Always Remember… Never Forget.

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Blog by Sue Wallingford

     It’s been several weeks since our return from Cambodia. I can no longer blame jet lag for my foggy mind, memory lags and that abiding sense of malaise that sticks to me like the sticky film of dusty sweat caused by the sweltering heat of the south asian sun. The scenes of Cambodia visit me daily and have become a familiar place in my psychic landscape. Memory fragments, holding emotions of every flavor and texture, haunt me, relentlessly whispering again and again, “Always remember, never forget.”

     Following our work at CWCC (Cambodia Women’s Crisis Center) and the trips to the Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields) and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum our team met in an attempt to “process” all the stories of trauma we had heard and seen. The need to make sense, put words to the sensory overload, was just too much to bear. Even the daily meditations and response art couldn’t touch into the immensity of the experiences we shared in just a few days. And then, confused even more by fits of shopping, bolts of spontaneous laughter, genuine connections and toasts of celebrations! It was like trying to talk about the impossible.

     In my attempt to bring some sort of peaceful lid to the vicarious trauma and suffering our group was feeling I offered what I know about the brain and the way it processes new information. “Of course we couldn’t make sense of it all, or articulate what was happening because our brains were working overtime to just merely assimilate and sort into categories the constant barrage of new stimulus!” The new sights, sounds, taste, smells of being in a foreign country alone was keeping our brains too busy to even begin to make meaning out of all the emotions that had been unleashed. So, to not have the ability to speak of it made sense, right? Nice try. I convinced my self of this too.

     And while the above may be true, it should not become a convenient excuse. The words need to be spoken – if not then, then now. At least a beginning attempt…

     As a way to put words to what feels unspeakable, the impossible story, I am reminded of a conversation I had with one of the girls at CWCC.

     Maly, a girl just entering her teen years, had been at CWCC for over a year. Her mother and father had moved her and her sister to Thailand because they needed to find work or else starve. When away at work, sometimes for 12 hours shifts, they had to leave her and her sister alone at home. One day as Maly wandered to her favorite play place in the woods, a neighbor followed her there and then raped her. This raping ritual went on for weeks before her parents found out. The neighborhood boy expecting her to show up in this “special spot” everyday threatened her life and her sisters if she told.

     Before being brought to Thailand Maly had lived in a small province near Battambang with her grandparents were she recalled happy and abundant times. Her grandparents she describes were caring, wealthy and loved her very much. But now, because she was “soiled,” her grandparents didn’t want her, and her parents couldn’t care for her either.

     When I saw Maly in the crowd of children gathered to greet us upon our arrival I was comforted by my remembrance of her from our last year’s visit. Our mutual smiles of recognition instantly brought a sense of trust and eased the anxiety we both felt. This glance of recollection was all it took to not be perceived as a threat; rather it initiated a memory of something good, bathing our brains in feel good endorphins. For me the remembering was simple, mostly comforting. For Maly, I imagine, it was complicated, marred by her history of trauma and heart wrenching abandonment.

     After we had made our introductions and we were making our transition to the community room where we would make art together for the next two weeks, Maly approached me. She looked at me so expectedly, fearlessly even, as if I were an apparition able to ease her mind in some essential way.

      She asserted, in fairly good English. “You remembered me, and you came back, but when you left before, I miss you so much.”

     My heart open, cracked a little bit. Tears filled both our eyes. I told her I missed her very much too and shared how happy I was to see her again. I couldn’t tolerate the idea of telling her that our stay was short, risking the probable possibility that she would be mad at me for leaving again. My little-bit cracked heart couldn’t open anymore. Not now. My tear filled eyes dried up and I went about the business of setting up the space. Maly, went off with her friends.

     The 2 weeks flew by and the groups’ fears of “not helping”, “not making a difference”, and “not making authentic connections” dissipated quickly as the art space was filled with brightly colored tissue-paper flowers, ribboned wands, mandala drawings, circling pin-wheels, string webs, clay figures, and lit hope-filled lanterns. Art literally filled the space; the sound of laughter, song, and lullabies of Khmer mixed with English lingered. The completed wall mural of three young Cambodian girls protectively holding hands around a freshly bloomed lotus seemed to say it all.

     On the last day, amid the testament and remnants of the days past, Maly came to me again, tears spilling over this time.

     “Mommy,” she said (she had started to call me this, even though she knew it wasn’t the correct way to address me), “Always remember me, don’t forget me.”

     With great conviction and strength I had only seen glimmers of before, she grabbed my hands and gaze, and stopped me in my steps, demanding my full attention.

