|Beth Brant // Degonwadonti // May 6, 1941 - August 6, 2015|
When I was a struggling young mother trying to reconcile my indigenous identity with my romantic and sexual attraction to other women, there was a very short list of Native lesbian writers to whom I could turn for emotional and psychic sustenance: Chrystos (Menominee), Janice Gould (Koyangk'auwi Maidu), and Beth Brant (Mohawk). Published Indigenous lesbian writers were few and far between in the early 1990s. I was lucky, in fact, to hear of any of them; I was just barely beginning to write again after a long period of disconnect from both my Indigenous roots and deeply buried lesbian desires.
Each of these writers had significant impact on my ability to survive the conflagrations in my life at that moment, but only Beth Brant could speak to me as one mother to another. In particular, her piece “A Long Story” about Indigenous mothers losing their children (to residential schools and to patriarchal custody battles based on the mother’s female lover) opened my heart in a way that was at once painfully familiar, and deeply reassuring.
When my then-husband learned of my love for another Native woman, the first words out of his mouth were the only words in the world that could have kept me from leaving him: “You’ll never see those kids again.”
I remember the brown, gold and cream linoleum on the floor. I remember the shock that ran through my body like a whip. I remember being devoured by a fear inside my own body, a fear so old and cavernous that it had no bottom. “You would really prefer to have me live here, like this – you would really take away the kids?” I asked. I don’t know how I asked, I didn’t have a breath in my body – but I know I got those words out in a voice raw with disbelief.
“Yes.” he said. “I would. I’ll find a lawyer who'll do it. It won’t be hard.”
Terror swallowed me, so easily. It took me five more years to fight my way back up from the belly of that beast. In that moment, and for years afterwards, I thought I had lost my mind and my soul. It didn't matter then, and it doesn't matter now, whether this man really would have gone through with his threat. I believed that he would go through with it.
Perhaps I believed so easily, without doubt, because in my family, mothers did lose their children. Children did lose their mothers. When I was three years old, my own mother lost my two older siblings when she ran into her own demons and disappeared for a year. My brother and sister were put into foster care. I went to live with an aunt and uncle, separated from the people most dear to me (my father had been sent to prison). When my mother returned, she believed she had lost custody of all her children but me, and it wasn’t until some years later that she learned she hadn’t – people just let her believe it, so she would give up trying.
That’s what happens to “bad mothers.”
I had lived through the kind of devastation my then-husband was threatening. I was the child whose bad mother had abandoned her. And even though my mother eventually came back for me, in her own way (alcoholism continued to create huge absences even when her body was present), I was never quite certain that the abyss I’d fallen into wouldn’t come back again. Disappearances were not something that only happened on TV or in books. I loved people; those people abandoned me. Left me. Disappeared.
I didn’t know it at that moment, but my then-husband had hit upon my weak spot, my Achille’s heel. In the days and months that followed, I had no name for the terror I felt, no explanation for my inability to eat or keep food down, the swift loss of 40 pounds, a sudden thyroid problem that made my hair fall out, my heart palpitate, my skin grow grey and dry. My Chicana friends would have told me I’d suffered a susto, a sudden fright, a shock to the system. All I knew was that my children were being held hostage, and only my “good behavior” could save them. I had to be a “good mother.” Bad mothers lost their babies.
It wasn’t a pretty time. I did what I had to do. I became a tiny, tiny soul inside a body more like a robot than a human being.
But I knew about Beth Brant’s writing. I had tracked down copies of her books. Perhaps my Indian lover had given me a copy before the end. I hung onto those stories of Indian mothers surviving the loss of their children; I hung onto the knowledge that love was stronger than absence. Not sure whether I believed in my ability to love that much, I simply held on to my life even as it frayed like a rope bearing too much weight.
Beth Brant’s stories were the strands that filled in my own torn fibers.
I never met Beth. Despite the fact that I somehow, slowly, clumsily crawled out of my fear, applied for loans, went to grad school, studied Native American women’s poetry – all the while whispering to myself, “If I can’t have her, I want everything else” – even though I began attending conferences and readings where I met many other Native scholars and authors, Beth and I were never in the same place at the same time. By the time I finally did leave my marriage, a year before receiving my Ph.D., (when my children were old enough to make their own decisions about who they wanted to live with), I was still mostly closeted, swearing close friends to secrecy, afraid to start a new relationship until that moment when I was gainfully employed, a respectable professor, a woman who could stand up in court if necessary, a woman who could claim that yes, I could support my children, and yes, my lover might be a woman, but that did not make me less of a mother.
When that moment came, it was a tremendous triumph. I had survived. I had a Ph.D., a new job as a tenure-track professor at a university in my own town. I could afford to rent an actual home rather than a tiny apartment above a meth lab, and my children could walk between my place and their father’s. I had a paycheck, health insurance and a lifetime of student loans waiting to be repaid.
But I didn’t get there by myself. I had my two fiercely loving children. I had the assistance of many angels, many friends, many helpers who came to me in dreams or as generous souls. I had the dear woman, finally, who would become my wife.
And I had Beth Brant’s stories.
Tonight, sitting down to dinner with my wife, we received a message that Beth Brant had walked on.
I hope that Beth is at peace, and my thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends and loved ones. I hope that she had some idea of how many women’s lives she saved by sharing her own courage. I hope she knew she was loved. I hope she knows how incredibly beautifully her spirit still shines for those of us she left behind -- in her words, stories and creations – and how many women out there are still gaining strength from her willingness to write about what is hard and painful.
Thank you, Beth Brant. Nimasianexelpasaleki, and may your memory be a blessing.