Exploring the stories of women who live by a ride-or-die philosophy

[INTERVIEW] “You Don’t Get to Say How I Love” An Interview with Clarissa Chandler

By Amanda Parris | @amanda_parris One of the first things I noticed when I met Clarissa Chandler several years ago was how she spoke. I was intrigued by this woman who had spent much of her adult life “working with women around experiences of violence and healing and resiliency.” Having lived only in busy urban cities and constantly being involved in work that is urgent, immediate and time-sensitive, I generally fail to notice how fast everything moves until I am confronted with those who take their time. I was reminded as I interviewed her over the phone one fall afternoon that Clarissa takes her time. Listening to Clarissa tell a story is a lesson in how to choose one’s words, tones and even punch-lines in a measured and deliberate way. I have had the pleasure of listening to Clarissa tell a few stories over the years. When I began The Ride or Die Project with my friend Keisha-Monique Simpson, we created a list of people with whom we wanted to discuss the idea and get feedback. Clarissa was one of the names on that list. It didn’t require a lot of explanation for Clarissa to understand what we were talking about. Although not a part of the Hip Hop generation, and in spite of never having heard of The Lox or Eve, the ride-or-die philosophy was familiar and recognizable:

 Someone close to me who I loved dearly, when she was 16 was seduced by a man who was in his 30’s, got her pregnant and the people around her who cared about her were totally outraged right….people were so outraged about it that they interrupted the relationship and terrorized the guy out of her life. She had the child, everybody grew up. She never had another relationship. She waited until she was a grown woman, went and found the guy, came into the relationship and had four more children with him….and at about 40 died violently at his hands. Which kind of made everyone who truly cared about her insane with grief.

Clarissa spoke about this deeply personal experience calmly over the phone. When describing the decisions made by this young woman, she didn’t use disparaging remarks or speak with regret as one might expect considering the outcome. Rather, there is a matter-of-factness to her story and a reflective and careful engagement as she considers the agency this young woman demonstrated:

She was really clear: you don’t get to say how I love, you don’t get to say how I commit and you don’t get to say what I find valuable in this relationship and I am going to have it. Whether it kills me or not, it isn’t any of your business. And what I thought was interesting is that she didn’t behave like a victim in the relationship. Even though he was a very violent guy, she acted very independent in a lot of ways. I’m not saying she wasn’t injured by his violence because clearly he took her life. But the reason he took her life indicated some level of independence which I still don’t understand, it’s very complex to me…He apparently struck one of her children and she filed charges against him and took him to court. So in the midst of all this violent behavior and this, that and the other, she clearly had in her mind where she would go and what she was willing to commit to and when he violated it, she felt independent to it. So what I was struck by was there was still some really fiercely independent part of her that says “Fuck you. I do what I want to do. I commit to who I commit to and you don’t get to judge my love and if I die in this violent container we’re co-creating that’s my business.”

clarissa2The absence of judgment on the decisions made by this young woman and ability to see her life as one marked by a certain level of independence and undeniable determination is a reflection of the nuanced way Clarissa considers trauma and violence in the lives of women. She does not claim to understand the ride-or-die philosophy but she see’s it, and attempts to make that seeing pervasive and sensitive to the many layers that exist within it.

I think it’s complex. They give themselves to a romantic ideal and they are willing to die for that ideal. It’s like when this young woman said I love who I love and you don’t get to define that, you don’t get to talk about it, you don’t get to actually have a say in it, she was fucking serious….You are going to go all the way. Even if it kills you. Even if you die at the hands of the process you gotta live out this vision. The idealized nature of it is bigger than the physical reality of it and even if the physical reality kills them, they go with the idealized vision over what they suffer personally. That is the ride-or-die kind of commitment to me. So there is something really powerful about that commitment. It’s scary but there’s something really powerful in it as well. And it’s usually not socially sanctioned commitment and socially sanctioned love if that makes any sense. So they are making those decisions independent of other peoples’ opinion.

