We see these wounded women everywhere:
Miss Havisham wears her wedding dress until it burns. The bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress. Belinda’s hair gets cut—the sacred hair dissever[ed] / From the fair head, for ever, and for ever!—and then ascends to heaven: thy ravish’d hair / Which adds new glory to the shining sphere! Anna Karenina’s spurned love hurts so much she jumps in front of a train—freedom from one man was just another one, and then he didn’t even stick around. Mimì is dying in La Bohème and Rodolfo calls her beautiful as the dawn. You’ve mistaken the image, she tells him. You should have said “beautiful as a sunset.”
Women have gone pale all over Dracula. Mina is drained of her blood, then made complicit in the feast: His right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom … a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk. Maria in the mountains confesses her rape to an American soldier—things were done to me I fought until I could not see—then submits herself to his protection. No one has touched thee, little rabbit, he says. His touch purges every touch that came before it. She is another kitten under male hands.
How does it go, again? Freedom from one man is just another one. Maria gets her hair cut, too.
Sylvia Plath’s agony delivers her to a private Holocaust: An engine, an engine / Chuffing me off like a Jew. And her father’s ghost plays train conductor: Every woman adores a Fascist / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you. Every woman adores a Fascist, or else a guerilla killer of Fascists, or else a boot in the face from anyone. Blanche DuBois wears a dirty ball gown and depends on the kindness of strangers. The bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress. Men have raped her and gone gay on her and died on her. One of her final stage directions turns her luminescent: “She has a tragic radiance in her red satin robe following the sculptural lines of her body.” Her tragedy is radiant; it makes her body something sculpted.
The pain of women turns them into kittens and rabbits and sunsets and sordid red satin goddesses, pales them and bloodies them and starves them, delivers them to death camps and sends locks of their hair to the stars. Men put them on trains and under them. Violence turns them celestial. Age turns them old. We can’t look away. We can’t stop imagining new ways for them to hurt.
Susan Sontag has described the heyday of a “nihilistic and sentimental” nineteenth-century logic that found appeal in female suffering: “Sadness made one ‘interesting.’ It was a mark of refinement, of sensibility, to be sad. That is, to be powerless.” This appeal mapped largely onto illness: “Sadness and tuberculosis became synonymous,” she writes, and both were coveted. Sadness was interesting and sickness was its handmaiden, providing not only cause but also symptoms and metaphors: a wracking cough, a wan pallor, an emaciated body. “The melancholy character was a superior one: sensitive, creative, a being apart,” she writes. Sickness was “a becoming frailty … symbolized an appealing vulnerability, a superior sensitivity, [and] became more and more the ideal look for women.”
I was once called a wound-dweller. It was a boyfriend who called me that. I didn’t like how it sounded, and I’m still not over it. (It was a wound; I dwell.) I wrote to a friend: “I’ve got this double-edged shame and indignation about my bodily ills and ailments—jaw, punched nose, fast heart, broken foot etc etc etc. On the one hand, I’m like, Why does this shit happen to me? And on the other hand, I’m like, Why am I talking about this so much?”
I guess I’m talking about it because it happened. Which is the tricky flip side of Sontag’s critique. We may have turned the wounded woman into a kind of goddess, romanticized her illness and idealized her suffering, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t happen. Women still have wounds: broken hearts and broken bones and broken lungs. How do we talk about these wounds without glamorizing them? Without corroborating an old mythos that turns female trauma into celestial constellations worthy of worship?
The moment we start talking about wounded women, we risk transforming their suffering from an aspect of the female experience into an element of the female constitution—perhaps its finest, frailest consummation. The ancient Greek Menander once said: “Woman is a pain that never goes away.” He probably just meant women were trouble, but his words hold a more sinister suggestion: the possibility that being a woman requires being in pain, that pain is the unending glue and prerequisite of female consciousness.
A friend of mine once dreamed a car crash that left all the broken pieces of her Pontiac coated in bright orange pollen. “My analyst pushed and pushed for me to make sense of the image,”she wrote to me, “and finally, I blurted: ‘My wounds are fertile!’ And that has become one of the touchstones and rallying cries of my life.”
What’s fertile in a wound? Why dwell in one? Wounds promise authenticity and profundity, beauty and singularity, desirability. They summon sympathy. They bleed enough light to write by. They yield scars full of stories and slights that become rallying cries. They break upon the fuming fruits of damaged engines and dust these engines with color. And yet—beyond and beneath their fruits—they still hurt. The boons of a wound never get rid of it; they just bloom from it. It’s perilous to think of them as chosen. Perhaps a better phrase to use is wound appeal, which is to say: the ways a wound can seduce, how it promises what it rarely gives. My friend Harriet put it like this: “Pain that gets performed is still pain.”
So after all this, how can I tell you about my scars?
