We’re very grateful to share this powerful piece by C. Marcus Odden.

Editor’s note: the following recounts a story of child abuse and should be read with discretion.

Shame in the Desert

I was sexually assaulted in the middle of a desert when I was ten years old.

It’s an uncomfortable opening line, I’ll admit. I watched the text cursor blink for what seemed like an eternity before trepid fingers tapped out what would inevitably bring up some all too familiar feelings. These are feelings I should be equipped to handle—I have trauma therapy under my belt, I’ve had a thousand conversations with family and friends, even issued a statement to law enforcement—but cutting the truth down to such a simple phrase still causes the hurt, loneliness and anger to resurface. That’s the venom of abuse; it becomes a Promethean liver on which the eagle comes to feed, plucking out memories, emotions, and (perhaps worst of all) unanswered questions. There are moments of clarity, but for the most part, being a victim causes you to feel directionless—like being in a desert without a map.

I’ve decided to focus my story on deserts. Not only for the metaphorical purpose, but because it’s where I was abused. Literally. I was in a place called Sears Point, AZ with a trusted family member (now incarcerated), in a soulless expanse of sand and heat. Deserts are often thought of as lonely, desolate, and empty, and it’s almost alarming how similar the setting of the event is to what it brought to my life. For the sake of understanding, I’m going to briefly recount my experience. If you’re sensitive to this sort of thing, I’d suggest skimming over the following italicized paragraphs:

  • It’s noon – We are driving on a long road and listening to music. I always liked traveling with this person because we’d listen to the kind of music my parents didn’t approve of and that made me feel grown up.
  • It’s afternoon – We stop at a supermarket. He buys wine and snacks and firewood; the last of the essentials we’d need for this camping trip.
  • It’s dusk – We find a secluded area in a fairly large camp site. Our nearest fellow campers were at least a five minute walk down the trail. We start unpacking the truck.
  • It’s evening – I am given enough wine to make a grown man tipsy. So much, in fact, that I couldn’t make the climb down the hill without help. The first time I’d ever been drunk.
  • It’s late night – He is preparing an air mattress while I sit nearby trying to not be dizzy anymore. He’s telling me tales of the Native American tribes that once inhabited the same land that we were on. Speaking of a particular chieftain, he pushed my hair back and said, “He would kidnap and fuck little boys just like you.”
  • It’s time for bed – I am forced to sit and watch as a grown man strips naked in front of me. I am told to strip naked as well, despite numerous pleas to keep my underwear on.
  • I’m afraid- I climb into my sleeping bag, but I am told that we need to share one. We needed the body heat to stay warm, you see…
  • I’m helpless – I am touched inappropriately. I am held inappropriately. I want to be somewhere, anywhere else.

Things go black in my memory at that point. The next thing I can remember is waking up to the light of day, unable to move due to a grown man sleeping with his naked body over mine. I don’t remember everything that happened that night—either because it’s been subconsciously walled off for my own mental protection—or because there’s nothing more to remember. I used to wonder about it, feeling entitled to know the extent damage that was done to me. But I’ve realized I don’t need all the details to call it what it is. A spade is a spade, after all.

My immediate reaction was non-existent—I didn’t feel anything. And aside from telling this person that I didn’t want to go on any more trips with him, I resumed my childhood in a pretty normal fashion. The whole affair was placed in the back of my mind, and I never allowed myself to acknowledge that I was sexually assaulted, let alone tell anyone or talk about it. Hell, it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I finally told my own mother. I was oblivious to the damage. But as is typical with traumatic events, this would eventually prove to be an atomic bomb on the timeline of my life, the blast of which echoed far beyond pubescence and shaped the fabric of my identity and habits. I ignored it for the longest time—something about snubbing the ache felt like victory. But the shell-shock never waned, and I can trace a lot of the things I hate about myself as an adult to this defining moment.

I’ve grown up now. I’m stronger, smarter, and able to defend myself. But I can’t deny that in a lot of ways, I’m still just a kid in the desert—naked, violated, and afraid.

Meaning in the Desert

Picture a desert in your mind… You may see an endless expanse of dunes topped by an orange, scorching horizon. It may be the rocky, uneven landscape of Joshua Tree. Perhaps it’s the dusty flatlands you’d see in a western movie, sparse with cacti and the occasional tumbleweed. There’s a few different ways to imagine this, and the variety is less important. I’m more willing to bet that the majority of us—regardless of the nuances—picture something empty…a barren wasteland void of life.

Deserts are typically associated with solitude and mystery. They are a place where people can get lost. They are a place where bodies are buried and where secrets are hidden. This presumption is so prominent, in fact, that even the most famous desert city in the world holds as its motto “what happens here, stays here…” None of this necessarily elicits a negative response from us, per se. I think the case can actually be made that we’re fascinated with the idea. How many stories involve a desert as the prominent setting? How many well-known characters, whether it be Aladdin or the Man with No Name, are inherently tied to this place? Throughout television, film, and literature, deserts are portrayed not just as a setting, but an obstacle to overcome. They’ve become an archetype in their own right, often used as an antagonist working against the hero as much as any villain in the story. I’ll go over some examples:

