The Shape of Our Dignity: Truth Isn’t Always Captured in a Photograph

Posted inCreative Voices

There she was, behind her big rimmed glasses, once seemingly coiffed hair, and smile that fooled the world. She was young, naive, and in pain. The depression and dysphoria lay behind his tired blue eyes. The world outside his busy mind paid no attention to the misery or their entangled existence.

I seemed like a happy kid to most. Friends and extended family had no idea the trauma that we held as siblings. Even some of the siblings had no idea of the trauma and torment we each held. The secrets that families carry can unravel in an instant, like when the afghan of woven love begins to unfurl at an untimely snag.

My mother and biological father divorced when I was four years old. Memories prior to their divorce have been shuttered by years of blocked off trauma. Over the years of my desperate need to understand the truth, I’ve experienced all types of therapy options. Some sessions of hypnosis-type attempts have unlocked deep unforgiving moments. Often, I’ve had to confirm with my mother if the dreams or nightmares of recalled memories were real moments, or made up monsters.

More often than not, the secrets slowly were confirmed. My earliest memory I can ever recall was a moment my mom tells me I was no more than 18 months old in. After seeking more support from a sexual assault in my early 20’s, a friend recommended rapid eye therapy; a session I would walk away from into a paradigm shift of insurmountable anguish.

In an April 2021 article for Harvard Health, Dr. Andrew Budson, a neurologist and chief of Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology at VA Boston Healthcare System, states there are two things that tag a memory; emotion and significance. How we recall these memories is based on a few age based factors. When we are younger, we can be triggered by a thought of a memory. However, the older we become, the more cueing we must do to trigger the memory.

In cueing, you can use an article of clothing from the time of the memory, a song that strikes you, visiting physical space, and yes a photograph can trigger the memory. Often times, keeping still and thinking about the emotions and elements of a memory can assist in filling in the missing details. Or in my case, being removed from a present space into the tunnels of the mind, through what is now called EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.

I heard the muffled sounds grow louder and louder. Screaming incoherent words through what sounded like being underwater, experiencing the confrontation just on the edge of a pool. I only am reminded by the sounds, like that of a tearing material. The deafening curdle scream, followed by a desperation to gasp for air through tear flooded nose and mouth. The stinging pain under the right shoulder blade, like a hot knife digging in from the back. Snapped from the back of a space, to the front. The screaming louder and louder of hate and fear. And then day glow white, and no more noise at all.

The memory… real? Imagination? A nightmare that continued to haunt me weeks, months, after my session ended. I couldn’t shake the pain. I couldn’t hide it anymore. So I asked her, as I described above every smell, sound, sense. Tears running down her cheeks, there was no way I could have remembered that moment. No way I could have recalled that. I was no more than 18 months old.

The day glow white? Her running from him. My mother explained that they were in a heated argument; something probably stupid and for sure forgotten. They argued a lot, and he pushed her a lot. There I was, belted in my car seat; you know the 80’s style, hard-to-break seat belt. The tearing material? That seat belt holding me in safety. The curdling scream? Me, being yanked from the back seat and over the front seat, legs smacking the car ceiling, by the man who people see in photographs as a gentleman and father.

My mother ran, taking my brother and I to my grandparents house. He’d managed to pull my arm out of my socket. My grandmother, a registered nurse, and my grandpa, a loving man who would have killed him if grandma didn’t stop him, proceeded to reset my arm there in the kitchen. It was better that way.

I recalled this memory from the trauma I carried in my right shoulder blade. We often carry many memories in our injuries. They follow us, yes the continued shoulder problems since then and the trauma the wound can mask. I learned that from my chiropractor.

She asked me one time after I’d been seeing her for treatment after a car accident in 2006, all intuitively, “so, what did your father do to you as a kid?”

“Why?” I asked.

“We carry deep wounds in places we might not imagine. You carry such heartache in your shoulder. I can see it, drooping there on your right side.”

No one knew. I hadn’t told anyone outside of my ex-wife about it. There this wonderful, thin, wild-haired, dynamite of a chiropractor just knew. She said “this is going to get weird for a moment. I want you to know this room is sacred, and I’m right here. We are going to adjust the shit out of this shoulder. It’s going to be painful, but not in a physical type of way. You’ll feel some deep pressure, hear a pop, and experience the most flooded emotions. Don’t hit me.”