I’ve got a puckered white blister of tissue on my ankle where a doctor pulled out a maggot. I’ve got faint lines farther up, at the base of my leg, where I used to cut myself with a razor. I’ve got a nose that was broken by a guy on the street, but good money was paid so you can’t tell what he did. Now my nose just has a little seam where it was cut and pulled away from my face then stitched back together again. I have screws in my upper jaw that only dentists ever see in x-rays. The surgeon said metal detectors might start going off for me—he probably said at me though I heard for me, like the chiming of bells—but they never did; they never do. I have a patch of tissue near my aorta that sends electrical signals it shouldn’t. I had a terrible broken heart when I was twenty-two years old, and I wanted to wear a T-shirt announcing it to everyone. Instead, I got so drunk I fell in the middle of Sixth Avenue and scraped all the skin off my knee. Then you could see it, no T-shirt necessary—see something, that bloody bulb under torn jeans, though you couldn’t have known what it meant. I have the faint bruise of tire tracks on the arch of my foot from the time it got run over by a car. For a little while I had a scar on my upper arm, a lovely raised purple crescent, and one time a stranger asked me about it. I told him the truth: I’d accidentally knocked into a sheet tray at the bakery where I worked. The sheet tray was hot, I explained. Just out of the oven. The man shook his head. He said, “You gotta come up with a better story than that.”
A Google search for the phrase “I hate cutters” yields thousands of results, most of them from informal chat boards. There’s even a Facebook group called “I hate cutters”: This is for people who hate those emo kids who show off there cuts and thinks it is fun to cut them selves [sic]. Hating cutters crystallizes a broader disdain for pain that is understood as performed rather than legitimately felt. It’s usually cutters who are hated (wound-dwellers!), rather than simply the act of cutting itself. It’s the actual people who get dismissed, not just the verbs of what they’ve done. People say cutters are just doing it for the attention, but what’s that “just” about? A cry for attention is positioned as a crime, as if attention were inherently a selfish thing to want. But isn’t wanting attention one of the most fundamental traits of being human—and isn’t granting it one of the most important gifts we can ever give?
There’s an online quiz titled “are you a real cutter or do you cut for fun?” full of statements to be agreed or disagreed with: I don’t really know what it feels [like] inside when you really have problems, I just love to be the centre of attention. Gradations sharpen inside the taboo: Some cut from pain, others for show. Hating on cutters—or at least these cutter-performers—tries to draw a boundary between authentic and fabricated pain, as if we weren’t all some complicated mix of wounds we can’t let go of and wounds we can’t help, as if choice itself weren’t always some complicated mix of intrinsic character and agency. How much do we choose to feel anything? The answer, I think, is nothing satisfying—we do, and we don’t. But hating on cutters insists desperately upon our capacity for choice. People want to believe in self-improvement—it’s an American ethos, pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps—and here we have the equivalent of affective downward mobility: cutting as a failure to feel better, as deliberately going on a kind of sympathetic welfare—taking some shortcut to the street-cred of pain without actually feeling it.
I used to cut. It embarrasses me to admit now, because it feels less like a demonstration of some pain I’ve suffered and more like an admission that I’ve wanted to hurt. But I’m also irritated by my own embarrassment. There was nothing false about my cutting. It was neither horrifying nor productive. I felt like I wanted to cut my skin, and my cutting was an expression of that desire. There is no lie in that, only a tautology and a question: What made me want to cut at all? Cutting was query and response at once. I cut because my unhappiness felt nebulous and elusive and I thought it could perhaps hold the shape of a line across my ankle. I cut because I was curious what it would feel like to cut. I cut because I needed very badly to ratify a shaky sense of self, and unhappiness felt like an architectural plan.
I wish we lived in a world where no one wanted to cut. But I also wish that instead of disdaining cutting or the people who do it—or shrugging it off, just youthful angst—we might direct our attention to the unmet needs beneath its appeal. Cutting is an attempt to speak and an attempt to learn. The ways we court bleeding or psychic pain—hurting ourselves with razors or hunger or sex—are also seductions of knowledge. Blood comes before the scar; hunger before the apple. I hurt myself to feel is the cutter’s cliché, but it’s also true. Bleeding is experiment and demonstration, excavation, interior turned out—and the scar remains as residue, pain turned to proof. I don’t think cutting offers any useful articulation of pain, but I do think it manifests yearning, and it makes me wonder if we could come to a place where proof wasn’t necessary at all.
A 2001 study called “The Girl Who Cried Pain” tries to make sense of the fact that men are more likely than women to be given medication when they report pain to their doctors. Women are more likely to be given sedatives. The study makes visible a disturbing set of assumptions: It’s not just that women are prone to hurting—a pain that never goes away—but also that they’re prone to making it up. The report finds that despite evidence that “women are biologically more sensitive to pain than men … [their] pain reports are taken less seriously.” Less seriously meaning, more specifically, “they are more likely to have their pain reports discounted as ‘emotional’ or ‘psychogenic’ and, therefore, ‘not real.’ ”
In a book about her anorexia, Caroline Knapp describes standing in a kitchen and taking off her shirt, on the pretext of changing outfits, so her mother could see her bones more clearly:
I wanted her to see how the bones in my chest and shoulders stuck out, and how skeletal my arms were, and I wanted the sight of this to tell her something I couldn’t have begun to communicate myself: something about pain … an amalgam of buried wishes and unspoken fears.
