This case in Steubenville makes me think of my father.
Indeed, these cases always do.
My father is in prison and has been for nearly 25 years. He confessed and was convicted of sexual assault, more specifically, rape. I found out about this at 14 years-old. It wasn't the first time I'd asked, but the first time I asked someone other than my mother. For years, her response to that questions was,
"He can tell you about that."
She wasn't mean about it, just insistent that this wasn't her story to tell. After I'd been told, I walked to the house of my best friend, curled up in his lap, and cried until I couldn't anymore. He whispered into my hair,
"Ashley, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. But you're not your dad. You haven't done anything wrong."
My father wrote me a letter in 2009, at my request, explaining to me why he did what he did to those women. He was explicit in his explanation. No excuses. Not too many details, but enough to understand. He wrote that he made a choice--the worst decision he'd ever made. But he was adamant that it was his decision. Those women, they were his victims. And although he didn't think of himself as a monster, he had certainly decided to behave like one.
"That", he wrote to me, "was even worse."
Whenever a member of my family talks about my father, which isn't often, they always shake their heads and make some comment about how "nice" he was.
"Your dad was the best guy I knew." My uncle, my father's closest brother, sat across from me on the couch. "He was really funny. He could make anybody laugh. I think that's why your mama was so into him, I think. Yeah, real funny like you."
My eyes fell to my fingers twisting in my lap. I couldn't help but smile a bit.
I'm writing a book about my relationship with my father and the (mostly one-sided) relationship he's cultivated with me via letters over almost three decades. We are close. He loves me very much. I love him very much. I am not conflicted about whether or not I love him. At times, I am certainly conflicted about what it says about me that I do.
Is this okay?
He's done such a terrible thing.
He is my father.
But does he deserve my love?
Of course, the issue with all of these questions is that I do love him, so they don't really matter. I would never defend what he's done. I would never ask anyone else to forgive him for his actions. I couldn't imagine the kind of arrogance and delusion that would inspire such a request. He and I agree that he's exactly where he's supposed to be. Living the consequences of his actions. Still, I am acutely aware that for some people, he will never pay enough for what he's done. I don't exactly know that they're wrong. But I can't help but hope they are.
I don't know if that makes me a rape apologist.
I am sometimes terrified that someone will think this book is about proving to the reader, or myself, that my father is in some way not responsible. I want to be sure that I've written about this as responsibly as possible. But I also want to write what's real, what happened. I can't write him all bad. He's not all bad.
Is that okay?
I am a survivor of sexual assault, more specifically, rape. It was the letter my father wrote me in 2009 that convinced me I'd been the victim of someone else's choice, that I hadn't just made bad decisions that led me to the moment. It helped silence the shaming voice in my head.
Why did you go meet him?
Why didn't you bring someone?
Your mother is going to be so mad at you when she finds out.
Why didn't you listen to your mother?
You don't get to cry! Not about this! You did this!
For 10 years, I didn't need anyone to victim-blame me. I was doing plenty of that on my own. I am pretty disgusted by how these high-profile rape cases are covered by the media. I may be even more disgusted by how these women and girls are treated by their communities whether their rapes are high profile or not. Even if were virgins, were we dressed like virgins? Were we being the good girls who don't incite violent sexual advances from mostly-good boys?
What happened, Ashley?
Where were you? What were you doing there?
What did you do?
You want to know something crazy? My rapist sent me a friend request on Facebook. His profile picture was of him and his son. You want to know something crazier?
I accepted his friend request.
For me, it was a no-brainer. There was a part of me, a part that grew smaller as I grew older, but still a very real part of me that still feared this person. I customized my privacy setting so he could hardly see anything on my profile, but I spent hours perusing his. I wanted to know where he lives, where he was going, what he was doing at all times. I wanted to know his every movement. 10 years later, I couldn't let him catch me off-guard again.
Does that sound like something a real victim of sexual assault would do?
Cyber-stalk her rapist?
I don't know anything about real victims and their behaviors. I only know myself and mine. It felt real. It feels real. That's all I have in the way of proof. I can't believe I'm still wondering if I'm being a victim the right way.
Yet, here I am.
