(Un)Spoken TruthsCousins Grace and Roslyn Talusan on the Healing Power of Storytelling

"try to relax" by Monica Ramos

This article was published in Sanctuary Issue #85 | Winter 2020

It’s February 2015, barely a day after my coworker raped me in the backseat of his car. I’m cycling through a torrent of emotions—shock, disgust, rage, terror, grief, helplessness—and then numbness. I feel embarrassed and ashamed, so pretending like it never happened seems like the easiest way forward. I keep my mouth shut for almost two days and try to stay silent for what I think is my own good, but the pain is unbearable. I don’t know how I will survive.

Trauma is inherently isolating, but it demands an outlet for release. While my silence and denial amplified the pain, telling someone I trusted was my first step in healing. The dense emotional burden of my trauma eased with every person I told—support reminded me that I’m safe, loved, and valued. Now, more than four years later, using my voice to connect with other survivors has become crucial to my recovery. I tell my story to help create a culture that’s more empathic and considerate toward survivors. I’ve been drawn to writing my entire life; after all, I wrote in my middle-school yearbook that I wanted to get a master’s in journalism from an Ivy League school. But speaking truth to power, standing against injustice, and using storytelling as a survival tool is in my bloodline.

In her debut book, The Body Papers: A Memoir, my cousin Grace Talusan writes about surviving childhood sexual abuse at the hands of our paternal grandfather. Grace sent me an early copy of the book before it was published in April 2019, and I felt a lot of pride and heartbreak after devouring it. Trauma can damage our connection to humanity, but as Grace writes, restoring this connection is at the heart of recovery. “I experienced sexual assault as a force that separated me from everyone else,” she explains. “Reaching out to other people and connecting is why and how I’m still alive.” Telling our story breaks the cycle of abuse that maintains the culture of silence and stigma surrounding sexual violence. Speaking up about abuse allows us to put the blame where it belongs—with our abusers. We had a discussion about how storytelling has helped us heal from trauma.

UnSpoken Truths black flower spot image

painting of a figure sitting hugging their knees to their chest covered in black flowers with a line of connected black flowers below

“black flower” by Monica Ramos

You write, “I tell my story now in the hope that it will do the same for someone else, create an opening for their own story, and alleviate those feelings of aloneness.” This resonated deeply with me. Why do you think connection is so important in the aftermath of violence?

What happened to me alienated me from others. I felt alone, that this was all my fault, and that there was something about me that deserved this punishment. In order to address what happened to me and to start the process of trying to heal, I had to tell another human my story. Being believed helped me tell the next person and the next. I realized that I was not alone and that others had also gone through this experience. I felt stronger every time I told someone. I realized that other people might need me to tell what happened so that they would not feel alone.

These initial steps helped me later connect to people in the breast cancer community and other communities when I needed resources and advice. I didn’t grow up believing there was a benefit to being in community [with others]. This may have been because we were undocumented and were told not to trust people outside the family. I’m not sure. But I can say that it isn’t in my nature to want to reach out to others and be vulnerable. I have to work hard to trust people, but I am so very glad I have practiced doing this. Only good things have come from this.

You write, “It took a few years after the abuse stopped for me to be able to speak about what happened. Once I decided that I needed to tell, I worked up the courage for weeks, but every day was a failure. I knew I needed to tell—I was starting to come undone.” What was it like for you during those few years between stopping the abuse and telling your parents?

It was incredibly lonely during those years. I felt strange, [like] an alien. I was also literally, or at least in the language of immigration that people used at the time, an “illegal alien.” I wasn’t lonely all the time; I had friends. I did sports and activities. But I would experience sharp moments of loneliness while I was on the soccer field waiting for the ball to come back up the field or sitting next to my friends at the movies, our hands in a hot popcorn bucket, right before a blockbuster was about to start. I had researched the effects of childhood sexual abuse during those years, and like a checklist, I saw these consequences pop up one after the other. These mental health symptoms were getting worse and worse and were not compatible with being alive. At some point, I realized that I wanted to be alive—this fight to stay alive is there in me at my core—and I decided that I needed to fight back in order to do this. I am still fighting, not to stay alive—my symptoms at this point have lessened a lot—but there are ways that I still need to put myself in the center of my own life and take good care of myself. 

Was writing The Body Papers healing or validating in any way?

I’ve been in some kind of therapy off and on since I was a teenager. Doing that work for as long as I needed was essential to preparing to publish this book. Early on, I thought that publishing a book would be some kind of solution to things I was struggling with in my life. I thought that my real life would start once I published a book. I thought publishing a book would solve my money and career challenges. I let all of that go once I realized that I had no control over whether I published a book or not. Outside of the writing itself, there is quite a lot of luck involved in publishing. There is so much that has nothing to do with me. I realized that publishing a book would not solve my problems. Once I accepted that, I was free to find other solutions.

