Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and LiteratureFall 2015
Selkies: Domestic Violence & Animism
By Heather Awen
In myths, a Selkie is a Seal Woman who has had her pelt stolen by a human man and unless she gets it back, she is his wife against her will. I once met an Alexandrian Wiccan woman who called herself Selkie. We were at a women’s only Reclaiming Witchcraft event and her husband, also an Alexandrian, was very, very angry at her for being at a women’s only event. Her name may have said far more than she ever realized.
In stories about Selkies, as a child, I was mostly horrified that as soon as the Selkie stole back her skin she abandoned her children when she raced back to the sea to rejoin her seal community. What I should have wondered was why she didn’t murder the human male who trapped her.
My second marriage was marked very much by this kind of abuse. I was trapped and he knew it. My husband trapped under the guise of being “protective.” This is a red flag of a controller – anyone who thinks they can decide what you need to not know or do for your own protection. I was powerless very quickly under the guise of love.
Rereading the emails of the 6 months before I moved in, I realize I was being duped because everything changed as he unloaded the truck, putting me and my life in his confines. Suddenly, out of nowhere, he tells me about how his porn consumption was totally normal and never to bring it up. The next day he shocked me again when he moved me off his lap, saying, “If you ever told me a hot girl would be sitting on my lap and I’d push her off, I’d have said you’re crazy.” and basically the sex stopped.
He knocked me on the head and stole my Selkie skin. I have you and now you do what I want--end of story. The situation catapulted me into a severe depression. I thought I loved him, but I see now I loved the lies he told, the person he only pretended to be. When he became himself, I was terrified. Fear is not love.
He told me once that his first girlfriend threatened to kill herself after only dating him a month or so. They were TEN. I asked if this was a common response of women he dated and he said, “Yes, it happens a lot.” If half of your exes are suicidal with you and/or when you leave, you are the cause. It was nice to know I’m in the survivor’s club, but that is a Selkie seeking man.
The Selkie is a prisoner. The children are the result of rape. The survivor Selkie acts the perfect wife until she finds her fur and then bolts without a glance back.
As a survivor of psychological, verbal and physical domestic violence, that pretty much sums it up – until the end. Out of fear and helplessness you play the role you are forced to play, just like the Selkie. But when you leave, there is no beach and no other Seals. You just try to glue the ripped parts of your skin –your true self – back to your numb and bleeding flesh. There are no other Selkies to swim away with to a better place. Your own fur may feel wrong, because you were so used to being something you were not for so long. You’re just a woman with a raggedy handful of who you were standing in shock outside the prison.
As an animist, the Selkie is the wild untamed true nature of someone, a seal, a human, a river, a seed, etc. A human then captures it and breaks its will. That is what domestication means – to break something’s will. Think--breaking in a horse. I have a lot of Sagittarius in my chart. Put a saddle on me and I will buck. My husband broke my spirit. Everyone said so, they looked in my eyes for the first three years post-him and said, “You’re gone. The light is gone.” That is what a Selkie marriage is about: having your will broken.
There is nothing equal in the Selkie-human marriage. She is not there of her own free will. Even today many women stay because they have no money or contacts to leave. I was that woman Samhain 2006. Every fiber of my being screamed “RUN!” Instead I killed my awareness. I became whatever he said to be. Each time he broke my will a little more, I became a little more insane.
When we finally broke up I contacted some of his ex-girlfriends. What he did to me was the exact same thing he did to them, although because I was his “true love,” he did ten times worse to me. All of them needed therapy to recover a sense of reality. It was comforting because they are actually really cool, caring women. Talking to them helped convince me he was the one who is nuts. He was the horrible skin-stealer.
Your skin is your boundary. If someone takes that, they can go inside of you and mess with you anyway they want. Having been through that, I can say you have to dissociate and leave your body/soul/mind or you will die.
A Selkie is a living flayed woman. Trapped in her home, she plays the good wife because she is vulnerable to everything the man does. Completely vulnerable. He can violate her soul all he wants. Those children she leaves behind are perhaps not human or Selkie children, but the results of mind rape, soul rape. He takes her anyway he wants and fucks her near dead corpse and as a result things are born from her. Things like self-harming behavior, things like addiction, things like dissociative identity disorder, those are his children. And the Selkie leaves them with the man.
