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Trauma remains like a dream within a dream

Trauma remains like a dream within a dream

Picture of Mary Pember
(Photo courtesy of Holly Clark/Flickr)

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

Edgar Allan Poe, “A Dream Within a Dream”

It was Felix the cat who set it off, a great black outline of the cartoon character with his name emblazoned across his chest in a bygone typography. He spoke of an L.A. from the big, big 1950’s, a mythical all the way to the top time. But for me, standing on Figueroa Blvd. in 2014 Felix set off a dream within a dream, one I’d thought was buried forever.

It was here I lived on the street so many years ago.  I arrived on the West Coast in the early 1970’s during the Wounded Knee standoff on Pine Ridge. It was like becoming a star overnight. California turned out to be my personal social polar opposite from the little Wisconsin where I grew up; here I was reborn into an exotic creature whose company was sought by white men. Now more than a perceived easy piece of ass, I was transformed into arm candy. Like Marlon Brando, they wanted to bask in the T.V. news light of an Indian girl. My 15-year-old heart, dry from disregard, swelled with all that new love, inappropriate and otherwise. I drank it all in, disregarding the power these events might forever hold over me as they lodged in my soul.

The L.A. of my youth came to me last night. Of course, it’s all still there, liked those long nights when I rode around with Jim in his white Cadillac. A Missouri man in his 30’s he spoke of his longtime love of Indian people and dream of having an Indian wife. Vaguely aware of Jim’s insane proposals, I listened to the radio and watched the city unfold like a real life movie starring me. He found me at the type of homeless shelter that no longer exists, really more of a semi-formal crash pad with a mess of beds on the floor. It was a huge run down house in East L.A. where I sat on the front porch, completing the movie cast of characters who spilled out onto the street.

I was fending off the advances of a biker who was growing weary of my sassy mouth.  He was on the verge of hitting me when Jim intervened, beginning our short relationship. I joined Jim and his friends, an ex-prostitute and biker, who lived by shoplifting and reselling items to others.

Today that blazing L.A. sun made everything way too vivid and Felix, like a talisman, drew me back to those days on Figueroa Blvd where my Midwestern ears were thrilled by the foreign, mysterious sound of the name. I was once here in this sun looking up at Felix with smog and sweat mixing into the oily creases of my neck.

Earlier at the shelter, one of the workers gave me some thorzine and took me to his room. I watched as another girl’s limbs dangled in the air while the man had sex with me. Later I was in the hallway more tired than I had ever been; Jim found me and made me walk. We drove and we walked and we looked up at Felix.  I think now, I may very well have died if Jim hadn’t made me stay awake and keep walking.

Even as a kid, though, I sensed the deep wrongness of Jim and what he offered.  I sensed the deadly nature of his cloying control; thankfully knowing it was too much.  I’d seen enough female relatives dragged across floors to know what life with such a man would mean. I dodged the trap and I fled but not before he threatened to kill me. I knew he wasn’t kidding and I went on to Berkeley where the street life was a bit more forgiving.

Even though I can now name those long ago traumas and the associated fears, their power can never really be dismissed from my life. Signs like Felix the cat can still blind side me, reminding that healing is an ongoing process. The monkey is always there; sometimes he’s just off in the corner.

These days, my life is safe. I have a loving husband and family and I quietly revel in the comfort of my matron status, free from the chaos of my younger days. Despite all this support, however, I am still vulnerable to the past.

On the first night after seeing Felix, I dreamt that Jim had invaded my home. As we scuffled with him, he pulled out a gun. I screamed when I saw its barrel pressed against John’s (my husband) grey, balding head.  His head was so completely fragile in that moment that I was queasy with fear. Finally, I glimpsed the barrel of the gun; it was red plastic. My world was safe. 


Picture of Jazelle Hunt

Wow, thanks for sharing Mary. Your writing is so vivid.

Picture of

In Canada, in the last ten years the Indian Residential school experiences of former students have been exposed that tell of the historical woundedness Residential schools have caused as well as the negative impact on the former students and their descendants. I have been a health support worker since 2007 in the Saddle Lake Area in Alberta, Canada.


The Center for Health Journalism’s two-day symposium on domestic violence will provide reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The first day will take place on the USC campus on Friday, March 17. The Center has a limited number of $300 travel stipends for California journalists coming from outside Southern California and a limited number of $500 travel stipends for those coming from out of state. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


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