CW: This interview contains content of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, as well as suicidality, that may be triggering to some readers.
"Navigating intergenerational trauma requires that you respect it, you can't avoid it, you have to acknowledge that it's there, you have to almost be kind to it. You're not going to damage me today and even further than that; you are not going to damage anybody that I care about today."
SWY: Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your story with childhood abuse and trauma?
J: My name is Jess. I am a trans-non-binary individual and I immigrated to Canada when I was about four years old with a single parent. It started with two parents that got together really out of desperation to leave their homes and really to save my mother from her home. I was four years old and my brother was about a year old. He had a lot of health problems due to being born prematurely. There's a lot of trauma there as well. My mom nearly died giving birth to him. There was a lot of neglect, a lot of abuse, physical, emotional, and a lot of that came from the way in which my parents were raised and they were raised thinking that level of abuse was normal. My mother was a purchased child; she was a victim of human trafficking. She was purchased from a sex worker who had been impregnated by a police officer. So she grew up in this really tragic home where she was used as someone to take out their anger on. Even though she was treated really well when she first came into the family, over the years it just got worse to the point where she had to leave. So she raised my siblings and me with that knowledge and that understanding, although I think it became diluted as time went on.
So there was a very significant amount of emotional abuse, there was a lot of neglect. Reviewing some old report cards, I was late and absent so much, there were times that my mother would leave us with Auntie’s for days at a time and I like to say that I was raised by a community of Auntie’s and Uncle’s because my mother wasn’t that present in our upbringing and I don’t think she knew how to be. At seven, I started taking care of my siblings - my mother had not only gotten into alcohol but also she had an addiction to sleeping medication. I'm not sure what other drugs she was on but she wasn’t really involved but then would have these manic periods. At the time, my dad was still giving child support and my mom would spend the money all in one place. It was this rollercoaster of amazing times and then a couple of months later, there would be nothing - there would be no food on the table, nobody would be there to cook for us. The early years were really characterized by a lot of emotional abuse, a lot of physical abuse, a lot of neglect. There were a lot of different men that came around our lives during that time as well. One of the consequences of that was, eventually I was sexually assaulted by one of her boyfriends. My mom didn't know what to do about it and so she told me to take it as a compliment. At one point, I had become suicidal and my mom didn't know how to deal with it either so she told me to do it. There were episodes where she would really beat the living crap out of us and occasionally my dad would come back and say “you haven’t been disciplining the children'' and then he would beat the crap out of us. Again, cycles and cycles of this. Whenever we did visit my father he would say very abusive things like my brother and I were fat and I was ugly and then he would buy me things to make up for it. There was immense pressure to make sure that her drug use and her boyfriends were kept secret and we were always threatened with poverty if we were to disclose any of those things.
In grade 9/10 my mom decided that she wanted to be a parent again and when I didn’t respond to her authority she continued to attack my being, self-worth, and self-esteem until there was nothing left. And so my high school years were very difficult - battling the identity of being queer, having undiagnosed learning disabilities, serious mental health issues, being a survivor of sexual assault, immigrant battling the microaggressions of living as a racialized person, internalized transphobia, battling internalized racism. By grade 12 I had really developed a love for math and science and wanted to do an extra year to get credits for engineering programs. I found out a couple of years later that she lied about me taking a victory lap at my school. Apparently, the administration had approved and allowed me to go and take an additional year and for one reason or another, my mother said no.
During university, I was trying to navigate my own sense of internalized racism that I picked up from being born in the colony of Hong Kong and also from being a student at Queens. I was navigating a lot of that internalized racism of ‘I don't want to be Asian’ and as soon as I tried to find a new identity, my mother would come back and be like ‘you're losing your identity and forsaking your culture’. I was working in Hong Kong in my second year and it was then that I started to feel this sense of connection to my home and understanding the repercussions of abuse and intergenerational trauma. During teachers college, I was judged for cultural things that I honestly didn’t understand because I was dipped headfirst into each culture and barely able to understand and both sides will always see my habits and my being as low class and undereducated. My relationship with my mom all came to a close one day when we had a final confrontation. This last straw of disconnect and deciding that I was no longer going to be connected to this individual and their constant lying, manipulation, and emotional abuse. It took a really long time for me to confront the fact that that was grounds for estrangement, and that was okay - that, even though it's so against my culture, I had to navigate that wall of shame surrounding the abuse. That’s what led me to get the help and counseling that I desperately needed, moving to the literal other end of the city and really just building a life for myself.
SWY: Can you please go into more detail as to the role that intergenerational trauma played in your life?
J: When I think about the generations of trauma that are at play in my life and when I think about what the role is that it took in my life, it took the form of people not having the privilege of accessing the care they needed to stop perpetuating what they went through. I think you can only parent to the extent that you were parented unless you were given the privilege of learning another way or rather having the privilege of seeing other ways. As an educator, I think about what makes a good educator? A good educator looks for as many resources as possible, styles of learning, and gathers those nuggets and gems of information, and integrates them into their practice to move forward with really the best current available practice. That's kind of how I see parenting; you should hopefully be exposed to a variety of different styles and a variety of different methods and when you have children, you're able to put forth the best product and best foot forward. But I look at the people that don't know, I look at my parents and I think they just really didn't know better and unfortunately, I was the victim of that.
