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The chapel inside Joyceville Institution, as former prisoner Lloyd Ingraham describes it, is a medium-sized room, big enough for about fifty people, with stained glass windows at the front. The windows, three panels, each about eight feet high and five feet wide, were brought in from another prison, where they were damaged in a riot and then refurbished. “It was an escape from the insanity of the institution,” says Ingraham. “It was a comforting, warm, place.”
Ingraham, now sixty, was incarcerated from 2004 to 2015. Before arriving at Joyceville, a minimum-security prison outside Kingston, Ontario, Ingraham attended church services only sporadically. But religious practice took on a new role in his life while he was in prison. “There was more time, plus there was more need. When you’re in a time of crisis, which most people in prison are, you tend to be drawn closer to faith.”
Ingraham’s prison sentence overlapped with the twelve-year run of Howard Sapers, who served as the Correctional Investigator of Canada from 2004 to 2016. Sapers’s role was to act as an ombudsman and independent investigator for all issues affecting federally sentenced offenders. By the time Sapers left office in 2016, so-called “conditions of confinement” had worsened, with violence increasing both between prisoners themselves and between prisoners and corrections officers. The second most common cause of death in Canadian federal prisons in 2014 was suicide, followed by homicide and drug overdose. The average life expectancy of federal offenders is sixty years of age, compared to the national average of seventy-eight for men and eighty-three for women.
Though the use of solitary confinement has dropped considerably, from an average length of stay of forty-four days a decade ago to twenty-six days in 2016, recommendations made by United Nations experts advocate for an “absolute prohibition”on the use of solitary confinement for individuals with mental health issues and state that any more than fifteen days in solitary confinement amounts to a form of torture.
Combine this with a prison population disproportionately affected by poverty, poor educational attainment, mental health issues and addiction, and an ugly picture of what it is like to be a prisoner in Canada soon emerges.
Among the melee of guards and prisoners, administrators and oversight bodies, is the prison chaplain. Chaplains attend to the ways that individual lives continue on, even in prison, providing offenders an opportunity to reflect on the past and giving renewed hope for the future.
The chaplain is not interested in punishment and judgment, guilt or innocence. Faith in God, the promise goes, can redeem us all.
Yasin Dwyer worked for ten years in the federal prison system as a Muslim chaplain. For Dwyer, a typical day was oriented around meeting directly with prisoners. There were individual meetings to discuss personal issues or answer spiritual questions, group meetings during classes or religious worship, and informal meetings as he made his rounds, simply “walking through the institution,” stopping to say hello to those he saw along the way.
“We’re not there to judge, we’re there to serve. We’re there to give inmates options to be able to understand themselves, to be able to improve and challenge themselves, and to bring meaning to their life so they can be productive citizens,” says Dwyer. The support, encouragement, and spiritual grounding that chaplains offer, according to Dwyer, means that chaplaincy, might “play the most important role in prisons.”
There is research to suggest he may have a point. The positive effects of social support in reducing recidivism was documented in a study from the Minnesota Department of Corrections, which found that visits from clergy lowered the risk of reconviction by 24 percent. A 2002 study of prisoners in South Carolina, published in the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation in 2008, found that “as religious involvement increased the number of inmates with infractions decreased.”
The answer to why this method proves effective is, to prison chaplains, intuitive. The same reasons that drive people to seek meaning and purpose through spiritual and religious support outside of prison are ones that drive those in prison. As any non-incarcerated, religiously observant person could tell you, having spiritual grounding, interpersonal support, and a positive outlook on life can make a huge difference in one’s daily experience.
“There’s a perception I think that chaplains are ‘hug-a-thug’ or ‘molly-coddling,’” says Kate Johnson, a former Protestant prison chaplain, who worked with Lloyd Ingraham at Joyceville. Being “punished” for crimes, in many people’s minds, might not resemble the long conversations and deep reflections that Dwyer and Johnson facilitate. Johnson pushes back on this presumption. “I think it’s really important that the public understand that actually what we do is create sufficient emotional safety that people can be accountable—and they can’t do that when they’re terrified. Nobody wants to admit they’ve done something when they’ve got somebody poking them in the chest.”
From a former prisoner’s perspective, Ingraham sees chaplaincy services as an essential part of successfully reintegrating into society after serving a sentence. “The more support we have—and that support needs to start inside—then the better the chance of success for us out here, and the less risk to society,” says Ingraham. “They can stick us in a cage and leave us there for twenty-five years and then kick our asses out into the street, but where are we once we’re out? We’re lost.”
The “tough on crime” platform of the Canadian Conservative leadership played on the lack of public sympathy for prison reform issues. Under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the federal prison population increased by 17 percent between 2005-2015 despite a steadily declining crime rate. Cases of self-injury by inmates tripled between 2006-2016. The overrepresentation of Indigenous people, a group that makes up only about 4 percent of the population, rose to 24 percent of all inmates in Canadian federal prisons in 2015.
Chaplaincy services also took a major hit under the Harper government. In 2013, they were privatized and contracted out; first to a company called Kairos Pneuma Chaplaincy Inc., and three years later to the Canadian branch of American-based Bridges International.
A headline-grabbing incident involving the hiring of a part-time Wiccan prison chaplain in British Columbia provided the Conservatives with an opportunity. After much public hoopla, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews suspended the chaplain request. Soon after, citing cost-cutting measures, he chose not to renew the contracts of forty-nine other part-time chaplains, leaving only one non-Christian chaplain, Dwyer, within the entire federal system.
Dwyer, who was first hired in 2004, served in eleven federal prisons in the Ontario region with his main office based in Joyceville. He resigned in 2014 amidst the cuts and privatization efforts of the Conservative government. I met with him at a café near his new office at Ryerson University in Toronto, where he now serves as the Muslim chaplain. “There is a political dimension to all of this. Prisoners are not a very popular demographic for politicians,” he said.
As any officials working in federal corrections would, Dwyer and Johnson spoke about issues of public safety, victim impact and recidivism rates. But they also spoke about how time in prison could serve as an opportunity to dig deeper into what drives criminal behaviour. For both of them, the importance of good relationships was central.
As Johnson says, “People need to understand that that’s the value of the work that prison chaplains do: they provide and facilitate healthy relationships that give people something to lose and make them significantly less likely to reoffend.”
Dwyer noted the close relationships he had formed with inmates, some of whom he continues to remain in contact with even today, while watching them turn their lives around. He told me, “In Islam we have this word, khalwa. It means retreat. In Islamic tradition, when someone says I’m going into khalwa, it means I’m going into retreat in order to begin a conversation with myself and with God. Alone time. It’s an extended spiritual time out.” He suggested that, with the spiritual support of a chaplain, one’s time in prison could be an important opportunity to ask difficult spiritual questions. “I think that kind of transformation is more lasting and it sinks deeper in the heart.”
In the year following the end of the Harper government and the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, suicide rates in prisons have declined by 69 percent, serious bodily injuries by 13 percent and internal complaints by 28 percent. In June of 2017, it was announced that a fifteen-day cap on solitary confinement would be implemented at the federal level, bringing Canada closer to meeting the UN recommendations.
In a 2017 meeting with the Senate Committee on Human Rights, the new Correctional Investigator, Ivan Zinger, concluded his opening statements by saying: “an environment where prisoners are at higher risk of being assaulted or injured, self-harming, committing suicide, dying prematurely, contracting communicable diseases or being subjected to use of force or segregation is not conducive of rehabilitation, nor is it in the best interest of public safety. Inmates who are embittered and hardened by their prison experience are not likely to be easily rehabilitated, much less adequately prepared to make their way safely back to the community.”
Prison chaplains take this a step further, arguing that prisoners who are supported, who have positive relationships, and who have reflected deeply during their time in prison will be better people and better citizens when they re-enter society.
The fear is, perhaps, that we might waste our empathy, that those who we gave a second chance might betray us. Prison chaplains provides us with an opportunity to believe that people can change. That spiritual guidance can heal us. And that empathy for others can help us all.
The prison chaplain offered Lloyd Ingraham a spiritual path out of his isolation, a new way of looking at his past and his future, and a profound moral foundation for how to understand his place in the world. “Just having someone to sit and talk to is one of the most important things there is,” says Ingraham, “Someone who can guide you and help you.” The prison chaplain offers a human connection in what can otherwise be a deeply dehumanizing situation.
The first time I lost my mother, I was six years old. It was the end of spring, in 1996, and I was perched on the armrest of my family’s grey loveseat, watching her sit, legs crossed, in the moss-green recliner. Agitated, she stared past me as smoke ascended from her half-finished cigarette. A Children’s Miracle Network telethon played quietly in the background and she asked me to turn it off because she thought the people on TV could see her. Confused, I tried my best to reason with her, which only made her more uncomfortable. So, I hurriedly grabbed the remote and switched off the TV.
This is when I first understood what it means for someone to disappear. I hadn’t physically misplaced my mother, like those times I hid behind the clothing racks in Wal-Mart and emerged only a few minutes later unable to find her, my heart thumping so loudly it felt like it was in my ears, but her dissociation from reality made it so that it was no longer my mother in front of my eyes. I’d lost her bubbly personality, her benevolent soul, and her maternal connection to me. In no simpler terms, it was as though she had died.
She was forty. She’d slipped into what’s colloquially referred to as a “nervous breakdown,” which, over time, I came to understand, had been triggered by a prolonged period of stress. This was how I was introduced to the concept of stress: in fragments and overheard exchanges, repeated enough that I absorbed it as the “reason why.”
In clinical terms, my mother suffered a major depressive disorder with obsessive-compulsive traits. She believed her mind was wide open for everyone to read, and inside was a barrage of voices that increasingly pulled her away from reality. She’d bolt out of bed at ungodly hours only to go sit in the green recliner where, trapped in her own mind, she’d stare off into the distance trying to decipher the real from the imagined. If I were around, I’d stare back, trying to figure out what exactly had stolen her mind and inhabited her body.
To my then-nine-year-old sister and I, the symptoms seemed sudden, but for weeks before she was hospitalized, my father had witnessed my mother’s condition deteriorate. Leaving for work every night at 6 and returning the following morning by 7, he was only home during the day. Late one night, I awoke to my mother’s silhouette at my door. “What?” she asked. My eyes began adjusting to the darkness, and I curled my legs in toward my chest, half-sitting up. “Lisa, what?” she asked again. But I didn’t have an answer for her. Had I called out for her in my sleep? I still don’t know. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The point is, when I saw my mother at my door that night, instead of feeling comforted by her presence, I felt afraid.
Early on in my life, I came to believe that my mother’s mind is forever fragile. And because stress was the only explanation I had for this fragility, stress became the enemy—the thief that had stolen my mother and replaced her with someone I didn’t recognize. But besides “stress,” no one in my family can recall how my mother’s breakdown was explained to my sister or me. Isn’t that strange? There was no check-in with our family doctor, no sit-down with a counselor, therapist or social worker—not even a formal conversation with my father about what, exactly, was happening to her. Now, nearly two decades later, I’m trying to figure out why.
I soon noticed that the voices always got priority. And as mom grew distracted by them, I had to find ways to get—and keep—her attention. I’d start talking and she’d hold up her finger, indicating I had to wait my turn. “Mom!” I’d chirp, snapping my fingers in front of her face or grabbing her cheeks and directing her gaze back at me. But as these attempts failed, I had to get more creative. Because she feared that people could hear her thoughts, I devised a mind-reading game for us to play. I’d think something, like I love my bunny, and ask her to guess my thought. She’d of course guess wrong, and then it would be her turn to think something and my turn to guess.
“See, Mom,” I told her. “I really don’t know what you’re thinking! You believe me, right?”
“Okay,” she might say. “I see that.” And I’d beam with pride.
Psychologists would call my game a form of magical thinking—the belief that doing X somehow relates to Y. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a magical thinker. It’s called worrying. And I do it to prevent the worst from happening, or at least prepare me for when it inevitably will. I’ve sought therapy in recent years for this, yet somehow glossed over the role my mother’s breakdown played in this facet of my personality. My mind-reading game was a creative, perhaps even sophisticated, gesture for a six-year-old, but it was as useful a solution as having mommy kiss your “boo-boo” and expecting the pain to disappear. I wanted to control a chaotic situation and prevent the person I was closest to from feeling any pain. But as much as I willed the opposite from happening, my mother kept hurting.
Nearly two months after her symptoms first appeared, my father reached a breaking point. He knew my mother needed help beyond the reasoning he was forced to do with her on a daily basis. One afternoon, he went to see our family doctor and inform her of what was going on. The doctor didn’t act on my father’s concerns right away. And while there may be several good reasons for this, like not wanting to breach patient-doctor confidentiality, my father left that appointment feeling hopeless.
Some days later, he went back, this time accompanied by his older sister, who he’d hoped could corroborate his concerns. The doctor agreed to at least talk to my mother. They spoke on a Friday in July, the day before we were supposed to go on our first family camping trip. The doctor concluded that a hospital stay was in my mother’s best interest. My mother pleaded with the doctor to let her come camping with us for the weekend and, come Monday, she promised she’d check herself into the hospital. Doctor’s orders trumped camping.
That night, I sat beside my mother on the edge of her bed, my feet dangling over her half-packed suitcase. No bug spray or sunscreen inside; just several outfits and toiletries that indicated an indefinite stay. The next morning, my father would drive her to a facility an hour away, where, for several weeks, she’d make a new home—away from me.
My memories of that drive are vague, but I’m told that more than once, my mother suggested turning back. We eventually reached the laneway of my grandparents’ house, where my sister and I left the vehicle and went inside. Until then, I don’t think we fully understood that taking Mom to the hospital meant she wouldn’t be coming camping with us. It meant she wouldn’t be coming home with us, either. Devastated, my sister ran back to the driveway. The ends of her stiff arms rolled into fists as she began crying and stomping her feet. My mother watched through the rearview mirror as my father pulled out of the driveway with her in the passenger seat.
In August, my mother came home. It’d been four weeks and she still wasn’t completely herself. We stayed often at my grandparents’ house. Whenever my mother started to feel off, my grandma told her to go lie down. My sister desperately wanted to follow her into the bedroom, but my grandma would shoo her away, insisting that my mom needed rest. This angered my sister greatly. She felt like she was being kept from our mother, as though her very presence would make things worse.
I continued doting on my mom, insisting we play the mind-reading game to keep her on track, scribbling notes from our sessions in my journal. It took a few weeks for the medication to take effect but one afternoon, she had about two hours of lucid thinking and I was absolutely convinced my game had done it. “You’re like my mom again!” I said, as she was milling about our kitchen. “I feel really good right now,” she replied, sounding more like herself than she had in weeks. But later that day, the agitation and the intrusive thoughts returned. Had I failed her? It would be a few more rollercoaster-like days until the chemicals stabilized and the voices disappeared.
One month after she’d returned home, my father’s stress finally caught up to him and he had a heart attack during one of his overnight shifts. Around 5 a.m. we got the phone call from the police. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” my sister asked after my mom hung up. He wasn’t—but by then we’d learned that our parents could disappear without warning.
In 1998, a social scientist named Brenda Gladstone was studying how mentally ill adults readjusted as they moved from the hospital back into their communities. During her research, which she was conducting for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto (then known as Queen Street), a psychiatrist and social worker from the centre informed her that adults who presented at the hospital weren’t being asked if they had dependent children. Gladstone was shocked—not just at the failure of front line clinicians to inquire about kids of ill parents, but at her own failure to examine how mental illness might affect a person’s ability to parent once they returned home.
I was eight at the time Gladstone was beginning this research. Nearly two decades later, I had the chance to speak with her about the intersection of her work and my own lived experience. Today, she suspects that not a whole lot has changed when it comes to these situations—that children like me become invisible because too often, healthcare professionals just don’t ask about them.
This isn’t necessarily a malicious omission. In North America, our approach to mental illness treatment is still largely individualized. Doctors are responsible for helping their patients, not for figuring out how their patient’s illness is wearing on the rest of the family, or for working to connect the family to appropriate services. An abundance of information exists for parents of mentally ill children, but when it comes to the reverse, the literature is scarce. The resources that do exist, be it picture books, information sheets or child support groups, are spotty and poorly connected.
