The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: All We Knew But Couldn’t Say by Joanne Vannicola

I HELD ON TO MY SECRETS about my mother in feminist circles. I had to. No one talked about women who hurt women. I didn’t want to take away from the larger conversations about sexism,
racism, or male violence against women, but when I started to ask or mention the idea of women as perpetrators, I was chastised. It kept me out of the circle, unable to speak to it because the space was
needed to talk about misogyny. I understood because I felt the same way, except I needed to be silent once again, even though I wanted to fight the women who screamed at me, and on a few occasions I did.
“It doesn’t mean I hate women because they hurt me. I know what it’s like to be hurt by men.” I wanted to say It’s not my fault. It wasn’t, wasn’t my fault that I carried my mother on my back, all
the shame she heaped on my shoulders. I apologized for exposing it when I heard things like “It’s so rare, there aren’t even any stats” or “It’s not the same.”

I wasn’t comparing, and if it was rare, then I was rare but just as real.

But it wasn’t healthy to apologize for a history I had no part in making. They could not hold on to my reality while battling sexism; it inspired a rage in others I didn’t know what to do with, so I apologized.

Women could not let go of their ideas of the struggling mother or the good mother or the abused wife, and the narrative I presented took away from that focus. But people forgot the context — that men and women who grew up in violence or abuse were not immune to repeating the patterns of abuse simply because they might be female. We hadn’t been able to get the culture to acknowledge that sexism and male violence were at the core of so many of our struggles as women, so to expose the abusive woman, the abusive mother, was just too much for many.
Women may live in a misogynist culture, but so, too, do women have power over those more vulnerable: children. We do no one any good by believing we do not have power, or power over. Just
as my mother had been an abused girl, had been victimized by the province she grew up in and the rules of her generation, she, too, had power over her children. All of this was true at the same time.

I couldn’t allow myself to feel invisible, not after surviving both my parents, not after the journey to get to where I had arrived. It had been a lifetime of trying to tell. I could not speak when I was a
child, could not find words as an adolescent, had nearly died from starvation while trying to tell the world about my mother and my father, and had almost erased my lesbian identity to keep others
safe, to not rock the boat, to fit into the industry. It had been a lifetime of secrets. I could not allow my reality to be dismissed in order to protect someone or something else anymore.

Every woman I met carried their experiences in their bodies. It was in every face and story shared, even by the most stoic and brave of women, the toughest women or butches, even those who
had killed men or had been in prison, whose armour cracked and who shed tears while recounting the wounds of homophobia, hate, rape. I presented an unusual and complex reality without reference for others, which made it difficult to believe and hold.

So I found solace in silence again, the safest space.

In honor of National Women’s History Month, this selection comes from the book, All We Knew But Couldn’t Say, available from DunDurn Press.  Purchase your copy here! Our curator for this selection is Nilsa Rivera.

Joanne Vannicola is an Emmy award-winning actor, author, and advocate. Vannicola is the chair of outACTRAto, the LGBTQ+ committee at ACTRA Toronto, and sits on the sexual assault ad-hoc committee for women in film and television. Vannicola is the recipient of the Leslie Yeo award for volunteerism (2019), and the recipient of The Margaret Trudeau Advocacy Award (2020). Joanne founded the non-profit organization, Youth Out Loud, raising awareness about child abuse, sexual violence, youth rights, and LGBTQ+ equality. All We Knew But Couldn’t Say, was released in June, 2019, and has been featured as the Top 21 memoirs to read in summer by Bustle magazine, and was featured on The Next Chapter by Shelagh Rogers, the Toronto Star, the Globe, CTV mornings, NOW Magazine, The Girly Club, and the Lambda Literary Reviews. They are currently co-developing a new series, and working on their second book, exploring themes of LGBTQI homelessness. You can learn more at: Or on Twitter or Instragram: @joannevannicola

Nilsa Rivera Castro writes about women with a socio-economic disadvantage and the effect of trauma, hearing loss, homelessness, and violence in their lives. Her work has been featured in Huffington Post, 50 GS Magazine, Six Hens, The Selkie Literary Magazine, LipServices Miami, Writing Class Radio, and The Cream Literary Alliance. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram at @nilsawrites.


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