Photo collage by Yunuen Bonaparte.
I sit in child’s pose on the carpet, my back inches away from the heater in the wall, cradling images of the girl I used to be. I cup her many faces in my hands, like water droplets threatening to spill through laced fingers.
In each picture, I am the result of another person, their needs, opinions, objectives, desires. I came across this stack of photos tucked inside a wooden jewelry box while searching for earrings to wear for my evening performance. The contrast between the girl visible and the tales beneath fell me to my knees, to curl against this wall hoping to feel warm again.
Me at 18. Photo courtesy of Kris Weir.
Here I am at 18. The Bangkok sunlight warms my skin with its unique humidity and heat. I am being photographed by a friend for a prestigious contest. I want to be beautiful for her, to help her win. I hope my face doesn’t betray the story I carry.
It started a few months ago. My high school psychology teacher has been sending me letters. He writes entirely capitalized, in red ink. He knows my class schedule, and calls me on the classroom phone.
“I’m recording these calls,” he says.
This for him is sex. Power. Hunting. Tracking. By age 18, life has shown me enough to know that the trapping of girls’ voices in small boxes, metal or otherwise, is a favorite pastime for many men.
“You’re a naughty girl,” he writes and says over the phone, his voice hissing like oil heated in a pan. “You deserve to be punished. I can see you better than others can. You think you’re ‘Little Miss Perfect.’ The smile. The body. Perfect grades, too. Well, you need to make me happy then.”
I report the letters, the calls, the stalking, the threats to the school principal. I sit in the office chair kept for students, the plastic back grating my spine, my legs swinging like a child’s. I wonder if the principal cranks up the height of the chair to ensure most of the female students’ legs will swing. To exaggerate his authority, to instill intimidation, to procure our expected obedience.
He listens. I try my best to explain, keeping my voice clinical and stoic, outlining details as if I were writing a scene from the egalitarian eyes of a playwright. Any emotion would only be used to attack the veracity of my truth. I know because this isn’t my first brush with sexual danger. The first was when I was 11. He was a cousin, 20 years my senior. I was told, “Boys will be boys” and left to fend for myself.
“Thank you,” the principal replies. “I will handle this. Thank you for keeping this quiet.”
I don’t remember offering my silence.
“You may return to class.” The principal looks away, busying himself with more important tasks.
I’m deposited back into the dragon’s lair. There I sit as he leers a smile reserved for me, lecturing on the fine nuances of human behavior. He will spend the remainder of the school year mocking me, pulling laughter from other students like water from a dark well, saying I fabricated the whole story due to a girlish crush.
“You don’t need to smile,” says my friend the photographer. I love her so much in that moment I nearly weep.
Me at 23. Photo courtesy of Deborah Lopez.
I lift another from the stack, and here I am at 23. Time has thinned my face, make-up has replaced youth. I’m an actress now, in New York City. Of the thousands taken during the photo shoot, my agents liked this headshot best.
“You look serene and strong in this one,” they tell me. How nice they think so.
Being an actress is a strange existence. We’re trained to speak beautifully, but only the words assigned to us by others. Through it all, we are scrutinized, directed, sculpted, polished until shining. Dare we not shine or speak or behave as desired, we are bid adieu.
“We’re going a different direction.” “You’re not what we’re looking for.” “You don’t fit the role, the look, the woman we need.”
These words snake through my mind daily, nightly, keeping me company. A taunting jingle all women grow to know well.
This song follows me into the night I am raped. As fear fills my body, my mind detaches to sit in a far corner of the room. There it crouches, holding its knees to its chest like a small child. Watching. Wondering. Busying herself with thoughts to distract herself from the pain-flooding flesh.
Thoughts like, “Who will I be now? What role could I possibly fit? Will I carry this night on my skin forever? Is rape like a scent, recognizable and registered by anyone to come near me? Has my name now changed from ‘woman’ to ‘victim’?”
