Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Maya & Leah

My secret relationship with Maya Angelou began when I was a young girl, decades ago. Ours was a troubled friendship, if you could call it that. Maya, of course, never knew Leah.

She was such an obviously grand woman, I know this: someone whose words, whose lovely interesting face, whose very presence on this earth brought comfort and hope to so many people it's almost hard to grasp the meaning of such a multitude. Yet to me Maya Angelou--the name, the face, the words--threw down the gauntlet of a fierce and hurting challenge that I have not been able to meet.

In a middle school English class we were given her autobiography "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." In what seemed at the time I am sure, to the teacher and probably other students, a silly and overly precious move, I took a stand and insisted, along with a classmate, that the book contained material inappropriate for my age, and I refused to read it. My school being what it was, a place where children were listened to and (albeit haphazardly) taken seriously, the teacher agreed that I could substitute another book.

In reality though, my reason for rejecting Maya's book was not silly, though I could not honestly articulate the truth behind this angry and willful rejection, even to myself. Now I know: I didn't want to, I didn't want to discuss in a room full of children, the rape scene that lay at the dark heart of the book. I had, in private, looked through the pages and I had read the words. But I wanted to undo it. Make it unread. I couldn't read it, I wouldn't. I wanted to rip, to burn, that book. I wanted to kill that book. I wanted to stamp my feet in a baby tantrum and cover my ears and eyes and throw myself down on the battered linoleum floor of the classroom and scream, "NO!" And I wanted to keep screaming until someone finally thought to ask me why I was screaming; and at the same time I wanted them to ignore the screams and look away from my terror.

Such was the mind of a child who had herself been raped, who had lived in a trembling silence of gutting shame and fear for years.

I hated that book, and I hated Maya, almost as much as I despised the one who had abused the small me. I hated her confessional, because it wasn't my confessional. I hated her bravery, because it wasn't my bravery. I hated her hope because I had none.

As so often happens, abuse followed abuse. There were other men who took opportunity to hurt me sexually. By the time I was 13, I had been sexually used and abused to varying degrees by more than one grown man. By first grade, I truly saw myself as a seductress. And by early adolescence I knew it had all been my fault.

But I never did tell anyone.

Through the dark secretive years, Maya's words continued to haunt my thoughts, and to fill me with a confused fury. Her luminous and open and generous existence was a living reproach to my own lies, my tiny fearful life, always so tightly controlled and full of self-hatred.

Phenomenal woman, and rainbows, and kindness, grace, courage, self-reckoning and insight. Living the best life possible, ultimately undefeated. A powerful self and a powerful self-acceptance. I have always realized, of course, that for Maya, all this was hard won, and then only through extreme adversity.

But still, painfully, my own story to date doesn't come fully to a place of hope.

I cried, when I read that Maya was dead. She has been my companion for so long, though I can hardly read her words and have to look away from her strong face. But I have a certainty that she would accept the notion of a woman-in-progress, always in progress. As I am.