But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance . . . Qualities that would have saved a ship’s company exposed on a broiling sea with six biscuits and a flask of water— endurance and justice, foresight, devotion, skill, came to his help. R is then—what is R?
—Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
The act of being taken. Away, perhaps.
In Greek mythology, abduction precedes violation. For example, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, woman after woman is removed from a place of safety and transported elsewhere for violation, by ship or chariot, sea or land, or the ethereal machinations of the gods. Blossoms and baskets are dropped by these maidens, life interrupted.
The Metamorphoses are tales of violence and resulting human change: to trees, to animals, to birds. When I read these tales as a young woman, I imagined transformation as both punishment and safety. When the gods shape-shifted a person from human to nonhuman, it might be punishment; however, that transformation made further violence less likely.
In fact, on the cover of my college edition of Metamorphoses, a Duchamp-like figure of a woman, geometrical, transitions to a tree with roots as feet and leaves as a bower of curled hair. She has become impenetrable.
I thought of the myths as having a sequence:
2. Sexual violation
Sequences radiate clarity. They can be interrupted, or, perhaps reversed. I’m comforted by these mathematics.
Alphabets have sequence, too; however, language itself isn’t constrained by its origin in order. Words are formed by disorder, and translation reorders that disorder further. The Greek verb viasmós collapses the concepts of abduction and violation, as does the Latin verb rapto. It doesn’t matter if English separates them.
Word, body, mind. I can separate these pieces of experience, aligning them with abduction, violation, transformation. But when I open the cover of Metamorphoses, on its heavy paper backing is inscribed a room number with the name of the dorm I lived in the second semester of my junior year.
Body, word, mind: These collapse.
Those last three semesters, I read a lot of contemporary poetry. I thought of myself as a poet. But the two books that stamped themselves on my consciousness indelibly were the Metamorphoses and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
I remember clearly Mr. Ramsay, the philosopher host of To the Lighthouse: Mr. Ramsay imagines the challenges of philosophic vision as the letters of the alphabet, and he has reached Q. Beyond that, he can glimpse R, yet not quite bring it to mind, as if he stands upon a lonely spit of land casting itself out into the sea. This image has stayed with me all of my life.
“For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q.”
R his quest, his vision, his destination. That next step, to determine for what R stands. As a letter, R can be only a marker for something else, something unnamed or unnamable. Of course.
I, too, wanted to understand R—the unsayable and unspeakable—for what had happened to my body had also happened to my mind, the somatic and semantic clenched together as a fist grips an object of which it cannot let go. R was both a comfort and an impediment: A distant letter, blotting out a concept; an abstraction disfiguring whatever might have been “real.”
For many years, I’d figured the incident and its aftermath was “all in my head,” the way sympathetic persons will describe the process of letting go. As if the mind alone can evaporate troubles, transforming the quicksilver yet substantive nature of water into particles that waft away, invisible.
Then I read The Body Keeps the Score, which explores the physiognomy of trauma. I wish I’d known earlier that it wasn’t just in my head, but also in my body: trauma binds itself into muscle fibers and nerve dendrites, into the cellular ebb and flow of the body’s tides. Anxiety and panic, Dr. van der Kolk tells me, feed off a body’s tendency toward flight (arousal) or paralysis (numbing). Such bodies “develop a fear of fear itself.”
Lily Briscoe, feminist, artist, and foil to Mr. Ramsay, seems to grasp what I could not. Of her deceased friend, Mrs. Ramsay, admired chiefly for her beauty, Lily expresses the apparition of that bodily absence this way, “For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? express that emptiness there? (She was looking at the drawing-room steps; they looked extraordinarily empty.) It was one’s body feeling, not one’s mind. The physical sensations that went with the bare look of the steps had become suddenly extremely unpleasant. To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain.”
I read into Lily a paralysis, a need to transform, her hollowness like the trunk of a tree. Very little is said out loud in To the Lighthouse. Woolf taps into her characters’ stream of consciousness.
Often, but not always, before I fall asleep, just at the point at which sleep seems inevitable, I ask my husband, “Will things be okay?” He always responds, “Yes, everything will be okay.” This ritual comforts me. What it has to do with the truth of any situation is irrelevant.
The act of falling into sleep feels unsafe. “Falling,” of course, isn’t safe. That slip between conscious and unconscious, the moment the vigilant brain stands down into silence—I am afraid to be taken into sleep, an abduction over which I have no control.
During my senior year in college, I develop an interest in ekphrastic poetry, using paintings to prompt me toward words. The Impressionists are all the rage in the 1980s. Monet and his water lilies do little for me. It’s all too pleasant in ethereal blues and pinks.
Instead, seated at a long table in the art section of the library, metal shelves to my right and plate-glass windows to my left, I spread open the broad cardboard covers of a set of Pissarro plates. On the glossy paper, thick brushstrokes flattened, are blotchy images in brown, yellow, and green: a path, a pony, great rushes of trees and bushes. Chemin Sous Bois, En Été, reads the label at the bottom, “Path Through the Woods, in Summer.”
A path bends, in the distance, away from the light into underbrush and forest.
Two human figures and a pony stand small at the turn. I think they’re men. I can’t tell if they’re smiling or not because they lack faces.
I can bring the page closer to my face, and the painting becomes a residue of brushwork, the physiological remnant of an artist’s hand. The colored slashes and blurs are inchoate shapes. As I pull the book away, the images cohere.
Forward: all is chaos. Backward: revelation.
The two persons in the background send a chill up my spine. They block the pathway into the forest’s heart. If the painting were real, I would turn around in the foreground and walk toward the village that must lie in the other direction.
