Prison is my natural home

That’s a Vory-V-Zakone tattoo. Or the meaning of one. Something like that.

One of the ideas that has surfaced for me recently is how different adults in my life have shaped me, whether or not I liked being shaped. We don’t really have a choice but to learn how to live among other people.

Yuri had a hand in my growing up, even if I hate him.

So when I think about who he was, I think about someone who felt prison was his home. Maybe he had that tattoo. Maybe the motto just resonates with me.

But I think of someone comfortable with brutality and capable of surviving unimaginably harsh conditions, because Russian prisons are harsh. There is very little comfort, zero empathy, and unbending obedience–not to guards, but the gang leaders actually running the prison. It falls–very frequently–on the heels of a childhood spent either in the same kind of institution or in a home so chaotic and violent that the structure of jail is a relief.

When part of me says to the rest of me, “Pull your socks on, stop sniveling, and get on with life, because it’s not going to wait for you,” that’s his attitude. I don’t have to deal with very difficult conditions, but the attitude is the same. It has its place.

I happened across a video of an interview with a woman from the Czech Republic who had been kidnapped and raped as a teenager. It struck a chord with me, not because of the events per se, but because of the brutality of her attackers.

American street gangs, from what I can tell, are less organized than Eastern European groups, although our prison gangs may converge on it. I am not by any means an expert.

Violence for Vory-V-Zakone is not random or thrill-seeking. It’s an extra-juducial legal system. Russia has Suki also, but I don’t think Yuri was one.

Yuri was not a sadist. He was a disciplinarian. That’s what I am getting at.

One of my goals for this year has been to address my triggers. I survive them, so I am not trying to make them stop. I’m trying to stay in a balanced frame of mind, so that connections can be made.

One trigger is crouching–washing clothes, taking a bath, mopping the floor all involve this. It’s from more than one kind of trauma, but one them is Nata’s death.

I have started to parse out the feelings I had when Nata was dying. One of them is sadness. The sadness is very, very deep. Another is guilt. So I wonder about the guilt.

Did I think someone had done something wrong or was it just that she died?


I mentioned before in a previous post that I felt a kind of painful tug towards C’s dad when I was in his home with him. I’ll just wander from the point for a minute to describe a few differences between C’s two parent’s houses. Her mother’s house functions, but there is an aura of decay. It is full of things–toys, furniture, blankets, a washing machine (C’s father is an accountant for something like the county and they are well-off).

C and her younger sister are in their mother’s village, so only two siblings are there–the girl entering tenth grade and the boy who is four and the only son. They do not like each other. There is a lot of hitting. Cs aunt, who had a baby a month ago, does not like the boy either. She hits him too, and then he cries. The daughter mostly watches recorded serials on her father’s laptop, and the son goes to play with his little friend.

The dishes aren’t washed after meals, no matter what meal it is. They are washed only after sitting a few hours or overnight. There are cockroaches living inside the appliances: cockroaches like warmth, I think. Or maybe it’s the electricity. Country Xers don’t believe in killing pests, so populations flourish once they are established. Because they believe in feeding the ghosts when they eat, people usually put a bit of rice or juice or tea or whatever on the floor or the table or whatever before eating themselves. This is picked up later, but the residue of sugar or oil that is left behind is not.

After I was there a few days, people began to sweep regularly. The clothes piled up on top of things were put away. I don’t know if it was my influence that made them tidy up a bit more, or whether they were returning to a more normal routine after a period of temporary overwhelm.

It makes me sad to write about. I don’t mean to criticize them, and yet I remember how ashamed C used to feel of her house before I came there: “It’s so muddy,” she said. And it is.

Her mother drinks every day. She isn’t ever drunk, but she goes out with her friends in the afternoons to drink and comes home and drinks more. Her husband or the aunt do most of the cooking, and her daughter or the uncle do most of the dishes.  Her husband says he always has to scold her to do the things she needs to do, and even then she doesn’t listen.

In contrast, C’s father’s house is spotless. This may be because the house is new: it takes time for the grime of daily life to built up. The dishes are washed after meals–never left to pile up. The children put their things away without being asked. Because of this, the burden on the mother is much less. Her 9th grade daughter does the dishes and sweeps. Her 5th grade son has no real chores, but he doesn’t make a mess either. There is a baby brother, who is closing in on two, and he does make a mess. C’s father helps with the baby and with cooking when needed, but he is clearly not an equal partner at home. His is probably the more traditional home, and his air in talking with the children and his wife is one of clear authority. His wife smiles and laughs a lot, although I don’t know what she talks about, because she never went to school and my Regional Language is less developed than her baby’s.

