alice hiller on adolescence as self-reclamation beyond sexual abuse in childhood in four poems from bird of winter
Trigger warning: this piece includes references to the emotional aftermaths of sexual abuse in childhood, and the vulnerability of adolescents with this history
Adolescence is seldom tidy or straightforward. Trying to locate ourselves beyond the lives we knew and lived as children gives rise to exploratory behaviours that outsiders can be quick to condemn. For those of us subjected to the crime of sexual abuse in childhood, the challenges and potential dangers are inevitably greater. This was my own experience. My abuser was my mother. Without appropriate support, the changes of puberty may push us back towards our places of injury, and emotional disassociation. If we have not been able to articulate or process the original trauma, there is also often little to mitigate the destabilising impact of reconnection with complex energies.
But puberty can also be a ferocious, reclamatory life force. When you come through a difficult childhood, teen experimentations with life offers the chance to ‘reboot’ yourself. Elective engagement with your own body and sexuality becomes part of the discovery of who you are and want to become, especially if your identity has previously been negatively defined by others. Although these poems were some of the hardest to write, and last to be finished, exploring my teenage years for bird of winter allowed me to look at their turbulence in a new way.
Writing into my memories showed a gateway to new beginnings. By looking back with the open-ness and absence of judgment that a creative encounter can enable, I was more able to understand the challenges of making my way as a teenager, as I hope the four poems I’m going to explore here will suggest. They engage with four central and repeating themes within the process of claiming yourself beyond sexual abuse. These are: separating emotionally from your abuser, negotiating the initial aftermath of the crime, difficult experiences coming to the surface, and beginning to find ways to recognise and articulate what happened to you.
Although these poems were some of the hardest to write, and last to be finished, exploring my teenage years for bird of winter allowed me to look at their turbulence in a new way
‘tesselation’ is the first of these poems, titled for how the mosaics at Pompeii and Herculaneum form their images from tiny fragments. The poem remembers my time in a psychiatric unit when I was just thirteen in 1977. For the first time, I began to detach myself from my abuser. Having previously stopped eating, I had been hospitalised to receive treatment for anorexia. Like many young people at that time, when sexual abuse was barely recognised or discussed even within the medical profession, I wasn’t able to talk directly about what had happened to me. The poem captures a meeting one late autumn afternoon with the psychiatrist who was treating me. She revolutionised my understanding of who I was. Spoken in a spaced-out third person, the first ‘tile’ or stanza describes how:
from her bed in the white cloud alice watches the commode she uses
as a toilet it is three steps away but cannot be mentioned she has
not been allowed out of this room since she arrived pills drop her
into nothing at night and hollow out her days
The next two stanzas track our conversation as it unfolded, repeating my thoughts, and occasional observations, maintaining the same, semi-distanced tone. Medicated with valium / diazepam and largactil / chlorpromazine, and confined to bed at all times, the world appeared to exist at one remove. The call to life comes in the fourth stanza when the psychiatrist says “you must understand you’re not your / mother you can only get well if you move far away from her”. At the time, it hit me with almost seismic energy. Even forty-three years after, I can still feel the impact of those words. The shell of my world cracked open, and revealed the possibility of a freer space to come, as the closing stanza documents:
as the doctor speaks giant scissors
snip round the window once these scissors have cut all the way
round the frame alice rises up light as a leaf cold air is lifting her
out into the waiting sky
The psychiatrist must have intuited something of the impact of this revelation. Around this time, she wrote to the school nurse, who had initially raised the alarm, that I was “less depressed and more outgoing […] I think she is beginning.” It would nonetheless take until my thirties to fully end relations with my mother. I wanted ‘tesselation’ to capture the sense of cutting free, and untethering, that gave me permission to begin to claim my independent identity. But bird of winter also needed to witness the ongoing vulnerability which is common to most of us with complex histories.
