C is safe

I survived. My guardian angel came or God pitched in or I turned out to be more capable than I was. But it was okay.

I went to school early in the morning. I thought I would be busy in the afternoon and whatever conversation needed to happen with C ought to be done early. The students are coming to school earlier than usual for exams. Not because they have to, but I guess sitting around with their friends pretending to study is more fun than sitting at home actually studying.

Anyway, I didn’t see her. I had to go around evaluating hedges regardless, so I did that, and I didn’t see her. I didn’t see her until assembly, and I so talked to her only after it. Which I suppose was okay.

She’s not leaving. She’s going to her village, but she isn’t going to boarding school. She doesn’t “know maths and madam will help me if I stay here.” So I’ll see her. That’s one good thing. It’s one thing that made the day easier.

The other thing is I asked her how old she was. Well, she is not 15. She is not 16. She is 13. My memory of 13-year-olds is just that they are quite a lot different than C is—probably less competent and probably smaller. Country X children are an odd combination of competence and naivety. And they are surprisingly big after puberty.

She is the age I was when Nata died, the age I was when I had a miscarriage, the age I was when I was gang-raped at the request of my father.

And it’s startling to think about this. In the scale of things, she’s just so safe compared to me. One of the horrific things that happened to me could happen to her, but not all of them. She can’t be trafficked—there’s no sex industry here. But even if she were, it’s unlikely her pimp would be a serial killer. It gives me a clearer sense of how on the edge of the spectrum my childhood was. I’m not alone in being at the edge of the spectrum of horror, and I also don’t mean to minimize the pain and damage of abuse that is less at the edge, but it means I make a different sense of it now. The things that really scare me just can’t happen. It’s not like being raped on one occasion where, realistically, that could happen again and you have to find some way to live with that fear. What happened to me really can’t. One person I care about could be murdered, but not four of them. It could, I suppose, but the odds are just so extremely low.

C is safe. I am safe.

I go to my exam room and I look at the children there—most of whom are in C’s class—and I think they are safe. They are just so safe from the things that frighten me most. They could die of a lot of things, but no one is likely to strangle them as Stecia was, no one is going to be bludgeoned with metal pipes as Natalia was. These things just probably aren’t going to happen.

I can feel a sense of relaxation within myself as I think this, and it doesn’t really have time to fully process fully. It will have to be done again, but it’s nice while it lasts.


The last day

Today is the last day of exams. I will proctor in the morning and then in the afternoon leave to go to a 3-day retreat with the other foreign teachers.

Leaving anywhere is an enormous trigger. It is, whether I like it or not, the reminder for me of leaving Nata’s room for the last time. It is letting go of her dead body and never seeing her again, never seeing the room where we had made our home together, never seeing the other girls who also lived in that place.

I was hoping it wasn’t going to be as bad this time around, but it is. It is just more on the surface, which I suppose in the long run will help. Maybe something will get worked through.

But at the moment, it’s very difficult.

And C might also be leaving. She will go to her village over the holidays and then perhaps after that to boarding school and when she returns I will go back to the United States and realistically if she does end up in boarding school I will most likely never see her again. Even if she comes back from boarding school before I depart from Country X, I will not just run into her. I never do. She doesn’t live far from me, but she lives in the other direction from the main town. In a year and a half, I have never just run into her outside of school. Not even once.

If I want to see her again, I have to do something, but I feel like a grief-stricken madwoman at the moment. I don’t feel like someone who should even be talking to children.

At the same time, I have been thinking children grow up. They become adults, and usually they have the same core personality they had as children. And C is a lovely person. She is likely to become someone I would still want to know. Just now, she needs help growing up, but she is probably going to become someone I would like to be my friend.

There are some children I get close to because they just need someone. Yesterday, a boy in Class 6—he’s never been in my class—asked me to help with his maths every day after mid-term break. He came to my house on my birthday. He feels close to me because one day he was out supposedly cleaning up at the holy site and he was just fooling around, and I told him, “Go pull those weeds. Good job. Now go and get those.” I just gave him some direction and some praise, and so he feels close to me. I did that because he was very dirty—he looked as though no one takes care of him—and because he was so without direction. And as it turns out no one does take care of him. That’s what the staff have told me. No one at home looks after him. He is left pretty much on his own.

