Bearing (Emerging Writer’s Contest Winner: NONFICTION)

Issue #146
Winter 2020-21

In nonfiction, our winner is Jeremiah Barker for his essay “Bearing.”

Of his essay, nonfiction judge Esmé Weijun Wang says, “The winning essay captured me immediately: both calm and confident, with a mature voice that carried me through a brilliantly written narrative of trauma. I am in awe of how adept this writer is at handling the structure of this work—creatively fractured, yet never confusing—and I look forward to reading whatever they write next.”

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

It wasn’t until after my mother’s death, in 2015, when I began to write in earnest, pulled into an urgency as I was then to aerate with language my grief and the dense layers of questions I had and have about what happened to her. Even that phrasing, “what happened to her,” raises questions, for me, about how I relate to my loss of her.

What is your writing process like?

It’s muddled, and the murk of it looks different with every project. I tend to read for long periods of time. It’s as if I have to gather a lot of people into a room before I can summon the psychic resources to find a clearing. An uneasiness I have about any project is what, by turns, forestalls and propels me.

What inspired “Bearing”?

I had been wanting to write the essay for a long time, but I didn’t know how. And as the essay makes clear, I hope, I also worried about writing it at all, concerned that writing about some of my family’s traumas would make them more intractable, or that composition would alter them in such a way as to make them feel even more unreal. Bearing my traumas often has a way of putting me in contorted positions toward the “truth.” Most of this comes down to writing with ambivalence, especially when writing about compacted and confused forms like trauma. What kind of form is trauma anyway?

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before writing?

I journal while I write the essay proper, though the two begin to interlace. I talk to my grandmother, whom I call Nanny and who responds to my fraught questions with an awkward directness I admire. I typically spend a couple months researching—taking notes, walking with doubts, flailing—before I begin writing with actual intention, but this depends on the project. Having tarried with the problems of “Bearing” for years, I wrote that essay relatively steadily.

What is the most difficult part about writing for you?

There arrives the moment when I must prioritize writing over reading, or else I’ll read until the impulse to write has been put to rest, wholly subdued. Perhaps this is the most difficult transition in the writing process, for me.

Who are you reading? And who informs your work?

Right now, I’m reading through many of the works of William Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy. Their particular stitching of elegy, narration, mourning, melancholia, negativity, childhood, joy, and the natural word—I find myself stitched into their patchy words. I feel similarly about a wide range of writers: Eula Biss, Fred Moten, Saidiya Hartman, Maggie Nelson, Brian Blanchfield, Renee Gladman, Anne-Lise François, Heather Love, Lauren Berlant, Roland Barthes, Hilton Als, Anne Carson, Maureen N. McLane.

Do you have any advice for new writers?

The hardest thing for me, as also a new writer, has been to continue writing. Writing is a hard thing: obdurate, resistant to use, often unwieldy, and, formed through the mysteries of subjectivity, difficult to characterize. I suppose my advice is a reminder that a complicated pleasure and understanding will emerge, eventually, if I can relate to this difficulty with grace, lightness, and openness.

What projects are you working on now? Where is your writing headed?

I’m between writing and not writing, the time of percolation, but the project I am ostensibly in the middle of is “on apostrophe,” a long essay that may become book-length about writing and not wanting to write about my parents, both of whom died within biopolitical frames I want to understand better. I animate my parents when I write about them; they animate me with every address. The essay is about that interanimation. It is also about embarrassment, queerness, marriage, my childhood in West Virginia, and my Pentecostal youth. My writing is where I am, a ground regularly turned inside out.





Is a scar live or dead?

—Lauren Berlant & Kathleen Stewart, The Hundreds



My mom wrote me a poem on October 3, 1997. It’s an eighteen-line, five-stanza poem with uneven, mostly unsuccessful end and internal rhymes. The title is “Nobody Knows,” which signals an epistemic failure: nobody knows because knowledge is impossible. The truth conditions cannot be met; the justificatory gaps remain gaps. Knowledge is a net.