Although the father is only a driver and makes probably a third of the step-father’s salary (neither mother works), they have all of the things a middle class family might be expected to have: a refrigerator, a washing machine, a sofa and chairs, two flat-screen TVs. They don’t have a lot of toys, but they have a few.

The mother’s house has an air of despair and loneliness, and the father’s is orderly and calm.

What I meant to say, before wandering onto my sense of their homes, was that I felt this tug toward her father–attachment pain–and I also had sexualized thoughts in that moment. Now, given my history, I know better than to simply assume what might otherwise be logical–that I felt a romantic attraction to him. I may have simply been thinking I want to be close to him, and the way to be close to men is sex. Which is not necessarily true.

I know he does have romantic feelings for me, because he has said that, but he didn’t express them. There was never anything inappropriate about his behaviour with me.

What it did make me think is that I need to deal with the abuse in my past. I need to address the abuse from my father and I need to address the trafficking.

So, since coming home, I’ve done that. On Sunday, I got the bare minimum done, and since then I haven’t. I am immersing myself in difficult material. I don’t know that it’s wise. I’ve run out of toilet paper and not gone out to buy any. I didn’t go for a run. I haven’t had a vegetable since Friday. I was asking myself about the things I could do which would make me feel better–why am I not doing them? And I had no satisfactory answer. I need to meet C in her village soon, before my next trip to visit Son in his far-away village. But I also know you don’t process abuse in three days.

I watched a lot of videos, sharing victim’s stories as well as some of the perpetrator’s, and one of the perpetrators explained his behaviour as being motivated by the thrill of doing something wrong and not getting caught and another described feeling empty at the time he groomed his daughter. Well, that’s something I remember.

I want to say again that my father seemed to some things out of anger and other times it felt more like what those two men described, which sounds to me like boredom. My father was closed off to the normal, everyday thrill of human interactions because he was so completely defended that he wasn’t processing emotional or social content to a large degree, and it left this void in him, which he filled with this thrill of getting away with something. When I think of him, I remember a sense of tremendous emptiness, as if he were filled completely by an emotional Sahara.

This “getting away with something” seems to me to have to do with an undeveloped Theory of Mind in which it still feels surprising that people can not know something which you know. On top of that, having “secret” or “special” information–even of your own creation–can bolster a sense of grandiosity. “I am better than everyone else, because I know” (for example) “that my landlord is really an alien.” Of course, it just means you have delusions.

I thought this and I wondered how I felt. I spend a lot of time processing what I witnessed and still often do not know what I experienced. My dad was seeking a thrill: what was I feeling?

And I think I was terrified, because there seemed to be no constraints, no limits to his behaviour. It wasn’t just that I was hurt or might die, but that I didn’t know what to expect or how bad it would be. A horror I had to learned to cope with could, at any time, be replaced by a new horror I didn’t know how to handle yet. I don’t know that the horrors were really always different: in reality, they repeated. But it was a sense about him.

I felt hopeless too. I couldn’t manage the horror, because (at least seemingly) because there was always a new horror, or even if the new horror had not materialized yet, it might at any moment.

I think it affected my view of what people are motivated by generally: getting away with things became significant, so if I lacked protection or social standing, if I was a “nobody,” then I became a target for the evil lurking inside of people. The take-away was that people will hurt you if they can, because narcissists typically hold negative emotions in until they run across someone unable to defend themselves. My father was no different.

Disorganization and abuse

Before I left Y-town, I had the thought that at night when I am trying to sleep and I feel attachment pain, this is actually because I am frightened. I am frightened of the bed or of sleep or both, and my attachment system is activated, so that I feel like seeking protection. Whether that’s because it seems like a good strategy in the present or because I am remembering a strategy I used in the past, I don’t know, but that feeling when I go to bed that I really miss Nata or whoever (it is not always her I think about) is in reality the result of fear.

I thought of this again when I came back to C’s father’s house and I began to feel a kind of painful tug toward him. I thought I want to be closer to him, because he is actually making me afraid. Not that he was necessarily doing anything inherently frightening, but relationships may frighten me. I don’t have the best childhood memories of men or of their intentions either.

I had that thought in passing, but it stayed with me–just how disorganized attachment works, whereby the person threatening you is driving you into their arms, because they seem to be the best chance of protection that you have.

