In the wake of sparrows
Writing a letter to a friend recently, I mulled over a word from Farsi — Boghz (بغض ). Untranslatable, it roughly means the physical building up of sorrow and pain in the throat/chest before crying but being unable to cry. I used it in reference to a scene from the movie “Sleepers” where childhood friends Lorenzo and Michael meet after a long time.
Lorenzo: Mike, are you sure you wanna go this way? I mean we buried this a long time ago.
Michael: You still sleep with the light on?
The legal drama — adapted from a novel by Lorenzo Carcaterra — scopes out a tale of torment and bittersweet revenge for 4 boys who share a neighborhood and a torturous secret. Here’s the spoiler alert: their “secret” is repeated sexual assaults at the hands of guards at a juvenile detention facility. They are sentenced to this “boy’s home” after a mindless prank misfires. Even as the boys grow up and branch out in very different directions, the latent horrors of what they endured as children remain loose over their respective lives. This scene in particular has a certain inflammable shiver to it. The boys who are grown men now — a reporter and a lawyer — are still living in the shadow of a fear that seems deathless in that moment.
A common question I receive from men during their first therapeutic consultation is when/how soon will therapy end. In comparison, most women & non-binary folks are less concerned about the outcome or the expiry date on the tin can as they are about the process and the nourishment they can derive from it. I live in a country that houses some of the world’s most ostentatious billionaires but it willfully pushes down the tyranny of stigma silencing anyone who needs help for mental and emotional illnesses. I have frequently watched men hold themselves back from breaking down when they start speaking about their own traumatization, assault and/or abuse as young boys. Their bodies stretch and tighten like a tense catapult. It almost feels like they do not want to release the pain held inside of them because they fear that the emptiness semaphored by this pain’s absence will augur a frozen infinity. It is assumed that confronting it will be impossible because they have been taught to believe that acquisition of any kind is masculine, superior. To let go is perceived as a form of feminization. The pressure to maintain some arbitrary standard of masculinity keeps the lid on the possibility of releasing long-held traumas that are weakening them from within. Self-remedying is either through a decline into abject narcissism and externalization of injury via domination or it is imputing the dissonant self, its locus of identity and its struggles to learned helplessness. What is truly aching within them, what they wish to be delivered from, is also constantly muted through systemic patriarchy’s operant conditioning. This is particularly true for those who have grown up and survived within the ego-heroics of traditionalist environments where masculinity is so definitive a trope that one foregoes the most barbaric experiences of violation just to uphold its social performance.
In a world where forms of “smiling depression” and hyper-anxiety are necessitated as productive, a very large group of men is still grappling with their own stories of abuse and assault splintering them with unlabeled versions of ptsd and depression.
The first boy I became “best friends” with showed me the still-raw welts on his back while we sat on my grandfather’s balcony sipping Limca on a mint-n-mango summer evening. He lived 2 lanes away from us in a stately bungalow which was a throwback to the Raj era. There the mimosa trees were opulent in a splendid shade of lemon sorbet. I would walk to his house with my grandmother twice a week after school, tiny palms clutching chewy sweetmeats; the familiar melt of melody-is-chocolatey. I would wait at the towering gate while his “darbaan” went inside to fetch “baba”. He would rush out with something suitably expensive like Toblerone. This was our own ceremonial reception of each other. The inherently classist divide that ensured we were always placed on different sides of the postal strid still could not stop us from meeting. This was mostly courtesy of the convent school in which we were both enrolled thanks to our parents’ internalized colonialism. A wired mindset that translates going to an “English medium” school as the most trusted and the most significant measure of success. Also, that was the only good school with manageable fees in town. He had recently moved to this hamlet on steroids and seemed to be at the mercy of a fate as nomadic as mine. We became friends by exchanging egg sandwiches (mine) with vermicelli pulao (his) during a lunch break at school. Nobody else would talk to us much because everyone had already formed their cliques and wrung in the totems for their respective cabals. We were both outcasts because we flitted from city to city and were summarily labeled fatherless children of broken homes. He introduced me to Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles and I promptly baptized him Michelangelo.
Michelangelo and I had many common loves — comic books, Nightrider, cacti, solving ciphers, lifecycles of grasshoppers, coconut barfi and failed attempts at starting a neat street-side business of homemade rose perfume. We disagreed and debated moot cases with the typical doggedness of pre-teens; the worst of which were verbal jousts about which was a better category of floofs — dogs or cats. It was after an attempt to rescue and balm a stray dog that he first lifted his t-shirt and laid bare where his uncle had taken a split-leather strap and wrecked burning longitudes across the length of his back. We sat in fallow silence as the smatterings of dusk’s lamplight slowly gilded the guavas. He stared straight and shared sparse details of how the wounding was graved. I listened with my eyes fixing their reach on a family of sparrows huddled over a birdfeeder dangling from the neighbor’s bay window. I have a distinct recollection of everything Michelangelo said while I watched the tiniest sparrow from the group struggle to get a shot at the grains. After that evening, two or three weeks would pass before he’d show me new injuries. Quite like our lunch exchange at school, I would then share the harm conducted against me by my stepfather. We were too young to fully intuit the purport of triggers flung each other’s way when we discussed our respective violations at the hands of adults. Adults who were meant to protect and care for us. We would talk about our ugly experiences in one breath and then fizzle into laughing fits reading quotes from Discworld (Moving Pictures, specifically) out loud. There is a kind of dangerous regularity that children descend into when their violence doesn’t meet the empathy of an adult witness. Our friendship was akin adopting an old animal from a shelter — there was a bucket list of what we needed to do before it would come to an end. As it did when we both moved away from that small town.
