INTO THE FIRE
from Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment (Mountain State Press)
Nominated for a 2020 Pushcart Prize
About the Pushcart Prize: The Pushcart Prize Best of Small Presses series has been published every year since 1976, and is the most honored literary project in America. Each year's volume presents the best poetry, short fiction, essays or literary whatnot published in the small presses in the past year.
INTO THE FIRE
INTO THE FIRE
I used to play with fire. It was a strange thing for a teenage girl to do, but seventeen is a strange time in a girl’s life. And I was a strange girl.
I had been a strange kid, too—doing my best to fit in, but I never did. My clothes were the wrong clothes, my religion the wrong religion, my family odd in the insular, tightly-wound way of abusive households. To escape reality, I retreated to the world of fairy tales where everything that went wrong went right eventually. Cinderella was my favorite, not just because she got her Prince but because her situation was sad and hopeless and ended up better than she ever dreamed it could be. It was an instructive story for me. I wanted my life to change. And I needed to believe it could.
In the seventh grade, something happened that set in motion my own Cinderella moment. I played the lead in the school production of The Crucible and crushed it. I was so convincing that kids called me the name of the character in the play for weeks. Usually, I would be ashamed of that—and I was some—but as a girl who felt she was invisible, I was also rather pleased to be seen.
There was something else that happened on that stage. I escaped into the character, became her. It was incredible not to be me for a while. A plan began forming in my head. I already knew I could sing and now that I could act, I would use my talent to transform myself from nobody to somebody. An actress. A singer. A star.
The dream kept me going through difficult times. Someday, I kept telling myself, someday I would be bigger, brighter, better than anyone. Now that I was seventeen it was time to put the plan into action. My fairy tale had morphed into an intricate fiction involving rock and roll music, long-haired boys and adoring crowds, but the end game was the same. I still wanted to be a star. A big star.
And for that, I needed magic.
I waited until everyone in the house was asleep and dragged my nightstand out into the center of my bedroom. As instructed in Sybil Leek’s Diary of a Witch, I placed a candle on the nightstand-turned-altar, lit it and watched the sputtering wick spring into full flame. Into the fire I went, carrying my secret selves—the girl of silence, the child of pain, the almost-woman I was,. my My eyes fixed on the flickering blue heart of the flame until I had the guts to bring my index finger close to the candle, then closer, then into the fire.
I watched my finger disappear into the flame with a kind of detached fascination. The instructions made clear that maintaining the same slow, steady pace was vitally important—no hesitation, no stopping midway. I willed myself to stay the course, guiding my finger slowly towards the wick, past it and through the flame until it exited out the other side.
For a moment, I couldn’t move. It should have been impossible to go through fire and not feel a thing, but that was exactly what happened. I tried again. Like before, my finger sailed through without any sensation of heat or discomfort. I examined it from all angles; there were no burn marks, only a faint circle of black char that disappeared when swiped across my tee shirt. The skin was perfect, as if it never touched the fire at all.
But of course, it had.
Two years earlier, my father killed himself in our driveway by tying a garden hose to the tail pipe of his car and stuffing it through the driver’s window. It was an act of spontaneous combustion. After his death, everything changed, just like that.
We moved to a new state, a new town, a new house and told everyone he had a heart attack. With the insurance money, my mother bought me the teen dream bedroom I had wanted all my life with a four poster bed and matching French provincial furniture.
I spent hours locked in my pink shag-carpeted cocoon working on my metamorphosis—playing guitar, writing songs and expanding my mind, both experimentally (pot, LSD) and by reading voraciously about the metaphysical world - everything from Edgar Cayce and his psychic predictions to the Kabbalah to The I Ching with its roll-of-the-dice wisdom. I even ordered pamphlets from the Rosicrucians , a quasi-Christian order who sent me literature featuring old guys with long beards in monk-like robes—which both intrigued and repelled me.
Then I stumbled on Sybil Leek, a British woman who built a cottage industry of witch guidebooks in the 1970’s. She called herself a witch, but her practice was Wicca, also known as white witchcraft. It was a perfect storm of magic, mysticism and female power.