Whenever I read accounts of the anorexic body as a semiotic system (as Knapp says, “describing in flesh a pain I could not communicate in words”) or an aesthetic creation (“the inner life … as a sculpture in bone”), I feel an old wariness. Not just at the familiarity of these metaphors—bone as hieroglyph, clavicle as cry—but at the way they risk performing the same valorization they claim to refute: ascribing eloquence to the starving body, a kind of lyric grace. I feel like I’ve heard it before: The author is still nostalgic for the belief that starving could render angst articulate. I used to write lyrically about my own eating disorder in this way, taking recourse in bone-as-language, documenting the gradual dumb show of my emergent parts—knobs and spurs and ribs.
But underneath this wariness—must we stylize?—I remember that starvation is pain, beyond and beneath any stylized expression: There is an ache at its root and an obsession attending every moment of its realization. The desire to speak about that obsession can be symptom as much as cure; everything ultimately points back to pain—even and especially these clutches at nostalgia or abstraction.
What I appreciate about Knapp’s kitchen bone show, in the end, is that it doesn’t work. Her mom doesn’t remark on the skeleton in her camisole. The subject only comes up later, at the dinner table, when Knapp drinks too much wine and tells her parents she has a problem. The soulful silent cry of bones in kitchen sunlight—that elegiac, faintly mythic anorexia—is trumped by Merlot and messy confession.
If using your body to speak betrays a fraught relationship to pain—hurting yourself but also keeping quiet about the hurt, implying it without saying it—then having it “work” (mother noticing the bones) would somehow corroborate the logic: Let your body say it for you. But here it doesn’t. We want our wounds to speak for themselves, Knapp seems to be saying, but usually we end up having to speak for them.
Different kinds of pain summon different terms of art: hurt, suffering, ache, trauma, angst, wounds, damage. Pain is general and holds the others under its wings; hurt connotes something mild and often emotional; angst is the most diffuse and the most conducive to dismissal as something nebulous, sourceless, self-indulgent, and affected. Suffering is epic and serious; trauma implies a specific devastating event and often links to damage, its residue. While wounds open to the surface, damage happens to the infrastructure—often invisibly, irreversibly—and damage also carries the implication of lowered value. Wound implies en media res: The cause of injury is in the past but the healing isn’t done; we are seeing this situation in the present tense of its immediate aftermath. Wounds suggest sex and aperture: A wound marks the threshold between interior and exterior; it marks where a body has been penetrated. Wounds suggest that the skin has been opened—that privacy is violated in the making of the wound, a rift in the skin, and by the act of peering into it.
In a poem called “The Glass Essay,” about the end of a love affair, Anne Carson describes a series of visions—“naked glimpses of my soul”—thirteen visitations: a woman in a cage of thorns, another stuck in a “contraption like the top half of a crab,” another turned into a deck of flesh cards pierced by a silver needle: The living cards are days of a woman’s life. Carson calls these visions the “Nudes,” and each is a strange, surprising, devastating vision of pain. We aren’t allowed to rest on any single image; we move itinerant from one to the next.
The first Nude is “alone on a hill,” standing “into the wind”:
Long flaps and shreds of flesh rip off the woman’s body and lift
and blow away on the wind, leaving
an exposed column of nerve and blood and muscle
calling mutely through lipless mouth.
If a wound is where interior becomes exterior, here is a woman who is almost entirely wound—an exposed column of nerve and blood and muscle. Her body is utterly exposed and also severed from itself—losing shreds of flesh, losing its lips. After the mute call, we get this confession: “It pains me to record this, / I am not a melodramatic person.”This closing motion performs a simultaneous announcement and disavowal of pain: This hurts; I hate saying that. It describes how the act of admitting one wound creates another one: It pains me to record this. And yet, the poet must record, because the wounded self can’t express anything audible: Calling mutely through lipless mouth.
What feels most resonant here, to me, isn’t just the speaker’s willingness to grant pain such a drastic shape—nerve and blood—but to confess her shame at this vessel, its blood and gore, its bluntness. I think of the bulb of my skinned knee, badge of my heartbreak, and how I loved the clarity of what it spoke but felt utterly pained by how much I loved it. I am not a melodramatic person. I’ve never wanted to be one, either.
The general outline goes something like this: girl gets her period; girl gets scared; girl gets mocked. Girl’s mother never told her she was going to bleed. Girl gets elected prom queen and gets a bucket of pig’s blood dumped on her head just when things start looking up. Girl gets; girl gets; girl gets. Not that she is granted things but that things keep happening to her, until they don’t—until she starts doing unto others as they have done—hurting everyone who ever hurt her, moving the world with her mind, conducting its objects like an orchestra.
