Once upon a time, in a kingdom very far from the sea, there lived a little princess who spent her days scooping up frogs and kissing them full on the mouth (though with very little tongue). This was the destiny bespoke her: that her lips would one day free a prince, who would come to rule her people with justice and grace and love her as deeply and true as only a man with a second chance at life can.
One day, the little princess noticed a strange thing happening. After each kiss, even as the frogs remained all entirely frog-like, a green splotch would bloom upon her fair skin. Then two splotches. Then three. No amount of lemon juice or pumice stone undid the pigmentation. Soon she grew quite mottled, her once smooth complexion pebbled and waxy to the touch.
“Well, no matter,” she thought to herself, “for isn’t this the essence of love? To transform ourselves without question into that which our Beloved will most desire?”
“Survivors understand full well that the natural human response to horrible events is to put them out of mind. They may have done this themselves in the past. Survivors also understand that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. It is for this reason that public truth-telling is the common denominator of all social action.” –Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery
In a dream, I come across a toad in the woods. Squat, warty, with flat blank eyes. He belches up a stone that clatters over my feet. A ruby, I recognize when I bend over to look: big as my fist and red as death. I reach out to pick it up, to pop it into my mouth for safe-keeping, and grab the toad instead. I do not realize my mistake until I feel the toad sitting belligerent on my tongue, plumping up his blotchy abdomen to fill the space from my lips to my throat. When I look back for the ruby, it is already gone.
I wake up choking.
* * * * *
Most of the photos I have from my childhood live in a large document box, clustered together chronologically in clearly-labeled archival folders. My mother—trained historian and daughter of a news-photographer—made just such a careful box for each of us during the years after my grandfather’s death, merging countless stacks of inherited photos with her own files as she worked to organize his legacy. An inch into the box, in a folder simply labeled “GRADE 2,” one finds not photographs but a carbon-copy report typed onto two sheets of onion skin paper, preprinted with the words: CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION.
I remember this report, even though I’d never read it until recently. Or, more precisely, I remember taking the tests that led to it.
I’ve reached a weird space in recovery, where I can sense the old patterns of thought and the new, almost simultaneously. It’s like wiggling a switch with loose wiring: the lights flicker on/off, on/off, without the switch ever fully flipping to either one.
On—and I am flooded with an almost unbearable level of feelings, sharp and bright and overwhelming. Off—and the emotions are replaced with the sensation of razor blades, cutting deep into my forearms or thighs.
On—and I am filled with plans and goals for my future. Off—and I am certain I already wear a corpse.
On, off, on, off, on, off…
Nights are the worst. Nights are when the “on” thoughts are hardest to reach, and once reached, they feel almost unbelievable regardless.
I got badly triggered about a month ago and am still in the process of coming back to ground, which makes a “good night” anytime I sleep more than about 3 hours total. (I’ll leave it to you to imagine how soupy and unreal my days start to feel, after weeks of this.) When I went to bed last night—at a time actually already this morning—I tried to set an intention of committing to the “on” side. Felt more desperate wish than hopeful action; I’ve been here before, after all, and I am bone-tired in more ways than one.
The first time I told the story—or, rather, tried to tell it—was in 2001, twelve years after the rapes themselves. I had a psychotic break afterwards, where I heard a voice in my head telling me it would kill me before I talked again. My left wrist still bears scars of the stitches I required before that day ended.
The second time I told the story wasn’t until October, 2013. Afterwards, I stopped being able to sleep in the dark. For the next fourteen months, the only sleep I got were catnaps at dawn and dusk. Sometimes I tried drinking myself to sleep by mid-afternoon, anything to make the day be over.
In 2014, the morning of April 30, I got a call from the rape crisis center where I’d put my name on a waiting list, informing me that my first appointment would be later that week. Panicked at the thought of telling the story to yet another new person, I ended up slicing my leg open, an inch-deep trough running up the length of my calf. I lost close to a pint of blood.
Tonight, I told a roomful of people an aspect of the story I have never said out loud before. Afterwards, I stood a long time in the hallway outside that room, afraid to come home. Afraid even to move.
And then I did move.
And then I did come home.