Everything will be okay. It’s a beautiful painting. But my anxiety senses something rustling the trees, even though there’s nothing there. Birds rise, an individuated dark unit, then scatter. Forever, this will be my personal totem of anxiety, an escape.
Another image comes to me now: A branch cracks and a deer freezes, evaluating the situation before it flees. Or the deer simply freezes and cannot move.
I studied Renaissance poetry in graduate school. The “thirsty deer” trope staged deer as beloved woman, huntsman as man besotted, the creek a lure. You can attract the deer by a gentle stream of affection, then capture her heart by wounding it, or her. “And with her owne goodwill hir fyrmely tyde,” as Edmund Spenser says in his sonnet sequence Amoretti:
Strange thing me seemd to see a beast so wyld so goodly wonne with her owne will beguyld.
No one asks the deer for her thoughts.
Outside the infirmary window, trees loom tall in the night sky, evergreens ratcheted wide to narrow as the trunks ascend, deep black against a dark royal blue spiked with stars. I can’t remember definition of branches or needles; the trees seem opaque, diorama cutouts. That sky attracts me: the depth of its bluing in between the trees and flowing above them.
I think I’m up at night for an hour or so at the window because I’m restless. The nurse tells me I do this every night, all night long. I have no memory of dawn. I sleep most of the day. “I’m just off my sleep cycle,” I tell her angrily, “because of the antibiotics and lying in bed all the time.” The nurse insists I remain inpatient and go to counseling. I need to leave. If I can escape to my own bed, I’ll be able to sleep. They let me go, with a commitment to counseling not to be broken under any circumstances.
At its simplest, dissociation is detachment. In this way, detachment becomes part of the process of writing or philosophy: Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which words become labels for a truth imperfectly understood at an ordinary level of being. Res and verba, words and things, are stock terms of discussion throughout Classical philosophy, which forms the basis of early modern rhetorical practice, which becomes the basis for western literary theory. And so art may be said to depend upon how and in what way these concepts might be attached and detached, one to the other—association and dissociation.
Jacques Derrida provides the most nuanced and impenetrable discussion of how texts cohere and self-destruct. Dissociation might be deconstruction. All the semioticians draw their theories from that basic broad stroke: the differences and similarities between words and things. Are words a dream-world? Is life an illusion? Can “things” by their very solidity anchor us in a reality of any sort?
Writing, approached in our post-postmodern context, makes of reality a lucid dream, reifies an illusory world on the page, distills and elides truth, life, reality. Of course, the details of these theories are more complex than I would make them sound. And one could, of course, argue in opposition to whatever I have said. Choose your own mode of intellectual detachment.
I was a literature major in college, going on to earn a PhD in Renaissance poetry and Classical literary theory. As such, I have been certified “intelligent,” for whatever that’s worth these days.
Shakespeare writes endlessly that life is a dream, a play, a representation (a commonplace of his era by the playwright Calderón), each reiteration embroidered with verbal finery:
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep . . .
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here,
While these shadows did appear . . .
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more . . .
When life becomes a dream, its terrors recede. “Think but this and all is mended.”
One purpose of art may be to redeem the unredeemable world.
That’s all well and good, to leave the theater feeling redeemed. But outside those double doors, in the dark on the sidewalk, mind, body, and word must come back together. The trees and the dark blue night sky were my theater, where I spent my nights awake, if not alert.
Outside the purview of art, if the emotional self becomes separated from the physical self, words must bring mind and body together. Sometimes, however, they can’t. Language, as we know, can fail us. Without it, mind and body separate and the past flashes only intermittently within the present mind, so that one can, purposely, no longer feel much of anything at all. Emotional numbing, it’s called.
Wordsworth writes that true art comes from “Emotion recollected in tranquility.” But what is tranquility? How can I find it? You see the problem?
Is language adequate to describe experience? Are words good enough?
Of these dilemmas, Sarah Manguso writes: “Nothing is more boring to me than the re-re-statement that language isn’t sufficiently nuanced to describe the world. Of course language isn’t enough. Accepting that is the starting point of using it to capacity. Of increasing its capacity.”
But what if no one wanted to hear you use the language that would describe a particular experience? Or listeners turned away at the mere mention of the single word, itself a single syllable, into which is compacted some of the ugliest of human experience? Nuance, then, is for the birds, startling into a mass that scatters, incoherent.
Look, the classic example is Philomel, whose tongue was removed as punishment for her angry accusations. Later, the gods transform her into a bird. Philomel bores me. Her story isn’t nuanced. Her story’s sequence? Abduction (1) leads to sexual violence (2), which provokes her vengeance (as though we all had the capacity to engage vengeance in the service of justice), which leads to a protective transformation (3).
The abduction of Proserpina by Pluto, through the pool of Cyane, now that has the capacity of lived experience. The nymph Cyane demands justice of Pluto, as, defending her pool, “she flung her arms widespread, as if her slimness / Could block that onrush,” but Pluto
Now that’s an escape. Far better than that of the deer, frozen. “Inescapable shock,” Dr. van der Kolk says, is “a physical condition in which the organism cannot do anything to affect the inevitable.”
On using language to recollect trauma, van der Kolk writes, “the frontal lobe shuts down, including . . . the region necessary to put feelings into words, the region that creates our sense of location in time, and the thalamus, which integrates the raw data of incoming sensations.”
Creating a coherent narrative, let alone finding adequate language, left me collapsing again and again—nothing there for anyone to hold.
I am fine. I maintain this position throughout most of my therapy sessions. I have few memories of the counselor, a woman, or the room. We sit in chairs opposite one another. She wants me to tell her something, anticipates it. I don’t.
The room feels gray. I sort of know what she’d like me to tell her. But I can’t because I don’t know how to explain it. I might worry she won’t believe me. I might worry she might tell me what I think happened didn’t actually happen, or it wasn’t as bad as I make it out to be. Mostly, though, language is elusive.
