Damaged Like Me
Essays on Love, Harm, and Transformation
Mental Frameworks and Emotional Attachments
Discussing Our Damage and Choosing Transformation
The Hero’s Journey—and What the Rest of Us Can Make Together
People who have been damaged, thrown away, marginalized, or traumatized are more capable of apprehending social patterns, precisely because they’ve needed to be aware and vigilant about how the world works. For too long, those who rely on long-held rights and entitlement have claimed that others are biased about the very topics on which they have expertise. Damaged Like Me is a series of essays and stories that reveal a complex social landscape. It shows how possible and vital it is to build roads to a more equitable and loving collective culture that includes body sovereignty, racial justice, gender equity/liberation, and much more. It does so by relying on the insights and approaches to knowledge production of those on the receiving end of inequity and violence, those whose “objectivity” on issues of oppression has been consistently maligned despite their having the most to teach us.
Praise for Damaged Like Me
"Storyteller Kimberly Dark presents fatness alongside womanhood, queerness, and more as arenas where damage operates as micro-level reflections of macro-level injustices."
—Mackenzie Edwards for Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society
"Kimberly's writing is intimate and haunting—she kicks you in the gut while holding your emotions in the palm of her hand."
—Jessamyn Stanley, author of Every Body Yoga & Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance
"Like a topo map that transcends our known meridians toward expansiveness and allows us to sit with the past to create a livable future, Kimberly Dark's Damaged Like Me invites us, from our 'stigmatized positions,' to step closer to our damage as sites of knowledge indispensable to our healing and our knowing.Through personal storytelling and intellectual inquiry, Dark generously restories these locations of damage as places of hope and regrowth, all while asking us to speak aloud how we come to love and let ourselves be loved. This book is an act of queer abundance.
—Cooper Lee Bombardier, author of Pass With Care: Memoirs
"There are few spaces outside of Disability Justice where the mess and mayhem of trauma is allowed to exist alongside abiding dignity. Damaged Like Me is one of them. Kimberly Dark has handed us a shame free template for telling all our shifting truths. A spell, in fact. We, the damaged, are emboldened to show up for ourselves and each other. We are given tools for blunting the stab of bias. We are re-routed from the deceptive road-map that has us hell-bent on triumph. Together we will be traitors to silence and we will survive this too. These are stories of the ways trauma shapes us and stays with us. Of the broken-into body and just how much language matters. They detail the inter-related thought systems that perpetuate child abuse, racism, fat bias, and misogyny."
—Dr. Lucy Aphramor, Dietitian, Founder of Well Now, co-author of Body Respect
“Kimberly Dark profoundly understands the power of storytelling to create change. Damaged Like Me begins with her body and reaches out toward new meaning-making in a burst of resilience and imagination. Each dazzling essay asks what we might learn from the tensions, contradictions, erasures and difficulties we have inhabited at the edges of culture, and how we may yet reinvent ourselves and new communities. These brilliant insights will illuminate new paths even through the troubled dark.”
—Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Chronology of Water
"In Damaged Like Me, Kimberly Dark weaves together philosophical thoughts, sociopolitical commentary, and personal narrative with writing so evocative that at times I felt I was Kimberly. Riveting, honest, and haunting truth-telling."
—Lindo Bacon, PhD, scientist and author of Radical Belonging
"Damaged Like Me is a sociology rooted in the self—in a queer body, a woman’s body, a fat body, a sexualized body, a body defined into or out of whiteness or motherhood or lovability. Bringing to mind the works of Tressie McMillan Cottom and José Muñoz, Kimberly Dark skillfully employs scene, moments of bodies touching bodies, poetry, yearning, and structural complexity to unveil her theses. This memoir is a love letter to outsiders, in a way, but the kind of love that offers both tenderness and accountability. A demand for the best self that can show up on any given day—because best selves create better worlds."
—Erin Kate Ryan, author of Quantum Girl Theory
"Kimberly Dark has forever transformed the way I understand sex, gender, and the notion of 'damage.' The patriarchy should be terrified of this book. The rest of us can stick it in our hearts—emboldenment for the revolution.”
—Ariel Gore, author of Hexing the Patriarchy
About the Author
Kimberly Dark is a writer, professor, and raconteur. She has written award-winning plays, and taught and performed for a wide range of audiences in various countries over the past two decades. She is the author of Fat, Pretty, and Soon to Be Old, The Daddies, Love and Errors, and co-editor of the anthology Ways of Being in Teaching.
This book is dedicated to reinvention. Often, we follow someone else’s light to freedom, and maybe later we learn to lift a light for others—not for personal gain, nor to be better than somebody, but to show that certain strange paths stretch into the future too. There are gifts to share. No one is beyond love.
When language—whether printed or spoken or lived—is put to difficult or confusing experiences, we’re not just reinventing ourselves. We enliven the culture that reaches both forward and back into other generations. Right now, we are somewhere in the past, saving our grandparents’ lives. We are somewhere in the future saying thank you to ourselves, even as we turn to look further into what cannot yet be known.
I want the freedom to carve and chisel my own face, to staunch the bleeding with ashes, to fashion my own gods out of my entrails. —Gloria Anzaldua
"Language takes us to the bigness of ourselves, our origins, our universe.
We choose our kuleana. I make sure that whoever comes into our learning, we give them a safe space to learn and we also hold them accountable." —Kumu Leialoha Ilae-Kaleimamahu
Love is a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust. —bell hooks
Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so. —Noam Chomsky
I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court]? And I say ‘When there are nine.’ People are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.
—Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Supreme Court justice
It’s not so much that we didn’t know, as that we didn’t acknowledge the meaning of what we knew.
That which is common comes to be seen as normal. Occasionally, someone points to an obvious fact that had been rendered invisible. Looking at a picture of U.S. presidents, for instance, it’s possible to note that they’re all men or that only one is a person of color. We’ve seen the picture of the presidents in our elementary school classrooms and in online memes and in our minds for our entire lives. And whether or not one agrees with the power of the office, with the dominion of its values, there is a broader message being delivered in its homogeneity. A true message that perpetuates itself silently in the image and loudly in language, both subtly and overtly in every micro-interaction of government, business, and religion: none but white men are truly welcome here.
The issue here is how we make meaning of what we see. If one believes—even passively or unconsciously—that women are inferior leaders or that people of color are inferior humans, then that lack of representation is actually desirable. That would be conscious bias. If one associates young Black men and women with crime, considering them a constant potential source of violence, then punitive—and even violent—policing might make sense. Yes, humans can actually hold the values of human equality sacred in the abstract without acting to dismantle the systems and actions that support our deeper biases, comforts, and associations.
New meanings don’t just suddenly come into being. At the moment chattel slavery was abolished in the United States, slaveholders did not suddenly change their views on the humanity of those they held in bondage. They were being politically forced to change a practice but not an ideology. Every generation of white people in the United States since then has navigated the meaning of equality parallel to the ideologies of white supremacy and what it means to make and hold wealth. We are a nation obsessed with the accumulation of wealth as a measure of intelligence, hard work, and fortitude, despite that accumulation always having relied on the theft of land and labor of Black and brown people. We used to know that we diminish the humanity of Black and brown people. Now we hide what we know from ourselves.
The widespread 2020 marches and demands to address police brutality had to prompt change, and, because of how capital has come to supersede the worth of some humans, property damage was probably also needed before individuals and the systems that represent them were capable of hearing. Time will tell whether the positive changes in policing catalyzed by the events following George Floyd’s death will hold or be transformed, as in the past, into new policies that enforce longstanding U.S. values. At this writing, abolition and a redistribution of resources toward true community safety have not been adequately explored. The old scripts—about who is worthy, intelligent, capable—stay with us for generations. We install new meanings in the culture through stories, through listening, through shared experiences, and by becoming significant in one another’s lives. Massive public outcry and the amplification of marginalized voices can help us to listen and pay attention.
To anyone paying attention, it has also been obvious, ignored, and completely wrong that so many children are abused and that so many women are sexually assaulted, threatened, harassed, and marginalized. White supremacy, gender nonconformity, and the daily, persistent ridicule and dismissal of fat and disabled bodies are still difficult to discuss socially. We know, but we don’t want to acknowledge what we know. Studies abound showing that people of color, fat people, women, and disabled people all suffer biases in the workplace, in law, in education, and in healthcare. Yet these biases persist because we don’t discuss them publicly and we don’t sanction the perpetrators of abuse on a regular basis. Few openly believe that child abuse and rape are okay and should not be stopped and addressed Yet the patterns in the data on how we punish those crimes show very different and distinct cultural values. The fact that we do not actually focus on stopping abusers and addressing their actions as part of communities that deserve safety and care shows that the culture is not interested in disturbing male dominion.
The #metoo movement has propelled conversations about sexual assault into broader contexts much as the recent Black Lives Matter protests have increased conversations about police brutality. My step-mother, in her seventies, used the #metoo movement as a time to disclose her own experiences with sexual assault, on social media. I’ve been writing and speaking about these topics for years, and, though she’s been interested in my work, it wasn’t enough to prompt her disclosure. She came forward because a public conversation had progressed to the point where solidarity and bravery, rather than fear, prevailed.
Progress is hard because we snap back to what comforts us—or at least what’s familiar—like tight little rubber bands. However, maybe it’s possible for greater elasticity to emerge at the intersections of supremacist issues, and for daily, individual practices with language and interaction to encourage lasting change.
Culture is shifting in multiple directions at once with regard to revelations about how white men have organized human systems to their benefit for generations. Those men with fewer financial resources find it difficult to discern their privilege and too readily become foot soldiers in the war to maintain the status quo of resource distribution. This paradox doesn’t reveal those men as idiots; it shows how deeply attached to identity we are, as humans. Identification with white supremacist values is on the rise. As the gap between rich and poor has widened in the United States (as a result of social policies, not the natural order of capitalism), discussions about appearance/identity privilege become quickly contentious. Yet harbingers of change like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez are becoming public figures and making a claim to long-held power structures. Much maligned and resilient, she is showing she’s not afraid of hard work and learning. Some don’t hesitate to say that because she is young, or female or Latinx that she knows and can do nothing. Clearly, this is also profoundly and completely wrong. In addition to being capable of ignoring the obvious, we are also capable of stating the opposite of truth as fact.
So, with an understanding that marginalized and traumatized people, together, are a large cultural majority who have often been barred from leadership by stories and assumptions, what will we do?