I feel and experience my mother and my father's words coming out of my body, every so often and that is deeply painful. Sometimes I catch myself, honestly, treating other people that way, sometimes I have to reflect on the ways in which I might be behaving abusively and I have to be accountable for that. I have to be sure that I am constantly working on getting rid of those patterns. I'm making sure the way that I navigate my life is making sure that I do not fall into those patterns, and making sure that I don't fall into the really terrible depressive state that emerges as a result of falling into those patterns. Navigating intergenerational trauma requires that you respect it, you can't avoid it, you have to acknowledge that it's there, you have to almost be kind to it. You're not going to damage me today and even further than that; you are not going to damage anybody that I care about today. I was talking about cognitive load today in class with my students. One of the things that I compared cognitive load to was like background apps on your phone. How many background apps do you have running in your head? The more applications that are running, the slower the function. There's a background app of being targeted for the gender that I pass as. There's the background app to be targeted for, my current gender identity. There's the background app of intergenerational trauma.
SWY: You discuss having an estranged relationship with both the parent figures in your life. Do you have any advice for individuals who also have estranged relationships with their caregiver figures?
J: The advice that I would always give to people with estrangement is to take it day by day. You have to make space for all the changes that are occurring in your life. You have to make changes and space for really all the things that are happening in that parent's life as well. You're not dishonouring anyone by choosing this path of healing but also recognizing that you have to figure out what that path of healing actually looks like for you and being very deliberate. Understanding what the role of estrangement has in your life. But I think when you grow up in the kind of traumatic circumstances that create estrangement, you have to heal, you do. People can change and I've seen it happen but also what circumstances some people just don't change. And you have to say to yourself, “I am estranged from my mother because she is an obstacle and a challenge and an impeachment to my own personal growth, development, and happiness - I am not becoming a better person by being around her. Instead, I'm becoming a worse person by being around her.”
But I also have to make space for the fact that she's changing. She just recently enrolled in school, she is really involved with her temple and she's starting to become truly and genuinely more aware of herself, more aware of the way that she treats other people, and aware of how she wants to treat other people. So what does estrangement look like in our current situation based on my current information? Well, it looks like occasionally seeing her because I have to go pick things up at my parents’ house. Occasionally seeing her because I would like to see my brother and my sister and being able to not make it awkward for my brother and my sister. Estrangement can look very different for every individual and so long as you're deliberate about the role which it plays in your life. It looks so different every day because my parents are both my stepdad and my biological mother and they’re both on this journey of healing. I know what my journey of healing looks like and if people held me to the same person that I was, a month ago, two months ago, three months ago, a year ago, that would be unfair. As much accountability as I need to hold towards myself, I also need to hold that same amount of compassion that I want others to give me to these other people that have hurt me.
SWY: Could you please explain your intersectional identities?
J: I'm trans, non-binary, genderqueer and I do not identify with monogamy. I use they/them pronouns. I come from a single-parent home. I'm also racialized. I'm an immigrant/migrant but also a settler on this land. I’m also a survivor of sexual assault twice and a victim of childhood abuse. I’m living with ADHD and being officially classified as having a disability.
SWY: Do you have any advice for individuals who struggle with their intersectional identities?
J: I'm thinking about it because I struggle every day with being divergent. There's a question and it's like my mantra of caring for myself - it's envisioning a place and space or all the places and spaces that I've been where I have experienced both justice and safety for my entire being. I can name two places in my life my entire life that I have experienced personal safety and justice for every single one of my identities. It is the home that I have now that I have lived in for four months and Glad Day bookshop during queer-aoke. Glad day created that space purposely and it was very deliberate. I kind of took a lesson from that playbook and I applied it to my own home.
But, you know, going back to that question – I think the first step is to really sit down with yourself and ask yourself “in what spaces, in what times have you ever felt a full sense of justice and safety for your entire being?” Envision yourself in that space and then work to replicate it and it's exhausting. But you're allowed to have that, you're allowed to have that sense of safety. I make the joke constantly like there are people who live with that sense of safety and justice for their entire being, like 90% of their lives. Like, so if they're entitled to it, we're human, why aren’t we entitled to it? I think the only way that we can pursue it and get it is if we visualize it, think about it, and aim to get it. I'm not saying that that's not hard because it's very difficult to do that. What is missing here and then being deliberate about is asking for those changes. But again, sometimes it's unclear, sometimes it's not possible and that's okay. So long as you recognize that within that space, it's not possible. And then perhaps looking towards other spaces, in which that perhaps is possible.
SWY: You're also an educator. What informs your practice as an educator?
J: I've been really struggling with this because a big piece of being an educator is authenticity and honesty. That's not only like authenticity and honesty with the students but it's also with yourself - being really clear about what aspects of that authenticity and honesty that really other people are allowed to receive or that you should permit them to receive. Making sure that I only share those pieces with people that deserve it and not necessarily everybody deserves to see that part of you, you have to be very careful about who you expose yourself to. As I'm learning and being an educator, working with exceptionalities I have to be more gentle and patient with myself when it comes to speaking - not trying to pour every ounce of myself into my work every single day. I'm not saying I'm not working hard but also not every aspect of my being needs to be present.
The institution of education, as we know it in Canada is inherently gendered, racist, classist and we don't think about that when we think about what the ideal teacher is. My practice is also very informed in the inherent racism and classism. The class implications of the way that we communicate to students in the class, the way that we ask kids from poverty to code switch, the way that we ask students to cater to us but we will only cater to them in a way that is palatable for the government. So navigating the structures that are in place that are supposedly for everybody, but really are not – the people who make the decision at the end of the day about what is right for such a diverse group of people, especially in the GTA. And all of that is to say, making space for the fact that the structures in place aren't made by people like me, aren't made by people who understand what I've been through and navigating that space in a way that I can set an example to the people who come after me that “this teacher was brave enough to do these things, really push the envelope but was brave enough to live that life.” Also that maybe perhaps the envelope will be just a little bit wider by the time they enter the workforce. And hopefully generations from now, there will be a place for people like me to not only survive but also thrive. That's what informs my practice.