She did her magic. I was paralyzed in a flash of memory, and sadness, and relief, and so many more unexplainable feelings. Then I just laid there, from soft tears, to sobs, to the most ugly crying. She just laid right there, enveloping me like a weighted blanket. She didn’t say another word for five minutes, and just let me cry.

We recall moments in many different ways. We deal with the trauma of them in the best ways we can. For some, it never goes away. For others, they find another way to tuck it back into the drawers of the dark places. For me, I’m continuing to figure it all out.

Until then, I’ll let the photographs shape-shift from the pain they once carried into the cape of authenticity. The recent discovery of one of these photographs was shared by my older step-sister. A photograph of the kids in his life whose lives were forever changed when their mother married that man.

We weren’t given the chance to be close. We were forced to look like he was a perfect father; a loving functional family. The moment we came to realize we really were family, was the moment we had to stand up to the monster that he is. He hurt us, each one of us, in his own manipulated way.

Some of us weren’t so lucky in his way of affection. I thought it was my fault. I came out to him as a lesbian. I didn’t know that he’d try to show me how women and men should be together. There I sat trying to figure out who I was, but be authentic and open a better relationship with him in truth. This was before the EMDR session; before I discovered even a single ounce of the monster.

I ran out of the house, to my car, and just tried to recount the moments that happened just before. Was that… real? What did I do? What did I say? I was paralyzed with disbelief. I ran away from it and carried so much guilt once I found out he’d been doing the same to my little step-sister.

We stood, against him. He still won, manipulating the system meant to apparently protect the victims. I was called as a witness, A WITNESS; even after giving my statement about the moments I went through. I NEVER got my chance to speak in court. He won, with a hand slap basically.

Our only solace…he tried to expunge his reduced charges to misdemeanor lewdness. The judge, the same man who felt sick about the way it all went, said the monster got away with it, and he’d better not see him in his court again.

I told my family that day, my step-siblings, we weren’t step anymore. We made a pact so to speak, we’d never go it alone if he ever tried anything again. I have a few photos now; all of us kids in our Sunday best with our Olan Mills’ smiles. We talk about the pain out loud now. It’s better that way, otherwise he continues to win.

My step-mom left a long time ago. She carries so much guilt. I tell her it wasn’t her fault. My mom feels the same. They were both pitted against each other like they were the enemy. It would have been different, had his manipulation not got in the way. I think, what might I feel when he’s gone. I can’t imagine that feeling.

I can say this, that last day I saw him in court, the bailiffs ushering each party out different doors, I said my final peace. I stood there, outside, him reaching to hug me, as strong as I could be.

“We can shake hands as adults, but you will not get a hug from me. You do not have any right to my success. What I have been able to accomplish in my life is mine and mine alone. You will never be able to see what more I become. You will not take my space. You will not try to use the words, I love you. Love of a Father, is not what your actions have burned as your legacy. What ever you are searching for in life, I hope you find peace. This is goodbye. I’m stronger today. I’ll walk away now, knowing I did nothing wrong, and I lay that guilt I felt for so long here at your feet. Today, I can’t forgive you. You’ll never know when I will, as that and that alone is mine.”

The photographs danced on a recent social media post, shared by one of my older sisters. There we all were, growing together in a thread about what was and what may be. I have one younger sister and one older brother from my mom and him. I have 3 stepsisters; two older and one the baby of all of us. Then there’s my two stepbrothers, one older than me, the other just a little younger than me, I believe. The brood of eight tossed together from my (step) mom and his marriage.

The conversation was read by extended family who had no idea. I have their support. I always have. It was me who pushed them away. I opted to share the blurred photo here, only because it’s still fresh for my little sister. She’s finding her way toward what she needs. I have found mine.

Photo courtesy of the author

Our baby sister knows though, that I’m never going to let her go it alone. Not while the big coke-bottle-lens glasses, semi-haunted smile of a 12-year-old dressed in girls clothes, continues to advocate for truth and justice, and dignity and authenticity.

I love that twelve year old kid I was. She had so much to keep smiling for, to keep the pain hidden for, to carry on for. Without her, I couldn’t be me. She was strong and brave. She just needed to hold on long enough.

We fought hard— the she I was and the he I am— to shoulder the burden. Today, I carry the wound to remind me I can survive. I’ll turn the memories into the happy kind, even when the truth isn’t always captured in a photograph.


Sean Childers-Gray is a designer, writer, trans advocate, and educator. This essay was originally published on his Substack, The Shape of Our Dignity.

Photo by Wan San Yip on Unsplash