And then–this is mainly about my father–there is a pressure to take that person’s perspective, because this is the person who might, for example, know what to do when a lion attacks. But what if what that person wants to do is to exploit you?


My father

I think my dad actually hated women and girls, and that he was motivated to exploit me by peculiar fantasies of revenge.

I know very little about my father’s growing up. I know that his mother was schizophrenic. She successfully graduated from college with a nursing degree. She did for some length of time work as a nurse: there were points in her life when she could function. I don’t know at what points she couldn’t or what schizophrenia looks like between episodes of psychosis.

There is an intersection between schizophrenia and narcissism, however. I don’t know the reason for this. I don’t mean to say that schizophrenics are likely to have narcissistic personality disorder, although they are likely to have a personality disorder of some kind during stable periods. However, they have difficulty with social interactions because they lack accurate empathic processing skills.

Maybe that has nothing to do with anything.

My mother told me until my father was five or so his mother dressed him as a girl, because she didn’t want to have a boy. She had wanted a girl. My father was an only child, and my grandmother had wanted a girl so she simply made him into a girl, as though what was in her mind trumped reality.

For my father, I imagine both the degree of rejection this represented–to actually reject the child’s gender and attempt to forcibly change it–as well as the degree of humiliation my father felt in the sexist 1940s. Along with that, I imagine–but don’t know–that my grandmother probably abused him. If you so lack understanding for your child that you think you can make your son into a daughter by putting a dress on him, then I think you are likely to disregard his wellbeing in other ways.

I have very little to go on with my father, but I imagine all of this and I think he held his mother’s delusional “girl” of himself responsible for his mistreatment. The girl she imagined him to be, although not real, may have been in his mind the source of his pain.

At the same time, I also think he found girls and women dangerous and frightening: his mother may have been dangerous and frightening, but it may have also seemed to him that femaleness might be something one could just become, because his mother had believed that about her son. I imagine he may have felt both vengeful and afraid of femininity.

And I think that’s why he did so many of the things I think he did. It’s all tenuous, because very little of what I think I remember seems solidly real to me. I don’t know what was real and what was metaphorical–just me thinking, “Well, it’s like this. It feels like this. It isn’t what’s happening, but the thing happening now is the way I would feel if it did happen.”

That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but much of it is hard to believe. It may not always be like this for me, but these days it means I have to live in a space of not knowing.

I do know my father exploited me. I am fairly certain I was trafficked.

I think my father did it intentionally to humiliate me, and that he really only felt comfortable being sexual with someone he felt such confidence in being able to control that he could persuade them to demean themselves to a point where people generally no longer know what to make of you.

And I think this had to do with an assumption of ill intentions and a feeling about himself in the mind of others that he was so bad other people would want to hurt him should they have the chance. It became, then, very important to show that he was in total control of anyone he might have an intimate relationship with, because these were the people who had the opportunity to hurt him.

In other words, his wife and his children.

My father hurt me intentionally, because he himself was so frightened.

This is very, very difficult to write about–so difficult, that I mentally wandered off in the middle of it and burned up a bunch of data uselessly just to escape watching YouTube. And only after a good three hours or so of mind-numbing escapism could I come back and finish the thought.

My father didn’t abuse me because of who I was: this sense of myself that I developed as being someone who was disposable came later, as an effect of how I was treated and not as the cause of it. He abused me because of who he was.

That’s obvious, but I find the specifics really help. When ideas are merely known and not linked to sensory information or real experiences, they don’t have the same impact–I am not sure they have much impact at all.

This is what I mean by “balanced” thinking: one type allows us to link to emotions and sensations which in my case has to do with remembering my father’s contempt and disregard for us as well as the sensory experience of talking to my mother about my father’s transgender babyhood; the other type allows us to understand sequence and causality and in my case it is the connection to the declarative knowledge of what my mother actually told me about him as well as an understanding of what happened first (I was exploited before I felt dehumanized).

I should tell you also in the middle of that, when I was taking my 3-hour mind-numbing break, I thought about shame quite a lot. I thought this is actually my family I am talking about. I am talking about my father. No matter how independent we might believe ourselves to be, our families make up some part of our identities. My family was and is very, very ill. It’s difficult to talk about it. I feel so ashamed of having such very, very ill relatives.

I thought, too, about the difference between shame and guilt. It’s so much easier to be guilty than to feel ashamed. Guilt is about your behavior: it’s something you did. Things you do can often be fixed. You can make amends. You can change. At the very least, you can be sorry.

