancestors were convicts, laborers, and former low-ranking soldiers of imperial Britain. Men whose polysyllabic last names seemed exotic in Singapore but in India were garden-variety names that sounded remarkably like mine.
In general my job was predicated on my ability to suppress rage. I was an itinerant instructor, an adjunct whose career depended on good reviews from my co-instructor. I was also a recent divorcée in her midthirties who was not yet a mother, even at that late age. Certainly late by any Indian mother’s reckoning. Any normal Indian mother.
Here are the facts of my life, which I have previously written about only disguised as fiction — the kind that is decidedly not in your face and likely not brave, nor bold. (Because why didn’t I fight harder?)
When I was seven and visiting India, my male cousin, then a teenager and now a married man in his forties, took me up to the roof of the building in Madras where he was living with our grandparents. There he removed my pants and panties and experimented with giving me what he referred to as “oral sex.” (I know I was seven because the photos of my visit to Madras are kept in albums with dates marked on their covers.) Later I would wonder if my cousin had seen such sex acts in a movie and was looking for a body on which to try them. Or perhaps he understood that I was pliable. Or maybe I was just there. There was no penetration — at least, not as far as I remember. Now, decades later, my heart is pounding as I recall this heinous act, the semidarkness in which he performed it. More than once.
In college I wrote a story about that experience for one of my first writing classes, and afterward I went to my mother to tell her the truth I had not been able to tell her until then. My mother told my father. Neither of them particularly believed me. Both of them, my mother especially, were convinced that my coming forward would “ruin the relationship” with the cousin’s family. So things stayed the way they were. Thankfully my cousin, who had moved to the U.S. by then, lived in another state. Whenever he came over to our house, I would alternate between feeling disgust and attraction. What I remember most, about this and other related experiences, is agony.
Could writing about such an experience ever make me seem fearless? What would it take for me to be labeled — by the academic creative-writing powers that be — both “brave” and “bold”? Would it be remembering the dirt under my cousin’s fingernails, or the size of his fingers as they parted my young labia, revealing that hidden body part I hadn’t known the name for then? Would it be remembering the fear, the sweat, the heat, the sounds of people walking by not a hundred yards from us but never bothering to look up? I know from awkward school photographs that, after that experience, I deliberately swathed myself in extra pounds and shapeless clothes. I allowed myself to care about my appearance again only when I was a freshman in college.
It was also around that time that I began to push back against the odd and psychically demolishing ritual of my mother forcing me to sleep with her at night, even when I was long past the age at which her insistence might have seemed tender or loving. Just as my cousin had pulled me onto that rooftop in Madras, my mother would pull me into her bed, softly cajoling: “You will sleep with me, sleep here, stay here tonight, with me.” My adolescent body made her look at me as a possession to be held close. She didn’t order me to “sleep with her” in the sense of having sexual relations, though she sometimes caressed the sides of my breasts when she thought I was asleep. And whispered lasciviously in my ear. And talked about my body in a way that I now know was concerning. And ran her finger along the curve of my hip. And held me too tight, trapping me against her, pinioning my legs with one of hers. And said of me, “Nayna has a fat chest,” laughing softly, palms against my breasts, measuring their dimensions like a landowner surveying two fertile hills belonging to him.
She continued to do this even after I left home for college, albeit more nervously than she had when I was fourteen or fifteen. And there were other things my mother did that no one in that writing seminar, no one in that college, no one in the world could guess. When she found out I was going to graduate school to study literature, that I was working hard to get in, my mother spent a substantial part of hers and my father’s retirement savings on a fancy European trip for her and me, right when I needed to study for the exams. She bought me a nonrefundable ticket, along with beautiful new underwear. I would “tour the continent” with her, as people used to say. The two of us without a chaperone. She booked us single rooms with single beds, whispering over the phone that she intended for us to sleep together in a new luxury hotel in each city we visited. “No dirty men,” she said. “Only us.” It would be like the honeymoon she’d never had. She planned everything out: How she would dress me up and show me off. How we would visit places she had always wanted to go; places to which my father, who openly regretted their marriage, had never made any plans to take her. Whenever I brought up how leaving for Europe would make me fall behind on my graduate-school applications, she pretended I hadn’t said a word, just kept on reading or darning one of her old sweaters. Maybe she grunted once.
