Trauma

One and Five Chairs

Joseph Kosuth,

Joseph Kosuth, “One and Three Chairs.” (1965)

Content Note: this piece contains descriptions of sexual violence.

ONE AND FIVE CHAIRS

The empty chair is the passenger seat of his car;

I am fifteen years old.

They always tell young women not to walk home alone at night,

so I accept the ride I already know will take me anywhere but home.

When it is over, he asks for a kiss as a token of his generosity

in granting me “safe” passage.

O captain, my captor; I carry in my blood and the melanin of my skin

the knowledge of what we women have survived to reach the shores,

knowing full well that it is not freedom

that awaits us when we disembark.

——-

The empty chair is the dressing room of the high-school theatre;

I am sixteen years old.

Four hands on my body, under the guise of a prank,

grasping at my arms, then my bra, until the flimsy material comes undone.

It’s a joke, they say,

and I, the girl-doll, dutifully laugh.

As I re-clasp the bra at the middle of my back,

I run my fingers over my vertebrae.

It occurs to me that if I could sharpen them enough through starvation,

perhaps they could swiftly slice open any hands

that would ever again dare to touch this flesh.

——-

The empty chair is the bare stage of the black box theatre;

I am seventeen years old.

As our scene study from A Streetcar Named Desire comes to an end,

my theatre instructor tells my scene partner to

“keep going as if you were raping her.”

This is not in the script. There has been no rehearsal.

I am not permitted to file my objection, because

I am suddenly face to face with sweaty brow and insistent hands;

there is an audience and so I mumble: “those aren’t the lines.”

Of course there are no lines; this is unscripted.

At least, I reason, the scene has the authenticity of fear.

Weeks later, I learn that my scene partner has assaulted another woman in my class.

I want to say I am surprised,

but I know that he is well-rehearsed in his craft.

——-

The empty chair is the waiting room of health services;

I am twenty-two years old.

He is a stranger, a fellow student.

His chatter is friendly at first, then insistent. I am polite.

Of course I am always polite.

Then he is everywhere; even waits after-hours for me to emerge

from a late doctor’s appointment.

I pull phrases out from my arsenal: “Please leave me alone. I already have a boyfriend.”

Shoulder-grip. I am suddenly aware that there is no-one around.

“You need a new boyfriend.” His breath is hot on my neck.

At campus security, I am given a neon pink rape whistle

and a glossy pamphlet on stalking.

“Don’t worry,” the woman says to me.

“He just sounds like the misguided kind of stalker. They’re mostly harmless.”

Mostly.

——-

The empty chair is the faux leather couch in the graduate lounge;

I am twenty-four years old.

It starts at my feet: my boots being wrestled off,

and as I sit up to protest, I am vice-gripped across my chest,

pressure against my sternum.

I do what I have been told I ought to have done before:

wrestle, twist, say no, no (louder), and stop, with an extra

please for all the socially ingrained female politeness that I still cannot shake.

Without my glasses, I cannot make out the figure standing near the

elevator doors that are in my field of view,

cannot scream,

cannot do anything.

A while later, there is another ding of the elevator, and I am released before anything else happens.

I splash water on my face, re-touch my lipstick.

Could have been worse, I say,

as I pull up yet another empty chair to my table.

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Roll Call: On Violence and the Power of Naming

The teacher’s struggle:

at the start of each term

after I scan the class list

I fumble for weeks

mastering the correct pronunciations

and linking faces to their names.

Carefully crafting an archive,

always mindful of how often names are carelessly mangled

in the mouths and minds of those

who do not bother to ask how to say them

or to make an effort to remember.

It’s never just a name, you know.

It’s who you are.

It’s who you were.

It’s the one you chose,

or the one you were given.

It’s the one that marked a rite of spiritual passage,

or the one taken up when the Anglos couldn’t bother

to pronounce anything other than

John Smith.

It’s the one that your ancestors had,

the one passed on to you.

It’s what makes you stop—

and turn around.

and makes you smile

when it is spoken with love.

To deliberately forget a name,

to be unwilling to know it—

it and the life those syllables represent—

or to put it under a publication ban

when we all know full well

exactly who we are talking about

to act as if that is an act of protection

that’s violence.

It’s hard, I get it.

We’re all terrible with names, we say.

But even those of us who have to rummage

through the alphabet to recall

the name of an acquaintance,

we know what it is to scream that name in our hazy nightmares

to whisper it

to call it into a room, forgetting that there will be

no

answer.

I want you to say it.

Say her name.

Say their names, all of them.

Say Rehtaeh Parsons.

Say Loretta Saunders.

Say Rinelle Harper.

Say Tina Fontaine.

