Jane Ratcliffe | Longreads | February 2019 | 15 minutes (4,177 words)
I first stumbled across Reema Zaman on Facebook where each week she posts Love Letter Monday in which she discusses her life, both the hardships and successes, in an unabashedly self-loving manner. At first it caught me by surprise. I was so unaccustomed to hearing a woman speak well of herself — it felt, well, wrong. But soon enough I found myself sneaking back as if the words were contraband and the act of reading them a necessary revolution. The posts also contain an outpouring of love for the reader. A clarion call for women to turn “wound into wisdom” and “pain into poetry.” To be the authors of their own lives.
Her new memoir I Am Yours continues the call. In an evolving age-specific voice, Reema guides the reader through her life from a childhood in Bangladesh and Thailand with a domineering and unpredictable father, through anorexia and rape while living with roommates in Manhattan and navigating an often degrading and even dangerous life as an actress and model, to emotional abuse while living in a dilapidated barn in the middle of no-cell-phone-service woods with her then husband until, at age thirty, she at last lands a room of her own.
Reema’s prose is as ablaze as her heart. Lyrical, precise, in places frothing with desire or rage or faith, Reema’s unbridling of her tightly-watched self-suppressed voice is not an easy task. Yet it’s an essential one. These are hard stories, let loose at last with grace, sagacity, and dollops of clever humor. At its heart, I Am Yours is a story of hope.
In this time of #metoo, #timesup, and #whyididntreport, this time of women — especially Women of Color — at last sweeping into political power, and also this time of tremendous backlash, Reema Zaman’s powerhouse hope is just what we need.
Reema’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Narratively, and her essay “The Lie Pictures Tell,” which explores the distressing emotional truths behind a series of her headshots, became the first essay to be spotlighted in The Guardian’s “Guardian Selects” and quickly went viral. She also appears on one of the final episodes of Dear Sugar.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Reema over the phone on a cold November evening.
Jane Ratcliffe: You introduce your anger on the first page of your memoir, and it remains vibrant throughout. Why did it feel important to address women’s anger?
Reema Zaman: Women’s anger is a response to injustice, whether the injustice is inflicted toward another person, inflicted toward ourselves, or we see injustice committed in the world. Not to say that men can’t feel anger in the presence of injustice, but because women have been raised to be nurturers, we are hyper cognizant of the collective more so than the personal. We therefore rise to anger when we see injustice being committed.
Women’s anger holds decades and generations of wisdom because it’s a signal that something terrible is happening in the world. It took me a long time to understand that, because throughout my life my anger had been so shamed. The ideal girl is polite, demure, pleasing, and there is no space for anger in that. So, for a long time I rejected any feeling of anger. It wasn’t until I sat down to write I Am Yours, and I gave myself the emotional space to truly look at the abuse, wounds, and assaults that had been thrown on me, that I entered a healthy relationship.
I gave my anger presence in the book from the first chapter on because it’s so vital to acknowledge its wisdom. All of us women carry anger in different active and less active forms because we’re subject to injustice every day. The more we own our wisdom found through anger, the more solutions we can find, the more well-being we discover, and the more the world will wake up and take heed to what we have to say.
Physical attractiveness, pleasingness, and charm…. That was my identity, from age fifteen to twenty-nine. Then I realized that’s a direct path to hell and self-destruction and self-punishment.
You write, “I must grow up to be a voice for the souls and stories silenced.” How do you feel now that this is actually happening?
It feels really correct. At long last, I’m living in alignment with my purpose. There were many times in my life, in my teens and twenties, when I knew that the acting and modeling industry I attached myself to was not my correct life, because it asked me to mute my voice. Or, that a particular relationship I attached myself to didn’t feel like my correct life because he was asking me to be silent. I wrote a memoir that highlights this pattern of “not fitting into the pre-ordained smallness and silence,” because I believe that’s a paradigm many women can identify with.
There are all these trappings of society that remove us from our inner wisdom, our inner voice, our inner anchor and lighthouse. Those trappings manifest as smallness and silence in different ways. Our freedom and empowerment come from saying “No” to the various manifestations of smallness and silence, to move forward in pursuit of our fullest, truest selves. That’s when we begin to live in alignment with our larger purpose.
Did it register in your body in some way, the times when something didn’t feel correct?
Yes, in all sorts of ways. For instance, I used to get rashes from my ex-husband. Not STD’s or anything, but my body would occasionally break out. It’s a fitting term: break out. My body would rebel. To warn me. The human body is so intelligent. I haven’t had a single breakout since he and I have been apart.
I know friends who have their version of that. One friend would habitually lose her voice. She was in an unhealthy relationship. Her losing her voice was her spirit trying to tell her, “There is no room for your voice in this relationship. You need to leave.”
Our bodies are very wise. How did you arrive upon the structure of your book, which starts when you’re in utero and goes until you are thirty-one?
