Journalist Goldie Taylor Went Through Hell and Came Out on the Other Side
There is an old adage about the things that don’t kill you making you stronger. I don’t believe that. I just think it makes you lucky.
In my memoir, The Love You Save, I write about the sexual abuse and casual cruelty I endured as a young girl. I opened those chapters with the dangers outside, the teenage boy who raped me when I was eleven years old and my mother’s live-in boyfriend who forced me into a tub of scalding water. And then, for the first time, I open up about being brutalized years later by an older cousin. The cockeyed miscreant and stand-out basketball player was at least a full foot taller than me, dumb as a box of bullfrogs, and had breath that smelled like a sewage plant.
Without question, writing and talking so publicly about my own life has come with its price. There are strained family relations, including a sister with whom I haven’t spoken more than a few words in as many years, and even some friendships that now lay splayed and tattered.
But I am a writer. I suppose I have always been that, even and especially when I was powerless to do any other thing. In the half century I have been on this planet, I have used words to free people and to free myself. First in personal journals and essays, on assorted cable news programs.
But if those costs are so profound, then so is the healing of my soul.
The following excerpt opens with the first time my cousin attacked me (and contains descriptions of sexual violence) and closes with how I mustered the resolve to end it.
The first attack came in the basement on Thanksgiving night.
I shook my head no, squeezed my eyes shut and let the tears run down my face.
“You know you like it. We ain’t real cousins, anyway.”
I despised every single solitary thing about Uncle Ross’s grandson, and, to this day, I have never hated anyone so deeply and so thoroughly. When he was done, he pulled up his gym shorts and left me in the basement. I lay there on the musty, mildewed bedspread and sobbed. I trembled. Waves of shame rushed over me.
I told no one. I couldn’t bring myself to write about it in my journal. Putting words to that night would make them come alive again.
Even so, a few days later, I found charred pieces of my diary in the firepit out back. The remnants of the red plastic cover and its gold lock were among the ashes in the half-burned heap of garbage. I was immediately suspicious of Uncle Ross’s grandson, who probably thought, like everything else in life, I’d written the whole thing down. Aunt Josie, after all, didn’t run out the trash.
On the way to church that Sunday, Auntie Gerald hinted that she’d read the journal entries and set fire to the notebooks. Although I had not recounted what happened in the basement, there was page after page about Uncle Ross’s grandson and every other terrible thing I encountered. For the most part, though, it read like a list of prayers. Deborah told me if I couldn’t pray out loud, I should just tell God what I wanted. Books, new clothes and my own room were at the top.
“If you need to go to the library, Ross’ll carry you up there, you hear?”
Somebody had snitched on me for sneaking out on Saturday mornings. I looked at Booky. He shrugged his shoulders and threw a knowing glance at Uncle Ross’s grandson.
Days later, I woke up with him on top of me one night. I bit his forearms, clamping down like a bear trap. I ran upstairs and dashed into Grandma Alice’s room.
“Golley, you alright?”
“Yes, ma’am. Can I sleep with you?”
“As long as you go to the bathroom first.”
I started making up reasons to stay after school and I hovered closer to Grandma Alice. I hung out in her room as she listened to the transistor radio or watched Max Robinson deliver the evening news on the downstairs television set. Sometimes, it meant feigning interest in opera house performances on PBS while she nodded on the sofa.
The attacks came closer and closer together. I felt like I was being hunted.
Around that time, Mr. McKnuckles stopped me in the hallway at school one day. I was walking back to the choir room after running an errand for our music teacher, Mrs. Bolden.
“Lemme see your hall pass.”
I handed over the slip of paper with Mrs. Bolden’s pretty cursive signature.
“Why do you walk around mad all the time, young lady?” he said, surveying the pass. His voice was deep and gruff, like he chewed on pebbles. “You look like a rattlesnake bit you in the face.”
“Maybe one did,” I snapped, before I could catch myself.
McKnuckles wasn’t the kind to let such surliness slide, and I expected him to swat me on the backside.
“It can’t be that bad,” he said, with an unexpected drift of kindness.
I felt my face redden. Ashamed, I turned away toward the wall.
“No, sir, it isn’t.”
“Look at me when I’m talking to you. Is it that bad?”
“No, sir, I’m okay.”
“Go on back to class. Come and see me if somebody bothers with you.”
