THE BLOG
07/25/2012 05:42 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

From Silence, Stigma, and Shame: Finding My Voice

When our experiences have been taboo, stigmatized, left unnamed by cultural prejudices, or forbidden by family secrets, how do we find our voices?

When I was 7, my mother was taken away to a mental hospital, where she was given electroshock treatments, erasing memory, erasing words, and making her forget the streets of our town and the foreign tongues she spoke and read: Latin, French, German, and Yiddish.

At first I didn't know Mom's condition was shameful. Some things we learn not to say by speaking them. One day at recess, I stood next to the jungle gym, telling a girl about my mom. "She's in a special hospital, but it's not her body," I said matter-of-factly, just like Dad had told me. "It's her head that is sick. The doctors are fixing her." The girl stared at me, eyes wide, mouth open. I felt I'd made some terrible mistake. A chill came over me. Shame creates its own censor, and after that I was mute about my mother. Later I would learn the words: crazy, nutcase, loony.

Public gay voices were profoundly missing in my 1950s childhood. Over time I absorbed words I have no memory of being taught: bulldyke, queer, fag. Cultural winds, silent and deadly, carried spores of fear and hatred. It never occurred to me that my own feelings for girls were anything beyond friendship. Who would want to name themselves a monster?

Out of the cultural silence, a few brave pioneers began to step forward. In the late '60s and early '70s voices gathered and grew louder in the burgeoning women's-liberation and gay-liberation movements; new ideas transmitted one to one and in groups, leaflets passed hand to hand, and there were underground newspapers, books, and marches in the streets. In women's consciousness-raising groups, I learned that I wasn't alone. Our life stories created a communal tapestry of experiences that was not just individual -- a woven history of patriarchy, sexism, and oppression. For the first time I felt a sense of belonging and community. I began to meet lesbians. To my relief, they were not monsters but vibrant, wonderful women -- women like me.

In 1973 I joined a radio collective producing lesbian shows on Berkeley's KPFA. Taped to the door of the editing room was a copy of Marge Piercy's poem, "Unlearning to Not Speak." Our voices went out over the airwaves, carrying our formerly silenced, unspeakable stories. Letters from listeners arrived. One teenage girl told us how each week she took her portable FM radio into her closet, huddling there so her parents wouldn't hear. In that pre-Internet era, our show was her lifeline.

My mother also came out as a lesbian, and I interviewed her for the radio show. She told the story of how she and another married woman had a secret affair when I was a baby, how they both were given psychiatric treatment to "cure" them, and how this led to their breakup and her suicidal despair. She described her experiences in mental hospitals; going through withdrawal from psychiatric drugs after I left home; having sex with many women during her first, wild year after coming out; and what it was like to reclaim a joyous, woman-loving life. I edited the interview and produced a show, excited for the listeners to hear this story. At last, my mother would publicly voice the details of her experience, so long hidden. But a month later, as I sat at the station listening to the tape's broadcast, shaking came over me without warning, rising in waves from my belly. Each act of asking a forbidden question and voicing what had been taboo beat against my sinews. Fear was releasing from my body as my mother's story echoed on the airwaves from the Pacific Ocean to the Sierra foothills. It left me raw, breathless, and exhilarated.

But when it came to my story -- my story, not my mother's -- the silence of my childhood was still deeply embedded in my body.

It was 10 years after the radio show that I signed up for a creative-writing course to wrestle with my internalized censor. I would deliberately write those stories I most feared to tell. During the in-class writing exercises, sweat poured from my body as I wrote. Then, we had to read out loud what we had written. I will never forget my first reading: As I read the story of one of Mom's suicide attempts, a potent silence filled the room. I saw on my classmates' faces how moved they were. Then, some shared hard stories of their own. I felt then, not just intellectually but in my body, how our true, painful stories connect us as humans. The shame began to ebb. My voice had found an opening.

Many years later, I would publish my memoir, Riding Fury Home, launching into the world the experience of a girl who had once had no words for the unspeakable.

To hear short excerpts of the 1974 radio interview with my mother, click here.