Melissa R. Sipin is a writer from Carson, CA. She won Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open and the Washington Square Review’s Flash Fiction Prize. She co-edited Kuwento: Lost Things, an anthology on Philippine myths (Carayan Press 2014), and her work is in Black Warrior Review, Guernica Magazine, PEN/Guernica Flash Series, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, Eleven Eleven Magazine, and Amazon’s literary journal Day One, among others. Cofounder of TAYO Literary Magazine, her fiction has won scholarships and fellowships from MacDowell, Poets & Writers Inc., Kundiman, VONA/Voices Conference, Squaw Valley’s Community of Writers, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and was shortlisted for the David Wong Fellowship at the University of East Anglia. She is represented by Sarah Levitt at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency in New York. At MacDowell, she completed the first draft of a manuscript for her in-progress novel, Scorched-Earth, which is based loosely on her family’s history and accounts of her grandmother's imprisonment in a Japanese Imperial Army garrison where she gave birth to her first daughter, and her grandfather’s unrecognized service while fighting alongside the U.S. military in WWII. More information can be found at her website.
Lis P. Sipin-Gabon
On Living: A Manifesto of An Incest Survivor
by Lis P. Sipin-Gabon
“In my art, I desire to explore new narratives of the Self. I believe every life is worth mythologizing. In my work, I want to excavate and illustrate the functions of memory. Memory is fluid, malleable, a fragile thing. It is a selection of images—elusive at times, but imprinted indelibly on the brain—and serves as a vital tool for the creative process, whether we write about the Self or not. Whatever we write about, even through imagination, all is filtered and distilled through the Self. ‘It’s surprising how much of memory is built around things unnoticed at the time,’ the novelist Barbara Kingsolver once said. Memory happens. We accumulate memories as we live, breathe and walk on this earth, and in turn, we become an accumulation of our memories. And if our memories were one of trauma, abuse, and dissociation, then the need to make things up, the need to rewrite what happened, the need to control what had happened, to erase it and rebuild it and change it—this is what leads me autofiction.”
— Melissa R. Sipin
“On Mythologizing and Autofiction” in Anthropoid [Published in 2017, the year before we remembered]
The name given to me at birth was “Melissa Rae Sipin,” but this name is not my chosen name. Instead, they were names given to me out of the narcissistic neglect of my birthparents, names given to their second child who was not planned and without much thought. Melissa was after Mercedita, my birthmother’s name, the woman who tried to drown me when I was barely a year or two years old. Rae is for Rafael, the birthfather who raped me. But my system’s name—my chosen name—is Pneuma. The one who is writing to you now, who is the current host of this body, is Lis, the thirty-something-year-old writer, university admin, proud wife and dog-mom. I am a Multiple. I have multiplicity. I have Dissociative Identity Disorder. I am an intergenerational survivor of incest, and I am a survivor of child trafficking. All of these things I have learned of myself after a quiet day in August 2018, the day of my reckoning:
The day I remembered.
It seemed like an ordinary day. I ate a light breakfast, went for an early morning run, and then came home and ate a more hearty breakfast. I laughed with my husband. The night prior, I went to a concert with my cousin, and I danced all my fears away. I thought I was far away—far, far away—from all the broken things of my childhood that I didn’t remember. Back then, my childhood was but a black expanse. There were bits and pieces I remembered, tiny memories, tiny joys, and then blackness. And then, that very morning, I remembered. It came so fast, like your head finally rippling out of the water. I took a shower. As the water rained down on me, I heard it, at first very softly, in the cave of my left ear: the voice of my father. His panting. An auditory memory. The inaudible language of rape.
When I say I have Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), many peer back at me with a confused look on their face. They don’t quite know what that means. When I tell a shifted truth: I am a trauma survivor—a part of their face breaks into understanding. When I say I am an incest survivor—the whole part of their face breaks. They finally understand. DID develops from years of chronic childhood trauma; but, DID is a form of survival. DID forms as the fragmented psyche of a child’s brain when they have no way out, no way to escape the chronic trauma. These are just words, and for so long, my body and my inner parts did not have the language to express to me what happened to us. The only way to escape was through our imagination: through the depths of the spiritual. What happened to me is not rare: so many survivors remember this way—when they are far, far—so very far—away from the all hurt, when they are in a space they can finally, in the safety of the present, process the trauma that has been done to them.
This past February, on the month of my (adoptive) mother’s birth, I did an ancient ritual with a Bontoc and Ibaloi healer to bury my mother again, on our terms. Her name was Lourdes. My mother, Lourdes, who is my biological paternal grandmother, was born in a far away war. In World War II. The daughter of a WWII “Comfort” Woman. She, my mother, Lourdes, was born in a makeshift garrison, during my great-grandmother’s captivity. Her name was Pacita—Little Peace in Spanish, the tongue of our first colonizers, and although she is my great-grandmother, I call her simply Grandma, my second mother. My mother, Lourdes, was a daughter of a sexual slave and an Imperial Japanese Army soldier, but she was considered a miracle child in my family; the babe born in so much violence and war. But when she grew up, my great-grandfather, Diego—a WWII major who fought in the Philippine-American joint army against that invading army—made himself a monster, and raped my mother, Lourdes, his first daughter, which then produced my father, Rafael, the unloved child of incest. My great-grandfather, Diego, was, too, a prisoner-of-war; he, too, was most likely raped. My father, Rafael, was a kanto street boy who was abused and trafficked when he was growing up in the heat and swell of Manila. That’s the thing about trauma: it curses a family for generations. So when I buried my mother, Lourdes, this past month, the healer cried, “Tell Melissa’s unwell ancestor spirits that it is enough. That the pain of incest is done. That with this generation, this violence will finally end.”