I do not remember when she gave me this poem written in red ink on lined, college-ruled notebook paper, but I was four years old when she wrote it, presuming the date in the top left-hand corner really indicates date of composition. “For Jeremiah” is above the date. Perhaps she gave this to me just after Dad died from an accidental overdose in 2007, nearly ten years after she wrote this poem. After his death, we put the contents of our home into a U-Haul and moved them from Bluefield, West Virginia, to my aunt’s house in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Mom and I lived in the suburbs with my aunt, three of her children, my aunt’s newer husband, and his two sons. For obvious reasons, we moved out in less than a year and into a second-floor apartment in town.

The Appalachian Mountains lift and slope from Alabama to Canada, a thick, rumpled sheet of ranges and valleys, thinning as peaks are made level and tributaries polluted. A visual wash of evergreen expanse—here I sensed an impossible continuity even as the signal connections of my life were losing strength. Though Mom had begun again to seek my face. Something was happening, deepening—on us, in us.

Before we moved, my aunt stayed with us in Bluefield for a month. She flushed hundreds of painkillers down the toilet and held Mom through many sinister nights of drug withdrawal. If it wasn’t worse, Mom’s drug addiction paralleled Dad’s, but his death shifted the pieces in her long-still kaleidoscope. She resolved to get better. I had quietly resented her addiction, adding paces between us so that when she came to, I could barely see her. Perhaps the poem, then, was a gesture toward reconciliation, suggesting that despite any perceived lapses in her love for me, it was constant.

When unfolded, the paper’s creases reveal twenty rectangles, but she probably gave it to me, folded, as one. On the “back” of the paper, the side “opposite” the poem, a list of names with items beside and below them fill two columns: a Christmas list. The list below my name is the longest with a total of sixteen gifts. An abbreviated version:


Chicken Limbo Game

JG Racetrack

Buzz Lightyear Space Machine

Turbo Movie




CD Player

I have photos of me in front of these gifts and I’m embarrassed by them; they represent the material fantasy of my parents’ upward mobility. In 1997, my dirty-blond-haired mom, buoyant and mercurial, worked in a print shop, where, printing thousands of flyers, pamphlets, brochures, business cards, manuals, and the occasional book, she could determine the weight of paper by holding a sheet in her palm and measure its thickness with a quick pinch. My dad—amiable, generous, yet depressive; his baby face, which I’ve inherited, mismatched his graying black hair and patchy goatee—was a carpenter for an independent contractor, a job he skillfully kept until early 2007 when his addiction affected his performance. Getting high on site was inexcusable, especially as manager. Carpentry was his work and play, one of few dependable pleasures since his mid-twenties, so as well as an irrecoverable hit to my parents’ finances, Dad’s forced unemployment was an immense personal loss. But in 1997, my young parents were working and well, and as they worked, my great-grandparents babysat me, feeding me platefuls of fried potatoes and learning inane songs from Barney & Friends.



The first line of Mom’s poem—

I pretend I’m glad it turned out this way

—is a line spoken after rupture, after a turning inside out. Something spills and she rushes to contain it by pretending, but also by writing this poem. And the third line ends with an exclusion the persona intones four times, at the end of stanzas one, two, three, and five.

And I’m hurting inside and nobody knows it but me.

She underlines her isolation, from which, over the years, I’ve groaned rereading, accusing the persona—no, Mom—of narcissism. I’ve learned, though, to give her and myself our pain, as there are scarce other things to which we can lay claim, and this only partly. She underlines herself to address, or redress, her self- and social denial—as a woman, as a mother with a son with a secret.

