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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indefatigably yielding you (no lover) these treasures of my inwardness*

Here, here, here, here, and here.

She pointed to her heart and mind and eyes, mouth, ears**

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*

I am this haunting music. Never look
Beneath the mask. There is a monster there—
Oh yes! And yet an inch or two below that seeming,
Under the raddled flesh and slightly too
Prominent teeth, my spiritual self
Is hard at work, is indefatigably yielding
You these treasures of its inwardness.
In time I’m sure you’ll really like me.
Listen, darling! I am playing Bach!

– Tom Disch, “A Note from Your Jailer

**

Mozart, he said, “There’s nothing to composing.”
And that’s all we do,
We just write and play and write and play and write and…

Here, here, and here
He pointed to his heart and mind and ears
He said, “Here, here, and here”
He pointed to his heart and mind and ears

– Meg and Dia, “Here, Here and Here

Retropost: On Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

The initial draft of this essay was first posted as a Facebook status update on October 20, 2014.

The other day, I finished reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (Phoenix, 2012), which I couldn’t help but pick up after watching the film version directed by David Fincher. Halfway through the novel, as Diary Amy detailed her losses as she went from New York Writer-Sophisticate to Midwest Small-Town Housewife, I thought, this work could be on my list of books-anyone-who-wants-to-be-with-me-for-the-long-haul-has-to-read—for Gone Girl exemplifies my fear of what New Yorker writer Elif Batuman calls the narrative of marriage as “abduction”: the creeping loss of autonomy and identity in the name of wifely and motherly duty, the essence of which is (as it is commonly conceived) sacrifice—of career, personal aspirations, time, money, body. In marriage, of course, both parties make sacrifices and compromise for a partnership to work, but it seems that the woman is still socially expected to give up more for her family, to put her family’s needs first, and always, before her own (space, me-time, ambitions, etc.). But then, I got to the horrifying end of the book and had to agree with Nick: Amy is one psycho bitch, and if I put this book on my list, guys would be running in the opposite direction from me, post-haste. As they often do to bitches.

“We’re all bitches in the end, aren’t we, Nick? Dumb bitch, psycho bitch,” Amy remarks. And I thought, sure. It’s the label most often given to any woman who doesn’t make others feel good about themselves, who doesn’t let men have their way.

A married friend who saw me reading the book said that she felt reluctant to read it because of its ambivalence toward misogyny—here we have a woman lying about having suffered the ordeals of stalking, verbal abuse, battery, rape, miscarriage, and even homicide by the men in her life to get what she wants. But more than Manichean judgments of the #TeamNick vs. #TeamAmy sort, what’s interesting to me is what pushes women like Amy to such extremes, what causes madness to bloom in women characters from Medea to Ophelia and Lady Macbeth to Bertha and Ms. Havisham to the Lisbon girls of Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, to Amy Elliott Dunne (and real-life examples like Woolf, Plath, and Sexton). Their madness is often attributed to devastating heartbreak—getting jilted, betrayed, thrown off for a prettier, younger woman by some man, or being romantically or sexually repressed. But madness is not just a matter of individual psychology, a moral failing, or some biological glitch—it blooms in a person who is so at odds with the society in which he or she lives.

Take Amy, for instance. She’s a young(ish), beautiful, intelligent, independent, charming, talented, and wealthy WASP lady. She is privileged in every way. She is the kind of woman who can make the most of feminism’s gains, because she is not oppressed for her race, class, sexuality, looks, ability… as her husband points out, men want her, women want to be her. The downside to having it all, though, is that she feels like she has to dazzle all the time, prove that all that privilege dripping off of her is not wasted, prove that she is worthy of admiration, not because she’s hot (though that’s part of it), but because she has advanced degrees in psychology from Ivy League schools, cooks French cuisine, speaks fluent Spanish, and can quote from classical literature and screwball comedies in the same breath.

