not in our stars, but in ourselves
Last night, my friend sent me this: “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” by Leslie Jamison. It is a lengthy read, and a difficult one, but worth attempting if you (a) are a female who has felt pain, (b) know a female who has felt pain, and/or (c) want to understand females who feel pain. It’s stayed with me, not unlike an ache where an old injury used to be, and so I beg your kind indulgence, dear reader.
Jamison posits that, on one side, women’s pain (and all the gradations thereof: aches, hurts, damages, traumas, etc.) is often dismissed as less severe than men’s pain (“A 2001 study called ‘The Girl Who Cried Pain‘ tries to make sense of the fact that men are more likely than women to be given medication when they report pain to their doctors. Women are more likely to be given sedatives”); and, on the other side, that pain is sometimes the only thing a woman has. Women bleed, suffer, ache, seethe, at least once a month. If a woman is wounded – physically, that is – then the wound “implies en media res: The cause of injury is in the past but the healing isn’t done; we are seeing this situation in the present tense of its immediate aftermath. Wounds suggest sex and aperture: A wound marks the threshold between interior and exterior; it marks where a body has been penetrated. Wounds suggest that the skin has been opened—that privacy is violated in the making of the wound, a rift in the skin, and by the act of peering into it.” Many heroines (or love-objects) of mostly nineteenth-century literature are wounded women, in some way or another:
Miss Havisham wears her wedding dress until it burns. The bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress. Belinda’s hair gets cut—the sacred hair dissever[ed] / From the fair head, for ever, and for ever!—and then ascends to heaven: thy ravish’d hair / Which adds new glory to the shining sphere! Anna Karenina’s spurned love hurts so much she jumps in front of a train—freedom from one man was just another one, and then he didn’t even stick around. Mimi is dying in La Bohème and Rodolfo calls her beautiful as the dawn. You’ve mistaken the image, she tells him. You should have said “beautiful as a sunset.”
Women have gone pale all over Dracula. Mina is drained of her blood, then made complicit in the feast: His right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom … a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk. Maria in the mountains confesses her rape to an American soldier—things were done to me I fought until I could not see—then submits herself to his protection. No one has touched thee, little rabbit, he says. His touch purges every touch that came before it. She is another kitten under male hands.
I won’t insult your intelligence by noting that each of these authors is a white man, because of course you knew that. The point is that these imaginary women invite their wounds, live with their wounds, let their wounds grow septic and destroy them from within. Times have changed, and now we have what Jamison calls “post-wounded” women – women who still hurt and feel pain, but who balk at the notion of displaying or performing that pain. No need to be melodramatic. How terribly uncool.
Well, I am, and have always been, a pretty uncool person. I have felt and acted under the influence of enormous pain. Jamison’s essay dredged up all sorts of dormant feelings and memories that I’d mostly decided to let sink to the bottom of the ocean (so to speak), and the process was exacerbated by the fact that yesterday marked the second anniversary of my return to America from Australia. There’s no real need to go into the details of why I came back here, and of what a pitch-black time it was in my life, but suffice it to say: everything hurt. When I thought I’d found the edge of all endurable suffering, the floor would give way beneath my feet again, and I’d go plummeting down further and further into a hellscape of loss and regret and pain and new wounds, all the time. To paraphrase Nabokov: smothered memories unfolded themselves into limbless monsters of pain. There was no relief, no respite. It just went on and on. I would stare at incoming trains, wondering if I should just let myself fall in front of them. Let my mangled body match my mangled psyche.
It was during one of those especially dark months that I watched Hiroshima Mon Amour for the first time (you all know I’m a sham as a film fan, don’t act so shocked), and it spoke to me especially clearly. At the time, I simply took it in as another story about pain and loss that was somehow my pain and my loss: as the nameless Elle compares the death of her German soldier to the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so did I see my life as a twisted, toxic wasteland, a life torn apart by the kind of cataclysmic tragedy that should have been unthinkable. Now, however, I see it in much broader (and, I hope, healthier) terms: you can never forget such pain, because it’s made you who you are, but those scars fade over time, and the pain goes from acute to chronic to perhaps just a slight ache now and again, and the ruins of your old self are overtaken by nature – and so you begin again.
My therapist, whom I saw for about a year and a half, told me towards the end of our sessions that I’d proven that humans are tremendously resilient creatures, and that I should be proud of how far I’d come. And what the hell, I am proud of it. I suffered for a long, long time. I let others twist their knives in me, just in the hope that they would want to stay with me a little bit longer, but then one day – I didn’t want that anymore. I didn’t want the pain. I think desire has a lot to do with it – not everything, of course; brain chemistry is a tricky thing, and it takes much more than willpower to “fix” that if that’s the problem – but it can take a long, long, long time even to get to that stage. Still, it’s a necessary first step.
The turning point, for those of you who are interested, was a morning commute like any other. I was staring out the windows at a river we were crossing over, and Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in C Minor was playing on my handy-dandy portable jukebox (my phone, in short). In particular: the glorious fourth movement. As it began, as it swelled up in my heart, I could see – not the dingy early-spring landscape of eastern Massachusetts outside – a glorious kingdom, full of magnificent forests, boundless oceans, meadows full of flowers and butterflies. And I knew that this was my kingdom, in my heart, and no one could ever take it from me. No man, no tragedy, no pain. This was mine, and mine alone. I was not a drab little twenty-something being chuffed off to a thankless job in an overcrowded train car: I was a queen, and I would reign again. It sounds silly, I know, but you have no idea how much that imagery helped me. I could never forget what had happened, but that wasn’t the key to getting better. Remember it, remember it all, carry it with you – and keep moving forward.
Spring, the sun, and summer melted away all the discontented winter I’d carried around with me. I began to believe in myself. I began to assert myself. I began to hope for things, and to believe I deserved to be happy. Never – not even in Australia – did I believe that. I wouldn’t have gotten to that point if I hadn’t suffered so immensely. I had to grapple with my pain, and understand it, in order to move beyond it. This is a trite little comparison, but I think it’s apt all the same: it’s like lifting weights. In the moment, yeah, it hurts. It may hurt even more afterwards. But you get stronger. You get better.
If I did it, I hope you can, too.