Valerie Bradley-Holliday

© Copyright 2003 by Valerie Bradley-Holliday


Drawing of a pyramid with a treasure inside.
The story “Aboutness” was born out of a journal experience using personal narrative and the strong metaphors of primarily African and African American Folktales to assist my own personal growth. Laurel Richardson, in Writing: A Method of Inquiry, explains that through evocative representations, “we find ourselves attending to feelings, ambiguities, temporal sequences, blurred experiences, and so on.” As a consequence of using this journal method, I have become more self-reflective and have written an entire book, entitled Places to Be Blessed of which “Aboutness” is the first chapter.

I was able to use folktales to help me identify and describe painful experiences that I had no other way to express. In this way, I was able to free my mind of the burden of those experiences. I was able to use my anger in a positive way. I used the anger born out of those experiences as a candle rather than a blowtorch to enlighten me on what I learned from past hurts not what potential they had to hold me back. Using Virginia Hamilton’s story, “Mer-Woman Out of the Sea,” as a prompt, I was able to talk about my early childhood and later aspirations.


A mermaid was captured and put with a doctor's "ungodly things." A man who worked for the doctor told this to the townspeople and also said the poor mermaid, shrinking due to her captivity, had two gold fish swimming around her. Captured, shrunken and miserable the mermaid called upon the sea to help her. This caused the townspeople to worry and demand of the doctor the release of the mermaid. One brave man even entered the doctor's home, went to the basement and saw the mermaid. In his attempt to save the mermaid, some jars were smashed releasing slithering things, which came out of the doctor's door and was witnessed by the townspeople. He described the mermaid as "beyond beautiful" and clutching the edge of the jar, begging to be set free. The townspeople fretted about what the man told them and felt sorry for the mermaid knowing her release would stop the rain. They returned with a group of people to ask the doctor to release this mer-woman. The doctor denied having any mermaid and a "tall white man" threatened "if you don't leave at once, we'll call out the army to make you leave." The rains stopped, the mermaid was never found, and the townspeople were left to clean up the muck. They still say you can smell dead fish odors on hot days. (Aardema, 1995).

At the age of four, I had to come to the realization that my life would never be the same. Nothing was ever going to be the same including holding onto my childhood. The mother I knew before was all warmth, smiles and hugs. The smell of Jergen's Lotion still brings me back to my earliest memories of my mother. The last memory I have of my mother before her transformation was when she locked us in the bedroom to keep us away from my father while he ranted outside the door. She let me play in her jewelry box and try on things. She let me venture into her closet and try on clothes. Then came the horror of drastic change. The unreality of the mermaid folktale adapts well to my discussion of the loss of my mother. The loss of my mother was a disruption in my early social interaction process.

Early social interaction can affect adult relationships due to unrecognized anger and fear of further abandonment. The folktale is a representation of what happens when social interaction processes are disrupted both for the townspeople and the unfortunate mermaid. It reminds me of the disruption of my own social interaction processes at my earliest stages within my family. This has had lasting effects on my social identity with respect to self-concept, self-esteem, self-efficacy, self-monitoring behavior, self-focusing and gender.

The strong attachment I had with my mother was swept away by her nervous breakdown. An emotional freight train carried her away on a trip that would span over twenty-years. Even though coming physically near to us, she is never emotionally the same. Her erratic behavior almost resulted in our placement in foster care. Her diagnosis was schizophrenia and the therapy at the time included shock treatments. Her shock treatments were so intense that one time she came home and did not know who we were. It scared me to discover that my mother did not know me. I remember, five, standing in front of my mother and asking her to "please tell me who I am." I held both of her hands and she pulled away from me as if I was a stranger. My mom recognized us less and she begin to beat us and neglect us. She was no longer recognizable as the mother I was knew. And my brother and I started running away and stealing which brought the attention of juvenile officers.

The entrance of the "White Man" in the mer-woman story in which he intervenes when he thinks there is going to be big trouble and enforcing his rules on the situation, are like the juvenile officers involvement in our situation. They entered our lives when there was an issue that affected the community in some way a "big problem" as perceived by them. Juvenile officers entered my life over this period of time. From the age of four to twelve, I faced the constant threat of being placed in a "foster home" and "split up" and becoming "a ward." Some words I understood at the time and some I did not. I know that I did not want the BIG WHITE MAN who picked us up to separate me from my brother. As much as, I could not stand for my mother's intense beatings (sometimes with the heel of her shoe or a hanger) or being in reach of my abusive uncle in my grandmother's home, I loved my grandmother and I loved my brother and I did not be separated from what I knew. So the alternative was to run and I ran with no place to run to.

