Update: I found out today that Junot Díaz has a history of misogynistic bullying and sexual harassment of students and fans [Twitter thread]. At the time I wrote this essay, I knew nothing about him except his New Yorker piece. I’m sorry. I should have stayed focused on my own experiences. Please disregard everything I say here that defends or justifies him in any way. The behavior described in the Twitter thread is not acceptable, and his past is no excuse.
Yesterday in the New Yorker, author Junot Díaz published an account of his experience with (failing to) process the trauma that stems from a trusted adult raping him at age 8. If you haven’t read it, go do so now.
The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma
Last week I returned to Amherst. It’s been years since I was there, the time we met. I was hoping that you’d show up again; I even looked for you, but you didn’t appear. I remember you proudly repped N.Y.C. during the few minutes we spoke, so I suspect you’d moved back or maybe you were busy or you didn’t know I was in town. I have a distinct memory of you in the signing line, saying nothing to anyone, intense. I assumed you were going to ask me to read a manuscript or help you find an agent, but instead you asked me about the sexual abuse alluded to in my books. You asked, quietly, if it had happened to me.
My own experience is both similar and different.
I was older at the time of my first rape — a post-pubescent teen — than Díaz was at his. Though we are both men who were raped by men, I am gay and Díaz is not. Díaz doesn’t mention grooming by his rapist, whereas I was groomed for years before my rapist first touched me sexually. Díaz was threatened directly, but my rapist was more insidious: he got into my head, played both sides of the good cop / bad cop routine, made me feel complicit with my own rape because “him raping me” equated to “him playing good cop”, got furious with me when I tried to back away, twisted my thoughts so that I believed I was the one who had done something shameful. He never threatened me with his gun, and though the fact that he owned it was never far from the front of my mind, it was the head-games and not the gun that made me comply. And Díaz was raped twice, but my rapes became a pattern that continued for years, something I wasn’t even able to escape completely by going to college two hours away.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking my trauma was more painful or less painful than Díaz’s trauma. Our traumas were different, but trauma is not a scale, and traumas cannot be compared in such a reductive way.
But the differences between my experience and Díaz’s experience are not what I’m here to talk about today.
I think trauma is fundamentally a violation of trust.
In all traumas, both interpersonal and environmental, there’s a breach of the trust one has placed in the world itself. We human beings thrive on the illusions that the world is fair, that it is just, that it is predictable, that the experiences it gives us are meted out in accordance with our actions.
Many of us already know, intellectually, that such ideas are illusory — that they are not universally true facts about the world, that they are things that break down for some of the people, some of the time. But, in our hearts, we continue to believe in them anyway.
But when the world rises up to show us that it is not always fair, not always just, not always predictable — that we cannot hope to control our futures, only to nudge them as they barrel haphazardly forward into the unknown — then, and only then, do we truly and viscerally believe that such ideas are illusions. And that moment of understanding is what I believe trauma actually is.
When the violation of trust comes from another person, things get even more complicated. That abstract trust in a fair world intermingles with the very concrete trust that one has for the violator. But the human brain is a pattern-matching engine. The impact shatters one’s trust for the violator, of course, but the cracks spiderweb outward, damaging one’s trust for anyone who resembles the violator in any way.
Was the violator a loved one? All loved ones are now suspect. Was the violator a man? All men are now suspect. How did the violator gain trust? Those behaviors are now suspect.
And, ultimately, the violator was a human. All humans are now suspect.
That kind of damage spreads wider and runs deeper than we ever know.
In this model, there can be no ultimate recovery from trauma: trauma is a discovery of an underlying truth about the world and the people in it. The trauma must be processed, absorbed, taken to heart… but to recover from it, in the sense of restoring one to a pre-trauma state of mind, to have one’s faith in the world and in the violator restored, would require one to unlearn the lesson, discard the hard-earned truth, place trust where it is not at all deserved. We cannot. Must not. The danger is real — was always real, even when we did not yet believe it.
And that forever separates us from the people who haven’t learned the lesson.
Being a victim of trauma is lonely.