Once back at my place, I cuddled my cat. I ate a peanut butter sandwich. I wrote this post to share on Facebook. Then I decided to share it on my blog as well.
I’m calling it:
I did good tonight.
[“Recovery Is A Staircase” is part of an ongoing memory project.
The entire series can be found here.]
I have never forgotten the first time I cut into my own flesh deliberately: the motes of dust in the air lit by a late afternoon sunbeam; the threadbare sofa in my dorm room where I sat; the blue-handled scissors that I held open for what seemed an eternity; the expanse of pale, clear skin on the inside of my forearm before I brought the scissors down against it.
My skin has never again bloomed so smooth.
~ ~ ~
Some mornings I don’t even notice the scars. I dry off in a hurry from the shower, too preoccupied about catching my train to pay attention to the wide lines that run pale and hairless across my thighs. My eyes slip glancingly off the mirror before catching sight of the ridges that tic-tac-toe both my shoulders.
I run my fingers along them when I’m nervous, or lying in my bed at night. Felt but unseen, they seem just another element of the strange cartography of the body: its folds and curves of fat, hair forever resprouting, the small hard lump of a premenstrual pimple. The most pronounced hypertrophic scars lie along my left forearm, where the record of those first fumblings with blue-handled scissors have been lost beneath more than a decade of razor-sharp reminders. When stroked along a certain path, my whole left arm feels like corduroy.
The most recent scar is still forming, even though nearly two years have passed since I made this final cut. I suspect it will sink as it finishes healing, leaving an inch-wide trough of puckered skin collapsed down the length of my calf.
People ask me if I was in a bicycling accident.
“No,” I say — and run my hand gently up and down the scar, as if soothing a frightened animal. After so many years of self-inflicted violence, it is still learning to trust me, this body. And I am still learning how to trust it, too. Continue reading “Palimpsest”→
Say, is my speech or wild and erring now,
Or doth its arrow cleave the mark indeed?
They called me once, The prophetess of lies, The wandering hag, the pest of every door—
Attest ye now, She knows in very sooth The house’s curse, the storied infamy.
— Aeschylus, Agamemnon
“Between killing and dying, there’s a third way: Live.”
— Christa Wolf , Kassandra
Long before I designed my own undergraduate major around the literature of Greek mythology or wrote my senior thesis on modern adaptations of ancient Greek plays, I was obsessed with the characters. Even before the obligatory grade school units on mythology, complete with afternoon trips to the library where we all colored in our own mimeographed faces of the Olympic gods, I knew all their names and backstories.
I had grown up with them, you see. To me, Greek heroes and gods were the stuff of bedtime stories.
My mother, who had herself majored in classics and kept a copy of Winnie Ille Pu (the Latin translation of A.A. Milne’s classic) on her bedside table, pulled myths from her memories every time I pleaded “tell me a story, mom, please make me a story, make it a good one.” These tales felt like place-markers for invention, filled with lacunae where our own stories could take root. In time I came to know for myself the source materials she drew from — and realized how even the ancients manipulated myth-telling for their own creative purposes.
I haven’t read Aeschylus or Euripedes in decades now. Nor Homer, Plato, or Sophocles. My memories are become gentler, names and details mere flotsam in the wine-dark sea of my mind.
I like it this way. All the easier to tell you stories of my own.
• α • ω •
In ancient Greek theater, the chorus member played not a man but an everyman. He played every Everyman. He hid his own face behind a stylized mask that bore the same expression as every other chorus member, so that collectively they formed a herd. A populace. Defined by this mask, this shell of anonymity, the chorus provided a foil against which the brilliance and hubris of the tragic hero shone.
The hero himself was forged from the divine. Fathered by a god, guarded by nymphs, taunted by the cruel Fates spinning at their wheel. Even his inevitable fall through pride could not diminish such grace. After death, a hero’s body was often flung into the stars, where his face gleams still today in the winking pinpricks of our constellations.
We all know how such tragic myths go. The hero gets the girl, the glory, and finally the agony. The chorus gets not even its own face.
Just a paycheck. It’s steady work, after all, being Chorus Member #4. All you have to do is memorize the same lines as everyone else.