After a few sessions of this, the counselor seems displeased, perhaps angry with me. I need to make her happy. I proceed to more or less fabricate a falling out with my boyfriend, S, of sophomore year, who graduated, thank goodness, at the end of that year. No one will call him in to ask him any questions.
He wanted to sleep with me (true). But he didn’t want me to be his girlfriend (sort of true). I felt bullied into sleeping with him (lie). He told other people I was a slut (lie). Now the brothers at his fraternity bother me (all but a sliver of this, a lie). I am upset (true). I am upset about the behavior of S (lie).
My story becomes so real, I begin to believe it. So I write an adapted version of this to S, with whom I talk intermittently on the phone and exchange letters. We’ve been considering I visit him over spring break.
S isn’t happy with my version of events. In his minuscule, scrawled handwriting, he pens, “I am not the monster you say I am.” His words make me cry from shame, but I’ve achieved my objective. The problem now resolved, I’m released from therapy.
Enter Columbia’s main campus at 116th Street, through the black iron double gates, on a wide brick walkway. At the midpoint, stone and brick terraces step down toward Butler Library, where I spent most of my time, and, in the other direction, rise up to Low Library, which houses the administrators.
I have dreams about Columbia all the time: the terraces create surreal angles, their brick and stone creating bridges and tunnels that never existed in real life. Often, I’m downtown in SoHo, trying to walk uptown to my old apartment on 112th Street. In my dreams, I’m looking for something, and the cityscape changes levels and angles as I wander, the sidewalks’ streams of people, apartment windows above me lit within unfamiliar geometries.
In 1987 or 1988, the campus hosted a Take Back the Night march. I didn’t participate, but I read about it in the undergraduate newspaper. There were posters and candles. The words “stranger” and “acquaintance” appeared as differential modifiers for the word that seemed to match what happened to me.
When I remember connecting noun and modifier, the image I see isn’t of a photo in the campus newspaper, but the herringbone pattern of red brick, arrows pointing forward between two bands of beige mortar laid end to end.
A path. I have a phrase.
“She had done the usual trick—been nice. She would never know him. He would never know her. Human relations were all like that, she thought, and the worst (if it had not been for Mr. Bankes) were between men and women. Inevitably these were extremely insincere she thought.”
Lily Briscoe has been nice to Charles Tansley, an arrogant young philosopher, solely on the basis of sexual politics. Being nice is Lily’s duty, as it has been mine.
When X got up to turn off the television and lock the door of my dorm room, my first thought was a flurry of worry, not of danger, but of how I might manage the waltz step of I’m Not Interested in You That Way. How I might emerge with my feminine bona fides intact and not cause emotional damage to a friend.
“And then, and then—this was one of those moments when an enormous need urged him, without being conscious what it was, to approach any woman, to force them, he did not care how, his need was so great, to give him what he wanted: sympathy.”
That’s Mr. Ramsay contemplating Lily Briscoe, ten years after Lily has done her duty to support Charles Tansley’s ego. Mrs. Ramsay has died; Mr. Ramsay has no one who will replicate his wife’s immutable support.
Was that how X thought?
I hadn’t understood the magnitude of male entitlement then. I had thought it as old-fashioned as Virginia Woolf writing a century prior.
I was nice a half-step too long. Then I was pinned.
I kept diaries in high school, the typical sort: daily events and my crushes. The diary I kept before leaving for college had a sentimental drawing of a flower on the cover. On the inside flyleaf was a quote from Virginia Woolf, in a florid script that decontextualized her writing:
Our apparitions, the things you know us by, are simply childish. Beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by.
I imagined an iceberg. I liked this quotation, even though I’d no idea who Virginia Woolf was, nor from what book the quotation had come. At the time, I read it as the diary manufacturer probably intended, that I was becoming an adult, shifting my consciousness from the surface detail of childhood to the important depths of adulthood.
I didn’t keep a diary in college; I kept a writing journal, noting images and stray thoughts, any of which I might use for poems or stories. On the front page of each journal, I wrote the Woolf quotation.
Only during my senior year, reading To the Lighthouse, would I know the origin of the quotation. By then, Woolf’s words were visceral to me. After the incident, I’d developed a way to manage my self or selves. A person who seemed very much like myself lived on the surface of me, like a skin—the rest of me lost in an untraceable interior. Dr. van der Kolk says that trauma victims can lose their sense of self because their brains change. He calls it “a tragic adaptation: In an effort to shut off terrifying sensations, they also deadened their capacity to feel fully alive.”
I’d been away the first semester of my junior year. What had happened to me took place in the four-week surreal “winter term” that separated fall and spring semesters. That spring semester, the one during which I read Ovid, is mostly blacked out in my memory. I can remember track practice and track meets, my room, my roommate, and a few other things. The rest is gone.
All of my close friends were abroad that spring. When they returned in the fall, my psyche had iced over, and my apparition, childish, entertained them. Beneath that fragile surface, what I’d experienced sunk to unfathomable depths.
I can’t put much of this into words—when my friends returned from their time away, my world was restored, as if the recent past had been only theater, nothing real. Our common past and mutual present were bookends, isolating a dark incident alone on a shelf.
Dr. van der Kolk says, “Trauma by nature drives us to the edge of comprehension, cutting us off from language based on common experience or an imaginable past.”
In graduate school, the final lines of a sonnet by Sidney would fascinate me: “I am not I; pitie the tale of me.”