Clarissa grew up in Southern California during the transformative and tumultuous decades of the 60’s and 70’s where she experienced the end of Jim Crow segregation, witnessed the bus boycotts, the Civil Rights and Vietnam War protests and also went to school in the context of Cold War paranoia. This highly charged atmosphere of critique, questioning, challenge and change was part of what led Clarissa to question, critique, challenge and want to change the common experiences of violence she saw happening to the women in her life. “I wanted to find ways to articulate 1. What that experience is and was and (2.) what does recovery of moving on look like and what gets in your way.” Clarissa’s work has led her to investigate numerous strategies of healing such as psychotherapy, psychiatric intervention, therapeutic communities, spiritual healing, energetic healing, yoga, meditation, food and eating and physical movement. She is deeply interested in a form of self-care that encourage moments of deep rest.

One of the beauties of deep rest is it allows us to spontaneously know things. Like sleep integrates right? That’s where we repair, we integrate, our unconscious works and it just informs us, connects, aligns and gives synchronicity. So that’s what I think of when I think of the self-care thing, just give them something that will allow them to move into some state of rest… It’s something where it’s not about anything other than a moment. A time where you can rest deeply, laugh hard, have a good time, rejuvenate, move on.

I began visiting Clarissa regularly when I started to burn-out. I had recently finished co-facilitating a program for young women, I was supporting young people who were heavily targeted by the criminal justice system and I was starting to question whether any of the work that I was doing was having any kind of fundamental change. I was full and on the edge of burnout. She reminded me that it was ok to stop, to breathe, to say no and to admit that I can’t. She actually convinced me that these things were necessary and integral to my survival:

The myth…you’re a strong Black woman, don’t let your shit show. So cry but don’t be crying in public. Walk. Don’t let them hurt you. You walk your walk. Until you get to the other side and if you fall apart fine but don’t be walking around in public looking like you could be injured. Now that’s a survival thing, that’s straight up survival. So your strong Black woman is about not putting out a persona where you become more of a victim. But simultaneously it means that as a group…we are more susceptible to death as a consequence of anything that happened to us. So if we are exposed to a set of illnesses we are more likely to die from that illness…It’s all related to our capacity to be vulnerable, cared for, our capacity to rejuvenate, to relax deeply, to let go of stress, to be in these states of rest where our bodies heal. So it’s not even so much do we have time to sleep and stuff like that, it’s like, when we are sleeping, when we are relaxing do we go to these deep, deep states of relaxation where every part of our ourselves can rejuvenate?

The more interviews and research I do for The Ride or Die Project, I realize how elusive that space of deep rest is for many women. Alongside this need is also a recurring theme of isolation and loneliness. In the midst of so many women sharing similar narratives, it is striking how many of them live in silos, separated and silent in their experiences. I asked Clarissa why. It is a question she has been investigating for decades in her work: “I think that sometimes we fail to realize that abuse doesn’t unify us.” She talked about her years of experience in bringing Black women into programming spaces:

The resiliency is challenging and the injury is challenging. And they’re both exaggerated right? So when you have Black women in a room we have a lot of big energy, you have a lot of big personality, you have a lot of reactiveness and you have a lot of engagement…When I think of us in a room or trying to connect together, often we’re dealing with profound levels of grief because we have been doing so much without the wisdom and knowledge of each other because we don’t really have time to share that wisdom and knowledge because we’re each busy doing five things that other women don’t have to do… Black women felt so deprived of access to each other, they would come to the connection with anger, grief and joy. And then the sadness like what it feels like when you’re not here and then the sadness of what it’s gonna feel like when you’re gone. All of that stuff is in the room.

It is Clarissa’s commitment to this work and the way that she manifests this commitment in her own practice of relationship building, healing and support that made me ask her about what it means to be ride-or-die for one’s self; what does it mean to express that level of loyalty to one’s own self:

The theme that always comes up for me when I think about this young woman in my life, when I think about me, when I think about idealized versions of myself, when I dig in myself, I want to know for me what’s true. I don’t care what you think. I am willing to take the consequences, come what may, of knowing my truth. One of the things that really make a difference in order for me to get to my own wisdom about what is true and what works is allowing myself to care about what I really want to experience and what I’m trying to co-create in my life. I get committed to it. Good or bad…if I can get to moments of deep rest, moments where I’m not in the day to day fray of trying to make something happen, or stay committed to work or…holding on to this ideal. Then my inner wisdom can emerge. Not other people’s opinions because I’ve already decided I don’t care what they, someone outside of me thinks.

 Amanda Parris | Co-Founder and Blog Editor

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