Stephen King’s Carrie frames menstruation itself as wound: an inevitable bleeding that our heroine misunderstands as trauma, crouching in a corner of the locker-room shower while the other girls pelt her with tampons, chanting “Plug it up! Plug it up!”Even the gym teacher reprimands her for being so upset about the simple fact of her period: “Grow up,”she says. “Stand up.” The implicit imperative: Own this bleeding as inevitable blood. A real woman takes it for granted. Carrie’s mother takes “the curse of blood” as direct evidence of original sin. She slaps Carrie in the head with a tract called The Sins of Women while making Carrie repeat: “Eve was weak, Eve was weak.”
Though Carrie isn’t about anorexia, it explores the plausible roots of an anorexic logic—to take the shame of that bleeding and make it disappear, to deny the curse of Eve and the intrinsic vulnerability of desire itself—wanting an apple, or knowledge, or a man; wanting popularity, wanting anything. Getting your period is one kind of wound; not getting it is another. Starvation is an act of self-wounding that preempts other wounds, that scrubs away the blood from the shower. But Carrie responds to the shame of fertility by weaponizing it—she doesn’t get rid of the bleeding; she gets baptized by it. She doesn’t wound herself; she wounds everyone else.
At the heart of Carrie is a glorious inversion: What if you could take how hard it is to be a girl—the cattiness of frenemies, the betrayals of your own body, the terror of a public gaze—and turn all that hardship into a superpower? Carrie’s telekinesis reaches the apex of its power at the moment she is drenched in red, the moment she becomes a living wound—as if she’s just gotten her period all over herself, in front of everyone, as if she’s saying: Now I know how to handle the blood.
These days we have a TV show called Girls, about young women who hurt but constantly disclaim their hurting. They fight about rent and boys and betrayal, stolen yogurt and the ways self-pity structures their lives. “You’re a big, ugly wound!” one yells. The other yells back: “No, you’re the wound!” And so they volley, back and forth: You’re the wound; no, you’re the wound. They know women like to claim monopolies on woundedness, and they call each other out on it.
These girls aren’t wounded so much as post-wounded, and I see their sisters everywhere. They’re over it. I am not a melodramatic person. God help the woman who is. What I’ll call “post-wounded” isn’t a shift in deep feeling (we understand these women still hurt) but a shift away from wounded affect: These women are aware that “woundedness” is overdone and overrated. They are wary of melodrama, so they stay numb or clever instead. Post-wounded women make jokes about being wounded or get impatient with women who hurt too much. The post-wounded woman conducts herself as if preempting certain accusations: Don’t cry too loud; don’t play victim. Don’t ask for pain meds you don’t need; don’t give those doctors another reason to doubt. Post-wounded women fuck men who don’t love them and then they feel mildly sad about it, or just blasé about it; they refuse to hurt about it or to admit they hurt about it—or else they are endlessly self-aware about it, if they do allow themselves this hurting.
The post-wounded posture is claustrophobic: jadedness, aching gone implicit, sarcasm quick on the heels of anything that might look like self-pity. I see it in female writers and their female narrators, troves of stories about vaguely dissatisfied women who no longer fully own their feelings. Pain is everywhere and nowhere. Post-wounded women know that postures of pain play into limited and outmoded conceptions of womanhood. Their hurt has a new native language spoken in several dialects: sarcastic, jaded, opaque; cool and clever. They guard against those moments when melodrama or self-pity might split their careful seams of intellect, expose the shame of self-absorption without self-awareness.
I know these dialects because I have spoken them; I know these post-wounded narrators because I have written them. I wonder now: What shame are they sculpted from?
In a review of Louise Glück, Michael Robbins calls her “a major poet with a minor range.” He specifies this range to pain: “Every poem is The Passion of Louise Glück, starring the grief and suffering of Louise Glück. But someone involved in the production knows how to write very well indeed.” His “but” implies that Glück can be a poet who matters only despite the limitations imposed by her fixation on suffering, that this “minor range” is what her intelligence and skill must constantly overcome.
Robbins frustrates me and speaks for me. I find myself in a bind. I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it. I know the “hurting woman” is a cliché but I also know lots of women still hurt. I don’t like the proposition that female wounds have gotten old; I feel wounded by it.
I felt particularly wounded by the brilliant and powerful female poet who visibly flinched during a workshop at Harvard when I started reciting Sylvia Plath. She’d asked us each to memorize a poem and I’d chosen “Ariel,” which felt like its own thirteenth line, black sweet blood mouthfuls, fierce and surprising and hurting and free.
“Please,” this brilliant and powerful woman said, as if herself in pain. “I’m just so tired of Sylvia Plath.”
I had this terrible feeling that every woman who knew anything about anything was tired of Sylvia Plath, tired of her blood and bees and the level of narcissistic self-pity required to compare her father to Hitler—but I’d been left behind. I hadn’t gotten the highbrow-girl memo: Don’t Read The Girls Who Cried Pain. I was still staring at Plath while she stared at her own bleeding skin, skin she’d sliced with a knife: What a thrill— / My thumb instead of an onion. Sylvia and I were still obsessed with the density of a wound—thumb stump, pulp of your heart—thrilled and shamed by it.