One night, shortly before we left on our European trip, my mother and I were eating at an Indian curry place in midtown Manhattan. “Nayna,” my mother said to me, “I wanted to kill that waiter for how he was looking at you.” She said such things often, even on the street. She would vent, getting as choked up and red-faced as any furious lover. I knew how to look glamorous by then: makeup, heels, artfully tousled hair, clothes just tight enough. My roommates in college had instructed me on what a pretty girl should wear in order to meet hot men, texting me instructions, putting my photo on OkCupid, prompting jocks to ask me out. I knew better than to check my phone too often on this trip to the city with my angular, decisive, narrow-hipped mother, who wore no makeup or high heels but instead had on mannish shoes and pants I knew she had purchased in the men’s department in preparation for our trip. She doubtless would have snatched my phone or (worse) demanded loudly to see it. She might have even threatened some of those men who texted me — Thorns in their eyes, she might have hissed, like the witch mother from the fairy tale “Rapunzel.”
I remember the grip of my mother’s fingers, squeezing my shoulder hard enough to cause pain, because she could not bring herself to confront the man, the waiter, who had stared at me with such longing. My mother’s threatening looks weren’t enough to stop this male stranger in a Manhattan curry place from watching me “with those eyes,” as the old eighties song goes. “Jessie’s Girl” was a hit that my mother knew well. She would sing it around me often, changing the words from “Jessie’s girl” to “Nayna’s love,” singing that chorus with passion: “Oh I wish that I had Nayna’s love!” — my thin, wiry, intellectual mother, who would say, “Chee!” (a pan-Indian word for “disgusting”) at any mention, however oblique, of oral sex, at any TV image of a woman lying back with pleasure on her face. “Oral and whatnot,” she called it, watching me put on lipstick in the mirror of the wardrobe in her bedroom.
As a teenager I couldn’t yet see the sinister side of my mother’s attention, had never heard the term “covert incest,” which more than a few therapists would later use to describe the situation: When a mother makes suggestive comments and claims possession of her adolescent daughter’s body as that child is becoming a young woman. When a mother uses a lover’s words to speak to her grown-up girl. When a mother fondles and touches and strokes but stops short of penetration with an object or oral sex or some foul play with fingers inserted into an unwitting vagina or around the edges of a child’s underwear. When a mother invokes a lover’s ownership over her daughter’s body. Over my body. Over me. Yes, this happens to people. It happened to me. Over and over. It falls within the realm of human experience. Just barely. I will certify that.
My problem with writing about what happened to me is that I, like Richard, my ex-husband, am repulsed by the visceral. He is a pleasant Scottish man, fluent in medieval Italian, whose blue eyes are kind but deceiving, who left me when I insisted that it was “too complicated” for me to have children, who stared at me in disgust the day I told him everything, three years into our marriage. Everything my mother had done, and everywhere she’d touched.
Hours before I told him, he had declared me “beautiful.” But once he could see the invisible traces of my mother’s relentless grasping, I was no longer perfect. Maybe what I had told him had made Richard, for the first time, notice my clogged pores, the tiny age spots on my skin, the even smaller facial hairs that made a soft down on my cheek; the traces of urine I left lingering on the toilet when I peed carelessly, the sweat stains on a T-shirt I had laid, without consideration for him, on our bed; the clumps of fine, dry hair around the drain; and finally, pièce de résistance, the streaks of shit I left in the sparkling white toilet bowl. Maybe my telling Richard the truth made him notice the foul imperfections of my body and all the ways it had taken on the wrong kind of value, to the wrong person — my mother — all my life.
I suppose there is a cosmic joke somewhere in here: that my mother prided herself on prudery yet for years indulged her strange longing for me. Is it funny ha ha? Almost? If I squinted when I looked at it? How she planned a honeymoon to take me away from the summer coursework that was meant to help me get into graduate school, even though she had always proselytized for “putting academics first,” bragging of how she had been an academic all-star at her women’s college in India? A proud, self-reliant, minimally demonstrative woman (especially with my father), my mother told me never to let any man touch me or see me even partially unclothed, including wearing a two-piece bathing suit in public; never to wear short skirts, except at home with her; never to leave home, in fact, because she “needed” me to stay with her. She said she slept better when I was in her bed and we could do “cozy-cozy,” her childish name for the ghoulish practice that continued until I was nearly twenty years old, just thirteen years ago.
The end of that ritual wasn’t the end, however. My mother continued to quote love poetry to me, sending me text messages like:
Come live with me and be my love.
And later, when I stopped answering her calls and responding to her texts:
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell.
These lines were from a book of Auden’s poetry I’d given her when I was fourteen and still fell asleep most nights with her bare leg hooked over mine, something I would recognize years later as the way two people who have just had sex sleep to stay connected.
