I’d gone to see the Italian psychoanalyst in the hopes she’d help me navigate a personal crisis. But as you probably already know, and I came to understand, psychoanalysis tends not to be the best methodology for negotiating the acute, unless by acute you mean the lifespan. In this case, I’d allotted an hour.
I’ll come to the crisis in a moment, but first let me say, this analyst was an impressive woman in several senses. There was the visual: she wore glossy leather boots and poufy slacks pegged tightly at the ankles, and a cherry-red blazer with immense shoulder pads. I’d guess she was in her mid-to-late sixties. Her dyed blond hair was undercut and side-swept in a severe new-wave bang that obscured half her face. The visible half toggled between expressions of amusement, consternation and narcotic fatigue (its resting state). But the most striking thing about this woman was to be heard, not seen. She spent the entire session talking at me, in heavily accented English that began in my ear as noise, and slowly clarified over the hour, as if the stereocilia of my cochlea had been individually attuned. My presence in the room was required, but my self was incidental – a familiar feeling. I spoke twice, and briefly. Lodged in the cleft of the leather couch, sweating, I spoke from my neck, as if choked. Her stream of free association was otherwise unbroken, a stream that spidered out and seemed to touch, at once, the most intimate truths of individual existence, the family, and the whole geopolitical saga of human history.
This did not take place in Italy, by the way. Her office was located in a sort of adobe strip mall, in the improbable locale of Tucson, Arizona, where I lived at the time, uneasily. As she spoke, my attention wound its way to the incongruity of the scene and raised a couple of questions: What is this fabulously butch Janus – apparently excised from a Patrick Nagel print – doing in Tucson, Arizona? And why on Earth would she stay here? As fate would have it, my aforementioned difficulty was related to the latter question.
Had I the extra income to pay this fascinating woman to talk at me each week, I might have gone back. My exposure to older women was limited in that desert, and when I did encounter an admired older woman (writers, for the most part), 90 per cent of the time their orientation toward me seemed rivalrous or dismissive. Then again, I was a chronic ingratiator, a real suck-up, and they may have been repulsed by my female conditioning; perhaps it raised the specter of a former self? In any case, a fair share of the misogyny I’d weathered in my life had been at the bequest of other women, which confused, for me, the whole sisterhood solidarity thing. In fact, this confusion, particularly as it pertained to the ur-woman (my mother), was another reason I’d sought analytical counsel.
But my most pressing concern that afternoon was an increased sense of estrangement from human beings of all genders. People frequently talked at me, just as this analyst had, with seemingly little regard for my interiority. I no longer knew how to make myself known to the other, and I was hoping to narrate some of my tenuous inner life aloud before it evaporated for good. I need a blanker screen, I told myself then. Now I’m inclined to think she was exactly who I was looking for.
Were I my own analyst, reading this text, I might notice how strenuously I avoid the topic at hand, the movement known as #MeToo, by focusing on another woman. I avoid the topic at hand because it overwhelms me, has come to touch – like that loquacious analyst’s riff – not only my personal ledger of slights, but the whole of human experience: from the workplace to the bedroom, the family, the grocery checkout line, the various national and cultural histories of our respective subjugations and the many ways we are complicit in keeping one another silent and in line. I was cresting a mute wave of materia prima, and somewhere down in my id I sensed it was soon to break, or I was.
At 4.30 a.m. I wake in the grip of what my husband has dubbed ‘the roving perseverator’. At 4.30, I am concerned about the steepness of the stairs leading to our bedroom. I slipped and fell down them the other day, banged up my shoulder and somehow sprained my big toe, and soon we’ll have subletters living in the house. The subletters are in their seventies and I imagine the slip, the fracture, the anesthesiologist, the sleep they won’t wake up from, the lawsuit, life’s remainder tormented by guilt. I resolve to order two boxes of transparent grip tape for the stairs, but now I’m worried about the height of the banister. Were we to remedy the banister, my mind might alight on the low clearance of the basement ceiling. This is why the perseverator is ‘roving’. There is always a fatality to anticipate, there is always a warning to be issued, an intervention to be made. Lapsed vigilance virtually secures disaster. The rover never rests.
And so my mind has felt its way in the dark to the subject of my mother. 5.15 a.m. My mother has high blood pressure, and I’ve asked her to do a difficult thing. I’ve asked her to join me in confronting the family member who, once upon a time, molested me. Current atmospheric pressures have made this secret difficult to ignore. The family is tightly knit, and should the confrontation take place, it could unstitch our social fabric in a swift instant. Or not. I don’t know.
I think I’ve made my peace with the possibilities, but I know they’ve caused my mother considerable grief in recent days, and not a little insomnia. I also know – or have vaguely been made to understand – that some of what she’s wrestling with is her own history: undisclosed traumas I’ve only guessed at, that have rendered her chronically anxious and somewhat remote. I’m concerned about her blood pressure. I’m worried she’ll keel over from the stress of my request. I’m worried her sleeplessness will cause her to drive recklessly and crash. I am powerful enough to kill or save whomever I think about.
