Pain is something I know a lot about. I spend my days attempting to ignore the searing ache inside of me that threatens the regularity of the life I have carefully cultivated for myself and my nights dreaming, dreaming terrible things that evoke the worst of what I can imagine and cannot stifle in my slumber. I think what drew me in so conclusively into the work of Lidia Yuknavitch is that she is a woman who understands what it’s like to be irrevocably hurt and moreover, to have be forced live with it. See, for some of us, death is an escape of the highest degree, an escape from conflict and heartache and despair but for some reason, it refuses to come. In the last two days, I read both “The Chronology of Water” and “The Small Backs of Children” by Lidia Yuknavitch and I feel like something inside of me has changed. I feel understood and fulfilled in a strange way although compared to Yuknavitch, I’m nothing more than a soft, spoiled little girl.
“The Chronology of Water” is an autobiography of sorts but “The Small Backs of Children” is similarly memoir-like at times. There are recurring events in the two works, a stillborn child, malignant yet occasionally ambiguous abuse, and most of all, the sense that everything is roundabout and comes back to haunt us in the end of things if it isn’t adequately addressed and put down. I think the two books ought to be read like I read them, in quick succession so that when attempting to write about them, I can’t keep them straight without the notes that I meticulously took. In a 2015 interview with the Rumpus, Yuknavitch said,
““I think our identities—the ones we live in the real world—are really made partly from stories that we build up around ourselves—necessary fictions—so that we can bear the weight of our own lives. We like to call these “truths” or “facts” or “selves,” but I maintain that they are fictions. Fictions for instance called “mother” or “wife” or “lover” or “teacher” or “writer.”
I think we understand our own life experiences in narrative terms. If you consider that idea for a moment, we are walking novels. No one has a pure identity. Everyone has an identity made from everyone they’ve ever known and loved or hated, and from every experience they could process and withstand, happy or sad, arranged in memories, otherwise known as stories.”
In other words, the line between fiction and supposed reality is thin in her works, and as the reader, I’m not precisely sure where it’s drawn but I don’t think it matters. I personally keep telling my own personal story as I go along, I write in my diary, in my blog, in my mind and it keeps me sane and I prove to myself that it once was and could be once again.
But as for her writing itself, Yuknavitch is a revelation. The details of her life are strewn about her books but at the same time, the specifics are far less important than the messages that they convey. Despite the lurid nature of the life she led, promiscuity and drug use and alcoholism, there’s something grounded about her, perhaps because she’s looking back upon it as an established writer and mother rather than telling the story as it happened. I’m obsessed with her prose, with the way she words things because she writes as I wish that I could. There’s no sense of cloying self-pity in the most horrifying of events she recounts, there’s no condemnation of either herself or those who have hurt her; she writes with simple candor but maintains a distinct sense of privacy. It was as if she was saying to the reader, “I am inviting you into the depths of my mind but there’s a line and you may not cross it.” She especially isn’t explicit about her father’s abuse, which I found interesting because she was direct and unvarnished about so much else but as I said, it seems as if there was a line and I respect her for maintaining it.
To simplify it greatly, “Water” is a memoir about swimming, more accurately about drowning and the ways in which we prevent ourselves from doing so, drugs, alcohol, men, and everything in between. I would go as far to regard it as the ultimate novel of the wounded woman. I hate the concept of being post-wounded like the girls of Girls as Leslie Jamison detailed in her now classic essay “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” and I’m not good at being that woman. I’m too fragile, too breakable, too inclined to crumble not because I’m weak but because lying to myself about who I am has never done me well. My story is not as long or as intense as Yuknavitch’s but I’m only 21 and thankfully, I have the family and medical support she so desperately lacked.
The last few months, I’ve been having a recurring dream. I am married to the person whom I love, we’re beautiful and successful and after a saga of not being okay in so many ways, I am finally okay. But the image that keeps on repeating itself in my mind, as if it’s a broken film, is of me kneeling at my oldest son’s hospital bed; he’s dying, sometimes from a car accident, sometimes from a premature heart attack, sometimes from a drug overdose, but at the end of the story, he always dies. In some versions of the dream, he has a baby sister, other times, he’s a golden only child but always, he doesn’t deserve to die even if his parents deserve to be punished for the way they’ve hurt others in order to come together. My husband is watching my vigil, and he’s looking at me not as if he blames me for our son’s condition but as if I should have warned him in the first place that I bring about death in this manner. The picture I’m painting in my headspace is technically beautiful and for some reason, I’m fixated on this element of it, the colors I see in my head, the light blue crispness of the hospital room, the red of the shirt I am wearing, the dark of my husband’s eyes. I don’t think my husband stops loving me even if he believes I ought to have warned him about who I am but as Yuknavitch says, “Sometimes it’s difficult to tell rage from love.” I kept on thinking about this dream when I was reading these books because I’m so fundamentally afraid that I’m going to bring about pain to those I love wherever I go because of the nature of my past, because of my history of violence against myself.