So there are children like that, and C is a little that way. She’s scared for no reason. She can’t seem to trust that if I wanted her yesterday, I will want her again today. She hopes she can trust, but she is so afraid to, and I can see this because it’s all over her face. It was all over her face on Monday. We sat and talked for a long time on Saturday. Then Monday came around and she just looked stricken. She was too afraid to even speak to me beyond good morning. I could see the hope and the fear there and I didn’t know what to do about it.

It feels to me that she must be this way because someone hasn’t been there for her. Someone has seemed to love her one day and not the next day, and so she doesn’t expect constancy. I want to be constant for her then. I want to help with that.

But of course I am not constant. I keep thinking everyone is going to die, and I am scared too, for different reasons.

To me, C is a little a child who needs someone. And she is also a lovely human being. I think this was apparent to me long before, but she looked like someone who had carried me away from a dead body. She made me think of death and horror and it all became hopelessly confused for me.

There is all this going on, and I know that if I want C to not just disappear out of my life, I need to make some kind of effort. She’s not going to do that, the way a different child would. She’s too afraid to reach out, because maybe I won’t be there if she does. It’s up to me to me to do it. It is partly her culture—she doesn’t want to intrude on an adult—and it’s partly her own particular woundedness.

To do that, I need to not be a madwoman. I need to be brave and not think if I care then someone is going to come along and murder her. I need to talk to her directly and tell I don’t want her to disappear and this is what I would like her to do so that she doesn’t. I need to be able to process the emotional reality of my life to have the confidence to do that, because when I forget, I think that I must be forcing her into a closeness she doesn’t want. She does want it. She clearly does. But when I can’t process emotions, I just see her withdrawal from me, and I interpret it as a desire to move away rather than a fear of a disappointment she has known too many times before.

I need to be a sane adult and not a frightened child.

I couldn’t sleep last night. I can’t seem to eat decently these days—that’s been going on for a week or more. I have to pack. I have to arrange a taxi. I have to cope with the grief. And I have to have this conversation with C. I have to do it today—there are no other days.

The thing about C for me is she so very clearly reminds me there is something good left in the world. There are still good people left—Yuri didn’t kill all of them—and there good things I can do. And it makes it feel very much like it could eventually be okay to be alive. I might be able to learn to live with the fact of my own survival.

It’s one of those days when I just need a guardian angel or I need God. I don’t have the strength to do it myself. I just don’t.


One of the traumas that keeps running through my mind—not directly, but sort of vaguely, like I am keeping it on the periphery of my thoughts—has to do with the films. The girl-on-girl ones tended to have an element of deception involved. They were not frank sexuality in the way that straight films are. Very often, one girl was seducing another girl, and the seduction happened through some kind of deception. The younger girl came to the door selling girl scout cookies, and the older girl opened the door and invited her in, and then there was some kind of excuse to be physically close and that turned into sex. Not really spontaneously. It was always clear the older girl has kind of planned this. Not all of the films were like that, but a lot of them were.

So, one girl is generally tricked into sex by another girl and then the girl who is tricked enjoys it. She is not bothered that she has been deceived. She is delighted.

And, of course, real life is nothing like that. Someone invites you in for a lemonade on a hot day when you are trying to sell something stupid for school, and when it turns out they don’t want to give you a lemonade, they want something sexual out of you, it’s not pleasant. You are shocked and betrayed and you might meekly go along with things, but you feel dreadful. That hasn’t happened to me, but it seems like that’s what a normal girl would feel. When you are tricked into sex, it’s confusing and painful. It’s nothing like the films we had to make, not even the fantasy we were portraying had any basis in reality, never mind that we didn’t want to be making the films.

When I talk to C, this sort of plays out in my mind, am I trying to deceive her into something? It is horrible to consider, and I cannot really imagine anything worse. I mean, even if I am trying to deceive her into helping me work out my trauma memories, which is what happens, and it’s not that I am interested in her as a human being, that feels dreadful to me.