I suggest we find ways to re-story public discourse so that we can see more possibilities and enact them. The very existence of young women of color in public leadership roles is doing exactly this. Whether we are discussing Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Alicia Garza, Stacy Abrams, Patrisse Cullors, or any other variety of public leaders whose roles vary widely, we are receiving a message, in their public labors, that can help re-story public possibility. We need more ways to understand full
participation—in media and the creation of knowledge and the framing of our very thinking and feeling. We can leverage the telling of individual stories into the transformation of culture more consciously than has ever occurred before because of the speed of discussion across electronic media. And still, much of how we learn boils down to daily interactions, how we tell others about our lives as they happen, and how they are heard, understood, and acted upon. We make meaning on our own and in concert. The closer we come to sharing experiences rather than just interpretations, the better.
My experiences as an incest survivor, as a fat queer woman, and as an active cultural creator—not just a cultural critic—have given me a kind of training and expertise that is valuable. I’m also trained, as a sociologist, to see and investigate social patterns. For so long, and even now, people like me (and likely you, for some specific reasons which you may believe you should hide) have been dismissed as biased about the exact topics on which we are expert. Of course, in the moment of fear or trauma or abuse, an individual is not empowered and can do little to contribute and improve society. The assumption that a person can never integrate and understand these experiences is incorrect, however. The assumption that those who are damaged are of no use is a nefarious silencer.
We must keep moving out into broader spheres of society and improving our world for the better. We take up credibility as it’s due and use our skills of re-creation to phoenix the culture from the ashes of trauma and stale expectations. We apply new thought frameworks and use more of our knowledge—particularly our body wisdom, so long thought to impede rational thought. The intuition that helped us to survive, that made us capable of observing and understanding others in order to avert danger, will help us create a more viable and compassionate culture for all.
I’m prompting new ways of seeing familiar things, through storytelling. I’m suggesting that you find pleasure in these stories and in your body and abilities. Especially when your body has been maligned and your experiences may have been anything but pleasurable. I’m also suggesting that you consider how you come to love, how you allow yourself to be loved. This is no small part of the cultural revolution we can enact. We have to learn to love bodies and lives we were taught were not respectable—including our own. It’s time to embrace the gifts you’ve developed in response to the life you’ve lived and to give those gifts boldly. Society needs them.
Mental Frameworks and Emotional Attachments
My female friend has been a firefighter for more than twenty years, and women in the fire service are pretty scarce. Even now, fewer than 3 percent of all firefighters in the United States are women. Many develop an interest in the profession because they have male family members who are firefighters—uncles, brothers, and fathers who encourage them and lend their credibility to the woman’s pursuit. Many are also big, strong women; many are gender-nonconforming in subtle or overt ways. There aren’t so many girly-girls on the job.
It’s easy to say, Whoa, of course not. Because that’s a man’s job. A firefighter has to be able to carry someone out of a burning building!
When that image pops to mind, is it a man carrying a child or a petite woman?
We build reality from the images we’ve grown up with. And we innovate. It helps to acknowledge how inherent some images have become. The best firefighters in our cultural imagination are men. They’re pulling heavy hose; they’re scaling heavy wooden ladders. The vast majority of women can’t do that kind of work. What are those feminists thinking?
After touring a fire station in Holland, I learned, once again, that cultural context can shift perspective. Lightweight aluminum ladders are the norm in First World fire stations, technology and teamwork assist in the heavy lifting, and body-size diversity is actually a boon in tight rescue situations.
My friend was an advocate for women in the fire service. After a long career of pointing out overt sexism in a male-dominated profession, she started a girl’s fire camp. Being big and strong herself, she saw how women struggled with upper body strength and taught them to use both leg and arm muscles to greater efficiency to pass the physical exams. She networked with other female firefighters and remained aware of her union-won rights to things like a gender-appropriate shower and changing room. One station where she worked back in the 1990s had to add on to the building to provide such a facility. She (and her union) rejected the original assumption that she should go across the street to use another city facility to change clothes.
The year she and I visited Amsterdam on vacation, we met up with two women she’d come to know through a Women in the Fire Service conference. They were firefighters too and arranged a tour of their fire station. Delighted to show us around, they also commented on how odd they found gender assumptions in U.S. fire stations. They marveled at how, in the United States, the image of hulking, masculine strength still prevailed as a professional standard—an image that largely excludes women. To be clear, there is not gender parity in the Dutch fire service, but it’s better than in the United States.
They showed us equipment and discussed procedures. While fighting fire was also frequently a familial profession in Holland, it wasn’t so strange for women to join the fire service. They shrugged and said, Well, we use research, best practice, and good equipment to get the job done. Their systems are often superior and require firefighters to be strong and capable but not Herculean.
Superficially, it seems that every fire service in the world has the same goal. Fire fighters fight fire. The cultural assumptions that undergird that simple truth tell a different story. In the United States, firefighters are part of a public distress response team that attends to both medical and fire emergencies. Most calls in urban areas are medical calls. A small percentage deal with fire. Yet we rarely see the big red engine and think of medical emergencies. The color and size of the truck itself invokes meaning. Public images of firefighters usually depict men rescuing children (and, interestingly, pets) from peril. Big men guard what families value.
After the World Trade Center buildings fell in New York on September 11, 2001, the role of firefighters as rescuers was further solidified. A new aspect of the professional image emerged as well—upholder of patriotic values. Suddenly, the U.S. flag became part of every image of firefighters. Previously, the job had community-hero connotations. Now, community and country became inextricably linked. In so many ways, the profession connotes masculinity. No wonder it’s hard to just invite women to apply for the job, tell the men to welcome them, and think the work of gender integration is done.
