For the survivors.
Your strength and resilience continue to inspire.
It is a privilege to know you.
THE SPECULUM CAUSES very little physical pain in a healthy woman. It may feel strange, cold, or uncomfortable, but painful is not usually an accurate descriptor. I am sitting in a gynecologist’s office with a young, physically healthy woman, holding her hand while the doctor inserts the speculum. Her therapist asked me to accompany her, because she needs additional support at this type of doctor’s appointment. I know the reason for this, and as I sit here and hold her hand, while she winces in pain, I try to only think about how, really, the speculum causes very little physical pain.
I repeat to myself, almost as a refrain: It’s nothing more than a cold, metal instrument. The lines in the young woman’s face are pulled taut and her eyes, those eyes, they are wide open. Afraid. I know why she is afraid. Her medical forensic exam tells me. Her lawyers tell me. Her therapist tells me. They have trained me and I am skilled. I can explain, with enviable intellectual grace, that she was raped and left in a dark cell filled with excrement. But when I look at those eyes and feel the grip of her palm in this clean gynecologist’s office with its sterilized instruments, her slow, shaky, dark fear places its little fingers around my lungs. These fingers are cold and childlike; they know not what they do. I run from them, towards the warmer bones interlaced with mine as she lays on the table, her legs spread apart as they were the last time a person touched her in that place.
I stare at her hand instead of her face, finding solace in the contrast of deep, dark, dorsal and lighter ventral surface. Ventral is a spatial word—one for the location of her palm relative to a crisp plane of section. Her palm is smooth. Her scars are elsewhere—in her forensic exam, we count them. We count knife wounds, cuts from kneeling on glass. Someone else should be holding her hand. Mine shakes.
Her name is Grace. She is a survivor of rape, of political torture. There are thousands of women like her who come to the United States every year, seeking protection. Maybe you hear about them on the news. Even if you hear their stories, you may not listen to their stories. Reading a scar is not the same as reading about scars.
Six months earlier, Grace and I were sitting in a different room. They tell us their stories here, and we check boxes next to concise statements. If the individual’s story is not consistent with the US definition of political torture, then we don’t accept them as a client. We can’t give them our free legal representation, medical care, and psychotherapy. Grace’s case turns out to be very clear-cut, which is something we are always happy to hear (we can help someone), and sickly so, because if we can help someone, it means another person was tortured.
I reach out to shake her hand, smiling. I try to welcome her, warmly. I wonder if she knows that it feels good to me, easier to swallow her story whole without ever tasting it. Forgive me for this, but I am scared. After months of equating people with facts, it is getting harder for me to tell which side of the prison cell door I am on. In one of my dreams, I stand outside Grace’s cell and take notes on the rape as it occurs, a kind of play-by-play. My eyes open in bed to the echo of her screams. I do not go back to sleep that night, opening my window instead to listen to the cicadas.
She talks about sitting in the hospital bed after she escaped. Her family came to visit and her Mom informed her, surveying the growing purple sun encircling her eye, and the freshly made burn marks, that she is no longer her daughter.
“Maybe...” Grace continues, gazing out the window. Her pupils are dilated slightly, in the way our eyes relax into farther distance.
Dust floats slowly through the window light, curving below her jaw line, coming to rest on her hands, now clasped. “Maybe there is something I can do to make them love me again.” Her tone is calm, even kind. She shows no anger.
I sit here, I hear the words, but my hand doesn’t know how to write the words. Everything else, everything else can be translated to the page, marked in sequence. I don’t know where to put this. I look at the bullet points on my paper, each listing, listening to a different aspect of the torture. There are lines for additional notes at the end. Multiple lines. I pick up my pen two, three times, and put it back down. This must be no more than a recording, a repetition of her words.
But these words are a mesh; they are grafting a vessel in me that I didn’t know was bleeding. My cells, they reform around the mesh, encircling their fragile arms around curvilinear letters. I am in her hospital bed, and it is my Mom standing over me. Her eyes rest on the purple sun around my eye, and then drift away from me, disgusted. Get me out of this room. I don’t want to be in the bed with this woman, I don’t want it to be me in the bed, and my Mom looking at me. I remind myself that when they tell their stories, boundaries between self and other often become blurred in this way. I remind myself of this and try to breathe.