Say Amanda Todd.

Say Reena Virk.

Say Helen Betty Osborne.

Say Serena Abotsway.

Say Mona Lee Wilson.

Say Andrea Joesbury

Say Brenda Ann Wolfe.

Say Marnie Lee Frey.

Say Georgina Faith Papin.

Say Jacqueline Michelle McDonell.

Say Dianne Rosemary Rock.

Say Heather Kathleen Bottomley.

Say Jennifer Lynn Furminger.

Say Helen Mae Hallmark.

Say Patricia Rose Johnson.

Say Heather Chinnook.

Say Tanya Holyk.

Say Sherry Irving.

Say Inga Monique Hall.

Say Tiffany Drew.

Say Sarah de Vries.

Say Cynthia Feliks.

Say Angela Rebecca Jardine.

Say Diana Melnick.

Say Jane Doe.

Say Debra Lynne Jones.

Say Wendy Crawford.

Say Kerry Koski.

Say Andrea Fay Borhaven.

Say Cara Louise Ellis.

Say Mary Ann Clark.

Say Yvonne Marie Boen.

Say Dawn Teresa Crey.

Say Geneviève Bergeron.

Say Hélène Colgan.

Say Nathalie Croteau.

Say Barbara Daigneault.

Say Anne-Marie Edward.

Say Maud Haviernick.

Say Maryse Laganière.

Say Maryse Leclair.

Say Anne-Marie Lemay.

Say Sonia Pelletier.

Say Michèle Richard.

Say Annie St-Arneault.

Say Annie Turcotte.

Say Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz.

Say Kristen French.

Say Leslie Mahaffy.

Say Tammy Homolka.

Say Breann Voth.

Say Marie-France Comeau.

Say Jessica Lloyd.

Say all the names I do not know

the ones we’ll never know, too,

and the ones not listed.

Say the names of our dead,

and those still alive.

Say the names you’ve never said before,

and the ones you’ve said a hundred times.

Scream them to those who refuse to listen;

whisper them in quiet acts of prayer.

Wave them like flags;

trumpet them as a call to arms.

Say them precisely because they, the ones who need to be called to account

know that to name is to refuse let to anyone get away with

the violence of forgetting.

Mother Tongues

[TW: This piece contains graphic mentions of violence and blood.]

"Cassandra" by Max Klinger (1857-1920)

“Cassandra” by Max Klinger (1857-1920)

We have inherited the mouths of our foremothers.

Sweet cupid’s bow; pursed lips.

Inside, our cheeks ragged from biting down on them

every time we are too afraid to speak.

Philomela, raped by Tereus.

Brave princess threatened to tell,

so he cut out her tongue.

It’s a good thing she knew how to weave

to thread her story somehow

and pass it along to her sister.

In the end they both nearly died,

preserved only as songbirds.

O, Philomela, you sing so sweetly now

but at the cost of your very humanity.

Cassandra, raped by Zeus.

It was he who bestowed upon her

the gift of prophecy in the first place.

But we women know too all well that little

comes for free in this business.

After brutalizing her body,

he added insult to injury:

speak your prophecies but be cursed never to be believed.

O, Cassandra, so many of your daughters

raise their voices aloud

but are driven to madness by knowing full well

they only ever echo back.

Lavinia, raped by Demetrius and Chiron.

They must have known she knew how to write

for after they forced themselves into her

they tore both her tongue from her mouth

and her hands from her arms.

“Let’s leave her to her silent walks,” they said.

O, Lavinia, blessed wretch

be their mutilation of flesh or of metaphor

how many of your sisters walk silently?

For if a rape occurs in the forest

—a bedroom, a house, a car, a classroom—

does anybody hear it?

Does it happen at all?

Our tongues are bloodied now;

we taste iron.

Tears fall, the salt-water mixes with our blood,

and we swallow.

We swallow it down,

great gulps of this silence.

Bitter as it is, many of us would prefer to drink it

knowing the poison others await to eagerly drop into our mouths

if we should ever dare

to speak.

Write Where It Hurts: On Literature, Death, and Suffering

CONTENT WARNING: This post discusses death, blood/needles.

It’s mid-November. The daylight hours are becoming more and more scarce, and so I am pleased that the large lecture hall for this semester’s English 110 class has a large row of windows. The sleepy students need all the sunlight they can get, especially as the term winds down and the long nights of studying and last-minute paper-writing start to catch up with them. They clutch mugs of tea and coffee, trying to keep warm and awake.  From my perch at the back of the lecture hall, sitting alongside my fellow teaching assistants, I see the students crack open their books, flip open their laptops, and settle in for the day’s lecture. A few of them fiddle with their cell phones. I try not to be annoyed that they’re texting in class, or checking Facebook, but it’s their tuition dollars that are being spent, not mine. I open my own notebook, uncap a pen.