Because of this, each family member winds up putting together pieces of the same puzzle. I’ve had to fill in the gaps of my own memories with the memories of my sister, my father and my mother. I only learned the proper definition for my mother’s disorder a year ago when I began researching this story. Her episode might have been a “temporary aberration,” as her psychiatrist described it, but her inability to cope with prolonged stress is something that’s still being managed with medication.
As for me, the research says I should have come out of this whole experience one of two ways: at risk, or resilient. If I’m at risk, then thanks to things like genetics and the stigma surrounding poor mental health, the chance of developing my own tendency toward mental illness is increased. If I’m resilient, then I’ve somehow thrived despite adversity by finding ways to cope. But what exactly does resilience look like in the face of an illness you still don’t quite understand?
I’m fortunate to have had a strong father and compassionate relatives who took great care of me while my mother was sick. Still, the only explanation I had for my mother’s episode was stress. As a child, it was up to me to sort out for myself what this would mean for the future, and what my role would be in making sure it never happened again.
A month after my mom returned home, school started. My grades didn’t seem to suffer and I was still socially active. But marks of guilt and fear slowly appeared. My mother shared with me a note I wrote her when I was thirteen, seven years after the breakdown. (I used to write my mother a lot of notes. It was often my way of dramatically apologizing for upsetting her.) It reads:
“I REALLY hope you forgive me. I keep thinking I’m gonna make you have a nervous break down and I think it was my fault last time, cuz I’m worse than Big Sister when it comes to stressing you out. Please forgive me and stay calm, not stressed.”
Seven years later, I was still afraid of losing her. Seven years later, I still felt responsible for her disappearance. And I wasn’t just concerned that she’d slip back into a dissociative state; I worried I might develop her symptoms myself, as though her illness were air-borne and I could catch it just by standing too close. Some time after her breakdown, I came up with a strange thought: what if my mom wasn’t actually my mom at all? What if she were still my relative—say, my aunt—and everyone in my family was working to keep it a secret from me? For over a week, I tortured myself with this paranoid thought, ruminating on it day after day. I wonder now if my flirting with such a bizarre idea was proof that I didn’t trust my mom to truly be the person I believed she was. After all, I’d witnessed her turn into someone else before. In fact, I would again.
The second time I lost my mother, I was fifteen. Nine years older, I felt more equipped this time around to understand her symptoms. She spotted the signs much earlier than the first time, and voluntarily checked herself back into the hospital for a few days. I discovered a note from then, too, that I’d stuffed into her suitcase. “I can’t wait until you come home,” it reads. “Because you’re definitely coming back.”
Even today, my mother’s disorder still feels somewhat mysterious. It’s not schizophrenia; it’s not bipolar; and it doesn’t quite fit the widely held understanding of depression. It had a beginning and it had an end, which made it all the more complicated to define. More than having a medical definition, though, what I most needed to understand growing up was why she was no longer behaving like herself. Only in speaking with her for this story did I learn how her psychiatrist explained it to her all those years ago: “Your mind is like an overheated car engine,” he said. “You’ve run it too fast and for too long. It can’t go forward, it can’t go backward. It just needs to rest.” Had that analogy been shared with me when I was six, would I have better understood losing her? Maybe. Would it have left me unaffected? Maybe not.
The sudden transformation of my mother’s character has slowly and quietly transformed me. Assuming it wouldn’t is like thinking a tornado that touches down in a heavily populated area won’t cause any damage. The destruction might be devastating or minimal, but the psyche is still forever altered—not just by the disaster itself, but by the fear it has awakened. Her swift departures from reality left behind a sense of instability that manifests in my relationships today. Despite no substantial threat, I anticipate being blindsided by those I love; one day, they’ll morph into somebody different, someone who will disappear. Because I’ve seen the person I love most vanish before my eyes, it’s not a question of if, but when.
Over time, my mother’s inability to handle stress has, in some ways, become my own. Whenever she encounters stress—her brother slowly dying of an aggressive cancer; her father passing only a month later; her mother succumbing to the flu a year after that—I’m the one who recoils in fear. Will this happen to her again? For years, even mentioning her breakdown prompted a panic that, if talked about too much, it would sense her vulnerability and steal her again.
I know so much more than I did before. At this point, I’ve done the uncomfortable interviews with my family, joined the Facebook groups, done the research and talked to the experts. I belong to a subculture now: children of parents with mental illness.
I was overlooked. Not by one person or professional, but by a system that still struggles to recognize mental illness as a family matter. And I’ve realized that when children are rendered invisible in these circumstances, they start to see themselves and the event itself as invisible, too. Any feelings or concerns they have about it become unrecognizable and unimportant.
I don’t fault my family for, somewhere along the way, choosing protection over examination. They were trying to figure out what was happening just as much as I was. And because my sister and I weren’t acting out in obvious ways, my parents assumed we were fine. But watching a parent detach from reality is a special kind of trauma, and its impact evolves over time. I thought I’d dealt with it. But in asking the tough questions, which, at this point, is really all that’s in my power to do, I see now that the dealing has just begun.
We eventually got rid of the green chair, which, for me, was a relief. Its worn seat only reminded me of how lonely it must have been inside my mother’s mind, and how scary it was to watch her disappear. But like my handwritten notes, other objects from that time remain within the walls of my childhood home—things I’d long forgotten had anything to do with the breakdown. Like the pink ceramic bunny I used for years as a bedroom doorstop. My mother painted that while she was in the hospital. Or the stuffed gorilla with red hearts on the paws I gave her during her stay. She recently found it while we were cleaning out my old room and deciding what to purge.
She asked me if she could keep it. It surprised me that she’d want to hold on to it—a reminder of the suffering she quietly endured, and of her time away from home. But maybe not all of these objects are dark reminders of the past. They’ve survived after all these years, delicate as they are, like perfectly preserved artifacts meant to show that fragility does not equal lack of strength. My mother is proof of that. She’s healthy and has been since her relapse. I never thought she, my sister or my father would be comfortable enough to revisit her breakdown. I never thought I would, either.
In Gladstone’s research, she points out a major flaw in the at-risk/resilient discourse: it only leaves room for two possible outcomes. You’re either fucked or you’re fantastic. (My words, not hers.) But what if you’re somewhere in between those two destinations? What if you never reach a destination at all? Like me, your fate might be to keep pulling at the threads, trying to make sense of how things were handled; trying to uncover how your parent’s illness has shaped you, how much you might be predisposed to it, and what, exactly, that means for the road ahead.
In an overheated studio in the Reflections Center for Conscious Living and Yoga, a big balding man in cargo pants and a Hawaiian shirt shook his head, and tried repeatedly to speak. “I… I… I feel like I can’t express my feelings in articulate language,” he said. “I feel like I need to do a Native American dance instead.” The man hoisted himself up from the floor and walked into the middle of the circle of twenty-one strangers. He jumped up and down, his belly bouncing, and chanted tuneless syllables to himself. Some people pounded on the floor in time—most with reluctance, but a few with relish. When he sat back down, he was grinning with relief. The group was not as pleased. “I am inspired by your courage, but I feel uncomfortable imagining how that might have made a Native American person feel,” said one woman.
We were attendees of the Connection Movement NYC, a group that meets every Monday in this yoga studio east of Murray Hill. Its gatherings are meant to “engage vulnerability, earnest connection and playing full out,” as a means of “appreciating yourself and others at a deeper level,” according to its website. Beginners start at 6:30 for an introductory session and experienced practitioners join them an hour later. Entry costs thirty-five and twenty-five dollars, respectively.
When I arrived, there were already a handful of others waiting, chatting and making cups of herbal tea in the kitchenette. Amy Silverman, the group’s founder and facilitator, sat cross-legged on a couch, presiding with a kindly air. I had interviewed her over the phone earlier that week and she’d invited me to attend, so long as I promised to protect everyone’s anonymity. Amy has a girlish voice, enormous eyes and apple cheeks. She wore athletic leggings patterned in splotches of blues and greys, and had her brown hair back in a loose bun at the nape of her neck. She looked like an elfin Jewish mother. I’d hoped to just take notes and observe the session, but she told me I would have to participate.
At 6:30, Amy led us down to a studio in the basement. We sat in the round on the pale wood floor and Amy explained the methods of circling. It’s a “presence-based practice,” she said, “a relational meditation,” in which, instead of observing ourselves, we observe our connections. She called it a sacred geometry, making sweeping circles with her arms, as if treading water or casting a spell over a cauldron. I waited for her to introduce me as a reporter in the room, but when she didn’t, I said nothing.
The practice bears resemblances to some aspects of group therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous, but its most direct predecessor is the encounter group, also known as the t-group or training group. Popular in the Seventies, these groups “encourage open displays of approval, criticism, affection, dislike, and even anger and tears, rather than the tact and inhibition of emotional expression that ordinarily govern our social behavior,” writes Dr. Terry F. Pettijohn, a professor emeritus at Ohio State University, in his introductory textbook Psychology: A Connectext. Some met weekly; some held marathon sessions for twenty-four continuous hours or more. The hope was that, by breaking down boundaries and being honest with each other, the participants would make personal progress.
I found something ironic in the promise that we would find authenticity in a preordained methodology, and something sinister in the idea that the alchemy of relationships could be hacked with a few simple tricks. Curious about the science behind it, I spoke to Dr. Arthur Aron, a psychology professor at SUNY Stonybrook, whose “36 Questions” experiment became synonymous with accelerated intimacy thanks to a popular New York Times Modern Love column by Mandy Len Catron. In it, Catron and an acquaintance conduct Dr. Aron’s study—answering thirty-six intimate questions and then holding four minutes of eye contact—on themselves, in a bar. At the end, they did fall in love. How had Dr. Aron conceived of this experiment that people found so magically effective? “We took research on how friendships spontaneously develop. They often develop by people sharing personal information. Not too much too fast, but gradually building up and going both ways,” he said.
Amy instructed us to find partners, and to hold eye contact with them. I turned to the person to my left—a woman in her thirties with black hair, crooked teeth, and a heavy Russian accent—and opted to hold contact with the immaculately tweezed area between her eyebrows. For each element of the practice, we did an exercise. All of them were designed to teach us to be present with each other—to listen, to notice.
In one exercise, we were asked to watch each other, identify what we saw (body language, a facial expression), and determine what it meant. We were to use the script, “I’m seeing you do X. I interpret it to mean Y. Is that correct?” Our partner would then agree or disagree with our conclusions. I was excited by this exercise: an opportunity to attune myself to someone and to figure out what was really going on; I expected to be preternaturally good at it. (I was, after all, the writer in the room.) Instead, my partner and I kept misinterpreting each other. No, I did not sit up straighter because I felt confident; I was trying to relieve some lower-back pain. No, she did not fidget her feet because she felt anxious and restless; she was stretching for her ballet class. I found it disheartening. Even when we gave all of our attention to each other, we could only see ourselves.
By the time my partner and I finished this practice others were arriving. The crowd was evenly split between men and women, a range of ages—shallow diversity within its whiteness. Amy checked registrations on a tablet at her feet and asked after payments frankly, which seemed to embarrass no one but me.
That night, Amy said, we would be doing a surrendered leadership circle, where any member can speak or call upon others to share their experiences. Amy reminded us to approach each other with curiosity, but not of the “data-collecting” kind. (Professor Aron confirmed the psychological efficacy of this: when it comes to cultivating closeness, feelings are always more powerful than facts.)
We started by going around the circle and describing how we were feeling in the moment. It was mostly anxiety and excitement—very American of us. But, two thirds of the way through, a woman, perhaps in her forties, with honey hair and a narrow face, said, “I’m pissed,” her voice full of acid. It lingered, even as the woman next to her, of floral sweater and thinly plucked eyebrows, declared herself “giggly and alive.”
Amy led us in a brief meditation that felt fizzy with anticipation. When it ended, we opened our eyes and looked around at each other. The silence was tense. A girl in overalls spoke first and our attention snapped toward her. “I feel like this is melting the side of my face off, that’s how intense it is,” she said, tugging at her cheek, staring at the woman who was pissed. The woman gazed at her ferociously, and the girl cowered. “I was pissed, I was extremely pissed, until this connection,” the woman said, moving her hand as if along an electric current between them. “You really intrigue me.” From the way that this interaction captivated the group, it seemed that this moment—instantaneous and overwhelming attraction—was what everyone had come in search of.
“What about her intrigues you?” asked a chubby young man with prominent eyebrows.
“Well, I like her haircut. And her skin looks soft. I find her very attractive and it sort of irritates me, actually,” she said, and then paused. “Whew! That felt good to admit.”
The girl in overalls blushed. She really was lovely, in such a natural way, like she was very good with plants. “Oh, my face feels so hot. I’m flattered but I feel embarrassed.”
Eyebrows guy interjected to say that he felt jealous, and competitive with overalls girl. And he felt upset about his competitiveness, which he saw as his biggest flaw. Another young man, in business attire and clear-framed glasses, spoke up to reassure eyebrows guy that he too had felt competitive with overalls girl. They nodded approvingly at each other.
When overalls girl speculated that there might be something gendered about their jealousy of her, eyebrows guy got defensive, explaining that his mom had hated his dad.
A bald man in sweatpants and a red shirt jumped in. “I’ve been feeling rage, an intense bubbling rage.” He pointed to a handsome Italian in a slim-fitting sweater. “And I could see that you were also feeling rage, listening to everyone babble on.”
“I was actually not,” the Italian replied. “I was feeling some nice warmth in my chest.”
I was scribbling furiously, amused by the projections and missed connections, perplexed by all the confrontation and drama in a setting that I had expected to be a big group hug. An older man in a polo pointed to me, “I’m noticing that you’ve been taking notes this whole time. And I’m wondering what’s going on there.”
I admitted that I working on an essay about connection, and I was there looking for inspiration—participating, but observing too. My admission was greeted by a constellation of wide eyes.
A woman with wavy reddish hair and long teeth spoke first. “I feel really unsafe knowing that there is a writer in the room. I feel betrayed to learn that that’s what you’re here for and that you didn’t say anything.”
My heart pounding, I explained that I had arranged my visit with Amy, that I had her permission, that we had an agreement. But Amy just looked on in placid silence, allowing us to experience the experience, I guess.
Others chimed in to tell me how violated they felt by my notetaking, my intentions, my secrecy, my inadequate apology—all held up as evidence that I had violated the primary principle of circling: the commitment to connect. The woman who had been pissed told me that she felt sorry for me, that I clearly had a lot of sadness in my life. I was embarrassed, yet there was something pleasurable about it too, being the outcast in a room of connectors. The relief of having your worst fear come true and surviving.
“I could tell from the start that you weren’t really participating, you were just watching us,” said the rageful man, his eyes narrowed. “You can’t be sort of in and sort of out. You’re either in or you’re out. You’re writing about connection, but you’re not really connecting.” This hit soft flesh, that my contemplation of love superseded my practice of it. I thought that putting on my writer’s hat allowed me to engage more deeply with my humanity and my interest in others; the group saw it as a buffer, a retreat.
In my interview with Professor Aron, of the 36 Questions, he insisted that if I want to understand closeness, I need to understand the concept of responsiveness; in studying intimacy, psychologists are finding that what is disclosed matters less than how it is received. He suggested I talk to Dr. Harry Reis, a professor of social psychology at the University of Rochester. “We like to be close and responsive to each other, so we tend to share hotel rooms at conferences,” Dr. Aron said, as an endorsement.
When I spoke to Dr. Reis, I asked what his research showed to be the ideal response to another’s disclosure. He emphasized that there is no right way, no one-size-fits-all method. Rather, a good response shows that you understand where someone is coming from, it validates what they are going through, and, most importantly, it demonstrates that you care. (Taking notes for a story, I recognized, does not have this effect.) Communication skills like those taught in the Connection movement are “the easy ways of doing it,” he says, but hardly the best or only ones. Far better would be to do something specific unto that person—to demonstrate that you care for them because you actually do. “There’s the old joke: ‘Sincerity is the most important thing in socializing and, if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.’ The best way to do it—the most important part—is to really feel it.”
Yet the forces behind sincere affection are hard to pinpoint, let alone to manufacture. “Chemistry is, to me, one of the most fascinating concepts we have. We can’t define it, but when it happens, you know,” Reis said. “Our entire field is nowhere in understanding what that sense is or where it comes from. And it’s not for neglecting the idea. There are a lot of really smart people who would like to figure out what that is, and we just don’t have a good handle on it yet.”