     Pointing to my heart first she began her chant,

     “YOU,”

     then putting her hands over her heart,

     “REMEMBER,”

     and pointing to herself,

     “ME.”

     Three times we did this routine, me mirroring her, and never once averting our gaze.

     The last thing I said was this chant through the window of the van, as we drove away.

     “I PROMISE MALY, I WILL NEVER FORGET YOU,”

     This message from Maly, though so relevant to our personal relationship and the love we risked despite all that separated us, has a much deeper and profound meaning. Her message, her request, is a message that reaches far beyond our relationship. Her hand held, unwavering gaze repeated plea to me to NEVER FORGET is the call of the Cambodian people, and the relentless whisper that haunts me daily.

     On April 17, 1975 until January 1979, nearly 2 million Cambodian people died under the rule of the Khmer Rouge from massive executions, torture, starvation, disease and over-exhaustion. Referred to as Year Zero, people of all ages; families, doctors, lawyers, teachers, monks and artists were systematically purged out of the society to be replaced by a classless, purely agrarian civilization. The Cambodian culture and traditions overnight came to an abrupt halt. People were to answer only to one ruler, a faceless concept called, “Angkor.”

     Just a few years prior to this on March 18, 1969, the US began a 14-month secret carpet-bombing campaign that reigned over the skies and countryside of Cambodia, in order to cut off supply routes and base camps of the Viet Cong forces. In these fourteen months it is estimated that nearly 3 million tons of bombs were dropped, exceeding the amount of bombs dropped on Japan during WWII by almost a million. As many as 300,000 Cambodians were killed and hundreds of thousands more were displaced. The Khmer Rouge, which previously had been an insignificant threat, hiding out in the jungles saw this as a ripe opportunity to exploit the U.S. aerial bombardment as a means of propaganda. Seemingly overnight the regime quickly grew in numbers and power enlisting many teenage boys and girls angry about the devastation of their once peaceful land.

     It is not hard to deduce from this chain of events that our animosity toward Vietnam Soviet backers, our new alliance with China and our clandestine bombing operation literally helped lay the ground for one of the worst human tragedies of the 20th century.

     So when Maly asked me to never forget her, I hear generations of Cambodian voices behind her. Voices from those I have seen and not seen. Voices I heard when I walked within the claustrophobic stone-stark blood stained walls of S21. I hear it from Arn Chorn Pond, who lives each day proclaiming this message in his every breath, as if paying penitence for the tremendous trauma he experienced. I felt it in the dance, the performances, the music and the soul of the Cambodian collective expressed in every art form. I saw it in the painted landscapes and sculptures of traditional and contemporary art. I saw it in the mud encased bones and clothe remnants surfacing from the pits at the Killing Fields. Reminders are everywhere, but no more so than in the faces of the Cambodian people I passed everyday.

     The trauma is not over. A large portion of the Cambodian people still struggle with the demons of their past very present in their lives today. Struggling to survive each day, far to many Cambodians suffer from deep emotional and spiritual wounds due to what happen during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, and the worlds decision to look away. In a society that was nearly exterminated, the people of Cambodia are barely scraping by, holding on to threads of hope that some day they might regain all they lost. The kingdom of Cambodia was once a place of plenty, a utopian, prosperous society. The people were gentle, kind and at peace. And surprisingly, for the most part, despite their horrendous history, this is still true.

     We have turned our backs too long, conveniently forgotten, or given in to the malaise and confusion of not being able to form our words. The cry of the Cambodian people is a cry to all people… and all beings that share this place we call our earth-home. Because it is still happening.

Never forget.
Open your mind,
soften your heart, and
peer deep into the bones of lives lost.
Unearth the history, and trauma past.
Listen to the cry of generations before you,
that lay bare in the unspeakable pain.
Reach out your hand,
look into the gaze of your sister and brother,
and pay close attention.
Never turn away,
this could be you,
this is you.
Always Remember.

Never forget.

Names and part of the story have been changed to protect the privacy of “Maly.”

Empowered Feminism and Cultural Humility

Blog by: Sue Wallingford

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      One of the concepts that we discuss as a team before going to work in Cambodia is the notion of “cultural humility.”  Our conversations, though still in their infancy, offer opportunities to look more deeply at the assumptions deeply embedded in our own white privilege, as primarily western-white middle-class women.  We have looked at this idea of “cultural humility,” as opposed to “cultural competence,” as our desire is to remain open to what is yet to be learned.  I also like the notion of humility over competency because it constantly puts the student in the place of not knowing; never assuming to have the answers; opening always to the moment at hand, and the people encountered as worthy of their own history and complexity.