Yesterday, as we sat in the grass together, I began to realize she has absolutely not thought of this. It has not in the slightest crossed her mind I could be anything less than 100% authentic. If I want to talk to her, I want to talk to her. If I am sitting in the grass with her, I want to sit in the grass with her. If I take an interest in her studies, I am interested in her studies. I am worried about my motives, but she is not worried about them in the slightest. She absolutely trusts me not to deceive her. Because, I imagine, this is Country X, and Country X-ers do not expect deception. Suspicion is just not in the culture.


On Sunday, some of my students come to my house to study. They came on Friday and they came again today. Before and after, I am thinking about this aloneness—the sense of life without a partner, and without Nata.

After they leave, it starts to occur to me that it’s really natural. It’s not entirely because Nata is dead. The trauma bond, if we had gotten out of that situation, would have loosened eventually. We would have formed a more healthy relationship. And I would have felt something like I do now: supported, but less closely connected. It’s just that the aloneness was thrust upon me. It didn’t happen gradually as I became less traumatized. She was killed, and suddenly I was alone.

I have been thinking that this aloneness is a big part of the dissociation. I feel myself in the present, and I notice that I am alone in that present—I notice my sense of myself as being alone—and I withdraw from that. It reminds me of her death and not only is that too painful, it’s dangerous. Maybe I am not allowed to even know she is dead. Maybe that’s a secret.

But I told someone she was dead and I know I told someone. I didn’t say it and then dissociate it so that I didn’t have to know. The earth did not swallow me up, so it must be okay. Yuri didn’t kill me. It was safe to tell and it must be safe to know. It safe for me that she is dead.

So then it is safe for me to be alone. I miss her and it hurts, but it is safe.

The 100 things

So it’s one conversation. It’s 30 minutes. But it connects to so many other things. More and more, I realize there is this backlog of life to process. Now connects to other things. It connects to the past—the distant past and the recent past. It connects to other things I know and to what I believe. When I feel stressed, I stop processing even the present. The whole system shuts down. But even when I am not stressed, the present still connects to more things that I can process in the here and now, because it’s been something like 40 years of my life. I’ve processed bits and pieces here and there, but it’s like there are still these huge boxes that need to be gone through and sorted every single day.

Yesteday, I talked to someone, however briefly, about Nata, and there is much more to sort than usual.

The first thing is that I told. I told someone something I wasn’t supposed to tell. It is one thing to write about it, to chat with friends about it, to explain it in an email. But only once before have I said anything about her death to anyone in front of me.

So when I began to shake telling C about it, it’s because I was afraid. I was afraid to tell. I was still afraid of Yuri. Part of what has to be processed is just that I told. I told and the earth did not open up. Yuri did not rise up from hell or wherever he is and use his razor wire whip to kill me. I just sat there. And after a while C said, “Sorry, Ma’am,” with a slightly pained look on her face.

I told and nothing happened. It is this very clear indication that I think penetrated through to more of me than usual that Yuri’s power is not as limitless as it felt at the time, nor was it ever as limitless as he would have liked it to be.

It is safe for me to say she is dead, and maybe that also means it is safe for me to know she is dead, because a part of who I might be afraid to tell about her death is myself. Maybe no one can know she is dead, including me.

And that seems to open up a flood of grief. What it really means is I am struck by an enormous sense of aloneness. I’ve written about this before: the difference in how it feels to be in the world with her alive and with her dead is enormous. It’s the Grand Canyon. When she was alive, I was so intimately connected to someone. Partly because it was like having a family, and partly because of the trauma bond. It was just so intense. Without her, I feel very alone, and that has made it hard to process the grief at all. The aloneness overshadows the sense of loss. It’s as though, without her, I don’t even feel myself anymore, because a part of how it felt to be me for so many years involved that sense of intimate connection. Without that connection, life feels utterly bewildering.