I go to the infirmary because J, a friend from high school, drops by my dorm room. Returning from my semester away, I’ve been assigned a single on a hall where I know no one; in fact, few of my friends other than J are on campus. J and I check up on each other periodically. Because he’s a man, when he tells me I look awful, I believe him. Coughing and wheezing, pale, I can barely sit up in bed. J is appalled and orders me to the infirmary, offering to walk me there himself. I decline. I’m probably going to be fine.
The light in my room is bright and clear, as it has been for many days, the associated clarity of cold seeping through the large glass window along my bed. I’ve found these clarities confounding, and I do not think I’ve been to a meal in some time, but the number of days eludes me.
Time shape-shifts. I’ve lost track of weekday versus weekend. I remember the incident, but don’t remember what happened afterward. Did I fall asleep? Stay up all night? I remember it was dark. I know I left my room to go running one morning—but that’s the last thing I remember until J knocks.
Track. I’m on the track team, and, although only early January, it seems prudent to begin training immediately. It’s cold, but I grew up in Vermont. Surely I know how to dress for a high of 17 degrees plus wind chill: sweat pants with wind pants over them; a T-shirt, sweatshirt, windbreaker. I’ll be sure to wrap a scarf around my mouth to warm the air going into my lungs. I’ll wear a hat, which I despise. Do I run three miles or five? It will be too cold to stop and walk, so I’ll just run more slowly if I tire. I think this run through carefully.
I remember the dorm parking lot, flat and black, spaces cleared of snow. The snow cover is old, compressed, with the crisp crunch and squeak of Styrofoam. I run into the countryside on a lonely road without a shoulder. My scarf does little to warm me, but each breath is cold and cleansing until the piece of fabric over my mouth turns brittle with ice.
The kitchen seems very white in retrospect: white cabinets, white countertops, white sink. In contrast, the windows with their white mullions show black. C wipes down the shelves; I may have been drying dishes but am finished now. Perched on the table, X flirts with me and I laugh because that’s what I do when a man flirts with me. Men have fragile egos, or so I’ve been told. Best not to hurt their feelings.
After X leaves for his own house and housemates, C mocks my tone, my giggle, the entire charade, flipping the dishrag in disgust. Calmly, evenly, I point out that I’m not interested in X, nor he in me. “You like him,” I say, “and I think he likes you. Maybe you’re jealous.” C stops her pantomime, looks away, looks back at me, “You may be right. Maybe I am interested in him.”
The three of us are away from our home campuses for a semester program. We return to our regular college lives in January. C attends a college in Massachusetts; X and I are classmates at a college in Vermont.
C and I were roommates and we exchange letters afterward—those days-long deferred communications, pen marks on folded paper in an envelope. The voice- relay of telephone is as instant as we have, the phone attached by a cord to a wall. A stamp costs twenty-two cents; long-distance calls cost many times that, but per minute. C writes she will break up with X, something she’s been considering for a while. I don’t know if she plans to call him or write a letter.
I feel sad for X. He had been in love.
In January, I visit X on my way to my library shift. I plan to invite him to watch David Letterman with me later, so we can talk about C. She’s given him the news, I think, and I’m worried about him despite the fact he brims with self- confidence, which I suspect is all bravado.
As I walk down the hall toward X’s closed door, I can hear music playing—some kind of loud rock with which I’m unfamiliar and don’t much like. I knock and he invites me in, joking, flirting. He doesn’t seem down. I remember how spartan his room looked, dominated by the two huge speakers of his stereo system and a patterned cloth that looks tiny on the wall.
While we were, I thought, joking around—about what, I don’t remember—he flips me backward and down on his bed for a moment. I’m still smiling from our banter (banter: an effort at continuity arising from an unstable subtext) and I continue to smile because I don’t want to be rude, but his hands press very hard against my wrists. I ask him to let me go and he does.
That’s an etiquette sequence: an expression of discomfort yields release and/or apology. Sequences may be predicated on expectation, knowing what to do next in a recipe, for example.
I leave for my shift at the library. We’ll meet later for Letterman.
Sonnet sequences, a staple of Renaissance literature, tend to bury or embed the predications of their ordering. I came to enjoy decoding these rationales, a delight in a surprise. For example:
1. Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti number 89 sonnets, connected to verses in The Book of Common Prayer and the calendar events of the year before his marriage to Elizabeth Boyle.
2. The sonnets of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella total 108, the number of suitors Penelope had in The Odyssey. It’s a pun: Sidney was in love with Penelope Devereux.
Spenser and Sidney are the stars of their respective works, of course, their loves a mere occasion for wit.
In 1985, David Letterman is a huge star of late-night television. He was famous for his top ten lists, always in reverse order, ten to one. His methodology was surprise, sequence merely a convention.
Recently, I claimed To the Lighthouse was the most calming book about upsetting things, such as time, existence, and eternity. It’s because of Mrs. Ramsay.
When I first read the novel, I was drawn to the image of Mr. Ramsay thinking his way from Q to R and, possibly, beyond them to philosophical nirvana. He wanted to succeed, to win, and I wanted that, too, then. The alphabet as an analogy to academic progression seemed right because it was orderly. I thrived on achievement.
Achievement got me through, my left brain, the hemisphere connected to logical thought. The right brain is the seat of the emotions. In the imaging studies of Dr. van der Kolk, his “scans clearly showed that images of past trauma activate the right hemisphere of the brain and deactivate the left.”
I had learned to compensate and dissociate: My intellectual self had triumphed over my emotional being. I would win a big fellowship to attend graduate school, only to find that my right brain lit up over and over again during my first year. My Columbia dorm room was in the same shoebox style as that undergraduate room, and I oriented the bed in the most logical way: the long side of the bed against the short wall at the back, all in an effort to make the room feel larger.
It would be more than a decade before I understood how my right brain had undermined me during that first year.
