I didn’t know fear still had a hold on me until I heard Amanda Nguyen talk. Years ago, I used to wake up in the middle of the night fearing being killed in the hands of a man. I would check under the bed and behinds curtains fearing a man hiding somewhere in the house. I watched behind my back when walking back home from work. I had extra locks on my door; I slept with a light on. Up until now, I didn’t realize the extent of how fear has affected me in the past and how can still have a hold on me today. Here is my unspoken story.
Amanda Nguyen was on the stage sitting next my husband. The moderator of the panel about Conscious Men at the “Lead with Love Summit” in Aspen, Colorado, introduced the talk by asking Amanda about her view on the role of men today after the #Me Too movement. Born in 1991 to Vietnamese refugees, Amanda is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and helped draft the “Sexual Assault Survivor Bill of Rights” that passed unanimously in Congress in 2016.
She spoke calmly and slowly, her long black hair shining, her face revealing young beautiful skin. I liked her immediately. I had missed her earlier presentation during the conference, where I was invited with my husband to teach a workshop about the mood of the Warrior, the Visionary and the Healer, three of shamanistic archetypes, and how these moods apply to our daily lives. On my first impression, Amanda embodied the leadership awareness, moods and skills I seek in myself and others.
“What would you do if men in your city where subject to curfew after 9:00 pm?”
Amanda shared that she had posted that question on Twitter days earlier and the answers were overwhelming:
“I would sleep with my windows open”
“I would go for a jog around my neighborhood”
“I would take a walk on the beach at night”
“I would be able to walk from the bus stop to my home after work”
Unexpectedly, her question cracked something in me,
“I would wear whatever I want without worries”
“I would speak my mind”
“I would tell the truth”
Amanda’s question pierced my heart and stayed with me for several days after I got back home. I tried to distract myself with my work and my son’s school life, but during my writing class, one night, it all came back.
What would I do without the fear of men?
I was 5 years-old and I was at home with my family on a humid and hot Sunday afternoon. My parents, older brothers and sister were sitting at the table chatting and savoring Argentinian pastries and tea. The special occasion was our guest: my mother’s second cousin that I had never met before. I can’t recall his name, but I do remember he grabbed me by the waist and, without asking me, sat me on his lap while voicing something like “what a cute little girl.” My apprehension was immediate and I tried to push him away. I wondered if he ever brushed his teeth because he smelled of alcohol. Also without my consent, he placed his hand between my legs. I was wearing shorts; he kept his hand on my private areas. I nervously kept moving trying to get away until my mother made an apologetic comment to her cousin about “what an anxious and restless child I was”. I froze and held my breath. I remember trying to look in her eyes for help. Today, sometimes l feel tightness in my groin muscles because of this incident.
I was 12 years old, and on my way to my girlfriend’s birthday party. The subway station looked empty and quiet on the Sunday afternoon. My father explained to me the station where I needed to change trains, from line D to lane A, the older subway line with wooden seats and doors that didn’t close well. It was my first time riding in the subway by myself and I was alert and paying attention to my environment. I patiently waited for Line A train to arrive; there was no one at the station and I counted out loud every step I took, holding tight to the plastic bag with my friend’s present: a pink top that my mother chose appropriate for a young girl. The ride on line A was about 15 minutes, which I also imagine counting, since I didn’t wear a watch and cell phones didn’t exist. I was carrying a tiny purse that I had crocheted for my doll, with a couple of coins to make a call in case of an emergency, the address of my friend’s house and the subway ticket for my ride back home.
Once in the car, I sat next to the door, holding the rail. There was a couple facing the rear end of the train and a middle-aged man, facing towards the front. The train was really old and shook before coming to a stop, at each station. I kept my eyes fixed on the map above the opposite doors that showed the stations. I had a strange feeling and without wanting to look, out of the corner of my eye the middle aged man was exposing his penis and touching himself. He was looking in my direction and making gestures for me to look at him. I froze in fear and was about to cry when I noticed that the couple stood up and got ready to leave at the next station. Two years before, when I was 10 years old, one winter morning on my way to school a man walking in front of me wearing a long coat suddenly turned around and exposed himself and started walking towards me. I was able to run away from his laughter by crossing the street. But in the train there was nowhere to run. I stood up fearing for my life and ran behind the couple leaving the subway station.
Once in the light of the street, I found myself in an unknown neighborhood. I pulled out the address and looked for a trustworthy woman to ask directions. I have walked perhaps a few miles when I was able to find my friend’s house.
I was 14 years old, when getting back home from school, a man entered behind me by grabbing the main door of the apartment building. He got in the elevator with me. He talked in a creepy tone, and told me he was going to rape me. He forcefully placed his hands onto my school coat, on my breasts. I pushed him away, and he pushed me back, causing me to hit my head, which shook the old elevator and made it stop. He got out somehow, one floor just below mine. Filled with adrenalin, fear and fury, I banged on the door for my mom to open. I screamed at her to please call the police and help me get ‘este degenerado’. She closed the door, and fearfully explained that she didn’t know what to do. We were living though military dictatorship that violated human rights. She repeated several times that there was nothing she could do. Neither of us spoke of the incident again.