Shame is about who you are. It can’t be escaped so easily. The thing is if you lack empathy, if you are trapped in your own mind like my father was, you can easily displace this shame onto someone else. You can say this other person I am close to is shameful, but I am not. He could humiliate me and not feel humiliated himself, because he lived in this completely disconnected way where my feelings or status in society had nothing to do with him. My humiliation provided a safe place to put his shame, because I had nothing to do with him.

But I actually can’t. I feel a degree of connection to him, even though we have had no contact whatsoever for more than two decades. I came from this. His illness has something to do with me, because he was my father. And I can’t consider his illness without feeling something about it.

I don’t know actually what to do with that, but I had to be able to connect to those feelings of shame in order to come to the conclusion that I did: which is that my father exploited me because of who he was, and not because of who I was. I wasn’t born to be a trafficking victim. It wasn’t my destiny or my personality. It wasn’t my father’s destiny either, but it’s the person he became.




This is the saddest and most homesick I have been since coming here. It’s the lack of the buffer of actual work: my day is all social navigation. And it’s never-ending the last three days, because school is monopolizing my life. It’s one of those things that I am sure I can’t fathom, because I am a foreigner.

The list of things I don’t get: the desire to be together all the time, the aimlessness and lack of goal-directedness, and the relentless focus on food and alcohol. Two of them I know are about being a foreigner. I am an introvert and it’s also how you survive as an expat: you periodically withdraw into a world of your own making. But Western cultures usually emphasize independence and tolerance of difference.

So it’s pretty weird to have dinner with your colleagues rather than your family or even your friends every night for three nights in a row. I have other things I’d like to do, but you would expect everyone else to have other priorities as well outside of Country X.

Then there is also the idea that we will spend all day pretty much sitting around and then enjoy this so much we want to keep doing that on into the evening. When, you know, you could be training for a marathon or writing a book about something.

The food and drinking thing, I realize, is my own. I came back surprised that Americans seem to relentlessly talk about food: well, Country Xers don’t necessarily talk about food, but they eat all of the time here. People like food, but I really don’t. From time to time, a great food experience is wonderful, but I can’t really get worked up over what is basically scalloped potatoes every day. So that’s my own thing. I eat to live most of the time, not live to eat.

I thought of coping with this by writing about how it feels to live through the murder of someone close to you, because that’s the reality I live with every day and can’t share.

First of all, no matter who is there or isn’t there, I feel alone, because someone is missing not just temporarily but always. And I also never feel alone, because I feel her presence: She is internalized as a part of me, and yet is never physically real or differentiated enough to be company.

There is also the constant pressure to live up to the expectations of the missing person, which collide with survivor’s guilt to make me feel that I must be someone beyond merely human. A dead person cannot accept your developing, flawed self in the way a living person works with you over time to both expect and negotiate your real self. A dead person seems to demand a saint.

So, that’s it. That’s what it’s like. I am leaving out the grief which expands and recedes according to the calendar and, often, happenstance of reminders or my own need for a support and understanding that is permanently gone. I didn’t mention it, because I thought, “Well, maybe it won’t always be like that.”

But it probably will. I think it fades, but what I wrote above–“expands and recedes”–well, I think that’s always true. You don’t think about the absent person for ages and then suddenly you are standing in your kitchen sobbing over some unexpected thing that just got to you when you least expected it. I suspect this continues to happen–maybe less often. Maybe those patches when it is every day dry up and disappear. Maybe I won’t always wish that the fall would simply pass by and I wouldn’t count the days until December or even January when it might seem the worst of the grief might be over. But those unexpected surges: I think that continues to happen to anyone who has lost someone close to them–whether that person was murdered or not.

Anyway, this is my stab at connection. The loneliness is killing me today.



Lately, we have been working only half days and life is fairly easy, but I manage to somehow get very little done at home. I began to remind myself that the “work” I am doing is not as straightforward as I might have led myself to believe.

I am learning Albanian as a kind of experiment in how exposure to it feels. I have had at times a sense of resonance, and other times there isn’t any. I’m just learning new words, different grammar. I am sure I never knew Albanian, if I am right in thinking I was exposed to it at all as a child, the way I knew Russian. And yet a child part of me has said in response to it: “Oh, now we can talk.” Maybe there is something there.

The thing is people talk to small children in their native language, whether or not the child understands that language, in a way they won’t to adults. So it’s completely possible I heard it from someone important to me without having much knowledge of the language itself, and it’s also possible that the sound of the language was something I associated with that person–in the way you associate a scent with someone–but it’s purely sensory. It’s not communicative.

