What does it mean—“About?” What would you like to know about me? I’m pretty much an open book (as you can tell, if you’ve read “Arms Akimbo.”) You know that I’m an incest survivor, you know that my father molested me when I was three, you know that I have been on a journey of healing. I expect that will continue for the rest of my life, in one way or another. You’ve walked it with me so far.
You know this from the blurb at the back of “Arms Akimbo:”
Audrey Roth is a mother, a feminist, a writer, a potter, and an inveterate and unapologetic New Yorker and punster. Although she has published a number of articles in legal publications, and has coauthored a chapter in Deal Strategies for Venture Capital and Private Equity Lawyers with Frederic Rubinstein, this is Audrey’s first book. She lives in Maynard, Massachusetts, with her spouse and their rescue cats, Samson and Hercules (although it’s unclear who rescued whom…). She cannot believe that her daughter is almost 18 years old and will be leaving the nest in another year.
So…what else should I tell you? What else would you like to know? What would I want to know from an author of a book like this? Maybe how I came to write it, and publish it? OK, I’ll tell you a story:
Once upon a time, there was a little girl, living . . . not in a place, like New York, or Boston, or London, or any other geographical location. She lived inside her adult self, quietly, not making waves, but always being silent, aware that speaking meant bad things would happen. She never grew up, because she couldn’t move forward. She couldn’t take risks, chances. She had to be obedient. She had to be silent. That silence, enforced as it was by the threats of her father, meant she remained three years old, even as her body grew, as hormones kicked in, as her elder self grew up and moved into adulthood.
Her fears, however, lived both in herself and in her adult alter ego. Whenever the adult experienced something that reminded the little girl inside of the terrors she had lived through, the little girl’s fears overwhelmed her and spilled over into the adult. And the adult, the so-called grown-up, became the little girl, the small, fragile child, triggered by the fear, the terror, and she reacted to adult situations with the emotions of that little girl. She cried, she became mute, she suffered enormous physical pain. The grown-up had no name for it, no understanding of it. She shrugged, and just felt like she was weird, crazy, stupid and . . . well . . . it bears repeating . . . crazy.
For her entire life, until she had a child of her own (physically, because she already was the host to her child-self), she lived this way. Life as she knew it changed with the birth of her daughter. This child, beautiful, empathic from her earliest life, exquisitely sensitive—with her strength of character and her own sense of who she was and insistence on living her true self—this child triggered in her mother, with her child-self living inside her, raw emotions and fears the likes of which she thought she had never experienced. The adult grew more fearful, more terrified, with every passing day. She loved her child fiercely, and was terrified to parent her, afraid of . . . she didn’t know what. Just afraid. Sure she was a horrible parent, even as she nursed her child every day, helped her to grow strong and healthy, for more than two years. Even as she soothed her child’s cries, her own cries grew louder, more insistent, from the silent place inside.
When the grown-up’s child reached the age of three, the grown-up experienced a seismic shift. An earthquake shook her world, devastating, destroying, the brick foundation upon which she had built it. She didn’t know why, she didn’t know what it was, but her world had crumbled on top of her, smothering her, stifling the cries of pain with the bricks of her life, her defenses that she was sure had served her so well. She couldn’t dig out, cry out, beg for help, for a rescuer. She had to claw her way through the detritus toward the light. Cajoled from afar, she took herself to therapy—a different kind than she had ever experienced—a kind that would help with the terror, the pain, in shorter order. Or so she was told.
She went to a therapist who specialized in trauma. Her adult-self thought the trauma came from a father who was a mean drunk. She thought, in her naiveté, that she could solve the problem by delving into the damage done to her by her father’s drunken rants against her, using EMDR*. In her first EMDR session, she learned things that were darker, more horrific, than the drunken hatred spewed at her. She learned (she thought) that her sister had been molested by their father. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t talk, couldn’t live. Her therapist couldn’t bring her back to her adult self, the grown-up who lived in the real world.