Although I was a budding “women’s libber,” it was Leek’s books that opened my eyes to the violent suppression of women as part of an effort to eradicate the old, feminine religions. It turned out witches were not the evil, ugly hags my fairy tales had warned of, but women of healing and power who communed with the moon and the stars and the natural world. It sounded good to me. I decided to give it a try.
The Witches’ Guidebook was a complete lifestyle manual which included recipes for healing teas and tips for natural beauty among the spells and rituals. Although I’m sure I must have sampled other lessons in magic, the only one I recall practicing was the test of fire, which for seventeen-year-old me must have seemed like an epic battle of faith over fear. Mastering the flame proved I could do anything. However hot it would get, I could take the heat.
Or so I thought.
How much fire is needed to forge a witch? Certainly more than one scented candle’s worth. Passing through the flame once or twice was a party trick compared to the tests I would face as a woman. My initiation was just beginning.
As I entered the world, I had to face many fires—the bonfire of rape, the slow burn of Post-Traumatic Stress, the kindling created by depression and obsessive thoughts and the red-hot embers of a combustible childhood. I’ve walked bare-skinned naked over white-hot coals in order to walk the streets alone again. To be believed. To find my voice and use it.
Writing about it seemed an impossible task. How do you sweep the ash of so many smoldering remnants into one place to make a neat little pile on the page?
“The first rule of magic,” author Julia Cameron writes, “is containment.
The page is a container. It offers a safe house for my words. I’m never sure I can do what it asks of me, especially here, buried beneath this charred wreck of a story. But I’ll try.
Not long after my finger passed through the flame, I headed out to California to blaze a path to stardom. I put together a promising band of other hopefuls and played solo gigs in tiny coffeehouses on stages the size of two chairs and a mike. With no car and no money I walked everywhere or hitched rides, which was stupid but necessary.
One night, I walked to a friend’s house in fog so thick that houses disappeared in the shroud, seen only by their dimly glowing porch lights and windows. As I stopped and moved closer to one of those porch lights to make out the house number, a man came out of the shadows, grabbed me by the throat and threatened to kill me. As my body went limp, he dragged me into a garage where he slammed me against a car and stole the singer in me.
After the rape, my insides were so inflamed I had to soak in water for half an hour a day for two weeks. On the street, unexpected sounds or quick movements ignited alarm bells throughout my body that literally left me shaking with fear.
Being a star was no longer such a priority. I just wanted to make sure I could to make it to my front door without being taken down.
Rape is a kerosene-soaked rag thrown into a life. An explosion that shocks and stuns and then sets off smaller fires that burn for a long time. Although I learned how to cover my injuries and pretend there were no scars, the Post Traumatic Stress I endured raged unchecked and undiagnosed for thirty years.
But it was not the first fire. That happened much earlier. You learn as a girl about female powerlessness in ways big and small. In my home, my father was the king and my mother a doormat he wiped his boots on. Nightly, I learned every belittling, hurtful word there was for a woman.
I witnessed beatings, punches and threats and explosive temper tantrums where furniture, glasses and dining tables were thrown across the room or smashed against walls. I saw my mother as weak, my father as needy and so I filled his neediness with flattery, admiration and good little girlness. I went on dates with him where he taught me how to be a “lady,” to let a man open the doors for me, order my dinner, pull out my chair to sit down, to get up, to get out. I was not to be crude—no whistling or farting or picking my nose—all of which I liked to do.
And I was to sleep with him while my mother slept on the couch. My father never physically molested me, except for the one time he accidently did—or must have. I was asleep when he kicked me out of bed and said we couldn’t do this anymore. I did not what this was, but I do know as I got up and walked out of that bedroom, I felt the thick heat of shame cover me.
That shame followed me everywhere I went. To make sure I would not forget what kind of person I was, I wrote down the worst names my father called my mother and hid them in my dresser drawer. Whenever I saw them or thought of them, the shame flamed up again. And again. I could not escape the horrible not-to-be-done thing I had done.