It was fear that kept me from telling. The fear of my rapist was only part of that. The other parts were fear that knowing I wasn't supposed to be seeing him anyway would negate his actions, fear that my mother might actually kill him leaving me with no parents instead of one, and fear that no one would believe it even happened and I'd just be a thirteen year-old who regretted her first act of sexual intercourse.
I couldn't be that girl.
So, I kept quiet for a long time. I eventually told my first boyfriend and my best friend. I started therapy as soon as I turned 18. I would sit in my therapist's office and cry so hard and so long that I asked my boyfriend to come and say to her what I couldn't ever seem to get out. I'd lost the words somewhere down inside myself, wherever I was storing all the secrets I'd never intended to share. But I got it all out.
I don't think I'm a rape apologist. I don't think hoping when my father is released from prison he can have something like an okay life means I don't care about the women he raped. I think there is a difference between feeling sorry for a person who rapes, and feeling sad about who they could have become if they hadn't made such a heinous decision. This is a tragedy of choice. A lamenting not of the consequence, but of wasted potential, maybe?
Yes, I think it's silly for the media to spend so much time attempting to humanize unrepentant (until they realize they're actually in trouble) rapists and assailants. These boys clearly didn't give a shit about what they'd done until consequences arose. I didn't feel bad as I saw them crying in the courtroom. One of the boys crumpled into his father.
"No one is going to want me now," he wept.
I don't know if that's true or not. I do know that there's at least one very young girl out there who's thinking the same thing. I know I did. I know a lot of women and girls who did. He will have to live the consequence of his choice. Like my father.
But for those of us who didn't have a choice, those of us who survived the choices of men who violated our bodies, those of us who defend ourselves everyday, those of us who are still trying to figure out what does and doesn't make us a real victim, tears aren't enough to make us wish you didn't have to pay.
You're young, but you have to pay.
You're my father, but you have to pay.
You have a son, but you have to pay.
Revenge, justice, or divine order, it doesn't matter.
You will spend the rest of your life trying to prove you have been rehabilitated, we will spend the rest of ours proving that we have survived you.
It's not equal, nothing is. But you made a choice.
And this is the closest thing we can get to setting things right.
I’ve been tagged in The Next Big Thing bloghop by Cathy Day (Seriously, her book sounds amazing) and now I’m going to share a few things about the Big Thing I’ve been working on for some time now.
Before we jump into that, you might want to check out a couple of cool writerly things happening in my world:
- Here’s an interview I did with Split Lip Magazine in which I kind of sound like I own the writer’s version of The Daily Love. Sometimes, I’m so positive, I sicken myself.
- I chatted with Helen McClory about the Twilight Saga because I’ll never get tired of talking about it. It’s amazing and awful and I love it. No apologies.
- Next weekend I’m going back to Akron, OH a.k.a Magic City to read at The Big Big Mess and I can’t wait to hug that crew and kiss all over their faces.
- My essay “The Sins of My Father” that was published in PANK 6 has been NOMINATED FOR A PUSHCART PRIZE AND STUFF. Suck it, Trebek.
Now, the real deal on the booky-book is below! Questions about anything you read? Leave ‘em in the comments. I’ll come for you.
What is your working title of your book (or story)?
The working title of my book is The Sins of My Father, but there is no way that’s going to be the final title. I don’t like it very much.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I wrote an essay about my relationship with father, how his being incarcerated all of my life affected me, and how learning about his crimes influenced me. Yep. All in one essay. The original essay was just okay. I went over it with my professor (Jill Christman), and she said she thought there was more to the story. That little harmless questioning comment got me crying. I told her everything I’d been too nervous to put on the page. She placed her hand on mine.
“Ashley, this essay isn’t working and it isn’t going to work. This is a book. You have a book in you.”
That terrified me, but I trusted her. I registered for a novel-writing course and started writing it. The more I wrote, the more necessary the writing felt.
|The Christman card trumps all others|
What genre does your book fall under?
My book is creative nonfiction. Almost like a collection of essays, but a bit more cohesive. I wanted it to read more like a novel than a memoir, because those are my favorite memoirs. I toyed with the idea of writing a similar story as fiction, but it became very important to me that anyone who read this book knew that it was real, that it happened to me. Should anyone in similar circumstances ever read it, I want them to feel less alone in the world.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
See, in a nonfiction book, answering this question could get me beat up. I’ll play it as safe as possible.