When Díaz speaks of the mask he wears, I know exactly what he means. Western societies don’t know what to do with people like us, and frankly, neither do most non-Western societies from what I can tell. If we talk about our trauma, we might show weakness. Our voices might break, our eyes might water, our chest might heave out an unexpected sob. The societies we live in expect people to emotionally self-regulate at all times, and if you can’t do that, then you’re broken.
I mean… they’re not entirely wrong. We are broken. We’ve been shattered, and while we mend ourselves, we will never be the people we once were, the happy perfect interchangeable cog-people we might have been without our traumas.
But the societies we live in equate “broken” with “worthless”. It’s not that there could be no place for us in our societies; it’s that our societies do not want us. To admit our traumas is to admit truths that people do not want to hear, and to be openly broken by our traumas is to demonstrate that accommodation is needed, that change is needed.
We are frightening. We are monsters.
When we tell people about our trauma, it must be done oh-so-carefully. We must never reveal our true selves, even when we lift the mask to give them a momentary peek. And if we ever reveal too much, too soon, we must perform the emotional labor of soothing our confidantes, convincing them that it’s okay, and it’s in the past, and I’ve walked it off. Even when nothing could be further from the truth.
Even when all we desperately want, in our heart of hearts, is for someone to see right through the mask, look us in the eye, and say with total honesty and total accuracy: “I know exactly what you went through, and while I wish it had never happened to you, I cherish having you in my life as you are and I swear that I will never abandon you for it”.
God, the things I would give up to hear that and believe it.
Many rape victims, myself included, have trouble with starting and maintaining romantic relationships.
And no, it’s not just for the reason you think.
I’ve been relatively fortunate in one respect: I don’t really have any rape-related hang-ups about sex in my adult sex life. Not even for the acts that occurred as part of the rapes.
If I ever saw someone whose face resembled his too much, I would panic. I’m sure of that.
If I ever shared intimacy with a man whose erect cock bore too much resemblance to his, I would squirm and feel dread in my stomach and grimace my way through the encounter, then excuse myself from ever seeing that person again.
If I ever felt myself being manipulated, being groomed, in the manner in which he once groomed me… well, that’s actually happened to me in my adult life, so there’s no need to speculate. I froze and I slammed my emotions shut and I silently begged, begged, begged for the encounter to end of its own accord, too terrified to speak up for myself. He told me to stay the night; I did. But in the morning, I left silently, and I blocked him and never contacted him again.
But for bed partners who don’t remind me of such memories, I am free of hang-ups. The sex acts themselves are mine to share. They’re not his.
Maybe it’s because of the context of the rapes: I did not want them, and I was greatly distressed that they were happening, but it was a situation of coercion and mind-games and abuse of authority, not a fight-or-flight situation. If the threat of injury or death had been close at hand, I imagine my subconscious would have reacted very differently. But it wasn’t, and my lizard brain did not ever associate the sex acts themselves with primal fear.
Regardless, I’ve been in a grand total of two romantic relationships in my life, the first lasting three years, the second perhaps four months. Three and a third years, out of 20 years of adulthood and 38 years of life.
And I’m not doing much better on the friendship front, either.
It’s trust. It always comes back to trust.
I’ve learned the hard way that people perform tiny manipulations, all the time, without consciously realizing it: the pressure for me to go along with something, the assumption that they know what I want and can speak for me, the certainty that they know what I need better than I do. No malice behind it, no ill intent. But my past has marked me with scars that are sensitive to it: I am aware that it is manipulative, that I am being manipulated, that I am being silenced, and suddenly I am once again unable to find my voice and speak up, unable to voice the hurt being done to me now because I’m engulfed with the emotions from the hurt and fear and confusion that he caused me.
And it happens all. the. time.
So no, I don’t trust easily. When I was young, I made the mistake of ignoring my gut, of pushing through the distrust and letting people in anyway, and it burned me more times than I care to recount. The older I get, the more I realize that the reason I am slow to trust and quick to abandon a growing friendship is because I am vulnerable, will always be vulnerable, and I must be cautious because I will always need to protect myself.