So I think a part of what was difficult to process about talking with C is that sense of aloneness. I told C, however briefly, that Nata was dead, and I got that sense of aloneness because I could really take in the fact of Nata’s death. And then also I felt the aloneness because I was doing something I probably wouldn’t have done if Nata were still alive. Nata and I wouldn’t be here together. I don’t know what we would have done, but the whole path of my life would have been different. I would have been focused on building a life with Nata. I wouldn’t be in Country X. I wouldn’t be wondering how I can help C find time to study if she isn’t able to go to boarding school. The aloneness is catastrophic. It’s a catastrophic loss of my identity. Before now, I couldn’t process it. It came out, and I kept finding ways to work around it, just so that I could process the loss of Nata as a person for me.

I didn’t realize it, but this is a part of what I have been processing all week. Bits of me are replaying my relationship with Nata—or parts of it—as I interact with C. And I know as this is happening that it’s totally unhealthy. I have to conceal this from C and make sure that the replaying is, as much as possible, in my own mind. For example, I feel constantly worried about C’s safety. That’s the trauma bond replaying itself. C is fine, but I must know where she is. If she is late to assembly, I am beside myself. At first, I didn’t know which class she was in, and I had to find that out, so that I could reassure myself she was in there, listening to the teacher, and all was well. But that is my need to know where Nata was, to know that she was safe as much as possible, because she really was in constant danger, and the danger she was in terrified me.

I have been noticing this, that this is the trauma bond playing out in the present, and I have just been noting that it’s wildly uncomfortable for other people. It puts them inside my pressure cooker—the pressure cooker that ought to have cooled off by now and hasn’t—and it doesn’t feel very nice. C is not uncomfortable—not that I can tell—but I am sure she would be if I didn’t conceal this from her.

What it means is that regardless of my relationships now, they are going to feel very different to me than being with Nata. I am always going to be much more alone, because they aren’t going to be trauma bonds, and they aren’t going to be as intense. It’s not so much that it feels scary to be this alone, but that I feel unrecognizable. It’s bewildering.

That’s one piece, or I guess two pieces. Even three. The fear of speaking, reality of the loss, the aloneness.

And then there is a fourth piece, which is why do I want to help C so badly? I do, I really, really do. Some of it is just C. As I’ve spoken to her more over the last month, I’ve started to see her in a more differentiated way. She is more and more clearly her own person in my mind and not just someone who reminds me of the girl who picked me up and carried me out of the warehouse where Laila’s body lay dismembered.

C is a good person. That is what stands out to me. She’s not trying to be good, she just is that way. She acts very much on instinct, and her instinct is to be responsible, to help, and to work together as a team with other people to get things done. She’s not perfect, but she’s good and she’s good in a way that is very striking compared to the ordinary goodness of other students. I don’t know why it is striking, but it is striking. It was striking to me last year, but I didn’t think about it. I voted for her for school captain because of that, but I was busy with my own thoughts, and didn’t take that anywhere further.

But it’s also that all the girls who worked alongside me in Yuri’s brothel were there because they had been deprived of opportunities—maybe not all of them, but most of them. They wanted opportunities, and Yuri or someone else, whoever Yuri bought them from, promised them opportunities.

That’s what C wants. She wants opportunity. And I have had so many.

I think there is a grief about that in my mind, a kind of global grief rather than a specific grief. Girls don’t get opportunities, and because of that they find themselves trapped in all kinds of situations they wouldn’t otherwise be in. The girls I knew were conned into being trafficked for sex. Maybe someone else settles for an abusive marriage, because there is at first the promise at first that someone will at least be kind to there, or in worse situation, that they can at least eat. Girls just get shitty choices sometimes, and maybe C’s won’t be shitty, but I can see she doesn’t want her mother’s life. She doesn’t want looking after 6 children and after a man she thought would love her and maybe now doesn’t.

C is one person, but it’s one person with a few more choices. If she can have opportunities, then there is one thing, one life, that is better.

Too much

On Saturday, Class 7 and 8 students have their maths exam. Nearly all of Class 7 are my old students and 1/3 of Class students are. So I feel worried about them. How are they doing this year? And I go early to school. I know they will all have questions, and the thing is at the last minute, they can’t learn very much. It might just make them more confused. But it can also give them more confidence, to have that last question answered before they have to face the exam.