Among firefighters in Holland, the Dutch cultural values of teamwork, equity, and use of modern technology were visible in procedures, images, and interactions. Decisions were based more on research than on tradition, as in the United States. With different underlying patterns in the organization of the work, different processes seem logical. In the United States, ours is a deeply gendered system. Traditionally feminine methods of communication, feminine bodies, and women’s approaches are not valued in the U.S. fire service. The literature on women in the fire service often cites ill-fitting safety gear as a significant challenge. So strong is the masculine standard that simply redesigning clothing for different bodies seems like an insurmountable barrier. Women who successfully acculturate must meet masculine standards and take on the traditional values of the profession.
Patterns across Themes
Simple, linear stories are not enough if we truly want to understand how we’ve created and maintained the problems we face as a society. We need complex stories that reveal the architecture of everyday life—the things we’ve hidden from ourselves as simple and true.
In the United States, we’re particularly limited in our ability to see reality in terms of cultural context because so few of us travel abroad, or, when we do so, it’s for short recreational trips rather than actually exploring another culture for learning or in collegial relationships.
In the fire service example, it can seem absurd for a city to spend the additional funds to build women’s showers and changing facilities or to redesign safety gear with differently proportioned bodies in mind. After all, the numbers of female firefighters are so small and the benefit to the city seems tiny. It’s easy to see why the men who work in those stations feel they’re being asked to change their habits and compromise their comfort for no good reason. Yet the specific efforts and barriers to include women into male-dominated professions invoke patterns that replicate across all forms of oppression. If we focus on individual stories about fire stations—or even individual stories about gender, we may miss the broader landscape of how privilege and oppression work in everyday life.
Each of the essays in this collection tells a specific stand-alone story about my life, my cultural context, and how the two intersect. Many of them reveal, through detail and specificity, the architecture of everyday life—in both public and very private settings. They reveal the fact that we are all powerful social creators. Indeed, every part of human culture was created by humans. We either re-create or re-inscribe culture day by day through our words, interactions, what we allow, and what we negate.
There’s something more. As a collection, these essays begin to offer a map for a cultural terrain that may be in constant flux but is nonetheless understandable for the evolving landscape that it is. Ideally, each person’s individual body-mind-life map would contribute to our cultural understanding. Currently, only certain socially sanctioned stories are allowed to be part of the broader cultural map. Even those who believe in the value of diversity as an abstract concept can’t easily see how to bring those values into action given the powerful longevity of often-invisible institutions such as sexism, racism, classism, and sizeism.
These essays are about how social norms and patterns are established and disrupted again and again. They acknowledge the multiplicity of human roles and behaviors. Every social ill, power, and possibility lives in each individual. Yes, the essays are, at turns, funny and tragic, surprising and hopeful. And together they offer a model for reclaiming the conscious ability to create culture. We are indeed cultural creators, whether we do so passively or actively.
You may feel at times like you’re reading memoir and, at turns, cultural analysis. These narratives are connected through the concept of damage—how we come to be seen as less than. Sometimes these stories involve trauma—both overt trauma like incest and the sort of everyday cumulative trauma that makes much of the world feel like a hostile environment for some, even though others seem to be operating with ease. These essays are connected via the patterns they reveal across seemingly unconnected approaches and themes. These patterns exist a little differently in every life. A complex story is not necessarily a messy story. Many of the ways people are damaged, uplifted, vexed, find joy, et cetera. follow patterns. The world is full of complex and repeating patterns; pleasure guides us toward understanding.
Your life is neither random nor predictable. It’s a complex map, and you can’t pretend that certain locations don’t exist—though you can do your best to keep from traveling rough terrain repeatedly. You can’t poke out holes in the map of your life as if you’re making a paper snowflake, something prettier than the original experiences. We are more than our simple, publicly shared stories suggest. The lives we’ve led form the ways we see the world. Each human map holds secrets to help us navigate the depths of love and loss, anger, fear, and every human emotion and trait possible, colored exactly the hue of individual sovereignty.
The simple point A to point B story, even with a little flourish or subplot, does not serve our common wisdom in the same way that complexity serves us. Creativity gives us endless new views on our own maps, and, little by little, we start to understand how our landscapes might match up with others. We can do this consciously but only if we’re somewhat aware of what we bring to the group. Every map is damaged. Every one. The circumstances of this world damage all of us. If you believe you’re navigating the cultural terrain without being hurt by violence, including the violence done to others, then you are surely damaged by your own isolation. Most people could stand to improve their capacity to look into others eyes and listen, just listen, until it hurts.
I want you to know that your story doesn’t have to conform to other’s stories. We become relevant to one another through our specificity and the oscillating patterns we create across issues and groups.
You probably already know the unwritten rules about who is allowed to be the author of cultural stories.
Or maybe you don’t.
Social conditioning about who’s allowed to speak and not speak is powerful
enough that often it seems as though a range of stories are being heard. Or, even stranger, it can seem that marginalized stories are actually taking up more space in public discourse than mainstream stories. For instance, the story about female firefighters may, if it’s new to you, take up an irritating (or thrilling) residence in your thinking, and for months you may feel that you just read that story. However, what you’ve read and seen about firefighters from week to week during that time is likely to focus on men and on stories that fit familiar cultural patterns. They are not remarkable, nor do they stand out, especially if they give you a comfortable or patriotic or pleasurable feeling. The story about the female firefighters and their ill-fitting safety suits and their oddly masculine pursuits—that story stands out. So it seems that female firefighters dominate the news.
