On Junot Díaz’s ‘The Silence’ and Our Uncomfortable Reckoning

Junot Diaz, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." (RICARDO HERNANDEZ / AFP / Getty Images)

It isn’t easy to read “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma,” novelist Junot Díaz’s beautiful and searing personal essay published in the New Yorker’s April 16 edition. It’s the kind of piece “trigger warnings” were made for, the kind you don’t link to in your group chat without disclaiming. Sitting on a crowded, air-compressed Amtrak car on a cloudy Monday before 8 a.m., waiting to depart for a day trip to Philly, I was in a brain fog after reading it and texted its link to a friend without thinking. Not even five minutes passed before I came to my senses and tried to walk it back, like you would a text you’d mistakenly sent to a parent instead of a lover.

At about 5,000 words, “The Silence” is a #longread and not anybody’s crowdsourced listicle or half-baked take. By way of structure and content, it’s obvious that it took some mulling over, a life lived, to create. An essay, in the literary sense, is an attempt. The word comes from an old French verb meaning to try, and the first known writer to use it to describe his own work meant that he’d offer a lot of thoughts in an attempt to reveal himself — his mind, his consciousness, his relationship to the world outside —  on the page with some precision. There should be a discovery of something in an essay, a path, though perhaps meandering, through many questions that lead to an answer or lesson or something else entirely. That winding road is what makes an essay different from an article or a paper. It is an attempt to approximate the neural processes that make up thought, memory or revelation itself.

In the eighth paragraph of “The Silence,” Díaz tells us he was sexually assaulted by a trusted family friend when he was only 8 years old. The admission feels spat out and abrupt — it has taken a reserve of courage to get it out. He has written around this incident for years, he says, but fear and shame have choked his truth and cheated him out of years of a life lived with an honest reckoning, in community with other survivors. “And always I was afraid — afraid that the rape had “ruined” me; afraid that I would be “found out”; afraid afraid afraid,” he writes. Here, I feel the weight of shame for one of our society’s collective failures — how we too often allow the wronged to carry the burden of crimes committed against them.

The essay takes on an epistolary form in parts, when it is addressed to an audience member Díaz meets at an event before he is ready to make his admission. The person, X—, has asked whether Díaz himself ever suffered the sexual trauma of one of his characters, and the author equivocates. It is only now, with hindsight, that he is able to say that the trauma was his own, and with that admission, connect. In the middle of this bid for connection is a beautifully raw account of the physical toll of unhealed trauma. Díaz recounts singing, intrusive flashbacks that lead to torturous nightmares, teeth grinding, self-harm, stomach upset — an overall dis-ease of the body.

Immediate response to the piece on Twitter was one of gratitude for its bravery and style and its importance as a #metoo moment, specific to the silence and stigma male survivors of sexual violence face. But another current soon became apparent. Much of the essay focuses on the author’s difficulties with intimacy as a result of the abuse he endured, with an account of years of torturous, failed relationships with women partners, whom he names, like his admirer, X—, with a single letter and an em dash. Some readers said the women partners felt “nameless,” and took umbrage at a too-easy association between the heartbreaking relationships and eventual recovery for the author. That the women come off as bodies and carnage on his road to healing. In a few hours, when the takes began to be published, most homed in on these tics. “While dealing with the effects and aftermath of his assault, women were reduced to objects and now are mere footnotes in his journey, operating as tools to animate and move him forward at a time when he needed life and love and couldn’t make such decisions for himself,” wrote Briana L. Ureña-Ravelo in a piece for the Black Youth Project.

It’s true, the women are described in less than detailed ways. We do know they are mostly women of color, (“intimidatingly smart sisters,” he calls them), and this becomes uncomfortable when considering that black, Asian-American, Hispanic, and indigenous women collectively suffer disproportionately from intimate partner violence. What’s also true is this is a script we know, a trope — the powerful, well-connected, yet damaged man becomes whole through the labor and pain of the women in his life.

But sometimes I worry that the internet has changed the ways we think and read so much that the medium of the essay could be tipped into obsolescence. That we are less inclined to sit with sentences, pore over paragraphs, leave something and come back to it in order to digest it fully. My own attention used to be a formidable weapon I could wield at will. What I’ve noticed over the past few years is that its demanding, monomaniacal quality has been replaced by something more skittish — a propulsion to multitask, to look away, to begin something new, to abandon things when they become difficult. And while Twitter has done much good in giving more and different kinds of people a voice, it has also become a space where we are all in a furious haste to quickly read, digest and express our near immediate dismissal or worship. This can be very limiting and vitriolic in a way that shuts down conversation when things get complicated.

Despite the tics of “The Silence” and all that isn’t said beyond those em dashes, the 8-year-old at the center of this piece calls out to me. I wonder if, in our haste to analyze, in our rush to respond the way the internet and the news cycle allows us to, we lose sight of him.

I wonder if we have even forgotten that we can ask questions.

It was only a few months ago that I spoke to my family for the first time as an adult about my own violation. It was an ugly series of conversations, like the ugly thing that happened to me. I’d been very young, and it was a relative. I wasn’t silent when it happened and told as much as my vocabulary at the time allowed, yet we didn’t go to the police, and we kept him around for years; I’d see him at family events embraced and loved. It made my stomach drop out each time. Why, I’d asked all these years later, did we keep him around?

I’ve only just become capable of asking something like this, and I haven’t yet gotten the answers I need. I know from experience that black, Southern families like mine can be conditioned to protect their sons often at the expense of their daughters, and we play that dynamic out in patterns that sustain through the generations. “Racialized women are often expected to be nurturing and overly generous with men,” writes Gwen Benaway for Flare in her response to “The Silence.”

I’m a survivor who doesn’t want to begrudge Diaz his moment of connecting with other survivors. For communities decimated by the violence of colonialism, this is an important opportunity to learn how to talk about what is at the root of our pain. We must also attend to those imperiled in the fallout, in the slippery place where victims become victimizers. Yes, so much reckoning could have happened in the spaces of Diaz’s essay where those em dashes lie. All of this is true and we must let it be.

Many questions remain. Among them, what does justice look like? Does it mean reporting more crimes to the police? Black women are least likely to report incidents of sexual assault or intimate partner violence committed against them. When you’re talking about colonized people and the police, you’re talking about an apparatus of the state that has conquered us. We are natural adversaries; there is no trust between us. I spoke to friends and associates about “The Silence” and we couldn’t come to any conclusions either. We talked a lot about restorative justice — where victims of crimes get a say in what happens to those who hurt them. But that requires victims to come forward, and we haven’t evolved into a society where that is universally safe yet.

It is all very difficult. What “The Silence” has done is provide an opening for us to try to find language to work out things that we never have before.

Perhaps we are ready now. This reckoning of the past several months has opened up many dark and tender places that must be handled with care, and we need to give ourselves the time and space (sometimes that means more than 280 characters) to speak about them and think them through. I wish for no one else to hold in a story for 40 years that stifles their throat and steals their tongue and festers. Though there may be discomfort along the way, this difficult spot should not be where language ends, but where it begins. This is a call for more stories.

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