I, as their teacher, and someone who is supposed to know the answers, struggle with this notion and have to constantly remind myself that I too am a student in this life-long subject, and that by allowing my students to see me struggle with the “right” answers I am sharing the most important lesson in humility of all.

One of most difficult areas for me in doing this work, both professionally and personally, is how do I remain an empowered female, who desires to instill in women comfort in all it means to be empowered (from a Western point of view) and do the hard work of facing a Cambodian girl who has spent most her years using her body as a vehicle for someone else’s pleasure?  How do I instill in her that all she has to do is take back her power, wield the shield of fierce sexuality and she will be ok? I can’t.  And to assume I can is not only a crime to her but to all women and men who have been abused in the most intimate of ways, including myself.  To stand in her sexual power will likely never be possible for this girl given the history she has, and I can’t make it better.

So, when this happens, and I forget that to really love another I have to honor their scars as well as their beauty, I get to say, “I’m sorry,” and try again to not speak from a place of ignorance but instead from a place of curiosity and compassion.

Cultural “Humility” extends beyond knowing what to say, how to dress, or even how to behave.  It is about deep and fearless empathy, and the desire to really understand another’s suffering.  Not to try to change it, just to be with it, and love it, no matter what.

I love the following article by Kelly Rose Pflug-Back because I think it speaks directly to this issue, and challenges us empowered feminists to take another look at what “power” really means.  I’ll be sharing this one with my students.   Please join the conversation and give us your thoughts too.  And stay tuned for more conversations about this topic.

Why “Sex-Positive” Feminism Is Negative For Me

Kelly Rose Pflug-Back

While skimming through news a few weeks ago, I noticed that one of the current hot topics on feminist threads was the Cliteracy project, an installation piece by New York artist Sophia Wallace that focuses on themes of women’s sexual gratification.

Like many popular presentations of feminism today, the Cliteracy project seems to propagate the idea that sexual empowerment in the 21st century means that women should enjoy getting off and that men should enjoy getting women off. While society has long been plagued by suppressed knowledge of the female sexual anatomy, a superficial and reductionist critique like Cliteracy results in men being able to think that they are being “good” feminists by mere virtue of enjoying giving oral sex to women. The idea that “good sex” or a “healthy sex life” can be quantified by levels of arousal or frequency of orgasms fails to meet the needs of people who have a complicated relationship with sex because of past trauma, gender dysphoria, or other factors.

I have had sexual encounters which, by conventional standards, would be deemed “good sex,” yet still left me feeling violated, afraid, and alone. While my partners may have understood the mechanics of my anatomy, they felt no need to understand my history of trauma and the impact this has had on my emotional and spiritual life.

I didn’t realize that I wasn’t a virgin until the day, after coming home from Grade 1, I finally worked up the courage to ask my mother what sex was. I remember experiencing a strange sinking feeling as she calmly described to me some vague approximation of the terrifying ritual which a group of older boys I knew had been forcing me to perform with them for some time.

One’s pubescent years are often thought of in our culture as a time of sexual discovery, yet all I felt that I had discovered through my first sexual experiences was the grim reality of what it meant to be violently objectified as a female-bodied person in an insidiously patriarchal society.

As I entered high school, I remember watching with growing bitterness as my peers giggled about their own sexual awakenings, blushing as they speculated about the details of something that had never been a mystery to me. While they swooned with their first dizzying tastes of love and lust, I was locked in my room snorting crushed up pills and cutting my arms open with straight razors, fantasizing about peeling my own skin off and immersing myself in acid baths until even my bones disintegrated, dousing myself in gasoline and burning ’til there was nothing left that could feel.

I felt physical attraction to other girls, and the idea of acknowledging it tortured me and robbed me of sleep. I fell in love at some point with one of my best friends, but when he reciprocated my feelings, I became terrified by the prospect of physical intimacy. Sex, I felt, was not a happy thing, something I could not ever do with a person I loved and respected. I seized up and became cold when he and I touched, yet I had no problem having anonymous sex with older men with whom I felt no connection. I remember laughing about it later, showing him the bruises on my legs, looking at the sadness in his eyes and wishing I could make him understand somehow. The body, which he thought was beautiful and sexy, was nothing but a site of violence to me, an inconvenient lump of flesh and nerves which served no purpose besides being a vehicle for agony and helpless rage.

I grew accustomed to directing my hate and anger towards my own body, starving it, mutilating it, abusing it with drugs. I blamed my body it for its vulnerability, instead of blaming the society which had produced this vulnerability and the individuals who had taken advantage of it. There were times I tried to tell other kids at school about what had happened to me, but their reaction was laughter and ridicule. I was one of the unpopular girls, the ones who walked around in stained hand-me-downs and never got invited to birthday parties. I was already dirty in their eyes; the admission of having been violated was simply proof of it.

