I began this week in tears. Early Monday morning, hot, torrential tears were flowing as if I were in the midst of my last heartbreak—or the one before that, or the one before that. I was reading Junot Díaz’s searingly confessional essay in the New Yorker about confronting and coping with his childhood rape. Like many other readers, I was weeping for a boy I never knew, a boy who, by his own admission, never had the opportunity to know himself.
But as shattering as I found Díaz’s revelations of his own profound damage, I was also weeping for all the damage he’d confessed to doing as a result. I was weeping for all the women he’d potentially broken with his brokenness.
And though I only know Junot Díaz through his words, I also wept for myself.
I rarely use the word “triggered,” even in jest. But if ever the word applied to me, it was while reading Díaz’s accounts—loosely framed as an apology—of the many women who’d dared to love someone seemingly rendered incapable of love. The nature of the brutality visited upon him had been so complete, he could leave nothing but devastation in his wake for decades, or so he writes: “I couldn’t stand to be loved. To be seen.”
It is estimated that 1 in 6 boys have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18 (and 1 in 4 girls; both figures may be underestimated). As I read Díaz’s recollections of the pain he’d caused, the “mask” he wore, and his years of chronically sabotaging intimacy without any framework in which to even process a logical explanation, I was catapulted back to some of my most painful relationships. What traumas might my former partners have been processing—might they still be? How many failures had I internalized that were not my own? Mired in so much stoicism, evasion and silence, how would I have ever known the difference?
Díaz described behavior I knew all too well: “After all, it’s hard to have love when you absolutely refuse to show yourself, when you’re locked behind a mask.”
Simply put, that shit was triggering AF.
I thought about the first man I’d ever loved, who’d spent his early childhood in foster care. In the years we spent together, he claimed not to remember much that had happened before he was adopted at age 8.
Another—also adopted—had increasingly made me suspect that I was simply an aspect of a new identity he was obsessively and elaborately manufacturing—almost as if he wanted to render all former versions of himself obsolete.
And finally, the most recent: a closed book that I consequently never found a safe space with. I remembered how, when it was finally, pathetically over—almost a year after it should’ve been—he’d admitted that he’d yet to find that space within himself.
I thought about all the beautiful, possibly irreparably broken men I’ve laid hands upon—and who’ve laid hands on me—and how their brokenness ultimately became mine. How loving them in spite of themselves became my damage, too. My doubt, my shame, my insecurity. As Díaz admits: “A heartbreak can take out a world. I know hers did. Took out her world and mine.”
In truth, I have no interest in dissecting or debating Díaz’s childhood trauma or adult transgressions. His experience was his own private hell, the rest ultimately his own reckoning. But his behavior is far more common than the intimacy of his essay suggests. However personal, his admissions present an opportunity to explore the greater epidemic of the contagion of trauma; the repercussive aftershocks that create even more victims of the initial crime or catastrophe.
As explained in the 2016 psychological text A Multidimensional Approach to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—From Theory to Practice:
Romantic relationships generally represent the most important, yet challenging, interactions for a majority of adults, especially for survivors of childhood interpersonal trauma. As such, commitment to a romantic partner can be difficult and survivors’ disruptions in the formation and maintenance of interpersonal relationships would be especially salient in romantic relationships. The development of commitment and intimacy may increase feelings of vulnerability and trigger unresolved issues, emotions, and cognitions associated with past traumatic experiences. ... Thus, even when survivors are able to commit to a romantic partner, their relationships are generally more dysfunctional, exhibit lack in closeness, feelings of affection, and personal disclosure and show greater couple and sexual dissatisfaction.
Soon after I read Díaz’s piece, a good friend—male, also a writer, also black—texted me to gauge my response, no doubt guessing that it had been an emotional one. I confessed to him my very visceral reaction, coupled with my very personal experiences. I shared with him a few of the responses I’d seen on social media that reminded me just how painfully common these experiences were.
A true journalist, he asked, “Do you think the inverse happens less often, [regarding] black women subjecting their men to trauma?”
We discussed my own dysfunction: my current reluctance to romantically engage; the buffers I’ve created, both emotional and physical, to avoid contact—to avoid, as Díaz notes, “being seen.” I’m not sure I can stand to be loved anymore, either. At least not at the moment. I think of Díaz’s words: “Classic trauma psychology: approach and retreat, approach and retreat. And hurting other people in the process.”
That is what I don’t want to do. So I have simply retreated.
I told my friend that while I’d never attempt to speak for every woman, or even other women, in my experience, female trauma is often inflicted upon ourselves first—not exclusively, but first. And while women who are trauma survivors are just as prone to seek validation through physical/sexual acceptance, in those instances, we also generally welcome the emotional connection that accompanies intimacy rather than rejecting it. For those who are attempting to heal damage, that’s what many of us are truly looking for.
“You think men are more inclined to reject that connection?” my friend asked, challenging me.
The truth is, I’m not sure many of them know to look for it in the first place. In my experience, they’ve often wanted the validation first. Past that, they’ve rarely thought beyond their base need for affirmation of their worthiness and manhood, and sex is often how that manifests for them. It’s less deliberately cruel than woefully careless, but as Díaz’s tale illustrates, continued carelessness makes it cruel.
“I think the ability to compartmentalize is a luxury more easily afforded to men,” I responded.
That night, I found myself restless, needing to read Díaz’s piece again. It was as if I expected that something new would be revealed to me. I didn’t cry this time, but my eyes caught on something that satisfied my gnawing feeling that trauma is transferable:
I’ve sometimes commented on the intergenerational harm that systemic sexual violence has inflicted on African diasporic communities, on my community ...
Díaz is speaking of unveiling his own history, but I couldn’t help also reading it as a testimonial to the interpersonal harm inflicted: a crisis of intimacy that isn’t only passed on to our children but also to each other.
Most of us are familiar with the platitude “Hurt people hurt people.” In the all-too-rare discussions about male sexual abuse, often the “Vampire Myth” arises—the belief that male victims of childhood sexual assault are automatically prone to become perpetrators themselves. Research thankfully indicates that this is untrue, but there are other ways in which that trauma pays itself forward. Like nuclear fallout, the side effects can be devastating to those far away from the initial site of the destruction.
So, what about us? Often, it feels like the answer is simply, “So what?”
Tellingly, even in the midst of such a profoundly vulnerable confession, Díaz’s most pointed and poignant apology isn’t to any of his former lovers but to an admirer he’d met for only a few minutes at one of his many book signings. Reading his words again, I’m reminded of another oft-repeated phrase: “Life becomes easier when you learn to accept an apology you never got.”
I know this is years too late, but I’m sorry I didn’t answer you. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the truth. I’m sorry for you, and I’m sorry for me. We both could have used that truth, I’m thinking. It could have saved me (and maybe you) from so much.
The Glow Up tip: If you or anyone you know is a victim of sexual assault, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). If you are a man who has experienced sexual abuse as a child or adult, the organizations 1 in 6 and Male Survivor are available to provide strategic support.