After the circle ended, Amy gave a postmortem. “That was intense,” she said, with a yogic sigh. She assured everyone that she had thought long and hard about how to bring me into the room and had decided that the way she had handled it was the best way. The fact that the session proceeded as it did—that the group had figured me out—had only reaffirmed her faith in the practice: it was proof that circling had the power to unearth anything going on in a room. And what had gone on in this room was me.
Then people began approaching, apologizing, suddenly courteous. The redhead told me that she was a psychologist, that she thought it was so important that people write more about connection. She asked if she could hug me. “I’m a writer too, you know,” said the rageful man, and started to tell me about his books. Others asked for my email address, told me they were eager to read my work. They hoped I would come back. They were sorry for what took place. “That’s just what happens when people get real,” they said, beaming at each other.
Americans have been shooting one another without intent since before the first settlers arrived.
In 1637, three ships entered Boston Harbor. One of them could not find exactly where to anchor. Someone on one of the other two ships fired a shot to direct the errant vessel, but instead killed one of its passengers, “who had survived the ocean passage only to be shot dead upon arrival.” Peter Manseau describes the incident in Melancholy Accidents: Three Centuries of Stray Bullets and Bad Luck. The book contains reprinted newspaper notices of unintentional shootings, then known as “melancholy accidents,” from 1739-1916, in chronological order.
For the modern-day equivalent of Manseau’s collection, just plug “shooting accident” or “accidental shooting” or #gunfail into a browser. There is no end to the ways in which people can unintentionally kill each other with guns, and in this particular type of gun violence, the shooter and the victim usually know one another. They are siblings, parents, grandparents, neighbors, and best friends. These stories capture the moment close relationships are suddenly and irrevocably severed. A reader is left to imagine the ways in which the bonds among the survivors might also be mortally fractured.
It’s a macabre exercise, to be sure, yet there was a time not so long ago when I engaged in it on a near-daily basis, trying to gain perspective on my own father’s decades-old “melancholy accident.”
It happened on a Sunday evening in May 1975, when the tufts of crabgrass in our backyard had begun to soften with the dew. I was twelve years old, standing under the apple tree between our small Cape Cod house and my dad’s gun shop, amidst a chorus of lawn mowers and rowdy kids playing hide-and-seek as the sun went down on our working-class town about an hour’s drive west of Philadelphia.
Gunsmithing was a part-time endeavor for my father; he was a full-time high school German teacher. His shop was a single-story concrete structure with a few windows on each side. It looked like a one-car garage with a door for a vehicle and another door for people, the customers, including the local police, who brought their weapons to be fixed. Inside, the smell of bluing oil and kerosene hung in the air. There was a counter where business took place: customers put down their guns, took them out of their cases, and told their stories. At the other end of the room was a workbench with tools and plastic drawers filled with countless parts. The phone numbers of customers and parts dealers were scrawled in pencil on the wall behind the workbench. Underneath, boxes with wooden stocks and metal barrels cluttered the floor.
That night, Dad was in the shop with the superintendent of the local school district, who had brought a handgun to be fixed. When the “pop” of a discharge sounded, for a couple of minutes it meant nothing. My dad often test-fired guns in the shop. The concrete block walls muted the firing, and over the years I’d gotten used to it. No, it wasn’t the gunshot that put an end to the soundtrack of my childhood, but my dad’s voice, a sweet tenor that led the church choir and soloed at weddings. Only now it rose in desperation, crying from the other side of the shop.
Someone call an ambulance.
I darted past the rusty swing-set and along the side of the shop, until I came to the gate that separated our yard from our neighbors’. We anchored that end of the block along with Mr. and Mrs. Randall.11Names have been changed. As I clung to the chain link fence, I watched my dad, about ten yards away, in his white tee-shirt, khaki trousers, and black shoes, on his knees in the Randall driveway, cradling Mr. Randall, a kindly man who had recently retired and was starting a small business selling worms to other fishermen. Tears were running from under my dad’s glasses and down his cheeks. I had never seen him cry before, never heard his voice pitched so high and cracking. Someone call an ambulance. Please, God.
I don’t remember how I ended up in the house, jockeying with my siblings for positions around bedroom windows that looked out onto the backyard. Somehow, we came to understand what had happened, bits and pieces of the story landing on us like firecracker ash: an accident… a jammed gun… Mr. Randall in his garage… a bullet in the stomach and out through his back… still alive. Mr. Randall disappeared into the back of an ambulance on a stretcher. Our dad got into the back of a police car. We didn’t know when he would return.
That night our dad’s sister came over to stay with our mom in the kitchen. We children huddled in an upstairs bedroom and attempted to construct narratives that made sense of this seemingly incomprehensible event. How did this even happen? Would Mr. Randall survive? I had spent many hours helping my dad in his shop and identified strongly with him then. And I was in the seventh grade, a time of hyper-awareness, especially for a girl, so my initial thinking was even more self-centered: Why was this happening to Dad and to me? I was one of six children who did not know if their father, the sole breadwinner and center of familial attention, would end up in jail, especially if Mr. Randall didn’t make it. What would become of us, of me, then?
For years, the facts of the accident remained blurry, perhaps intentionally so. What I think I knew then, much of it from the newspaper: My dad had test-fired the faulty pistol while aiming at a wooden backstop with a target on it. The target may have been below a window, not in its usual location against a full-height concrete block wall. He fired once and, without his knowing it, the pistol ejected a second bullet as his arm went up on the recoil from the first shot. He and the superintendent heard Mr. Randall moaning a few minutes later and went to see what was wrong. They then realized what had happened. Mr. Randall had been in his garage, with the door up, not more than ten or fifteen yards away, when the stray bullet quietly pierced the gun shop window and then passed through him, all in less than a second.
My family immediately began calling it “the accident.” Perhaps we took our lead from the paper, which initially described what had happened as a “mishap.” Still, I took some comfort from that first headline on Monday morning, which read, “Mishap at Gunsmith’s: Gun Fires Accidentally; Man Next Door is Wounded.” “Mishap” and “accidentally” gave my father―gave all of us―an out. “Mishap” minimized all of it. “Accidentally” made it sound as if it were fate or God’s will, which I certainly believed in. “Gun fires accidentally” was devoid of human agency, as if the gun had not been in my father’s hand, or anyone’s hand. “Man next door is wounded” used the passive voice. Again, the person holding the gun was nowhere to be found, as though the gun had behaved of its own accord. What readers were left with was this: fate caused a gun to go off and minimally injure a bystander. Reading that headline and the story the next morning, I realized that not everything I read in the paper was necessarily true. Or, more specifically, that news accounts didn’t necessarily convey the blood, the tears, the adrenaline coursing through limbs, the fear of not knowing what the future held for the private lives of the people beneath the public narratives.
And yet I saw how the public narrative was already being managed and manipulated to become something that a community might be able to live with. The beneficiaries of this particular narrative were the offender, his family, and the zoning and law enforcement officials who had known such dangerous activity was taking place and had done nothing to stop it.
On Tuesday morning, another article, this time on page two, suggested the ways in which my father might be culpable. His gun shop was illegal. The Borough authorities could not find evidence that he had ever gotten a zoning variance to run the business, and the discharge of any weapon in our town was against the law. So, our father had been negligent. The shop had been built in 1969, six years earlier, ostensibly as a garage for parking a car, but it had never been used as such. Had he really been breaking the law all that time?
Later that day, when we came home from school, we learned that Mr. Randall had died. He’d had internal bleeding, another surgery. A couple of the neighborhood women were sitting at the kitchen table with our mother, waiting for our dad. My sisters and I quietly went upstairs to process this new information and spin out more possibilities. What would happen now?
In the early days, we obsessed over the unlikelihood of all of it. The shop had concrete block walls and a few windows with metal grates on them. After puncturing the window, the bullet had passed cleanly through one of the holes in those grates. Maybe none of this would have happened if the bullet had hit a wall or if it had hit the grate. It might have been stopped, slowed or changed course. And what if Mr. Randall, who had simply gone to get some gardening tools from his garage, had been standing six inches to one side or the other when the bullet came along? What if he had been sitting on the patio with Mrs. Randall instead, enjoying the end of a pretty spring day, the way they often did? What were the chances that all this would come to pass exactly as it had?
This “what if” phase seems to be common to the narratives told by those who survive such deadly events. At twelve years old, the same age I was when my father’s accident occurred, Gregory Orr, now a professor of English at the University of Virginia, accidentally shot and killed his younger brother, Peter, while hunting with his father and brothers in upstate New York. In his memoir, The Blessing, he recounts what he believes were some of the contingent possibilities that may have haunted his parents. A grandparent who told his physician father, “Jim, you can’t have all these guns loose around the house with all these kids. Someone is going to get hurt.” His mother’s pleas that morning to let the two younger brothers accompany the older ones on the hunting expedition in the first place: “Jim, maybe they could go just this one time.” And then, of course, there is Orr’s own child’s mistake of not properly pointing his rifle straight down in order to discharge it.
Like our dad, who had been taking apart guns and putting them back together since he’d been a teen, we broke his accident down into its component parts and assessed each piece, each juncture, for a clue as to where things had gone wrong. What were the parts that anyone had control over? Or, in a cruel way, had it actually been out of our father’s hands, attributable to bad luck or fate or God’s will?
The young Orr, back at his house after the accident, sequesters himself in his bedroom, grieving and unwilling to face anyone. When his mother enters the room, he apologizes profusely but tells her to go away. She stays, assuring him that it was an accident and, in fact, that his father had killed a friend while hunting when he himself was Orr’s age, a stunning revelation. But she doesn’t offer Orr any physical comfort. Despite his earlier words sending her away, what he wants most is a warm embrace from his mother, but he never gets it, and he soon enters a state of long-term, self-imposed penance, believing himself to be monstrous.
Reading Orr’s book for the first time, decades after the death of Mr. Randall, I thought of my father at the police department downtown before he came home later that night after we were all supposed to be asleep, before I heard him crying to my mother and his sister, “He was a good man. He was a good man,” already speaking of Mr. Randall in the past tense, as though he were fearing the worst. Had he, too, been sickened by the story he had to say out loud, with the visceral memory of holding the wounded Mr. Randall in his arms?
Orr, whose life’s work as a poet becomes centered around language and meaning-making, cannot accept the word “accident” to describe what happened.
If there was no plan, then maybe the god who ruled this world was named Accident, a god who joyed in randomness, who ripped apart lives for no reason, who swallowed stars and toyed with the Void. But this was an insupportable idea. How could I live in a world where everything was random, where Accident ruled and where one day I might wake to sunshine and blue sky and another, find my own brother dead at my feet? Accident. Unbearable word, unbearable world.
He decides, instead, that there must be a God who has made this happen. “I had a choice: I could try to live without meaning, or I could bow before this God. I bowed.” My family was devoutly Catholic, and we, too, bowed before God.
“Unintentional shooting” is a category of gun violence that lurks in the shadows of mass shootings, domestic violence, and suicide. Today, the public health community, including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), uses the term “unintentional shooting” instead of “accident” or “accidental shooting,” since the latter imply something that is out of the control of those involved, when in fact, if one examined any number of situations involving “accidents,” with a gun or a car or a speed boat, for example, one would likely find ways in which these unintended events could have been prevented. There is a whole field of research dedicated to injury and violence prevention in which intentionality is removed from the equation. It’s understood that no one meant for the event to happen, just as my dad never meant for a second bullet to discharge that night.
By removing the notion of intentionality, researchers are ostensibly setting aside the specifics of any given situation to treat guns like other products that can result in harm—cigarettes, playground equipment, all-terrain vehicles, for example—and then trying to find ways to minimize the risks associated with them, by influencing their design or public policies, to improve public health outcomes. But language only goes so far without research and statistics to understand the patterns of death and injury attributable to guns and how they are used and stored. The public health community, of course, has been muzzled in a key way by the National Rifle Association, its lobbyists, and the legislators who are beholden to their donations and support. Since 1996, the CDC has not conducted firearm injury research because of the Dickey amendment to that year’s appropriations bill (named for former U.S. House Representative Jay Dickey (R-AR)). It read, “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” While the CDC would not necessarily be advocating or promoting gun control simply by conducting firearm injury research, the language has been enough to stifle such research. Prior to the passage of the amendment, $2.6 million which had been available the preceding year for such research was taken away.
On Wednesday morning, the news of Mr. Randall’s death, along with a photo of him smiling heartily in a tuxedo, was on the front page. The article was an extended obituary, reminding us all of the life that was now extinguished. Dad disappeared, too, for a while. He finished out the school year, but when he came home he succumbed to the anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications prescribed by the family doctor, curling up in his bed and no longer joining the family at the dinner table.
Then, as the days and weeks passed, no charges were brought against him. My siblings and I figured it was because he had done work for the local police. The town had known all about my dad’s business, and no one had stopped him. In that way, the Borough was culpable too. But not having criminal charges filed did not inoculate my father, or any of us, from the reality that Mr. Randall was dead by his hand. Dad, who typically teased us mercilessly and talked tough about protecting us from crime, remained subdued, and a kind of silence set in. We weren’t the kind of family to acknowledge pain, except perhaps to poke fun at someone else’s, let alone traipse through complicated emotional terrain, and we certainly had no road map for this. I didn’t know it then, but Dad wasn’t talking much to Mom about what had happened. He looked outside the family for comfort and, perhaps, some kind of forgiveness. He went through a spell where he’d awaken in the early morning hours, tormented, unable to sleep. He’d give his cousins Marge and Punky Conklin a call and drive to their place across town. They were charismatic Catholics, and they’d put on a pot of coffee, pray together, and try to sort things out until the sun came up. After some period of time—it is vague in my memory—with the help of his medications and the support of our church, my father mostly returned to his old self.
That summer I wasn’t sleeping well either, and during the day I took refuge in the nearby neighborhood of a girl who had been new to my school that past year. Karen had three brothers and also liked sports. Her dad helped organized basketball, softball, and touch-football games with all the neighborhood kids, and now included three of my siblings and me. Without a word ever being spoken about the accident, Karen’s house, front porch and street, and the fields a couple blocks away at the high school, became my refuge. When the summer ended, I dedicated myself to sports, especially basketball. At the hoop at the elementary school a block from my house, I could shoot around and create drills and scenarios for myself in which I eventually triumphed. I could also be alone and avoid my own neighbors, especially Mrs. Randall, who still lived next door.
Sometime in the months after Mr. Randall’s death—for many years, the chain of events was foggy to me—despite the continued lack of a permit to run his business, my father began repairing guns again in his shop. It astounded and angered me. I imagined Mrs. Randall, newly hurt every time another man with a gun showed up next door. I was no longer interested in spending any time there. I now knew what a bullet could do.
I must have been around thirteen years old by then, and I couldn’t fathom how my dad could ever touch a weapon again in his life. Mr. Randall was dead, Mrs. Randall was a widow, and the hunters and police were once again stopping by, as though the accident had never happened.
In The Blessing we experience the suffering of the narrator on the page; we see the father leaving the mother four months after Peter’s death. We know there is a chasm in this family that may never be bridged again. Not so with my family, not outwardly. To look at us, you might not know anything horrible had happened at all. There was a premium placed on silence, endurance, and normalcy. My mother, the stoic and dutiful wife, may very well have provided the emotional ballast for this.
There was, however, one form of semi-public consequence for the accidental shooting. In October of that year, about five months after the accident, Mrs. Randall filed a civil suit against my parents and the Borough. The school superintendent and the store that had sold him the pistol would eventually be enjoined. A separate suit would be filed against the local hospital. I say that it was semi-public because the case against my parents would proceed for more than six years out of view of the community and my siblings and me, except for an occasional update about the court date being pushed off yet again. Apparently, our homeowner’s insurance company would not agree to cover any damages since the gun business had not been declared on the policy. But this was Mrs. Randall’s only chance to have her side of the story heard, to try to gain some public recognition of the value of her husband’s life. Fundamentally, the civil action demanded to know: Who was to blame? And what kind of punishment and reparations were appropriate or possible?
