On Being Colonized

Before I had ever heard the word “selfie,” I was familiar with the concept. Caleb used to take self-portraits. Dozens, no hundreds, of self-portraits. The position was always the same–Caleb staring somberly into the camera, expressionless.

I found these portraits on his phone on accident. I looked at the thumbnails–all the miniature visages of Caleb–page after page of his miserable face staring back at me.

“What is this?” I asked.

He took the phone and laughed. “I’m practicing for my author photo,” he said.

:They look more like mug shots,” I said.

Later he admitted to me that he had taken the photos as a way of documenting his shame. I don’t know to whom he was documenting this shame, but it wasn’t me.

One day, shortly after I had left him, I was in my kitchen chopping vegetables for dinner while talking on the phone to my best friend, Megan, who  is a counselor (my two best friends talked to me daily, as much as I needed, in the aftermath of his destruction), and I told her casually about his self-portraits. So much of his behavior was normal to me then. Megan stopped me, “Kelly,” she said. “That is really weird. I don’t want to diagnose him, but it sounds so, narcissistic.

“Oh, you don’t need to diagnose him,” I said. “He diagnosed himself as narcissistic to me already. It was his Hail-Mary effort to get me to stay.”

What I didn’t understand then was something that he understood all too well. If it was something we could work on (like him having a personality disorder) then we could rationalize to ourselves that it was something beyond his control. Then we could forgive him. And if we could forgive him, then I needed to stay because, after all, I couldn’t leave someone who couldn’t help himself, right?


He is so  very smart, and I was so very naive, but I was not dumb. I will not own that word. I was naive, and loving, and trusting. I didn’t lie in the way that he did, didn’t manipulate in that way. I simply didn’t have the tools to understand what he was doing. I never would have treated someone in that way. I made leaps to find ways to rationalize his behavior because it was unfathomable to me that someone could be so awful.

I have grieved the woman who couldn’t believe in that kind of awfulness, but I no longer grieve her. I welcome that I will never allow that kind of awfulness into my life again.

I have been studying postcolonial theory. The language resonates with me. It is angry. It is visceral. It speaks back. In postcolonial theory, the colonized speaks back to the colonizer.

I want to speak back to my colonizer.
In this blog, I am speaking back.
No, I am screaming back.

I wear Caleb’s self-portraits on my back. I wear all of those thumbnails like tattoos.

When you see me, think of me walking with the imprint of his face on my back a thousand times. Think of the weight those images cause. Think of me hunched over from that burden.

He claimed me.
Owned me.

He took my body, and made it his own. It was the only body I had, so I had to learn how to survive in the space that he left me


In my graduate class tonight, the professor asked “Can there be decolonization?” And a student replied, “Of course not. You can give them the country back, but they can never go back. They can never go back to the way things were before.”

And I think, I can never be decolonized.

I think, Quit telling me to get over it.

I think, Don’t you think I want to get over it?

In my thoughts, I am speaking to those who are secretly thinking that I should just get over it. If you are secretly thinking this, then I say to you: Quit telling me to get over it. Don’t you think I want to get over it?


I finally eliminated the last mutual contact I had with Caleb. It was a difficult thing for me to do. I cared about this man. I considered him to be a very good friend. I have a hard time cutting ties with friends, so I first tried to get him to cut ties with me. I did this without realizing I was doing it. I acted out–said mean things, made aggressive comments on his Facebook posts, accused him of being a shitty feminist–but I didn’t know what I was doing at the time.

I was trying to get him to cut ties with me because I had been unable to do that to him. I needed him to cut ties with Caleb or cut ties with me, and he was unwilling to do either, which meant the burden fell on me, and it was too much of a burden. I had already lost too much.

It took me all of this time–almost 3 years–to realize that he was another loss. But he, too, was a colonizer, a paternalistic one, but a colonizer. He listened to my sad story. He edited my essays. He supported me. But he also told me to get over it. In the beginning of my narrative, he told me how proud he was of me, how proud he was of me for being so graceful, so kind. At that time, I was being graceful because I was still brainwashed. I hadn’t yet reached the anger portion of my process, so I was being graceful. I was treating Caleb with kindness, which he did not deserve. But this friend never said to me, Caleb does not deserve your kindness.

Instead he said to me, Good girl. Good girl.

I was a very good girl.

I am no longer a good girl.

And when I got angry, this friend tried to be supportive but he supported me by saying, You should not concern yourself with what Caleb is doing. 

As though that was possible. As though Caleb would ever let me forget what he was doing. As though I had not been colonized by Caleb. As though the person who I was when I was being abused didn’t act like carbon paper. As though when Caleb punched his fist into that version of me, carbon imprints weren’t left on the person I am now.

I carry Caleb’s misery on my back.

And this friend thought that he was supporting me, but he only wanted to support me in ways that made him comfortable, in ways that fitted with his dominant narrative of what “recovery” looks like. He wanted me to fit into a redemptive narrative. The colonizer can never view the colonized through any other lens.

Another man, a different friend of Caleb’s told me, “I shared your essay and helped you.”

I shared your essay and helped you.

Again, how very paternal.

I wanted to say to this man, A better way to help me would be by actually putting pen to paper and writing a letter to Caleb saying, “What you did was wrong.”

I wanted to say to this man, You share my essay and pat yourself on the back, but I don’t need that kind of help. You shared my essay because I earned that. I earned that.

I don’t need the help of my colonizer’s friends. I don’t need the help of his fellow colonizers. I’m doing just fine on my own.

Spot the Bruise.

Am I angry? Yes. 

Am I also a complex being with a mixture of emotions? Yes. 

A few nights ago, I told someone, “If I could go back in time to the woman I was and tell her how things would be for me now, I would have left so much sooner.” 

I told him, “Things are really wonderful for me.”

A friend recently wrote me for advice about someone he knows in an abusive relationship. First, I gave him logistical advice, then I told him, “Tell her it will be okay. It will be hard, but it will be worth it.”

And it is. It is so worth it. I am angry, but I am also joyful. And sad. And ambivalent. And fatigued. And amused. And every other thing that any one person can be. I am all of those things. I am not always angry, nor am I always joyful. 

Right now, I am both angry and joyful at the same time.

Mostly, I am triumphant.

Caleb still threatens me. He threatened me on Sunday when he said he wanted primary custody of our son. And his threat threw me into a funk. It was hard to get out of bed the next morning. It was hard to remind myself that I am good enough. (It was the catalyst for this blog post, which has been brewing for a while.)

But then, my son and I worked on his student council campaign. He is in the fourth grade and running for student council. He has already won the preliminary election. He is not worried about losing. He has so much self-assurance. He has all A’s. He is happy. He laughs frequently. He easily tucks himself into my arm when I hold it out. 

And I realized that Caleb has no power over me. 

I am not decolonized, but I am also no longer colonized. 

I am a mixture of the legacy Caleb gave me and the future I have created for myself, but that doesn’t mean that I am broken. I may not be redeemed, but I am not broken. And I do believe that someday, I will no longer carry the imprint of Caleb’s misery on my back.

Until then, I’ll just keep speaking back.

I’ll say to my colonizer(s):
I speak.
I speak back.