Minds have certain habits. In confirmation bias we try to confirm whatever patterns we’ve already come to recognize. Most of us can remember buying a car and suddenly seeing that car everywhere. Or becoming a parent and starting to think there’s a new population boom. It’s not that reality has suddenly bent to your experience but that you are experiencing a certain part of reality vibrantly. You recognize a thing; the mind normalizes it; it’s comfortable to see it. This is how some people suddenly believe that because the president was African American, African Americans as a group are in leadership positions all over the country. (Spoiler: they are not.)
Another habit of mind is to become fatigued by positive change efforts that seem too big or somehow too difficult. For instance, it’s common for people to talk about the horrors of sexism in other countries or in past time periods. The topic is allowed discursive space; it’s not as though people are denying the problem of harassment, assault, and subjugation of women. They are simply placing their awareness of sexism outside of their immediate environments. They are blind to how they participate as perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. We can even celebrate the end of a problem as it is worsening, as in the case of school integration in the United States. The end of legally enforced racial segregation did not change the circumstance of racial segregation for the vast majority of people. Decades after schools were integrated in the United States, few discuss the fact that racial segregation is actually the norm in schools and housing, not the exception.
Luckily, empirical evidence can rescue us from errors of perception. It’s actually possible to know how many times gender was referenced with regard to firefighting in a given period and what those references were. There isn’t data about everything, but there’s a lot of data. It’s possible to know what percentage of African American students finish an undergraduate degree, what percentage of university professors are Latinx or transgender or come from poverty. We can know what percentage of plays written by women were professionally produced in the United States and how that figure has risen and fallen over the past twenty years. Data is available on representation of certain voices in specific roles—more than enough to start meaningful discussions about how narrow our public representation of stories actually are.
Then there’s the matter of who can discuss which topics and how. What language can an individual use and from what position? In professional settings, it’s often important to be seen as a person with no problems, completely in control of oneself, and certainly showing human emotion is not tolerated. For instance, a therapist who specializes in eating disorders, and who has survived and/or recovered from an eating disorder, is likely to highlight only his academic position and expertise when speaking about eating disorders. Personal knowledge is considered inferior, inappropriate, or even detrimental to being taken seriously. And if one does come out regarding such a status, there must never be discussion about how traumatic experiences influence one’s life in an ongoing way.
Anyone who has been underprivileged by existing hierarchies is seen as damaged and therefore not a viable contributor to broader cultural understanding. We must only show the respectable parts of ourselves. Victimhood, for some, is even less respectable than having been a perpetrator. Think about boys on sports teams who are seen as having gone too far if they rape, whereas those they victimize are admitting having been dominated or humiliated. Culturally, we hold greater disdain for the second position than for the first. Those who are damaged by abuse seem worthy of dismissal—a self-fulfilling prophecy by which the abused deserve more abuse. Further, perpetrators of abuse are never allowed to acknowledge their own humanity, show remorse, and experience the depth of love possible in interconnectedness.
Why does conformity to respectable social narratives seem so important?
It’s simple, really. In a society based on competition and profit, we manage our identities to greatest gain. It’s what we learn as children and in every aspect of human culture. Sociologist Erving Goffman explained it to us back in the 1950s. We conceal or diminish our stigmatized identities so that others don’t see us as damaged goods. If you’re fat, you try to look thin. If you’re poor, you try to look middle class. Think about the female firefighter’s conundrum regarding gender conformity. Women who are gender-conforming receive greater social privilege than those who look like men in attire and comportment. Yet the work itself and the physicality it requires are counter to the pursuit of femininity. By definition, in a male profession, female firefighters are wearing men’s clothes. It’s a tricky transformation. Be big and strong but not manly. Inspire confidence and admiration but without seeming like a man. Women’s sports teams face a similar problem. In order to increase the popularity of women’s sports, teams often hire stylists for photo shoots to create the feminine image that the players lack on the field when engaged in competition.
Abuse is trickier still to discuss. It would seem that abusers—the ones whose behavior the culture has criminalized—would be the stigmatized parties. And, again, empirical evidence says otherwise. Many men who use threats and violence remain respectable, whereas people of all genders who discuss harassment or abuse become personally suspect. They’re immediately assumed to be irreparably broken by their experiences, angry, and biased on any topic related to the abuse, the abuser, or their own experiences. Consider how Dr. Blasey-Ford’s family had to move, fleeing death threats, after she came forward to assert that Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh had assaulted her. Not only were her allegations not taken seriously by those with power, she was vilified to the point where individuals threatened harm and murder. Though many, seeking to see things fairly, believed that her word against his felt tricky to decide, she is the one whose life was threatened for speaking her word. Similarly, people who speak up about racism are said to be playing the race card though there’s empirical evidence that it’s one of the least valuable cards to throw onto the table, because of stigma.
Certain bodies become the receptacle for cultural shame about the abuses perpetuated on those bodies. Women’s bodies are the social location for discussions on gender, on rape, on domestic violence. Even though other genders experience sexual violence and domestic abuse too, somehow women are seen as biased in discussing gender, whereas men aren’t. Both have gender. People of color are seen as biased when discussing race, whereas white people aren’t. Both have race. Indeed, it can be argued that whiteness and maleness—as default categories—are actually the social locations within which one knows the least about race or gender because all social systems are built to accommodate them. The paradox of denying “isms” is that often, in order to do it, the deniers invoke the inferiority of the party being oppressed. Again, those who deny knowing the power of social hierarchies, and try to claim that society is basically fair, are aware of inequality, covered only by a thin veneer of social etiquette. Through denial, they blunt their own senses to the world around them.
