Whole Heart: Survivor Lineages

I was listening to an interview with the poet Mary Oliver. Like many, I have been affected by her poetry which brings to life the practice of offering loving attention to a living, lively world. Her words mean so much to me and have offered me solace in times of pain. In this interview I heard her describe her childhood saying, “it was a very dark and broken house that I came from.” And she spoke of her father saying, “he never got any love out of me—or deserved it.” My ears rang with recognition as I listened closely to her words and the emotion in her voice. For the first time I understood that Oliver was a survivor of child abuse. One of us. I was out in public listening to this interview on headphones and I couldn’t stop the tears from pouring over my face.

Oliver died a few years after this interview. She lived a long, full, powerful life. She created a body of work that means so much to so many people. And she knew the kind of pain I know, that visceral original betrayal of child abuse. She lived with the aftermath of that, the pain and trauma of that violence, and she lived a full life into old age. In the interview she says, “I saved my own life by finding a place that wasn’t in that house. That was my strength, but I wasn’t all strength. It would have been a very different life. Whether I would have written poetry or not, who knows? Poetry is a pretty lonely pursuit.” I can’t read those words without crying. They cut right to the heart of me. She speaks of the complexity of being a survivor, the way that our successes, the beautiful lives we create, are rooted in our pain. And she speaks of the loss, the ways we aren’t (or don’t want to have to be) strong, the lives not rooted in pain that we will never know. As a writer I resonate strongly with her linking of her experience as a survivor to her poetry. Writing can be lonely work, work that we do to grapple with the isolating pain of surviving child abuse. Writing is also a gift, a practice of trauma magic, a way that we take that pain and isolation and transform it into healing and connection.

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s “Not Over It, Not Fixed, and Living a Life Worth Living: Towards an Anti-Ableist Vision of Survivorhood,” a chapter in Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, describes the two expected trajectories for survivors: that of the ‘good’ survivor who heals and gets over it, and that of the ‘bad’ survivor who is still crazy, still hurting, not over it. There’s this massive pressure to move on from our trauma, to be ‘good’ survivors and stop talking about our pain. There is a conflation of healing with cure, an insistence that we become like people who have not lived what we have lived. There is a refusal to imagine survivor futures in which survivors are loved and healing and thriving, and still hurting, still survivors, still living with the impact of what happened to us. Piepzna-Samarasinha calls bullshit on this and demands more for survivors.

Piepzna-Samarasinha imagines communities in which survivors are valued. They talk about survivors as holders of knowledge and skills, writing “Survivors [are] leaders, because of and not despite our survivorhood.” They vision futures in which survivors are honoured and also held through our crazy, in which our important contributions are celebrated and our ongoing pain is not shamed. The final section of this piece is titled “Old Bitch Survivors who Cry and Laugh.” This fills me with so much joy. The word hope does not do justice to the deep, healing opening I feel reading those words. Piepzna-Samarasinha writes, “I do not want to be fixed. I want to change the world. I want to be alive, awake, grieving, and full of joy. And I am.”  Piepzna-Samarasinha’s life-saving work of lifting up survivors literally means everything to me. Their queer brown femme survivor genius is always a powerful matrix of healing, strategizing, record keeping, visioning, and sparking change.

Reflecting on both of these survivors speak about their lives, I am struck by the need for survivor communities, survivor stories, survivor elders, and survivor ancestors. I am overcome with the realization that I have been desperately hungering for these stories. I need to see futures where survivors get to grow up, grow old, where we get to survive and stay crazy. Like so many survivors, I have lived through multiple suicide attempts and years of active addiction that could have killed me. Like so many survivors, the idea of growing old is strange magic, and I need to see examples of what that can look like for people who have lived a life like mine. Survivors carry incredible powers and skills, and I am longing for a world which welcomes us in our wholeness, a wholeness which includes and does not deny the places where we still feel broken and overcome by pain.

I offer these words as a love letter to all survivors, and as an expression of deep gratitude to the survivors who have written about their lives and offered visions of what a survivor life can look like. I am committed to being a part of this work, to sharing my own stories as a survivor who has made it to my 30s, who is still crazy, and also joyful and fulfilled and full of courage and hope. My solidarity with other survivors is something I can’t even put into words. You have my whole heart.