When I started to become acquainted in later years with the world of feminist activism, I immediately felt alienated by the ways in which mainstream feminist movements approached things like sexual empowerment and body acceptance. Almost 10 years later, the face of popular, “sex-positive” feminism seems to have changed very little. It still seems to be a movement geared towards middle-class, mostly white, liberal, cis-women for whom liberation may indeed be a simple matter of achieving greater sexual satisfactionending the culture of slut-shaming, and re-appropriating femme aesthetics.

For people who face more obstacles in the path towards reclaiming and realizing their sexuality, this sort of uncompromisingly positive and monolithic view of sex can come off as anywhere from frivolous to brutally alienating. During the long period of my life in which I felt that I was completely incapable of having any kind of healthy manifestation of a sex life, I often felt wracked by the guilt of not being a “good” feminist.

Given the alarming prevalence of rape and sexual violence in our society, perhaps all of us, regardless of gender, should begin with the assumption that all female-bodied partners we have (and, realistically, quite a few of our male-bodied partners as well) are survivors. In a world so rife with inequality and violence, it is not enough for us to think that being an adequate lover means knowing how to make our partners come. Our understanding of human sexuality and eroticism must expand in ways which are not limited to the physical intricacies of genital sex. “The clitoris is not a button it is an iceberg” proclaims one of the slogans which compose the Cliteracy project — a phrase that seems to imply the clit is not in fact as small and external as it appears, because it is attached to a much larger internal structure. Yes, the external clitoris is attached to a large internal apparatus of muscles and nerve endings — it is also attached to an entire human being, a being who, since birth, has been categorized as socially inferior based upon their anatomy and more than likely has a complicated relationship with their body and their sexuality because of it.

Today, I feel like the sex I choose to have in my life has to include more than just physical factors. It’s not enough to be having an orgasm (or two, or three) every time. It’s not enough to feel like I have the space to talk about and ask for the things that turn me on. I have to feel like my partners and I have opened the space to be radically honest about the ways we have been damaged, the space to start healing each other’s wounds and healing our own in the process. This is something that can happen in a long term relationship, a one night stand, a sexual encounter between friends or casual lovers. It can range anywhere from the most vanilla of vanilla to the most extreme of BDSM scenes, and everything in between. It can be through types of erotic intimacy that don’t involve physical touch. It can happen in any of the myriad circumstances in which we seek out closeness with each other, so long as everyone involved acknowledges that sex is not always just an act of doing — sometimes, it must also be one of undoing.

It’s one thing for a lover to accept my body, to find beauty in its curves, its cellulite, its asymmetries and uniqueness — but if they can’t look at my scars and acknowledge that these, too, are part of the package, then the rest is meaningless to me.

We are taught through the ethos of mainstream feminism to love and accept our bodies regardless of whether they fit conventional standards of beauty or sexiness, to know what gives us pleasure, and to feel no shame in asking for it. These things may be incredibly beneficial for some people, but we also must acknowledge that each body comes with baggage — and if this baggage prevents us, for the time being, from fully loving and accepting ourselves, from pleasuring ourselves, or from giving and accepting pleasure from others, this does not mean that we are wrong or bad or broken. We are simply doing what we have to in order to survive in a world where the odds are stacked against us, regardless of whether our ways of coping look “healthy” to others, regardless of whether we are called bad feminists or bad women because of them.

A woman who was assigned male at birth will likely have a different relationship with her body than a woman who has gone through her life with cis-gendered privilege, just like a woman who is subject to types of sexism that are intertwined with racism and colonialism will likely have a different relationship with her body than a woman who lives sheltered by white privilege. As surely as there are no right or wrong bodies, there are no right or wrong ways of relating to our bodies.

If we wish to construct a feminism that is truly “sex positive,” it must address the myriad forms of oppression that violate women’s lives and bodies on a global scale. “Freedom in society can be measured by distribution of orgasms,” reads another slogan of Wallace’s Cliteracy project — a statement that seems almost painfully ludicrous when we consider the millions of women worldwide whose freedoms, sexual and otherwise, are devastated on a daily basis by state violence, environmental degradation, poverty, racism, and the wide variety of other hardships women must tackle in the contemporary world, in addition to a lack of sexual gratification. Women’s sexual empowerment is not an issue which can be separated from broader struggles for gender justice, and in order to support its realization, we must fight collectively for serious social and political change with the same passion and uncompromising desire we bring to our bedrooms.

Photographs from Angkor Wat