I am there, just walking around, and answering questions. C had a question. I answered that. Maybe ten other students had questions. I answered those. When it is just about time to go in, I run into C again. She is brushing a white powder off her National Dress and I see it is also on the sides of her face. She was playing.

So we are talking, I help her brush the powder off her National Dress and try to wipe it off her face for her, but it won’t come off. I would need to do the spit-clean face wash, and that is just over the line in my head.

I ask her something about maths. I tell her there two topics she doesn’t know. They are important. It won’t matter for her exam, because she has memorized the questions that might be on it. She knows how to do exactly that set of questions, but it’s going to be a problem in the future. And I ask her when she will learn them. I think she is startled by this, but it is just how I am: This is the problem. What is your plan to fix it? I won’t impose a plan—it’s not my problem—but I am not going to make vague hints about it either.

She says after the holidays and I say, “Can I help you?” Then she tells me she wants to go to boarding school after midterm. She can’t study here. There is always too much work at home.

Then it is time for her to go in to her exam hall. Someone shouts something at her in the National Language—I don’t know what. And it feels to me we are in the midst of something. She answers him, and I’m sort of waiting for the something to continue. I don’t really remember what we were saying, but there is the sense that it was her turn.

Anyway, she just stands there in the doorway for a second, looking at me, and I am thinking about where we were and she is thinking something else. “May I go in?” Oh, yes, I need to give her permission to leave a conversation with me. I forgot about that. She cannot go into a classroom that she is, in fact, expected to go into until I tell her she can, because we were talking. Not all of the students are that polite, but this is what is expected. This is appropriate behaviour. I don’t really like it. It gives me way too much power.

I go back into the staffroom and try to get some work done, but I am rattled. Not that she needs permission—I don’t like it, but I know that. I just forgot about it. I am rattled that I might not see her again after Tuesday. It’s tied up with all kinds of other, more serious losses that I can’t sort out, and maybe that’s the main thing, but I’ve also gotten used to her being a part of my world.

I do get some work done. I feel very restless, but I get some things done. In between, I go to some of the exam halls, and my old students have questions, and I answer them in the way I usually do during exams, which is mostly, “What do you think you should do?” And “Does that makes sense?” The help is mostly psychological. I am standing there. They feel they can do it.

After a few hours, I feel unbearably restless, and I go down by the exam halls again. The students are starting to finish, and I ask them how it was. One of C’s friends says, “Oh, Ma’am, horrible. I failed.” Something like that. So we look at her paper. C comes and we discuss them, but she makes some very unreasonable choices on the multiple choice section and I tell her that. I explain why it’s totally unreasonable. She’s crushed. I didn’t expect that. She seems like such a sturdy child—she tells the other captains what to do so fiercely—but she’s trying so hard to do well in school, and here it sounds like I am disappointed in her. And I can see it. I can see her face absolutely fall. She stands up—we’ve been sitting—and turns away from me. It seems to me she’s probably crying or trying not to cry, but her friend is there. Her friend is still talking to me. I need to keep talking to her friend. So I let C stand there, maybe crying, and I try to concentrate on talking with her friend, but I am horrified with myself. How did I forget she isn’t sturdy inside?

Then some other friend comes along and they walk away together. When I have wrapped things up with her friend, I head off in the direction that C went. She’s sitting alone in the grass by the road at the edge of the campus. I feel very much that she is waiting for me. She knows I know she’s upset, and she knows I will come and talk to her. Maybe. Or maybe she is just sitting there.

But I sit down beside her. I put my hand on her shoulder. I don’t really know what to do or say. I suppose I say something. She tells me her eyes are blurry. I don’t say, “Well, you’re trying not to cry. They’re going to be blurry.” I talk to her about her eyes. There is water on her cheek. Maybe it’s a tear or maybe she has gone to wash her face—the white powder is gone. I brush the droplet away.

