When faced with a broken and hurting woman, Nin shared the song that meant the most to her, and that song brought hope and healing for scores of abused women.
“Songs remain. They last. The right song can turn an emperor into a laughing stock, can bring down dynasties. A song can last long after the events and the people in it are dust and dreams gone. That’s the power of songs.”
~ Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys
Nin was tall and proud, as beautiful and powerful a woman as any I’ve ever known. Both formally lettered and an autodidact, she was a true polymath. She held masters degrees in accounting and chemical engineering, and could converse with casual ease on seemingly limitless fields of interest and study, including (but not limited to) quantum physics, history, religion, literature, art, and music. A successful single mother, no one could ever tell by gazing into her hazel eyes the depth of the anguish nestled within her generous breast.
Nin had been raped.
First by her father. Then by an uncle. Later, a (supposed) male friend betrayed her trust, leading to a gang-rape at the hands of neighbors. Her first real boyfriend expressed affection in the way of cigarette burns. For her second boyfriend, love was dispensed with the back of a hand.
Her marriage? The abuse suffered at the hands of her husband, under current efforts by certain political groups in America to narrow the definition, would not qualify as rape. The many hospital stays and broken bones would argue differently.
We learn about love from the people entrusted to care for us until we are capable of caring for ourselves. By eight years old, Nin had learned that love was sex. By 16 she’d figured out that being fucked was all she was good for. By age 20, she’d discerned that love wasn’t real. By the ripe old age of 27, she knew she didn’t deserve any better.
By age 30, through sheer force of will Nin managed to extricate herself from the black hole of abusive relationships, a testament to the enormity of her tenacity. As part of her healing process, when not working two jobs to care for her daughter, Nin volunteered at a rape crisis center; an attempt to exorcise her many demons. Good intentions notwithstanding, her service was largely perfunctory until the night Devi wandered in. Barely 16 and scared out of her mind, her torn, blood and semen-soaked clothes were incapable of concealing the evidence of having been brutally beaten.
She declined immediate medical attention. She refused food and water. Devi simply asked for a room, where she sat on the floor, in silence. Nin went in and sat down next to her.
Ten soundless minutes passed. Twenty. Fully half an hour had elapsed before streams started to fall from Devi’s tightly closed eyes. Nin simply held her hand and let her cry.
When the floods subsided, Devi asked Nin if she knew any songs. Nin had minored in etho-musicology, she knew thousands of songs, from cultures spread throughout the globe. Instead of pulling from her vast array of knowledge, she reached into her pocket, and pulled out a piece of paper that had been folded in sixteenths. It was the print-out of an email I’d sent her; a song I’d written eons past.
Nin sat on the floor and sang the words of this song I’d written to Devi, a cappella. Devi collapsed into her, sobbing hysterically. Between the tears she told her story. Raped and pregnant by her father. Kicked out by her mother. Sought comfort and shelter at the house of a cousin, who used her vulnerability as an excuse to gang-rape her with a group of friends.
Nin shared her parallels. Devi asked for the song again, and they sang together. She asked if the song was about her, or if she’d written it. Nin spoke of her friendship with me and shared the reasons why I’d sent her the song in the first place, and why she carried it with her everywhere she went. Devi smiled, and asked for the piece of paper. Nin gave it to her, with the proviso she allow the nurses to help her get cleaned up and accept sustenance.
When Nin came in the next day to check on Devi she understood why she’d asked for that crumpled piece of paper. Devi had taken those lyrics and thumb-tacked them to a bulletin-board in the communal area. She’d taken it upon herself to share with others what had been shared with her. Over the weeks that followed, as new women came in, one would comfort another with words and melody. It became their anthem, the rally cry of promise between them to be there for each other. Devi made it her business to make sure that everyone knew her hymn had been penned by a man.
When last that crinkled email was seen, the following words had been scribbled beneath the lyrics: “not all men are bad.”
Whether written or spoken, words have power. Incantations are magic, capable of blessing or malediction, of great evil and even greater good. When we share our stories we contribute to the history of the world; our knowledge and experience becomes a part of that which is all.
Never has this been truer than in the age of digital information.
Each of us is blessed with the opportunity to toss pebbles into the pond of collective consciousness, and every ripple of kindness reverberates forever. Whatever your experience, every tweet, every status update, every blog and every comment, has the potential power to shine light or bring darkness into the world of another. While you may never know the full extent of your reach, never underestimate the power to (hurt or) heal that sharing your joys, your setbacks, your triumphs and your failures, might inspire.