As the clock strikes eleven, Dr. Moss starts in on her lecture. Today, we’re talking about bioethics and medicine. Perhaps not what you’d expect in an English class, but you see, we’re reading Vincent Lam’s collection of short stories, Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures (2006), and weaving in questions of literature with questions of culture, gender, race, ethics, and science. Lam, who is an emergency room physician at Toronto’s East General Hospital, published his stories to great acclaim, including Canada’s most prestigious literary award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The stories, based on Lam’s experiences as a medical student, trace the journeys of four students—Chen, Fitzgerald, Ming, and Sri—as they navigate the emotional, intellectual, and interpersonal challenges of becoming physicians. We’re reading a selection of stories from the book for the class. One of the earliest stories, “Take All of Murphy,” details the four medical students as they perform an autopsy. We’re reading about death, in all of its cold, surgical reality.

I should probably note at this point that I’m not squeamish. When it comes to any medical show or documentary about surgical procedures, you’ll find me glued to the screen, though I know those aren’t people I love or know and that makes it easier to disconnect. I do like to watch when I’m getting my blood-work done, watch my platelets and red blood cells and plasma fill up those little vials.

I should probably also note at this point that people I’ve cared for have died. I’ve never been to a put-the-body-in the ground funeral, but I’ve been to memorials. I’ve never actually watched someone die, but I know what grief is like. When I was 15, the younger sister of a childhood friend died of a particularly nasty form of cancer. She was only 12 years old. In my apartment building, I’ve seen the elders I’ve known and greeted for years die off, one by one. My aunt, whose dementia is worsening, will likely not live another five years. Dying while forgetting is a terrible way to go. My mother worked in geriatric psych nursing for years, and so death was just a part of the stories she came home with from work.

So with all of this, it somehow takes me by surprise that while I’m sitting in this class, listening as Dr. Moss lectures on various aspects of this fictional autopsy, my heart is racing. I mean, I’m feeling really sick. I’m sitting in class and my head is spinning and I can’t stop thinking about the fact that in the past three weeks, two people I have loved – people from formative parts of my life – have died.

Two of them. Dead. Just like Murphy in the story. Corpses.

My former French teacher died suddenly, at the end of October, on a hiking trip in Japan. Totally unexpected. He was an avid long-distance walker, every day, back and forth to school, during his 30+ years as a teacher. Beloved, dedicated. Just a few months earlier, I’d run into him on the path near my house, and we’d had a lovely chat about teaching and life. And then, at the age of 62, less than a year into his retirement: myocardial infarction. A heart attack. And now he’s gone.

A dear friend from theatre school died in November, one day before her 29th birthday, when the cancer finally caught up to her. A lump in her breast, discovered three years earlier. She was well again, for a while. The walnut-sized lump had shrunk. Her hair grew back. She traveled to India. But all those metastasized cells eventually consumed everything in its path. I’d just talked to her, a few days earlier. “Hospital birthday!” she’d written merrily on her Facebook wall as she prepared to be admitted. And now she’s gone.

Back to class.

Dr. Moss is still lecturing.

I’m trying to listen, real hard. I straighten up in my seat and I focus on holding my pen. I listen to Dr. Moss’s voice. I try to find comfort in its familiarity, the lilt and phrasing I’ve come to know well.

In the story, the body they’re autopsying has all these tattoos. When it comes to making a incision, the characters debate whether or not to cut through a tattoo, or to cut around it.

“It’s bad luck,” said Sri. “Cut around here.” He traced the ornate heart with the handle of his scalpel.

“It’s a nice cross,” agreed Chen.

“You guys.” Ming didn’t look up. She traced the incision lines on the arm. “It’s not going to work. Don’t you want to see the bicipital groove?”

“You should respect a man’s symbols,” said Sri. “My mother told me that. Look at his arm. These are his symbols. (Lam 43)

My friend Ali had plenty of tattoos, gorgeous ones, a whole gallery of art on her skin. I start to feel sad that the art has died with her. When people say that tattoos are forever, and that as a result, you’ll regret it, they’re lying. They’re lying and they’re in denial because they don’t want to admit that one day, body-canvases will be dead. And buried. Embalmed. Maybe burned to ashes. There is no forever, so you really don’t have to feel to badly about that Tweety-Bird tattoo or the name of a former lover that you etched into your arm. Everything comes to an end. Sometimes sooner than later. I start to think about their cold bodies. I have a hard time not seeing them just sleeping, in my imagination. When I picture them, I think that their eyes will fly open and it will all be as it was.