At the time, it hit me with almost seismic energy. Even forty-three years after, I can still feel the impact of those words. The shell of my world cracked open, and revealed the possibility of a freer space to come
‘wall painting removed from the house of the surgeon’ explores my subsequent return home to my mother from the hospital, despite the psychiatrist’s strong recommendations to the contrary. The poem encompasses the dangers arising from ongoing, destabilising proximity to a predator. Many wall paintings from Pompeii and Herculaneum have dramatic, crimson backgrounds. The colour throbs through this poem, which is structured around a series of knots. It begins:
I am just home from the hospital mother and this knot
is as red as a new tulip so you can easily break its neck
this knot is a rose sprinkled with itching
powder pricking between my legs
As a minor, I still needed somewhere to live, and someone to take care of me, although my home environment was anything but safe. What had happened before between my mother and I made every interaction a potential reinforcement of her control over me. Suggesting the residual threat and sense of self-implication that someone with a history of having been abused carries with them, the next knot is “the coiled raisin danish that sticks to my fingers / when you buy two on saturdays for our treat”.
‘wall painting’ also encompasses familial silencing and destruction of evidence in order to preserve the status quo, held within “the sewing basket filled with my letters home / that one night you will put into the fire and burn.” To have an experience that defines your sense of self denied inevitably provokes consequences for an adolescent, and the penultimate stanza records how “because this knot is lodged fast inside me / sometimes I eat and I eat until I hurt”. The closing couplet ties together the consequences of so many concatenated acts of harm. Like coloured handkerchiefs pulled one after another out of a sleeve by a conjurer, together they help us understand how a teenager whose boundaries are never allowed to form, and whose sense of self is constantly being destabilised, remains at risk from further predation:
this knot is a flashing red beacon telling everyone
I am what they can come and get
Unusually, ‘wall painting from the house of the surgeon’ came to me more or less as it appears on the page. It was written during a workshop exercise around the word ‘not’, led by the psychoanalyst and poet Nuar Alsadir at the Swindon Festival. I felt instinctively that I needed to redirect the brief so that it became an investigation of not being able to say no. Coincidentally, our workshop took place thirty minutes or so from the two houses in Wiltshire where I lived with my abuser from the age of eight to eighteen. She bought our pastries in Marlborough, the next town on from Swindon. Even to be within striking distance of what had happened four decades previously felt dangerous and destabilising.
For many of us, it can seem as if a second, mirror world persists inside you, which reflects back different feelings and images to what the world understands of you at a surface level
Trying to grow up, and make my way as a teenager, I mostly attempted to bury or turn away from the difficult feelings that beset me. They nonetheless forced their way to the surface. As puberty hit, I experienced a sense of hatred towards my body, which the poem, ‘mirror’, explores. To outsiders, I appeared a shy teenage girl, studious and academic, at least until I started to lose my way. On the inside I felt polluted and unclean. ‘mirror’ mixes italicised captions from a serene and delicate wall painting from Pompeii with more complex memories. The first of its two stanzas reads in full:
[above] first steam your face a young girl in profile use a clean
tissue gazing at something what comes out in her hands will be
brown or yellow possibly a scroll may turn infected
The starting point was the technique my classmates recommended for ‘squeezing’ spots. ‘mirror’ jump cuts repeatedly between the dual registers of the instructions and the caption to evoke the double consciousness of a teenager working out how to live beyond sexual abuse in childhood. For many of us, it can seem as if a second, mirror world persists inside you, which reflects back different feelings and images to what the world understands of you at a surface level. I found that the phrases arranged themselves into a propulsive, even compulsive, rhythm once I began to interpose them. This built into the second and final stanza, which breaks its raw, infected subject matter out onto the page:
my bad fingers her intensity of expression pick and squeeze has
led some scholars to skin rubbed with sandpaper suggest that
afterwards she was a figure I can’t look drawn from life
Because abuse very often fragments our sense of self, many of us dissociate to survive. The phrases of the second stanza jostle each other like angry strangers in a crowd and keep swirling perspectives back and forth in the way that can happen if you are trying to keep a grip on yourself but are being challenged at every turn. But this conflict delivers, bringing together the painful details of how someone may ‘de-face’ themselves in a wordless attempt to reveal the injuries to which they have been subjected. The final three phrases have a post-climactic feeling of settling, as if only through violence what needs to be said can finally emerge.
‘mirror’ achieves a degree of poise through its juxtapositions of the two frames. The serenity of the wall painting holds and counterpoints the distress of the first person narrator. Working with a secondary object, in this case the wall painting, can help to protect reader and writer, because keeping in mind the additional reality of the made artwork, which the poem is of course also itself. The remove and control may also help temper the rawness of the core material.
Part of my own process of adolescent reclamation came through engagement with art in all its forms – film, theatre, music and museums as well as books – and finding a new language to register life
Part of my own process of adolescent reclamation came through engagement with art in all its forms – film, theatre, music and museums as well as books – and finding a new language to register life. ‘lace-making’, the final poem I’ll engage with, remembers watching the 1977 French film La Dentellière with my French grandmother or bonne maman. The Lacemaker, (as it was translated into English), features Isabelle Huppert as a hairdresser or coiffeuse subjected to predatory attentions by an older and better off student whom she meets on holiday. She moves in with him but suffers a breakdown, ultimately discovering a form of imaginative freedom within the psychiatric institution to which she is confined. There is a Greek holiday poster of a young woman making lace on the wall, whom she weaves into her own narrative.
The opening note of ‘lace making’ is ambivalence – “the young coiffeuse is frightened / she wants this but also she doesn’t”. Aged fourteen or fifteen, I instinctively recognised its sexual subtexts as a result of my childhood experiences. The poem’s language balances a nursery rhyme lightness with something much darker. In the first stanza we discover that “the pick-up is sophisticated / she meets him over a lonely glace vanille / lingering on the breton seafront”. The engagement between seduced and seducer blends menace and attraction and structures the soundscape so that the sliding, yielding ‘ss’ sounds are repeatedly punctured by the sharp cries of the ‘i’:
tucked under your alpaca I watch
alongside you bonne maman
he kisses her into a folie
and the coiffeuse becomes
a fish in a pool of rods
caressed by rising bubbles
While the narrating adolescent surrenders to these oscillations – “I feel them tickling” – the grandmother provides the tools with which she repositions her sense of herself from being a passive spectator to an active participant. Observing “this is an important film”, she gives “me long steel pins / to prick out my own pattern.” In the penultimate stanza, set in a psychiatric unit, the coiffeuse becomes “a lobster in a tank / with the doctor’s tongs descending”. The narrator reports that “knowing I was in a hospital like hers” the grandmother adds “bobbins / wound with strong white cotton”.
Equipped with these tools, which can both pierce and connect, and affirmed by the grandmother’s empathetic witnessing, the narrator figuratively frees herself, and those trapped alongside her, to become an artist of the collective experience, working within a form most identified with purity and innocence. It would take me until my fifties to be able to write ‘lace making’. Its energy is informed by the hopefulness of my teenage self reaching beyond the darkness she had known and being nurtured by encounters along the way. The poem ends:
then the lobsters are out on the floor tiles
and my hands begin lace-making
because we are inching side by side
out towards the turning windmills
the blue uncatchable waves
I recommend that anyone planning to explore difficult elements of their own histories puts some form of safety net in place. It might be a friend you could call, or a support line you could connect with, or more formal professional support. The Mind website offers useful links for people of all ages looking for help living beyond sexual abuse in childhood.
Watch Pavilion Poets 2021 online launch with Alice Miller, Sarah Westcott and alice hiller
Listen to alice hiller on YouTube reading poems recorded for Neptune’s Glitter House responding to adolescence as reclamation beyond sexual abuse in childhood (trigger warning: references to adolescent vulnerability beyond sexual abuse in childhood)