I haven’t wanted to write this story because I was worried I would reproduce the harm I wanted my writing to mitigate, at least for me. Or, I wanted my recounting to sate something in me, and I wasn’t sure, am not sure, it would, will. I want to get up inside this wound, describe the arrow’s barbs without filing them down. Sometimes, though, I’ve not-simply not wanted to think about what prompted Mom’s poiesis. Her poem is a reminder of what happened, and my incapacity to remember this serial event—my childhood sexual abuse—has formed me. A source of shame rather than relief, the inaccessibility of this memory had, into my twenties, burdened me, bearing down on me and leaving traces, trails, that led me nowhere safe. My sexual abuse rearranged, exhausted, fragmented my family, and that I could not remember it led me to an unsayable belief: that I had lied. And unforgivably, my lie had ruined my family.

Though I do not have the memory, which is really a collection of moments, I do remember images burning my mind up while sitting in the lukewarm water in the large bathtub in my parents’ spacious bathroom. I wanted to say something but didn’t know how. The speech was lodged in my body. How can a locution be too mature to exist outside my body, too unthinkable to leave me?

Why didn’t I listen when he had something to say, the third stanza begins.

I cannot blame her for mishearing my silence, but later, I have blamed myself for the silences I have constructed. I have internalized the silences of the social, and because I’m a constituent of this “public,” I, too, have silenced, how could I not. But every time I hear the word internalized, I recoil because with every iteration, I watch power step aside, step behind the proscenium, while its subjects tear themselves apart, to pieces.

How blue can I get, I ask my heart, she asks.

In the clear water of the bathtub, I hold my pink-white feet, my toe and finger pads beginning to wrinkle. I look through the bathroom door and into my parents’ dark bedroom. I see Mom sitting on the bed watching me and occasionally asking questions I can’t remember but which were likely quotidian and hygienic. “Are you OK?” “Is the water comfortable?” “Have you washed your hair yet?” When she left the bed and I couldn’t see her, I would call out to her and she would arrive, approaching my body in the water. Sometimes I would ask too many questions while my parents were busy in the kitchen, say, or were distracting themselves watching television in the living room. I would annoy them on purpose because I wanted them close. I would yell for my Dad over and over again.


He would enter the room where I was, look into my watery eyes made more liquid by their nearness to the water. He would bring the towel I had forgotten to grab.

“Dad! Dad!”

Louder, longer the second, third time. After several hailings, he would yell to me from another room, “Dad has changed his name and he’s not telling you what it is.” I would guess these new names but never the correct one, or, at least, the name that would summon him again. More often, his arrival followed my silence.



In the soaped-up bathwater, a dulled aquamarine, I held the feeling I couldn’t know how to express in words. I hold the feeling now, the desire to make words give the feeling a shapeliness, something I can hold in my hand, if briefly, like sand falling through deep finger-V’s.

My body grants me clemency in summer 1996 while visiting my aunt in North Carolina, years before she divorces her first husband and moves her four reluctant, distraught children to Pennsylvania to marry a businessman she met online.

I play with my cousins in their backyard, many backyards wider than mine. We attach strings to the legs of June bugs, their metallic, rusty-green wing-shields glinting as they fly above us; the animate balloons buzz in the thick-invisible. I run until a hurt slows me down. My aunt notices a slight limp in my sprint, asks what’s wrong. I say, simply, that I don’t know, my bum is hurting. She tells Mom and they bring me inside to look me over.

I hadn’t learned yet to be body-shy around my family, so when Mom asks me to pull down my shorts to check for any cuts or bruises, I drop them unceremoniously. Dried blood from the center. Is this normal, this is normal, she says to her sister, who says no. “Has anyone touched you there, on your bum?” This is one of the last times I say Papaw and mean my great-grandfather.

A long pause—an impact’s long absorption. She puts my hands on her wet cheeks. My blue eyes fix her green ones, until she closes them or looks away.

I have no facts to give here. I know only, and only partially, that such a scene tracked through my body, and when we returned home: a shift, a twist and splinter—my great-grandfather, Junior, did not hold me again.