I was 16 years old and I arrived at the Red Cross headquarters in Buenos Aires covering my face with my hands. I asked the front desk for ice. On the bus en route to the headquarters, a man punched me in the face, causing me to fall unconscious. It was Friday afternoon and I was meeting my friend at the Red Cross to register for a workshop on Wilderness Survival, suggested by our 11th grade English teacher. The bus was full and I was standing near the rear and squeezed between other passengers. As had happened before on crowed bus rides, I felt a man’s hands on my private areas. I was sixteen years old and being sexually assaulted was not new to me.
This time, unlike the other times, I actually yelled for help. I don’t know how or when, but the guy violently knocked me down. When I regained consciousness, I found myself sitting on the first row, next to a woman. I was shaking and crying and she was consoling me. The bus driver was apologetic and told me the man had run away and suggested that I go to the police. The bus stopped in front of the Red Cross building and I walked inside seeking support.
The staff at the Red Cross sent me to the director’s office at the end of a long hall, to wait for my friend. Other people were arriving and everyone felt uncomfortable seeing the condition I was in. In my commotion and shock, I was trying to hold it together, and wishing that my friend would arrive soon. Instead, the Red Cross director entered the room.
He was slightly overweight and smelled of alcohol. His hug felt inappropriate rather than consoling. My friend finally arrived and took me home. For 10 long days I carried a large bruise on my face that changed from dark blood, to dark blue to black. No one in school or anywhere I went asked me what had happened, even though their eyes expressed concern and apprehension. At this point, Argentina was transitioning from the military dictatorship to democracy, and everyone was guarded fearful. More than thirty thousand people had been tortured and killed, and as the truth began to surface in local newspapers, tension and stress increased in the environment.
At the Red Cross Wilderness survival camp in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the director placed his sleeping bag next to mine. All three nights I was there I endured his hands running over my body as I was pretending to be sleeping. I hated it. I wanted to scream and knock the hell out of him. What could I do? Who would help me? He was the director of the Red Cross, the authority, the protector. Who would believe me? My parents did not know what to do and took no action about the previous incidents. My brothers made fun of me when I tried to share about my incidents in the bus. “You are so dramatic”. “You should walk instead,” or “Well, if you dress with a mini skirt, you are looking for it.” I did not wear a mini skirt in any of the instances. I have not worn a mini skirt in 35 years.
I told my best friend two days after the camp was over. She was horrified and shocked at the beginning, but then she questioned me: “Why did you let him do that? Why didn’t you stop him?” I didn’t know what to say. I doubted myself. It was my fault. What was wrong with me? I may have had a mark, like the scarlet letter. Was I looking for it? Did I feel seen and wanted, something that I couldn’t feel at home? NO. In all those instances, I felt violated, I experienced shame. I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t know I could have a choice. I didn’t have a voice. I felt I was going to be killed if I spoke up, like the political authority had done with thousands of innocents during the dictatorship.
The unspoken became unspeakable
As a teenager I coped by increasingly hurting myself. I was in pain and suffering and I couldn’t find the way out. I scratched my legs and arms with my nails until they bled. I took drugs. I tried to kill myself. But it did not work. I was seeking an explanation, trying to understand my life experiences. I wanted to hear someone validating me, that I was not crazy; someone to tell me that sexual abuse was wrong. Something in me kept looking, removing heavy curtains and trying to let the light shine in. I got a job and paid for therapy. I went beyond my familiar cirlce and became friends with artists, musicians, and even with philosophers and intellectuals.
I started to face fear by reading spiritual texts about human nature, by engaging in the healing arts and taking classes, listening to other people’s stories. In one workshop, I met my teacher, Carlos Castaneda who supported and further inspired my healing process by offering me a new definition of the world, a new description of myself.
What would I do without the fear of speaking up?
Today I know I was a child and I was innocent, as all children are. I know my parents did the best they could with the awareness and tools available to them at the time and I hold no resentments. I know I am not the only woman who has endured fear and abuse. I know men suffered from abuse too. I have learned to say NO, to place boundaries, to care and love myself, and to build healthy intimate relationships. Today I have a family, I protect and honor my body, and teach others to do the same.
And, I’ m still working in accepting what I judged as unacceptable: life experiences of violence and abuse, of any kind. I am realizing that even tough to endure, experiences of pain offered me an opportunity to experience my resilience, my strength, my power. I am walking through my fears though much smaller, still there, and will continue until:
I can sleep with my windows open
Take walks under the stars at night without fear
Tell the truth of who I am without experiencing shame (I Just did it!)