That same year of college, I took an all-female self-defense class. I’d taken a job as a travel writer and it was a requirement. We had to go around in a circle and tell the group our worst fear. These instructions created a weird incentive structure. When you’ve got a lot of Harvard girls in a circle, everyone wants to say something better than the girl before her. So the first girl said: “Getting raped, I guess,” which is what we were all thinking. The next one upped the ante: “Getting raped—and then killed.” The third paused to think, then said: “Maybe getting gang raped?” The fourth had had time to think, had already anticipated the third one’s answer. She said, “Getting gang raped and mutilated.”
I can’t remember what the rest of us managed to come up with (Sex trafficking? Snuff films?) but I remember thinking how odd it was—how we were all sitting there trying to be the best kid in class, the worst-rape fantasizer, in this all-girl impersonation of a misogynistic hate-crime brainstorming session. We were giggling. Our giggling was—of course—also about our fear.
Whenever I tell that story as an anecdote, I think about the other girls in that circle. I wonder if anything terrible ever happened to any of them. We left that gym to live the rest of our lives—to make ourselves vulnerable to everything we’d just imagined.
The habit of imagining ways I might someday hurt—of taking some pleasure in this imagining—started early for me. I grew up under the spell of damaged sirens: Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco, Björk, Kate Bush, Mazzy Star. They sang about all the ways a woman could be in pain: I’m a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl. And when they’re out for blood I always give. We are made to bleed and scab and heal and bleed again and turn every scar into a joke. Boy, you best pray that I bleed real soon. Bluffing your way into my mouth, behind my teeth, reaching for my scars. Did I ever tell you how I stopped eating, when you stopped calling me? You’re only popular with anorexia. Sometimes you’re nothing but meat, girl. I’ve come home. I’m so cold.
I called my favorites by their first names: Tori and Ani. Tori sang “blood roses” over and over again, and I had no idea what this phrase meant except that pain and beauty were somehow connected. Every once in a while her songs posed questions: Why did she crawl down in the old deep ravine? Why do we crucify ourselves? The songs themselves were answers: She crawled into the deep ravine so we’d wonder why she crawled into the deep ravine. We crucify ourselves so we can sing about it.
Kate Bush’s “Experiment IV” describes a secret military plan to design “a sound that could kill someone.” From the painful cries of mothers to the terrifying scream, we recorded it and put it into our machine. The song would be lethal, but also a lullaby: It could feel like falling in love / It could feel so bad / But it could feel so good / It could sing you to sleep. Of course the song played just like the song it described. Listening felt so bad and so good. It felt like falling in love. I’d never fallen in love. I was a voyeur and a vandal—flexing the hurt-muscles in my heart by imagining myself into aches I’d never felt.
I invented terrible daydreams to saddle those songs with the gravity of melodrama: Someone I loved died; I was summoned to a car-accident deathbed; I had a famous boyfriend and he cheated on me and I had to raise our child—better yet, our many children—on my own. Those songs gave me scars to try on like costumes. I wanted to be sung to sleep by them; I wanted to be killed and resurrected.
More than anything, I wanted to be killed by Ani’s “Swan Dive”: I’m gonna do my best swan dive / in the shark-infested waters / I’m gonna pull out my tampon / and start splashing around. If being a woman is all about bleeding, then she’ll bleed. She’ll get hurt. Carrie knew how it was done; she never plugged it up. She splashed around. “I don’t care if they eat me alive,”Ani sings,“I’ve got better things to do than survive.” Better things like: martyrdom, having the last laugh, choosing the end, singing a song about blood.
I was listening to “Swan Dive” years before I got my period, but I was already ready to jump. I was ready to weaponize my menarche. I was waiting for the day when I could throw my womanhood to the sharks because I finally had some womanhood to call my own. I couldn’t wait to be inducted into the ranks of this female frustration—the period as albatross, lunar burden, exit ticket from Eden, keys to the authenticity kingdom. Bleeding among the sharks meant being eligible for men, which meant being eligible for hope, loss, degradation, objectification, desire, and being desired—a whole world of ways to get broken.
Years later I worked at a bakery where my boss liked putting on a playlist she called our “Wounded Mix.” We hummed along with Sade and Phil Collins. We mixed red-velvet batter the color of cartoon hearts. My boss said that when she listened to these songs, she imagined being abandoned by some cruel lover on the shoulder of a dusty highway—“with just my backpack and my sunglasses,”she told me, “and my big hair.”
I started hunting for more ladies singing about wounds. I asked my boyfriend for suggestions. He texted instructions: “Google ‘you cut me open and I keep bleeding.’ Best bathos on the air.” I found Leona Lewis: You cut me open and I / Keep bleeding, keep, keep bleeding love / I keep bleeding, I keep, keep bleeding love / Keep bleeding, keep, keep bleeding love. Each chorus eventually returns, at its close, to the point: “You cut me open.” The lyrics could be lamenting love or affirming it; trusting the possibility of falling for someone in the aftermath of hurt or else suggesting that love dwells in the hurting itself—that sentiment clots and coagulates in bled blood, another version of the cutter’s logic: I bleed to feel. Bleeding is the proof and home of passion, its residence and protectorate. This kind of bloody heartbreak isn’t feeling gone wrong, it’s feeling gone right—emotion distilled to its purest, most magnificent form. Best bathos on the air. Well, yes, it is. Turn every scar into a joke. We already did.