If I don’t remember complaining about a particular pain below my waist, the dried blood or fissures, I do remember a general ache, a year and more later, made vivid in my dreams, the content of which, for the most part, I also cannot remember. Yet I dreamt of stairs; that I know because I see them even now. I feel I need to go up them in order to go beyond them, but to go up the narrow, carpeted stairs means meeting him in the room at the top. The stairs are burgundy, or burnt-orange, and worn. Wood-paneled walls on both sides of them, of me on them. The pressure in my chest called fear sends strobes of white light through me, and I wake up.

I started to visit a counselor named Phyllis because of the “night terrors” and the urine-soaked bedsheets they precipitated. Phyllis told Mom to rip the label off a lotion bottle and write on the bottle, in permanent marker, JEREMIAH’S BAD DREAM LOTION. Mom would rub the lotion onto my back and into my pores, saying, “This will protect you from those bad dreams. It won’t let them in. It’s like armor.” And armed with moisturized skin and Mom’s care, I did wet the bed less, but I became anxious around authority. Terrified of disappointing my kindergarten teacher, I would soil my clothes rather than raise my hand and ask to go to the bathroom. During recess, I would confess, or my teacher would notice the stain on my denim, or the smell would drift through the starkly lit classroom.

A phone call. Time in the hallway, or an office.

Mom would then appear, and I would sob into her thigh, apologizing. She would have a change of clothes in a plastic bag, another empty bag for the shitty underwear or pissed-on jeans.

“You’ve got to stop doing this. It’s OK to raise your hand.”

What questions did Phyllis ask me? I don’t know, but I adored the dolls and dollhouses she would let me fiddle with as she inquired about my schooldays, dreams, friends, parents. I pried the dollhouses open, halving them. Their many cross-sectioned rooms were filled with possibilities. The tiny wooden chairs in the miniature dining room became a stage for an imagined domestic drama. Sometimes Phyllis was the stage director.

“Jeremiah, show me with those dolls how two people play together.” Later in our session: “Show me with those dolls where your Papaw touched you.”

I touch the fog of these memories, the blur of these images.

One day during play therapy, Phyllis takes me to a room with a royal-blue punching bag in its center. It’s grounded, bottom-heavy, and vaguely humanoid, like the plastic figures on a foosball pole. “Go on, just a punch or two. It’s fun,” she says. Timid and passive, I don’t want to hit the leather blue cushion, but when Phyllis encourages me again, I offer a couple weak throws—but then quickly my face floods red and I sweat from the effort.

“Are you mad?”

I continue hitting, and she asks, “Who are you mad at?”

I say his name and continue hitting.

This session and others are video-recorded, and Phyllis shows Mom and her mother, my Nanny, my audiovisual despair.

And I’m hurting inside and nobody knows it but me.

The slowly assembled details became unsolvable questions: Did my vision fade to black when he tied my small wrists together with shoelaces. How long before the Vaseline in the medicine cabinet ran out—how many times. When I began to fear his upstairs bathroom, why did no one find this peculiar.

Eventually, I didn’t want to interrupt my day to go see the counselor, as I couldn’t remember why I was going. Or, a change in our insurance policy made it impossible for my parents to keep me in therapy. Over a year later, I stopped seeing Phyllis. Years later in high school, I was told she died of breast cancer, and I felt I had lost someone important to me, though I hadn’t seen her in more than a decade.


I want to trust the reality my body held then, holds now, but when I can’t get traction there, I depend on the shifting realities of others—their memories—to tether myself to the truth of the matter. The truth in the matter that haunts my memory’s peripheries. Matter is from māteria, a combination of māter (mother) and –ia (a suffix that terminates many Latin nouns). My dictionary tells me māteria is “usually explained as originally denoting the trunk of a tree regarded as the ‘mother’ of its offshoots.” I’m not interested in origins, but if matter comes from mother, I begin again with Mom.