During my college years, it appears I spoke of the shooting to only a couple of people—the man who would eventually become my husband and one of my roommates. I had been recruited to play basketball at Princeton, about seventy-five miles away from home, but it may as well have been another universe, one in which I could start over. With no internet, social media, or online news in 1980, no one at college ever had to know about Mr. Randall unless I chose to tell them.
I stayed in central New Jersey after graduation and got married the following year, while my parents and Mrs. Randall continued living next to each other until 1988, more than thirteen years after the accident, when my parents finally moved across town to a commercially-zoned property where my dad put up a new gun shop. During these years, I rarely thought about the shooting except when I went home to Pennsylvania for holidays or quick visits, seeing that yard, the shop, and Mrs. Randall’s house.
A secret, though, takes on a life and power of its own and, at some point, the death of Mr. Randall became entwined in my mind with my dad’s obsession with guns and his increasingly shrill espousal of the values of the National Rifle Association and homegrown militias, especially during the years of the Clinton administration. In my mind, my dad’s anger and paranoia also became linked to the downward economic spiral of my town since I’d left for college. Pottstown now struggled with private sector disinvestment, unemployment, drugs, violent crime, and a decaying housing stock, all against the backdrop of two nuclear reactors belching steam, thick with portent. There were now more reasons than ever to keep the details of my childhood very much separate from my life, friends, and progressive politics in suburban New Jersey. I felt safe away from this other America. And yet, I became a parent during these years, and there is nothing like life circling around to force secrets to surface.
My oldest son had just turned twelve. I noticed The Rifle, a young adult novel by Gary Paulsen, on the school’s summer reading list under the category of historical fiction. I was standing in a Barnes & Noble picking out books for the summer, and there it was on a table. Words on the back sent a chill through me:
“Strangely, in all the time of the rifle…through all the people who looked at it and held it over their shoulder, not once in the life of the rifle did anyone ever think to see if it was loaded. The rifle was loaded.”
When I got home, I immediately took the book to my study and closed the door.
The Rifle is the story of a gunsmith during the Revolutionary War era, who lovingly builds a rifle with near-perfect aim. It’s recovered from a battlefield, still loaded, and then passed down and sold through several generations until the modern era. A collector hangs it over his fireplace. A spark from a fire causes the rifle to accidentally discharge, sending a shot through two windows, killing a child next door. I read, transfixed, on the verge of tears. And yet it was oddly a comfort and a revelation: this had happened to other people, even if they were just characters in a book. A few nights after I read it, I sat on the edge of my son’s bed and turned it over to him.
“Here’s something to read. Maybe we can talk about it when you’re done?”
My voice had trembled, and he looked at me strangely. Months would pass before I asked him if he had read it, and he said, “yes,” and I let it go. I simply couldn’t talk about it.
How do you talk about a family secret in a way that feels organic, and not just some random moment when Mom wants to unburden herself of the sadness, regret, and shame she feels for her childhood and her parents, which is linked in her mind to a decaying place that she has escaped? When is the “teachable moment”? You don’t want to be like your family of origin, covering over the worst parts, and yet, that is what you have done. You have remained silent.
The moment arrived when my son asked to play paintball, and I responded with a barrage of safety questions,..
Mouthful is a column about the author’s relationship with food, ten years into recovery from anorexia and bulimia.
I was in Florida piecing my life back together after an eating disorder ripped it apart when I began assisting in a classroom of second- through fourth-graders with emotional and behavioral disabilities. The work demanded a kind of patience I thought I had before beginning, but never could have anticipated requiring. Students overturned desks, cried so hard they made themselves vomit, fought with each other, intentionally interrupted the class lessons, ran away from school and home, and routinely came to school without their backpacks or their glasses. Many of them endured horrible abuse and neglect. Some of them would go on to have children and mile-long rap sheets before they turned twenty. Fifty percent of students at the school were legally homeless.
Still, there were pleasures. My favorite memories from this time take place in the garden. We planted it the second year I was there, at the side of the school near the playground and the bike racks. The children grew sunflowers, greens, and carrots. The classroom teacher, “Ms. V,” was an avid environmentalist, and in addition to the garden, she had instituted an elaborate paper-recycling program, which raised thousands of much-needed dollars.
Ms. V carried her lunch in canvas sacks and her loose-leaf tea in recycled jars; I never saw her use a plastic bag or a paper cup. Her lunches were made from vegetables she grew in her own garden at home, in which everything was done organically and sustainably—she even watered her beds from a bright blue rain barrel. She had an aeroponic herb planter in her kitchen. She made a compost tumbler out of an old washing machine.
I was already vegan before meeting Ms. V—I had been so for a year and a half, including the two months I’d spent in rehab, learning how to eat again. I’d gone vegan allegedly for political reasons, though the true underlying reason was that the person I had been dating for a year before going to rehab was politically vegan, and had pressured me into adopting the lifestyle. As it turned out, the restrictive diet dovetailed nicely with my anorexia.
I liked having a system of belief to which to subscribe. My ex-boyfriend was a proponent of anarchist “rewilding” and read deeply from works by John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen, though at times his militarism became frightening—for instance, he idolized Ted Kaczinsky. He had a fantasy, which I took seriously, of setting fire to a logging operation or a vivisection laboratory—of course, after freeing the animals. For a time, I shared this fantasy.
Aside from his immersion in green anarchist theory, though, my ex did not live an environmentally friendly lifestyle—or any kind of friendly lifestyle. He drove a car, seldom recycled, smoked cigarettes and dropped his butts on the ground, drank a lot (a lot) of beer, picked fights with people for fun, and bought clothing made in sweatshops. In retrospect, his stated beliefs were more than likely an outlet for his anger.
Even so, when I began working with Ms. V, I still held onto some aspects of green anarchist philosophy. I distrusted capitalism. I witnessed with dismay our pillaging of the natural environment. I maintained a desire to live off the grid, though I wasn’t sure how to go about this. In my imagination, living off the grid looked like a shack in the woods, possibly near a river, where possibly I would fish each day—wild-caught animals aligned with my veganism, because they had lived full lives before being killed. I disagreed with the oppression and exploitation of living organisms; if they had lived wild, they were neither oppressed nor exploited
Where my ex was all theory, Ms. V was all action. He antagonized; she galvanized. We were collectively distilled with an appreciation for the living world. Children who normally struggled to pay attention in class sat for minutes at a time observing bees. Some who worried daily about where they would sleep each night found solace in tending seedlings. They saved their apple cores and orange peels to add to our compost pile. They saved discarded paper products at home and brought them to school, to contribute to the recycling program.
In the afternoons, I biked around my neighborhood collecting citrus and starfruit from people’s yards—this was technically illegal, but I considered it urban foraging. Trees were a public resource.
Because St. Petersburg didn’t have curbside pickup, I sorted my glass, plastic, and cardboard, and brought them down to the recycling center each weekend. If it was yellow, I let it mellow; if it was brown, I flushed it down.
For the first time in my life, I kept houseplants alive. I made an admittedly disgusting attempt at composting in a lopped-off milk jug, to the dismay of my new and very understanding boyfriend, who would also eventually go vegan. Had my composting worked, my attempt to grow lima beans in the dusty planter outside our apartment may also have worked. My ability to grow anything then was still nascent.
Ten years later, I live alone in a studio apartment in Brooklyn. I teach two classes at two universities, both of them located ninety minutes to two hours from where I live. My students are adults. I am trying to finish a novel. I’m no longer vegan—I abandoned and returned to it, then abandoned it again, and have been consuming animal products now for two years. Sometimes I think about this and feel guilty, but quickly forget about it again—food is the last thing I think about day-to-day. For that reason, it is often the first thing I forget to plan for. My refrigerator sits mostly empty. I sometimes fall asleep hungry. I frequently order delivery. Sometimes, I eat whatever is closest at hand. The other day, this was several sheets of old, dried sushi seaweed from the cabinet.
The supermarket is two blocks from my apartment. I could go there. But I usually don’t. It’s winter and cold, and windy, and wet. I carry my groceries home in bags. I feel sluggish from vitamin D deficiency. When I moved here in 2010, I was told by a doctor that all New York residents are deficient from lack of sunlight. This is true year-round.
I work from home. I will stay inside all day, in my underwear, on my sofa. I’m writing, or trying to write but instead reading the news with increasing panic. The longest I have gone without leaving my apartment is four days.
Today, I was proud of myself: On the walk home from my girlfriend’s apartment, I went a block out of my way to the grocery store. When I got home, I ate blue cheese directly out of the box with a fork. I ate three handfuls of raw arugula. Then I combined the two in a bowl and drizzled it with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and praised myself for making a healthy choice. Then I ate the rest of a bag of chocolate-covered raisins I bought two weeks ago, on my way home from a literary event.
I routinely eat in transit. I know which takeout Indian restaurants will be open when I return to my neighborhood at midnight. I hit up the Shake Shack when my class lets out at four in the afternoon, before I get on the train. I look for the least sugary snack at 7-Eleven, to tide me over until I find a meal—then I settle for a bag of jalapeño Kettle chips and a cup of coffee prepared with four half-and-halfs. I save the last of my late-night Gyro Café to eat for lunch tomorrow. I fry it up with whatever is around. An old onion. Some Cholula.
I eat like a scavenger. Perhaps I’m lazy. Perhaps it’s a matter of survival. But I’m tired of surviving, and crave stability. I share this neighborhood with many Latino and South Asian families. In the spring, gardens appear in their courtyards, lengths of string hung from brownstones above the concrete, tied to the spiky gates that line the sidewalk. Tendrils of squash and cucumber grow up from the tiny patches of soil and curl around the loose weave, suspending their leaves and flowers. They are fresh, alive, tended to, appreciated, harvested, served to nourish.
When my ex-husband and I lived in this apartment together, before he moved out last January, our superintendent would plant her garden in the yard outside our window. She and her husband, both elderly people now, moved to the United States from Albania over forty years ago. They had always lived in this building. Theirs was the apartment next to ours on the ground floor. On Sundays, their music filled the hallway through their propped-open door. In the garden, our super grew peppers and cucumbers, tomatoes and squash, sunflowers and corn and foxgloves. As she harvested, she passed us vegetables and flowers through our window.
The garden is closed now. The Albanian couple moved out and now a new superintendent lives next door. His first order of business was wiring shut the gate to the garden, to keep out neighborhood children. It is now only an unused patch of uncut grass. It would be perfect for playing tag, or taking a nap in the sun, or planting tomatoes. A section of grass is useful to the human soul in many ways. Before my super wired it shut, I had considered asking if I could plant my own garden there. Instead, I grow one inside.
All but one of the plants in my apartment began as a clipping. Two were given to me by friends. I rooted them in glasses of water, repotted them, and then clipped them when they grew large enough to repeat the process. Four out of five send out tendrils, looking for new places to latch on and put down roots. These are vulnerable organisms. There are many places where they could get hurt reaching so far into the world. They can’t see where they’re going. They can’t see the future. They have few natural defenses. They also regenerate.
What was once a tiny callisia fragrans clipping, just a few inches long, is now the largest plant in my apartment, occupying an entire window. It has given life to two others, which live on bookshelves and lean towards the nearest source of sunlight: the window facing the former garden. The next largest, a massive Peruvian grape ivy with dozens of tangling tendrils, occupies half of a windowsill above my bed. It is now my cat’s favorite perch, which tells me that he would very much enjoy sleeping in a garden.
The fifth is a zee zee plant, a cluster of shoots with glossy, teardrop-shaped leaves, which came into my possession when some friends moved out of the country. For months, my ex-husband and I failed to notice that the zee zee’s faulty potting was choking its roots and depriving it of water. An enormous plant when we adopted it, sections of it continued dying until, one day, in desperation, we took it into what was then the still-open grassy area outside my apartment, to repot it.
Half of its rhizomes were shriveled beyond saving. Most of the plant was dead below the surface. Gently, we cleared away the damaged tissue. We left only a couple of stalks to salvage. We placed them in a pot just a quarter of the size of the original. It took years for the plant to begin growing again, but it did. Today it is still less than half the size it was. But this week, a new shoot broke ground, and is already climbing above the others.
I find myself looking out over New York’s endless expanse of concrete, longing for a lifestyle similar to the one now enjoyed by my vegan ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. When I was deep in my anorexia, I used to stalk this person online. At the time, she was an alcoholic Chicago scenester, recently graduated from hair school, very much into her makeup and her Chihuahua. She was hot. I felt like a troll. I was lonely and isolated in my Long Island apartment, mousy and starving and crippled by insecurity, and obsessive-compulsively bingeing and purging, followed by long periods of starvation and sleeplessness. My ex would openly compare me to her, fueling my obsession and self-hatred. Her carefully crafted online persona looked glamorous compared to mine, which never achieved her level of effortlessness. Ironically, narcissism did not come naturally to me. I chewed on her Livejournal. I hated her and wanted to be her.
Now she lives in the mountains of North Carolina on a homesteaded farm. She’s grown her hair long and has let it resume its natural blonde. She keeps chickens and goats, and grows bright-colored fruits and vegetables in her organic garden, and hikes down to a creek with her two children, who swim in fresh mountain water.
I miss the water. I live on an island but it’s easy to forget this when all I see are piles of trash, and cars, and when I am so often underground, and the only birds above ground are pigeons, and sad little starlings, and ratty gulls. It’s not easy to go to the beach here. I’ve gone twice in eight years. The water was cold; the sand was packed; it was not St. Petersburg sugar sand; it was filled with discarded wrappers and tampons, and backed up to an abandoned building. I miss the smell of sunscreen and surf wax. I miss sunshine. I miss being salty and sun-drunk.
In my years since returning to New York City, I’ve thought deeply about the ways trauma has estranged me from myself. The difficulty of this has been that events cast ever-expanding ripples across the liquid of time—or maybe that the effects root out like a rhizome, one leading to several others. Or maybe just that we don’t always know—we rarely know—what we are learning in media res—how a particular experience will lead us to think this, or do that, or deprive us of nourishment, or cause us to blame ourselves for our pain and exact punishment. I did not always know when I couldn’t feel my body. This is inaccurate: I could feel my body, but was disconnected from the true source of its pain. I only knew at times that I didn’t want to feel anymore. I could feel too acutely, and I didn’t want to feel at all. I was not always aware of the underlying reasons for my pain, or for my choice to feel one kind of pain instead of another.
Growth has meant restoring my relationship with my bodily experience. I feel in my body that the toxicity of New York City is damaging to me. I mean this biologically: the soil is tainted. A cursory read of the Department of Health website tells me that I am at risk if I plant a garden in my neighborhood, given that I live near painted structures, gas stations, auto body and repair shops, dry cleaners, busy roadways, elevated rail lines, and other manufacturing or industrial facilities. There is nonstop noise and light. As soon as I dust my apartment, new city grit resettles, so I always feel dirty. I always feel tired. I am always pressing up against other bodies. I am always checking my bank account. It is gray again today. I need sun.
Sometimes I think it’s unwise to project into the future. I may set myself up for disappointment if I expect too much from forces I can’t control. But sometimes I think projecting into the future is the natural response to seeing a current situation for what it is.
I have built a life for myself in New York. I’ve finished graduate school, published two books, gotten married and divorced, lived alone for the first time in my life. I’m now in love with a woman. I adopted a cat from the street. I am keeping several plants alive. I’ve lived in closets converted into bedrooms and storage rooms converted into apartments. When I moved back here in 2010, after learning to eat for three years, all I wanted next was to learn how to write. I have learned so much more. I want to keep learning. I want space to grow.
I want to plant a garden. I want to build a coop for two chickens. I want to walk twenty steps to the ocean and send out a lure and sit on the sand and wait. Liberate citrus into my bicycle basket on sun-slanting afternoons, then fall asleep on the grass in the swelter of summer and wake up burning. I’ll water my carrots from a rain barrel affixed to my roof. I’ll shovel compost. I’ll watch my girlfriend raise a colony of bees. Watch her bees pollinate my squash blossoms. Listen to their hum because, in Florida, it is quiet enough to hear the hum of bees. We will have time to listen. We’ll have time to harvest honey. We’ll have time.
On December 21st, 2014, hundreds of Final Fantasy XIV players gathered online within the game to mourn the death of one of their own. He went by the username Codex Vahlda, a twenty-nine-year-old who had suffered complications from renal failure. At the time, Vahlda was brain dead; his family was keeping him alive—they wanted a chance to say goodbye.