But what if some of us want to take our scars seriously? Maybe some of us haven’t gotten the highbrow-girl memo—haven’t gotten the text message from our boyfriends—about what counts as bathos. One man’s joke is another girl’s diary entry. One woman’s heartbreak is another woman’s essay. Maybe this bleeding ad nauseum is mass-produced and sounds ridiculous—Plug it up! Plug it up!—but maybe its business isn’t done. Woman is a pain that never goes away. Keep cutting me open; I’ll keep bleeding it out. Saving Leona Lewis means insisting that we never have the right to dismiss the trite or poorly worded or plainly ridiculous, the overused or overstated or strategically performed.
In the Reading Group Guide to my novel, The Gin Closet, I confessed: “I often feel like a DJ mixing various lyrics of female teenage angst.” I got so sick of synopsizing the plot, whenever people asked what it was about, I started saying simply: women and their feelings. When I called myself a DJ mixing angst, it was a preemptive strike. I felt like I had to defend myself against some hypothetical accusation that would be lobbed against my book by the world at large. I was trying to agree with Ani: We shouldn’t have to turn every scar into a joke. We shouldn’t have to be witty or backtrack or second-guess ourselves when we say, this shit hurt. We shouldn’t have to disclaim—I know, I know, pain is old, other girls hurt—in order to defend ourselves from the old litany of charges: performative, pitiful, self-pitying, pity-hoarding, pity-mongering. The pain is what you make of it. You have to find something in it that yields. I understood my guiding imperative as: keep bleeding, but love.
Once I wrote a story from that open wound W. B. Yeats calls the “rag and bone shop of the heart.” In this particular case, my rag and bone shop had been looted by a poet. He and I had a few glorious autumn months in Iowa—there were cold beers on an old bridge, wine in a graveyard, poems left on pillows—and I thought I was in love with him, and maybe would marry him, and then suddenly we were done. He was done. I knew this wasn’t an unusual occurrence in the world, but it hadn’t ever happened to me. I kept trying to figure it out. A couple nights before the end, feeling him pull away, I’d talked with him for a long time about the eating disorder I’d had when I was younger. I honestly can’t remember why I did this—whether I wanted to feel close to him, wanted him to demonstrate his care by sympathizing, whether I just wanted to will myself into trusting him by saying something that seemed to imply trust.
After he was gone, I decided maybe this conversation had something to do with why he’d left. Perhaps he’d been repulsed—not necessarily by the eating disorder itself but by my naked attempt to secure his attention by narrating it. I was desperate for a why—at first, because I wanted to understand our breakup, and eventually because I realized any story I wrote about us would feel flimsy if our breakup had no motivating catalyst. Pain without a cause is pain we can’t trust. We assume it’s been chosen or fabricated.
I was afraid to write a story about us because heartbreak seemed like a story that had already been told too many times, and my version of heartbreak felt horribly banal: getting black-out drunk and sharing my feelings in fleeting pockets of lucidity, sleeping with guys and crying in their bathrooms afterward. Falling on Sixth Avenue in the middle of the night and then showing my scarred knee to anyone who’d look. I made people tell me I was more attractive than my ex. I made people tell me he was an asshole, even though he wasn’t.
This kind of thing, I told myself, wasn’t what I’d come to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to write about. Maybe sadness could be “interesting” but not when it looked like this. The female narrator I’d be depicting in my story—a woman consumed by self-pity, drowning her sorrows in drink, engaged in reckless sexual self-destruction, obsessed with the man who’d left her—didn’t seem like a particularly appealing or empowered sort of woman to think about or be. And yet, she was me.
Maybe drunken heartbreak was the lamest thing I could possibly write about, but this was precisely why I wanted to write about it. I wanted to write against my own feelings of shame at my premise—its banality and waft of self-pity, the way in which its very structure suggested a protagonist defined almost exclusively in terms of her harmful relationships to men. The story wouldn’t just seem to be about letting men usurp a woman’s identity, it would in fact be about this. My own squeamishness goaded me forward: Perhaps self-destruction in the aftermath of heartbreak was a trite pain, but it was my trite pain, and I wanted to find a language for it. I wanted to write a story so good that my hypothetical future readers would acknowledge as profound a kind of female sadness they’d otherwise dismiss as performative, overplayed, or self-indulgent. There were also practical concerns. I had a deadline for workshop. Seeing as how the breakup was all I thought about, I didn’t see how I could write a story about anything else.
I wrote the ending first. It was an assertion: I had a heart. It remained. I guess I liked it because it felt true and optimistic (my heart’s still here!) but also sad (my still-here heart hurts constantly!). I put the eating-disorder conversation into the story so that readers could point to it—if they needed to point to something—and say, Oh, maybe that’s why he got out. I also meant the eating disorder to clarify that my protagonist’s impulse toward self-destruction wasn’t caused so much as activated by the breakup, which had resurrected the corpse of an older pain: an abiding sense of inadequacy that could attach itself to the body, or a man, an impulse that—like a heat-seeking missile—always sniffed out ways it could hurt even more.
