Study of a figure for Hell, John Singer Sergeant
Only last year, my mother was telling me a few details about when I was born. The myth itself sits heavy on my shoulders, and has rested there my whole life. We spoke of it so many times: how I came three months early, I almost died, my mother almost died, and I was baptized immediately. I’ve seen the photos. My mother, rail-thin and pale, dark hair and glasses just like me these days. My two-pound self lying there in a clear plastic box, tubes and needles everywhere. The red of my skin, which didn’t soothe into the soft pale of a newborn. Unnatural. I’ve looked at the images my whole life.
My therapist says I need to remember that child. The little baby alone in the incubator. For the first few months of my life, I only rarely received affectionate touch. My parents had to scrub themselves perfectly and wear gowns. The other touches: they were needles and pain. There wasn’t the snuggling regular newborns receive. The constant soft assurance. Babies are shaped by their early months. Science shows us this.
Me: I was primed by a brutal world.
I hate the science. I hate the goddamn facts that point like daggers to my painful shyness, the tearful anxieties that haunted me through school. Struggling to feel attached, which worsened as the doctors did. I hated the doctors, hated them more and more as I saw them more and more. Sometimes I think: I just couldn’t seem to live or die. I feel so angry at that child, can’t seem to avoid hating myself at any age, and I blame myself. Sometimes for just not freaking dying. The anger conceals terrible loss, terrible disappointment.
In a world that will send no one to rescue me.
My mother told me that when I first came home from the hospital – in Cabbage Patch Doll clothes, because they didn’t make clothes for premies then – she sat with me and held me all day. Just held me. I try to picture it, and I’ve made it a memory of my own, though of course I don’t actually remember anything. I treat it as if I do. A memory of how much my mother suffered and cared. And simply that she held me. I don’t have a memory of her holding me, not ever. I know that she did. But I don’t remember, and I don’t know why.
Flesh hardened for an unkind world doesn’t remember touch, I suppose.
My sister doesn’t like it when I say these things online. She says I never remember the happy things. I do – and I don’t. And I don’t like it when she suggests I’m not remembering it right. I’m worried it’s true – and I know it’s not.
Once she spoke of my life like it came to me easily, my success, like an unrolling carpet. I saw something then: that certain things are very, very easy for me. That this was painful for her to see. School was never so simple for her. That I forget. I also understood that she didn’t, she can’t, know what it felt like inside. And both are true: school was really goddamn easy even when I missed half of it sick; also, I missed half of school sick.
God damn high school. I have dim memories. It all runs together, the shapeless days and me half-dead inside. Deeply withdrawn, deeply religious, hyper-intellectual. I still get that way in the summer, because summers are still the most like back then. (And the world is brutal.) Most of the real remembering is impossible. So when I seek to reference high school in class, I ask students for their memories. I can’t offer any of my own.
And I still can’t fully remember what happened to me. The really bad things. They are purely concentrated conjectures, perhaps, that try to provide answers for feelings I have. Their reality is more in the shape of my pain than their flickering, tenuous concreteness. My body remembers something. The confusing flashbacks to hospitals, the sudden crawling spider-waves of fears – these are memories of a kind. Recollections of a body already long primed by a brutal world, shaped to perceive what hurts.
No one will come and rescue me from all that. From the memories and suffering and confusion. I’m sorry, but it’s true. No one will glide in and carry me away. No one ever has. No one at all. They can’t. Lift me from the waters all you want: I cannot be made to breathe. Sure, there are machines; medicines. But don’t mistake those for breathing.
This is the impossible conundrum of freedom: that to be had, it must be used. Even when the free one in question desperately is not.
Because there isn’t some moment of titanic willpower into being better. Not from things like this. Sometimes I think mental illness terrifies people because it exposes the limits of our willing. My suffering isn’t actually explained by any of the memories, you see. Not quite. Yes, in part – and yet not. My sister remembers our childhood, and she makes an effort sometimes to set her memories against mine. But the suffering isn’t in the memories themselves. Not quite. I could take control if it were true, if everything came to remembering – or not remembering. If it came to “moving on.” Time doesn’t work like that, though, and neither do memories – we can’t will them away.
Remembering is a strange sacrament. These words and symbols that somehow more than they are – even pain. The fragility of a memory isn’t the problem so much as the strength of what they impart. A brief half-trace can burn all over.
Even if everything were reducible to the trauma of my birth – which it isn’t – and the rest is just a self rather helpless before experiences that would never hurt anyone else, it would mean so very little. The answer. If it were all that one thing. Like it always was, growing up: “She’s a premie, so…” God dammit, I’ll never escape the shadow of being born. And neither will you. Part of what being born means is that you will never be able to summarize yourself.
Being unable to recount high school doesn’t leave me unmarked by it. The lack of memory shows me how the past is more than what I am able to see in it. Even in the presence of memories – like the time a teacher asked me what happens to us when we suffer, and I felt the whole world of a suffering adult settle on my shoulders – I do not fully understand.
Trauma is a particularly painful and broken way to remember. This doesn’t make it unreal or more real than the rest. (As if suffering could summarize me instead.) But it does hurt, far too much, and we at least must say that memories ought not do this. Something must somehow break the hold. Yet what would it be, that thing, if you cannot offer it and I cannot either? We don’t like to ask that question. This one than mental illness lays to bear.
The obvious implication is that my spiritual powers are not enough. We think we see guilt on the faces of the mentally ill, some kind of failure on their part. No: they are signs of a frightening impossible. The uncomfortable proposition that we are not enough for ourselves. Nor even for each other.
There is a word in Latin: conveniens. Thomas Aquinas uses it to discuss when something is “fitting.” It isn’t necessary; it isn’t arbitrary. It fits, makes sense in the strange way only beauty makes sense: inexplicably reasonable. Of course, of course – that just suits you. It just does. Conveniens.
There is a doorway somewhere in our imaginations and wills, there where memories and dreams live. A door that can’t be made – not with human hands – nor opened. But by some fitting measure there is a way the heart (which dreams and remembers) can be soothed into the perfect shape to open it. The measure of a different willing, a will that is not the heart’s yet not without the heart. So suitable it goes on unnoticed in the beating dark. There may be no memory of it, none at all. Or the recollection may rise up sudden from the past in some future far from now.
A grace that doesn’t rescue so much as it breathes within, and the dead gasp awake.