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Pulitzer Prize Winner Junot Díaz Opens Up About Childhood Abuse

Junot Díaz. (lilyo / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In a visceral, powerful piece for The New Yorker, Junot Díaz breaks his lifelong silence on the sexual assault that impacted his entire being. He addresses “X,” a reader who once approached him at a signing and asked whether the abuse that some of his characters endured was based on personal experience. The award-winning author of “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” reveals to “X” that while at the time he was unable to peel off the “mask” he’d built as a coping mechanism, “I never told anyone what happened, but today I’m telling you. And anyone else who cares to listen.

“I was raped when I was eight years old. By a grownup that I truly trusted.”

What follows is a profound exploration of the effects trauma and keeping silent had on his well-being and personal relationships from his childhood through his adult life. Now, as Díaz is traveling around the country to promote his first children’s book, “Islandborn,” the Pulitzer Prize-winner has been repeatedly reminded of his childhood and decided to open up about his experiences.

Read an excerpt of Díaz’s essay below:

That violación. Not enough pages in the world to describe what it did to me. The whole planet could be my inkstand and it still wouldn’t be enough. That shit cracked the planet of me in half, threw me completely out of orbit, into the lightless regions of space where life is not possible. I can say, truly, que casi me destruyó. Not only the rapes but all the sequelae: the agony, the bitterness, the self-recrimination, the asco, the desperate need to keep it hidden and silent. It fucked up my childhood. It fucked up my adolescence. It fucked up my whole life. More than being Dominican, more than being an immigrant, more, even, than being of African descent, my rape defined me. I spent more energy running from it than I did living. I was confused about why I didn’t fight, why I had an erection while I was being raped, what I did to deserve it. And always I was afraid—afraid that the rape had “ruined” me; afraid that I would be “found out”; afraid afraid afraid. “Real” Dominican men, after all, aren’t raped. And if I wasn’t a “real” Dominican man I wasn’t anything. The rape excluded me from manhood, from love, from everything.

The kid before—hard to remember. Trauma is a time traveller, an ouroboros that reaches back and devours everything that came before. Only fragments remain. I remember loving codes and Encyclopedia Brown and pastelones and walking long distances in an effort to learn what lay beyond my N.J. neighborhood. At night I had the most vivid dreams, often about “Star Wars” and about my life back in the Dominican Republic, in Azua, my very own Tatooine. Was just getting to know this new English-speaking me, was just becoming his friend—and then he was gone.

No more spaceship dreams, no more Azua, no more me. Only an abiding sense of wrongness and the unbearable recollection of being violently penetrated.

By the time I was eleven, I was suffering from both depression and uncontrollable rage. By thirteen, I stopped being able to look at myself in the mirror—and the few times I accidentally glimpsed my reflection I’d recoil like I’d got hit in the face by a jellyfish stinger. (What did I see? I saw the crime, my grisly debasement, and if anyone looked at me too long I would run or I would fight.)

By fourteen, I was holding one of my father’s pistols to my head. (He’d been gone a few years, but he’d generously left some of his firearms behind.) I had trouble at home. I had trouble at school. I had mood swings like you wouldn’t believe. Since I’d never told anyone what had happened my family assumed that was just who I was—un maldito loco. And while other kids were exploring crushes and first love I was dealing with intrusive memories of my rape that were so excruciating I had to slam my head against a wall.

Of course, I never got any kind of help, any kind of therapy. Like I said, I never told anyone. …

I often tell people that college saved me. Which in part is true. Rutgers, only an hour from my home by bus, was so far from my old life and so alive with possibility that for the first time in the longest I felt something approaching safety, something approximating hope. And, whether it was that distance or my bottomless self-loathing or some desperate post-suicide urge to live, that first year I remade myself completely. By junior year, I doubt anyone from my high school would have recognized me. I became a runner, a weight lifter, an activist, had girlfriends, was “popular.” At Rutgers I buried not only the rape but the boy who had been raped—and threw into the pit my family, my suffering, my depression, my suicide attempt for good measure. Everything I’d been before Rutgers I locked behind an adamantine mask of normalcy.

And, let me tell you, once that mask was on no power on earth could have torn it off me.

The mask was strong.

But as any Freudian will tell you trauma is stronger than any mask; it can’t be buried and it can’t be killed. It’s the revenant that won’t stop, the ghost that’s always coming for you. The nightmares, the intrusions, the hiding, the doubts, the confusion, the self-blame, the suicidal ideation—they didn’t go away just because I buried my neighborhood, my family, my face. The nightmares, the intrusions, the hiding, the doubts, the confusion, the self-blame, the suicidal ideation—they followed. All through college. All through graduate school. All through my professional life. All through my intimate life. (Leaked into my writing, too, but you’d be amazed how easy it is to rewrite the truth away.)

Díaz also alludes to the #MeToo movement, which has allowed many others to come forward with previously unspoken accounts of sexual harassment and violence. Describing another incident in which a reader told him she identified with a character who’d been sexually abused, the author writes:

I could have called after her me too me too. I could have said the words: I was also raped.

But I didn’t have the courage. I turned to the next person in line and smiled.

And you know what? It felt good to be behind the mask. It felt like home.

In this unmasking, for the readers who approached him as well as those who will read this piece, Díaz leads us once again to one of the central concerns of his work as a writer and public figure: the vital importance of representation.

Read the entire New Yorker article here.

Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Assistant Editor / Poetry Editor
Natasha Hakimi Zapata holds a Creative Writing M.F.A. from Boston University and both a B.A. in Spanish and a B.A. in English with a creative writing concentration from the University of California, Los…
Natasha Hakimi Zapata

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