The Final Fantasy XIV community reacted to the news swiftly. Across multiple servers within the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), players, through elfish avatars equipped with swords, bows, and spears, held virtual funerals for Vahlda. In one server, a group of gamers—first one, then a dozen, then over eighty—knelt in front of a large house in his honor. In another, players on a beach created a virtual light show, gathering together to spell out “CODEX.” The online funeral was live-streamed in Vahlda’s hospital room for his family to see. As the events unfolded, news spread to various message boards, and hundreds of other players posted condolences.
Later that day, reflecting on the mass funeral, Kotaku writer Mike Fahey described the closeness felt by MMORPG players: “I know that whoever Codex Vahlda was, every single person in these images—in his final moments—cared for him like they were his dear friends. When a group of people is deeply invested in a virtual world… there’s a bond there that crosses any and all real-world lines.”
But for those who form deep connections online, collective grieving isn’t always an option. Caitlin Riddle, an artist and mental health advocate, met her best friend Shanice in early February 2015 through a mental health awareness Facebook page that Caitlin administrated. At the time, they were both fourteen. Shanice messaged Caitlin to say she was lonely; Caitlin offered advice.
In spite of the physical distance between them—Caitlin lives in Scotland and Shanice lived in Florida—the two became fast friends. Soon they were talking every day, about topics ranging from Grey’s Anatomy to their experiences with mental illness and bullying. For the first time, each girl felt understood. Though Caitlin and Shanice longed to meet in person, their virtual friendship became as real as any other—the two just happened to do all of their communicating by text.
Caitlin was in her bedroom, scrolling through her Facebook news feed, when she got the text: Shanice had taken her own life. It was December 2015, late evening, and Caitlin lay on her bed with her back to her twin sister, who shares the room. The text came from Shanice’s mom, sent from Shanice’s phone.
When Caitlin read it, her face went red. For several minutes, she stared at her screen, saying nothing.
The message was a blur: “…in the early hours of this morning, [Shanice] took her own life and was rushed to [the] hospital…they couldn’t save her…I felt like you needed to know…I would like to thank you for being this helpful to her…I’m so sorry…”
It didn’t make sense. Hours earlier, when they last spoke, everything had been normal. Even Shanice’s final text mirrored her usual sign-off: “I love you.” But now Shanice was gone.
After a minute, Caitlin turned to face her sister, tears in her eyes. When her sister asked what was wrong, Caitlin told her. Caitlin’s sister had known abstractly of Shanice—Caitlin once mentioned Shanice offhand—but Caitlin’s parents had never heard of her. They wouldn’t find out until the next day, when, after her friends insisted she was acting out of character, Caitlin took to Facebook to say that her internet friend had died. “We never got to meet in real life and it hurts so bad,” she wrote.
Soon after, Caitlin—now without her primary support system in Shanice—found her mental health slipping. She didn’t feel she had anyone to talk to about losing her best friend, and when she did open up, few listened. Caitlin’s school counselor, for instance, dismissed her grief, saying she could always find another Facebook friend to talk to. A kid at school told Caitlin that Shanice wasn’t a real friend because the two girls had never met.
Mostly, Caitlin grieved alone. Attending Shanice’s funeral wasn’t an option because she lived so far away, and she didn’t feel comfortable talking to Shanice’s mom, as the two didn’t know each other. She did not have access to the community of mutual friends that inspired Codex Vahlda’s Final Fantasy XIV funeral. The task of coping with the death of her best friend was left entirely to her.
This type of isolated mourning isn’t unique to the deaths of internet friends, nor is it an inevitable result of them, but it is certainly most common for relationships formed online. In person, we usually make friends around a community; we meet our friends through school, work, or the local book club. But internet friendships, more often than in-person friendships, tend to be wholly individualized. We don’t always have mutual contacts with our internet friends; we don’t always know the family, the in-person acquaintances, even the hometown of the person we’ve come to cherish. There is, of course, a beauty there—a friendship without social obligations is a friendship entirely premised on mutual interest and intimate conversation. But without that community, grieving is difficult.
Those with mutual online connections—like the Final Fantasy XIV friends of Codex Vahlda—are able to find what the authors of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Gaming the Mind blog characterized to The Independent as the “sense of closure from online death rituals which they would otherwise not experience.” For others, like Caitlin, communal healing is out of reach.
Among American teens, the only group thoroughly surveyed by the Pew Research Center about internet friendships, 57 percent have made friends online; of those, 80 percent have never met that friend in person. It is no longer extraordinary for an internet user, especially a teen, to develop an intimate connection with—to message, to text, to video chat—someone they have never met face to face. These friendships have formed because the proliferation of online artistic, gaming, and writing communities has ensured that no person need work in isolation.
This logic goes double for members of underrepresented and marginalized identities. People of color, disabled people, and LGBTQ+ people have formed thriving communities, sharing experiences and claiming identities long invisible to them in their in-person lives. The “Mental Health” tag, in which users share tips, encouragement, and personal experiences related to mental illness, is one of the most active on Tumblr.
But when an online friend dies, the usual patterns of mourning are disrupted. In death, the sequestered nature of internet friendships makes coping difficult. Perhaps this is why Vahlda’s virtual funeral is so extraordinary: his friends and admirers, who would have no other way of expressing their grief over his passing, gathered together in the very place they met him. Users have reported similar gatherings within games like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Lord of the Rings Online. Skyrim, another role-playing game, has created memorial stones in locations where users last played before logging out forever. Vahlda’s funeral reflects a growing trend online—grieving internet users are searching out new ways to memorialize their lost friends, even while separated by thousands of miles of physical space.
Those with the financial means have gone to great lengths to visit their internet friends in times of crisis. In October 2016, The Guardian writer David Ferguson discussed flying to see—and, he assumed, say goodbye to—a close online friend who was in a coma with multiple organ failure. The two had never met face to face, but “for a couple of years, he was the first person [Ferguson would] check in with every morning.”
Ferguson summed it up this way: “There I was, flying… to meet someone whose favorite comic book I knew, whose cats’ names I knew, whose first wedding dance song choice I knew, but whom I’d never met in the flesh, never hugged, never walked down the street with. And for all I knew, he would never know I was even there before he died.”
Leeat Granek, a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who researches grief, cautions against drawing a distinction between mourning an online versus an in-person friend. “I don’t think it’s about whether you knew the person online or in ‘real life’—grieving is ultimately about attachment,” she says. What matters is how present that person was in your day-to-day life: if the relationship is close, the loss of an online friend hurts in the same way the loss of an in-person friend does. And historical examples of individuals losing remote friends—even centuries before the internet—point to the same conclusion.
Catherine the Great of Russia exchanged hundreds of letters with the French philosopher Voltaire. The two never met, but Voltaire took to sending her copies of his books and calling her “The Star of the North.” Upon learning of his passing, Catherine wrote, “Since he is dead, wit has lots its honor; he was the divinity of gaiety.”
A similar experience inspired American writer Helene Hanff’s bestselling memoir 84, Charing Cross Road. In 1949, Hanff sent a wishlist of out-of-print books to an antique bookstore in London. The manager, Frank Doel, responded, igniting a friendship-in-letters that persisted for years. Though she had an open invite to visit Doel, Hanff could never afford the trip. In 1969, when Doel died of peritonitis, she was crushed. She urged a friend traveling to London: “If you happen to pass by 84 Charing Cross Road”—the location of the bookstore—“kiss it for me! I owe it so much.”
While long-distance relationships have existed for centuries, the specter of death plagues online communities in a way that feels new. Users forewarn of social media hiatuses (“inactive because of school,” “inactive because of exams”) because they know little strikes fear like the sudden inactivity of an internet friend. The proliferation of jokes in the vein of “when you think your internet friend died but in reality their internet connection just died,” too, belie an insecurity that anyone with close internet friends has probably felt at least once or twice: if my online friend died, would I even know?
These fears are not entirely unfounded. Peruse for a few minutes, and you might find posts on message boards asking how to know if an internet friend has passed, sometimes—if the poster is desperate—complete with their name and region, hoping someone who knows them in person will reply with more details.
Internet users find out that their online friends have died in myriad ways: newspaper articles, texts from mutual friends, suicide notes, funeral programs posted to a deceased user’s social media page, and sometimes not at all.
Greg, a teacher from Massachusetts, learned that his friend Stryder had killed himself because a mutual friend read about it in a local newspaper a week after it happened. For years, Greg, Stryder, and the mutual friend—B—had played Halo together on Xbox Live a few nights per week. They talked about music, movies, TV, politics. They laughed and shared stories. The three of them met only a couple of times—in fact, because they spoke mostly through the video game, Greg doesn’t remember Stryder’s face. “He was just this disembodied voice in game chat to begin with, so I didn’t even have a face to tie him to, just his voice, so it was surreal,” Greg says. “I think maybe his face didn’t stick to me because a face is just so removed from what our friendship was like. We spent the time talking.”
Ten years back, Greg quit playing with Stryder and B because of time constraints with his family and work life. For a while after, B sent him updates about Stryder’s life—his job, his new family. Last year, when B called to tell Greg that Stryder died, they were both in shock.
After, Greg talked to his wife. He reflected on his inside jokes with Stryder, the one-liners he still hasn’t forgotten. He didn’t know Stryder’s family, so he chose not to contact them, though he says he often thinks of them (“not that they’ll ever know it”).
Though Greg never felt that his grief was taken less seriously because Stryder was an online friend, he did question his right to feel grief—“the idea crept in that he was never really in my real world, so how real was his death to me.”
This is the nature of grieving a friend you have never, or rarely, met: everything becomes internal. Simply accepting and expressing remorse becomes its own struggle, because the typical rituals—funerals, communication with loved ones of the deceased—are so often inaccessible. Physical distance creates emotional isolation.
“Maybe that’s a problem with online friends dying,” Greg says. “We are scattered all over the world, usually only connected to the individual, not their people. When someone from IRL dies we are usually surrounded by so many broken connections and disrupted lives. The death is present. We can cry together and hold each other. But when online friends die, those broken connections are far between, and our connection seems singular, so we grieve alone. We can’t reach across the world to hug and that would help.”
Julia K., a Chicago blogger, met her friend Helen through a baby-naming forum. Though the two were never close, they interacted off and on for ten years, and Julia became familiar with Helen’s life because Helen was an active part of the community there. Helen talked often of her trials with depression, hospitalization, and new medications. Over the years, Helen grew extremely close with some members of the forum, and they supported her in her darkest moments.
The community found out about Helen’s death hours after it happened. A friend of Helen’s told them. A few days later, Helen’s husband started a thread, thanking members of the forum for all they had done. He ended with a request: he wanted each person to write a note for Helen, take a photo of it, and send it to him. At Helen’s funeral, he posted all of the photos to a board—wishes from her online friends, he called them.
For Julia, the act was healing. Because she wasn’t one of Helen’s closest friends on the forum, she felt like an observer of others’ grief, but she continued to mourn Helen for several weeks after first hearing the news. The note provided her, and many others on the forum, some solace: “I sent intentions and love into the universe, so to speak. It felt unifying that all of us around the world could take part.”
Julia’s photo was of a notepad propped against a candle and a world map. Across it, on an open page, she had written, “Love <3 around the world.”
Rose McGowan, an actress who monopolized all the best lines as a post-apocalyptic semi-goth in Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation and found fame as a tart-tongued vixen-slash-victim in the horror film Scream, confirmed her own death as January 1997, during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. She was twenty-three. “[M]y body might be alive, but who I was is dead,” she writes in her 2018 memoir, Brave. “I’m now a live body carrying a deadened spirit around.”
Rose McGowan was betrayed by her body, though at first, she didn’t have one. As a child, she has said she was a mind alone. In the cult in Italy in which she was raised, she remembers no mirrors. Then America showed her her reflection. Now, she was a body alone. Men saw her tits, saw her ass, saw her lips, so she saw her tits, saw her ass, saw her lips. She was trapped. And when her body, reduced to sex, was taken, so was she. “That’s murder,” she said. “You’re killing somebody.”
Rape was a theme in her life, but also in her films—The Doom Generation, Scream, Jawbreaker, Planet Terror. So, she found a new life, with new work, work in which she could distill her mind—directing a film, Dawn, writing a book, Brave, producing a series, “Citizen Rose,” recording an album, Planet 9—assembling an “army of thought” to disrupt male dominance. It was a disembodied roar and it was messy. Siphoned through respected institutions—The New York Times, The New Yorker—and bolstered by others, it became fit for public consumption. In Vanity Fair this year, reflecting on her relationships with powerful men, McGowan said, “as brutal as it was, it was all gathering data. Unfortunately, I am the data. It was a sacrifice.”
Identifying as an outsider from genesis, growing up on the fringes, it makes sense that she might experience the #MeToo movement solipsistically. But the sacrifice is not hers alone. This is where she and feminism disconnect. Rose McGowan may be a martyr, but her cause, it often seems, is herself.
Rose McGowan was born to a couple of religious American hippies in the Italian countryside in 1973. She grew up in a polygamous Christian cult called the Children of God, which proselytized free love. It was an odd commune, one in which the children were cut off from their parents and education was unregulated. At one point, McGowan could handle Poe, but not her own shoelaces. She has claimed that she did not get a birth certificate until the mid-’80s. McGowan was never told she was “smart, or beautiful,” but the cult preached perfection. “I told myself if I were just perfect enough, I’d be okay,” she writes. “If I were just perfect enough, I’d be left alone and no one would want to hurt me.”
Whether or not they were physically perfect was, practically, difficult for the cult members to determine. “I don’t remember ever seeing any mirrors,” McGowan told BuzzFeed in 2015. “So I grew up without actually registering that I was a girl or a boy. Or registering that I was anything but a mind.” She was cast as a boy in her father’s artwork and in Vogue Bambini. As late as 2007, she told Arena magazine that she saw herself as “a man with really great boobs.” She told the The Advocate five years later, “I have an intense amount of jealousy that I’m not a man.” But, alas, she was a girl. And in a cult, she knew what that meant. “I remember looking at the women on their knees. Then my father on his throne,” she writes in Brave. “I’ll never be like those women, I thought. Never.”
When he realized the cult was advocating child sex abuse, her father ran away with McGowan and her siblings. For the next few years, she floated across western America between two dysfunctional households—her mother’s, which came with a string of abusive boyfriends, and her father’s, which came with even more abuse (“I would later come to understand that my father was most likely manic-depressive,” McGowan writes). After her mother had her sectioned for taking a hit of acid, she ran away at thirteen. When she was living on the streets, she witnessed a friend’s possible rape. “I think I was left alone because I looked like a boy,” McGowan writes in Brave. “I remember feeling saved because I didn’t have breasts yet.”
One of the most troubling chapters in her book, “Brutality,” describes her dad’s verbal and physical abuse when she returned in her mid-teens to live with him. “His excuse for his rage, for every failure, was women,” McGowan writes. “All women were to blame. Therefore, I was to blame.” She recounts a “home” with no silverware, no bed and a constant barrage of humiliation: “He called me a whore almost daily.” It got so bad that McGowan planned a “Death Monologue” to read over her father’s body before she beat him to death with a meat mallet.
At fifteen, most individuals are finding their identity, establishing their autonomy. McGowan would have been attempting to do the same in the face of near-incessant reminders of her worthlessness. “I remember the exact moment, walking down Tenth Street in Seattle, when I started to see myself through men’s eyes. Horns started honking and I heard men yelling,” she writes. “I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I felt like I was leading men on just by existing, just by having these appendages.” She recently revealed that at this time she was raped by a “prominent” Hollywood player. McGowan’s self, her mind, her body, her femaleness were, from the start, imbued with violence, with fear, with regret.
