Surviving and Thriving: For My Defender by Sara Frykenberg


Sara FrykenbergLast year many of my actions, choices and emotions could have been characterized as a part of my ongoing efforts towards what I recognize as survival: I was often ‘trying to make it through,’ live ‘despite,’ exist ‘even though,’ grapple with violence or choose in such a way that I could continue to live in the midst of chaos.

Survival is an extremely important skill, practiced by many people for many different reasons.  And before I continue here, I would like to say that in all of my struggles last year, I always had the basic necessities required to live my life.  Many people do not; and for many, survival is an everyday practice that may or may not be achievable, requiring access to necessities that may or may not be accessible.  No one tried to kill me last year.  I had access to food.  I did not lose my home or livelihood; though I felt these things threatened.  I am privileged to live where and how I do, with many resources available to me.  These resources helped me to make it though, where other people survive with far, far less.  I choose to share my own feelings of survival because I want to decry the self-dehumanizing shame that tells me I am bad or wrong for feeling my own experience.  I identify my survival in an attempt to also, thrive.

This past September for my birthday and prompted by my twin sister, two dear friends, my sister and I did a meditation to start practicing ‘thriving’ as a group.  We called on the elements of the Earth to create our circle, and shared our prayers.  We harnessed our power together to love one another and support one another in liveliness as we move from a very hard year into renewal and new creation.  Since completing this meditation, I have been struck time and time again with an awareness of how new forms of liveliness are possible in places they had not been before.  I have also come face to face with the way in which some of my hard fought and hard earned survival skills are not serving me now.  In particular, I have come face to face with my own defenses, or rather, defender.

My defender was invaluable to me.  She protected me.  She fought for me.  And I have discovered that it is time to let her rest and heal.  This blog post is one effort I am making to let her/me do just this.

To my Defender:

I often drew comics of a knight and dragon in my notebooks in college.  I called the series The Pathetic Knight, because he spent most of his time charred, the dragon scolding him for his ridiculous attempts to be something he was not.  Usually, the knight would half-heartedly come to slay the dragon.  Annoyed, she’d sear him a bit, and he’d be left to extinguish the remaining flame on the tip of his sword.  I often imagined myself as this knight.  I loved dragons and never had any intention of killing one in these comics; but the knight continued to go through the motions for the comedic effect.

I published this comic in the Zine of the Graduate Student Council of Claremont Graduate University, March 2010, Vol. 2, Issue 1

I published this comic in the Zine of the Graduate Student Council of Claremont Graduate University, March 2010, Vol. 2, Issue 1

Learning submission at a young age, I did not develop strong self-defense capabilities.  I knew how to hide and endure, not fight or run.  All of these are important survival skills; it’s just that I didn’t know any others, which was sometimes problematic.  A friend once surprised me and feeling scared, I crumpled to the floor, covering my head but not running away or screaming.  Laughter also became a part of my narrative: I thought that in private, I could laugh away my pain.

The dragon here is saying: "If I stand really still, maybe no one will see me," there are of course, many other dragons hidden far better than she

The dragon here is saying: “If I stand really still, maybe no one will see me,” there are of course, many other dragons hidden far better than she in the forest.

Feminism in some ways saved my life.  I learned how to be angry and how to fight back.  But over the last few years, surviving a new kind of violence, this instinct has changed.  I discovered that my inner lioness has sharp claws; and I found comfort in the power of my anger and rage.  The knight image of my comics slowly morphed into a new image of my own defender.  Accept she was not pathetic anymore:

A blanket of Anger spreads over me,
A protection,
Softness to the claws that should cut me.
I embrace it like a lover and she envelops me,
My guardian and protector,
My knight, my dragon.

I needed to be a strong defender; but embracing this defender I also learned things about myself I would rather not have known.  I learned about anxiety and what it means to have the ‘fight,’ in ‘fight or flight’ raging for release.  I learned more about my own violence.  I also started to learn to hate; and hate is a hard thing to expunge when you bury it in your heart.

I store anger with my sorrow,
Though they belong in different parts of my body.
They fill my lungs and I cough for months.
They smother my heart.
Is that why she feels like a blanket?
Like a cover that is thrown to smother the flames,
It produces smoke?
I didn’t mean to put the fire out,
I just couldn’t stand its burning.

