Crystal sat at her desk in the office and began detaching herself once again from the office surroundings. She felt herself looking at the scene around her as an intrusive and voyeuristic outsider. The subway faithfully droned recklessly and noisily down the eastern track and as she watched Katy and Ed flirt shamelessly by the water fountain, she vaguely wondered if they had fallen into bed yet. She dully tried to remember what it used to feel like before it happened. She had taken to obsessively yet joylessly observing the comings and goings of her colleagues in the office, trying to emulate their laissez-faire attitude toward well, everything. It was dull and uninformative because she didn’t feel as human as they seemed to be, couldn’t understand when they grew excited about Friday night or booked a weekend away in Miami. She kept dropping in and out of the conversation like an awkward turtle-dove which had ugly orange feathers whilst everyone else’s was an elegant shade of grey. It is not that the feeling of being an outsider was foreign to her, it’s just that now she had ugly proof that she was ugly, different, afflicted, less than…she had first felt that uncomfortable feeling in the second grade, when the gentle Miss Nora had left unexpectedly and had been replaced by Mrs Naterville who seemed angry whenever she tried to speak up and separated the cups at lunchtime so that Crystal’s wouldn’t get mixed with the other students. Crystal’s underarms began to run and she would have butterflies raging in her stomach every time Mrs Naterville turned her cold blue eyes on her and made a point of wiping her hands after checking her book. And that is where it happened, that is where she first learnt the art of silencing her soul. She stopped taking lead in the playground games and changed her voice so it sounded timid and inoffensive instead of confident and composed like her father had taught her.
As I sit and type this, I am filled with an uncomfortable sense of pretentiousness, what can I write about a Black-American twenty-three year old woman, working in New York for a cultural magazine which focuses on poetry and theatre. She has been through the trauma of being racialised in primary school and the story begins with Crystal trying to deal with a more recent kind of trauma. I am black. African. Female, also 23. So perhaps I actually have everything in common with her, she is living in 21st Century America, one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the world but equally racist and biased and she does not know how to exist without race coming into play in all her relationships. She does not know if this is a good thing or a bad thing-after all shouldn’t everyone get to be just as comfortable in their skin as anyone else? She is working her first official job and the uncertainty she feels amongst her colleagues, an indirect consequence of the trauma from Mrs Naterville’s racism, has led to a constant sensation of being unworthy and uncertain if she will ever be accepted for who she is. She revels in the art of splitting herself into different categories, not unlike a badly abused child who develops a multiple-personality disorder. So perhaps, dear reader, if you will allow me, I will try and tell Crystal’s story because really, Crystal and I are not so different. We know how it feels to be faced with indifference or defensiveness when race is brought up, feeling nervous and wondering if we are indeed being irrational but also knowing deep down that after a history as turbulent and frequently reiterated as colonialism and slavery, it is sheer audacity for anyone to question why we are still upset about it. And why it has wounded us. The elephant in the room which everyone tried to lure out with a lump of sugar but which instead threw a tantrum and smashed all the good china because after all, why did you take it out of its God-given environment. And really, perhaps it would be a start if you just apologised to the elephant and didn’t shrug off his unexpected display of emotion after being ignored for so long, because a shaken up bottle of Coke must eventually be opened. So, back to Crystal…
Three weeks ago, Crystal was raped. She went to her cousin’s party and she had turned her head to greet a group of old college friends whilst still holding her cup-she hadn’t noticed the shady guy dressed in brown in the corner who had seized the moment and poured a white powdery substance into it. She remembered going into the downstairs bathroom and sitting on the closed toilet seat, wondering why she felt so floppy and not sure where she had put her bag. ‘Cryssy Cryssy’, she had mumbled to herself, ‘time to go home. Hooomeee.’ She fumbled for the fish-shaped phone which she knew rested above the tub and suddenly felt a presence enter the room. ‘Occupied’, she mumbled, annoyed that he had the nerve to intrude on her pee-time. The guy was silent and quietly turned to close the door. ‘Heyy’said Crystal, suddenly feeling scared. In what seemed like unnatural speed, he crossed over to where she was now seated on the edge of the tub and pulled her up. Her senses were assaulted with the smell of old cigarettes and lager which always made her feel lonely. She tried to struggle and say ‘Hey stop, I mean it’ but her body seemed so weak and she silenced the voice like she had always done, letting someone else take control because really, it was too late for anyone to save her, she thought. He grabbed her boobs and unzipped her pants and she tried to hide her shame, grasping at his hand as he leaned hard against her and ignored her confused efforts, pulling down her Mickey Mouse underwear which seemed to smile in glee at this unwanted intruder. Crystal began to do what she had always done: she detached herself from the situation although the times when it happened unexpectedly tended to be much more effective than when she willed it to happen. Ever since the horror of having to face Mrs Naterville every day, then Mrs McKee, then Mrs Campbell, all as anti-blacks as the last, she used to sit in class and suddenly the teacher’s voice would fade out and she would be filled with the most uncanny of senses that she didn’t really exist. It was shocking to her that she lived in one of the best neighbourhoods in town, her dad drove three different Mercedes and her parents had earned it all fair and square with no discreet helping hands from the banks and the corporate world. Yet still, every single day she was subjected to feeling like a non-entity in class, the apple of her father’s eyes but the most loathed of all by the consistently ice-blue eyes those teachers had. A grey cloud would descend over her and she would feel it was standing over only her, it was a great sadness, and she was helpless under its devotion to her. She patiently waited for the moment to pass, carrying the residue of its visitation everywhere she went and in everything she did. As the man raped Crystal, she thought ‘Ha, it’s proof, you really are dirt, a darkie, a pikanin and to top it off a woman.’ He pressed her buttocks against the cold tile walls and without ceremony plunged his disgusting self into her, she wasn’t really there any more but felt him moving erratically and all she could think was ‘Inside me, inside me, the closest you could ever be to me but I am sure if he split me right through the middle with his glass shaft, I would find a foul-smelling black scum because I am rotting through my bones, from the skin on my bones to each organ inside me.’Finally, he was done. He turned away, forgot about her as he washed his face and she remembered how she had felt the first time she had sex with her high school boyfriend, how she had felt so exposed on the bed with the lights on. She prayed he wouldn’t notice that she had stretch marks on her thighs. She didn’t care that she hadn’t been ready for the penetration, had found it complete agony and not worth all the pressure to do it-after all, wasn’t this what men expected? ‘Because really, how else does one keep a man,’ she had thought to herself.
‘You coming for Pizza Crystal?’
‘No thanks,’ she said absent mindedly, silently willing the office to empty out for one blissful hour where she did not have to act normal, an exhausting game which left her body aching with tenseness at the end of the day. She locked the door behind Keith, making certain the janitor on duty was a female because God only knew how many times she had overlooked the lewd comments of Jake the Head Janitor, who liked to stand beneath the stairs as the girls climbed up them. She turned on her small desk radio, tuning into her favourite station Bright FM. She had discovered that whilst she found everyone’s company exhausting these days, she was afraid to meet with herself in the alone moments. In the silence of the office, she felt jumpy and ghostly, like an unseen spirit floating through the bathroom when people were unaware.
‘Good day my listeners, today we have a special clip detailing the statistics of sexual abuse and molestation in Johannesburg, South Africa. Researchers have discovered that a woman is raped in South Africa every four seconds, meanwhile one in every six women in America has been raped in her lifetime. And these statistics are only so authentic because huge numbers of cases go unreported. Today we’ll start by focusing on children who are being victimized in South Africa. It’s such a shame because we know that Africa has a long way to go in terms of women’s rights and gender equality. I mean, a child living in a township in Africa is at great risk of being molested, and in most cases it is either a family member or someone they have met before.’
Crystal listened as they reeled off more statistics and felt them subtly distance themselves from the children in Africa, stating crisis centres for women in America but not really facing the depth of the travesty, because after all it made you feel uncomfortable when you really thought about it. And besides, what were you actually supposed to do? Something inside her burst and Crystal grabbed the phone. She dialled Bright FM and waited to be put through. ‘Hello?’ said a woman named Candy. ‘Which show are you calling into today ma’am’, she asked. ‘The rape one’ Crystal said curtly. ‘I am a victim and I want to have my say’ she said, shocked by how much she was shaking. It was the first time since it had happened that she had even acknowledged that she was a victim.