Initially the book started off as an exercise to understand my anorexia actually. So, I thought, Okay, I should start at age twenty-seven which is when my ex-husband and I split up. Then I realized, no, to understand the anorexia and that marriage, I would have to start earlier. Early twenties. But those years couldn’t be illuminated without going back further in time, earlier, earlier until I realized, I have to start in utero. If I really wanted to understand how I became this woman I would have to study my parents, their upbringing, and the home they created. Then, all of the other forces that came into my life from in utero on. To really understand who any of us are, we have to start at the beginning.
Also, I wanted to write about my parents with the utmost compassion, love, and integrity. I didn’t want to write about them through the analytical voice and eyes of an adult. That would be unfair. I wanted to write my childhood scenes through the eyes of a child. To show versus analyze and tell.
Throughout your life, you’ve demanded perfection of yourself and that’s taken quite a toll on you. For one thing the anorexia that you mentioned. Could you talk about the relationship you have with perfectionism and with your body today?
Well, thankfully, I have such a different relationship with myself now. Where before, I thought my currency in the world, or my value, had everything to do with my physical attractiveness or lack thereof. Amy Poehler has a great line in her memoir that there comes a time in every person’s life where consciously or unconsciously we have to decide what our currency is going to be. Your currency is tied to your identity and sense of belonging to the tribe.
When I was fifteen, the first currency I adopted had everything to do with physical attractiveness, pleasingness, and charm. That was my identity, from age fifteen to twenty-nine. Then I realized that’s a direct path to hell and self-destruction and self-punishment. So, at age thirty I needed to come up with a new sense of self and a new sense of identity that had nothing to do with my body or my physical attractiveness or lack thereof as currency.
For these last five years, it’s been an inner exercise and an externalized exercise of not identifying myself as that kind of woman anymore. Now, the way I identify myself is entirely from my own self, independent to the outside gaze. I identify myself as an intelligent woman who speaks and writes about important topics in the human condition. Whenever I feel like I’ve done a good job in my day it’s because I’ve done something that is in alignment with those values.
‘I have committed another crime by being myself.’ I think that’s how the world treats women.
You write that when you’re fourteen your mom tells you that she can’t want things for herself, that that would be selfish. Yet you arrive in New York at twenty-two with $1000 and “full of want.” I’m curious about your thoughts on women and wanting.
I was in my twenties; I wanted fame, status, acknowledgement. But all of those wants were the kind that were written into me by the patriarchy, by this very masculine, capitalistic society. So not an authentic want or an authentic need. As human beings, we need to feel seen, heard, understood, and those are authentic wants.
I think so many young women, we hear our mothers say, “Oh, I can’t want things.” I know for me, I thought I was being an empowered feminist by wanting status. By wanting lights, camera, action. However, it’s just another kind of toxic consumption to attach to. The third quarter of the book is seeing what happens when a woman attaches to that very patriarchal set of wants, and realizes, Wait, this is just another kind of hell. And then questions: Okay, what is authentic fulfillment, what is authentic legacy? And that is love, service, family, and finding and nurturing a sense of home in oneself. Those the truest forms of fulfillment. Nurturing the child within. Being in harmony with who I once was, who I am now, and who I want to be.
That’s beautiful. After your rape you decide that only you will “assign your experiences their reason.” And for the first time in your life you like yourself. This is an extraordinary response to such a brutal trauma. Could you talk about the process that led you there?
My survival instinct kicked into gear. I was guided by intuition because my spirit knew I needed to attach myself to this belief because otherwise I would die. I think that’s what faith is. That’s what resilience is. That’s what creativity is. And whatever name we want to assign it, that the inner voice leads us to a set of beliefs, mantras, and self-assigned prophecies that are all designed to keep us alive and thriving.
So, it wasn’t like I took a course or I listened to a motivational speaker and I decided to love myself. It was a quiet sense of direction that was given to me by my inner voice, saying this is what you’re going to believe now because this is what you need to believe, and this is the only thing that is right to believe. And when I say “right,” I don’t mean that there is a wrong way to react to rape, but I mean in reaction to what my spirit needed at that moment. My inner voice said, this is what you need, this is the only thing you’re allowed to think. It was the truest thing for me.
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It’s wonderful you listened to your voice. Many of us don’t.
I’ve definitely gone through parts of my life when I didn’t listen to my inner voice as much, and paid the price. That’s one reason I Am Yours is written with detailed care to chronology, to illustrate the different scenes where I’m not listening to my inner voice as much, and you see me thus falling into the quicksand of abusive relationships. That’s what happens in abusive relationships. Your abuser’s voice starts to override your connection with your inner voice. I wanted to show that in a very clear way.
Is this why you stayed with your ex-husband, do you think, because his voice overrode yours?