I couldn’t stand there burning! 
Did you really expect me to stand there burning,
While you yelled at me,
While you threatened me,
While you stole everything that was mine?

The problem was not so much that I was able to be angry or find rage.  Anger is an important emotion telling us when our boundaries have been crossed, when we are unsafe or when we are afraid.  It speaks of injustice.  But my rage felt either impotent,* or like a weapon.  My defensive, protective anger seeped into every other emotion I had.

Somehow, I lost the ability to drown it out with my tears,
No matter how many fall to the ground.
I should have collected them,
Filled a vile with their magic tonic:
A dye I could keep to make by heart the color of burning again.
I didn’t mean to splash about.

I have not finished the poem I share above.  But, I have taken off my armor, scared as I was to remove it and as painful as it was to peel the charred chain mail off of my wounds.

I cannot embrace you while wearing such heavy armor, after all.

My sister drew this picture of me, riding on the back of a giant dragon, for my wedding invitation.

My sister drew this picture of me, riding on the back of a giant dragon, for my wedding invitation.

Following the advice of a good friend and spiritual healer, I have been meditating by literally envisioning my blood collecting oxygen from my lungs and carrying this charged life energy, or prana, back to my heart.  The oxygenated blood is bright and sparkles red in my visualization, restoring the ‘burning’ in my heart.  My defender protected me and helped me to survive: she (I) gave me something I needed.   What I need now is to heal the wounds I gave to myself when fighting back.  What I am learning is how to survive and thrive.

(Just an update on the comic: the dragon and knight still appear in my notebook pages, and in paper cuttings.  More often they are friends, or at least, tense friends.)

Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

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Categories: Family, Feminism, Feminist Awakenings, Gender and Power, General, Herstory, Poetry, Resistance, Ritual, Violence, Women and Community, Women's Suffering

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18 replies

  1. Sara: how true it is that, as little girls, we’re taught not to show anger, not to own up to feelings of shame, hate and unfairness. Being good is all, being people pleasers the very, very highest accolade. How that destroys us, and keeps us captive. So, owning up to your anger, hurt and getting out of the situation which inspired these feelings (or else setting clear boundaries) seems to have been good for your soul. For your animus, waiting to be unleashed, like a dragon burning with righteous rage, able to target its fire, and be joyful in that.

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    • Thanks so much for your comments Annette. Sharing this anger has definitely been good for my soul; as has been the resolution of the situation inspiring the feelings. I like your image of targeting here: a way to let the fire out (perhaps a much more constructive way of dealing with fire than drowning it or smothering it!).

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  2. Sarah thanks for sharing the raw pieces of your journey.

    Having just returned from Crete I am reminded of a fresco of St. George slaying the dragon, pictured as a large writhing snake. Whenever I see it, I recall that Apollo slayed the Snake that guarded the temple of Gaia at Delphi and that Marduk slayed the Sea Monster or Mother Sea. I marvel at your wisdom when you drew your “comics.” You knew that the dragon who was your female wisdom was more powerful than the knight, even though you were not able to access her power yet! I am also thrilled that you are able to remove the armor and give up the sword, while acknowledging the “reasons” for your anger. As you already know, the dragon is you, your female self, your power. She is not fearsome nor does she need to be fearful. She is you. She is us. She is Mother Earth, She is Mother Sea, She is the Source of All Life.

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    • Thank you so much Carol. Reflecting on my comics was very interesting for me when writing this post. I always, always have loved dragons. I actually felt very conflicted drawing them so much when I was younger (and involved in a very conservative Christian tradition) because of their association with “The Dragon,” or “the Beast” from Revelations. But I continued to draw them; they were an expression of grace, power and beauty for me. Often I would draw an elaborate and beautiful dragon who was only confronted by a stick figure knight.

      The picture of the paper cut dragon I post above is one I actually made last year. I made this piece also as a kind of silly joke/ teasing scenario. Posting the blue dragon here, however, I felt (more than I ever had) that I was looking at a self portrait. Though you are right to say that I have known myself in these dragons before, it was a very powerful experience to see this and share these pictures here. Thank you again!