I learned through these early social interactions that the value of being female, especially African American female is very low. The only point that seemed to be of any value in this early experience was what was between my legs and I could not understand why and there was no one to tell me. Because of this I became depressed and emotionally withdrawn, even when I came to know the kind counselor at one school or an interested teacher at another, as soon as I felt like I had the strength to speak up, we would just move on.

Mom could never settle down in one place after she separated from my father. When we left our mobile home in Denver, Colorado, my mom took me, four-years-old and my infant brother from the stability of home (as we knew it) to my maternal grandmother's home. She only took us with the clothes on our back. She did not settle down in her mom's home either. One time she woke in the middle of the night screaming that my Dad was outside of the house and threatening to kill her, shortly after that she had another nervous breakdown. My mom's emotional roller coaster and her physically taking us from place to place made me feel unmoored.

We traveled from Colorado to Illinois, back and forth, at least three trips. I looked forward to seeing my grandmother when we stayed in Illinois. But these visits also had a dark side. In these visits to my grandmother, one of my uncle's was sexually abusive and would do strange things like making me hold my hand under extremely hot or cold water, or stand for hours naked in front of the air conditioner. The worse times were when he took me to the coal bin. My grandmother had a basement that on one half was cement flooring where she had a small beauty parlor. In the other half, was the pot-bellied furnace, which you could see into. Through the grate, which looked like a mouth ready to swallow little children, you could see the flames from the now "converted to gas" furnace. They used to stoke that furnace with coal. Off of the furnace room, was the coal bin. The coal bin, with its dirt floor and dark recesses seemed enormous when I was a child. My uncle made me stand naked in there. I could hear things crawling in there. I could not leave until he let me know when my time was up. I lost my spirit in there. This continued for a period of four years. While my uncle was robbing me of what remained of my childhood innocence, I was forced to face another loss.

My parents formally divorced when I was eight years old. I was brought to testify in court and I was terrified. I had to tell them about my Dad hurting my mom. My parents divorced over irreconcilable differences and my dad's wages were garnished.

As the shrunken mermaid, each day, I diminished through this sexual abuse and mother and father loss. My uncle's ritual abuse destroyed my self-schema, and comfortable and trusting beliefs and feelings I had about the world diminished. Aside from the discontinued ability to formulate a self-concept, my self-esteem was threatened through verbal admonishments. To him, I was not good enough, I was not sexually enticing (I was a child!), I was everything undesirable. To me, I began to go numb. I began to develop a very undifferentiated sexual identity that was neither strictly male or female. My grandmother credited me later with being a tom-boy.

Even, my uncle began noticing this, calling me an "automaton." Why show expression? I became highly self-monitoring and cognitive. Inside as the personified mermaid banging on the glass jar to be released, I was screaming! The real, captured me was longing to be free. This was the time in my life when I began learning how to compartmentalize. My uncle told me not to tell anyone what was happening or "something bad would happen."

Reinforcing this was the uncertainty of the situation. I did not know where I would live or with whom. My grandmother honored "her little boy." He was the crown jewel of her achievement. The sun rose and set upon him in her eyes and he could never do anything wrong. So I could not go to her with something as terrible as his sexual mistreatment of me and be validated. My mother was gone. In place of the mother that I once knew, was a person who beat, starved, and locked me up. I did not know where my dad was and I was not sure if he cared whether I lived or died. Perhaps, I was the cause of all my parents' discontent. Didn't my dad want his first born to be a son?

There existed a great discrepancy between my ideal self and who I really was. This gap decreased my self-esteem. I had extreme personal difficulties resulting from my parents' problem relationship, my childhood sexual abuse, and increased exposure to my abuser. As a consequence, negative self-evaluations became internalized. Years later in counseling, I discovered that these can crop up has auditory hallucinations during times of extreme stress (i.e., my uncle's voice telling me that I am stupid). I thought that I was going crazy which added to the issue of low self-esteem.

My childhood experience has had lasting effects on my own family and I. As with the "townspeople" in the tale, you can still smell the fish odor today. I have learned that this is what comes of a life built on lies. But I had hope and I begin to move beyond just a hurt person to one who helps.

I have had some positives from the experience. I became incredibly self-focused and heightened my self-monitoring behavior which, years later, helped me to be a good student. I am thankful that I did not disassociate and split into divergent selves, which can happen, with each personality having the potential not to know what the other is doing. I know that I can work a lifetime on my low self-esteem and develop new attachments to reinforce what a wonderful, beautiful person I am. But nothing can completely undue the wounds inflicted by those early years. I can however, bear the scar and wear it as a badge of honor. My life illustrates my ability to "take a stand" and overcome something so incredibly brutal to my psyche.