Rose McGowan started acting at fourteen. Her father wanted rent and the teen film Class of 1999 was looking for extras for $35 a day. Perfect. McGowan, goth-y with short black curly hair and a ghostly complexion, played a student in the background. Neither co-producer Eugene Mazzola nor director Mark L. Lester remembers her. “No dialogue.no recollection,” the latter says via email. But McGowan certainly recalls. In Brave, she describes being molested by a friendly older guy from the set who invited her to hang out with a bunch of other extras. “It all happened so fast,” she writes. “Of course, it was me who felt dirty and ashamed.” At eighteen, she got her first speaking role on the big screen. In Encino Man she says “Oh my God” twice in the presence of a defrosted caveman. By this point she had long straight hair, as per her agent’s instructions, “so men in this town would want to fuck me and hire me.” It worked. At twenty, “discovered” outside a gym in Los Angeles, she landed her first lead.
“Fuck.” Her mouth comes first, then her body. In The Doom Generation, McGowan plays out a black-bobbed red-pouted teen fever dream, like a grown up post-Léon Mathilda. As Amy Blue, she says fuck and then puts her money maker where her mouth is—“Go ahead and stick it inside!” the virgin berates her equally virginal boyfriend. Her mom is a heroin addict Scientologist, her dad tried to molest her and she is crazed on crystal meth. Amy wears tiny rompers, bares her breasts—“[The director] didn’t think there was any difference in me taking my shirt off than for a guy,” McGowan told UK’s Deluxe magazine in 1998. “I think there’s a difference”—and fucks even the guy she claims to hate. It’s an indie arcade game full of blood and guts and a sex symbol with all the great lines, but there are words and there are images and it’s clear which was stronger: Amy fucking, Amy naked, Amy raped. As she herself says of sex, “I think it’s more powerful than we like it to be.” The Doom Generation inaugurated Rose McGowan as a dark sassy bitch, but, more importantly, a fuckable one.
Nominated for Best Debut Performance at the Film Independent Spirit Awards in 1996 (she lost to Justin Pierce in Kids), McGowan has claimed Amy was based on her at fifteen, “minus the sex stuff.” “She’s just that girl!” costume designer Cathy Cooper told Dazed Digital. “I don’t know how else to say it, she essentially played herself.” McGowan called the scripted version of Amy Blue “sexist” and claimed to have added complexity to the character by turning her into a fragile kid with a brittle coat of armour. “The script for it was kind of written like these two guys have their thumb over her,” she told BuzzFeed, “and I was like, oh no, that’s not going to happen.”
This bravado struck Lisa Beach when she first met McGowan. The casting director on Scream (and later Jawbreaker) thought McGowan “embodied” Tatum Riley, the big-breasted blonde who subverts her own stereotype. “Brilliant, tough, no-bullshit—that’s what we were looking for,” she says. Tatum runs up the stairs when she should be running out the front door and could be construed as the slutty bimbo—she’s sleeping with her boyfriend, she’s seen Tom Cruise’s penis, she buys the Richard Gere gerbil story—but she also cuts through that cliché with a mordant wit (“That is so sexist,” she says when the town killer is presumed to be a guy. “The killer could easily be female—Basic Instinct?”) and protects her friend (“Billy and his penis don’t deserve you”) all the while wearing miniskirts and nipply tops. Audiences loved it. Scream made $173 million at the international box office on a $14 million budget. And, as Ty Burr wrote in Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame, by the ‘90s, “How you opened was who you were.” Rose McGowan was officially bankable, though she didn’t act like it. During the Scream shoot, in an interview on set, she and the rest of the cast were asked which films scared them most. Their answers were mostly generic. Neve Campbell picked The Shining and Courteney Cox Rosemary’s Baby, but McGowan’s choice was more unexpected. “Gaslight,” McGowan said, naming George Cukor’s 1944 classic in which a woman’s husband convinces her she is going insane.
A month after Scream’s release, in January 1997, McGowan attended the Sundance Film Festival. That’s where she remembers dying. In Brave, she describes her assault in forensic detail: the hotel suite, the thirty-minute chat, the almost-exit, the Jacuzzi, the rape. “My life has been rerouted,” she writes. “I just got hijacked.”
Rose McGowan was a big reason her next film got made. Writer-director Darren Stein had loved her in The Doom Generation—“She was such a sharp-tongued little vixen: porcelain skin, big eyes,” he told Broadly—and studio execs agreed to make his Heathers knock off, the equally low-budget Jawbreaker, if they could get someone like McGowan. It wasn’t hard. The role of Courtney, the bitchy leader of a mean-girls pack that juggles murder and makeovers (they are most wanted in both senses), was made for her. “She just had that kind of haughty confidence,” says producer Lisa Tornell. “Haughty not h-o-t-t-y.” (Though the best femmes fatales have both.) Tornell admits they “could have been criticized for being too on the nose,” considering McGowan projected such a similar persona off screen. She describes the actress as friendly and professional, but says, “she was not someone I would call warm and fuzzy.” The producer thinks McGowan’s distant behaviour is understandable in retrospect, considering her allegations against Weinstein. “I think she had a very strong sense of wanting to keep her distance from people unless they were really in her inner circle.”
It was a circle that now included fellow “Satan in heels” Marilyn Manson, who makes a cameo (minus the makeup) in Jawbreaker. “I ran away with the circus,” McGowan told People of their relationship. “That’s what I needed for three-and-a-half years. I just needed to not be responsible, to have fun.” At the end of the Jawbreaker shoot, she wore a now-infamous sparkly beaded dress to the MTV Video Music Awards. “In light of everything that’s come out,” Tornell says, “there was obviously a struggle between trying to provoke in that way and then also playing into precisely the thing that she’s against.”
But on the red carpet, her breasts and behind on full display, McGowan looked entirely in control. Instead of covering up, she pushed her hair back, smiled and raised up her arms—ta-da! “It was a reclamation of my own body after my assault,” she writes in Brave. This is the woman Bebe chose as its celebrity face in 1998. Founder Manny Mashouf, who says each ad campaign at the time was based on a theme, considered a number of women before settling on McGowan to play a sultry performer in a New York nightclub for its 1998-1999 season. “The Bebe woman was a woman that was in charge of her life and she was vivacious and she was very sexy,” he says. McGowan was her avatar. In the ads she is at her most vamp, skin blown out by light, lips red, hair a dark halo, chest heaving above and below the word “bebe.” Though Mashouf rarely fraternized with celebrities he employed, McGowan was so genial that he continued to invite her to events long after they had worked together.
The year McGowan broke up with Manson was the year she picked up with television. Charmed casting director Leslee Dennis says the actress was not open to the medium for a long time, then that suddenly changed (McGowan alleges that Weinstein blacklisted her in the film industry and that she had no other options). So, when Shannen Doherty left the series about three sister witches, McGowan was the favoured replacement. It was an odd fit. The cheesy WB show was devoid of cussing, fucking, anything extreme. McGowan enters the scene as half-sister Paige Matthews, her edges now curves (“I wanted to look as soft and approachable as possible,” she writes in Brave of the weight she gained for the role). “I like an element of danger,” Paige says in her first episode, which is the sort of thing a real femme fatale never would. But McGowan was similar in size and hair colour to the other two actresses—Alyssa Milano and Holly Marie Combs—and Aaron Spelling liked to match. And Dennis liked McGowan. “She had a spunk to her,” she says. The casting director recalls, for instance, discussions of a high profile male celebrity being brought in to star opposite McGowan and the actress deadpanning, “Leslee, I’m not going to do this with the member of a boy band.” She lasted five seasons.
In May 2005, Rose McGowan met Robert Rodriguez at Naomi Campbell’s Le Carnival D’Or party in Cannes. Photos from the event show the actress in red lace and the director, black cowboy hat, black suit, leaning towards her. They look like they are hatching a plan. Rodriguez had the beginning of a new story and McGowan was the perfect fit. In Planet Terror, she plays Cherry Darling, a go-go dancer-turned-gun-legged killing machine in a world full of zombies. “I need a dramatic change in my life,” she says, before trading in her tears for a sneer. The film’s bonus features show the actress flying through the air as she does her own stunts (in Brave, McGowan describes undergoing several surgeries after the shoot to repair nerve damage she sustained from an extreme back bend). “She was born to be an action hero,” co-star Marley Shelton said. Rodriguez, with whom McGowan had gotten involved off screen in another allegedly abusive relationship, concurred. “Some of her best lines and ideas, I’m like, ‘That’s Rose,’” he said. “That was Rose’s improvisation, that’s her. That’s her real personality in the character. Strap a machine-gun leg on that and it’s just taken from there.” According to McGowan’s memoir, during this time, the director would repeatedly say to her, “I got you at your ripest.”
Rolling Stone opened Rose McGowan’s eyes. To promote Grindhouse, the Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino double feature of Planet Terror and Death Proof, she appeared on the cover of the April 19, 2007, issue with Rosario Dawson. The two actresses stand shoulder to shoulder, butt to butt, naked but for two strips of strategically placed ammo. “VERY BAD GIRLS,” the headline reads as the duo looks, sultry, at the camera, identical tousled brown tresses, arched brows, shiny lips and half-closed eyes. When McGowan saw that cover she felt she had disappeared. “All these years of being sexualized, it was crystalized in this one image,” she writes in Brave. “I had lost myself. But my self was desperately trying to wake me up.”
In a Bikini cover story from March 1997, just months after McGowan’s alleged rape, writer Jon Craven describes feeling “sexually violated” after a drunk stares particularly luridly at the starlet. “Basically, my life as a young woman is to be sexually harassed as much as possible,” she says. A few months later, in Detour, Dale Brasel asks McGowan what she gives “a shit about” and she responds, “I give a shit about rape, about anyone being violated.” In that same interview, he inquires, “What is it with you and your boobs in photos?” In UK magazine The Face, writer David Keeps brings up her nipples à propos of nothing. In an MTV Live interview, after she mentions a first kiss, host Carson Daly asks if she was slipped the tongue…then asks for it himself. On The Howard Stern Show in 2001, Stern openly salivates over her, changing his top, ogling her breasts, asking about her labia, annoucing that they all want to fuck her, referring to how an ex-boyfriend would “bang the Manson out of you” and asking if new beau Ahmet Zappa was good in bed. “I don’t like people too much,” McGowan says during the onslaught. “They frighten me. They like to grab me and touch me.”
She was presented as a thing to grab and touch. From the beginning, magazines barely varied their depictions of McGowan as a “wild rose” with “thorns” alongside hyper-sexualized portraits. In one of her earliest interviews, with Detour in 1995, McGowan poses with her Doom Generation co-stars, Johnathon Schaech’s hand on her thigh, James Duval between her legs, her finger in her mouth. On the cover of Interview she appears as the Virgin Mary, nude, her hair covering her breasts, her hands out in supplication. In print she is often in lace and satin negligées in various states of bed splay. She is presented as a force to be subdued. In another cover story for Interview, this one from 1997, she is fit to be tied, lying on her stomach, topless, her feet in intricately laced heels, her hands in front of her as though she is asking to be bound. And in a spread for Details with Billy Zane in 1998, she is a femme fatale fallen off a roof, a corpse clothed in latex.
The Boston Globe film critic and cultural columnist Ty Burr believes that McGowan was adhering to “a pretty consistent” dangerous-but-desirable persona when it came to her early publicity. “If you look at the photos, throughout the ‘90s they’re very provocative, they’re very sexualized, but they’re also very strong,” he says, adding, “she seems to be very much in charge.” In Brave, McGowan accedes that she was somewhat responsible for how she was presented in the press. “I had a hand in it,” she writes. “I didn’t say no, but like so many women in cults, I didn’t know I could.” But even back then she made it known that she considered fame something of a joke. Her public acknowledgment of the “bullshit” Hollywood game is a largely male tradition that dates back to Marlon Brando, says Burr: “Actresses tend not to do that.” For good reason. Femmes fatales—Theda Bara all the way down to Sean Young—are defined by unhappy endings. Conjuring the image of Cherry Darling’s machine-gun leg, Burr says: “At a certain point they go out on a limb and then the culture has to saw the limb off.”
Rose McGowan directed her first film, Dawn, in 2014. Set in the ‘60s, it follows a bobby socked teenager as she is seduced by a young gas station attendant who kills her just because he feels like it. “Dawn is really about what we do to young girls unwittingly, and how we send them out into the world completely unprotected, in a way that has, at times, really tragic consequences,” McGowan told Vogue. Actor Reiley McClendon won the role of the predatory shooter after auditioning, which already set McGowan’s filmmaking apart. “As far as production value goes,” he says, “she went way beyond what normal short films do.” When he went out for the part, McClendon was not aware of McGowan’s past, or how it might inform her work. “If there was some sort of personal connection to it, she didn’t let on,” he says. The shoot lasted three days and despite having to wear a boot on a twisted ankle, McGowan still strapped a heel on her other foot (“I can still look good,” she told McClendon) and ran her short like a feature. “She brought to the table something that I wish all directors did and that was she had a very clear vision,” McClendon says. “I never felt on her set that we didn’t know where we were going.”
In 2015, McGowan released an empowering space-pop tune called “RM486” (a reference to the abortion drug RU-486). In the video she appears as a hairless alien transforming through various iterations that reflect McGowan’s own milestones. “I just want people to take away freedom. That you can be free. You can do anything you want, you can create anything you want,” she told Rolling Stone. “The way I’m approaching it is, if I have songs to release or a video to put out, I will; if I have a movie to direct, I’ll do that; if I have something I’m writing, I’ll write it.” And she did. On January 30 of this year, she released her memoir, Brave. On the same day, she premiered her E! docuseries, “Citizen Rose.” Soon, she will launch an album, Planet 9.
The through-line is her activism. Rose McGowan became an outspoken feminist in 2015. That summer she tweeted the objectifying audition notes from an Adam Sandler script she had been sent, a post which went viral and got her fired by her acting agent. BuzzFeed featured her in a story entitled, “Rose McGowan Is Starting a Revolution.” She shaved her head. In 2016, she wrote a Hollywood Reporter column response to Owen Gleiberman’s gendered Variety take on Renée Zellweger’s looks, likened the red carpet to “visual rape” and took part in the #WhyWomenDontReport social media movement, tweeting, “because it’s been an open secret in Hollywood/Media & they shamed me while adulating my rapist.” In 2017, she was locked out of Twitter for twelve hours during a series of tweets about Weinstein, inspiring a boycott of the site. The social media site says they took action because she posted a private phone number.
“She was like this sort of butch,” says Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch Media. “She clearly was not the same person she had been.” In the preface to Brave, McGowan opens with her buzz cut. “My long hair had always made me uncomfortable. It made men look at me while the real me disappeared,” she writes. By shaving it, she explains, “I broke up with the Hollywood ideal, the one I had a part in playing.” In December 2016, she appeared on the cover of Bust magazine with her new un-‘do, red lips and black blazer, announcing: “I want to shatter the patriarchy.” She called out Hollywood and said things like, “[people’s] brains cannot comprehend the scale and level of my thought—the field that I play in is not available to them.” Zeisler remembers thinking, “People are going to talk about her like she’s fucking crazy.”
On October 5, 2017, The New York Times published the first of a series of reports alleging that film producer Harvey Weinstein had spent decades abusing scores of women and establishing a small industry to cover it up. McGowan declined to comment, but the Times unearthed her $100,000 settlement with Weinstein following their 1997 meeting at Sundance. McGowan didn’t appear in the bombshell New Yorker story which was published five days later and..
I learnt how to spell “Guadagnino” after I watched Io Sono L’Amore (“I Am Love”) on my twentieth birthday, eight years ago. The film—so strangely pallid, and, yet, so bright in its essence, the greens spirulina green, and the pinks cantaloupe to salmon—gutted me. In a fit of hysterical tears as the credits sprawled mercilessly, I held myself like I was in an emergency on a plane, my face to my knees, my heart to my thick thighs.
Back then, I was enraptured by stories of difficult love, having recently familiarized myself with its steely taste. I was forlorn and obsessed by romance that was both fated yet impossible, the modern incantations of Romeo and Juliet. This movie, with its tension and grasp of how love mutates and becomes an obdurate, impossible thing, like a tongue, rapturous, but trapped, gravitated me to a standstill. There has always been something melancholy about the way Luca Guadagnino tells stories, and I knew that I had to remember how to spell this round Italian name to explain to others his evocative pull on my sensations.