I realized that this causeless pain—inexplicable and seemingly intractable—was my true subject. It was frustrating. It couldn’t be pinned to any trauma; no one could be blamed for it. Because this nebulous sadness seemed to attach to female anxieties (cultural models of anorexia and cutting and women addicted to male attention), I began to understand it as inherently feminine, and because it was so unjustified by circumstance it began to feel inherently shameful. Each of its self-destructive manifestations felt half-chosen, half-cursed.
In this sense, I was aware that the breakup was giving me a hook upon which I could hang a disquiet much more amoebic—and not so easily parsed. Part of me knew my story had imposed a causal logic on the breakup that hadn’t been there. My ex had been pulling away before I ever confessed anything to him. But I recognized a certain tendency in myself—a desire to compel men by describing things that had been hard for me—and I wanted to punish this tendency. Punishment involved imagining the ways my confessions might repulse the very men they were supposed to bring closer. When I punished myself with this causality, I also restored the comforting framework of emotional order—because I did this, this happened; because this happened, I hurt.
In the meantime, I was nervous about workshop. Would I be lauded as a genius? Quietly understood as pathetic? I chose my outfit carefully. I still remember one of the first comments: “Does this character have a job?” one guy asked, sounding annoyed, and said she might have been a little easier to sympathize with if she did.
As it happened, that story was the first one I ever published. It’s called “Quiet Men.” Sometimes I still get notes about it from strangers. One woman in Arizona even got part of it tattooed on her back. Men say it helps them sympathize more with certain female tendencies. These men write to me about their relationships: Women who once seemed like reckless bitches, they say, start to seem like something else. A frat guy wrote to say that now he “got” girls better. I trusted he meant: understood. Another guy said: “I have always been curious of the psychology of women who tend toward a want to be dominated.”
A Hawaiian real-estate agent wrote about his little sister. He’d never been compassionate about her painful relationships with men. “I’m sure that your goal was not to educate men on the psychological nuances of women,” he said, but he felt he understood his sister’s self-destructive tendencies better after reading the story—“a little wisp of understanding.” I was thrilled. My pain had flown beyond the confines of its bone shop. Now it had a summer home in the Pacific.
I wouldn’t say writing that story helped me get over my breakup any faster; it probably did the opposite. I ended up consigning that ex into the realm of legend—a sort of mythic prop around which I’d constructed this suffering version of myself. But the story helped me weave the breakup into my sense of self in a way that ultimately felt outward, directed toward the lives and pain of others.
And yet, in the end, it all comes back home. Do I still wonder if my ex ever read that story? Of course I do.
The summer after my freshman year of college, my mouth was wired shut for two months while my jaw healed from an operation. The joint hinge had been damaged in an accident—I’d fallen off a vine in Costa Rica, twenty feet to cloud-forest floor—and certain bones had been drilled into new shapes and then screwed back together again. The wires held everything in place. I couldn’t talk or eat. I squirted geriatric energy drinks into the small opening between my teeth and the back of my mouth. I wrote notes on little yellow pads. I read a lot. Already, then, I thought of documenting my experience for posterity. And I already had the title of my memoir in mind: Autobiography of a Face.
That’s how I discovered Lucy Grealy. Her memoir, Autobiography of a Face, is the story of her childhood cancer and enduring facial disfigurement. I read it in an afternoon and then I read it again. Its central drama, for me, wasn’t Grealy’s recovery from illness; it was the story of her attempt to forge an identity that wasn’t entirely defined by the wound of her face. At first she couldn’t see her face as anything but a locus of damage to which everything else referred:
This singularity of meaning—I was my face, I was ugliness—though sometimes unbearable, also … became the launching pad from which to lift off … Everything led to it, everything receded from it—my face as personal vanishing point.
These are the dangers of a wound: that the self will be subsumed by it (“personal vanishing point”) or unable to see outside its gravity (“everything led to it”). The wound can sculpt selfhood in a way that limits identity rather than expanding it—that obstructs one’s vision of others’ suffering rather than sharpening empathic acuity. Case in point: Carrie doesn’t do anyone any favors.
Grealy had been craving the identity locus of damage even before it happened to her; she was happy, as a little girl, when trauma first arrived: “I was excited by the idea that something really was wrong with me.” Years later, Grealy still took a certain comfort in her surgeries. These were times when she was cared for, and when her pain was given a structure beyond the nebulous petty torture of feeling ugly to the world. “It wasn’t without a certain amount of shame that I took this kind of emotional comfort from surgery,” she writes. “Did it mean I liked having operations and thus that I deserved them?”
