When I was eight years old, I was raped by an older classmate. When I was eighteen, I was raped by the brother of my friend’s boyfriend while we were on a double date. Sprinkled in between those traumas are numerous microtraumas*: racism, bullying, sexual harassment, my first suicide attempt at age 14, my first hospitalization, forced medication, an ensuing period of psychological instability, more hospitalization, more drugs, both legal and recreational.
Much of my life I can only remember through a diaphanous veil of neuroleptics. Of course I have wondered what I would be—who I would be—if I had never had these experiences, if I had a childhood and adolescence unblemished by agony. I have even been preoccupied with recovering that lost girl, convinced that once I had excavated her from underneath the pile-on of medication, she might re-emerge as me. In some ways, she has. I see remnants of her in my creativity, my passion for learning, my relentless belief that humanity can create a world without oppression, and my enduring soft spot for whales. But I know now that I do not want to create a self absent my struggles, absent my traumas. I have shaped myself into a marvel.
In Like Daughter, the narrator’s friend Denise experienced a childhood filled with physical and sexual abuse. When cloning technology becomes widely available, she decides to create a clone of herself, intending to right the wrongs her parents inflicted on her. After she’s impregnated with the clone, she starts a search for a suitable father and ends up marrying a rich guy who has no idea what he’s getting himself into. By the time Neecy, her daughter, is six, the man she baited into being the dad has left them. Denise, unable to handle seeing herself broken again, calls up the narrator—who is also the child’s godmother—and asks her to take Neecy away. Instead of trying to soothe herself as she was, instead of healing her wounds in the present, Denise exhausts her minimal energy on a time travel project that ends in heartbreak.
It seems reality, or time, or whatever, does not allow do-overs. We are meant to be the people we are, and we will be shaped into that, one way or another. I have come to realize this over the past few years, and I no longer waste energy trying to resurrect my ancestral self. I remain in conversation with my past; I draw on it to provide context for my present, but I do not wish for a retake. So many things had to go right for me to be here that might not recur the second time around. Everything can always be worse.
I see so many of us walking around like Denise, longing for a chance to right the bygone wrongs of our life, unable to move forward, unable to imagine anything different. Some people are so entrenched in their nostalgia that it extends beyond the personal, into the political. I have made the decision to accept what was, and now I struggle daily towards embracing the present as a gift to the past. I return in triumph, not regret. Look at what I made from this.
* not in any way saying these are less traumatic generally, just saying that in the context of my life, they were slightly less so.