That is what is missing in real life. In real life, the woman usually is not only staring at her skin, wondering if it’s safe to wear, whose it is, or if it even fits her anymore. Or has she been changed forever? No, she’s also suckling his spirit breaking rape children of shame, self-doubt, utter confusion, numbing out, fight or flight-- all the effects of trauma.
In my experience, the key to healing is putting the shame on the right person. The victim is the one who feels the shame that is the perpetrator’s. Without a lot of support the victim will believe the abuser’s story. I had that support at first, but I was in such shock I couldn’t believe what had become of me. I still defended him because the reality was too painful. It took years before I could talk about the stuff he did to me. By that time, everyone was gone from my life because I was so… dead and hysterical, as I woke up and then knocked myself unconscious for years. My diagnosis was Stockholm Syndrome.
Why would I make myself deny the truth that everyone else knew? In the words of a mutual friend, “He tricked us all, not just you, but harmed us all by lying to everyone. We ALL believed in him. We’ve all been betrayed. How could he have done that to so many people?”
Because I was scared I’d get caught. Maybe a lot of my insomnia and sobbing is the terror that he will catch me now and take my skin away again. Breaking the silence is a huge trigger for me. I still fear the punishment of speaking. Writing this is incredibly hard for me. But silence equals death, and I won’t let anyone kill me.
My ex made me swear when I moved in that I would never discuss our relationship with anyone: Another psycho crazy red flag. He changed so much and so fast once he got my skin, I was never sure what to expect. I stayed a prisoner without the velvet prison.
Steve Biko said that when you have broken a people, colonized them totally, you don’t have to actively oppress them anymore--they will oppress each other and themselves. Apartheid is a form of internalized racism. Maybe all people internalize their oppression. As a disabled woman, I fear I am suffering from internalized ableism. ,I am internalizing messages I didn’t have whenI “passed” as a TAB (temporarily able bodied). I have lowered my standards.
Internalizing your oppressors’ messages is what I call being mentally colonized. It is incredibly hard to undo mental colonization. There are probably many ways we all have, in the words of the band CRASS, “been taught to support (our) oppression.” The messages come from the media, from parents (my mother likes to say that my ex-husband treated me how his parents treated him and this is very common), from schools, from doctors, from all aspects of socialization. Anything that breaks our will.
If you know any women, you know a Selkie. She probably smiles a lot and feels very lucky to have “love” even though “so many things are wrong with her, he’s so great.” Her partner has full access to her central nervous system with the skin gone. If you get to know her, you may feel that you should kidnap and decontaminate her. Since you can’t, you leave (it hurts to watch) and hope that if she finds her pelt and makes a run for it, she won’t be too ashamed to look you up.
And if a Selkie, skinless with children who torment her arrives in your life, her fur barely covering her muscles and tendons, don’t take the kids away. It is all she has left from the nightmare she lived threw. At her own pace she will see that they are not her responsibility and she will stop nurturing them and instead will drop them off at their father’s. Those children are all that she has left from the marriage, her only proof she was harmed, and she needs to be the one who decides when she has understood all she can from them.
It just takes time. Like an abandoned lot, it takes time for the land to become wild again: To break through the cement, to erode it into soil, for the first plants to die and leave nitrogen as other plants move it. Then maybe a small pine forest with a few birch and later hardwoods like oak and beech. It just takes time.
I propose the Selkie as the symbol of solidarity with persons in these types of relationships no matter what their gender or sexual orientation. Like the rainbow pyramid that says here is a safe place for gays or the POW MIA flag which reminds us to never forget those lost and never stop trying to bring them home, the Selkie says the same for all Selkies: Even those who don’t know they are Selkies.
May all Selkies reclaim their skin and find other Selkies to swim with safely.
Heather Awen is an artist, mystic, journalist, animist, rewilder, polytheist and social anarchist activist in Vermont dedicated to true liberation and equality, including a world where the differently abled and chronically ill have control over their own treatments, housing, food, relationships and lifestyles like any other adult. Having cerebral palsy, chronic fatigue syndrome and severe chemical intolerance, she is grateful for chemical sensitivities, as she believes they may save humans from their toxic addictions, solving many ecological and social problems. She is the creator of the Safe Canary Nest website, the largest international resource for those with multiple chemical sensitivities, and reads dissertations and comic books for fun.