How did I let her go on touching me inappropriately? How did I let this covert incest happen over and over, all those years? How could I not have known? How could I have remained so “innocent”? I wonder now.
“I don’t even know that I’d call it ‘covert,’ ” a therapist at the college’s counseling center once told me. “The touching of your breasts, I mean. How covert was it if she was actually trying to feel you up?” Hearing the (possibly somewhat inept) therapist describe what my mother did in such juvenile terms was too much. It all came crashing over me at that moment, making it impossible to lift my head to make eye contact with another human, and I left the therapist’s office abruptly.
In any case: back to the writing class that was taking place outdoors under a tree.
“Nina,” my co-instructor, Cherie, said to me, silencing the students who had been clamoring to speak. “Nina, you haven’t commented very much. What do you think of Marie’s courageous story? Be honest.”
Both Cherie and Marie continually, albeit cheerfully, mispronounced my name. They alternated between the German-sounding “Nein-uh” and the more American “Nina,” as if the two of them were in accord on this, too. I sat there in the peaceful clearing where the class had chosen to meet, feeling rage color my skin a deep red underneath my brown, but still unable to put the rage into constructive or artful words — and still wary of correcting Cherie’s mispronunciation of my name because of the power imbalance between us. My tenured co-instructor’s role was to judge me and determine (along with a committee) whether my adjunct job would ever become permanent. If I would be deemed worthy of staying there. If I possessed the right kind of values.
And then there was what had happened one morning a week earlier: My co-instructor, who had never seen me at faculty or after-event parties — I do not drink and have not gone on a date since my divorce — had come across me standing alone in tears before a women’s-bathroom mirror in the humanities building. The pity in her eyes was worse than the spattering of orange-brown diarrhea in the middle bathroom stall, which both of us had opened and shut promptly without entering. My co-instructor looked at my tearstained face for a moment, not saying a word.
The day had started with my face pleasingly tear free and well moisturized. Then, early in the morning, my mother had texted me two lines:
Nayna my baby you ungrateful wretch
If I don’t hear from you in 24 hours, I will kill myself.
After reading my mother’s text, I’d tried to call her, but she’d let the call go straight to voice mail. Typical. When Cherie spied me in the aftermath, I must have looked truly pathetic, bereft and sodden, like a girl dumped by some unworthy jerk of a boyfriend.
“Did something happen?” Cherie asked. “Are you all right?”
I knew without having to be told, knew from my entire experience of the world, that Cherie could not guess that I was crying because my incestuous mother might have been, at that very moment, trying to kill herself while blaming me for it. Cherie, I imagined, had only ever cried when someone she loved died. Or when a pet was sick. We stood together in silence. I could have reached for her hand, but then a group of ordinary girls came in the bathroom and surrounded us — normal, everyday, loud young women laughing, reapplying lipstick, gossiping.
“No problem,” I said to Cherie. “I’ll be fine.”
I’d been crying in frustration. I wanted both to completely cut my mother off and, at the same time, to save her, this woman who constantly reminded me that she had brought me into the world. My divorce from my ex-husband had only just gone through, and earlier that week my mother had learned, as if through weird divination, that I was now living alone, that Richard and I were not (as I had told her) hard at work “healing” our marriage after all. And she’d begun a campaign, by letter, phone, flowers, and email, to convince me to live with her forever. Not to care for her through some hard illness — that wasn’t needed yet. No, she meant for us to be “partners, mother and daughter, truest loves. Come home, my love.” My mother, who routinely insulted white feminists, had even found an Adrienne Rich quote for one of her letters:
The most intimate and physical mother-daughter relationship is at the heart of the true world.
I suspected she’d made this quote up, using the poet’s name to impart a patina of authority. But I still kept the letter, along with the rest. I had not yet earned the right to throw my mother’s words away. I didn’t want to be ungrateful. I was ungrateful, though, and a thoroughly ungrateful wretch I sought to remain. In my one real attempt at self-determination, at freedom, I had texted her, that day I was crying in the bathroom, that I would not be coming to live with her or to care for her. “Over my dead body,” I’d said. Soon after that, my mother had made her threat.
Now, a week after we’d exchanged ultimatums, here I was, seething in the bright sunlight of that outdoor writing class, having been called to comment upon this made-up story about incest. That morning at 8:12 AM, before the ten o’clock class, I’d learned that my mother actually was dying — not by suicide but from cancer: pancreatic, possibly the same kind that had taken the life of the sweet, nonabusive mother of the brilliant Chinese Singaporean writing student, who had offered us, in such good spirits, her well-crafted story about incest.