Yes, I spoke about this on the Dear Sugar episode. An abusive relationship is a dungeon and the dungeon starts filling up poisonous gas. So even if we enter the dungeon with a certain degree of clarity and sense of self and intelligence, the longer you’re inside that abusive dungeon, the more the poisonous gas will deplete your energy tank and chip away at your connection with your inner voice. It’s a compounding effect: it’s not just that you’re trapped, but then the dungeon is filling up with all this poisonous messaging from your abuser. So, you become all the more susceptible to staying inside because your mental, emotional, and physical energy reserves are being depleted as each day goes by.
Many people, upon leaving an abusive relationship, say things like, “Oh my god, I can’t even recognize the woman who stayed with him.” It’s because the nature of an abusive relationship is designed for us to become the quietest, smallest, most lizard-brain version of ourselves. That’s what an abuser is doing. So, don’t feel ashamed, like you should have “known better.” Shame belongs to the abuser. Shame belongs to the society that raises abusers. The shame is never ours to carry.
In a world culture and economy that runs on women’s insecurity, any action of self-love and self-esteem is a revolutionary act of dissent.
What allowed you to finally leave?
I started waking up with these fully conceived, three-to-five-to-seven-page long essays perched on the doorstep of my brain, and my inner voice would order that I take dictation. So, I would type them up. The essays were in the voice of a poised, composed, intelligent woman, whom I did not identify with. I thought, Who is this person speaking through me? It was the voice of my wiser self, my future self: my inner voice. Every morning she would send me a new essay, I would type it out. These essays were meticulously sculpted exposés and debates analyzing his behavior, showing me flaws in his rants and arguments, to let me see that whenever he said, “I’m doing this for your own good,” that was actually gaslighting and manipulation.
The voice started schooling me. As I took dictation from this higher voice, I started gaining clarity and validation. That acted as nourishment to keep me alive and fortification to speak back to him. To say No, this is not how you should be talking to me, this is not how any human being should be talking to any human being or treating any human being. The more I said No, the angrier he became until he evicted me from our house. All thanks to my inner voice.
You introduced me to this term, Post-Traumatic Growth. Can you talk about that and how it applies to your life?
I think in many ways everybody has felt PTSD as well as PTG at various times, and I think you can absolutely feel them simultaneously. It’s the human survival spirit that kicks in where we feel Post-Traumatic Growth. At the same time there will always be a toll and a residue for any kind of trauma a human being is exposed to. And it can’t be ignored; it needs to be dealt with otherwise the trauma compounds. Post-Traumatic Growth feels very empowering and very joyful and exuberant. You want to ride it and nourish it — and at the same time be cognizant of the pain you went through, and all the healing that needs to be done.
I’ve learned to anticipate and respect the fact that whenever a new obstacle or wound comes my way, although I have come so far and am now a voice for others, too, I am human, I can still feel pain, and any incoming pain requires tenderness and healing. So while my adult self goes through Post-Traumatic Growth, I still make sure to do the more quiet, loving things to take care of my inner child, who will go through PTSD with any incoming wound or new trauma that echoes an old wound.
That’s fascinating, and I think helpful for people to consider who are struggling with any kind of trauma.
It’s important to talk about because a lot of people think, Well, if I have PTSD then I’m a weak person who is incapable of PTG. No, every human being is going to feel both things if not simultaneously then one at a time. The surges of emotion and reaction manifest in each human body in different ways based on our personality and what we have been exposed to in terms of trauma.
You wrote, “I was raised by a bully, married a bully, and have been my own biggest bully through the choices I make.” I don’t think you are alone in this. Could you talk about how you changed your behavior?
I think most people, especially women, can empathize with that triplet of experiences. I was able to stop harming myself by writing this memoir. That’s why the memoir starts in utero. I wanted to go back in time and hold space for my child self as though I was her most loving, protective, affirming parent. As I did that chapter after chapter — writing about myself and watching my child self with very loving eyes — that love and sense of protectiveness then carried into my present day life. Now, those are the eyes through which I look at myself.
Of course, every day I hold myself to extremely high standards, and ask myself, Did I do that well, did I hit my mark, did I achieve excellence? But not at the cost or extent of self-loathing or shaming. Shame is thinking that what you are and who you are is wrong. In contrast, guilt or regret is thinking something you did is wrong or subpar. That’s the difference between healthy perfectionism and punishing perfectionism. Healthy perfectionism is about wanting to create excellent work, a legacy, wanting to become the best version of yourself from a place of self-respect and self-love, as opposed to self-hate, which leads to punishing perfectionism.
I think my favorite line in the whole book is, “It seems my lifelong crime is I’m obstinately myself.”