We could, instead, begin to see those who have experienced stigmatized events as experts on those events. That’s how it works with non-stigmatized eyewitness accounts. When a hurricane damages a coastline, news crews go directly to those who lived there, saw the storm coming, felt the rain. They’re particularly interested in the human responses to having lost a home, protected a family, overcome challenges using ingenuity. We could do the same with abuse and harassment. There are a lot of ways to be expert. There are a lot of ways to be damaged. One can be damaged by the invisible habits of holding dominion, just as surely (though maybe not as painfully) as by overt repression.
It’s as simple as this. If you want to know about a certain type of oppression, you have to ask the person who is oppressed. The person who doesn’t have that experience likely can’t see the patterns—let alone the nuances—very clearly, if at all. Those who lack privilege have studied its absence intently. They’ve learned its contours, and sometimes they can extrapolate their knowledge to other systems of oppression. Sometimes not.
A white man who comes from poverty has witnessed how assumptions about poor people in our culture are damaging. People have thought him lazy or stupid just because he lacks wealth. It’s as though wealth itself is a sign of ingenuity and hard work even though, empirically, we know it’s not so. That man who may see so clearly down the road of class privilege may or may not be able to see that derisive views of people of color function in just the same way. Likely, that individual—without invested listening to people of other races—would not see racism. He may not even have turned to look down that other road because he’s so consumed with figuring out how to navigate his own rough road, how to maximize the privileges he has. Those larger patterns remain invisible.
More troublingly, that man might even have tuned his attention to the cultural examples he sees of people in color in positions of power. Without considering that the Latinx mayor or the Korean movie director or the Black president are exceptions in their positions, he may even think people of color have more power and opportunity than people like him. It’s easier and easier for that man to find others who believe as he does—not only because the Internet has made it easier for those with fringe views easier to find one another. There are actually people with power and resources organizing others to believe in falsehoods for their own gains. Though it is easy enough to disprove the perception that everywhere you look nowadays, people of color are in positions of power, it’s possible that a person will hold and nurture falsehoods with communities of people who do the same.
Consistently, studies show that white people are more likely than people of color to say that racism is primarily in the past in the United States. A lot more likely. Empirically of course, racism is quantifiable, qualifiable, and a current lived experience among people who can give first-person accounts. Though it was traumatizing for many Black people to relive their stories of abuse and terror at the hands of police in 2020, their efforts punched through the membrane of apathy and misinformation in order to make political discussions and progress possible. To be sure, many white people remain insulated, never stepping onto the road toward knowing those who are racially different. Awareness and interest in knowing others can create habits of inquiry at any moment in each of our lives. At any moment, it’s possible to turn away from knowing other’s views too. Sometimes we are even rewarded for that turning away, so we must learn how to overcome that temptation.
Often, if a group of people experiences two or more types of oppression, they are more likely to be able to extrapolate those experiences to other groups. They’re more likely to notice patterns across issues. They listen and observe more carefully beyond the categories we’ve all been taught. Or at least they are likely to consider close listening. It’s certainly possible to be oppressed and oppress others. It’s possible to build up a wall of fear around an awareness that threatens to blow your house down.
Love and proximity help too. That’s why the quest for racial integration in the United States was significant and should not have been abandoned. When school integration efforts, such as bussing, were abandoned, many Americans felt relieved. It was uncomfortable and simply too hard. White parents didn’t understand the gains their children were receiving—though many of us who experienced bussing to schools in neighborhoods we’d never seen know the importance of what we were given—even decades later. This lack of systemic and cultural understanding obscured the fact that policy makers didn’t simply abandon those efforts like a curriculum experiment. Those efforts to link race and class were violently suppressed. Many Black Panthers and Black activists were murdered and jailed. Martin Luther King Jr. also knew that the attempt to link race with class for social betterment was an effort that he might not survive. He was right, and many never fully understood the value of the efforts that these people attempted and that the U.S. government violently suppressed. This fatigue with attempting fairness is precisely why we need leaders who help us stay with efforts such as class analysis and racial integration.
There is a magic in proximity. We need to see those whom we perceive as different as being also the same in significant, humanity-affirming ways. We need compassion, along with the ability to easily make friends, fall in love, and make families—actually integrate—with those whom we believe to be different.
Discussing Our Damage and Choosing Transformation
People who have experienced things that are difficult to discuss have important perspectives. Many have cultivated deep wisdom as they navigate the rough waters of public opinion while reconstructing their lives. It’s a bit like building the boat you’re steering, while at sea—and in the middle of a storm. Humans are so astonishingly capable of reinvention that this is actually possible.
Consider how many experiences we are supposed to absorb into ourselves and not discuss: violence, verbal abuse, incarceration, mental illness, discrimination, exile, harassment, immigration, homelessness, and, most especially, experiences related to sexual abuse of power: rape, incest, unwanted sexual contact of any kind. We are all damaged—perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. Those labeled as victims become the social location for understanding damage. The rest believe they can visit that place at will, intellectually, as observers, but don’t have to live there.
But we all live in a world built by patterns of abuse and dominion and defined by damage. We live in a world full of hope, resiliency, and ingenuity as well. We are vulnerable, and the ability to harm and be harmed is in each of us. Imagine how it would be if those who have harmed others could be heard and understood. Especially in their remorseful complexity. We each share DNA and experiences and popular culture with people who do horrific things. Their humanity is ours as well.