These days, when I read To the Lighthouse, I am drawn to Mrs. Ramsay, whose function in the novel is pure emotional being. Early on, Woolf writes, “She often felt she was nothing but a sponge sopped full of human emotions.” The passage from my high school diary comes from Mrs. Ramsay’s stream of consciousness: “Our apparitions, the things you know us by, are simply childish. Beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by.”
While I was in graduate school, my parents gave me a cat. I named her Mrs. Ramsay—a cat seemed a fine repository for unstated emotion, with her mammalian snuggling and purring. Nothing verbal.
Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay lives to serve the needs of others. She has eight children and constant houseguests. I couldn’t appreciate her need to be alone until I had become a mother myself:
It was a relief when they went to bed. For now she need not think about any- body. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of—to think; well, not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.
It startles me that Mrs. Ramsay could find invisibility comforting, a nothingness, a darkness. But as she says, “this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.” That’s how I often felt, as a young mother, that something lived within me that needed release.
Mrs. Ramsay sensed adventure in “losing personality,” in being a “core of darkness [that] could go anywhere, for no one saw it.” A wordless escape. Mrs. Ramsay stays up late into the night.
She waited for the moment “when things came together in this peace, this rest, this eternity; and pausing there she looked out to meet the stroke of the Lighthouse.” One could read this as Woolf acknowledging her own depression and her eventual suicide. That’s too easy.
The beam of the lighthouse marks the transitional moment between dark and light. That is what you see us by. Woolf wanted to be seen.
Unfathomably deep. The moment between waking and sleep, or reality and dreams. My insomnia returned during graduate school. How hard it is to let go, to fall asleep.
Between M and N, the alphabet divides neatly in half: Thirteen and thirteen, two unlucky numbers unless combined. Say Mrs. Ramsay is the emotional brain, and Mr. Ramsay the logical brain, and now we’re on a familiar thematic path Woolf treads in A Room of One’s Own. Shakespeare, Woolf declared, had the perfect brain, a fusion of male and female affects.
O follows N, the word “no” embedded in the alphabet itself (the only word therein), a primeval command. M is a purr, a murmur, an OM of feline emotion wavering through the universe. My cat as I stroked her fur.
First comes emotion, then comes “no,” one of three words to which my brain had access during the incident. The others were “stop” and “please.”
In his push to move beyond Q to R, Mr. Ramsay’s logical brain snags upon his emotions, “Here, stopping for one moment by the stone urn which held the geraniums, he saw, but now far, far away, like children picking up shells, divinely innocent and occupied with little trifles at their feet and somehow entirely defenseless against a doom which he perceived, his wife and son, together, in the window.”
Those children on the shore remind me of a passage in Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”:
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.
Woolf was fascinated by water, and by waves. She surely knew this poem. Everyone did: Wordsworth was poet laureate of England from 1843 to 1850. Woolf was born in 1882.
Wordsworth writes of a lost world, and so does Woolf. World War I is the central omission of all of Woolf’s work, written around, but never truly discussed, the public trauma of her era. The OM, an absence of words, in precarious balance with a NO.
These days, I spend January creating order: one year I reorganized my kitchen, pulling all the dishes, silverware, cooking pots, and utensils from their casually designated repositories and, with the choreography of meal preparation and family use in mind, re-shelved all. For some time, my muscle memory had me reaching for the wrong cupboard or switching tracks as I traversed the floor, but my mind and body eventually forgot the old habits and settled into new rhythms.
Everything I’ve represented here about the incident is out of order. Alphabets have order. Bodies do and they don’t. Minds pretend to order, and I can pretend to order with the mimesis of rearranging my things. The alphabet only yields language when its letters are taken out of order and mixed together, duplicated, deleted. Every word is a small chaos pretending to sense.
“Without sequencing,” writes Dr. van der Kolk, “we can’t identify cause and effect, grasp the long-term effects of our actions, or create coherent plans for the future.” Without logic, the emotions have no script.
I once wrote, “Human beings might be the art of chaos.” Yes. Dr. van der Kolk also says, “The imprints of traumatic experiences are organized not as coherent logical narratives but in fragmented sensory and emotional traces: images, sounds, and physical sensations.”
Something happened to me. An incident. I knew it as a violation, as sure as I am born. And yet I had no word or phrase for it, so it lacked communicative reality. All I could say was, “stop” alternated with “please stop” and “no.” My words shrunk to a reptilian part of my brain.
I reorganized my being, stripped myself to my essential core. A little wedge of darkness. But that core could go anywhere, “her horizon seemed to her limitless.” Some part of me survived. Something illogical.
During my senior year in college, I wrote ekphrastic poems, including this one:
Chemin Sous Bois, En Été
In this painting Pissarro obscures the sky,
Filling it with enormous trees and bushes,
Barely leaving room for the pale, gold path
Splashed with light, that wanders
To the forest’s heart. Two men and a pony
Stand in a pool of sun, just as the path
Bends. The two turn, invitingly, beckon your eye
To follow them into the green-gold vegetation,
Where trees and bushes blend and the leaves thicken
And rustle, fluttering like thousands of birds.
Their faces are blurred, with the vague sense
Of connaissance about them that figures have in dreams.
They pause as if they know you want to travel
With them, to penetrate the whispering forest,
The leaves drawing together behind you
When you pass, holding you in a green cocoon—
As if, sleepless, you might rest without dreams.
“Just as the path / Bends.” I was quite taken by that enjambment at the time, as it reifies the turn of this path, or chemin, and the slippage of what is real and what is dream or illusion becomes the poem’s bedrock. Many of the poems in my thesis were like that: reality vs. dream, and the use of elemental images such as sun, sky, trees, water, earth that appear to symbolize relationships between men and women, people and nature, and so on and so forth.
