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As a Child, DeRay Mckesson Learned to Live in the Quiet


Before he was an activist, Mckesson worked to keep a history of abuse silent. Read about his struggle in an excerpt from his memoir, On the Other Side of Freedom.

The difference between a garden and a graveyard is only what we choose to put in the ground. --Rudy Francisco

Sometimes, when you don't see yourself in the world, you start to think that you don't exist. I now realize that I saw brotherhood and I saw lust, but I never saw romance between men in real life or on TV before I was an adult. I never saw people my age talking about desire beyond the binary, never experienced pleasure without sneaking. It was not seeing myself in the world that taught me the timidity that it would take until adulthood to break; it was the absence that I felt in this larger world that taught me that quiet would keep me alive, keep me loved, and keep me sane. But I did not know then the cost of the quiet. I did not know that the quiet is a thief, that it steals the potential for joy, for power, for freedom. And like most thieves, it works so that you don't realize you've been robbed until what you once had is already gone. Or perhaps it steals away the possibility of things that you deserved, wanted, expected.

In its best form, art can be a mirror and a window, helping us to better see ourselves and to imagine new possibilities. But what happens when the mirror returns a reflection that doesn't look like the you that you know yourself to be? Or when the window seemingly isn't meant to be opened in the first place? When I think about the quiet, I think about the places where we've been told that we're not supposed to make a lot of noise, the places where we've been told that the only way to achieve, progress, succeed, is to work in silence. And for so many of us, the world is that place.

I think about the quiet instead of "the closet" because I've never hidden any part of myself from myself or from others, and the closet seems to imply some form of hiding. And when I think about being in the closet, I think of being there alone. But there are many people raised in the quiet, still in the quiet, stuck in the quiet, together. And they don't always know that they're not alone, even if it feels like they are. I was never hiding, as the image of the closet implies. But I grew up quieter about the parts of myself that I didn't think anyone would love, the parts that I had never seen loved in others, the parts that might put me in danger if they were seen and heard as publicly as every other part of me. Quieter, that is; not silent.

When I think about the quiet, the image of a library comes to mind -- the place where supposedly you can't learn if there's noise, a place of exploration that says don't speak. But there are always people whispering and passing notes in the library, always people finding ways to have a voice despite the rules, always people coming out of the quiet. The silence is enforced not just by the obvious presence of the rules but also by the collective self-policing that we learn from those around us. That is, until someone starts to speak, emboldening others to do the same. And then you realize that there's a way to talk, to be, that allows you to say what you need to say, that adds and does not subtract from the space and people around you, that even helps the people who didn't know to ask for help too.

I did not lose my voice in the quiet, but some do. I was young when I learned how to use silence as a weapon, as a tool, as a blanket, as a handkerchief, as a friend. I realized that trauma and pain could outrun me and that fear is often a bully.

When the silence came to suffocate me, I stood still.

I remember the first time like it was yesterday. I remember being on the floor, about to go to sleep. It was nighttime. My sister was sleeping on the couch, but there wasn't enough couch for both of us. Being the boy, I got the floor, which I didn't necessarily mind. We had just installed new carpet at our house, and I loved napping on the floor there. But we were at my father's girlfriend's house on this night.

I remember telling my father that I didn't want to have to sleep on the floor with his girlfriend's nephew. I didn't have the language to explain it then; I didn't have the words to express my hesitation when I was seven, on that night, on the floor, in her house. But I remember saying that I didn't want to have to sleep on the floor with him. In the end, I was told to go to sleep.

This was the first night that he made me touch him. It wasn't the last night. It happened in many houses, in many places, over a span of a few years. I've largely moved those memories to different places, places harder to access, harder to recall, places beyond my easy grasp. It became too much to remember them every day because I still had to be in those places, even if he wasn't there. And I didn't want to think of him every time I walked into my bedroom, or any of the other rooms in our house. Because in some sense, it felt like he was always there. Well, until I decided to move those memories to a place I wouldn't reach anymore.

One night, while I was at my grandmother's house, I went downstairs to the kitchen and I called my father. I had to be quiet because the staircase at her house creaks, and my uncle lives in the basement right off the kitchen. He answered. I just felt like I couldn't hold it in any longer. It was eating away at me to not tell someone, anyone. I cried and told him that X made me touch him. I was eleven. He told me that he'd come in the morning, we'd talk about it, and that he'd help fix this. That I should go back to sleep and that we'd keep this between us for now.

He came in the morning. We talked about it. And two weeks later, I started therapy. As an adult, I can say that I am happy that X remained alive after my father found out. There was no need to have my pain cause more pain.

I remember my first therapy session. The therapist just didn't get it. I remember it like it was yesterday. I felt like I was talking to someone who didn't understand and simply couldn't help me process what had happened so that I could move on and grow. Instead she wanted me to keep explaining and describing everything. I'd spent years not speaking about it, I'd replayed scenarios in my head, and I'd thought about a life where it didn't haunt me. I needed tools beyond recollection. After my second session, I told my father that I didn't need to go to therapy anymore and that I'd be okay.

In hindsight, it wasn't that I didn't need therapy, but rather that so much time had passed between the violations and me discussing them that I had already processed much of my emotions. I needed space to wrestle with how to keep living, and this therapist wasn't equipped to provide that. We don't give young people enough credit for being able to make sense of the world around them, to take things in and let things out, to be shaped and to shape the world around them. I needed something beyond the skill set of that therapist then. We did not have other options, though -- we'd kept the abuse a secret from everyone but [sister] TeRay, and we didn't want to risk exposure by searching for a new therapist. And so with nowhere else to turn, I went inward.

Excerpted from On the Other Side of Freedom by DeRay Mckesson, out now. Courtesy of Penguin Random House.

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