The more stigmatized a position is, the more difficult it is to claim it as a platform of knowledge. I am damaged. You are damaged. I suggest you claim every bit of expertise in your body-mind-life. The culture needs you.
Luckily, the veneer of social hierarchy is cracking, but it’s not broken yet. There are more people saying no, I won’t carry shame about having been raped. No. Racism organizes our lives every day; black lives matter. No, you can’t keep me out of the bathroom because my appearance and choices frighten you. No, I won’t refuse to swim because I don’t have a bikini body. Every body deserves pleasure.
The more people begin to speak from damage, the more we practice respecting the diversity of one another’s experiences, the more we heal each other and become able to transform culture. Rather than needing to build the boat on the stormy sea, the sea calms a bit. The next generation inherits greater building skills. Fewer people accept the illusion that human respectability should exclude some and elevate others. I am telling you that every time you build grace from pain, you serve the common good. You are an expert. You can be a guide. You are worthy of compassionate attention.
Black feminist thinkers have guided my scholarly work. I rarely get into bed at night without having discussed Erving Goffman’s ideas about identity management somehow. There are others. But women-of-color feminists? Scholars and artists? I am grateful to them beyond measure. Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, Maya Angelou, Patricia Hill Collins, Zora Neale Hurston… I could go on. They have helped to make and remake me. They invited me into a broader landscape than I was given. They expand my map and help to put some of my more painful neighborhoods into a broader context. Over the years, I’ve been asked why I would choose scholarly mentors so different from myself. As a young person with scholarly potential, the assumption seemed to be that I should seek to be more kindred with the white male scholars in the traditional canon of social science. What an odd perspective, really, when I had none of their influence and experience. The assumption also, when we ask thinkers why they have fringe interests, is that everyone should be interested in the mainstream. Everyone should be interested in the thoughts and writings of white, Western European or American men.
There are so many moments in which we are asked to choose sides. I acknowledge that some of me is on all the sides. I know that this acknowledgement is likely more difficult for those who have greater material investment in inequality (whether or not they are actually receiving full benefits of that investment). The very concept of sides shows the dangerously dichotomous thinking that pervades our culture, and while shifting that thinking doesn’t automatically shift investment, it can help. I have some privileged identities and some not privileged identities. That’s true for most, and most of us realized it because of suffering—either our own or our beloveds’. We have to keep looking for what we don’t know. Sometimes, we’ll be able to see traditional thinkers and culture makers as our own though we have little in common with them. Or we’ll hold up different commonalities, as when I chose to read more bell hooks and less Émile Durkheim. Others need to seek out diverse views in order to challenge the assumption that they could be considered complete without them. Though I am queer and fat and female and an incest survivor, et cetera, I need to keep unfolding my understanding of the world and humbly offering to connect my map to others. That’s how we expand our abilities. I want to see down as many roads as the world offers me so that I die with more understanding and peace than I had as a child. I will die having helped others. It’s a simple, selfish, benevolent goal.
The essays in this collection offer specific, nuanced stories of social damage, disruption of norms and values about what it means to be a target for social damage. I’m offering you what we rarely receive in U.S. culture—so fixated are we on doing it ourselves. I’m offering you my map, my stories, examples, models for communication, experiments in self-love. I intend to give you something to cry about and something to feel hopeful about, all in the same essay. I want to remind you that we are creating the world, even as it creates us. We can re-create ourselves too. That’s how the world changes.
The Hero’s Journey—and What the Rest of Us Can Make Together
Part of why we’re so attached to the cultural image of the big strong man carrying the child out of the burning building is that we can identify with both the hero and the child. Sometimes we need rescuing. Sometimes we face adversity, feel nearly broken, build strength, and then overcome. The hero’s journey, as described by Joseph Campbell, is a quintessentially masculine Western archetype. It’s easy to forget that there are more people in every story than can be shown in the image on the book jacket.
Having occasional stories told from alternate perspectives is not enough to prompt cultural transformation. Whenever there is a narrative and a counter-narrative, dichotomy is reinforced. Dualism remains the norm. Sometimes it seems radical enough to tell the heroine’s story once in a while, or to elevate individuals with identities and appearances that are not normally visible in public to hero status. It’s not enough. Complexity within each story is what helps us break the spell of binary constructions and remember that the collective map we are creating can lead us to cultural transformation.
Simply challenging a norm with exceptions allows hierarchical institutions to remain intact. Change becomes possible when we re-analyze, through our own complexity and empirical social patterns, the systems that maintain expectations (and allow exceptions). My task is not just to tell an alternative story but also to reveal the complex patterns that emerge and how they might inform the re-creation of systems that create reality. We are capable of building the boat while sailing it—such is our relationship to human culture. Once the storm of judgment and abuse calms, it becomes so much easier. So resilient, so capable are humans, despite our never-ending flaws and personal insurrections.
Alternative narratives often follow a pattern that doesn’t allow complexity, just like the hero’s journey follows a pattern. Because stories of stigmatized identity are hard to tell, they’re often distilled into easily digestible narratives that begin in tragedy and end in hope and triumph. There’s nothing wrong with those stories if they give someone the will to survive and persevere. And those stories fail to adequately complicate our human maps. Some of the landmarks are left out because they’re inconvenient. We need more detail in the map for cultural transformation.