‘Hello?’ said Bill, ‘you’re live on air, ma’am. How do you feel about what we’ve shared here today?’
‘I’m a victim,’ Crystal said. ‘It’s happened to me. Twice in fact, if I count the time my high school boyfriend forced me to do it in his mum’s bed, he wouldn’t take no for an answer so in the end I stopped fighting and let ‘nature’ take it’s course. I find it shocking that you think Africa is behind in terms of gender equality and sexual liberty. Western people think they are so moral, so advanced, so unanimously civilised but CLEARLY something is wrong if the one in six American women being raped are most likely to be raped by a middle-class white man! They say we have evolved!? Something so animalistic, so violently invasive? As a woman, I don’t know if a man who hasn’t been victimised himself can ever ever understand how it feels to have someone INSIDE of you, searching and claiming hold of something so political, contentious and constantly degraded as the female vagina. Men want it, don’t respect and maybe it’s because it’s an inner thing, it’s not some outwardly visible organ which we feel we have a Goddamn right to shove into all sorts of God-forsaken places. I’m not sure what’s worse, that you could even think of somehow lessening the trauma those South African children experience by somehow attributing it to being evidence of their being less HUMAN-how do you overlook the stigma which surrounds victims in Western society, how persistent our society is about making us all feel we are now supposedly equally free, equally democratic but hey, if a man does that to another human being, it must be something the girl said or did!? The worst thing listening to you has made me realise is that when I was raped, I wasn’t even surprised. I couldn’t relate to the anger victims supposedly feel because it seemed it was just affirming what I had always lived-you are not equal, you are NOT free and no place in this world is truly safe for anyone. Men just make it less so for us women. To most men, you are just boobs and hair and lips and hips, not an equally fearfully and wonderfully made image of God like the good book claims but just something to be toyed with and enjoyed at your leisure, forgotten and convenient when a man is in need of release. So don’t tell me that as an American victim I have it better. Morality is clearly doing NOTHING for us and if you ask me, most men are dormant rapists. It’s a chip in their head, an unconscious philosophy they are reared up in: to believe the world exists as their personal playground. I swear to God if God had never made one single man, this place would be one thousand times more bearable!’ Crystal’s voice ended in a high-pitched shriek and before Bill could respond, she slammed the phone down and sat breathing heavily at her desk. She was meditating too much on her own fury to switch off the radio and her ears pricked up as she heard Bill drawn in a deep breath.
There are so many things I wish I could tell Crystal. Most important of all is that she needs Jesus. I took the long way around that mountain; sometimes pain can seem so unfathomable and purposeless that the idea of praying seems unacceptable. For Crystal, her body was violated but it is her spirit which has been scarred. Sexuality is the core of who we are and to deny the spiritual damage violation of that nature causes seems to me like settling for a counterfeit experience of healing. Of late, when the midnight hour shifts, I have been questioning myself what it means to cry out for help. How does God fit into Crystal’s pain? Could it be that Christ suffered the greatest violation of all? That when they gave him forty-nine lashes and whipped him until he was unrecognisable, he- more than anyone- understand bodily trauma? He was betrayed by Judas, a man he taught and fellow shipped with for three years. Furthermore, he hung on a cross, naked and ashamed-violated by those who should have embraced him. For me, I always knew that from this body, I would see God. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. In my darkest hour, like a fire loses heat, like a girl-child loses innocence my very bones felt weighed down and a fundamental principle was in question: was God still good? ‘Is this how it must be?’ I once asked. You moulding and burning and stirring my faith, that my eternity may be rich with reward? This is the new normal. That it won't always be easy being down here, but that is because we do not belong here. Crystal, dear Crystal, may you come to understand this more than many a man who has ever lived.
‘Wow ladies and gents…that was one angry woman. Call in now and have your say. I just have to add my two cents though-do you think women are justified in blaming all men? It seems rather counter-productive I would think although from a psychological point of view, I can see how it would come to that…hang on listeners, we have a message from a professional counsellor at Shining Light Prayer Lines who says they are willing to take on that last caller’s case… if you’re still listening, why not give them a call? What have you got to lose honey?’