I thought about saying to the class, Honestly I found this deplorable — meaning to invoke Hillary Clinton, whom my mother admired. Or I could have called it a provocative and smoothly executed trope. I knew from the students’ papers that they ascribed many meanings to the word trope, and using it might have discouraged further questions. For if they did ask questions, I would have to continue to talk about the childhood sexual abuse in Marie’s story, and I wasn’t sure I could bear it.
Worried that if I gave the wrong response, or no response, Cherie might submit an evaluation of my teaching that was negative enough to get me replaced, I finally ventured a reply, my words coming out in paragraphs (as they always do when I choose not to tell the truth). Confident-sounding paragraphs, such that the students bent their heads to write some of it down, no doubt feeling productive. I prattled on: “The story raises questions without answering them explicitly — surely in the manner of the best fiction. One of the questions is how a little girl subjected to this sort of violence and abuse could then grow up, as this character does, to be a functioning adult at all. It is to Marie’s credit that she imagines this. This intact functioning—”
“But it is very far from optimal functioning,” said Cherie, her dark eyes boring into mine. “Nothing resembling optimal, let me just say.”
“But what is ‘optimal,’ anyway?” I asked lightly. “As a word, it isn’t that different from normal.” Seeing the students, other than Marie, nod in agreement, I grew bold. “It’s really kind of ableist to judge any human experience as abnormal. It’s outdated.” Cherie stared at me but stayed quiet for once. “The point of Marie’s narrative here is that the girl, whom we see at the end of the story jumping off a boat to go swimming, finds freedom from the weight of her trauma somehow, and it is not for us readers to know exactly how. I think—”
“I don’t think anyone who went through what she did could find complete freedom,” Marie said, interrupting me, and not for the first time. No student in this class had ever interrupted Cherie when she was talking about anything, including the rabbits who nibbled at her vegetable garden.
“People like that often find themselves alone,” Cherie opined.
“Oh, of course, understandably,” I murmured, marveling at her ability to quickly and smoothly disregard my nonchalant ableism accusation. I said no more, letting the potential conflict dissipate — a skill I’d learned from dealing with my mother. Birds sang. Breezes fluttered our pages. I sipped from my recycled water bottle and saw that Cherie at least seemed mildly satisfied. The students were fidgeting, which meant it was time to take a break. “Can we have twenty?” one of the especially young and pretty students pleaded, literally batting her eyes at Cherie, who agreed immediately, indulgently, giving the girl an affectionate glance that I couldn’t stand to look at directly.
By the time the class reconvened, some other student’s story was up for discussion, and this one bore no relation to mine. Soon the focus was far from my mother and me, though we remained invisible presences in that sunny clearing.
In the four weeks following that class, Cherie and the others on the committee (which I learned included my ex, Richard, who strangely didn’t recuse himself) recommended me for a permanent position, which I turned down, surprisingly, in favor of an offer in another city, another country. A country where I thought I might someday adopt a child.
In the meantime I sat with my mother at the hospice day after day. I suppose I almost lived there. The sight of the sun setting outside her window comforted me. It might have been the first time I had ever been completely confident of my physical integrity while in a room with her. In the few weeks she had left, I kept vigil over my increasingly incoherent mother, grateful that, though I often sat at her bedside, she didn’t have the strength to caress me. Sometimes I moved to sit at the side table in my mother’s room, far away from her bed — to give her space, I told myself, ignoring the plea in her eyes when they opened and saw me. Ignoring even the several times she managed, from her bed, to reach out to me. Which no one saw.
“You must have been your mother’s everything,” one of the older hospice nurses said, mistaking my silence for grief, not revulsion.
Whenever my mother raised her voice, the nurses turned up the morphine. Unlike me, they named her hoarse rattle as a sign of pain, rather than defeat.
Writing without pause during and after my visits, I finished my teaching-portfolio pieces. I completed all the stories I’d grown weary of, all of which pertained to what had happened to me, to my mother. All of which was in a past I had resolved to make distant. I wanted to leave that place without a trace of an accent; all of the native odors left behind. My ex-husband was just a reminder of where I had been. Cherie, for her part, was diligent in giving feedback on my portfolio. She marked the text here and there, at one point even referencing, for my edification, our student Marie’s “stronger” story about child abuse, as if reminding me of some stronger life I hadn’t lived but that would have been possible for me if I hadn’t been waiting for my mother to die, if I hadn’t been waiting to be free.
And what was Cherie’s final, pithy suggestion to me?
Don’t try to pull off a cancer story for your tenure-track portfolio, Nina. What a disappointing genre. It’s been done to death.