After a minute, she seems to be okay, so we talk then, about other things. Eventually she asks if she can ask me something. She wants to know why I am not married. I tell her something close to the truth, that when I was very young I loved someone and that person died and then I didn’t want to marry someone else. I mean, there is this whole string of broken relationships between Nata’s death and the present, but such a big factor seems to have been I didn’t really want to be there. I didn’t want to be in a relationship and maybe because of that I chose badly.

C wants to know what class I was in and I tell her—it is the same class she is in, that must have struck her. We weren’t the same age, but C probably assumes we were, and I don’t tell her I was even younger than she is. It seems like that would be impossibly shocking. She wants to know if he loved me, and I don’t correct the pronoun. I just say he did.

I’m not prepared for how it feels to tell someone this. Someone real, sitting in front of me, someone who is Nata’s age when we first fell in love. I am shaking, it frightens me so much to talk about. I don’t know if she can tell or not. I am hugging myself, and she’s not really looking at me. She is looking down at the twig in her lap she is stripping away the bark from.

We sit there together for quite a lot longer—maybe fifteen minutes. It seems we sit together for at least half an hour altogether. I’ve never talked to her for so long before—I’ve never spoken to her for more than five minutes.

We talk about other things, and sometimes nothing. But she is the last student to leave. Absolutely everyone else has gone. When she sees the staff leaving, she finally says, “Ok, Ma’am. Let’s go.”

It’s a very odd experience, and I can’t process it. I can’t process it at all, because I can’t process telling someone in person that Nata is dead, even if I didn’t exactly say that. I can’t process that I told someone she was ever alive, or that she died, or that her death completely devastated me.

I go for tea at a friend’s house afterwards, but I don’t really say anything. My mind is almost completely elsewhere. When I come home again, I am in a state. I can’t seem to get out of the state, and I don’t sleep until way past my bedtime. I wake in the night and I am in a state still. I do sleep eventually, after maybe an hour and it is light out when I wake again in the morning.

There are about 100 pieces of this that I have to consider. It’s 30 minutes of my life, and it leaves me with so much to process I cannot even calm down enough to process more than the surface of the conversation. I find this almost unbelievable, and yet this is how life is for me very often.

Six extra arms

I reread an article about callous, unemotional children—fledgling psychopaths. It is helping me to understand some things. It says there is a genetic component to it, that not all children who score low in factors related to empathy become psychopathic but some do. I guess my thought is that callous people may not always be psychopathic, but many remain callous. They don’t have a normal emotional landscape. It is depleted and barren.

And I’m thinking what it is like to have a parent or two parents who are callous, who have these depleted internal landscapes, when you are not like that. Your rich internal landscape doesn’t seem rich in that case. It seems wrong, like a defect. I mean, it is like having six extra arms. What am I supposed to do with all of these complex emotions? People around me have maybe two emotions. Possibly as many as four. Not more than that. They have anger and, with it, the desire to punish. They have humiliation, which bleeds into anger and the same desire to punish. They have desire and maybe a sense of excitement. They have probably positive self-regard. And maybe not much else.

Of course, it is worse, because their callousness is hurting you. You have all of these extra, intense, negative feelings because of what they are doing or because of what they are not doing and these feelings feel like assaults, they are so strong. Meanwhile, no one helps you figure out how to manage them or even what to do about them.

That’s me. I was this child with a complex internal landscape and not the faintest idea what to do about while those most close around me seemed not to have them. I was the child who thought she had six extra arms and the arms were sort of doing their own thing because I thought, well, I will just try to hide the arms. I’ll just pretend they are not there. Meanwhile, the arms were moving around. They were hard to control. They seemed to have agendas of their own, because I didn’t know what to do about them myself.

One thing I have come to understand through this process is that the extra arms are very often not negative things. I am not concealing anger or jealousy or desires for things I can’t have or shouldn’t have. Those things are the two arms I know I have, that callous people–that my parents—seemed to have. I am concealing attachment and loss and fear and vulnerability. And I am also concealing the desire to help. That’s the arm I am not supposed to have. Most of all, the wish to protect and nurture and to connect with others is the arm I don’t know what to do with.