Quvenzhané Wallis plays the character of Me as a child. I honestly have no idea who could play me as teenager/young adult. Keke Palmer?
Angela Bassett plays my mother. She’s the only person I can think of with the acting range to do it correctly.
Tyler James Williams plays my oldest brother. Amandla Stenberg would play my sister. And Bobb’e J. Thompson plays my youngest brother.
Anthony Mackie plays my father.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
From precocious child to under-achieving young adult, Ashley Ford lives in fear that between her rapidly changing body, her inability to discern man from predator, and the wagging warning tongues of the women in her family she is destined to end up in a less than a desirable position, and when she does, there is only one person with whom she finds solace from her shame—the father who has been in prison her entire life.
(That is the runniest of sentences. My bad)
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
After this last editing session, I plan on sending my book proposal to a few different agents. Hopefully, that turns into representation from an agency. I’m not interested in self-publishing. I don’t think I’d be very good at it.
|This was around the time I finished my first draft|
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
The first draft took me a year. This book has changed a lot since that novel-writing course and even more so since that original bad essay. Now that I’m in the second draft, I have to stop myself often from scrapping the entire thing and starting all over with a new format or something. I know I don’t need a new format. It’s just the fear trying to get me to stall. But I’m way smarter than my fears.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
This is a hard one. Very hard. I wrote this book because I couldn’t find anything else like it. I can’t find any nonfiction books about children with relatively good relationships with an incarcerated parent or books about young black women and their fathers. But if I had to choose, I would say it’s somewhere between “Glass
Castle” by Jeannette Walls and “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou.
|My father is second from left|
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
“Shame and guilt are the two most useless emotions we can experience. They are not about justice. They are about separating you from your self-worth and the love you deserve.”
I don’t remember where I heard or read those words, but when I did, I felt understood. I had been living for years ashamed that my father was in prison, ashamed of my body and the way men and boys reacted to it, and ultimately, ashamed of circumstances that were and always had been out of my control.
In the process of ridding myself of that undue shame and guilt, I found a story. A story I never thought I’d want to tell, but a story I felt I was ready to tell. A necessary story. I don’t know if I feel like the world needs it, but I know that I really need to share it. That’s enough for me.
What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
My father has been writing me letters the entire time he’s been incarcerated. Many of those letters will be
included in the book. The one I think readers will find most fascinating is the letter in which he shares what he did to end up in prison and what he believes got him to that point.
I’m tagging Leesa Cross Smith. She’s delightful.
I’m not doing a bunch of analyzing. It’s been done over and over and there is nothing I can say that has not already been said. I’m writing about my raw-ass reaction to the film.
Just to get it out of the way, I liked “Django Unchained”. I did not expect to like this film. I’m not sure whether or not I loved it. I need to see it again. Which is a long way from when I saw the original trailer, rolled my eyes, and thought,
“Why us, Lord? Why my people?”
Some of the reviews and articles I read made me think this was just one more movie that would “mean well” but end up pissing everybody off by how shitty it was executed. Kind of like when my stomach hurt and my grandma offered to fry me up a burger to soothe it. She meant well, but…that’s kind of shitty solution to an upset stomach. I am happy and pleasantly surprised to say that “Django Unchained” was not the shitty burger I’d anticipated.
The day before I saw the movie, I’d posted a link to this article on my Facebook page. And 99% of the responses were from white dudes raving about how awesome it was, and how the author just didn’t “get it”. To be fair, I have a lot of white male friends. But, when I post something about a film that is (mostly) controversial on a racial level, and all of the people who are saying, “It’s fine! People are too sensitive”, are white men, I experience some hesitation about seeing that film.
You know. For reasons.
I am only very recently familiar with the work of Quentin Tarantino. I didn’t see “Pulp Fiction” until 2012, I haven’t seen either of the “Kill Bills”, and I watched “Inglorious Basterds” the night before I went to see “Django”.
As much as I love Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington, I was scared to see this movie. The things I’d heard about it made me think I wouldn’t be able to handle the violence. And I handle violence in movies very well. Still, a mile from the theater, I turned to my movie date and suggested not putting ourselves through this and sneaking off to brunch instead. We considered it, but were both too curious not to stay the course.