Paths more often fork than bend, but, in the painting, this one takes an invisible route to the left. A fork signals choice; a bend, fate or coercion. The sky here, obscured, a male icon in my little system, with physical counterparts on the path—inviting. Shy, I’m always looking to a man for the signal. The initiation. How can leaves thicken? Perhaps it’s not strictly visual, but synesthetic, a bodily effect, an arousal. The birds, of course, signal anxiety, the point before fight or flight. Which is it? Arousal, fight, flight?
The last eighteen months of college are characterized by my insomnia, which strikes several times a week. I beg the doctor at the infirmary for sleeping pills so often that he eventually refuses to prescribe them. Then, stoic, I suffer in silence, awake.
Fifteen years later, I revise the poem:
The dream runs like this: two men and a pony
stand in a pool of sun just as the path
bends. The two turn, invitingly, beckon me
to follow them into the green-gold vegetation,
where trees and bushes blend and the leaves thicken
and rustle, fluttering like thousands of birds.
Their faces are blurred, with that sense
of recognition about them that figures have in dreams.
They pause as if they know I want to travel with them
to penetrate the whispering forest, the leaves
drawing together behind us as we pass.
I am thrilled with fear—I have never been
to this forest, never traveled with strangers.
How do you know me? I ask.
O my dear, they say in unison, you are so sweet.
The new stanza mocks my younger self, but I don’t really get that, nor do my readers. They want more characterization, more motivation, but the ending’s only there because the words felt right to me.
This year, in my women’s book group, we read The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker, a retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of Briseis. Sexual violence was encoded in both Trojan and Greek societies, a frightening expectation of life in wartime.
Our discussion opened to recent experiences in the news, as well as our own. I was hesitant to admit what had happened to me. It wasn’t until a couple of close friends followed me into the kitchen that I made my admission.
I ended up making it twice, to two different women in the privacy of my home. I explained all that had happened that night, in part, to assure them that I was, indeed, entitled to use the word I had chosen to describe it, the word that fit.
They believed me, of course. But the first question of each party, asked separately, was, “So what happened the next day?”
I was unprepared for that question. It had never occurred to me anyone would ask that.
In both instances, I was interrupted by something else before I could answer. Still, I can’t answer that. There wasn’t any “next day” because that assumes a condition of continuity. It was a discontinuous situation. Someone I knew had been transformed into someone I didn’t know. Why would I approach him? Why would he approach me?
We had changed, changed utterly.
Of course I remember what happened to me. “Indelible in the hippocampus” are the images and their linked sensations, the words I said, the words he used. The pressure and the pain.
But no one wants to hear this part. No one wants those words. No one likes to say or hear the word that signifies what happened, a four-letter word that can also be represented as “reap” or “pear” or “pare.”
I turn to Dr. van der Kolk: “Nobody wants to remember trauma. In that regard society is no different from the victims themselves. We all want to live in a world that is safe, manageable, and predictable, and victims remind us that this is not always the case.”
It’s preferable to think of such incidents in a criminal, rather than an experiential context. Therefore, one proves to others that what happened matches the intent, circumstances, and evidence of what the law defines as transgression.
It’s complicated: the very definition of horror, to which we are drawn and from which we turn away. The concept becomes a shape-shifter: Did it really happen? Or not? Who decides?
I say that what happened to me meets all the criteria. And that’s enough.
Dr. van der Kolk writes a lot about “inescapable shock,” which creates a sense of “learned helplessness.” The research, not his, was done by locking dogs in cages and administering repeated electrical shocks.
After administering several courses of electric shock, the researchers opened the doors of the cages and then shocked the dogs again. A group of control dogs who had never been shocked before immediately ran away, but the dogs who had earlier been subjected to inescapable shock made no attempt to flee, even when the door was wide open—they just lay there, whimpering and defecating. The mere opportunity to escape does not necessarily make traumatized animals, or people, take the road to freedom. Like Maier and Seligman’s dogs, many traumatized people simply give up. Rather than risk experimenting with new options they stay stuck in the fear they know.
Reading this, I am horrified—for the dogs and for myself. When I am triggered, I feel hands pressing down on my wrists, as though my arms are over my head.
Why didn’t I scream? Did I fight back hard enough? The attack was an electric shock, just as if administered to an animal.
The original epigraph of my poem, “Chemin Sous Bois, en Été,” was from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which is a very long work. I hadn’t read all of it— just “The Death of Arthur.”
I had chosen a very long excerpt, spoken by Sir Bedivere, who has been charged with committing Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake, a return of the phallus of power to inchoate depths.
None of my professors understood what King Arthur had to do with Pissarro, and yet I stuck with my choice:
Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere:
“Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
But now the whole Round Table is dissolved
Which was an image of the mighty world,
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds.”
My epigraph was almost as long as my poem. I think, now, that I wanted to reify my own poem—a poem of sensations, of nuance, of an unconscious connaissance—as one of noble words, of savoir, of words that are good enough. Famous, in fact.
Manguso says that accepting language as insufficiently nuanced is “the starting point of using it to capacity. Of increasing capacity.” Instead of doing so, I wanted to hide within another’s coat of armor.
The words of the long epigraph that made the cut? “Whither shall I go? / Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?”
In Woolf’s writing, including To the Lighthouse, World War I always represents an omission. She writes around it, not of it.
In fact, it seems she cannot bear to relive the trauma of another great war, so in March of 1941, the darkest days of World War II for Great Britain, before the United States is drawn in by the events of that December, Woolf fills her coat pockets with rocks and walks into the River Ouse.