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  3. Sarah, your experience so mirrors my own, and has come at just the “right time”! The vulnerability of age has resurrected my “knight”! There she is, a little wiser in dealing with dragons, but still ready for a fight. She helped me survive an abusive childhood, and move through all the shame and fear of youth to find healing. She brought me past survival and helped me live. Now that age is claiming my body, the dear knight, kind of like Joan of Arc!, is waving her sword around to protect new vulnerabilities. But…
    She is doing it differently. Less destruction all around. What a great gal. Thank you for pointing her out to me again so she and I can deepen our friendship.

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    • Thank you Barbara! I think loving our defenders is so important; as is knowing when they are hurt and scarred. This post is definitely about the friendship you describe (with knight, and really knight as dragon, or self as dragon– as Carol really describes so well above).
      The post was also about what you mention above: needing to “do it differently.” I really appreciate your comment!

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  4. This is a beautiful expression of the process of healing articulating the strength that comes from community and the nourishing of the defender within. I get it. I know too many of us do. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

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  5. Thank you for sharing this with us! It moved me to tears. So many of us have wasted much of our life being “good girls,” which often translates into “door mats.” It’s time for a new definition of power – one that focuses on the power within, rather than power over. We do need to draw lines and have boundaries. It’s time for women to take back our power.

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    • Thank you also for your encouragement Katharine. I actually wrote the partially completed poem a while back, very emotionally and consumed with the feelings I express above. It was good and healing to share these feelings here. I agree: we do need to reclaim and continue to rename our power, particularly while moving away from dominating and oppressive paradigms that are at heart, abusive.

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  6. This post probably touches a nerve with almost every one of us who have become feminists, rather than being lucky enough to be born into a feminist household. All feminists have to grapple with anger, because our rightful response to patriarchy is anger. As you say, anger is a message that something is wrong, that boundaries that should be firm have been crossed, that an injustice has occurred. After that it’s up to us to figure out how to deal with that message. At first most of us overreact, from submission to explosion, from good girl to raging monster. But then over time we learn how channel our anger, to use it to create a world that doesn’t cross our boundaries, that isn’t patriarchal power-over that doesn’t infantalize us or make us invisible or make us wrong. It takes time, but I can vouch for it, Sarah. I’m not as angry as I used to be. It’s too tiring. These days I usually just do what needs to be done…to correct a situation, to leave a situation, to write a letter to the editor, to get involved in a campaign…

    I just want to quote you: “Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.” Your research is important work.

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    • I think I left one idea out of my response to you, Sara. I believe that anger is an important issue for all women, because without getting in touch with our anger, our righteous indignation at being treated shabbily by the patriarchal institutions and sexist individuals who surround us, we are not in touch with a good deal of our energy. It gets repressed and we don’t have access to it. However, you can’t live with constant anger, but need to learn at some point how to channel this energy.

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      • Nancy, your words here mean a great deal to me. You definitely capture the heart of the struggle I describe above. I felt like I had rediscovered my anger years ago (maybe because I had finally felt at least some anger)– but it wasn’t until I felt this danger again with a new threat, that I really had to face the power of that anger. It was a power that I was not completely prepared to use or use well.
        I do appreciate you saying that it gets better. As I say above, I want to learn/ am learning how to survive and thrive– which for me, involves learning how to channel this power and important energy.
        Thank you so much for your comments and for your support of my work/ research as well. Sat Nam, Nancy; I greatly appreciate your caring words.

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  7. Anger is one of the most authentic emotions on earth. It is essential for women to feel it, and to express it openly. To express explosive anger is what saves my life day in and day out. I have no patience for patriarchy or for male petty evil day after day, so anger is what works very well. As a radical lesbian feminist, I believe that the taboo against women getting bloody damn mad serves the oppressors. But it is real, it is about seeing the world as it is, and it is about the knights fighting the dragon. I take the sword and take on the patriarchy daily. Sometimes it is as simply as yelling at a guy for cutting in line at the bank, sometimes it is as simply as yelling NO at any man who approarches me wasting my time with some sort of sales pitch.

    I practice NO days, saying no to everything men ask me to do. I stare them down and say NO. They back off.

    I don’t know the answer to the dilema of living in survival as a straight woman. Certainly I find men a complete and utter horror story. I don’t want them running anything around me. I don’t want to listen to their speeches or negotiate with them in any way unless I absolutely have to.