When Mom was two years old, her mother remarried. Nanny and her new husband were low on money and space, so they moved into a cheap apartment in Blacksburg, Virginia, but Nanny left her two daughters from her first marriage with her father and mother, my great-grandparents. Nanny said upon leaving that she would return for Mom and Mom’s older sister every weekend, and she did—but Mom didn’t always accompany Nanny back to Blacksburg. Junior had come to treasure Mom, and when the weekend arrived, he would take her into town for daylong errands so that Nanny would have to take her oldest daughter alone.

Many times, she would wait for Mom and Junior to show up, and many times he would threaten to kill himself if she took Mom. Once, he toted a shotgun to the basement and scream-wept he would do it, he’d really do it.

“God gave her to me,” he declared.

Nanny acquiesced, stopped demanding her right to her child. And when Mom was ten years old, Nanny signed adoption papers.

When I asked Nanny recently why she let her parents adopt Mom, she went quiet. In Chicago, six hundred miles from her in Bluefield, I listened to her pause and imagined a series of entangled events uncoiling and contracting in her consciousness.

“I don’t know. I mean, I was young at the time. Stupid, naïve. But I also worried about Mamaw.” I asked her what she meant, why worry about Mamaw. “Well, Junior was a cheater, he had many affairs while he was married to Mamaw. She had started worrying that he was going to leave her for one of his one-offs, and I don’t know, I guess I thought her having your Mom would help. She would get a check from social services, and that would help her too, if he left her. Which he did.”

About a year after Nanny’s parents adopted Mom, Junior indeed moved to Florida and lived with another woman there until, seven years later, when Mom was eighteen, he walked up Mamaw’s steps and into her home, claiming it all once again, as if he’d never left, as if nothing had never stopped being his. His name, Junior—a peculiar name for someone who, in my estimation, never viewed himself secondary to anyone.

Nanny’s submission to her father would haunt her, Mom, and their relationship until Mom, forty-nine years old, committed suicide. Then again, this decision, which didn’t feel like a decision, still loiters by Nanny’s heart.

“What would have been different if I let him die. I wish I had taken her from him.”


Filling in is feeling out, always incompletely.

When Mom realizes what Junior has done to me, she meets him on his lawn and shoves him to the ground like nothing, or like something impossibly handled. She presses her knees onto his arms and wedges a handgun between his lips and into his mouth. From a window Mamaw sees her coming, or hears Mom’s howling curses, and screams. Someone, perhaps Nanny’s oldest brother, pulls Mom off Junior before she could, in her words, “blow his fucking brains out,” a phrase too rehearsed to believe but too darkly lit to dismiss.

Yet I admit I’ve doubted this ever happened. She could have given me this tale to prove her anger and her love for me. These affects—anger and love—became, after this encounter with her adopted-father-grandfather, one and the same, or more precisely, anger was for her love’s most competent carrier. But why, really, the need to prove her love boundless, her anger righteous? I wonder now if Mom told me this story to remind herself that what happened to me happened to me, and to her too.

The unreality of our childhood sexual abuses needed to be made real; what better mode of making real than violence. She snapped to snap reality into place—but what place? If one such place to locate reality is the body, what to make of the body’s distortions, its memory-twists and scabs that may or may not scar? The body lies, misleads. My philosopher friend tells me there’s no ethical distinction between lying and misleading. But we feel the difference.

I rummaged through files in my filing cabinet and in my mind. I talked with Nanny for hours. I dropped myself into scenes, flashing back in an attempt to dredge up any information about Mom’s sexual abuse that might have passed through me. But she never discussed it with me; her partially filled journals contain no gestures toward or allusions to the subject, let alone the ruminations I’ve wanted. I work through this un-having by magnetizing what I have; I walk around this sculpture to get a better sense of it.

“Do you believe Mom was also abused by him?” I ask Nanny.