It’s noon, and we take a 10-minute break.

I find myself in the bathroom downstairs, sitting in the salmon-pink stall, and I’m trying to weep quietly. It’s not because I’m worried that someone else will come in—after all, most everyone uses the upstairs bathroom just a few paces away from the lecture hall, rather than this secret one near the loading dock—but because crying alone in an echoey bathroom just sounds so fucking sad. It’s one of the loneliest, most pathetic sounds I can think of. When it’s time to head back to lecture, I dab my eyes and blow my nose, arrange my hair around my face so that it doesn’t look like I’ve been crying. Fuck death, I think. Fuck this PhD. Fuck teaching. Fuck reading this story about cutting into dead bodies when I can’t get the thoughts of people I love just being cold dead flesh. I’m an atheist and I don’t believe in an afterlife but you know that would actually be really fucking comforting right now but I still don’t and so death is just death there is no after. Fuck death and fuck life and fuck everything.

I have a teaching evaluation a few weeks later. It goes well: I enjoy teaching, and my tutorial is full of brilliant thinkers. My students hand in their final projects and papers. I mark exams. I cry in the bathroom stall during lecture-breaks a few more times. The people I love are still dead, and I have work to do. Life goes on, but when I see Vincent Lam’s book on my shelf, I try to hide from its gaze. That book has undone me, in more ways than I even know.

〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜

There are two reasons why I’m finally writing about all of this.

First, it’s been long enough that my grief has started to temper itself. I can think about my dead beloved ones without bursting into tears, although I still sometimes walk the river-path near my house and half-expect to run into Jacques-André on his familiar route, and I still expect Ali to announce that she’s off on some wondrous adventure around the world, sleeping on beaches in Australia or building cob-huts in Mexico. In late November, I attended a beautiful memorial for my teacher. This summer, I planted a tree for Ali on my property in the country. I’m dealing with the anxiety I have about more people I love dying, and accepting the fact that death is inevitable. 

Second, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways that literature impacts our lives, how we can reach out to it for comfort, or wander unknowingly into it and finding ourselves bruised and battered, full of shock and awe, as I did, facing the blustery chill of Lam’s prose. In the year following the deaths of my beloved ones, the activist and academic worlds have been embroiled in an impassioned debate about the value and necessity of so-called “Trigger Warnings,” or ways of flagging that disturbing or graphic content may lie ahead for readers and viewers. From Inside Higher Education to The Chronicle to The Globe and Mail to The Guardian, students, professors, and cultural critics alike have waded into the debate. On the one hand, the inclusion of trigger warnings is seen as censorship or coddling; on the other hand, understanding the effects of graphic depictions of violence is understood to be a necessary part of acknowledging the need for sensitivity, and beyond that, the ways in which mental health issues (especially Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) can be aggravated by having to read or view difficult material. As Melissa McEwan writes, “The only reason I can imagine resistance to trigger warnings, or whatever variation, is that their ubiquity will create an expectation of sensitivity with which people can’t be bothered. The sort of people who say that people who need trigger warnings are too sensitive, rather than conceding that maybe it is they who are simply not sensitive enough.” McEwan continues: “Trigger warnings don’t make people “oversensitive.” They acknowledge that there is a lot of garbage in the world that causes people lasting harm. If for no other reason, I defend my use of content notes on the basis that to fail to use them is to abet the damnable lie that everything’s pretty much okay for everyone, and people who have been harmed are outliers” (“Triggered”, n.p.)

As someone who studies Canadian Literature, as well as trauma and sexual violence in particular, the use value of trigger or content warnings is not lost on me, even though I am not generally affected by graphic content. Whether it’s simply a result of intellectualization, or of desensitization, or who knows what else, I don’t feel anything visceral when I read about rape or torture or most forms of violence. I just don’t, and sometimes I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But I do feel other things, with regards to other subjects and other forms. I feel anger. I feel outrage. I feel sadness. Canadian Literature, true in some ways to the analyses that Northrop Frye, Margaret Atwood and John Moss made more than 40 years ago, is a difficult literature, full of victims and survival and bleakness. “SadLit,” I sometimes call it. Canada, like all countries, has a difficult history. And beyond that, humans have difficult histories. Even when literature is not directly reflecting the violence and trauma of so many nationalisms, including our own here in Canada, it is reflecting the human condition, and that can be a terrible thing to write and read about. We are haunted by stories.