At twelve, my body was preparing to change from girl to woman. And to be a woman, I learned, was a shameful thing.
I look back at this as the time the fires in my head started. The incident in my father’s bed turned on the obsessive-compulsive switch in my brain, which still overheats if not kept in check by medication. Depression is another slow burn, one I tried to ignore for a long time, until I couldn’t anymore. Even so, I tried to control it on my own—taking medication, then not, being okay, then being very not okay. My mother, a lifelong depressive herself said, it’s all in your head. Ironically, it was.
Each time depression sparked a major breakdown, it left kindling behind—that’s an actual technical term for the neurons burned to a crisp from a major depressive episode. Kindling means that if a fire erupts again, it will be bigger than the last one. It means l walk around with dry tinder in my brain, waiting to go up in flames.
Women are twice as likely as men to suffer from depression and anxiety disorders than men (1); they have higher rates of multiple psychiatric disorders, higher rates of bipolar disorder(2) higher rates of developing depression and anxiety as a result of childhood abuse or sexual trauma(3). Hippocrates was certain the source for all ailments suffered by women was a result of their “wandering wombs.” As bizarre as this sounds, modern medicine and psychiatry—for all its advances—often continues to treat a woman’s body and mind as a mysterious vessel of “imagined” injuries. For millennia, the effects of gender violence, inequity and societal repression have been explained away as “hysteria.”
When my body began feeling like it was on fire, I didn’t know what was happening, but I did know that I pushed myself and pushed myself and ignored my pain while attending to the needs of others—my husband, my siblings, my mother, my job, my boss, my own insistent need to be someone, do something. I had given up on the famous star dream but not on making something of myself and doing so while enduring an unending struggle with physical and mental pain. On top of that were the unrelenting demands of being female in a male world and the unspoken rage that simmers just under a woman’s skin.
It wasn’t until I had spent years of struggling with fatigue, insomnia and the throbbing pain of overheated nerve endings that I heard about Fibromyalgia. All the symptoms matched mine, but the illness was one with no real cure or even a definitive diagnosis.
Fibromyalgia was mainly a “woman’s disease” and I have no doubt that’s why for years there was debate about whether it even existed. Sometimes I even wondered if it was real. When the medical community finally acknowledged that it was caused by inflammation, it wasn’t news to me: my body was on fire. Mine and that of many other women who had been told their pain was imaginary.
We are not supposed to notice when we hurt.
We are not supposed to complain.
We are not supposed to resist.
When I was raped, the advice from law enforcement was relax and enjoy it. No wonder so many of us are on fire.
While I’m writing about burning women, my body is burning. Not just from Fibromyalgia, which comes and goes and happens to be present today, but from the rage—the absolute outrage at how pervasive and hidden and destructive the damage has been—and still is—from the out of control fires of a patriarchy gone mad.
Here’s a short list: brides burned, women raped, girls put into sexual slavery, stalked, shamed, shut up, grabbed and beaten, killed, set on fire, disfigured by acid attacks. Many of these crimes are committed by husbands or ex-husbands or ex-lovers or some man they barely know who cannot take “no” for an answer. The men who do this often walk away. Sometimes they become Supreme Court justices. Or even President.
It’s hard to contain such rage once you’ve discovered how to scream.
On the stage in the sixth grade as Anne Putnam in the The Crucible I screamed as loud as my lungs would let me, accusing innocent girls and women of being witches. I remember how good it felt to felt to let those screams go.
But it took many decades and my own trials with fire before I could find a strong voice of my own.
I still like to dance in the moonlight. To watch the seasons change and witness the changes in myself as they come and go. I have been forged by fire and tested by the dark.
I don’t know if that makes me a witch, but it does make me a woman who knows how to burn and not be destroyed.
If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.
1] Women and Depression, Harvard Health Letter, May, 2011, Harvard Health Publishing
Fearless: Women's Journeys of Empowerment is available through through Mountain State Press, Amazon and other online booksellers.