That line is from the middle of the book, when my ex-husband would pick at everything I did. The line is written with sarcasm. “I have committed another crime by being myself.” I think that’s how the world treats women. They make us think that our lifelong crime is that we are the women we are. To seek forgiveness for this “crime,” we are told to change; we aren’t enough, we’re too much, we’re ill-fitting, we have to morph, improve, starve, become small. Entire economies are built and thrive on that messaging.
I realize now my lifelong commitment is to be obstinately myself. The entire mission of I Am Yours is self-ownership and self-love, to realize the biggest gift we can give to the planet is to be obstinately ourselves. By being obstinately ourselves we become the fullest, most intelligent, brave, and creative version of ourselves.
That should be your new hashtag.
In a world culture and economy that runs on women’s insecurity, any action of self-love and self-esteem is a revolutionary act of dissent. I constructed this book so that the climax and greatest success in the final chapter is, “All I need, I have.” That’s the hero’s myth-cycle for the female, recognizing that we don’t need to leave home to gain fulfillment, completion, or success. We are our own home.
For the last three years, I haven’t dated or had a relationship with a man… One of my favorite lines from the book is: ‘I want to hear what my voice sounds like without having to consider a man’s.’
How did it feel to write to lay yourself so bare?
It felt incredibly liberating. I was finally allowing myself to speak. I’ve been part of so many different cultures — family cultures, professional cultures, and social cultures — and I didn’t have a full range of voice in any one of those cultures. It wasn’t allowed. Sitting down to write I Am Yours was the first time I spoke in this full-throated voice that now people know me to have.
Initially, my family was scared about what would happen to us were I to write in this full-throated voice; they thought it would be our apocalypse. But it has ended up being our rebirth. It’s brought us closer. My writing about what happens to women when we’re exposed to sexual trauma has allowed enormous healing into my family, and a whole new depth of closeness and intimacy. Tiptoeing around any family memory means that true intimacy can never be created. It’s only through deep communication that we create true, authentic intimacy and closeness.
You’re getting quite a bit of acclaim and there are more people leaning on you and leaning on your words. Do you ever feel like this is a lot to carry?
I love the actual work, so it doesn’t feel depleting at all. The one thing that I’m being cognizant of is maintaining my physical energy. I’m so glad I come from this background of acting where your body is your instrument. Self-care and exercise and all of that has been a big part of my life since I was a teen. Eating foods that give me mental and physical clarity, getting eight hours of sleep or as close to that as possible, exercise. So, I haven’t had to make any major adjustments. I’ve been preparing for this moment whether I was conscious of it or not. My agent says, you were born to do this.
I agree. You have lived through some very difficult relationships, primarily romantic ones. Are you keen to be in love again?
Yes, but with the right person. For the last three years, I haven’t dated or had a relationship with a man. It felt pressing and evident that to realize my full potential, I needed to take a departure from men and relationships. For first thirty years of my life, I was a girl and a woman who was sculpted entirely in response and reaction to the male gaze. I wanted to discover who I was and who I could become independent to the presence of men and partnership. One of my favorite lines from the book is: “I want to hear what my voice sounds like without having to consider a man’s.”
It’s been an incredible journey of discovery and becoming. In addition to reclaiming my voice and owning my power, writing I Am Yours for the last five years has been a deep study into why I previously chose abusive partners. It has also been a deep journey into understanding and releasing that psychology, and replacing it with a healthy psychology toward love, marriage, dating, relationships and sex. I’m excited about who I want to bring into my life. I need a partner who too has gone through an extraordinary amount of trauma, has healed and risen and now uses his experiences in service to others. Someone with perspective, depth, courage. It’s time for a new story.
Cheryl Strayed has taken you under her very kind and generous wing. You’ve been on the Dear Sugars podcast, you’ve been on stage with her, and she wrote a very potent blurb for your book. And I know she’s someone you admired from afar for a long time, so I wondered what it feels like now to not be from afar anymore?
Cheryl’s memoir Wild inspired me to write I Am Yours. She didn’t know this when she asked me to be a guest on Dear Sugars, to speak on their “Emotional Abuse” episode. I wouldn’t have been equipped to speak on Dear Sugars had I not spent the last five years writing I Am Yours, gaining deeper knowledge and language on the nuances of abusive relationship, how to break free, and heal. That episode of Dear Sugars has changed the trajectory of my life, and has brought in enormous waves of new friends, readers, and opportunities. Cheryl’s presence in my life seems to always have that effect, whether she’s conscious of it or not. After our recording, she asked me to be in a show with her, to talk about rising above fear. She also wrote a gorgeous endorsement for I Am Yours. It all feels like the most complete full-circle experience, a profound affirmation of self. An affirmation that I am exactly who I need to be, living exactly the way I need to live.
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Jane Ratcliffe’s work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, The Sun, The Rumpus, Tin House, and Narratively, amongst others. She’s just finished a novel about the unpopular peace movement as well as the women’s movement in London during WWII.
Editor: Dana Snitzky