On some level, the adult stayed in little girl terror for the next four years. She pushed down the memory, telling only her partner, hoping that by forgetting it would vanish, like the smoke from the crematoria at Auschwitz. Into the air, into the atmosphere, out of her life. Her ghost, like the ghosts of those burned by the Nazis, stayed with her, wreaking havoc, demanding time, energy, attention—none of which she was able to give.
Until her daughter was seven. The age upon which havoc had been wreaked on the grown-up’s sister (or so she thought). Until the grown-up and her partner went into couples counseling with a therapist who suggested they each do EMDR. The grown-up knew she couldn’t face that again. Couldn’t subject herself again to the sight of her father as molester. Couldn’t face the idea, held deep inside her, that she could—would—be a molester, a perpetrator, if she did so much as get close to her daughter. She abhorred the idea of giving her daughter a bath, of dressing and undressing her, changing her diaper. She had never understood why. At one session, the adult ran out of the room, her child-self leading the way, running to the car, and driving away. Away, away, away. Anywhere but there. Anywhere but anywhere. Nowhere to go, no place to be safe, to get away from the horror that was her. So she thought. She thought . . . about driving into the back of a truck and getting away forever. Getting away from the daughter she thought she would hurt, as her father had hurt her. She would not hurt her child in that way. Death was better. She was sure.
Yet some part of her chose life. She pulled the car over, struggling for breath, and called her therapist. Ring, ring, ring, ring. Not there. No time to wait. She needed help NOW. In the moment. No time for messages, for return phone calls. Desperate for help in the moment, she called the woman who had previously been a couples therapist for her and her partner. A brilliant therapist. Ring, ring, ring. “Hello?” God is good sometimes. The adult-child explained the situation, and the therapist promised her 45 minutes, later in the day. “Can you hang on til then?” Yes, she could. She knew help was on the way. And it was. In those 45 minutes, this brilliant therapist, with skills way beyond the pale, methodically walked the adult through why she would not—could not—ever do to her daughter what her father had done to her.
That session, those 45 minutes, were the birth of “Arms Akimbo.” That session, those 45 minutes, gave this adult-child the hope, the belief, that change and healing were possible. Our heroine, that adult-child, began sculpting in clay the emotions she was unable to articulate. After some time, with articulation a possibility, she began writing a journal. Not daily. She wrote when she couldn’t talk. When pain—deep, primal pain—overtook her, threatening to swallow her whole, the mouse to a snake, Jonah to the whale. Even the writing became too much for her. The prose was too hard. In these times of suffocation, of being consumed, she couldn’t be worrying about grammar. (She was, among other things, the grammar police—a role inherited from her mother. It annoyed the hell out of her friends and family.) She gave it up, adopting a form of writing that flew in the face of grammar, that didn’t need grammar. Thus, the quasi-poetry of “Arms Akimbo” was born.
The grown-up’s journal was intended to be a tool for her healing. Not a book, not for publication outside her tight support network. It was a tool for therapy—she brought each piece in to her sessions for deconstruction, for healing, for growth. For building a new foundation to replace the shattered bricks that had tumbled down on her, trying without success to kill her. It was there for her when she realized, with horrifying certainty, that her father reached past her sister to reach for her—to perpetrate his sins on her, to molest her. The most horrifying moment of her life, but for the actual perpetration when she was three.
Until one day, the grown-up’s cantor read one of her pieces and urged her to publish it. It could help people. You have to publish it somewhere. Others agreed. And so, with a large gulp, a deep breath, our protagonist, the adult/grown-up/child-self, agreed. And she acted. For the first time in her life, she acted to the point of completion. And “Arms Akimbo: A Journey of Healing,” took its first breath, the umbilical cord cut, with love, with hope, and with much prayer.
(and the beginning)
*Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing—a complex name for a very useful therapeutic approach. It is often used with people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma.