In 2016, one out of eight women age 18 and older lived in poverty. Currently, millions of women in the United States live below the poverty line, and nearly 50% of women on government aid give domestic violence as a reason they require financial assistance. In 2002, I was just another statistic. Another woman trying to escape abuse. Such women often find ourselves in a double bind—the very surveillance and control I was trying to escape had required coping mechanisms (passivity, silence, withdrawal, and magical thinking) that now crippled my ability to navigate the adult world.
I had no idea there were shelters and aid programs that could have helped me. And even had I known, depression pulled me deep into paralysis. I believed there was no point to anything anymore. I did not care what happened to me.
My dissociation was so severe that I no longer felt alive. Sex repulsed me. My body was not the place where I lived. It was a thing outside myself that I fed and maintained but indifferently. A curtain had fallen between myself and the world, and I didn’t know how to lift it again. Each night, I took long walks after the restaurant closed. I slipped a coat over my pajamas and left my room at three in the morning. I ambled down the streets until my hands were chapped with cold, but I never saw anyone else. The only sound was the scuff of my sneakers against concrete.
I wanted to die.
The reason I went for those walks was to invite death. My fantasy was that a van would pull over, a door would slide open, and a masked man would reach out and snatch me from the sidewalk. Inside the van, I would be tied up and probably raped and then—finally, mercifully—they would slit my throat and leave me in a ditch somewhere.
This was my dream.
At the time, I thought it was the best I could hope for.
* * *
When I was a child, my father had prepared me for disasters.
During the drive to ballet lessons in Seattle, he quizzed me on death and destruction. “Say there’s an earthquake.”
I sighed. “I duck and cover, away from the mirrors and windows. Then, I find the safest route outside.”
“Say you go outside, and there’s a big crack in the earth. You can’t take the route home we agreed on. So what do you do?”
“I try to go around it.”
“And what if it keeps going?”
“Then so do I.”
“What if your food and water run out? Then what do you do?”
I rolled my eyes and pictured a video game screen. “Well then, I guess I die.” White block letters illuminated our windshield. GAME OVER.
My father shook his head.
He was a Mormon and a survivalist—a potent combination. In my dance bag, I always carried my dance shoes and deodorant along with a thermal blanket, a small first aid kit, a sewing kit, packages of granola bars, water, pain medication, and extra pads. Back home, my father owned a rifle, which was never loaded, and to my knowledge we had no cartridges for it. He stored it in a green corduroy bag with a knotted drawstring.
“What exactly is this for?” I demanded one day, grabbing the barrel through the corduroy.
“It’s to keep people away from our food supply.” As devout Mormons, we stored shelves of canned goods and plastic water tanks, some of it hidden in the crawlspace under our house.
“What is wrong with you?” I stared at him in horror.
“That food is for us.” He said. He believed people were dogs. Other people, not him. Particularly people with brown and black skin. And he believed you did whatever you had to in order to survive. If he had to shoot a neighbor to keep death off a few more days, he would. Apparently, if his survival instincts told him that he had to sexually assault his daughter, he would do that, too.
He had prepared me for fires, earthquakes, floods, riots, pandemics, home invasions, terrorist attacks, and alien abductions.
But he had never prepared me for this.
He had never asked the one question he should have: Let’s say your father sexually assaults you, then discredits you. What do you do?
* * *
But I did not yet know that was what he was doing. I only knew that once I moved to the restaurant, he refused to have anything to do with me. I was at that stage of my life where I believed talking could fix things. If I had it out with him, I told myself, things would be okay. Things would make sense. I would stop feeling numb. So I called home regularly, speaking to my mother and brother.
My father, however, refused to get on the line. He adopted the posture of a man whose feelings had been wounded.
“It really hurt him,” my mother said, “when you moved out.”
And this became the family story: He was the one who had been wronged. I had ditched college, which he had generously funded, and then I had moved in with my boyfriend. My father was a good man who had tried his best, but unfortunately his daughter was crazy.
The truth was so much simpler: My father had sexually assaulted me and my mother had not believed me, so I ran away. Now, he was punishing me—for telling my mother the truth and for making my body inaccessible to him. He was punishing me in the only way still available to him: removing the last remnants of my father and, in time, my family.
But this was the truth that was silenced and denied. It was never passed around to neighbors and friends. Even I did not dare tell it for many years. His posturing as a victim enraged me, but I had no outlet where it felt safe to express that rage.
In my experience, this is how abusers and assailants see themselves: as victims. They perceive boundaries and the consequences for violating those boundaries as abuse in and of itself. The ultimate trauma for an abuser is to be told “no.” Sexual assault or abuse or violence of any kind can’t possibly be as bad as their own hurt feelings and wounded pride.
The abuser believes they are entitled to what they want.
Everyone else is entitled only to what the abuser says they are. The boys and men who have violated my boundaries believed I had less title to my own body than they did. Even my own experience in that body was, when different from their experience, something to attack. To undermine. To critique. To coerce or reason me out of. They will do what they want, and they will tell you how to feel about it. And, if you don’t want to be called crazy, you won’t fight back. You will not be angry about it. And you will do better than tolerate it. You will like it.
* * *
Out of shame, I quit my job at the community college. I couldn’t imagine my supervisor allowing a college dropout to continue tutoring college students. So I started a job search.
I applied everywhere. Ticket booths. Grocery stores. Elementary schools. Coffee shops. Daycare centers. The only two jobs I’d ever held had been offered to me by professors. So I had no idea how to write a decent cover letter or land an interview. I had no experience doing anything but teaching and tutoring. I filled out forms and mailed resumes and fired off emails and waited for callbacks.
No one ever called.
Ultimately, I ended up bussing tables at the Thai restaurant downstairs.
Living and working with Southeast Asians day in and day out, I experienced culture shock. One of the chefs brokered one-on-one English classes with me in exchange for her skill as a Thai tutor. So I began to make a friend and learn Thai, a tonal language without verb tenses or plurals or cases. I never mastered it. Some days I downright hated it. I just wanted to go back to being white and American, instead of Other. I missed being the invisible one, the one who didn’t have to think about race if I didn’t feel like it. I hadn’t realized how much privilege I’d had until I lost some of it.
One day, desperate for something that wasn’t Thai, I bought a box of macaroni and cheese I could not afford. I brought it back to my room and boiled water in my microwave, but the noodles wouldn’t soften. In a fit, I threw the whole mess against the door and screamed. I watched the noodles dribble stickily down the door onto the carpet, thinking only that now I was far beyond the end of my rope. Then, as abruptly as it had come, my rage deflated into shame. It was ungrateful and immature to be throwing tantrums when everyone around me was trying to help me, or at least tolerate me.
Also, if anyone was upstairs, great. Terrific. Now they could add “crazy” to the string of adjectives they used to describe the strange, clumsy white woman in their midst. Crazy. Baa. A near-homophone of “wild,” as in saatbpaa. A wild animal.
I spent a lot of time thinking about baa and what it meant to be baa.
But out of everything that disoriented me in my new life, it was white people who astonished me the most. Downstairs, they constantly questioned my credentials, doubting whether I was really qualified to carry their plates of noodles and curry, to refill their water glasses.
Slowly, it dawned on me that what they wanted—what they had come for—was to have brown people wait on them. They wanted an “authentic” Thai experience, and I wasn’t it. Brown people smiling warmly and leaning over them like they were children, their every wish attended to by people of color—now that was more like it.
These customers had no clue that most of our staff members were Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Chinese-Thai, and I did not enlighten them. I’m not sure it would have mattered. In some seasons during the ten years I orbited that restaurant, the only ethnic Thais were two chefs in the kitchen, a formidable mother-daughter duo who owned the place in every way but the actual deed. But these white customers had come for an “authentic” experience, which meant they were sightseeing. They were on safari. Colonialism, I gradually learned, is far from dead.
As the white interloper, the farang charity case, I learned that keeping my job meant not disrupting the show. So I learned to follow my coworkers’ lead, to do as they asked, and to keep my head down. I learned to smile and nod and say to the many white people who demanded an explanation that I was just there to “help out.” This fiction always satisfied them.
The truth, if I had been permitted to tell it, would have galled them. They’re the ones helping me, I would have said. I’m homeless because I’m trying to get away from my abusive father. I dropped out of college to get away from him, and I haven’t been able to find a job. But the owners of this restaurant took me in. I offered to marry their nephew, so he could have a green card, and they took me in. I don’t know what I’d do without them.