Over the years, I forgot about Michelangelo until one lazy morning, I received a message from a stranger on Facebook who wanted to know if I had ever been in “X” school in “Y” grade in “Z” town. I wanted to respond with characteristic acerbity except I decided to click on the profile and almost snorted the tea I was drinking. I knew it was him. He was all grown up now; a “real boy” —in my mind, his voice booming in our library as he wiggled his finger in front of his nose in a shoddy imitation of Pinocchio.
We exchanged messages and after a few days he made a stark confession — “I tried to end it, you know.”
By it, I knew he meant himself. It is easy to gauge that depersonalization when you too have lived through your own. This is what most people don’t understand about us, survivors of childhood abuse. When we stumble into suicidal ideation, we aren’t trying to end ourselves, we are trying to end those parts of our lives that bear such heft, that inundate us with such orphic darkness that the word out starts to spell itself as end.
“The truth about our childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it, we can never alter it. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, and conceptions confused, and our body tricked with medication. But someday our body will present its bill, for it is as incorruptible as a child, who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromises or excuses, and it will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth.”
— Alice Miller
A client of mine is a heavyweight in his field of work. He is also a father of two adult kids whose wellbeing is paramount to him and who also initially expressed immense dejection at the prospect of a psychiatric diagnosis for clinical depression. The dejection wasn’t about the diagnosis itself but the presaging of how this implied his failure “as a man”. He was disappointed that his masculinity had faltered along the way by “acquiring” a disease. It is never easy to accept that one needs help especially in a world so hell-bent on guarding and preserving its ableist legacies that position “insanity” as an absolute to be feared. Therefore, I did not debate him about the plausibility of masculinity in itself being a somewhat rank syndrome. I know by now that sometimes we must learn to stand where we are sown.
4 months later, amid a routine session, he mentioned being plagued by a weeklong psychic disturbance; an intense wrestling with some kind of incognito dread that had trailed him with the stealth of a charging reptile. A verbal spoor was traced and suddenly he paused as his voice dipped while pointing out that he has to visit his childhood home next month. He hasn’t been back in over two decades. The end of that sentence sounded off a levee sundering in a complete fall. In between hiccup-punctuated sobbing and a cannonade of expletives, he detailed the abuse he endured at the hands of an elderly male relative in his joint family. The terror inflicted between ages of 10 and 14 was as enfeebling now as it was then. He said he had lived with the shards of that memory sticking out of his gut. “I was hollowed, repeatedly”, he choked up as he tried to place his hand on his mouth as if still afraid of someone lurking outside the door, waiting for him. I have seen this before and yet every time I see it again, I am and will be rendered immovable and heartsick for a period in time. I can relate and reach into it beyond my professional circumference. I know of a terror similar to his. I also know of how recent and ancient it feels at the same time.
In 2007, Ministry of Women and Child Welfare, supported by United Nations Children’s Fund, save the children and Prayas conducted a study to understand the magnitude of child abuse in India, they found that 53.22% children faced one or more forms of sexual abuse; among them, the number of boys abused was 52.94%.
Until the passing of The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, male victims of child abuse in India were not directly recognized by the law due to archaic, definitional loopholes. Violence against children is a globally pervasive reality and recurring endangerment. 1 in 4 kids across the world is likely to experience inter-personal cruelties via adults and these could be emotional, physical/sexual or any other form of direct or indirect abuse. India and most of the sub-continent is replete with smothered archives of familial gas-lighting and taboos related to free expression as well as exploration of sexuality. These are further laced with toxic presentations of masculinity. As a result, we often end up watching the daily aftermaths of a potent cocktail narcotizing our social consciousness to the extent that it becomes difficult to even acknowledge — let alone address — these wrongs.
Men in therapy recount the first time someone touched them inappropriately and how not only did they have no primer, no real guide that would allow them to trust the awareness that something perverse had taken place against their will, but they were also afraid of how much ridicule they’d suffer if they spoke to someone about it. They talk about depressive depths that are carved by low self-esteem from explicit and implicit harassment and emotional abuse. A lot of them show signs of physical discomfort when narrating how they had to face their abusers while demands of politeness were made because the abusers were “valuable members of society” and in most cases relatives, family friends or someone they were expected to not just trust and but also obey. “It was not until I moved to this city and found a supportive queer community that accepted and validated my sexuality that I was finally ready to unlearn the belief that my abuse had something to do with me being gay” says P, a dance instructor and now a proud parent to a one-eyed warrior kitten. It has taken a lot of time in counseling and fostering feral kittens for him to finally unknot the threads of love and abuse away from each other.