“I do. She didn’t talk about it until what happened with you, though.” She tells me Mom waited months to report Junior’s sexual abuse of me, and in the waiting, someone else called child protection services. Mom told me she couldn’t confirm it, but her suspicion was that Mamaw, uncharacteristically, made the call; but Nanny tells me my paternal grandmother did because, by this point, Junior had begun pointing fingers at my two older half-brothers, my Dad’s sons from his first marriage but whom his mother raised for reasons opaque to me. A case worker from child protection services issued a hypothetical warning to Mom: if you don’t remove your son from this man’s proximity during the day, we will have to take him in. To Mom, though, this warning was a rhetorical threat, as she had already started taking me to work with her.

As I found amusements among the mechanical hums and spins at Mom’s print-shop workplace, a case against Junior came together and fell apart over several months.

“I’m unsure how this happened,” Nanny says, “but from my understanding, the prosecuting attorney told your Mom to drop the case because she ruined it. When she said Junior had abused her too, the attorney said the case would fail because the defense attorney would claim this was a case of revenge. That your Mom lied about you to seek justice for herself.”


Something, or someone, comes into focus as I listen to Nanny make material from memory. The word becomes flesh as she offers tentative explanations: strips of memory torn from the abstract canvas of the truths she holds. Listening, I remember Mom’s poem to me, each line a narrow piece of felt.


Line six: And I’m crying inside but nobody knows it but me.

Line eleven: And I’m dying inside but nobody knows it but me.

What I had previously mistaken for narcissism, an unwillingness to view one’s pain as constitutive or continuous with another’s, I now understand to be, in critical terms, a kind of strategic essentialism. She knows what she knows, and this knowledge is incommensurable, is hers. An insistence on her interiority yet also an expressed desire for acknowledgment, Mom’s poem is a veiled confession—she reaches in, then reaches out. This essay, at least in part, does the same, and in this way, Mom’s poem and my essay are coextensive. Enmeshed, our genres and our traumas touch each other.

But a third was among us two. Junior wove his trauma into three generations, sexually abusing his great-grandson, his adoptive daughter, and his youngest son, Donald, too. When I began thinking about this essay, I began with Don. The summer before I started to write this, I visited Nanny in Bluefield, and on the four-day trip’s last afternoon, I tell her both that I’m bi (a status that has since changed, in part) and that, because of this, I want to know more about Don, her gay brother who, at fifty-five, died from AIDS-related cancer in 2004. Though she doesn’t that day “accept” my sexuality—as if that’s what I was asking for—she says she loves me always, and that night, as she tells me about Don and we flip through her picture album—an entire album—of him, I believe her.

But why “because of this”? Maybe, naively, I wanted to rescue him from our family and their homophobias. Maybe I wanted to rehabilitate his story, scrubbing out the archival stains, however impossible, however futile. Maybe I wanted to feel less alone.


My great-uncle Donald suffered the disbelief of everyone when he began to say—when he began to say—to his father, Junior, that his father’s brother made him suck him off, time and again, behind the outhouse. My thoughts cannot cohere around the scene in which Don, eight years old, works up the courage to speak of a trauma for which he sought language. How to formulate words into sentences from a mixed bag of bad feelings—he found a way in, barely, and was called a liar.

“If you speak lies about my brother, I will beat you within an inch of your life,” Junior said.

Why didn’t I listen when he had something to say.


When I was an adolescent, or before, a set of stories gathered toward me, as if they knew I’d be interested (I was). My aunt’s first marriage of eighteen years had been founded on marshland, not bedrock, or so it was discovered when her husband, a truck driver, cruised for men at gas stations and rest areas. My Mom’s first marriage, too, clocked out at eight months because, she claimed, she caught her husband in flagrante dilecto with a man in their new queen-size bed. “Faggots,” she always called them, whenever she resurrected the topic of her first marriage. “I can’t believe I married a faggot.” A sorry gravedigger, Mom nudged this story into enough conversations so as to give it a discursive legacy in her book of life. Likely, she used this bad-sad story to talk obliquely about her own homosexuality—a trick I know the closeted use to feel a groundswell of agency. I also learned that my great-uncle Don lived in Florida with a man; I intuited that his “gay lifestyle” was a source of anxiety for certain family members, and thus, to “forget about the bad and instead dwell on the good,” his queerness became a deep, unspoken-of bruise.