I turned to walk away.
“Say there, I heard you won that essay contest up in Belleville.”
“Yes, sir, it was at the Optimist Club.”
“Keep doing us proud, young lady.”
I had performed “Please Hear What I’m Not Saying,” a poem by Charles Finn. It was hard, at first, to grapple with the swell of emotion. It overtook me in waves and sometimes it was as if I was drowning in the words. For me, though, the recital was personal. It captured everything I had been through, saying everything I could not. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops.
…And so begins the parade of masks…
I tell you everything that’s really nothing
And nothing of what’s everything…
I wanted to tell somebody what my cousin was doing to me. Holding on to it felt like drinking poison. I was crouched in the corner of the quarter landing when I saw him coming up the stairs.
“Why you hiding?” he whispered.
“Fuck you,” I sneered.
“Imma tell Grandma Gerald you up here cussing.”
“Say something and I’m going to tell Uncle Ross what you did.”
“No, you ain’t. You like it and you know it.”
“Keep fucking with me and watch.”
“Oh, you big and bad now, right? Them speech contests gotchu all gassed up.”
“And you ain’t shit.”
“Don’t nobody want your sloppy seconds. Hoeing ass.”
“I’m not the only one that sleeps in this house. I swear I will set your mangy ass on fire. You better hope Uncle Ross ain’t got no gas in that can.”
“Your mama’s a bitch and her mama, too.”
I started carrying around a Zippo lighter. I sometimes flicked it at him as a warning, to remind him of what I’d do. I wasn’t going to let anybody touch me like that again, the way that boy had in St. Ann, even if it meant burning the whole house down.
“You ain’t gone do shit,” he said one day.
I looked him in the eyes, clicked the spark wheel, and made a sizzling noise like the sound of chicken frying in grease.
“I can’t do it,” I said.
She waited me out, then said, “Try it again.”
“It’s too hard.”
“That’s why I gave it to you,” she said.
We had a speech competition coming up and Mrs. LeCompte wanted me to use Finn’s poem in the dramatic interpretation category. I hesitated, then demurred. She wouldn’t take no for an answer.
In the first rehearsal session, I broke down during the delivery. Mrs. LeCompte taught me a visualization technique. I was to imagine something sad as if it were happening anew, she said.
“Stop, stop. Give it to me again. Give it to me.”
The day of the contest, I stood in front of the classroom. A smattering of students—all of them white—looked on. The judge posted himself in the back.
“You may begin,” he said, hitting the stopwatch.
I focused first on the pictures Auntie Killer took of Daddy in his coffin until I could see myself standing on the altar at Mercy Seat. And then, I thought back to the night Uncle Ross’s grandson crawled on top of me and put his hand around my throat.
“It’s the only thing that will assure me of what I cannot
that I’m really worthwhile, but I don’t tell you this,
I don’t dare—”
Between the shouts and whispers and tears, I was never more alive. The room was silent when I finished. I came home with first place in Dramatic Interpretation and Extemporaneous Public Address. The topic for the impromptu speech was the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The title was “444 Days in Tehran” and focused on the Algiers Accords.
During the awards ceremony, Mrs. LeCompte leaned over and said, “Where did you learn all of that?”
“Bernard Shaw. It was on CNN.”
She smiled and shook her head.
There were more speech competitions, some in the district and some competing against other schools in the region. Soon, besting even the ninth-graders, I had a shoebox full of blue ribbons and medals. I found other poems, all of them speaking to me in different ways, but I kept coming back to Finn. Every line felt like it belonged to me and me alone. Finn had given me the voice I could not find in the church choir or even in the poems I had begun to write.
Auntie Gerald didn’t like it. She said I sounded like an actress from one of her soap operas.
“Don’t nobody wanna hear no salt wagon story,” she said. “Ain’t nothing special about sorrows. Everybody got’tum.”
But I had found my voice, at least at school and in speech competitions, and I liked how it sounded. At home, when I wasn’t locked in the bathroom working out the lines, I was largely silent. A tide of antipathy was still clear and present, but the fears were largely gone and I was becoming something new.
Excerpted from The Love You Save by Goldie Taylor. Copyright © 2023 by Goldie Taylor. Published by arrangement with Hanover Square Press.
Order a copy of The Love you Save: A Memoir here.
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