I’m fortunate that my rapist is economical with time, pain, and me. He leaves, another day arrives. I work my shift at the restaurant, muting my brain and playing pretty, before running along to my afternoon modeling call, followed by an audition for “Gossip Girl,” this year’s most coveted show for young actresses. For my audition, I try to wrap my mouth around the vapid script. The words taste inkless, bland, as if blank paper.
“Do that scene again, and maybe giggle for us?” suggests the casting director. The producers nod enthusiastically. “We need you to be a little less.” The casting director makes the gesture of hands tamping down gravity. “Let’s just say the character isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.” They all laugh. “Just try a giggle.”
I perform as directed. Giggle. Be less. Thank you for your time. Next.
Me at 25. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Patlen.
Next, age 25, one of the five images I’ve chosen for my modeling card. Different from an actor’s headshot, a modeling card displays images on both sides, four on one, a full-page photo on the other. As is the industry norm, I am in various degrees of undress.
“I love this one,” says the guy I’m dating when asked for his opinion. “It’s my favorite. Your face is like, sending a message.”
“What message?” I ask, curious if he hears the same story I do.
“Like, ‘c’mere, I want you.’” He smiles. “You know, the whole ‘come hither’ thing.” He laughs, pulls me closer.
I laugh along, return his kiss, fall into his bed.
Later as he showers, I look again at his chosen favorite. In this image, in all of them, I marvel how little of myself is left. How glossy and idealized I appear. How my anorexia, the siren I’ve battled since age 15, has performed her duty beautifully. How, in every image, while no man is physically present, the male gaze, palette, and appetite are palpable, while my truth, the good and the wounds, is rendered invisible.
Since age 17, there hasn’t been a moment that I have been single. Men know to find me; I keep falling into them. I seem to be, forever, existing by extension. Someone’s daughter, someone’s prey, someone’s lover, someone’s lullaby, someone’s landscape to plough. The more pieces of myself I lose, the more men I attract. As far as I can tell, falling in love with someone feels the same as forfeiting contact with your own voice.
Done with his shower, he returns to the bedroom, pausing briefly to flex his biceps in the bathroom mirror.
“That was fun,” he says, letting me know it’s time I leave. I hastily dress, and he ushers me toward the door.
“I’ll see you soon.” He gives me one last peck on the mouth, one last pat on the derriere. I begin walking to the elevators when I hear him call.
“Nearly forgotten.” He holds out my modeling card.
“Oh. Thank you.” I take the card, wait for the elevator.
Looking down at the photo he deemed his favorite, I think of his words earlier, murmured right after sex, declaring his territory like a dog claiming a patch of grass: “You’re mine.”
I had nodded, and agreed, “I am yours.”
The elevator arrives. I descend.
Here I am 27, my anorexia now at her worst, aptly reflecting the degree of turmoil in my life. In addition to acting and modeling, I’ve started writing and producing music. This image is taken during a photo shoot for a music video. In all the other photos, I’m smiling, pretending to laugh or be seductive. This one image is snatched in a slim moment between rehearsal and performance. Perhaps you see a lovely, young girl; I see a woman exposed, drowning in the slipstream of her husband’s shadow.
Ours is a feral love. Igniting quickly from passion, our wild descent has been equally swift.
He calls them “sister-wives.” He says, “Baby, it’s for your own good. This way, the pressure to make me happy doesn’t fall completely on you.”
I can’t tell if he’s actually seeing other women, just telling me he is, or threatening that he will; perhaps their phantom presence is the intended heartbreak. Whatever the truth, the other women have inhabited our home, haunting my every breath.
We live in a half-burnt barn, deep in the belly of the woods, so removed from civilization that we don’t have cell reception. Aside from his taste for other women, he has a flare for sudden anger. Every time he boasts of hypothetical conquests, I keep myself from shouting, crying, arguing – I don’t want to lose his love or exacerbate his temper, especially without another soul for miles. I watch him roar, the man I love receding into dilated pupils. I use what I know as an actress, and as a girl trained to endear the world of men, to calm him.
