I spent most of the weekend with Ghost. I learned some things: One, that he is about two years old; Two, that he is a he.
When someone forms an identity out of being invisible, you don’t at first realize these things about him.
Ghost does not talk—he has learned to talk, but can’t any longer. But he feels things.That’s the way to get to know him—to feel what he’s feeling.
He’s afraid of other people and afraid to go outside. He’s afraid that someone will see him, and then they will realize he’s not a real person, and then they will kill him.
So I went to the district headquarters today. There was a holiday, and that’s where it was all happening. Because of Ghost, I felt very awkward. I didn’t want to make any mistakes in how I wore my national dress, which of course meant that everything blew everywhere—it was a windy afternoon—and I looked even more uncomfortable and out of place than the sole white person in the crowd might have otherwise looked. But I hadn’t realized this.
Because, of course, Ghost is really me and although I’m not actually two years old (or a him), other things about him are also true for me. I do feel like I’m not a real person and that other people might find this out. And I hadn’t known this.
There is a certain kind of logic to the feeling: Other people don’t generally treat people the way I grew up being treated. Other people don’t, as a rule, do the things I was forced to do. Therefore, I must not be a real person. Real people don’t do those things.
But it’s also a way a toddler might try to feel safe. “Maybe,” my toddler-self thought, “If I am very quiet and very still and don’t cause any problems, no one will notice me. And if no one notices me, they won’t be able to hurt me.”
I remember some of that. For many years, I was selectively mute. I spoke sometimes, but there were situations where I didn’t say anything, people I didn’t respond to, weeks where I said nothing to anyone. Selective mutism, contrary to popular assumption, is not usually linked to trauma. It is the result of an anxiety disorder. But I was both traumatized and highly anxious.
So not talking took on a personality in my mind. And that makes sense too. For the rest of me, mutism came unexpectedly. My throat would close. Words refused to come out. Words fell out of my head. It was not a person doing this. It was just fear. But a person is easier to understand than fear.
Nonetheless, the end result of trying to act like you don’t exist is that you begin to feel you really don’t. And being abused had already done that.
Sometimes, I also realize how difficult it was as a small child to understand lying. “Someone told me this doesn’t hurt or that it wouldn’t hurt. They must not know it hurts. They must not be able to see that it hurts.” Or even, “Maybe it doesn’t hurt. Maybe my pain is not real. Maybe I am not real.”
Lying. Lying was difficult to grasp.
I also concealed my pain, because my father is a sadist. Suffering egged him on. If I wanted him to stop, it was wiser to try to conceal my suffering. If I did that, he might get bored. And so I stopped seeing my own pain too.
It’s all very complicated, isn’t it? But this is why seeing my own pain has been important to me. It means that I was real. I existed. I bled the way anyone else would.
We went for a walk today, Ghost and I, after leaving the district headquarters. It was the first time he’d really been out. He has been too scared.
I live very close to the main center of my village. You might say I live in the very center, but really I have to walk about half a block to get there. The school where I teach is about seven minutes beyond that. This was the other direction. I hadn’t realized how quickly things would feel different. There were birds aside from crows and English sparrows. I don’t know what they were, but they were Country X birds—not these imported, foreign creatures. There were no dogs barking and no children screaming. Where I live there are almost always children screaming. Or crying, or singing, or chanting rhymes.
Dogs barking and children screaming: Those are the sounds I hear from daylight until I sleep at night, and the dogs go on barking until morning when it seems they actually sleep for a while. Those are my lullabies. But out of the village center, there are fewer children and no dogs. It’s suddenly quiet.
I saw a cat though, tail held high above old rice stalks as it wove its way through a murder of crows.
And pretty. The village center is not as covered with trash as other places I’ve been, but you can’t walk two steps without seeing an empty crisp packet or an old plastic bottle. It was one of my first disappointments. The country, everyone told me, is beautiful. Yes, if you can stop seeing all the trash. There’s a stream running parallel to the road that leads to the school. The trash I see in it every day pains me. It is not the LA River, but for a village of a few hundred, it shouldn’t be this way.
There were empty crisp packets and old plastic bottles on my walk, but fewer. Not so many that the landscape made me wince.
Anyway, it was a nice walk. He liked the birds.