I recognize the lump in the throat and the racing thoughts, the thump-a-thump of the heart as our eyes scan the page and the story unfolds, leaks onto us, cuts into us. I see and hear my students and colleagues wrestle with hard words, words which seem to have a literal hardness: the sharp edges of language. The syllables of colonialist violence, the letters of sexual trauma, the alphabets of absolutely awful things. We all know that these are representations, not actual incidents of violence. Even when the representations are of real-life experiences, we ultimately know that these are just splotches of black ink on white pages. And yet.

And yet…we are undone. I am undone. You are undone. We are undone. To various extents, of course. Some of us have to turn the page, skip a scene, or close the book outright. Some of us choose not to read at all. Some of us read onwards, knowing the sting that will come, bracing for it, yet never quite managing to outwit the sharp sting. Some of us lash out. Some of us don’t flinch. It all depends on who we are, where we are, and what is happening to us. The moments of confluence between life and literature can be wholly unexpected.

I’m not angry at the books or stories that don’t envelop me in some sort of fantasy world, which don’t soothe me or provide me with happy endings. In fact, I’ve learned that I’ve come to love them in a strange way. For all my weeping and wailing and stomach-turning while reading Lam’s story, I know, I do, that he is just describing it the way it is. Amidst the backdrop of clinical sterility, “Take All of Murphy” illustrates that death is more than just one thing: it is a fact, it is the object of scientific study and progress, it is a source of philosophical confusion. It is. And I know, too, that in any other time and place, perhaps the story would have had no impact on me at all.

In any case, I am grateful. I am grateful that because of Lam’s story (for which I was obviously prepared, but one can never be fully prepared, can one?) I was able to let my grief spill out. Perhaps it was more necessary than I ever realized. I am grateful for conversations with my students, with whom I talk about some really, really fucking hard stuff, and we do so with respect. I am grateful for generous lectures by the professors with whom I have had the privilege of working, lectures which do not sugar-coat, but offer at least some cushions for the hard blows.

〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜

It’s mid-August. I try to remember my beloved ones’ bodies as they once were: vibrant, alive. Each walk I take, I can walk it with the memory of Jacques-André in my footsteps. I trace the tattoo on my arm, think of Ali’s adorned skin. I re-read a poem she loved and taste its words in my mouth as she once did in hers.

I still dream about them sometimes. But I am, as they say, trying to move on.

Works Cited

Lam, Vincent. Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures. Toronto: Doubleday, 2006. Print.

McEwan, Melissa. “Triggered.” Shakesville. 4 Mar. 2014. Web.

To Those Whom The Saccharine Holiday Cards Have Forgotten

To those for whom grief is like an unwanted gift that is opened anew each morning after that split-second moment of half-asleep-magic when they forget their loved one is dead, for whom the empty place at the table or the missing face in holiday photos is a bottomless pit of horror and unbearable sadness.

To those who have lost a child or a pregnancy, for whom the line-ups for photos with Santa at the mall are agony, for whom the empty cradles and the never-to-be-worn tiny socks are constant reminders of unspeakable loss.

To those whose depression and anxiety make it difficult to survive the day, let alone crack a forced smile at the checkout counter, pick up the phone to receive a holiday greeting, check the mail, go to a holiday party, get up off the couch or emerge from underneath the blankets.

To those who are terrified of facing the holiday parties, the buffets of food, the incessant questions about how much or how little you weigh, if you’re going to just “get over” your eating disorder and eat a fucking meal for once.

To those who are alone, those who have no phone calls or cards, no visiting friends or families, who feel that ache of being entirely forgotten.

To those who lie awake afraid, afraid of the bills that are piling up, the rent that must be paid, the children that are sick, the job that has been lost, the empty fridge, the bullies at school, the fighting parents, the swinging fists, afraid of the addiction, the alcoholism, the rage, the uncertainty.

To those who must hide their scars or their fresh cuts and burns under holiday sweaters.

To those whose anniversaries of trauma, of rape, of assault, fall at this time of year, and whose nights are filled with nightmares, for whom the falling snow, the twinkling lights, the holiday carols are reminders of anything but festivities.

To those who heartbroken, those who have been lied to, cheated on, had their trust ripped out of their chests and their beliefs in romance trampled on, who must face the holiday stories of engagements and weddings with a lump in their throat and anger-bitten tongues.

To those who are dying, who know that this is, or may be, the last holiday season they will have to spend with their loved ones.

To those who want to die and who are holding on, holding on, holding on. Please hold on.

Resources:

Dealing with Grief after a Miscarriage

List of International Suicide Hotlines

National Eating Disorder Association – Holiday Tips for Coping

RAINN – Rape and Incest National Network – International Resources

Resources in British Columbia:

BC Bereavement Hotline

Women Against Violence Against Women

CrisisLine BC

Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre

Food Banks BC