In A Bigger Splash, Guadagnino’s fourth feature film, Tilda Swinton plays Marianne, an ex rock-star, a Bowie-esque femme nymph,11So, almost Swinton IRL. who, in her offtime, wears broad skirted sundresses in pale, pale white, mod-style tunics like Twiggy, shirts that are a sweet, crisp periwinkle blue, attire that is unlike the grunge of her music. After a surgery for the loss of her voice, Marianne has been ordered not to speak, and is instead to rest her vocal chords and relaaaaxxxx. So, along with her boyfriend, filmmaker Paul, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, she escapes to an isolated villa on the little Italian island of Pantelleria. Here they have mud soaked sex that’s so visceral, you can feel the earth beneath your feet shake as the wet dirt dries into an opaque cream, blistering their bare bodies in the sun, momentarily unburdened by the satiation of desire.
Guadagnino describes sex with acuteness: in the passing throes of it, the mechanics of bodies and limbs, breath heavy and agonized, he also adds in such humanity, such consequence, that it’s relatable for both its passion and bleakness. The way a body fumbles in rapture is the most endearing quality, whether well versed or not, our rawest senses remember pleasure.
In Io Sono L’Amore, when the Russian turned Italian Emma (also played by Swinton) finally embraces the love she feels for the young chef Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) there’s such a state of urgency that you feel her piercing delirium, the sounds of love that can so easily turn crazy, bordering on fanatical. When they have sex, their love-making is arrested into a state of sexual oblivion, and c’est finit—the sensations pass into a tantalizing dome of erotic fulfillment. They’re hooked, and that’s that. In the end Emma sacrifices one love for another, the love of a child for that of a lover, because the mirage of Antonio’s love is so oceanic that she’s reduced into the embrace of him and her. There’s no more room for the outside, for her past life. It’s both bold and devastating, a relatable weak human flaw.
In his Oscar-nominated 2017 film Call Me By Your Name, Guadagnino describes love-making through specific detail. When Elio (Timothée Chalamet) yearns for his Oliver (Armie Hammer), desire is no longer mundane, it has a purpose, a directive. So, he pants and awaits his man, and when he does not arrive, he meditates on a peach, its skin fuzzy and taught, and pulls it forward, deciding to transform it into another vessel of sexual satisfaction, using its juices as leverage. The awkwardness—and yes, it is awkward—is a Guadagnino quirk, his ability to bring a satisfying relatability to even a triumphant feat of making love to a peach is surpassed by the scene’s tenderness. Good sex, if anything, is an awakening, yes—but it’s also the recognition of yourself, or selves, plural, as Elio languidly becomes Oliver and vice versa in a sexual role play that alludes to both the namesake of the film, but how lovers often mirror their beloveds with cadence, grace and exceptionality. Here, Guadagnino brings us back to our foundational selves. He creates, so perfectly, a situation of addiction, as well as withdrawal. In his orbit, one forgets the premonitions of pain, especially when one is caught in the glimpses of love. Colors are full, even if they’re not, and even peaches are tempestuous.
A few years back I googled Luca’s home. I had heard he lived on a 17th-century palazzo in Crema, and I longed to see it. An avid reader of European design magazines, I loved seeing where my favorite artists live22Related: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s home is wild.and was moved by the classical images of Luca’s sanctuary. Once having belonged to a countess, the filmmaker spent months renovating the palazzo, finding frescoes underneath musty, rotten wallpaper and original terracotta bricks under 1950s ceramic tiles. The palazzo is now lined with distressed mirrored panels, a collection of plants in the loggia, as well as a narrow room filled with dainty modern Danish tan recliners, framed with ferns and fig trees. Carpets are cerulean blue, and armchairs are Kelly green, the walls of each room are customized with their own paint—including one as specific as the shade of the middle of a date—and most rooms are embellished with the Lombardian Baroque designs.
A 2016 profile of the filmmaker in T Magazine opens with Guadagnino saying, “I hate the concept of beauty for the sake of it. It is overrated.” A lay-person would be forgiven for confusing style with a lack of substance when glancing at a Guadagnino film, but upon further inspection, everything, even the style, is a story within a story.
In Call Me By Your Name, the details are such: the Mario Merz and Peter Gabriel posters that frame Elio’s bed, the Aqua di Parma cologne that sits, centrefold, on the dining room inside, and the aquamarine blue of the bathroom that stands between Elio and Oliver, a reminder of the distance between them, how the re-energizing heat and chemistry in the space between their bodies is the third character. Everything is said in the stationary stills, in the immovable objects of their lives, and it’s intentional. (In André Aciman’s source novel, a stolen decoration from Elio’s room travels with Oliver back to America and through decades of separation to rest on the wall of his office.) Later in the interview, Guadagnino declares: “Environment is essential. I like anything that has to do with form and space. But I am also a humanist [with] a very strong love and attraction for character. That’s the mixture.”
In Io Sono L’Amore, the shots of Swinton walking are expansive and large, taking in the geometry of her surroundings, whether it’s a staircase, or patterns of a street, it frames her, as well as giving context to the business of her soul, how she is burdened by the grandness of her privilege, and how if she chooses her lover she’ll have to sacrifice so much. It reminds me of what Alain de Botton writes in Essays in Love, “Because the body is predominant and vulnerable, the mind becomes an instrument of silent, uninvolved assessment.”
The heightened awareness of Guadagnino is such that he makes even the most grandiose or awkward scenes relatable, simply because the stories are always about people. People who are in a lot of pain. The pain isn’t always examined, and most days it’s subtle, but it lingers in the background of a shot of Swinton as Marianne, against a blue clay wall, her eyeliner black, swift like the lines of a feather, contrasted against the consuming, sloping Italian hills, or the pool where she lies and reads her trashy magazines. Marianne is depressed. We see it in moments, but we hear it too, how Paul attempted suicide before coming to this Italian palatial dream. And, so, they are both reclaiming their time. From the outside it looks like they’re villa-ing, drinking copious amount of Italian wine, but inside, you can hear the thick pumping of their blood, ringing simultaneously, the way it roils and fears its end. They are victims to their depression, to their circumstance, but perpetrators too, perpetuating their demise. We are not asked to forgive them, though, or even pity them. But we are asked to stop and see. Maybe even consider? To sit and linger, and question the detail of their lives.
This is perhaps why Guadagnino’s work leaves teeth marks wherever it goes.
Many have pointed out how beautiful it is that, in Call Me By Your Name, neither Elio nor Oliver are shamed for their actions, only embraced. I was left breathless by that actuality. My own conversations about my sexuality with my parents were anything but romantic and free, but I felt excited for the future, for both our social and filmic futures, where love is love, and it’s embraced for all of its possibilities, not just highlighted for its pejorative histories and religious connotations. But there’s so much more to the film then just Oliver and Elio, embraced together. In many ways, it’s about Elio’s parents, and how love mutates and shifts. How love is as spectacular as it is confusing, and not everyone has the end that they crave, though that doesn’t make the journey unworthy.
Call Me By Your Name has changed audiences because it asks nothing, but it shows us so much. As the film ends, Elio is crying, delirious, by the fireplace, his family getting ready for Hannukah behind him, and he, lost, is still hopeful for what’s to come. In a way, I see Guadagnino as Mr. Pearlman, Elio’s dad (played by the wonderful Michael Stuhlbarg) who laments with Elio at the very near end of his story with Oliver, declaring: “Remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart is worn out… Right now there’s sorrow. Pain. Don’t kill it and with it the joy you felt.”
With this, Guadagnino proves that all kinds of human emotions are valid, as well as important to meditate on. Sometimes it’s the pain of an impossible, heartbreaking love, as in Io Sono L’Amore, where it’s all sacrifice, ending with a Faustian pact. Sometimes it’s the love that’s codependent and messy, struggling for truth, or reliability, like in A Bigger Splash. Or sometimes it’s glorious, indulgent, fulfilling and crazed. Short, courageous and redolent of the great loves in literature. Elio and Oliver are every summer romance, but more epic, more fluid, perfectly delicious.
In the breadth and entirety of his work Guadagnino has proven that the gamut of human emotions are enthralling for their specificity, for their purity. That nothing is as glorious as how we feel and who we feel for. So, I wasn’t gutted by his last film. No. I was immersed—and then I was relieved for its very existence. I walked away considering how better my life was with it there, singing his Italian name, like a prayer, again.
When Joy Press began working on Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television (Atria), she felt that the golden age of female TV would be “a permanent advance.” That was before the 2016 presidential election. “Now,” she writes, “It looks significantly more precarious and embattled.” That embattlement has led to a movement. If the importance of seeing women on screen, hiring women in writer’s rooms, and charging women with directing and producing was ever in question, it can no longer be ignored: “Time’s Up.”
Press’s new book offers hope for the future. Stealing the Show is a wide-ranging tour of women’s impact on the entertainment industry, chronicling the a history of several key players who carved out critical roles for women on TV—roles that made waves far beyond the confines of the screen.
Stealing the Show traces the journey of characters from Murphy Brown, who riled up Dan Quayle and the Republican party by having a child as a single woman, to Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana, who “made a feminist statement out of toilet time.” The result highlights the obstacles women have faced in getting screen time and recognition—and how these women prevailed.
Press is a veteran entertainment reporter. She’s served as chief television critic at The Village Voice, entertainment editor of Salon, and editor at the Los Angeles Times. I called her to talk about single mothers on TV, why television still doesn’t do a good job with race, and the ending of Girls.
Hope Reese: You grew up watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show—a landmark television show with a strong female lead. What was the broad impact of that show?
Joy Press: I was really young when that show was on. I come from a pretty liberal family—my mom was a feminist—so I don’t think I necessarily understood how important and different Mary Tyler Moore was at the time. I just knew that there wasn’t a lot else. It’s odd how our brains adapt to what we’re presented with. I wasn’t sitting around saying “I need more shows about female experiences.” You gravitated toward the shows that amused you and meant something to you, and that was one of them.
It wasn’t until later, when I became a cultural writer, that I really thought intellectually about how little there had been. In college, we talked about Mary and Rhoda’s relationship as a touchstone, unique and wonderful. It was something people craved. Similar conversation happened around Sex and the City. And you realized there were only a handful of instances like this.
When Mary Tyler Moore was on air in the ’70s, it was a turbulent time—but you say that it wasn’t fully reflected on that show. Is what’s on TV today a better representation of our times?
I think we’re getting there. There’s a broader array of voices and perspectives engaging with the culture and the politics. You don’t really realize you didn’t have it until it appears. Recently, the burst of different female voices and people of color, you realize that, looking back, it was so barren. So lacking in these voices, so homogenous. There’s a lot better reflection of our time today.
Is that partly due to a much greater range of spaces shows can air on as a result of the Internet, streaming, etc.?
The transformation of television has had a lot to do with this infusion of new voices on television. The TV industry is really massively fracturing. What’s happened in recent years is the invasion of an increasing number of cable channels leeching viewers from the mainstream networks, and now you have streaming channels. I find it funny that we still call it “TV“—people are watching shows on their phones and their iPads.
The fracturing of the network system has had a lot to do with the changes we’re seeing, in terms of who gets to be heard. When you had four or five mainstream networks, there were gatekeepers. For a very long time, they were mostly white men, and they were concerned with bringing in the biggest, whitest audience. Particularly focused on young men. They were focused on the bottom line. They didn’t want to entrust a whole lot of money to female showrunners they didn’t trust to make back the money, and to create shows the mainstream wouldn’t be interested in.
Some of the women I write about manage to get through the cracks. Showtime, at one point, was trying to compete with HBO for high-end original programming. HBO positioned themselves as a bastion of male high-art with The Sopranos and super-macho stuff, in terms of the creators and the content. Showtime went the other way. They brought in all these female showrunners, like Jenji Kohan to do Weeds, and Ilene Chaiken to do The L Word. The streaming networks had done the same thing. Jill Soloway really made Amazon a sensation. Hulu is very open to female showrunners, and brought Mindy Kaling in after her show was cancelled on Fox. That’s been responsible for a lot of new openness.
You chose a handful of specific shows in your book—from Murphy Brown to 30 Rock to Girls—to illustrate the ascendance of women in TV. How did you pick these? Are there some you left out?
The hardest part of the book was trying to figure that out. I was originally thinking about it in terms of a survey, a broad take, but that doesn’t make for a great narrative. For many of the women in the book, there’s a thread that runs through. Many of them have worked on each other’s shows, so there’s a lineage, and I connected the dots. Some of it was picking things that exposed some element of the culture.
I started with Murphy Brown and Roseanne because they came out in the middle of the culture wars in the ’80s and really became very central to the culture. They had very, very different female characters who captured the public’s imagination. Murphy Brown captured the vice president’s imagination. For Shonda Rhimes, that was true to a different degree. And actresses like Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer became focal points of the right wing, again. It was an eerie thing—I wasn’t expecting that.
Can you expand on Roseanne’s significance? How she symbolized the working-class, which wasn’t often seen on TV? Even today, we’re often lacking that perspective. Girls, for one, has been criticized for representing a small, privileged slice of a younger generation.
Roseanne was extraordinary. There had been shows with working-class characters, like All in the Family and The Honeymooners, but Roseanne showed a level of realism that people were incredibly drawn to. They didn’t play politics. They were of-the-moment and they embedded the struggles of the time in their characters and plotlines. People appreciated that. There was nothing preachy about it. But it was fairly radical—there were attacks on birth control at the time, there were certainly attacks on female reproductive rights, attacks on welfare, gay rights. Roseanne very steadfastly took on all of those things in a way people could relate to.
Murphy Brown was quite the opposite. She was elite, she was at the pinnacle of her profession, she was mirroring a lot of the problems women in the media were having, in terms of hitting a glass ceiling. She was not going to take any bullshit. In a completely different way from Roseanne, but incredibly inspiring and refreshing. Having the two women on air at the same time was fascinating.
Girls made clear from the beginning that these women were privileged. There was never any sense that the writers of the show did not realize that—in fact, they often made fun of it. It was baked into the show that these women had huge flaws. Lena Dunham’s character was so clueless and so flawed in so many ways. And it’s not that there haven’t been working class women on television.
SMILF and Fleabag come to mind…
SMILF is new, and that didn’t come out until the book was finished. Fleabag is fantastic. Part of the problem is that when you only have a few female voices, or a few black voices, it puts a lot of pressure on them. There was a strange pressure on Girls to be representative. It’s never a problem for men. Men are allowed to be whatever quirky thing they are. Some of the pressure on Girls was fair. But the more female voices there are, the less pressure there is on each one of them to anything other than tell their story.
Several of the female TV characters you write about—Murphy Brown, Liz Lemon, Hannah Horvath—become single mothers. How have reactions to this changed over the last thirty years? What does that teach us about cultural norms?
The reactions to single moms on TV has changed, and give us a good glimpse of what the arguments and panics are at whatever cultural moment in time we’re in. Murphy Brown’s creator was not expecting a huge backlash. There had been a couple of single moms on TV shows before that. There was a big battle at that point over family values. This was something that the religious right, the conservatives, had taken up as a huge issue. There was a big battle over “welfare moms.” Murphy Brown was a very convenient, very public figure. A fictional character who stood in for a folk devil, who represented everything the religious right hated. In fact, Murphy Brown, the character, was regularly wrangling with Republican politicians and the religious right. Dan Quayle was literally being mocked on the TV show. It was a perfect storm. How better to get your ideas across than through this character, who everybody is familiar with? She’s an obnoxious, forthright, super liberal, hard-charging feminist. The right decided to run with it, but it didn’t work out well for them. The show continued to be popular. There were a lot of single women in America, a lot of working women, a lot of single mothers. People happy with the culture changing. So the gambit to demonize Murphy Brown spoke to the base of the Republican Party very effectively. It set fire to the idea of the cultural elite, pitting Hollywood against America.
30 Rock played everything for laughs. It didn’t have the kind of realism that Murphy Brown had. Liz Lemon was, at best, a pretty iconic figure. And certainly a lot of people identified with her. It was fantastic to have such a “schlumpy” character—a workaholic character who ate bad junk food, often shot herself in the foot. You wanted Liz Lemon to be happy, but you weren’t worried that she was going to become any kind of realistic figure.
Lena Dunham, to echo Murphy Brown, was already a favorite whipping girl for the right wing. Deciding to become a single mother was exactly what they would have expected.
I, for one, am a huge Girls fan—but had a tough time with the ending.