These are the linear stories people are accustomed to hearing about some of the themes I discuss.
Sexual orientation: I was confused, then closeted and miserable. I found courage/love/wisdom, and I came out. It was hard, but people respected me, and my self-respect grew. You should be courageous too. The End.
Body acceptance: I was sad and miserable. People bullied me. I found courage/love/wisdom and decided not to listen to the haters anymore. It was hard, but people respected me and my self-respect grew. You should be courageous too. The End.
Child abuse: I was in danger with nowhere to turn. I found courage/love/wisdom and decided to stop blaming myself and get help. It was hard, but people respected me and my self-respect grew. You should be courageous too. The End.
I could go on. Rewards come to those who persevere; hard work and community erase all hardships. There’s more. We also have to acknowledge the ways in which we are the architects of our misery and how we sometimes perpetuate others’ suffering too. We have to acknowledge the ways in which existing social systems support or thwart our individual efforts. Human culture is but/and, rather than either/or.
There is more to tell, and good reasons to fear complexity—at least superficially. We are afraid of confusion, afraid of tackling too many things at once without line-item veto. We’re afraid that seeing too much complexity might diminish momentum toward a clear and just goal. We’re afraid of stories that could push us under for too long without a breath or that could make us feel stupid.
Fair enough. I’m asking you to put aside those fears for a moment, find pleasure in these stories and consider that complexity is already a fact of living, whether you embrace it or not. As the tradition of Hawaiian ho’opono’pono tells us, love prevails over all trauma. Love does not prevent all trauma. Sometimes we have a rough road. Or we make a rough road. And then we realize it’s possible to choose again. And again. Ad infinitum.
I focus on intersections of issues and experiences rather than on a discrete theme with a specific audience. I’m not interested in just writing funny, heartwarming stories about being a queer mom, though I have written those stories. I am not interested in telling the tale of growing up fat, breaking free of social stigma, and developing self-love, though I write those stories. The trouble with isolating these themes is that their simplicity fails to offer a bridge toward cultural transformation. These stories fail to illuminate why personal and social change remain difficult despite positive intentions.
Though the intersections of my identities, experiences, and views may feel surprising, I’m not that unique. Many people conceal certain identities and highlight others to the point where they forget that their narratives are actually more complex. They forget until they hear a story of complexity with which they relate. I’ve been writing and performing stories about complexity for decades. I know how eager people are to relate. What’s unique is that I share my complexities. Part of what allows people to relate is recognizable intersections and the specificity of time and place. Yes, we each hold stereotypes about artists, about abuse survivors, about fat women, about parents, about scholars. I’m not just asking you to challenge those stereotypes in general, abstract terms. I’m holding a door open for you to know me, here and now, in the culture we share.
There are others like me. That is to say, there are others who are like me in exactly their own ways. No doubt, it’s socially easier to make the seams between our identities disappear. And growing numbers of us are saying no, I will persist in my complexity for the common good. There are others who are breaking containers and pulling their mangled maps out in public, unfolding them at bus stops and asking friends to have a look. Some are throwing map images onto bedroom walls lit by candles, carving their maps into fallow cornfields, shining their maps like beacons onto distant planets, mixing their maps into thousand ingredient cocktails to be served on the verandah of slave-built mansions. Learning occurs at the point where disparate things start to become relatable and relate to oneself as well.
As an artist and social scientist, I am the researcher and the independent variable. I pay attention, document the methodology, look for patterns, and also offer you this: the carefully constructed humor, pain, hope and brilliance of specificity. Follow the map of my body-mind-life stories. Then follow your own. Connect with others. Let’s see where we can go.
1.. Damaged, Like Me
I saw a porno stuff film for the first time in Las Vegas, more than thirty-five years ago. I was there recently for a professional conference, and the memory came back slowly. Which boyfriend was I with? Did I get up and leave? I know I didn’t see the end.
I remember what shoes I was wearing during that snuff film. I loved them. So seventies, those shoes. A tall wedge heel with twisted jute wrapped around the whole platform, and then crossed over the vamp, with the leather-I don’t think it was real leather-and my painted toenails poked out the little openings in front. Just three of them visible on each foot.
I know I didn’t see the end of the film. I walked back out into the casino and got myself lost for a while. I remember looking down at my shoes and knowing I looked older than I was. No one would question me being in the casino. Or maybe they would. I couldn’t speak for a while after leaving the film. Better keep moving. I got lost in the casino, ended up back in the hotel room.
That was no boyfriend I was with. It was my stepfather. And no one questioned my return to the hotel room because it’s where I should’ve been in the first place, with my mother. I was eleven years old after all. I said I was twenty-two if anyone asked. Saying you’re twenty-one, when you’re lying, sounds suspicious. Like you just need to be old enough to drink. Twenty-two doesn’t sound so amateur. I’d done the math and knew just what date I needed to be born to be twenty-two.
I lied to adults easily. I said I was older if I needed to be older. I said I was fine and everything was good when it was definitely not good. It’s easier to say “everything’s good” than be pitied for everything being not good when you don’t have the power to change things.
This is a story about how memory returns. It’s a story about pornography. It’s a story about dominion. “Why didn’t she speak up sooner” is a popular question these days, with many women (and others) shaking loose memories of rape, assault, and moments with men when everything was definitely not good.
[The rest of the book has not been archived.]
2. Bodies in Motion
3. I Said “No” In Three Languages