As evidenced by my paper entitled, "Am I angry" Search for a Comprehensive Feminist Voice," I write:

I was taught to be tough, strong, self-reliant and my grandmother reinforced these issues with an emphasis on education. Hilliard speaks on the strength and resilience apparent in Blacks and minorities despite adversity and oppression, I strongly believe that this is due to some type of mentorship. I had my grandmother and although she could not help academically she was able to access others who could, i.e., counselors, former school teachers. These early life situations prepared me in responsible ways to be a mother, a provider, and an independent thinker.

Because you see, deep down, where that "me" was hollering to be set free was my key to salvation. I also had the benefit of a very early, secure attachment to my mother. I believe that the strength of that bond carried me through some of my most difficult moments.

In my later life, I have been able to build up those aspects, which were low, through self-efficacy. My heightened self-efficacy has come as a consequence of my direct, successful, and positive academic, social and professional opportunities. There were ordinary social opportunities and then there was the extraordinary. In my short stint in Wayne State University's Advanced Standing Master of Social Work Program, I met an African American Physicist, Virgil Jones. Dr. Jones taught at Princeton and had been Albert Einstein's neighbor. Jones spoke at the Quest for Peace Conference in 1980. The conference was entitled Conference for Peace and Conflict Studies. This was before Glasnost in the Soviet Union and set the stage for it. Dr. Jones told me "little did I know that involving myself in such matters would have such impact." In reply, I remembered saying something one of my undergraduate social work professors said to me: "We must know that the things we do and say are fateful." My discussion with Professor Jones put me in contact with another professor on campus and my life snowballed from there. I still get this tingling feeling that this man chose to talk to me. His consideration gave me the impetus to push forth on my own in the, then, unfamiliar academic waters of Wayne State University and Detroit, Michigan as a whole.

I still have not forgiven my uncle although in forgiveness there is a certain salvation. The first step, however, is in understanding why he set out to kill my spirit. To answer that is to go for the more global question of, "Why do we try to kill each other's spirit?"

The question was both fully formed in my mind and the answer apparent in the powerful presentation given by Lani Guinier. Lani Guinier is the first African American woman to become a tenured professor at Harvard Law School and she is the author of several books, including Lift Every Voice and The Tyranny of the Majority. She gave a presentation at Michigan Technological University to deliver her message on civil rights and social justice. From her message, I learned that the rage we feel inside us comes from not having a voice anywhere. This is especially true when the stage for marginalism has already been set.

Yet, does this have to be the final story? Do we have to accept our "fate"? Like the mermaid in the story, must we disappear, never to be heard from again? No, we can come together as brothers and sisters under one roof and assist one another. I have always felt that is our responsibility.

I never wanted to be a leader, yet we all have the potential to be leaders. We can lead collaborative efforts to help one another achieve a valid and valuable education. How does this happen? It occurs through practiced engagement that helps us reenter society through our own initiatives, on our own terms and increases our ability to solve problems. Does this happen overnight? No. But we can learn to curb our natural tendency to feel anger or rage and redirect it into a positive force that can punch a hole in the status quo altering it forever.

African American Psychologist, Kenneth B. Clark (1963) suggests in his book, Prejudice and Your Child,
that self-destructive behaviors result from social rejection. Further social rejection results from self-destructive behaviors, such as, aggression, anti-socialism, and delinquency. In order to break free of these self-destructive social behaviors, which are an understandable result of living in pathological social environment, children can be helped by directing their energy to help themselves and others in constructive ways (Clark, 1963). In light of this knowledge with the filter of my past and with my eyes to the future, I have a sense of greater purpose.

As a parent, I can address my own personal pressures in the face of racial and misogynistic pressures, by teaching my children tolerance and compassion for other human beings-even those who are prejudiced toward them. I have struggled to understand that the person who hates is a victim. The person who hates is a victim of his own cognitive distortions and ignorance (Clark, 1963). As Clark suggests if a child can be taught to understand this he or she has a cure for the poison that develops in victims of discrimination. Thus, hopefully, breaking the cycle of social rejection, victimization, and discrimination.

To put it succinctly, I will quote a friend: "Hurt people; hurt people." In order to be healed we have to find a way to work together and support one another. When we experience interactions in which we feel "safe," we develop the ability to risk, to discuss, to work together, and to engage each other and finally, to build creatively!

I was born in Champaign, Illinois to two very young parents. My mom was twenty when she had me. My dad was in the Air Force. Basically, when mom divorced him, he divorced the family. After my mother’s nervous breakdown, of which there were several, my grandmother got legal custody of me and my two brothers when I was twelve-years-old. I live with my husband and three children in Marquette, a town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I recently received my doctoral degree from The Union Institute and University in Social Psychology.

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