Here are a few quick reactions to the film:
- I definitely found the multiple shots of marred
backs of slaves to be gratuitous. I am not a historian or a filmmaker, but I am
a storyteller. Many of the scenes that showed scarred backs seemed to be lazy
LOOK WHAT THEY DID TO SLAVES. DO YOU GET IT NOW? DO YOU UNDERSTAND THEIR PAIN?
We get it.
- The music was everything. That mash-up of “Payback” by James Brown and “Untouchable” by Tupac had me bouncing in my seat. Rick Ross was totally unexpected and I usually don’t like his baboon boobies, but I was feeling “100 Black Coffins”. I’m a Jim Croce fan, so when “I Got a Name” came on I felt warm. “Django” reminded me of Tom Jones so I dug it pretty hard. Still, the soundtrack would have been even better if they would have included this one. Just my opinion.
- When Django changed into that blue suit, I felt like, “I know the feeling, Bro. The whole damn feeling.”
N-Word is tough for me. Oh no, not tough for me to hear, tough for me to
talk or write about. I grew up with that word used almost as a
place-holder, not as an epithet. I have family members who call us “kids”
that word because they can’t remember all of our names. I didn’t hear the
N-word used to insult someone until I was 24 years-old. My relationship to
the word is…strange. I say all this to say, hearing that word in the
movie? Not as jarring for me as it seemed to be for other people. It was
said 110 times. I don’t think I cringed once when I heard it. What this
says about me? I don’t know.
But I’m trying to be honest.
- Was that Jamie Foxx’s real penis?
- Kerry Washington is more beautiful than your mama and all of your friends.
- In the scene right before Django and Dr. King Shultz meet Calvin Candie, there is a gorgeous black woman dressed up in a French maid’s uniform. She is wide-eyed and trying very hard to maintain her poise. She walks past a bust of Cleopatra and it…pissed me off so bad. Just seeing her walk past that bust and knowing that she most likely doesn’t know who Cleopatra is, let alone that Cleopatra is an African woman, that this information would have been kept from her. Oh, that shit burnt me up. I’m surprised no one else commented on that.
- Speaking of Dr. King Shultz, he was a feeling man trying to live like a sociopath. He was playing a game. I don’t like that he’s portrayed as a hero. His character wasn’t meant to be a hero. His character was meant to be a man unraveling. And unravel he did.
- I may have felt differently about all the "nigger" usage if I had not been in a theater full of other black people. Maybe.
- Spike Lee is the Tavis Smiley of filmmaking.
was a gross character. I will admit I laughed at him a few times, but ultimately
truly resented the way they turned my boo, Nick Fury, into Iago to Calvin
Candie’s Jafar. I was neither here nor there for that.
Also, Samuel Jackson is pretty black as far as black people go. Why put him in black(er) face?
- This is a
little analysis I know, but I really hate that the final showdown was
between Stephen and Django. I really really hate that. Mostly because I
felt like it was some (stupid ass) allusion to the (stupid ass) idea that
ultimately, the only thing keeping black people oppressed is the “Stephen”
within. Apparently, we can’t release our inner-Django until we blow the
kneecaps off our inner-Stephen and burn the whole bucket of crabs down with
To that I say, shut the entire hell up, Tarantino. We don’t need your comic book spaghetti-western solutions to our oppression problem. When we want your opinion, we’ll give it to you, Sir. Just entertain me.
- There is no way a black filmmaker could have gotten this project highlighted. No way in hell. Not even Tyler Perry. Not that we want him trying. Seriously, TP, just stick to keeping black Hollywood employed while the rest of Hollywood keeps making movies about white people surviving natural disasters that mostly affected people of color.
- Tarantino knows his audience. All the people I know who absolutely adore this movie? Well, I'm not going to say they're all alike...but they all kind of look alike, if you catch my obvious-ass drift.
None of this is particularly ground-breaking and I don’t mean for it to be. This is reactionary. If there is anything you’d like me to expound upon or explain, I’d be happy to. But the truth remains that I saw the movie and I liked it. I feel like I understand what it was trying to do and that was enough for me.
But what do I know? I own “The Beautician and the Beast” on DVD.