On one level, I have this vacation kind of project–something to do with my free time–and at a more authentic level it’s really about how do I feel about hearing this? The learning is to occupy the rest of my mind that is not necessarily always so fascinated with emotions while I am doing that.

One of the thoughts that has crossed my mind is that the girls I remember–and I do think it was a girl who spoke Albanian to me–are not as uncomplicatedly positive figures for me as I might prefer to think. Their role in my life was to help me manage myself while I was abused. They may be frightening to remember, because they hurt me. They were my best hope and I had no other tenable option except to trust them, but they hurt me.

My other thought is that what I remember about Nata may, in fact, have been different people. My current image of her may be a composite of different girls. I have at times seemed to remember someone older (relative to me) than Nata ought to have been, and this may be because it was not her: it was someone older. This may have been the Albanian girl who, if she existed, was clearly important to me. (How’s that for uncertainty?)

I read in an article by a therapist who works with adopted children who have attachment difficulties that very often the grief must be worked through before the trauma can be, and this seems quite accurate. It seems possible, too, that for a long time, I tried to work on the trauma without addressing the grief, and that’s why I couldn’t make any headway with it all.

I may only be able to address some of the impact of being trafficked because I have already addressed some of the grief.


This is a song. Arilena Ara sings it, and you can find it on YouTube in many different versions, including English. The words mean, “I hate you, November.” It’s about wanting time to pass, because in time things might get better. Nëntori means November.


I usually hate October, because that’s when the trauma symptoms start up in earnest, but I was reminded there was a time before Nata died when October wasn’t like this for me and then a time after she died when it was November and I didn’t know what to do except allow the grief to subside. She died in the early hours of November 1 and then after that it was November. In October, she was still alive and in November she was dead. I cannot really remember a time before I grieved for her, but there was one.

So it makes sense to me that a song about hating November would resonate. It doesn’t completely make sense that the song would be in Albanian. I wonder about this.

In my mind, the sensory pieces are not connected to declarative memory. My executive function was not developed enough to sequence sensory information to form memories independently, and it was overtaxed by the experience of trauma itself. I have a feeling of resonance and I don’t know what to make of it. Nata was Russian, but I suppose not everyone was.

I have surprising thoughts about it though. The most notable of them is a feeling of a silence being broken, as though my tongue has literally been untied and I have been allowed to speak. My conscious mind remarks that words allow you to explain your experiences to someone else, who can then imagine what happened to you. One’s own words can create pictures in someone else’s mind that are similar to the pictures in your own mind. Words have the power to do that.

I suspect that because someone has said they hate November, just as I hated November after Nata died, it then seemed real to me that I felt that way. The picture in someone else’s mind which coincidentally matches my own mind makes my mind feel real. The fact that it was spoken in Albanian means to me that it has been spoken from a position of authority: the person who spoke Albanian to me was someone I trusted and believed and if she hates November, then it feels safe to me to hate November too.

None of this is actually real, but in my fractured way of making sense of things, it’s good enough to pass for reality.

It’s deeply frightening to write about this.

People with complex trauma have layers of trauma, and that’s what’s going on here. I have the trauma of a mother who was deeply impaired, and then the trauma of being trafficked, and the trauma of witnessing murder and the trauma of loss and separation all together.

One of my earliest childhood experiences was of being removed from my home: my experience of law enforcement was that they kidnap you and take you away from your home and all of your attachments. My later experiences with law enforcement was that you aren’t supposed to tell them anything and later still that if you do someone will cut out your eyes. It’s not actually words that are the problem, but the knowledge words have the power to give. There is an exchange value: with words, I can give you the knowledge I have.

So if Yuri said or the other girls simply believed, “Don’t tell,” there was already a mental structure for that in place within my own mind. There usually is for abused children, but I think mine may have its own flavour because people spoke different languages which I understood to only incomplete degrees. I may have subdivided my experiences into different languages along with the setting and concluded things can be spoken about and understood, but only in a particular language, except I don’t know the languages in which I felt free to speak about those topics—I never knew them well enough or I forgot them—so whole categories of experiences felt unspeakable to me.

The incoherent models of myself which I once had lost their ability to communicate about their experiences, even within myself. What happens when the part of me which has known tenderness and affection but only in Russian forgets Russian? What happens when the part of me who remembers how hard it was in Albanian does not know Albanian anymore?

Those elements of myself and of my experiences become doubly trapped inside.