There was one spirit—the spirit of my great-grandfather Diego—who did not understand the ritual. He did not understand what was going on, the healer said. The spirit of my mothers, however, my mother, Lourdes, and my Grandma, Pacita, and all of her sisters understood. For so long, it was the women of my family who carried the weight of the traumas that have been done to us. When I first met with this healer, she told me: your ancestors want you to write a book. They said: You must write a book that tells the tale of your family—you must write it to put the unwell spirits to rest.
I realized that day, on that beach, as the Pacific roared back onto the shore and the sea flooded the graves of my beloveds, that what my great-grandfather’s spirit, Diego, did not understand was his story. Why did he rape the ones he loved? He questioned like my father did: how could I hurt the ones I claimed to love? Am I a monster? What he concluded was that he must be a monster, and thus, he has done monstrous things. Like son, like father, like father, like son. I realized that I must write this book for my great-grandfather Diego, too, for him to listen to the pain that he has done. I must write it for those who will listen to understand what happens to a child when they are raped by the very ones who are in charge of sustaining that child’s life.
What I hope to receive when I write is to sustain this miraculous hope and propensity we have for life, in spite of all the traumas we have faced and will face. After I remembered and was given the gift and the burden of telling my family’s story, I have struggled to find the energy to write. As a survivor, I struggle with telling my story: who will believe me? Who will slander my name? Who will say my repressed memories are false? Are lies? And yet, those who will not believe me cannot disagree with the undeniable, matter-of-fact truth: as I radically accepted each and every memory, my life dramatically became better. The nightmares finally stopped. The loud noises in my brain went softer. They told me their names. The phantom scars and ghostly pains disappeared, loosened their grip on this body. I could feel love again, from those who loved me and wished me to live. I could feel their touch, and not dissociate. I could feel, and not dissociate. I could live, and thrive. Things I could not do before I remembered.
What I hope to offer in my art—as I continue and strive to complete my first book—is to share the journey of how I healed through the ancient rite of storytelling. I believe Complex-PTSD when co-morbid with DID is a disease of time. I believe the flashbacks, the memory recalls, the intrusive thoughts are all tied to my parts being frozen into the timelines of their complex traumas that eventually and psychically murdered them. My path to healing was to understand the seemingly disparate associations my memory recalls brought to the forefront of my mind and to rebuild a story that was emotionally true of what happened to me: I needed to understand the mosaic of my life. And in understanding this mosaic, I was able to break the curse of trauma by breaking the endless loop my parts were frozen in; I was able to save them, and bring them to the present. I was able to integrate with the inner parts that felt it was right to integrate. I was able to heal. I was able to be who I always was: a Multiple. Someone who has multiplicity, multiple parts, but who is indelibly me. I was able to finally know my story, all of it, and celebrate my story without abandon, with so much heart and song.
I believe stories can heal, if we listen to each other. I listened to each and every part of me (which I call the “different versions of myself that I could have been”) and their stories. I listened to how they survived, together. How they were able to live another day. How they were able to sing again after our mother, Lourdes, saved us, and taught us, again and again, why life was worth living. So what I offer is to listen: to hear: to speak: to share: to help build the generation of healers that we are and deserve to be. I offer an alternative way of living and accepting the inevitability of trauma. I have suffered so much, and yet, I still want to live. I want to share my story. I want to help build the community that will help us tell all our stories. I simply want to say, in the most artistic and crafted way possible, that there is life after trauma. When my father, Rafael, first raped me at eight years old, I told my mother during the aftermath: “He hurt me so bad that I forgot.” My mother, Lourdes, said: that’s your superpower, baby. That you can forget all the hurt. But if there is ever something, anything at all, that is important to remember, something you want to remember, then tell it back to yourself in a story. And make sure you say it in a good story, because, remember, you don’t very much like bad ones. They’re boring!
That was my first memory recall of my mother, Lourdes. I had forgotten her for twelve long years after her death in 2006. But, just two months after the day of my reckoning, like a coming song, I remembered her: my mother, Lourdes—the woman whose face I hold. Her singing. Her laughter. Her cliché Filipino telltale lessons and proverbs and songs. She was someone I pushed to the back of my brain as a distant aunt I was never close with, a lie we had kept in public to hide the truth of Rafael, my father’s incest origins. And yet, she was my mother. And I, with so much joy, remembered her.
This is why I also want to tell this story: to weave the story of my mother, Lourdes, the babe born in the middle of a makeshift garrison during a violent and cruel war, and how she chose to make a life of healing. And I write of her so that I never, ever, forget her again.
And I will end with this simple moment of gratitude: thank you for listening to my story.
It is my hope with my lifelong work that I can help build a community of trust and kindness, so that I can be strong enough to tell the stories born out of my wild imaginations that helped me survive the hells no child should have to suffer and share it with a world so deserving of peace.
Lis P. Sipin-Gabon worked in the Veltin studio.
Veltin Studio was donated by alumni of the Veltin School, a school for girls in New York with a highly respected visual arts department. As the plaque just outside the entrance attests, this studio was used by poet Edwin Arlington Robinson during most of the 24 summers he spent at MacDowell. Perhaps most famously, Thornton Wilder put the finishing…