Crystal froze. Yet she felt herself warming to the idea, her head was about to explode from all the emotions she was confronting and concealing daily. She picked up the phone and dialled the prayer line number with shaking fingers. On the third ring, a friendly male voice answered ‘Shining Light Prayer line, how can I help?’
‘Hi,’ Crystal said breathlessly, caught off guard by the fact that it was a man. ‘I was um wondering if you could, um, pray for me. I went through something a few weeks ago. At a party. It was um, something you know, sexual you could say, and I just keep having flashbacks and feeling really low and well...dirty’.
‘I’d would be honoured to pray for you ma’am…but before I do, would you mind if I shared a story with you?’ the voice asked.
Crystal consented and he began to tell a story which caught at something deep in the midst of her foggy numbness. ‘Imagine a Kingdom in a far away and perfect land. There is a King of this kingdom and he rules over it with much love, tenderness and generosity. He has a daughter, the most beautiful daughter throughout the land and she is treated as precious and valuable by all. She has known nothing throughout her life but to be valued and watched over by her father the King. One day, she is kidnapped. Some evil men in the land who have been lusting after her take her to a hidden cabin in the woods. They violate her in this place and rip at her clothes whilst spitting on her and beating her. They call her vile names and rob her of her innocence. A great search goes on in the land and eventually the princess is found wondering in the woods. She is rushed back to the palace but she is traumatised and in a daze. Her father calls out to her each and every day. For some reason she feels ashamed to face him after her trauma, yet he patiently waits outside her door each day. ‘My princess,’ he calls, ‘Won’t you come and dine with your father? We can go out and enjoy a picnic.’ She is not interested. She has lost her zest for life and she feels horribly ugly and worthless. All the things which used to capture her interest seem meaningless and unrewarding. She questions her very identity as a precious and valuable woman-how can she be if someone would do that to her? The days pass. The palace staff whisper about how beautiful and full of vitality she used to be. She overhears a maid make a comment of that nature one day. She sits up and looks in the mirror. It is true, she is surrounded by much elegance and finery but she looks and feels dowdy beside it. As she looks in the mirror, a ray of light shines across the mirror. She remembers how she used to love sunny days with her father. She thinks to herself, I have nothing to lose, maybe I should wash my hair, make an effort and go and enjoy some sunshine. Maybe I can even go and visit an orphanage, I wonder if the children have missed me. She decides to do it and before she knows it, the spell is broken. She begins dining with her father again in the morning and she starts doing all the philanthropy she used to dedicate herself to. Her father informs her that he has always been praying for her and that he wants her to re-claim her position as Daughter of the King in the palace courts.
‘Honey, what they did to you changes absolutely nothing,’ her father says, ‘you are still the most beautiful daughter I could ever ask for and your value to me is immeasurable.’ Do you understand what I am saying ma’am’?
Tears streamed down Crystal’s face. The story explained why she felt such a great sense of having been robbed, as if someone had stolen her self-worth. And her feelings of shame which made her feel as if her very essence was polluted. Crystal and the man prayed together and a great peace descended on her. The road ahead would have dips and dives but somehow she would make it. Surviving was in her DNA after all. Suddenly, the sun caused the reflection of a picture frame on her desk to create a small rainbow on its corner. As she picked up the receiver to call Bill and apologise, Crystal smiled.
Pain is often God’s invitation to let Him into your life. It is a sign of being chosen to ‘Come out from among them and be separate.’ There is indeed a conflict in being chosen. Called and anointed. The olives must be crushed in order to produce the true oil but sometimes you will ask why God chose you to carry this burden. Some seem to remain so unscathed by life. Yet God’s love is higher. Wider. Deeper. Truer. We press and strain and are propelled towards that mark. If this is but a dim reflection, the glimpse we have seen will sustain us. In our brokenness, out comes the shrill and piercing cry of the phoenix, a symbol of a hard fought fight for freedom, the full and ripe revelation of the cross's power which sometimes eludes us. The enemy has tried but he fights not where we are but rather where we are going. What glory awaits us, only God can say. But we wait for him. I have heard it said that the snake may come in subtly but it is God who comes in suddenly. Trust Him Crystal. Let us wait for him to come and meet us. Here we are Lord, won’t you welcome us into your presence?