At this point, I have no expectations that publishing a book [will] heal me. That said, publishing The Body Papers—from the very beginning moments when Ilan Stavans of Restless Books first made contact with me to the editing process to where I am now, which is smack in the middle of a national book tour and with the book going into a second printing—has been better than I ever imagined this would be. I feel great about all of it. It has been a total lovefest, and it’s not something I’m used to. I am very uncomfortable with people treating me [with] so much love and appreciation, but I am trying to learn to be in the moment and feel these positive emotions. Isn’t [it] an awful thing to notice that my default setting is that I should feel terrible about myself and prepared to be mistreated? That’s the tragedy of what happened to me [and] some of the biggest lessons I learned from my grandfather: You do not have a right to the best parts of life. Publishing the book has been healing and validating. I am astounded at all the good things that have come my way, and I am trying to take them in.

In order to address what happened to me and to start the process of trying to heal, I had to tell another human my story.

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Your story encouraged me to write again after I effectively lost my job for speaking up. How do you feel knowing that your work helps people tell their own stories?

I am astounded to hear that my work has helped others tell their stories, but this is also exactly why I wanted to tell my story. It is a dream come true to know that The Body Papers has resonated with readers. I am grateful. Roslyn, I was so sorry about what happened to you. You were not only assaulted by your coworker but also mistreated by those who should have protected you. Thank you for saying that my book encouraged you to write again. I’m sorry to hear that you had stopped writing. I found out about what happened to you on the internet. I could not be that brave and transparent in real time.

I waited years and years to publish a book about the things that I had experienced. I was afraid of the response from our family, my community, and anyone who had access. I knew there would be consequences to telling these stories, and I did not feel equipped to handle those consequences at the time. But a few years ago, I saw you writing so transparently and painfully about what you were going through. I told myself that I needed to be braver, to be more like you.

In a March 2019 interview with TuftsNow you say, “If we can’t say something, our body’s going to express it.” What is it about repressing trauma that makes it so much harder for survivors to heal?

Everything in our culture would like us to repress trauma, and shame is at the core of this. [There’s also] perhaps a fear of being abandoned by others. We should be good and quiet. We should wear a neutral mask on our face so no one can take advantage of us. There doesn’t seem [to be] much room to grieve, complain, or have other kinds of reactions. [Too many emotions] would be inappropriate, unsightly, and might bother people. And yet, look how drawn people are to when there is something real happening. The car accident that we can’t drive by without looking for the blood, the bodies.

I’m not a mental health professional, but I have thought a lot about trauma and healing. I’ve also experimented with a lot of different ways of getting at it. There was one therapist I went to who had a punching bag, a plastic wiffle ball bat, and a really heavy metal bat. The idea was that you [would] express your anger onto the punching bag. You could pretend the offender was the bag or you could pretend the offender was watching you hit the bag. It wasn’t the right thing for me at the time, but I watched other survivors whale on the bag, and that actually moved me—to witness these women sobbing and screaming their rage and grief. It made me respect the enormity of what we had all gone through.    

"our family" by Monica Ramos

I was deeply moved by how your dad cut his parents out of his life when he learned the truth. How did you feel reading his letter, where he writes, “You’re dead to me”?

My father showed me that letter at a time when I was in the very depths of depression. I think he knew he was throwing me a life preserver by showing me that letter. It took me a long time to get better after that particular depressive episode, but seeing that letter was a turning point in my healing process. It was exactly what I needed from him at the time: He believed me. He took a stand for me and he figured he would lose his family. The fact that he chose me over all of those loved ones, including his father, who he always wanted to please and impress all of his life, helped me fight for my life. 

It’s bonkers to me that speaking the truth about your abusive grandfather was considered somehow worse than him abusing his granddaughters. There’s a lot of misogyny packed into that mentality.

I learned very early on that we should protect family relationships over anything. [That’s] a really destructive [lesson]. I also learned that men were more important than women and that adults were more important than children. Don’t even get me started on what I learned about who was more important based on race, class, and other markers of status and identity. It’s taken me a long time to unlearn the lessons of white supremacy. I should have been told that I was the most important person in my own life. I should have learned and practiced how to listen to myself, to care for myself, and to be compassionate to myself. I somehow picked up the idea that my life, which of course means my body because what else is our life, belonged to other people. I am still trying to unlearn this.

What are some of the things you fear now that you’ve told your story?

I have wasted a lot of time and energy anticipating things. I’m sure I’ve talked the ears off of anyone around me about all the things I was afraid would happen once my book was published. However, what we imagine will happen and what actually happens can often be very different. I’m trying to learn to be attentive to the present moment, to what is actually happening in my life, as opposed to what I anticipate will happen. This line I wrote in the book, “but I am scared of how this information can be used against me,” was true in the moment that I wrote it, but now that the book is published, I am not so afraid. Sure, there may be some way that people may use my story against me (maybe they won’t like me or they won’t want to hire me or be my friend), but I am not thinking about them anymore. Why should I? Why should any of us waste energy on people who are not interested in who we are [or] who would want only one version of us?

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by Roslyn Talusan
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Roslyn Talusan is a Filipina Canadian anti-rape activist and feminist culture writer. Passionate about using her words to create a culture of empathy, she’s working on a memoir about her experience reporting sexual assault in the workplace. Follow her on Twitter (@rozzybox) or find more of her work at her website.