My friend Tyson is one of my favorite people to talk to about love. We’ve known one another since I was twelve and he was thirteen. We’ve been friends through first loves, first heartbreaks, crazy exes who shall not be named, and I have no doubt that should either of us decide to marry someday, the other will have some part in that occasion. We are so much alike it’s stupid, and I’ve never had a friend meet him who didn’t absolutely fall in love with him. He’s that dude.
|Tyson and I at 16 and 15|
Tyson is in a relationship with a dear friend of mine. It’s going very well. He is happy. I am not in a relationship with anyone. I have crushes on at least three celebrities and a normal boy who looks like one. They’re all going very well. I am happy. But happiness doesn’t stop the what-ifs. It just makes the what-ifs seem less urgent. Tyson and I are full of what-ifs.
As he and I dug into a conversation about love and attraction, he asked me what I was attracted to in a man. Here’s the thing: I’ve been getting this question a lot. I’m at that age. My friends are getting married, baby-ed, coupled, attached, and booed-up left and right. It’s truly a beautiful thing to see. Luckily, I don’t have the kinds of friends who think I’m in a band of Lonesome Locked-Hearts and the Suffering Singles, or friends who think being in a relationship is always better than being alone. But now that everyone is finding their someone, they wonder why I’m not. I get why they're confused. I'm awesome. So, they assume I'm just not seeing what I like. Which is partly true.
Usually, I give a pretty pat answer when someone asks me what I want in an ideal boyfriend/man/partner/booski:
“Uh…he should be like cool. Funny. Cares about the world. I’d like it if he were cute. Maybe some hair or armpits. Must like breakfast and social justice. Probably want him to have a goal and not do bath salts. Didn’t vote for Bush twice. Not related to me. That’s all I got.”
I think I meant to say all that same stuff today when Tyson asked me that question, but I didn’t. He asked me and I described something real. Something I actually want:
“I want a partner, not a project. I want someone who I can feel lucky to be with. Someone who I’m inspired by. Someone who’s inspired by me. I want him to be comfortable with aging gracefully. I want him to have passion beyond himself. I want him to work hard, but not live to work. I want him to be kind. I want him to be happy all on his own, even without me. But I’d like him to miss me when I’ve gone for longer than a week. I want him to love nature. I want him to be patient with me and gentle with himself. I want him to challenge me to be the best version of myself. I want him to be okay with constructive criticism. I want him to be honest. I don’t want him to love me as if it’s a compulsion, I want him to wake up each day, and choose to actively love me all over again for another day.”
Cheesy, I know.
I’m actually pretty cheesy once you get to know me. I blame it all on my abiding obsession with all things Oprah. Still, it’s probably the most honest I’ve been about what I want in…forever. There’s this thing in me, I think a lot of people have it, where I get afraid to ask for what I really want out of fear that it will never happen. Tonight, I had a conversation with another friend where I told him, “Don’t decide you can’t have something before you’ve even tried to have it.” But I’ve been doing that most of my life. Trying to anticipate what is and isn’t for me to have in this world, so I never disappoint myself by trying to attain it. Pretty dumb when you sit back and think about what you’re doing. I’ve settled in more ways than one in my life, but I’m not really interested in doing that anymore. It’s boring. I’ve seen that movie before.
Now, I’m a believer in signs. After a summer of drought, I’ve watched the rain fall out of the sky in sheets from my front porch three times. I’ve only had a porch for a week. Before you ask, no, I haven’t taken the song “It’s Raining Men” literally. I don’t think the rain is a sign that I’m going to find someone tomorrow. What I do believe is that something has ended in my life and something new, something refreshing, something I need, is beginning.
Tonight, I stepped out onto my porch and watched the rain and I cried. I didn’t feel sad, but I did feel broken open. I felt like the conversation I’d had with Tyson that afternoon had taken something out of me. Something I might want back, but couldn’t be returned to me. I’ve made myself vulnerable. There is now this thing between me and love, this big honest thing. I realized that I couldn’t pretend to be okay with dating men who have neither the desire nor the capability to be what I want. I’ve been in survival mode in relationships for so long, only concerned with what I absolutely need. The minimum. Now, I’ve been honest about what I want and I can’t fathom ever being satisfied with the minimum again. That means this dating/relationships thing just got a lot harder, but I also think it might mean whatever is on the other side, just got a lot better.
Cheesy, I know.