Or at least, this is how Woolf’s decision to kill herself was presented to me during college. No one mentions that she was the victim of childhood sexual abuse. It’s the late 1980s; no one wants to discuss that horror, although the details of war are part of our curriculum.
I don’t want this to happen to me. I’ve pushed my trauma deep inside and can manage my own dissociation. “Dissociation,” says my therapist, “is the trauma survivor’s best friend.” It’s how I survive.
I will not fill my pockets with rocks so that now and again, whoever “I” am may rise to the surface. Or if not I, the fucking Lady of the Lake may break through.
The pool of Cyane was violated, and Pluto, the death lord, drove Spring down to Hades. Because she ate six pomegranate seeds during her abduction to Hell, Proserpina is fated to live six months below ground, and six months above.
Pluto’s violation of Proserpina ensures us winter, while her release—a sort of probation—gives us spring and summer.
Cyane plays a minor role in Proserpina’s story, and yet it is with her sorrow that I most identify. Cyane flings out her arms, a slender defense against Pluto’s lust and says:
No farther shall you go! Ceres shall have
No son against her will; Proserpina
Should have been asked, not taken. If I may
Compare small acts with great ones, Anapis loved me,
And I became his bride, but at least he asked me,
He did not force or frighten me into wedlock.
Cyane speaks the truth of this episode, and, of course, she is completely ignored by the gods. It is Proserpina’s mother, Ceres, goddess of the harvest, who argues on her daughter’s behalf before them. Jove claims Pluto was in love and should not be shamed. Of course.
Ceres, though, raises the prospect of vengeance: if her daughter is not returned, men will no longer reap. In English, that’s a damning pun, a rearrangement of letters forming a bargain, a balance between violence and prosperity.
Cyane’s protective gesture—her arms extended as if in an embrace—proves her, to me at least, the true mother, as if she whisked a cape valiantly in front of death.
Throughout the first chapter of To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay wraps about her a green shawl. As she puts the younger children to bed after dinner, one child is afraid of an antelope skull nailed to the wall, a souvenir from one of their house guests. She wraps the green shawl about the skull, obscuring it from view.
And so the shawl remains, ten years after her death, until Lily, Mr. Ramsay, the children, and their guests return to the house in the Hebrides after World War I has ended.
Beneath Proserpina’s green, always, a skull.
To the Lighthouse consists of three parts: “The Window,” “Time Passes,” and “The Lighthouse.” Throughout “The Window,” Mrs. Ramsay’s wordless emotional depths are parried against Mr. Ramsay’s philosophical pronouncements and import.
The eponymous window is that through which Mrs. Ramsay looks toward the sea, the lighthouse, the weather. Section eleven of “The Window” means the most to me, from which came my diary quote, and in which Mrs. Ramsay finds a little tranquility from the life of the household, to look out the frame of glass at the lighthouse beam, “the steady light, the pitiless, the remorseless,” searching for words to verbalize her emotions.
Wordsworth had a point, strong emotions must be recollected in tranquility (Lyrical Ballads, preface, 1801):
I have said that Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.
Wordsworth’s primary objective is to break both the hold of received philosophy and that of ornate language that had long held sway in educated circles. These arguments, whether poetry is a part of philosophy or whether it is merely ornate rhetoric, have a long and circuitous backward path through the English and
Continental poets to the Classical writers of Ancient Greece and Rome, finding their origin in the teachings of Plato versus those of Aristotle. Plato calls poetry an emotional vice; Aristotle claims it is something more.
None of this matters, except to point out that by the time Poets vs. Philosophers, round 11,684, reaches Wordsworth, he must dutifully argue against the trope of the feminizing poetaster—and in his preface, he will tell us that it is, in fact, okay these days to use plain language, that of men speaking to men.
So he balances an intention to access one’s emotional side with a claim that one’s rational side must somehow prevail: Poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility. One must separate from the emotions that aroused the passions and wait until the time has come for the rational brain to process them. So that’s the way men speak to other men, rationally about emotion.
Woolf is in dialogue with Mrs. Ramsay as she writes, Woolf’s words bringing shape and contour to her character’s feelings. There is something in those unfathomable depths to be said; however, the only phrases Mrs. Ramsay can retrieve to say out loud are, “Children don’t forget”; “It will come”; “It will end”; and “We are in the hands of the Lord.”
Women talking to women? Woolf’s sentences are rushes of language, only lightly constrained by grammar and syntactical norms. An ongoing stream that might be emotion in action.
Dr. van der Kolk says, “No matter how much insight and understanding we develop, the rational brain is basically impotent to talk the emotional brain out of its own reality.”
If the wellspring of art is emotion, as Wordsworth purports to argue, art knows no boundaries; therefore, it is the duty of writers and critics to set parameters for its expression. When Pound and Eliot began using free verse in the early twentieth century, they faced reprisal over the loosening of expected restrictions, as though writing in a mode less constrained by the rules of meter and rhyme might also allow women to loosen their corsets and burn their bras.
Over the last fifty or sixty years, poetry is often used as a therapy for trauma, which truly bothers those writers for whom it is a vocation. As soon as Mrs. Ramsay says, “We are in the hands of the Lord,” she rejects it: “She had been trapped into saying something she did not mean.”
I have strenuously resisted with my own therapists the idea that my work can be reduced to the personal issues of my own recovery.
Trauma is endlessly femininized and shunned. And yet emotion recollected remains the foundation of the written arts since Wordsworth opened the window to a new and exciting way of making art.
Poetry survives, wrote Auden, “a way of happening, a mouth,” no matter how we attempt to channel it.
I will write. I will write of the incident, and I will be shamed for it. I will write of other things as well. I will find what words I can, stretching my capacity to the breaking point.
I don’t know what the key to trauma recovery might be. After reading The Body Keeps the Score, I’ve come to understand that I must reintegrate my mind and body.