Like my mother, I love the man who hurt me. I am similar to my mother, and resent her for this, and love her desperately, and would do anything to spare her the pain I know is coming. Even if, perhaps especially if, it ensures my own. That’s how it was transmitted, what little I know about being a woman.
Vigilance, dissociation, repressed anger, codependence, the redundant negative fantasy – these are the symptoms of what I circle. Can I differentiate this psychic activity from the supposed bedrock of my character? To put it another way: how am I not my symptoms?
So why bring up the analyst? Somewhere in that beguiling torrent of speech, in listing the various forces of nature and nurture that shape our lives, she said – and she stressed this – that the one force we cannot completely know is the zeitgeist. We cannot know our era as it’s unfolding. Its developments are at once diffuse and acute, the web of interactions it spins are beyond the total comprehension of any individual. Only time affords distance enough to grasp the whole gestalt, and as any student of history knows, even those more distant descriptions are perspectival and up for debate.
Meanwhile, you wake, feed yourself, deal with the bills; the days stack up, obscuring youth’s immortal visions. These days, every day plagued by the hashtag. Every day, facing it. Hearing the testimonies, crying on the treadmill, riding the wave of associations, battling the inner patriarch, revisiting the violations, the ways I’ve been complicit, circumscribed, afraid – then I turn away. My mind has flipped as often as it’s been engaged and now I’m tired. Much as I am wary of any politics arriving in 140 characters, it turns out this trending cultural shorthand applies to me too.
Still, I thought: I have nothing to say. It’s too soon, the zeitgeist is still unfolding, it’s too confusing, and too fraught a terrain to unpack with candor. Then I thought: surely I’m not the only one inwardly choked by this cultural moment. Surely, when considering the effects of a system that ventriloquizes us all to varied extents, a system that is at once global and personal, historic and contemporary, a system of abuse in which offenders are also loved ones – I can’t be the only one feeling confused.
I found a blanker screen. Doctor C., the trauma magician, the sort that waggles her fingers before your eyes and rarely speaks. The endeavor of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, depends on the ability to time travel. Some people can’t bear to remain inside the vessel. I can do it, but not easily. The process is this: you go back in time to the most hideous shit of your life, and sit in that shit while the doctor ‘bilaterally stimulates’ your brain. As I understand it – and this is a plebeian’s take – unresolved trauma harbors in the brain’s right hemisphere, in implicit memory, until ‘triggered’‚ at which point it blooms through the body, engaging the nervous system in present tense. This is what’s sometimes called a ‘flashback’. It’s believed that if you track the doctor’s fingers with your eyes, you can sort of drag the memory into the left hemisphere, where it becomes explicit, and a story can be made. The story, like most stories, locates the phenomena in time (the desired tense, in this case, is past), and in arranging its chaos into a linear coherence, the storyteller is desensitized to the memory.
Storytelling – more precisely, telling one’s story in community – is one of the stages of trauma recovery, as articulated by Judith Herman in her foundational study of PTSD. But the ability to move the story out into the environment depends on earlier stages, namely, developing capacity for managing distressing sensations, and establishing safety within one’s body and relationships. (Of course, this raises questions about what qualifies as safety within the broader context of, say, a ‘rape culture’.) The restorative technology of telling one’s story in community is an old one, but opportunities can be scarce these days – at least in the secular US, where I live. Peer recovery meetings can provide the context, as can restorative justice circles and, I suppose, social-media platforms. Considering that trauma resides in and is reprocessed through the body, I’m skeptical that any disembodied exchange can serve as a substitute for people in a room together, though it may inspire one to seek that room.
I’d gone to the analyst’s office believing it was my turn to talk. Instead, I was asked to listen. When finally I was able to hear her, I learned a valuable lesson about the limits of my own comprehension. These days, I sometimes feel I’m being talked at by a hundred thousand voices, and the cacophony can overwhelm. Overwhelmed, I might grow rigid and defensive, I might want to lash out (see: backlash). But when I stop and tune in to any individual voice, I notice, most of the time, it is simply telling a story. Whether or not I listen, and whether or not I learn something from what I hear, is my decision.
The flashback is an expedient form of time travel. You’re twenty-two years old, in the backpackers’ hostel, hot and heavy with the Israeli boy. He rasps softly in your ear, I want to rape you. Now you are also seven and eight years old, leaping from the bed, wielding the little desk chair, prepared to smash his beautiful skull. Or you’re nineteen, napping one summer afternoon with your boyfriend. You wake with a start to his finger in your vagina. This might be a rude awakening for a lot of people, but in your case it is especially jarring as it mirrors the first violation.