By around age eight or nine, greatly vexed, I had begun using Yahoo! Answers to determine how long my attractions to men would stick around, as the above stories made the badness of these attractions quite transparent. “Is it normal for boys to be attracted to other boys?” “When will same-sex attractions go away?” I was disturbed by answers that said I was gay to the core and relieved by those that asserted I was normal, that my brain-body was a hormonal stew, that the chemicals would right themselves in a couple years, at least by age fifteen, don’t worry. I stayed queer, but I worried about it into my twenties—though even now I worry about it, working out how to cross the lines I’d so faithfully imagined were trenches.

Maybe the lines were always trenches.

Whenever and however I can, I get inside them to get out. I’m trying to cut across this inside-outside dialectic. I cut across time to see Don walk back to the house from the outhouse, back into the in that’s yet another version of the out that belies its in-ness. What I’m leaning toward, or against, here is this: I want to give him an out that feels like out even if it’s never not in. I want to give myself this too.


“My brother Donald was a very, very special person,” Nanny tells me during one of our long conversations about him. It’s one of those sentences that, on the surface, is weightless, disembodied and generic, but embedded within the sentence is a pulsing singularity. It’s the kind of sentence that one leads with when there’s so much to say, as a means of getting started.

A year after Don’s AIDS diagnosis, late 2001, Don’s belief that this disease was the fatal consequence of his “sin”—having sex with and loving men—hardened. He repented and left C, his partner of nearly eighteen years. And he knew he needed to forgive those he resented in order for God to forgive him.

“Don told me, ‘I hated him for what he did to me, but I forgave because I had to. I had to. I’m never going to speak to him again, but I forgave him. Does that make sense to you, Sis?’ I told him I understood.”

Don could not remember his father’s sexual abuse, but he held it to himself as truth: the invisible is not absent, and the unremembered is not unreal. Though Don couldn’t access, like me, the memory, he told Nanny about how, when he was eight or nine, Junior would take him on the weekends to the flea market where Junior sold produce. At closing, Junior would make Don spend the night with a family that made pornographic films, and Don was coerced to participate in them. Nanny doesn’t know why Junior did this, but I suspect he received compensation for his son’s body.

Though Don’s refusals began to take hold when he was older, perhaps ten, perhaps eleven, the effect of it all disperses, dissolves and thus alters the composition of what pools into a life, until death. In the months after he stops taking antiretrovirals—“He wanted to die,” Nanny says—in the months before he dies, Don gives Nanny what he had put away in order to live.

I pretend I’m glad it turned out this way.

“I was not born that way. A lot of the things that happened to me, with Dad and different things like that, I think it had a bearing on me. I always think, Sis, that that is a choice we make. My choice could have been based on my childhood, the things that happened to me,” he, in a shadowy hospital room, tells Nanny. I ask her if she thinks Don had a choice then, when Junior abused him and loaned his body out.

“No, but he felt like maybe that’s why he was that way. That kind of culture—he had been subject to it.”

He was, I am, subject and subject to. If subjections form subjectivities—and they do—the subject also knows of liberation: where to activate it, how to enact it.

The most insidious effect of my childhood sexual abuse was my thinking my attractions to men were its punishment—this made worse, perhaps, by my incapacity to remember the abuse that partly formed me. I, a formerly devoted Pentecostal, frequently believed myself under the influence of a lie. But because this lie would have been too heinous to disbelieve, I regarded it a loose truth. Sometimes I wanted it to be resolutely true so that I had an unqualified excuse for my desires, to minimize the shame of wanting intimacy with men. If others didn’t have an excuse for their homosexualities, at least I did. Except my escape then was a cheap grace, my salvation secured by curtailment, abstinence, ceaseless self-surveillance.