There is a stunning paragraph which quotes Terrence Real in bell hooks’ “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love” (2004)
“When I first began looking at gender issues, I believed that violence was a by-product of boyhood socialization. But after listening more closely to men and their families, I have come to believe that violence is boyhood socialization. The way we ‘turn boys into men’ is through injury: We sever them from their mothers, research tells us, far too early. We pull them away from their own expressiveness, from their feelings, from sensitivity to others. The very phrase ‘be a man’ means suck it up and keep going. Disconnection is not fallout from traditional masculinity. Disconnection is masculinity.”
I have been trying repeatedly to fathom ways to speak about assault and this compartmentalized regression of how masculinity is organized in our socio-cultural consciousness. Stand in the shade of a tacit pause and regard this mean machine coding — masculinity’s dominant socialization is through normalization (and in most cases, glamorization) of injury; both causing and receiving.
No surprise then as throngs flush their razors in protest of an ad that seems to abet a cognitive dissonance merely by showing how sensitivity isn’t a gendered quality. This, of course, gets more convoluted when you consider how race, caste and class intersect to create and maintain versions of masculinity centered in virulent subjugation. No one is invested in sifting through the titillating theatrics of news cycles and reaching into the reality that most if not all men in India from marginalized/minoritized castes, religions, tribes are possibly carrying a strain of unchecked and eviscerating inter-generational trauma.This is an indicator of our social health and we have repeatedly been smacked on the wrist by this oversight. Social stratification dissuades men from marginalized backgrounds to even consider verbalizing their histories of childhood abuse. Debasement is maladapted into daily living. Pain is invisiblized, muzzled. My grandfather, a public service officer, often teared up detailing the repulsive segregation that reduced the bodies of boys from underprivileged and overexploited populace into bartered commodities. He was a man who suffered severe casteism through the length of his life and was living proof of that yoke’s embittering spite. Every day I am both a witness and challenge to these modes of self-viewing that have been preserved in their place for no other reason than to create false hierarchies and power struggles that offer no real rewards. Society teaches young boys that resistance to vulnerability is a superpower, that crying is a gendered activity, that sitting still with your own emotions softens your manhood and that pain is a seductive payoff. Men who are left summoning their erased boyhoods as they rock back and forth in therapy while counting days, weeks, months they walked around like poorly fashioned petrol bombs suspended in time, ready to blow up because they could no longer suppress the flashbacks, nor had they developed the pathways to exit their internal conflict zones. How they were hazed and shrunk when they spoke about it to other men or how — as a client related with habituated obduracy — they were bullied into admitting that they “enjoyed” their “early adventures”. The most disturbing of all is the insinuation that boys can’t be sexually abused because there is a vicious conflation of sexualized violence with the conquest of a sexual experience that is the designated prize of being a man. It doesn’t help that legal parameters often erred on the side of such gross falsehoods.
K is 21 and at the brink of a new life after his acceptance to a program of study about which he is passionate. At my clinic, he is always worried at the lack of coasters in my office (a common theme) and how terrible he feels when his coffee cup leaves messy rings on an otherwise spotless table. He has OCD and social anxiety when he has to speak in public especially since he feels his voice is not as gravitational as his father’s. He taps his knees while staring at the muddy liquid- “I was 11. I didn’t consent to it. I didn’t even know what consent was at that time. It was rape, it was not an adventure.”
These are lives lived shadowboxing with a kind of intimidation that has no coherent shape. Beyond the drama of aggression are the very real risks of causing further injury either to self or others. In Trauma and Recovery, Judith Lewis Herman surmises―”But far too often secrecy prevails, and the story of the traumatic event surfaces not as a verbal narrative but as a symptom.”
Several studies on ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) have shown that child abuse is the most preventable cause of mental health problems while also being a heavy contributor to both physical and psychological illness. Unless we start speaking and creating space where softness is not derided, where gender isn’t propped as a currency and where men can confront the ravages of compulsive masculinization which does nothing to unlock their own repression and associated trauma, the world around us is not going to get safer for anyone.
A few months after Michelangelo messaged me on FB, I encouraged him to speak to a psychologist. A year into therapy, he sent me a box that contained 4 action figures of teenage mutant ninja turtles, a copy of “Mort”, a photograph of a sparrow, mimosa flowers & a note that had a single line — “As simple as that? You didn’t use magic?”
(Note: Gratitude for anyone/everyone who shared their story with me and agreed for it to be included in this essay.)
Scherezade Siobhan is a psychologist, writer and a community catalyst who founded and runs The Talking Compass — a therapeutic space dedicated to providing mental counseling services and decolonizing mental health care. She is an award-winning author and poet whose work is published or forthocming in Medium, Berfrois, Feministing, The London Magazine, The Quint, Vice, Jubilat, DATABLEED, Winter Tangerine, Cordite among others. She is the author of “Bone Tongue” (Thought Catalog Books, 2015), “Father, Husband” (Salopress, 2016) and “The Bluest Kali” (Lithic Press, 2018). Find her @zaharaesque on twitter/IG/Facebook. Send her chocolate and puppies — firstname.lastname@example.org.