“The Small Backs of Children” is a sister to “The Chronology of Water” but different in a way, so perhaps more of a half-sister. It’s structured around a small Eastern European girl in the depths of warfare and it’s a survival story like no other, about eking out a life when everything is going against you and refusing to abandon hope since the body refuses to give up long after the mind has done so. Yuknavitch writes the novel is a reflection of the self and I grow to think, who is the narrator of the novel at hand? Is it Yuknavitch herself, or the unnamed writer, are they the same person, and does it really matter? My favorite passage in the novel is one of self-reflection of the highest degree.
“Who are we in moments of crisis or despair? Do we become deeper, truer selves, or lift up and away from a self, untethered from regular meanings like moths suddenly drawn toward heat or light? Are we better people when someone might be dying, and if so, why? Are we weaker, or stronger? Are we beautiful, or abject? Serious, or cartoon? Do we secretly long for death to remind us we are alive?”
I believe that we ought to constantly be checking ourselves before we wreck ourselves, to resort to a cliché. My personal favorite line in the entire novel is that last question, “Do we secretly long for death to remind us we are alive?”
I appreciated that Yukavitch was similarly fixated on the concept of death because it made me feel less weird, like I was actually human rather than some distinct aberration from normality. My mother once upon a time, in the words of Taylor Swift, accused me of losing my mind because I lost the will to live when I was barely 17 years old. I sort of like to think that I was too human in a world that preferred robots, more content, more inclined to settle and to not question the status quo because that’s a better perspective than believing I was simply too weak to take it. Yuknavitch says that perhaps it’s an internal desire of all those who can hold life in them to end it, but I can’t help but ask, why am I subjected to it more than others? There are women who don’t feel this way, I know there must be. Was I terrible in a past life? Am I terrible in a way I don’t understand in this one? It doesn’t seem to be fair. Maybe I got it from my parents the way Yuknavitch got it from her mother.
“I didn’t know how wanting to die could be a bloodsong in your body that lives with you your whole life. I didn’t know then how deeply my mother’s song had swum into my sister and into me. I didn’t know that something like wanting to die could take form in one daughter as the ability to quietly surrender, and in the other as the ability to drive into death head-on. I didn’t know we were our mother’s daughters after all.”
I love my parents deeply and without major complications but I sometimes hate them for the mind I inherited from them. I feel overwrought, too much of a person yet simultaneously too little for this world we live in. Something in my head seems to be missing and I don’t know where I’m supposed to find it.
Lastly, Yuknavitch is writing about love. Like Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts,” Yuknavitch writes about real love, true love that highly diverges from the two person nuclear family and rightly so. I think about the love in my life, the love that I have experienced, and I believe it’s true, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” Love is wild. It consumes, it devours, it takes apart and puts back together in quick succession and we don’t have any control whatsoever over it. I’ve been in love and it scares me. I become a person I don’t know and don’t particularly like when I’m in love, volatile at best and destructive at worst, most of all to myself, so I’ve resolved to avoid it to protect myself. But I want to write, I want to create art and I ask, does love make art?
Sandra Cisneros once said, “I want to make art beyond rage” and well, I want to make art beyond my pain. There has to be more to me than what I have gone through, than how I’ve been hurt and how I’ve hurt others and I refuse to believe that isn’t the case. I always have acrylic nails these days because I haven’t been able to shake the habit of biting my nails and currently, the nail on my right pointer finger has broken off. I bite that particular nail down to the skin as I write this, and I can see it bleeding but I can’t stop. Perhaps we’re all addicted to pain, obsessive about writing it down in order to validate it, to prove that it’s both real and worthy of being observed. Or maybe that’s just me and there’s something irrevocably wrong with me. I don’t think I’m ever going to know for sure.