Grace loves someone, another woman. She loves someone. She was tortured for this, and abandoned. Her Mom looked at her little girl, beaten, stripped of everything that is human about any of us—because that is what torture does; it systematically dehumanizes—and her Mom said, “You are not mine anymore.” She left her daughter isolated in that hospital bed shaking underneath the sheets, their fibers coarse on the raw skin of her bottom. I see this sweet little girl, Mommy’s little girl, who Mommy thought was sweet before Mommy knew she was gay, and I want to do everything for her that she failed to do.
One time I almost commit a federal offense on Grace’s behalf (apparently opening those postal service mailboxes on street corners is very frowned upon). I stand outside sweating, gesticulating to the mailman, committing client privacy violations left and right about how I checked the wrong box on the I-589 application for asylum, making the torture narrative appear inconsistent. The mailman has dark circles under his sallow blue eyes, which are light, amused even. He kneels down to unlock the mailbox, brushing my hand lightly as he gives me the envelope.
I walk inside, reminding myself to change the entry in the database. At the Hoskins Institute for Survivors of Torture, where I work as a case manager, we list types of torture quite specifically with their subtypes. We must keep them organized:
Asphyxiation: multiple types
Death Threats: multiple types (threat to self, threat to family, etc.)
Psychological: multiple types
Forced Positions: standing, hanging in various stretched positions
Sensory Stress: forced staring at intense light, etc.
Sensory Deprivation: solitary confinement, lack of exposure to light, etc.
They do not specify a distinction between vaginal and anal rape here. They should. Every time I look down at the list before an interview, this makes me angry. I start creating sub-categories, rape-vaginal and rape-anal. These things are not the same for everyone. They do not mean the same to everyone. To some, anal rape is more shameful, so shameful that a woman can barely look at herself in the mirror for years afterwards. Did the database authors forget to write about that? Did they forget to scrawl out in big, red lipstick letters on a mirror, that many cultures lead women to believe they are disgusting and to blame for anal rape? Neither does the database make note of the feelings associated with the various torture methods. Asphyxiation. What are the feelings of asphyxiation? Panic, I would at least imagine. But I haven’t experienced it, and they have, and it’s not my place to ask them if those words are sufficient. You never probe a survivor about anything, especially their torture. If they want to tell you about it, they will. And it will burn you.
And this is for the best, because something like that should burn you. It should scorch your eyes. It should torch straight down to the sap of your bones and leave you shaking. It should give you nightmares about militiamen with guns when your imagination never conceived of such things before. It should make you have to turn off a Hollywood film with a cartoonish scene of an old man being tortured in a hanging cage. It should do this, but that doesn’t mean you are okay with it. You want it to go away. They want it to go away too, more than you do, and now you both want it to go away. Well isn’t that a sticky situation.
I often wonder how I can be of any help when this is the case. No one wants to see, not me, not them, not anyone else who works here. So we all scurry around and do our work, blind as bats, day by day. Maybe if we don’t open our eyes it won’t be there, we think, and it will leave us alone.
No. Those dark faces, dark nights, and the screaming, and the scar wrapped around her ankle, like a little kid’s handmade bracelet: You don’t lose these things. That dark drips its way smoothly, slowly, like clockwork. It’s a part of your bones before you know it, the spongy part like I said, the marrow, and then it never leaves. It is the mind’s aftermath, and the tattered eye inside, quickly scanning and frantically hunting for any signs of movement in the prison cell, the prison guard’s voice, the acrid smell of urine, feces, and human decay. There is a corpse next to me. I am there. But no, she was there. You were never there (I was never there). She hides in the corner away from the urine, legs collapsed, voice hoarse, bottom sore. She cried before, but had stopped crying now. They tell her they will teach her not to be “gay.” I thought about how I had never cared about gay rights before.
“Rachel.” Grace is starting to sit up now on the exam table, looking at me with a concerned expression. “I said your name once, you didn’t hear.”
“Oh. Sorry about that, Grace.” I am not sure what else to say. At least my hand is not shaking, but maybe that’s just because she is holding it.
Copyright 2017. Rachel Asher. All rights reserved.
A version of Hand Holding was published in
the Spring 2016 edition of Body Electric
a publication of University of Illinois College of Medicine.