How blue can I get, I ask my heart.

If I now believe that what happened to me happened to me, and to Mom and Don too—and I do—I learn nothing, or very little, in either breaking or securing a linkage of trauma and queerness. I say this even as I acknowledge that all too many are happy to weld, or wield, the bond as a means of (further) pathologizing queerness as the monstrous offspring of trauma, and thereby justify the homo- and transphobias that kill us. Everyone is formed by trauma, but certain groups of people are more often traumatized and are more often made to bear trauma’s symbolic weight. Trauma is not inherently spectacular; in the precarious present—and it’s always been precarious, by degrees—trauma is ordinary. When exiled to the margins, when denaturalized by way of this displacement, when designated by extraordinary, life-shattering events, trauma is imagined to occasion disfigurement, deformation, irrecoverable impairment. Trauma can do this—but more often trauma occasions a better imaginary not beholden to a logic that forecloses an abundant life made possible by bearing one’s traumas.


After my abuse, rarely did Mom speak to Mamaw, a silence that cemented their loneliness, as they for so long had turned to each other for solace, for stillness, amid the upheavals Junior induced. When he left Mamaw to chase another life and another woman in Florida, the love between Mom and Mamaw began to flourish, their soil replenishing by way of the lack of him. They traveled across the country, vacationing in Arizona, Mexico, California; they visited with Don and C in Jacksonville and drove to Key West to take pictures at The Southernmost Point designated by a cone-shaped pillar that says, “90 Miles to Cuba.” In my favorite photo I have of Mom and Mamaw together, Mom is a twenty-year-old woman in a light-gray sweatsuit sitting in Mamaw’s lap, Mom’s right arm wrapped behind Mamaw’s neck and rested on her shoulder. Their heads are pressed together, and their smiles show their teeth. Taken years after Junior’s return, the photo captured a love that he could not. Even after my abuse, even after Mom tearfully walks by Mamaw sitting on her porch and asking Mom to join her—“Let’s talk, honey. Please, let’s catch up”—even after Mamaw never divorces him, Mom loves her, a love subsisting on the plentitude of their past.

I, too, love Mamaw, who died of renal failure in 2000, a cruel eleven years before her husband died. When I think of her, I think of the pink curlers omnipresent in her hair, of the “fried taters” she would make for me to offset my tantrums, of the can of Pringles and pack of Devil’s Food cookies she would give me and my cousins at the beginning of each month. But I think also of her complicity. How could she have allowed Junior back into her home after his seven-year absence? How could she not know of Donald’s sexual abuse, Mom’s, and mine? How could she stay with him after any of these abuses?

I ask Nanny these questions, and she says she doesn’t understand it either, that she suspects Mamaw’s religiosity kept her quiet. Junior was both her husband and her pastor; for thirty years, she listened to him preach the Word of God, a duration so long I wonder if Junior’s words, to her, became something more than proxies for God’s. She did not believe in divorce—What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder—but in submission when reasonable and unreasonable. She hedged a possible eternal damnation at many costs. Yet, what meager resistance, let alone control, one has before the immensity of a lifetime alongside God’s surrogate. I do not blame her, I cannot. Instead, I cry as Nanny tells me that Mamaw had “visions” in the year before she died, visions in which three generations become children again, together.

“Her window was beside her bed, and she’d be lying in her bed looking out the window when she saw a little girl. ‘I saw that girl with long, blond, curly hair again today. She was dancin’, just a-dancin’ away,’ she’d say. She told me she thought the little girl looked an awful lot like your Mom.” She paused. “And more than once I would sit on the deck with Mamaw, and she’d say she was seeing two little boys with blond hair. ‘Look over there behind the neighbor’s house. You see those two little boys playing by the oak tree? They look so much like Jeremiah and Donald.’ Sometimes I’d tell her I saw them too.”