  • In one of my favorite opening lines, Stephen King begins his Dark Tower epic by writing “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed…” This sets off the adventure of Roland Deschain as he desperately seeks to capture the mysterious Man in Black and ultimately reach The Dark Tower. This creates a glut of questions in the reader’s mind that beg to be answered: Who is the Man in Black? Why is Roland chasing him? As you delve into the book, you do find a formidable enemy, but it becomes clear that the real obstacle standing in Roland’s way is not the Man in Black, but the barren wasteland he finds himself in. He is bound to it, defined by it, and ultimately trapped in it.
  • Regarding television, most fans can remember the first time we saw it; a timid high school chemistry teacher receives a grim diagnosis—late stage lung cancer. In an effort to leave something behind for his family, Walter White takes to cooking and selling meth with former troublesome student, Jesse Pinkman. While plenty of people step up to foil his plans (some of the best villains in TV history), the main character’s inevitable downfall ends up being himself, but there also seems to be an importance placed on the setting… Episode after episode, the chronicle of Walter’s ruination is juxtaposed with beautiful—and often drawn out—panoramic shots of the New Mexico landscape. The story even culminates to an episode called ‘Ozymandias’ in which Walter, much like Rameses II in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem of the same title, loses everything in the desert. Everything he’d built—his entire legacy—crumbles at the sound of a gunshot.
  • In Alan Moore’s masterpiece graphic novel, Watchmen, the transfigured Dr. Manhattan is accused of causing cancer in a number of people, including his former lover, Janey. The context of the desert is different in this case, but it follows the same theme we see in the other stories. Instead of being trapped already, Manhattan exiles himself to Mars as a result of being entirely alienated. One of my favorite panels shows the lonely character sitting on a rock in the middle of the pinkish landscape of the foreign planet, with nothing but sand and stars around him. The accompanying quote is, “I am tired of Earth. These people. I am tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives.” The martian desert becomes his isolation, and there he is forced to reconcile not only his own narrative, but the narrative of all humanity.
  • Film is a medium riddled with this type of character and story. It would be easy to go into the post-apocalyptic tales of Mad Max or The Book of Eli, but I think I’d be doing all of us a disservice if I shied away from the greatest story of all time. Star Wars uses the desert repeatedly to show a character’s humble beginnings. From Tattooine to Jakku, the journeys of Anakin, Luke, and Rey all begin in this place. For them it represents hopelessness—being stuck in meager circumstances with only the wild fantasies of an adventure to keep them going. This is especially true of Luke and Rey, who are exiled to these places due to some kind of tragedy. The central theme of the story is always hope. There is a goal behind unconquerable odds. There is an imbalance that needs to be balanced—and in every saga, the desert symbolizes the hopelessness that these characters seek to escape.

It’s really no wonder that these stories have always resonated with me. Not that my entire life is based around this shameful thing that happened to me, but it certainly made its mark. And I doubt that it would have been any less traumatic had it taken place on a beach or in a bedroom, but we all have to reconcile our own individual storms of hurt and worry in order to carry on as semi-functional members of society. And being a storyteller by nature, it’s in my blood to try and find the meaning in things.

So I think about the desert.

Hope in the Desert

So how do I find meaning? How can I reconcile what was taken from me? If Luke Skywalker can escape his desert, I can escape mine too, right? If only an all-powerful entity like the Force would will me into its grand narrative, propelling me towards a destiny in which I would rectify not only my own wounds and iniquities, but the wounds and iniquities of an entire galaxy… that would be nice. But it’s not the way life works. I, myself, can do nothing to escape the cards that were handed to me.

While the Hero’s Journey is sometimes less applicable in real-life, the theme of the desert should be familiar to all of us. It represents the endless struggle, feeling stuck in the inescapable and endless stream of obstacles. And in the midst of this, every one of us searches for hope in something. The Exodus story shows us the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years, pining for food and longing for the Promised Land. In that harsh and unrelenting environment, the eventual despair they succumbed to is more than understandable—it’s relatable. Instead of finding hope (which was readily available) in the midst of their circumstance, they sought escape. Whether you regard these stories as myth or nonsense does little to negate the haunting parallels to our own tendencies. I’d wager I’m not the only one who is prone to ignore or seek immediate resolution to my problems rather than examine them. We pine for escape in spirituality or careers or even vices, and this “deflecting” method does nothing but bring temporary relief. We do it because it’s comfortable. As people who often profess to be enlightened and self-aware, we really have no idea how to find peace in the midst of our difficulties.

This question established in the Exodus account—the question of how to find hope in the desert—is answered (appropriately enough) over a thousand years later. Even more appropriately, it comes (much like Luke from Tattooine) out of an unlikely desert town commonly thought to yield nothing of significance. A scruffy Galilean-hobo emerges claiming divinity and spreading a message of hope to anyone in need of it. This individual did so much damage to the social order that he was executed for it—an odd death for someone who’s central message was based on saving people from the land of death they lived in. The greater paradox, however, is the doctrine declaring that this person is simultaneously man and God. The idea that an all-powerful being would lower himself to a mortal existence and inhabit the realm of man is scandalous to say the least, but that’s exactly where you find the prospect of hope; that someone claiming to be capable of delivering us from this affliction also endured his share of it. That he did what we cannot do: He defeated the desert.

I expressed earlier that I often still feel like that same kid I was a long time ago. I was naked, violated and afraid, and have since spent a good portion of my life wandering the desert in search of hope, unaware that hope was actually searching for me. Hope sought me out in that place. It clothed me and gave me water. It bade me to follow and find rest. Hope didn’t require me to be clean. It didn’t require me to be well-behaved. It wasn’t contingent on my political standing or sexual orientation. It was a rescue without requirements. And though I haven’t fully escaped my desert, I am being led out by Christ.

This is great and treasured news.