The collector of maladies

The highlight of today’s writing workshop for my freshman composition class was a story about pain. A 16-year-old boy had written a piece about a 25-year-old woman, a self-confessed masochist who inflicted pain on herself (cutting through her skin, punching walls until her knuckles bled, inserting barbed wires and barbecue sticks into “her womanhood”), not to feel pleasure, but “to relax,” to numb emotional hurt, to “find freedom” from the circumstances of her life. The boy worried that his piece was “too brutal.” I said it was not brutal enough. His classmates all said they could not feel any sympathy for the protagonist, because they could neither grasp her avowed fascination for pain, nor understand the emotional conflict that supposedly fed this fascination. As one of his classmates pointed out, the character’s woes were workaday: Her father cheated on her mother and took off with another woman; her mother could barely make ends meet; she dropped out of school. The classmate said, I know people in the exact same situation. They don’t go about poking barbecue sticks up their coochies.

The classic fault of the piece:  too much telling, hardly ever showing. We were told that the girl bled herself to keep calm. We were not shown the rusty blade held between the tips of her brown, bony fingers, the way it sliced across three inches of skin in her inner thigh, the blood snaking down her legs, dyeing a small clear puddle on the chipped white tiles of their bathroom floor as she hummed to the steady dripping of the broken faucet and the bawling baby next door. Pain, if you think about it, is fascinating. Feeling it fully, acutely, holds you in rapt attention, puts you out of time—past, present, future blur into a relentless drone of hurt hurt hurt.

The boy’s piece reminded me of a story I had wanted to write after reading Wittgenstein’s discussion of pain in Philosophical Investigations, a story about a collector of maladies. The protagonist of this story is also a woman who travels alone, inscribing in her body an archive of pain. She has three conditions for pain to be included in her collection: 1. It should be a particular sensation she has not felt before; 2. It must be self-inflicted, and it must leave a lasting, visible mark (burnt tissue, a scar, a broken tooth), and; 3. It has to be a reconstruction of another person’s injury. So this woman travels from city to city to meet the damaged, asking them the story behind their wounds, and writing the same scars on her body. The woman in that story in my head is in her mid-thirties. Five years of traveling and self-maiming has so disfigured her that she is no longer recognizable to her friends and family. People shun her, bearing so many grotesque wounds. Her body is failing, yet she does not want to die.

I cannot yet write that story. I don’t know how to access and describe such variegated pains, and have yet to think through the motivations of someone who would so ardently seek out hurt and own it. If one thinks through a feeling body, what could be going on in her mind? How could her self have changed through a connoisseur course of hurt? Do I have to feel pain myself to accurately describe another person’s pain? In inflicting the same wounds on myself, could I be said to have the same pain as that felt by the person whose wounds I recreate? If I open myself to another’s expression of his hurt so that I may, even on an intellectual level, “feel” it, could I close myself up again and be whole?

I told the boy, if you wish to write about pain, you must know pain, feel pain, express pain. If the kind of research and reflection that rewriting your piece demands proves to be too difficult, feel free to change your topic.

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