I’m Writing the Story

Aaron Encalade

When I was 19 years old, I decided to do a poem addressing my abuser.

I was just a college kid at the time. In a safe space, among friends, a college slam poetry team. It wasn’t like a choice, I just needed to get it out, and my poetry has always been how I’ve done that. I performed that piece for my friends, teammates, and, ultimately, Longhorn Network. Everyone accepted my truth and my vulnerability. So I went with it.

And then, before I knew it, just like that….

It was everywhere. “Imani McGee-Stafford, the childhood sexual abuse survivor.” It seemed as if the entire planet knew I’d been sexually abused from eight to 12 years old. They learned about the darkness, the hurt, the suicide attempts — three to be exact — and a short stint in a county mental hospital.

All of it.

I was all out there. There were things I’d never told my grandma in that story.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t regret it, at all, but….

At the same time, I can’t deny that everything about my life changed in that moment — both for the good and for, well … I’ll just say, the uncomfortable. The good changes, I mean … they’ve been amazing: People all over the world reached out to offer their support and love. I found out my story wasn’t so isolated. I’ve been able to connect with countless individuals who have experienced similar trauma. I’ve had the opportunity to speak about my journey to groups, schools, basketball teams, even the state of Georgia, in hopes that my story can help others get through their own personal challenges. I call myself a hope dealer these days.

I wouldn’t trade any of that for the world. It’s been a blessing, to say the least.

The other part of it all, though? That’s been much more difficult to come to grips with.

And the weird thing is, that other part — the part that has been the most challenging — isn’t something that’s easy to describe or point to. It’s not something tangible like the abuse I was used to. It’s more like, I don’t know … a lingering shadow that follows you wherever you go, something that may not be visible all the time but is still there, in the background, lurking. It’s your deepest secrets entering a room before you do.

In a lot of ways, it’s even worse than something more direct and in your face.

Aaron Encalade

The best way I can describe it is to say that almost immediately after I shared my story, it sort of seemed as though the awful things that had happened to me as a kid somehow became the whole of what I was.

Of who I was.

It became what everyone saw me as.

So, when I’d meet people, I was no longer Imani the funny one, or Imani the basketball player, or Imani the poet, or even Imani the Black woman. I was Imani the survivor of sexual assault.

Imani the Brave.

Imani the Person Everyone Looks at with Sad Eyes and Wants to Hug.

Imani … the Damaged One, the Fragile.

Almost immediately after I shared my story, it sort of seemed as though the awful things that had happened to me as a kid somehow became the whole of what I was.

At first, it wasn’t a huge deal, and I’m definitely not here to blame anyone for having that response. Everyone meant well. I mean, what is the proper response, ya know?

I needed to be able to say I was a survivor — to hold that label, name myself, feel that strength. But after a while, that label felt more restrictive than liberating. When I was a teenager, I used to say that I was screaming at the top of my lungs and no one heard me. That’s how it felt growing up, and all of a sudden this word survivor started to feel the same way. Like I was screaming:





But no one cared. Or wanted to hear it. And I don’t even know if I believed it.

Courtesy of Imani McGee-Stafford

It was like: Why do people only care about this part of me? Why is this all anyone wants to hear about? Why can’t that experience be just a chapter, or a couple of pages, in the book of my life? Why does my abuser still get to shine? He DIDN’T BREAK ME. Why does my trauma have to be the entire f***ing book?

To be honest, I didn’t even want this piece to be about this. But, you know, you can’t write every part of your story. Some things just are a part of it. However, you can determine how much of a role these things have.

As much as I wanted everyone to see me for something other than what had happened to me, deep down….

I actually needed to do that very same thing myself.

When people used to ask me how I was doing I would say, “I don’t wanna die, so....” And I remember my mentor saying, “Imani, you know there’s more to life than not wanting to die, right?”

It was like: O.K., I’ve talked about this. I’ve named it. I’m not ashamed of it. I’m in the process of healing. But … what now? I never really imagined my life past 18, so I really had no clue.

As weird as it may sound, I had to take some time to figure out what living meant. I had to prove to myself that I was, in fact, something more than my trauma. I had to prove to myself that there was more to life than surviving, and that I deserved the more.

I needed to figure out who I was, and who I wanted to be.

The first part of really getting to know myself wasn’t even about my dreams or goals or anything complicated like that. It was about learning to accept myself, and to be content with who I am. Like at my core — the authentic version of myself. (It’s a work in progress.)

Everywhere I turned, I had all these people defining me as this pillar of courage.

It was constantly like: “Oh my God, you’re so brave. Your courage is an inspiration. You are so fearless!”

It was constantly so frustrating because like, yes thank you ... but, also, I didn’t choose to be sexually abused or to be bipolar or any of the plethora of things that burden me. And, by definition, brave is someone ready to face and endure danger or pain. And I didn’t see it that way. I was never ready for this s***.

The terrible things I experienced, those things ... they weren’t a choice. They weren’t anything that came from within.

I didn’t choose my trauma. I didn’t pick my circumstances.

Those were just the cards I’d been dealt.

I basically just reached a point where I woke up one morning and had to figure out what the f*** I was going to do. Was I going to play the hand I’d been dealt, or was I going to fold? And once I decided to keep going, I had little choice but to fight through. It actually had very little to do with me being brave. It was about realizing that I wasn’t calling the shots, God was. And about trying to figure out why he left me down here when I tried so desperately to leave.

And the first step in understanding? It was coming to grips with the fact that I was never going to be able to please everyone, or be able to fully live up to some superhero standard. It was realizing ….

I'm a human being. I'm never gonna be perfect. And I don't have to be.

I had to be good with the fact that sometimes I’m f****g amazing, and I really am a good role model and someone who can be inspiring. Other times, though, I’m a hot mess. I’m a ratchet, potty-mouthed contrarian making all the bad decisions and tweeting the story.

And, you know what? That’s O.K.

That’s the case with literally everyone, whether they admit it or not. Authenticity is being comfortable enough to be yourself — all the time. And I like that word authentic a lot better than brave.

Getty Images

You would think that was the real hard soul work ... but, in reality, it was just beginning.

I had to prove to myself that I was here for a reason — that my story wasn’t some tragedy wrapped up in my trauma. I had to find my why to everything. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the self-pity. I know because I spent the majority of my life there.

But if I couldn’t tell myself why, and focus on another part of my life, then how could I be upset when other people did the same thing?

So it had to happen.

And you know how they say that when you plan your life, God laughs? Well, at this point, he’s probably been doubled over laughing because I couldn’t have fathomed this would be my calling.

I had to be good with the fact that sometimes I’m f****g amazing, and I really am a good role model and someone who can be inspiring. Other times, though, I’m a hot mess.

The one thing that’s always been central to me as a person is that I’m a bleeding heart. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always been that person who wanted to change the world and leave my mark and make things better for people and cure the pain of others. I think the kids these days call that an empath.

And as far back as I can remember, Big Pam (my mom) would always tell me that I was going to be a lawyer.

She’d yell at me for arguing and talking back and say, “You better take that talent to Harvard Law!”

I’d scoff and say I wanted to be an accountant. (I told you, God is literally rolling on the floor laughing.) But over the past couple years, a few things have made that idea seem not quite so ridiculous to me — the lawyer part, I mean.

First off, watching the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh and seeing how the women who accused him of sexually assaulting them were treated by Kavanaugh, and the senators asking questions, and the media….

It was triggering, to say the least.

The inherent doubting of those women's recollections, the refusal to believe what they were telling the world? It was astounding to me. I couldn’t help but think about everything it took for those women to come forward, and about how there were likely other women who had experienced similar things who hadn’t come forward because of what our judicial system and society puts survivors through.

When Christine Blasey Ford — a well-educated, affluent, accomplished, professional white woman — testified during those hearings about what Kavanaugh did to her, and she still couldn’t get anyone to believe her, that made things all the more stark for me. It was like, If they’re not going to believe this person, literally the “perfect” victim if there ever was one, then what did that mean for a Black woman or a sex worker or an uneducated woman?

And knowing that Judge Kavanaugh’s appointment would be, essentially, for life — and that it was going to be granted despite what these women were telling the world — it literally made me sick and sad, like really sad.

But it also really made me want to do more.

Then, add on top of that the four years we’ve all just lived through with a president (A PRESIDENT!) who has literally had more than two dozen sexual misconduct allegations levied against him, and who speaks about women and minorities as if we’re scum of the earth. Our president is supposed to represent our country, and if he represents my country, then where do I fit in? Where do we fit in?

It’s like, Damn, we really, really don’t care about women do we?

And, I mean, history tells us we already knew this right? But, I guess, this felt different.

At one point it just kind of hit me. I needed education to back up this big mouth of mine.

Suddenly law school didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Aaron Encalade

Fast-forward to present day. I’ve taken a break from the WNBA and just finished up my third quarter at Southwestern Law School in L.A. in their two-year accelerated JD program.

It’s challenging and stressful — especially as a 6'7" Black woman with a red fade, tattoos, and bamboo earrings trying to break into a profession that is overwhelmingly white and male. Couple that with the fact that our classes are on Zoom because we’re still in a pandemic. I don’t fit the mold, at all. But at the same time, I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.

Chasing my dreams, but also my calling.

My goal is to use my law degree to advance policies that will assist people like me. I want to help push policies that will better address sexual violence, support access to mental health services, and expand women’s and LGBTQIA rights. I want to be who I needed when I was a child, or at least help to create a world she should have been able to live in.

These issues, they’re my passion. And being the person I am, I absolutely see myself playing a unique role in moving things forward. People tend to specialize in what they know — their research is often grounded in where they’re from or what they’ve experienced — and realistically, there are not a lot of Black women lawyers out there. So Black women are often relegated to asking other people to care about us and protect our rights. It’s always like: “Care about me. Please care about me! Give up a little bit of your privilege so we can have some equity.” That doesn’t even make sense, it’s counterintuitive.

So my goal now is to stop asking decision-makers to care about me and BE a decision-maker … I want to be in the rooms where important decisions are being made.

I want to be a part of those determinations and, as a headstrong, outspoken Black woman, be in a position to lead us in new directions. The way I see it, it’s much easier for you to make a policy that’s going to disproportionately affect me in a negative way when there’s no one in the room who looks or thinks like I do — no one who directly understands my experiences or background or interests. My presence might not change everything but, at the very minimum, it’s gonna make these conversations and policies a lot harder.

So with that goal in mind, that focus … I couldn’t be more excited for the future.

I now know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I was put here on this earth for a reason. And that’s a good f*****g feeling. I promise you.

I truly believe that when you get yourself to a position where you’re supposed to be, the universe responds to that and helps you along the way. When you do things you’re authentically passionate about, the universe responds to that and fills you with everything you need to succeed.

That’s me right now.

That’s where I’m at.

That’s what I’m experiencing in this exact moment.

Because I’m so much more than my trauma — and I know that to be true without a doubt in my mind — much of the speaking and storytelling and advocacy work that I do now is focused on what comes after someone experiences trauma rather than on the traumatic event itself.

I realize now that when we fixate on the harm that was done, and pour all our energy and attention into what happened, we often do so at the expense of what comes next.

We don’t see the after. Don’t know how to navigate the after.

We focus so much on that underlying harm, and making sure that it stops — which, obviously, is imperative. But then it’s like … that’s that. It’s over. End of story.

And that’s just not realistic. That’s not how it works. There is an entire process that takes place next that is absolutely critical to being able to live one’s life and move forward and find happiness in all sorts of ways.

I know that firsthand.

So now when I speak about what I’ve been through, I try to concentrate on who I am and what I’ve become. I focus on how I’ve grown and developed and dealt with setbacks, and still somehow managed to move forward. I focus on the fact that I’m still f******g here despite whoever and whatever has tried to break me, even when sometimes that person was myself.

Speaking candidly about that stuff … it’s not always easy. But at this point, I view it as part of my calling.

And you know what? Every time I feel like, Man, this is a bit much, or I feel overwhelmed or embarrassed or ashamed — every single time! — I’ll meet somebody who tells me in a very real and moving way how my story is also their story, and then thanks me in the most beautiful, heartfelt way.

That does the trick in an instant.

Each time I’m like, I don't think I can do this anymore, or, This is too hard, God will put somebody in my path to remind me why I do what I do. And that stuff, those interactions … they never get old.

They always hit me right in the heart.

Speaking candidly about that stuff … it’s not always easy. But at this point, I view it as part of my calling.

So now, going forward, everything is all about the journey for me.

And that includes basketball.

The more I think about it, the more I now believe that the reason I became a basketball player was so that I can do this work. I know that’s why I’m 6'7" and play in the greatest women’s professional league, the WNBA. I think that’s why God gave me this life and these talents and these struggles.

And yeah, of course, I definitely want to come back to the W (see y’all in 2022 hopefully) and do things like win a championship and be an MVP. But, at the same time, if those things never happen, I’m not going to feel like I’m a failure — which is a tough thing to say in a house with a Hall of Famer and three-time NBA Champion — because at the end of the day I’ll know that I’ve used my athletic talents to achieve things that are bigger than myself.

The way I see it, I can only control what I can control, and that’s having positive energy, being genuinely excited about the things I’m doing, and working hard to see them through.

Beyond that? The rest? That’s in God’s hands. And I have to trust that I’m on the right path.

Aaron Encalade

So whatever comes next for me … I’m good with it.

I believe in myself. I know that I’m going to make my mark on this world. And that feels … good! There’s a certain peace in knowing that, and in getting to work, and in being accepting of whatever comes next. I pray you meet this peace.

It’s just this calm and optimistic feeling that now has me full of hope and positivity and, for a girl who never saw life past 18, at 26, this is a blessing I can’t adequately describe.

At points in the past, I’ve lived life a bit like I was riding a roller coaster — up, down, up, steep drop, up super high again, down, back up, tons of action, everything flying by at a million miles an hour. Constant chaos.

But I’m at a different place now.

I have a goal, and I’m working my butt off to accomplish it. Then I’ll move on to another goal from there. And, hey, you know what, it may not be the sexiest or most action-packed thing in the world to be sitting here with my head in a 1,300-page torts textbook. But….

I’m totally cool with it.

I’m all about waking up every day, going to school, putting in my work, and caring for the people I care about. That, right now … that’s good enough for me. Boring, I know.

It’s like … maybe I don’t have to live out some wild, overly dramatic Lifetime movie for the rest of my days. Maybe I can move on from that stuff and just do my thing. Maybe my life story doesn’t have to be all about trauma and drama and pain. Maybe just because I grew up in chaos, I don’t have to continually choose it, perpetuate it.  

Maybe my movie can just be, like … a more even-keeled, laid-back, cool, inspiring movie. Like a mixture of Mean Girls, Two Can Play That Game, Waterboy and On The Basis of Sex.

I think that’d be nice.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting more. Just know you can’t just ask for it. You have to put the work in for it. You have to tell yourself you are more than the low points in your life. You have to heal for it. You have to pray it, dream it, embody it.

And then you have to go get it, chase it, and tell yourself you deserve it.