Taking a mindfulness-based stress reduction course, I realized the following: I had to work hard to feel my body below my neck. I had to focus. I frequently feel as though my throat is clenched, as though my body seeks to protect me from speaking out. It is much easier for me to put my thoughts in writing.
The only time I feel fully embodied, feel the cross-hatch click between mind and body? When I’m running for exercise. I never wear headphones when I run; I’ve never enjoyed that. I don’t want my focus on my body broken—I want to keep my brain cycling through my body mechanics, the placement of my feet, the lift of my knees, the gradual feeling of fatigue in one muscle group and how I can use others to relieve some of the strain.
Running makes me feel alive, integrated, the one time in my day the soundtrack of my emotions finally recedes: This self having shed its attachments is free for the strangest adventures.
Over time, I have had an urge to speak, to put words to my experience. But I reject putting a label to what happened because that word, ironically, would shift the context of my experience from something both moral and profound to a matter to be litigated. A judge might try to alter what I know.
The last novel published by Woolf in her lifetime was The Years (1937). The summer after I graduated from college, I read all of her novels in the order in which they were published. The first is The Voyage Out (1915).
That motif, travel (forward) and retrospection (backward), makes sense of myself. One of Dr. van der Kolk’s patients says, “I want to tell you what a flashback is like: it is as if time is folded or warped, so that the past and present merge.”
There are three strokes to the lighthouse beam: “The long steady stroke, the last of the three,” belongs to Mrs. Ramsay, she says. Always.
Over the years that ensue for me, a memory from the very closing of my college days, the way a lighthouse sits at the end of land (finisterre it’s called), rotates like a beacon: a kiss. That stroke of light is mine.
One autumn evening, an acquaintance, A, strides up to the library’s circulation desk, where I work. He has been away, and he holds a copy of last year’s literary magazine in one hand. “I like your poem,” he says. A’s unexpected boost to my ego fills me with delight and relief. We become friends, but romantic thoughts never cross my mind. They rarely do.
Some nights at the library, I’m the closer, which simply means I walk through every level of the building just before it shuts for the night, waking sleeping students, shutting windows, turning lights out. I carry a ring of keys for various offices. A finds me just as I’m leaving for my rounds. He wants theft-detection strips for a prank. It’s April, so close to graduation, I figure why not?
So I take him into the office where they’re kept on a high shelf. While I’m reaching for the box, A steps close to my turned back and says my name. I turn, and he kisses me, which is just a reductive label: a momentary charge of physical closeness, a gut-honest eye contact with a hesitancy that asks permission, my own returned gaze instead of looking away. Then gentle hands to my face and parted lips on my own.
To say “he kissed me” elides so much, as if all the tiny requests and acknowledgments can be glossed over. As if a kiss assumes a willing subject, always. As if any of us could ignore the fact that a sequence of willing gestures and signals stands in for words.
Abduction, violation, transformation. I was wrong. There’s no sequence. Only a break, if it occurs, between OM and NO. As the alphabet runs through its letters, the only recognizable word is “no.”
A’s kiss lights up my spine. I never knew knees could go weak; I never knew my limbs could feel like water.
Like Cyane, I melt into the pool, willing, this an alternate ending to the last time a man kissed me after my closing shift. Throughout my life, I will bring this moment back whenever I am afraid to fall asleep. It always comes, even though A is long gone.
To the Lighthouse, no matter its circular and repetitive themes, must conform to the linear act of reading, an end. Mr. Ramsay must reach Z, which has become, to him, the lighthouse. Lily Briscoe must put the final stroke on her painting.
C and I are on a train, deep in conversation. Several years have passed since we last saw each other; we have each graduated from our respective colleges. I’ve never told her what X did to me.
I don’t remember where we’re going or why, but we’ll get off at the same stop. I can feel, even now, the rocking of the train as it edged along, slowed, stopped, and the way it geared up again with a jerk.
C was one of those people who never had a filter, and I’d been awed by the reception her blunt honesty typically received: Acceptance. I knew instinctively my own honesty would not have the same capacity. But C had a way of moving through the world unassaulted.
During the time we were roommates, I remember her describing how she’d relax at home (when alone) by walking the rooms of her family’s apartment dressed only in panties. She liked to feel the city’s breeze from the open windows. Her boldness impressed me, and I imagined her prowling unobserved several flights up, the noise of traffic distant below.
Riding the train now, she turns in her seat to face me. You know, she says, her voice pitched light with dawning revelation, back then, I didn’t respect you.
I am mortified, paralyzed, my feet rooted and limbs numbing.
You didn’t respect yourself, she says with cat-like suddenness. A pause and she concludes with satisfaction, But now you do.
I want to slap her, hard. Instead, I smile and force out, Oh, thank you.
Auden, W. H. “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” In Selected Poems: New Edition. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
Manguso, Sarah. 300 Arguments. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2017.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1955.
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. Evans, Levin, Baker, Barton, Kermode, Smith, Edel, Shattuck. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.
Sidney, Sir Philip. “Astrophil and Stella.” In English Sixteenth-Century Verse: An Anthology. Ed. Richard S. Sylvester. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1974.
Spenser, Edmund. “The Amoretti.” In The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser. Ed. Oram, Bjorvand, Bond, Cain, Dunlop, Schell. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.
Tennyson, Lord Alfred. “The Passing of Arthur.” In The Norton Anthology of English Literature (5th ed.): The Major Authors. M. H. Abrams, general editor. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1962.
Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Penguin Books, 2015.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955.
Wordsworth, William. “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” and “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” In The Norton Anthology of English Literature (5th ed.): The Major Authors. M. H. Abrams, general editor. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1962.