"But if these years have taught me anything, it is this: you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in."
– Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
At I Am Second, we spend our days with stories. We read and we listen. We hold a camera and a microphone as people we admire lay down their own stories like track for us to follow. Sometimes the stories are difficult. They are not light and buoyant. There is brokenness. There is wrongness. There is deep pain in the telling and the hearing. But, we stay in the room. We hear these stories. We hold them and share them, because here's something we believe deep and true: Speaking the words matters.
In today's print edition of the New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize winning author, Junot Díaz, tells the story of his own sexual assault as a young boy. He writes with explicit, visceral honesty about what happened to him, and the ways the fallout of that violation reverberated through the rest of his life, made wider and deeper and more consuming by shame and silence.
"I never told anyone what happened, but today I’m telling you."
Díaz's directs his story to a young reader who showed up at one of his signings and asked about the sexual abuse in his books.
"You asked, quietly, if it had happened to me...I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the truth. I’m sorry for you, and I’m sorry for me. We both could have used that truth, I’m thinking. It could have saved me (and maybe you) from so much."
Pain is an ocean and shame is the tide. It sweeps us farther and farther out, further and further under, until we are exhausted, isolated, drowning. Hearing someone else's story of a pain like ours – of the shame and depression that keeps us in its depths – hearing them say, "It happened to me too. I know this sea. You are not alone in these waves," is a path out of the current, proof that the shore still exists.
"I’d always assumed that if I ever returned to that place, that island where I’d been shipwrecked, I would never escape; I’d be dragged down and destroyed. And yet, irony of ironies, what awaited me on that island was not my destruction but nearly the opposite: my salvation."
In the early days of I Am Second, we made a decision that we would not hide from the brokenness, the shame, or the pain in our stories, but run toward it instead. Here's why: telling is an act of bravery, and solidarity is an act of love. In that intersection, there is strength when our abuse has made us feel powerless. There is courage when our pain has convinced us we are weak. And, as Díaz's story shows us, it is possible to find in it a mysterious, miraculous, surprising grace.
"In Spanish we say that when a child is born it is given the light. And that’s what it feels like to say the words, X—. Like I’m being given a second chance at the light."
We're grateful for Díaz's unflinching vulnerability and courage, and for the hundreds of people like him who share their stories with us every day.
You can read or listen to Junot Díaz's story on the New Yorker website.