“Trauma frequently feels very personal, and sometimes that’s a good thing, but writing for this anthology helped my trauma feel less personal. I am one of many trans and nonbinary writers who are working on healing and we, as a squadron, can help ourselves, each other, and readers of the anthology heal. That feels powerful in a way I could not achieve alone.” — Anonymous
hen a bone fractures, it sometimes doesn’t heal properly, resulting in extreme pain, discomfort, or even an inability to use the limb. It is often by revisiting an old wound — rebreaking the bone so the very marrow is exposed and resetting its wholeness — that the suffering may be alleviated.
The injury will have mended, but its pain is not forgotten.
For the writers of Written on the Body, an anthology of essays and poetry by trans and nonbinary survivors of sexual assault, revisiting their wounds, ripping them open, and peering inside to see what is broken—what is scar tissue, what is whole—is essential to their process of healing. The book, published in 2018 and edited by Lexie Bean, collects the writings of the editor alongside those of Dean Spade, Nyala Moon, Alex Valdes, Sawyer DeVuyst and Ieshai Bailey.
They’ve penned a series of anonymous letters of reckoning to the various pieces of their physical selves — hair (“so deeply personal and tragic”), eyes (“i am sorry the light was stolen from you”, mouth (“a wide gash across history), legs (“the parts that knew how to run like the West Coast rain”), genitalia (“one mouth heals the other”). By doing this they’re finding new ways to have compassion for their past and present selves, providing themselves and one another with a restorative salve.
An anthology is, by definition, a bold move; the word itself carries a certain gravitas. Simply by collecting the works of many authors into a single volume, the editors are unapologetically taking up space.
We’re here, they’re declaring, and there’s lots of us.
Throughout literary history we can see examples of anthologies that lay claim to precious space in the collective psyche. Collecting the voices of many who share similar experiences into a single tome gives each individual utterance more volume. The words carry farther out into the crowd, reaching others who are, as yet, unable to speak.
This is an act of resilience and solidarity. It is the forging of a community.
Written on the Body is a three-part voyage into a many-layered experience. It opens with Dear You, a declaration of intention by the contributing writers and editors. “We trans folk have to reclaim ourselves, we have to reclaim our bodies,” writes Nyala Moon, “The claiming of our bodies — our bruised, broken and raped bodies — is a revolutionary act.”
And that’s precisely what this is — an act of reclamation and rededication. By naming each body part the writers reclaim what has been taken from them time and again, reestablishing agency over their physical selves.
The main section of the anthology as I mentioned is The Letters, a series of messages that contributors have addressed to their own body parts. By writing to their bodies instead of about them, they successfully do away with any mediator, revealing disarming intimacy.
The resulting texts feel like a long-lost correspondence between lovers who share a complicated history. Part by part, the writers look at their bodies with honesty, accepting both the joy and the pain. With every essay, poem and letter it becomes clear that while the experiences of the writers may differ in detail, the inherent power in the act of telling is common to all.
“Did you know the body is a diary?” writes one author, “It’s written all its secrets underneath the skin. Sometimes my brain reminds me that if I just dig deep enough I could carve them out and get rid of them.”
“I sometimes wonder if I want to erase you because we were assaulted,” muses another writer, “That is to say, what if I’m not really trans, but merely a cis female survivor of sexual assault? What if I only want to get rid of my vagina because of the vulnerability it represents? This is what my mom asks me, and the more she asks this, the more I wonder.”
The writing in Written on the Body is raw, unhewn, indelicate. These are stories of having the authority over one’s body taken away not just once by the sexual assailant, but time and time again by a society that continues to claim that they have no right to exist, to experience, to be.
It is uncomfortable to read and this intentional conflict is an invitation as readers, to sit inside and share their discomfort and distress. To be as the writers have been forced to be — exposed and unsafe.
At first I found myself wishing that the writing were more polished, but as I read on I came to appreciate the immediacy of the style. These aren’t texts that have been picked over with a fine-toothed comb and that’s a good thing. In this way, they retain an urgency and authenticity that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
The effect is that of being invited to read someone’s journal.
“You know we’re trans just as much as I do,” one contributor writes to “The folds and flaps between [their] legs,” “You don’t want to be a vagina because you aren’t one. And I would never force you to be one by using you in ways that force you to disassociate. You are a magical hairy pulsating sex machine, and one day we can sew up that hole. We can sew it up and we can forget it ever happened. And no one will hurt you ever again. I promise.”
Sawyer, Lexie and Nyala at the Lamda Literary Awards // Lexie Bean and Nyala Moon
I can only imagine how cathartic it must be to make such a promise to one’s body. As a fellow survivor of sexual assault, reading these words makes me want to sit down and write letters to my parts as well. To promise them restitution and protection from here on out. To apologize for the deeds of those I encountered in my past, for my inaction in the face of those moments.
But this is not an anthology written by or for cisgendered women like me.
It’s an anthology written by people whose gender expression both makes them far more vulnerable to sexual assault or worse, the very cause of their gender expression.
“They told me that I only think I am trans because I was raped,” writes Lex, an editor, in the introductory section, “I know this thought, this intervention, had good intentions — they wanted me to heal from something. What they didn’t know is that I’m trying to heal from what happened to me; I’m not trying to heal from who I am.”
There is a horror in having to explain this over and over again.
Towards the end of The Letters is a particularly fraught pair of essays by a single author: one to their upper and lower mouths and one to their nipples. It is difficult to read these 18 pages, so heavily laden with both pain and pleasure. Lines are drawn — thick, explicit lines — connecting the author’s trauma with their sexual desires. They describe in searingly vivid detail all the times that they were violated, either by someone exerting force in places that should have been intimate, or by the numerous officials and loved ones who ignored this person’s truth, waved it away.
“In my freshman year at Yale, a fellow freshman forced me to suck his dick while I was drunk,” a passage begins. “He was strong; he played rugby. He was wasted. He was also my friend.” This straightforward way of addressing traumatic events leaves readers with no choice but to look at these truths head on. It is a challenge, and an important one.
And then they relate the process of healing. Being privy to the process of purging the poison that kept them from being their full self is staggering; I almost forgot to breathe when reading their words.
“Mouths — would that I could give you this sort of healing. We’ve whispered, screamed, ejaculated, menstruated, eaten, overeaten, shared secrets, spoken harshly, queefed, pleasured, gasped, contracted, broken out, scolded, drooled, oozed, scissored, discharged, miscarried, forgiven, prayed, bitten, sucked, ovulated, made love. You are my nourishment portals — I can’t live without you.”
In an author’s note preceding these two letters the author writes:
“Naming my desires, new and old, and revealing these scenes from my life…that changed me. I feel able to say, ‘These things happened to me; my experience as a whole and complex person is completely valid’ in a way that I never felt able to before.”
I doubt any reader of this volume could remain unchanged. The courageous few who contributed to Written on the Body have documented their brokenness and healing and in doing so have made space for the raising up of additional voices, stories, and narratives; more people will be able to peer into their marrow and find that which needs a salve.
They will do so among others, a community of people holding one another in their most vulnerable moments. This is power. This is hope.