I was surprised by the ending. I’m not sure it left Hannah in a place we would have wanted to see her. But I do think the show very consistently found ways to make Hannah, and the audience, uncomfortable. There is nothing that makes us more uncomfortable than the idea of a not-good mother. It’s something Roseanne played with, all those years ago. When you go back and watch the show, she really is a good mother—but she wasn’t the perfect TV mother of that era. There’s a sense that Hannah may be as incompetent a mother as she was an employee, a teacher. She was not a very good teacher. She had the potential to be a good teacher, but she couldn’t control her impulses. So you have the sense that she may be that way as a mother.
Where does that leave us? It makes us wonder what our expectations are.
Are there topics that are still taboo on television?
I don’t know if there are topics that are still explicitly taboo. When you talk about something like abortion, it is no longer taboo in that quite a number of shows have dealt with it. But Shonda Rimes talked about the difference that she experienced when she initially put Gray’s Anatomy on the air and wanted to deal with abortion very early on—and realized that was just not going to happen. But still, we see it. It’s treated with kid gloves.
Race is still not dealt with very sophisticatedly, for the most part. It’s changing a little bit. Having more writers of color in the writer’s room and more showrunners of color is going to help. It’s often just clumsy or it’s avoided.
All of those things are going to have to change. There will have to be more trans writers in the writer’s room. I don’t think that shows necessarily avoid those topics, but people don’t know what their blinders are, what their biases are. These things are not taboo, but could be dealt with in a more sophisticated way.
Are there women-centric shows that can undercut a feminist message? What about Sex and the City? It was groundbreaking, represents empowerment through female friendships—but is also blatantly materialistic, and the driving force for many characters is finding a male partner.
Shows by women are sometimes self-defeating—because women are often self-defeating. I consider myself a feminist, but I’m sure I do things that undermine myself all the time. There isn’t a litmus test.
Sex and the City was an interesting case for me. I had really mixed feelings about it at the time. I loved it. And I also, at the time, had a lot of problems with it. I grew up in New York, and I felt like I would never want to actually hang out with people who went to those clubs and bars and shopped in those stores. But I was also frustrated by the way that it was increasingly about the romances. There was friendship, but you didn’t see them much in their working lives. It was fixated on who was going to be the partners, and the complications that stemmed from the men.
You take what you can from television shows. I never expect all TV shows to be perfect. In fact, so many of the shows created by female showrunners are very ambivalent portraits of women’s lives. Fleabag, for one. It’s a very disturbing portrait of a woman in some ways. Very few of these characters are role models.
So, Broad City was compared to Girls, and generally, people were celebrating Broad City and using it to put down Girls. I adore Broad City. For the most part, it’s a bright, sunshine-y, psychedelic, awesome time. It’s female power, silliness, even the awful stuff is treated with such joyousness. Of course, you’re going to feel all glowy after you watch it. Girls is a very different experience. But there’s room for both of those things. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—there’s no way [Rebecca Bunch is] a model human being. She’s just a human being. And [Issa in] Insecure—she’s a complicated human being who’s making mistakes.
I just made a timeline of shows created by women. In the beginning, there were a few every decade. And then in the 2000s, there were one or two every year. Then in 2015, it was exponential. It’s crazy.
Sitting in my car on my lunch hour, I’m trying to explain to the woman on the other end of the line exactly why I’d thrown a set of keys at my boyfriend four years earlier. No, I told her, sweating out of embarrassment under my winter coat, I don’t remember what we were fighting about. No, he’s never been violent toward me.
Whatever it was, it had definitely been something stupid I’d blown out of proportion—a trivial fight that escalated during a long walk back to our apartment. By the time I’d unlocked the door, I was raging. I whipped the keys at him and they hit the door of the hallway closet, breaking my keychain. I’m pretty sure I’d been aiming at his head.
What I don’t tell the research assistant on the phone: it wasn’t the first or last time I’d flown into a fit of rage during a stupidly benign argument. (Two years ago, our plastic coffee spoon met the same end as that key chain.) I could be a fuse ready to light at the smallest perceived slight from him. For pretty much as long as I can remember, I’ve been unable to control my emotions around intimacy. I love my partner, but affection lives in a churning gyre inside my head. I know how I feel, and how I want to express myself, but I just can’t get there. So, I throw keychains instead.
A few days before that phone call in my car, my boyfriend Matt and I had filled out separate questionnaires on iMacs in a tiny room in the Couples and Sexual Health lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax. The same research assistant left us with a pack of cookies each and bottles of water. The questionnaire can take a while, she explained. For the next hour and a half, we answered multiple-choice questions about the most intimate details of our relationship, as part of a study on treatment options for women with a chronic genital pain disorder called “provoked vestibulodynia,” or PVD. I rated pain on a scale of bearable to “I feel like I can’t go on.” I hesitated before admitting that I’d once thrown something at him during a fight. (But ultimately I did—for science’s sake.) Matt answered other questions: did he feel more or less loving toward me when I felt pain? Does he ever feel like he can’t go on in this relationship?
Filling out the survey that afternoon, I stopped dead at a question asking how the pain made me feel. “It makes me feel like I’m not a real woman,” read one multiple-choice option. I clicked on it.
For those lucky enough to have never experienced this kind of genital pain, let me give you an idea: it feels somewhere between an internal carpet burn and the slicing of many small blades, and it can be triggered by any internal vaginal pressure, even the lightest touch. Sex becomes not merely un-enjoyable but unbearable. Your body seizes up. You cry a lot, feel like you’re broken. And though many people have never heard of PVD or other genital pain disorders (broadly called vulvodynia), they’re common, affecting between eight and sixteen percent of women.
But you wouldn’t learn that by talking to family doctors. Vulvodynia hasn’t received the same medical attention as erectile dysfunction, and many GPs aren’t even aware of the disorder (though researchers in Canada have been studying the links between genital pain, biology and psychology for decades). As a result, women who seek medical care for vulvodynia (which is about half of those suffering) will visit an average of five physicians before being diagnosed. And only between 1.4 to nine percent of women with vulvodynia do finally receive a diagnosis. It’s a lonely and desperate experience: your most intimate moments are the source of excruciating pain. And finding a doctor who can acknowledge this dysfunction, let alone treat it, can take years, if it ever happens at all.
My pain started like this: During my second year of university in 2004, I got a bacterial infection called vaginosis. The doctor at the university’s walk-in clinic put me on a round of antibiotics, which gave me a yeast infection. Even when the itch from the yeast infection was finally gone, I kept treating myself with Canesten and Monistat for months, because the burning pain lingered. It never left. (While researchers don’t know specifically what causes PVD, there are correlations between the disorder and repeated yeast infections, early use of birth-control pills, anxiety, childhood trauma, and a genetic predisposition to inflammation.) The first pap test I ever had felt like a physical assault. I lay in bed for hours because the slightest movement felt like someone was setting my insides on fire.
I saw my doctor on campus about the lingering pain. She suggested I try switching to a birth control pill with a higher dose of estrogen. It didn’t work. I talked to my family doctor in New Brunswick about it. She suggested I try a pill with a much lower dose of hormone. That didn’t work. I talked to her again and she suggested I try using more lubrication. That didn’t work either. Nothing did.
Living in Toronto, five years after the pain first set in, I psyched myself up to talk to a new doctor, after yet another agonizing pap test. She suggested I might have vulvodynia, but moved on quickly, without offering a solution. And I was too timid to push.
A few years after this, and more than a decade after the pain began, long after I had all but resigned myself to it, Matt and I were living in Halifax, and things in our relationship were at a low point. We were struggling, as couples sometimes do, with differences between us, but the pain wedged in even more physical and emotional distance. I noticed in a local newspaper a story about Dr. Natalie Rosen’s research on PVD. My heart lurched. Reading her explain this pain was the first time I felt validated. It was an actual medical condition; it wasn’t just me. Her lab was looking for women to participate in a study on potential treatments, and just like that, I had an option. I could get help if I called Dr. Rosen’s sexual health lab.
But I didn’t. I just wasn’t ready to talk about it. A little more than a year later, we were screaming at each other at least weekly and were confused about what we each wanted. We were tired. It felt like we had a choice: either fix it or let it die. I decided to pick up the phone.
How does a body react to chronic pain? I can tell you two ways.
As the nerve endings that elicit pain become more sensitive to touch, your brain starts to overreact. Maybe once upon a time you felt pain only when you had sex, but eventually it starts to hurt when you put in a tampon, when you’re on your period, sometimes even when you sit down. Eventually it flares even at the idea of intimacy, and you change, subtly, in ways you can never reverse.
And then the pain creeps in to your heart.
Maybe one fall night you’re twenty-two, and running next to someone on a bicycle, smiling and laughing on your way downtown. He’s cute, lanky, and a bit nerdy, and you spend the evening talking close at the back of a dingy bar. Your friend tells you a day or two later that the guy’s interested in you. Do you like him? she asks. You physically seize. You imagine being alone with this person, and the dread kills whatever else may have been. Being alone leads to intimacy and intimacy can eventually lead to sex. No, you tell your friend. You’re not interested. The next time you see him, he doesn’t sit close to you, doesn’t single you out. Sadness moves in to the place where panic had been, and you retreat a little more into yourself.
When I first started looking for help back then, I’d leave the doctor’s office armed with each new potential solution and optimistic hope. As each option failed, I felt more ashamed to bring it up. The pain wasn’t a threat to my overall health, so I told myself it wasn’t a big deal. If I didn’t have sex, I could almost ignore it.
My friends were dating; I was not. And as they started developing their sexual identities, I stepped back. I just couldn’t relate. For me, sex was pain, and my body was never something I had control over. Desire became superfluous.
About a month after we started dating in 2009, Matt and I went on a long weekend trip to Montreal in February, and I found out how he likes to learn a new place: by exhaustively exploring every possible inch of it. My legs went numb traipsing around the city in the cold.
One night we stopped at a bar, and sat at a table near a window overlooking a narrow street. A drink or so in, Matt asked me something I found offensively invasive for someone so new to my life: Why was I so distant? He said it didn’t seem as if I especially liked him. I stammered, annoyed and also a bit hurt. It’s true that for as long as I could remember, I felt separate from most people, but I didn’t think on the outside anyone noticed. That night started a conversation between us that’s never really ended.
On the overnight bus ride back to Toronto, I listen with head phones to his off-brand mp3 player. As I dozed half asleep with my head against the window, he noticed the album end and he changed the tracks before I woke up fully to do it myself. Somewhere driving south on the 401, Cat Power lulled me deeper to sleep. It was our first moment of reflexive intimacy.
Moments like these can hold a relationship together when you can’t remember what you’re doing anymore. Skip forward six years, and we were on a precipice—a fight or two away from ending things.
When sex becomes an almost traumatic experience, you start rejecting other kinds of affection too. I didn’t want Matt to kiss or hug or touch me because kissing and hugging and touching could lead to sex, and sex would almost certainly lead to pain and this terrible angst. And it wasn’t like this avoidance was a conscious decision on my part. He touched me; I flinched. It was automatic, a reflexive anti-intimacy. But there’s only so much distance a relationship can take before it breaks apart.
Matt had always been understanding about my pain, even when I threw tantrums on our bed after failing again and again. I would hide under the covers, feeling so small and alone, and refuse to come out as he begged me just to be with him. But more and more he pleaded with me to see a doctor. I sobbed and told him I already had, that no one could help me. We had this conversation maybe twenty times. There were other things going on between us then too—some that weren’t entirely my fault—but having one person in the relationship averse to most physical touch made everything monumentally worse. My sadness fueled his anxiety, and we piled these emotions on top of each other until they almost smothered us.
Staring at the end of a six-year relationship I wasn’t sure I was ready to lose pushed me to finally send an email Dr. Rosen’s lab. When the research coordinator called me a couple of days later to ask a few preliminary questions—where did I feel pain, when did I feel it, and for how long had I had it (questions I’d never seriously been asked before)—I felt finally ready to confess.
Paper crinkles as I shift on the medical table. My legs are spread, knees bent toward the ceiling, feet resting rigid in stirrups as a gynecologist I’ve never met before sits casually between my feet, eyes beneath my flimsy hospital gown. My entire body clenches up as she leans forward to examine me. I wait for burning to start, but she just touches me quickly with one of those oversized popsicle sticks, and the exam is over in seconds. “Lovely, just lovely. You’re perfect,” the doctor tells me, and I feel a relief I didn’t know was possible. The exam is part of a screening process for the Dalhousie study, and the gynecologist just told me I qualified.
The study Matt and I joined selected couples randomly for either the twelve-week lidocaine treatment (already known to be effective, even though none of the doctors I’d seen had known to prescribe it), or twelve weeks of couples’ therapy. The idea behind the therapy is that couples are so emotionally mangled by pain that treating them with cognitive behaviour therapy would help give women respite, and help couples deal with anxiety, fear, and resentment.
In late April 2015, a few weeks after that doctor’s appointment, I’m in Newfoundland for work, sitting on the toilet in my friend’s bathroom in St. John’s. As she and her husband get ready for bed, I read the instructions a research student had given me for applying lidocaine, a numbing cream that I’d brought with me to try for the first time. I apply a pea-sized amount of cream directly on my skin, then squeeze another pea-sized amount on a square piece of gauze and place it on the opening of my vagina where it will stay all night. I follow the steps, as I would almost every night for the next twelve weeks.
At first the cream makes my skin tingle a little, as the student had warned it might. Then it burns hot for a minute or two before I go numb and I feel nothing—already an improvement. I walk awkwardly back to the guest bedroom, shooing one of my friend’s four cats out of the doorway as I worry the square piece of gauze will move and smear lidocaine in places I don’t want to go numb.
I’d picked up two little squeeze-tubes of cream from the sexual health lab on campus one afternoon. They came in a simple plastic bag with a conspicuously large stack of gauze that barely fit in my purse. Weeks later, in the bathroom one night, I turned over one of the tubes and read the label: Lidocaine 50 mg. Topical anesthetic. I’d been looking for such a simple solution for almost a decade. It seemed unbelievable that until a couple of months ago, I didn’t even know this medicine existed. And yet here it was now in my hand.
Every night I apply the cream before bed, and each week I fill out a questionnaire about my pain levels and how the pain or lack of pain made me feel. Otherwise I go about daily life. We try to have sex as usual. Previously, my modus operandi was to literally grin and bear it and hope the pain didn’t become so intense I felt raw. But usually it did, and then we’d have to stop anyway, often with me in tears. After starting treatment, though, I try to be more honest about how I feel. We move more slowly, pay more attention to each other. But it’s a difficult thing training yourself to be comfortable with something you’ve been afraid of for so long.
Before taking part in this study, I could count on one hand the number of times I’d had sex that didn’t hurt. It took just three days after that first treatment in St. John’s for the pain to almost disappear—a relief I can’t adequately explain. But it took longer for my brain to change. One of the questions in that initial questionnaire asked whether the pain was so bad I felt I would die. It wasn’t. But it had taught my body to believe something bad was going to happen. One by one, I worked at letting things go: I reminded my muscles to relax when my skin was touched. I told myself to breathe. I tried to imagine myself as someone for whom sex was casual, instinctual, pleasurable. Wouldn’t it be nice to feel so free?
Can you untangle your identity from your experience? I think about this all of the time, and wonder how different I would be if I had never learned to be afraid of intimacy; if an important part of my body hadn’t always felt like a cast off, something I’d actively tried to ignore. I’ve always been bewildered by assertive people who are confident in their sexuality, knowing they have control of this intrinsic piece of themselves I’ve never understood.
And I’m still searching for this piece of myself. I haven’t quite found it yet. Six weeks after I started using it, the cream lost most of its effectiveness. It felt like a blow, but it wasn’t a complete reversal. Wrestling with the pain, talking about it with the women at the sexual health lab, and finally admitting to myself that it was a problem I deserved to get help with—those changed me.
There’s a full-length mirror leaning against the wall in our guest bedroom in Halifax where I keep my clothes, and sometimes, when I’m getting ready for work or for bed, I’ll stand in front of it and try to imagine I’m someone else. What would I look like to me? The way the stranger in the mirror seems to at home in her body, even when I want to crawl out of my own skin, gives me comfort. She owns the shape of her legs, the curve of her hips. She’s not afraid of her flesh. I decide I would like to know her.
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