26 July 2005

Susan Griffin

John D'Agata edited an anthology called The Next American Essay that contains an essay called "Red Shoes" by Susan Griffin. You may remember me enthusing about it a couple years ago. Browsing the shelves of the Southern Pines Public Library, I ran across a book by Griffin. Far be it from me to try to categorize it. What Her Body Thought: A Journey into the Shadows is the title.

Griffin discusses her illness: CFIDS, aka chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome. She also recounts the history of one Alphonsine Plessis, aka Marie Duplessis, aka La dame aux camelias in the novel by Dumas fils, Violetta in La Traviata by Verdi, Greta Garbo in Camille. Griffin talks of her illness in the context of twentieth century attitudes toward psychosomatic, sexual, and otherwise suspicious illnesses. She talks about her illness in the context of society's illness, as she sees it. She intersperses prose segments with prose poem segments. She is as bold as they come.

The book is not perfect by any means. I was, nonetheless, captivated. I highly recommend it, particularly if by any means you feel you are trying to tell your story.

A few quotations from the text:

My story is immersed in the body. And it is also right that I should be in this city [Paris]. The story I will tell alongside my own was set here. . . . the body of the city has entered me.

I am still afraid . . . move toward rather than away from a terrain of suffering . . . Something else, still molten, remains to be discovered

just underneath this shame there must be a very old sadness

The sense of an earlier innocence and of betrayal redeems the shame.

shame in my eyes . . . felt by children whose needs are not met, as if to want or to need is an embarrassment that cannot be controlled

she climbed into the bed and, taking my head on her lap, began to stroke my back, up and down my spine, where the pain was worst. . . . with her touch I could bear it [the pain]

a state of self-love

a new awareness of an exhausting anxiety I carry with me, as if without continual vigilance I will not survive

in the nineteenth century . . . Pope Leo XII forbade the use of condoms because they might prevent sexual contagion and thus interfere with God’s efforts to punish sinners by “striking them in the member” that sinned . . . Mother Teresa . . . did instruct her staff to withhold pain medication from men dying of AIDS so that through suffering they might repent.

As I try to imagine the sale [of Alphonsine child to an old man, sex for money], a kind of effacement occurs. The truth of bodily desire and response, so close to the core of my self, become an object of trade, a commodity in my father’s hands. My life no longer the value but instead commanding value. The fondling, kisses, penetration of the man who bought me setting me steadily at a distance from the authority of my own being. [my emphasis] Later, I would have to think I chose this fate.

Is this why I experience the suggestion that my mind has made my body sick with a dense, almost viscous shame? . . . sex is somehow central to the prejudice.

Conscious memory causes illness . . . not denial but vigilance that made me ill.

I have become accustomed to living as if perpetually on the edge of loss. [CP: makes me think of Elizabeth Bishop]

my mother would draw away as we embraced . . . When one is left alone, vulnerable, weak, filled with trepidation and pain, a process of reasonoing begins. Neglect creates a physical sense of being bad that will be seared into the memory of flesh. And from this memory the body asks a question: Why? The answer, of course, is inevitable. The sense I had in my body was of a fundamental wrongness, an essential, unalterable part of the crystalline structure of my being, inseparable from any illness I had, a vortex condemning me to pain and rejection, suffering the cause of suffering.

For any character to be true to life and in any way compelling, the author must capture not only the wound but resistance to the wound.

without care you will perish

the feeling I carried from my childhood that I was the errant one, the one who failed, the one who was wrong to desire [my emphasis]

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