As expected, my public confessions of abuse resulted in an emotional barrage akin to a hurricane. The response was so swift and fierce that I was left breathless. It arrived via text message and frantic, tear-and-shallow-breath-filled phone calls. I read. I listened. I paused. Were the allegations true? Was I an emotionally unstable child in a woman’s body acting unfairly? Were my experiences the manufacture of an overactive imagination, my admissions false and vindictive? The accusations battered me. I shed my own tears, but I remembered my goals, assessed whether or not I was meeting or defeating them. I decided that, no, I was not outside the boundaries I had drawn to maintain my self-respect and also, no, I was not misremembering.


Abusers don’t want their victims to remember. They want to control our minds the way they control our pain. In the case of my parents, my abusers are deeply ashamed. It is tragic that they were abusers because they aren’t anymore, with the exception of the occasion grappling burst of gaslighting or intimidation. They don’t want me to remember because they don’t want to remember. But before that, they wanted to control my experience. Even after the hurting stopped, the pain persisted in the form of crippling and defining self-doubt. Into adulthood, I believed the hurting was earned, that I was at fault, that I was a person who deserved to be subservient to pain.

There is incredible power in a name. That is a fantasy trope-you control what you can label. Just as my behavior was molded by flat out denials that any abuse was happening, that I had provoked my own torment and it was thereby deserved, my recovery was shaped by the term for why I suffered flashbacks, irritability, anxiety and dissociation; Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not something you can bounce back from, but great healing is possible. For me, that took the form of learning to remain present and conscious, first through traditional therapy, yoga, Shambhala meditation, training in energy work (Reiki), a women only gift circle, and, finally, non traditional therapy. During this long, curving process, I learned more words, gaslighting and intimidation among them.

Knowing those words protected me. When shit got hard, I stayed present and conscious, I remembered those words, and I did not let their use alter my course. Recognizing my own strength and employing it is liberating.

But it is also painful. Every word I write on this topic is a humiliating reminder to parents that worked to change. As a parent, I myself know the hurt of a child’s anguished litany after years of doing my absolute best. I have heard the words in many ways from my own child, “Mom, here is a list of the ways you have failed me.”

I believe there is something here, unexplored. How can I love parents who treated me with such disrespect? How can I disrespect parents who treated me with such love? I have no answers. Only the mantra I have brought to my own parenting: if you don’t want people to know you have done it, don’t do it. Words and actions, once performed, belong to those who receive them. We are no longer free to edit and shape. We must accept, reflect and hope.

Since my opening letter, my mother has explored my boundaries. She has wondered what I will share. I know she would love if I chose not to write on this topic again. At least, she has requested, could I use a pen name?

I understand. I had the incredible fortune once to sit with a woman named Cetti. Cetti heard the crack in my heart when I admitted that I wanted to hurt my child. I was shocked by my admission, but she was not. She sat with me while I cried and shook with fury at the legacy my parents had left me. I felt like a volcano seconds from eruption, and I considered my parents the tenders of my molten core.

Cetti said we all find fault in our parents. Valid or not, she advised me to let go of the rage. She said that road was never ending, and as a parent I knew it to be true. We all carry a family legacy of failings. If I blamed my parents for my parenting, l would have to blame my grandparents for their parenting, and so it would go until the dirt of every grave of every ancestor was churned and muddied with the plaintive, resentful, “Why?”

“Or,” was Cetti’s implication, “you can start from now.”

Okay. Yes. Now. That makes sense. History is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but now belongs to me.

Shawna Ayoub

Shawna Ayoub is an essayist, fiction writer, poet and instructor with an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. Some of her work has been published in The Manifest-Station, Role Reboot, [wherever], The Huffington Post, The Oxford Review and Exit 7. Her writing explores the intersections of race, place and survivorship. She writes with honesty about her own experience in order to transform pain.

0 Discussion to this post

  1. Heidi says:

    What a beautiful, painful piece. I feel every syllable here. The abuse, while different, echoes so achingly of our family’s unfortunate legacy. This is my favorite bit: “Words and actions, once performed, belong to those who receive them. We are no longer free to edit and shape. We must accept, reflect and hope.” Such a powerful reminder and a philosophy I have tried to live by, successfully or not as each moment determines.

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    • Thank you, Heidi.I believe it is important to recognize failures as part of learning to better achieve success. It’s hard to forgive ourselves, but if we grow from our pain, we have stepped in the right direction. I wish this for my parents, because their growth has given me strength beyond what I ever imagined.

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  2. fyrdraca says:

    ” if you don’t want people to know you have done it, don’t do it. ” What wonderful advice for how we should live our lives. Another beautiful piece, dear kindred Phoenix! Much love and at least as many hugs!

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  3. Amna says:

    I can’t say I don’t identify with both parties in this case – I can see why it would be hurtful for a parent to see their efforts late in life didn’t repair the cracks as well as they’d imagined … But I can feel your pain of carrying that trauma around as well.

    In the end this summed it up for me ‘Words and actions, once performed, belong to those who recieve them’ – powerful and true.

    You’ve found catharsis in writing and this is so much healthier and healing than carrying the burden you were carrying in your heart all these years. You’ve made me strive to be a more ‘concious parent’ as well. Love, Amna.

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    • Amna,

      Thank you for reading! Repairing the cracks. . . I have so much to say about that. Would you mind if I use that phrase in an upcoming post? It triggers quite a cascade in my mind.

      I’m happy to hear you look to be conscious. For some of us, it’s obvious. For others, we don’t know we are parenting (and living) from behind a screen.

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      • Amna says:

        Its yours to do with as you wish 🙂 Looking forward to reading more.

        And about conscious parenting – I THOUGHT it was obvious to me … reading your posts have made me take a (sometimes) uncomfortable look at myself and I’m not all I thought I was.

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  4. Lisa says:

    I am a psychotherapist that will use your experiences to help others heal. Thank you.

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  5. Lisa,

    This is moving and heartening. Thank you for the reading suggestion, which I will share here for those who read comments, and plan to review when I’ve had a chance to read it.

    Rising Above the Scars by Johnetta McSwain

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  6. Ikhlas says:

    You are amazing ….it is very touchy …and I feel it is unspeakable how you are able to describe your feelings that way, how you are able to perceive your abuser and their regret have no clue how much your article affect me…very deeply…I love you!


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  7. I have been where you were: “I felt like a volcano seconds from eruption, and I considered my parents the tenders of my molten core.” I chose to start from now, too. I chose being a better example to my own children. Recognizing that they will have a list of ways that I have failed them is difficult, but I didn’t come to my *now* until later in life. So yes, I’m sure I did fail the older two in many ways. I hope I’m getting it more right with the youngest.

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