    Rage is essential to my being, and I take the sword and behead metaphorically my enemies daily. I take no prisoners, because guess what, being nice is what men want in women.

    But this oppression that women are under takes all kinds of twists and turns. I don’t know the answer exactly, but I do know that if women are oppressed we are entitled to anger, and we must learn to direct at men in a brutal way. Because, they aren’t going to change, only we can.

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  8. A friend just sent me a link to an interview with Thich Nhat Hahn by Oprah Winfrey, in which he said: “Anger is the energy which people use in order to act, but when you are angry you are not lucid. And you might do wrong things. That is why compassion is a better energy. And the energy of compassion is very strong.” Of course, he’s closer to “enlightened” than I am, and I don’t have an expectation that I will always act out of compassion, just less out of anger. What I do is stop and try to take a break before I act. And that helps. Here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJ9UtuWfs3U. Published on May 12, 2013, downloaded 11/7/13.

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    • Nancy, you express a turning point in my life. I struggled so much with Jesus’ teaching about loving our enemies and doing good to those who hurt us. Some people avoid the difficulty of this by saying: “Oh, he didn’t mean it literally” or by finding some rational explanation. I would read it and say: “Oh, you’re kidding, right??” I tried very hard to understand and to practice.

      Then one day a Budhist monk came and gave a talk on anger. He found nothing constructive in it . The Christian activists in the group rose up – arguing with some “energy”! They saw anger as the energy for change, something I considered and found lacking.

      As I sat listening that little voice from within said: “The only way to love your enemies is through compassion. A light came on and something shifted within! Over the past few years it has helped me use my energy in a positive way that doesn’t destroy me or others.

      Thank you for the link. It looks like a good refresher course.

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  9. Dear Sara,
    This post is very touching as I can identify with your experience. I only wish I could say I had reached a place of healing as you have. At this time I am experiencing a pain and injury so deep that I have been set back in ways indescribable. At some point over the summer, after months and months of being dragged 170 miles to family court; I reached my breaking point and shut down. I have been in a state of shock and disbelief since day one, which was May 2012 when I first arrived in the courtroom requesting and expecting the protection of the court from my abuser. I figured they would certainly protect me and my children from he who had just withheld them from my rightful custody at an undisclosed address, kept them out of school for two days, refused to allow me to speak to them, and filed false allegations with CPS and the courts (over Mother’s Day weekend), all in an attempt to deceitfully gain custody. Anyone who is properly trained in abuse is familiar with the actions of abusers. Abduction is an act of violence as well as child abuse. After being denied his request for full custody he threatened to punch me in the face in front of the children and our babysitter. Yet another act of violence…. and the next day drove 170 miles to their school, presented his “petition for custody” paperwork, and tried to remove them from school. Another attempt at abducting them. Certainly these actions were enough to satisfy the “further acts of violence” criteria for a rebuttal presumption that would prevent a perpetrator of domestic violence with past convictions from eligibility for any type of shared custody.

    Instead of being provided the protection that they are entrusted and supposedly qualified to navigate; I was systematically denied my rights in such a fashion that it is not simply a violation of my rights as a victim of domestic violence; but has reached the point of insult and injury so much that it is a civil rights, human rights, and constitutional rights violation. I am sickened, insulted to the core and in a state of shock at the lack of oversight in the family court system. That the law could be ignored to such an extent and yet there is no avenue of justice to ensure the integrity of a judge.

    Our system is flawed in that judges are given way too much power. Allowing them to make decisions that can dismantle someone’s entire life with no system of checks and balances is a betrayal of the public trust. Judges are mere human beings, just as flawed and opinionated (if not more) than the next person.

    The gender bias in the court is blatant and outrageous. I was silenced, denied due process, denied equal access, denied the use of resources and provisions for which I am entitled and eligible, subjected to financial hardship and unfair circumstances, denied an opportunity to present witnesses and evidence. I sat as a spectator as this judge systematically reshaped and recreated my lived experience. The court record does not even merely resemble what our case really looks like. This judge basically denied me of my lived experience and rewrote my story for me without asking me for permission.