They do not understand me, and therefore they do not understand that they hurt me, and I do not know how to tell them because it would require me to stop fronting and reveal that I am broken behind my mask. And I cannot do that, because our society tells them that broken people do not own their own bodies and minds, so they would be required to infantilize me, take my agency away from me, tell me what to do, tell me to get better, have you tried this?, have you tried that?. I have heard this conversation a hundred times and it does not get any less painful when repeated.
What I want is for them to see the parts I choose to show them, accept those with a nod, and then stop doing the things that hurt me. Maybe, if they’re up to it, they could politely ask, once, if I want to talk about it. But the odds that the conversation will end with that outcome are so close to zero that they cannot be measured. So I search for friends and lovers who do not hurt me, even without me explaining to them what I need. But such people don’t exist, can’t exist, and if they did exist it would be unfair to subject them to me, because such a meeting would result in a one-sided relationship where they do all the emotional labor and I reap all the benefits.
I fucking hate our society.
I don’t want to wear this mask. It’s tiring. It’s stifling. It’s lonely.
But if I don’t, people will tell me what to do. Who to be. If they see me as I am, they will hurt me in the name of “fixing” me. I’m tired of people hurting me.
I have to make one last comment on the conversation surrounding Díaz and his article.
I’m not condoning that he went through multiple relationships, hoping that the next one would be the one to “fix” him.
I’m not condoning that he cheated on his girlfriend.
But I’ve seen these things being called out as if they are specific to straight male victims of rape. They’re not.
A lot of people who are raped, regardless of gender and of sexual orientation, go through a promiscuous period. I didn’t tell y’all about mine, but I had one too, and I can assure you that no women were involved at any point. And I’ve known straight women who slept their way through a pile of men in the same way, and I’m sure there are also non-straight women who’ve done the same damn thing with a pile of women.
Why? Why promiscuity after rape? It’s hard to put it into words. But I’ll try.
As I said, trauma is the breaking of trust. Sex is an act of deep intimacy, one that both requires trust and increases it. Forces trust, even, when we subconsciously don’t want to trust. When we’re reeling from our trauma, we’re simultaneously afraid to trust and afraid we’ll never trust, anyone, ever again. Casual sex can be a very poorly thought out attempt to banish that fear, to use the intimacy afforded by it as a way to force oneself to trust. For those whose rapes have scarred their experience of sex, it can also be an opportunity to retrain the lizard brain to stop fearing it.
And as for Díaz believing that a loving relationship would “cure” him of his past? Been there, done that too. I spent my last two years of high school pining after a guy because I thought he would be my cure. Or rather, my knight in shining armor who would whisk me away from the household situation where I was being raped multiple times per week and we would live together and love each other and trust each other completely and it would be happily ever after. And, again, I’ve known straight women who thought they could escape their trauma by having a man swoop in and marry them.
I know from experience that Díaz wasn’t thinking, “oh, I can date a pretty girl and talk to her about my problems and she can fix me because she cares”. It was “oh, I can date a pretty girl and then my problems will go away as if they’d never existed”. I’m sure that the thought of telling her about his problems never went through his mind. He wasn’t dating her for her emotional labor.
It crosses genders and sexual orientations. It’s not everyone’s reaction, but it’s a reaction. It’s a nonsense idea that society put into our heads, the idea that romantic coupling makes one whole, cures all ills, but this particular nonsense idea is fairly gender-neutral and has only the loosest of ties to the patriarchy.
Look, the way Díaz responded to his trauma was not healthy. I agree on that. But there are more problems in our society than just sexism and patriarchy and toxic masculinity. Those are real, valid problems that permeate society and that we need to address because they hurt people and kill people. But the way people with trauma and PTSD and depression are mistreated has more to do with ableism than with anything tied to the patriarchy. And I’ve seen nothing said in all this about the amount of emotional labor that mentally ill people have to do to reassure the people around them that they’re “fine”.
Please don’t add to the shame Díaz likely already feels about his reaction to his trauma. Don’t praise him for the mistakes he made, to be sure. But the personal story he shared is a gift to all of us, at great risk to himself, and we should all find enough kindness in our hearts to thank him for it.