Beyond Survival, Week 8: Alabama Shame

A while back, a Jewish colleague of mine wrote an essay in which she described feeling terror—ancestral fear—at merely stepping through a gas station to use the bathroom in my home state of Alabama. This same colleague introduced me at a reading once, and made jokes to the effect of, “I wouldn’t want to meet Georgia Pearle in a dark alley—She will cut you—Don’t mess with her.” Not knowing how else to respond in the moment, when the microphone was mine, I said, “Yeah, I don’t recommend messing with me, either.”

Years earlier, I’d been sitting with Amiri Baraka at a small iron table one Sunday afternoon, no one else in sight on the street. We did not know each other. We were making small talk. He asked where I was from, and after I said, “Alabama,” he replied, “I’ve been to Alabama. Yes, I know Alabama. Horrible place. Horrible, horrible place.”

“I know,” I replied. What else could I reply?

I know I’m from a horrible, horrible place.

I’m from a place where most of the population has not historically had sovereignty over their own bodies. And I’m part of that legacy. The horrible place is something I carry in my own bodily memory. Others carry it, too, of course, and carry it differently.

One of the reasons it’s so hard to let go of the shame of violation is that the violation itself is a rupture in our separateness. How do any of us get to stay separate from what’s been inside of us? How can I stay something other than horror when horror has so often been inside of me? At what point does it cease to be mine, even though it was never mine?

There have been so many times those distinctions have so blurred that I’ve tried to excise myself from myself in order to get rid of him.

No matter how ambivalent I am about my home, it’s as much part of me as any landscape could be. The Deep South made me, much as anything else has. Alabama is in me deeper than bone.

And Alabama is the place where constant rape jokes and constant child abuse and molestation jokes made sure I knew that my debasement was not only pleasure for my perpetrator, but the very thought of it was pleasure—humor! joy, even!—for people who hadn’t been there to witness it.

And Alabama is the place where vigilante justice and lynching language is still so prevalent that I sat around with my friends and fantasized murder of my stepfather when I was a teenager. I didn’t know anything about the history, and I certainly didn’t know anything about the racial significance, which had been totally whitewashed from my education until I went to college in New England. I was just steeped enough in vigilante culture that roping up and torturing my pedophilic rapist seemed a sound option when I expected the courts to fail me.

I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve ever harbored such thirst for vengeance or violence. I’ve never once spanked my kids, never raised a hand to anyone in my adult life—I’ve been vigilant about not carrying violences with me, vigilant about not multiplying them in my waking walking world. And I’m lucky that I’ve always had pages where I can put my rage, a writing practice that allows me to put all the fury down, sift through it, find a form for it, then close it so that I don’t carry it into real-world action. I can be mean as hell on the page, with a rage that’s deep and wide and cruel. In my daily life, I’m pretty clawless and my teeth aren’t all that sharp. But I’ve been Alabama enough to fantasize lynching a man—a white man, a man of Old Southern Stock, sure, but still I could have become the very hate I’ve always hated, given a single slight turn, given one night with the right circumstances twenty years ago.

I’m still ashamed that in so many ways my story is an Alabama cliche.

I’m ashamed that I accepted abuse for so long in so many different iterations.

I’m ashamed of all the work I still have to do every day to keep myself wanting to live.

I’m ashamed that I’m not better at moving forward or more efficient at it.

I’m ashamed that I’m a high school dropout.

I’m ashamed that I’ve had two failed marriages.

I’m ashamed that I have two kids from two different fathers.

I’m ashamed that one of my kids’ fathers has been to prison with a charge of manufacturing methamphetamines.

I’m ashamed that my love wasn’t enough to pull either of my husbands out of their addictions or their self-destructions.

I’m ashamed that I loved deeply the men who’ve so deeply failed me.

I’m ashamed that I’m owed tens of thousands in back child support that I’m sure I’ll never see.

I’m ashamed of the years I was on foodstamps.

I’m ashamed that I’ve never made a living wage.

I’m ashamed that my kids’ childhoods have been full of upheaval, poverty, and abandonment.

I’m ashamed that I’m in so much debt that I may never have a sustainable financial situation.

I’m ashamed that I’ve tried so hard to get out of Alabama instead of staying and trying to change it.

I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve been too far on the fringe back home to get much done there beyond basic surviving.

Ashamed as I am, I try to move forward in my life shamelessly, and what I’m not ashamed of is what I’ve managed to make of my life. I’m proud of who I’ve been in the face of my circumstances.

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I’m proud of the kids I’ve raised to work hard and be decent, conscientious human beings.

I’m proud that I graduated from one of the best women’s colleges in the country, and that I continue to have a network there that grounds and sustains me.

I’m proud that I’ve made it through an MFA and my PhD coursework as a single parent. I’m proud that I’m still doing what matters most to me.

I’m proud that I spent so many years refusing to commit to anything but my kids and my work.

I’m proud that I now have a partnership that’s healthy for me, that allows me to be my whole self, that pushes me forward, and that’s a haven of comfort, fulfillment, and peace.

I’m proud of this damn book of poems I’ve written that still hasn’t been taken, but which I pull apart and revise better every year nonetheless.

Right now, I’m especially proud that my entire network back home in Alabama, from my closest friends to my extended family to the people I know in passing to the kids who went to my elementary school, are resisting and fighting and activating and emboldening for change in my home state. I’m proud that these are my people.

I’m not much for hope, but do believe in the sort of faith that requires moving through the dark even when we’ve forgotten what light looks like. And I think my people in Alabama, of all places, know what that kind of faith requires of us all.