    I am so angry that I am sick. My head is spinning because the story is so long and complicated that no one will listen for a long enough period of time to understand what has taken place. There are no advocates, there is no one to offer any assistance, there is no guidance, no one who really fights for justice. The gap that exists between family court and filing an appeal is too wide to be a true form of justice, especially when a judge has systematically ensured that no evidence has been submitted to support one side or the other.

    Time after time this judge made rulings that were a paradox to what should have taken place. What I experienced was 18 months of being further victimized and abused by the court when it was truly and open and closed case. On my first visit, instead of being protected, he began the dismantling process by consolidating our cases, turning my 8 years struggling through a domestic violence case into a “petition for custody,” and then making my abuser’s case the “lead” case. I already knew I was being set up, but I never dreamed that I would be punished for exercising my rights for protection.

    My abuser was harassing me regularly by calling the police and lying to execute unwarranted welfare checks.. This is also another typical behavior of abusers that the “professionals” should recognize. It is pathetic that no one in the family court has the proper training with regard to the patterns of abuse, the dynamics of domestic violence, or the effect it has on its victims. What an outrage to be harassed and victimized by an abuser, and then the form of punishment I received for requesting a restraining order with 3 police reports in hand (that weren’t looked at) was “temporary full legal and physical custody” to my abuser. I was called a “liar” and told that I was trying to “thwart” the system in my favor by preventing him from taking the kids. This judge pulled jurisdiction and prevented me from obtaining a restraining order here in Long Beach although the 3 incidents of harassment took place here. I was granted a temporary order here, but the judge there pulled jurisdiction, halted our proceedings here, and then didn’t even look at my evidence to consider that maybe I wasn’t a liar. The only thing he considered domestic violence were physical acts of violence. Since my perpetrator has not assaulted me since 2004, he dismissed any and all references to domestic violence, which compromises the safety and well being of our children as well as myself. I have evidence to support my claims from day one through the very end. My abuser has no evidence to support any of the claims he has made, but that the court has believed simply because he is a man. For example. My abuser blatantly lied in court and stated that he has been working “since 2010.” He has not worked (nor payed child support) since 2009. He only began working in 2013, but they took his word for it. He was not asked to provide documentation. I, on the other hand was treated as if everything that came out of my mouth was a lie. The ironic part of it is that my abuser is a pathological liar. He lied under oath consistently and I am supposed to accept my fate and consider it “water under the bridge?” I think not.

    This weekend he denied me my visitation. I can do nothing because I still do not have a copy of the orders. The torture is ongoing and it will never end… Because the court has assisted my perpetrator, and continues to further victimize and abuse me.

    The latest violation is that after 18 months of being subjected to what I consider torture, they pulled a switch on me. I was pathologized and suddenly the court had serious doubts whether I am capable of taking care of my children. Although I have raised them alone for 11 and 9 years respectively, with nothing but grief and harassment from my abuser, suddenly they find me “disjointed,” and have concluded that he has had a “change in circumstances” and has stabilized his life. This conclusion was made with no evidence in support whatsoever. I was shocked to read the minutes that falsely stated that I was “unable to control [my]herself” in the courtroom. Wow. So unprofessional and so typical of a small rural good old boy town that is lacking in its ability to represent a court of law.

    I have PTSD. Yes, my symptoms have been compounded after 18 months of upheaval in my life. These proceedings have cost me thousands of dollars… They have cost my perpetrator $0. The irony is that I am on public assistance and am eligible for legal aid. The fact that the venue should have been Long Beach where me and the chidren reside, instead of Kern County where I am not a resident, denied me my right to utilize the legal aid for which I am eligible. I was ordered to pay minor’s counsel who actually did not represent the best interest of the children, but actually represented my abuser at the final hearing before relieving herself.

    I would like to start some kind of awareness group or some kind of protest and petition in order to submit complaints to Lynn Rosenthall, the White House representative from the Office of Violence against Women. There is supposedly a task force being convened to report on the family court crisis. I apologize if I am off topic or “disjointed,” but I have been distraught and in such pain and agony and when I read your post it made me cry and I just wish I could put on my armor and gather up my weapons and actually slay the dragon of injustice which I have repeatedly witnessed bullying and violating the rights of the vulnerable for its own gain. I want justice. And I will not remain silent.

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