I think a lot of women feel similar pressure, be it to a lesser degree. Feminism maintains that men and women are equal, that gender is a construct, sexuality fluid, the indicators of biological sex alterable—thus, there is no essential difference between men and women. If men can, women can, too—lift Olympic weights, run a company, drive a truck, build bridges, and so on—but for many self-proclaimed feminists, this creates a pressure to constantly maintain the persona of Strong Woman, because the failure to do so—to ask a guy’s help in changing a lightbulb or carrying groceries, to not fight for that deserved promotion at work, to stay with a philandering husband—is to invite criticisms of feminism itself (several times I’ve heard guys say that feminists shouldn’t be asking for their help in, like, fixing things or carrying stuff, because they [the women] say they’re strong, right? Can’t have it both ways). At the same time, Strong Woman has to deal with social pressure to find a nice man, get married, and raise a family, because if she fails to get a guy interested and committed, then there must be something wrong with her.

Unfortunately, not all men find Strong Woman desirable, because being with Strong Woman poses a challenge to their masculinity, which largely remains predicated on their ability to provide for, protect, and outdo women at providing and protecting. So what does a Strong Woman who wants romance do? Often, she pretends to be somebody she’s not, to make men feel that she needs them, to make men feel like men. Consider Mean Girls’ Cady Heron, a math nerd, deliberately flunking her math tests to get the hunky boy’s “help” and attention, or Amy Dunne, despite her disciplined and exacting nature, pretending to be Nick’s Cool Girl—a persona she characterizes as brilliant and laidback, who likes what her man likes and doesn’t ever complain or nag him to be anything other than what he is or do anything other than what he pleases, even when he’s already messing things up. The result? Snowballing disappointment and resentment for both (and high-octane madness fuel for Amy).

The irony is that the gains of feminism have created new quandaries for women who desire independence, self-actualization, and professional success alongside romance, partnership, and family, which are social institutions that, by and large, have yet to catch on to the idea that persons need not be boxed into femininity vs. masculinity and all the opposing/hierarchical characteristics and values attached to each, that marriage and motherhood need not be a woman’s ultimate achievement and sacrifice, that men also don’t have to be the stronger party all the time, and that just because you can theoretically have it all doesn’t mean you should.

At the heart of Gone Girl isn’t a man vs. woman issue, but a social-constructs(gender, the media, the capitalist-driven economy)-are-fucking-with-us issue. And resolving that issue, at least within oneself, is not a matter of simply taking Nick’s or Amy’s side, but of trying to understand how their heady romance turned murderous, how two people who make their living out of words could so disastrously fail to communicate, why Amy—smart, attractive, rich, accomplished, adored—staged her own murder, and afterwards “let herself go,” dyeing her blonde locks a mousy brown, living off soda pop and hotdogs in a crummy cabin at the edge of some woods in Nowheresville, playing mini-golf with trailer trash.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano writes in The New Inquiry about Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things:

… forms of dangerous self-harm are to riots in the streets what a white strike is to a factory occupation: women, precarious workers, young people and others for whom the lassitudes of modern life routinely produce acute distress and for whom the stakes of social non-conformity are high, lash out by doing only what is required of them, to the point of extremity. Work hard, eat less, consume frantically; be thin and perfect and good, conform and comply, push yourself to the point of collapse. … We all followed the rules, sufferers seem to be saying—now look what you made us do.

… You want me to be a good girl? Fine, I’ll be a goddamn perfect girl. Fuck you, I’ll disappear, how’s that? …

What Laurie Penny calls for in this book is mutiny. Mutiny against the mythology of “falling apart elegantly,” … mutiny against the careful persona curation of social media, which so many women have mastered because we’re so used to being thought of as commodities. Mutiny for sex workers and men who are tired of the patriarchy too and for women who question the institutionalization of “love.”

Today’s “postfeminist” men and women need more empowering narratives about romance, relationships, marriage, and parenthood. As these institutions stand, as our notions of what it means to be a Good Husband and Father and a Good Wife and Mother are constructed and maintained, the fear that both institutions may lead to the “abduction” and effacement of the self remains potent.