They’re both mortified. They both cry. You observe this display from the planet of dissociation (they always cry; you never can). It was just a bad translation. He’d meant to say something like ‘I want to ravish you’‚ cheap romance-novel stuff, but no nefarious intent. Or you’d been responsive in your sleep, indicating consciousness; a kind of game where you moan and pretend to sleep while he ravishes you. Both men cross a line, but you don’t presume those crossings would affect all women in the same way, or necessarily at all. The negative effects are amplified by your particular history. A lot is lost in translation. In the body’s instantaneous translation of a perceived threat to the cascade of incoherent sensation – terror you don’t have the capacity to name, let alone address.
Many relationships are lost this way. In the freezing or lashing out. In the flight from self, in the reflexive assumption of the more distant you.
On the one hand, you are tempted to say we should acknowledge the complications with humility. On the other, humility hasn’t seemed to serve ‘us’ all that well thus far.
Immediately following my second visit to Doctor C., I have a dream. My mother and I are in a dark warehouse, standing before the open door of a refrigerator, our faces bathed in its extraterrestrial light. There’s an altercation, and we lock arms in a sort of tango. Our struggle is a dance, but it’s also a mirror. However I move, she moves in perfect sync. I look into her face, flashing with alternating waves of terror and rage, and understand that her face is also my face. I lean into that face I love, close enough to kiss it, and scream YOUR ANGER IS KILLING ME.
The child concerns herself with the mother’s body; the body that is at once the purveyor of exile and her only home. She studies the peace of the body, its health and desires, its availability, its integrity. She senses the residue of violation, its boundaries and psychic perforations. She senses her own power, in the violence of having been born, to reconstitute the mother’s former torments. She longs to apply her own body as poultice to the wound. She thinks magically, ‘I’ll wear your wound for you.’ Even now – thirty-five years estranged, old enough to know better – the child believes there’s a way back home.
Of the family’s fraught magnetism, James Agee wrote: ‘and none can care, beyond that room; and none can be cared for, by any beyond that room: and it is small wonder they are drawn together so cowardly close . . . and wonder only that an age that has borne its children and must lose and has lost them, and lost life, can bear further living; but so it is.’
So it is, we survive, and lose each other. And losing each other is one of the ways we have learned to survive. The estrangement from self and other passes down through the generations; passed in the striking hand, the inappropriate touch, the hand that dismisses, the hand that does not lift to intervene. But maybe it doesn’t have to be this way.
As Doctor C. instructed: You can’t change what happened, but you can decide it stops with you.
How does it stop with me, exactly? I don’t know for certain, but I do understand a few things. It’s my understanding that human beings are social creatures, that much of our cultural conditioning is expressed subconsciously, automatically, and will likely continue to be enacted as such until an interrogation is staged. It’s my understanding that the project of eradicating ‘weakness’ in boys through violence and humiliation is one mechanism by which victims become violators. (It’s an analytic axiom: we seek to control or destroy in others what we have disavowed in ourselves.) I understand that the staging of this interrogation depends on much: on access to theory and testimony, on subcultural alliances, on socioeconomic status, on intellectual ability, on the victim-turned-perpetrator circuit, on access to help in breaking the circuit – the list goes on.
The call-out can serve to accelerate things. There may, in fact, be no more effective way to incite the necessary transformation. But I also understand that exclusion breeds despair, hostility, is experienced in the body as physical pain, and I wonder what will become of those we’ve denounced and banished. I wonder where those energies will accumulate, and how they will reconstitute down the line – how they’re showing up even now. I wonder, on one hand, if this moment could be leveraged to heal our estrangements, rather than multiply them. On the other hand, the healing of men isn’t up to me.
In any case, it seems this trauma is shared, though we bear its effects unequally; a trauma that deadens us to our own experience and to one another. A deadening that helps to facilitate, in turn, the killing of the world, in which all but a few of us are complicit.
These seem to me to be the stakes. But I can’t say for sure. The zeitgeist is still unfolding.
During my fourth session with Doctor C. a kind of miracle happened. I’d traveled back in time to the night the man broke into my sleep, and I suddenly remembered the nightgown I’d been wearing: a knee-length baseball T with three-quarter sleeves and a pixelated image of a forest down the front. I hadn’t thought of that nightgown in twenty-five years, but all at once I could access dozens of other occasions when I’d worn it. These too were implicit memories – pure embodied emotion – cut long ago from the story I’d made of my family, returned to my body in present tense: dancing with my older sister, pulling an orange from my stocking Christmas morning, curled in my mother’s lap as she stroked my hair. It all came back. My sister, my mother – they came back to me. The body remembers what the child cannot bear to know, but suppressing the pain takes the joy away with it. And this is part of what we stand to gain, all of us, from the reckoning. I mean to say, though it’s dark inside the shadow and the passage is uncertain, there is gold there, too. Gold enough to guide us through, home to one another.
Artwork © Jongsuk Yoon, Insomnia, 2015, courtesy of Galerie nächst St Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder