The women who went before

My great grandmother was a slave, her daughter and granddaughters prostitutes. It is quite a legacy and one I have worked with in my life to heal and to turn the tide for generations that will come after.

Just over a week ago, I attended a workshop for a kind of work called “Gender Reconciliation.” It’s essentially a healing work to help the genders find compassion and common ground for healing the wounds between them. It was deep work, and I found myself reconsidering my ancestors with different eyes. Rather than seeing myself as the sole daughter of a single-parent schizophrenic, I looked back to the women who went before, and to the larger cultural (and even global) context that held us all.

The first relatives I know of were my great grandparents, John and Mary. They came from Poland. She was 17 when they married, he 27.

The family story goes that Mary’s parents sold her into indentured servitude in Poland when she was five. She remained there until she met John, moved to Ohio and then Pennsylvania, where she gave birth to five children.

Human trafficking has always bothered me immensely. I have pondered the intense pain of the wounds people have suffered throughout history and continue to suffer into the present. For some reason, I failed to put together the current situation with my reaction to it and the fact that my own great-grandmother was sold by her poor parents in order to support themselves. One little girl, over a hundred years ago, who lost her parents. She learned by living a harsh reality that she was not a treasure. She was a commodity.

She met my grandfather, the illegitimate son of the Polish ruling class. He was intelligent but frustrated: he should have had power, based on his ancestry. Instead, he was a laborer. The frustrated ruler met the slave, and they formed a match made somewhere shy of heaven.

Their youngest daughter, Rosie, grew up Roman Catholic. She was pretty, but she also saw ugliness daily in the interactions between her parents: her mother resisted having sex with her husband, and rape was a common experience in their home. So common, in fact, that she relayed the information to her own daughters later.

Rosie was pregnant at 15, giving birth at 16 to my aunt, Rose Marie. She married a man who was in love with her, not the father of her first child. She had my mother, Mimi, next, then her last child, my uncle, Jan.

Rosie told her children that she divorced Chester because he once “kicked her in the ass.” She was having none of it. She was scrappy and could be as mean as she needed to be. She divorced his ass, and she supported her children as a hairdresser and a prostitute.

She never expressed shame or embarrassment. She was glamorous, stunning even. She proudly used men for their money, and she eventually taught her daughters to do the same: both my mother and aunt prostituted for stretches of time to support themselves. My mother and aunt told me stories about their childhoods, the pedophiles in the family, their mother’s abuses and neglect, that created a deep sadness and sense of hopelessness within me. The men would use us, and the women could teach us only to use them in return. For me, it was a bleak history that could only point to a dark future.

In Gender Reconciliation work, I learned some perspectives through which to reassess some of this history.

  • First, both the men and the women were deeply traumatized and victimized. The wounds were vicious, deep and frequent. Little girls were not treasured, protected, cared for. Boys and men were treated as animals: they had no higher function than what their genitals and wallets could perform. Souls and hearts were empty words, not precious aspects of our fully human selves.
  • Second, I am not alone. My single story (which I’ve focused on extensively in my book and this blog) is part of a global context. There are many others in the world like Mary, Rosie, Mimi, Rose Marie and myself. I may end the cycle of abuse for my family line, but there is more work to be done.
  • Third, there is hope. Gender Reconciliation exists, and it is a growing hope that the abuses can stop. It is possible that the mutual using can stop, that we can hear the pain each gender experiences. We can change because our stories change us. We can no longer abuse the human being who has become a sacred person in our eyes.
  • And lastly, what I have learned on a very personal level is that my power and my healing come from fully owning and being a compassionate witness to my own story and for letting all of it become the material from which I contribute to the solution. I will continue to write. I will continue to listen. I will continue to feel all of the pain because, in allowing myself to feel the pain, I am also free to feel the joy of being alive and no longer being a slave to my family history.

For more information on Gender Reconciliation, go to