He has never once hit me, and love convinces me that though he will attack plenty he will never lay a hand. Every night, we sleep curled away from each other, as if our very skin recoils from the other’s nearness. I lie awake night upon night wishing he’d actually hit me. Then I’d have something tangible to point to as reason to leave, as proof of grief. The catch with emotional warfare is that it’s inflicted with far more stealth and elegance than abuse delivered by touch. Making it easier to accept, rationalize, forgive, page after page.
He is working to rebuild the barn into a family home. Nestled into the back of the barn is our queen-sized mattress. Surrounding the mattress are space heaters and piles of bricks. Naked light bulbs strung from the rafters punctuate the space. He and I know to move around them by sheer memory; the burning glass promises to singe the skin if touched.
To supplement my income from acting and photo shoots, I babysit. As is my duty, every week I deposit my earnings into his wallet. Although I’m usually too hungry, cold, or tired to connect a full thought, while giving him my money, caring for his needs, hearing him yell, I occasionally wonder, Where is my voice? How is this my life? How have I become this woman?
Finally, one night, watching him pace, listing all the ways I’ve failed to please him, it dawns on me: I’ve encircled myself with danger because it feels familiar.
In a flash, everything coalesces. The haze lifts, revealing my tale, the seemingly disparate fragments now connecting in pristine clarity. I became this woman by swallowing my voice through wound after wound. I’ve taken the world’s whippings for being born a girl as reason to believe I deserve only punishment and degradation, inflicted on myself, accepted toward myself.
I need to leave. Leave him, the coffin we call a home, the life of smallness I know as mine. Made small by his ego. Made small by the industries I’ve worked in. Made small by the girl I need to be if I want to draw and keep his love.
I am now 34. I left him. I left the girl I was. I left acting and modeling and stepped into the life of a writer. My first act was writing a memoir. There I traced my narrative, sutured my lashes, and reclaimed my body from the hands of others. My body is now mine, my voice returned.
Initially, the news of my leaving acting and modeling to become a writer was met with resistance ranging from disbelief, worry, outrage, scorn, to laughter, from nearly every friend and relative, each unsolicited opinion preceded with the phrase we women know so well: “I love you, but…”
As a teenager and young woman, sharing that I wanted to be or was an actress and model had always been met with, “That makes sense,” and a smile. In contrast, the notion of a woman voicing and designing her truth, professionally or personally, that she would dare dream so audaciously, venture beyond the designated convention, or transform possibility into reality will strike spoken and unspoken fear in so many hearts.
I wonder if my specific appearance was – is – a compounding role in others’ resistance. Perhaps it is particularly shocking, blasphemous even, that I, a beautiful woman, once quiet, compliant, and deferential, have decided to no longer use my physical identity as currency and worthiness, to instead quest and succeed at a life fashioned from my mind and my voice – my inherent, authentic power. If all young girls and women committed such treason, patriarchy would collapse.
Hence resistance, and my stubborn persistence. In addition to being a writer, I’m now a public speaker – in tonight’s performance I’ll be speaking purely as myself. These days, such is my career. I speak on the resilience we women hold within. I speak on healing and rising from the many ways the world tries to bruise us into submission and smallness. I speak on our right to reclaim our narrative from the hands of others, and how we are each capable of authoring our life.
The confluence of my training as an actress and the experiences I’ve been through has prepared me perfectly for this life. Though now the words I speak are not assigned to me.
I place the girl I was into the box. The chill from years past has been replaced with gratitude for all that led me here, and pride that I’ve transformed every piece into poetry. I rise to stand.
Reema Zaman is an award-winning actress, speaker, activist, and author of the acclaimed memoir, I Am Yours. Her work has been featured in Vogue, The Guardian, Ms. Magazine, Salon, and elsewhere. The 2018 Oregon Literary Arts Writer of Color Fellow, her memoir has been adapted into the curriculum of several high schools through an Innovation Grant from the Oregon Department of Education, and she is an ambassador of the International Rescue Committee. Follow her @ReemaZaman on Twitter and Instagram, and at http://www.reemazaman.com.