In Grealy’s shame I see the residue of certain cultural imperatives: to be stoic, to have a relationship to pain defined by the single note of resistance. These imperatives make it shameful to feel any attachment to pain or any sensitivity to its offerings. What I love about Grealy is that she’s not afraid to be honest about every part of her pain: how she takes some comfort in her surgeries and feels discomfort at this comfort; how she tries to feel better about her face—over and over again—and just can’t. She can’t make ugliness productive. She can’t make that particular wound fertile. She can only take solace in how much it hurts, and in how this hurting elicits the care of others. In this confession, of course, the wound does become fertile. It yields honesty. Her book is beautiful.
As a little girl, Grealy learned to be what she calls “a model patient,” but the book itself refuses this posture: She offers no false resurrections of the spirit. She insists on the tyranny of the body and its damage. Her situation was an extreme one, but it gave form and justification to how I was living then, silently: my own existence defined by injury.
Most of the negative Amazon reviews of Autobiography of a Face focus on the idea of self-pity: “Overall, she was a sad woman who never got beyond her personal pain,” and “I found this book extremely sorrowful and drowning in self-pity.” A reader named “Tom” writes:
In all of the books I’ve read, I’ve never encountered such terribl[e] moaning and wallowing in self-pity. I can easily sum up the entire 240-page book i[n] 3 words: Woe is me … In addition to a mess of crying, the author cannot seem to make up her mind on anything. First she says she does not want to be felt sorry for by anyone, then she proceeds to scorn others about their inability to feel an ounce of sympathy.
The woman Tom describes, “wallowing” in self-pity and unable to decide what the world should do about it, is exactly the woman I grew up afraid of becoming. I knew better—many of us, it seems, knew better—than to become one of those women who plays victim, lurks around the sickbed, hands her pain out like a business card. What I’m trying to say is, I don’t think this was just me. We all grew up doing everything we could to avoid this identity: self-awareness, self-deprecation, jadedness, sarcasm. The Girl Who Cried Pain: She doesn’t need meds; she needs a sedative.
And now we find ourselves torn. We don’t want anyone to feel sorry for us, but we miss the sympathy when it doesn’t come. Feeling sorry for ourselves has become a secret crime—a kind of shameful masturbation—that would chase away the sympathy of others if we ever let it show. “Because I had grown up denying myself any feeling that even hinted at self-pity,” Grealy writes, “I now had to find a way to reshape it.”
Reshape it into what? Into faith, sexual promiscuity, intellectual ambition. At the very last, at the pinnacle: into art. Grealy offers this last alchemy, pain-to-art, as possibility but not redemption. It seems likely that for all her wound has given her—perspective, the grit of survival, an insightful meditation on beauty—Grealy would still trade these wound boons back for a pretty face. This confession of willingness is her greatest gift of honesty, not arguing that beauty was more important than profundity, just admitting that she might have chosen it—that beauty was more difficult to live without.
When I started writing this essay, I wrote to some of my favorite women asking for their thoughts on female pain.
“Perhaps too obvious,” wrote a friend in divinity school, “but the Fall?”
A friend described an upbringing “thoroughly, thoroughly obsessed with not being a victim.” She typed not being a victim in italics. Another friend described her young devotion to the oeuvre of Lurlene McDaniel, an author who wrote about sick girls—cancer-ridden, heart-transplanted, bulimic—who made friends with even sicker girls, girls turned angelic by illness, and always eventually watched these sicker girls die. These books offer an opportunity for two-pronged empathy—the chance to identify with martyr and survivor, to die and live at once, to feel simultaneously the glory of tragedy and the reassurance of continuance.
One friend admitted that female pain often felt, to her, like “a failure of an ethic of care,” and that her ideal of feminine pain might be the grieving Madonna: “the pain of care whose object of care has been removed.” She was afraid this ideal made her a secret misogynist. Another friend, a poet, confessed that her greatest fear was that her poems would come across as solipsistic transcriptions of private suffering, and in this self-concern would also register as somehow “feminine.” Her secondary fear was that this first fear made her a secret misogynist. More women were afraid of being secret misogynists than I’d realized.
One friend got so worked up by my e-mail that she waited until the next morning to reply. She was tired of an abiding societal fascination with women who identified themselves by their pain—women who hurt themselves or got too drunk or slept with the wrong men. She was more than tired of. She was angry.
I think her anger is asking a question, and I think that question demands an answer. How do we represent female pain without producing a culture in which this pain has been fetishized to the point of fantasy or imperative? Fetishize: to be excessively or irrationally devoted to. Here is the danger of wounded womanhood: that its invocation will corroborate a pain cult that keeps legitimating, almost legislating, more of itself.
The hard part is that underneath this obscene fascination with representations of women who hurt themselves and have bad sex and drink too much, there are actual women who hurt themselves and have bad sex and drink too much. Female pain is prior to its representation, even if its manifestations are shaped and bent by cultural models.
Relying too much on the image of the wounded woman is reductive, but so is rejecting it—being unwilling to look at the varieties of need and suffering that yield it. We don’t want to be wounds (“No, you’re the wound!”) but we should be allowed to have them, to speak about having them, to be something more than just another girl who has one. We should be able to do these things without failing the feminism of our mothers, and we should be able to represent women who hurt without walking backward into a voyeuristic rehashing of the old cultural models: another emo cutter under the bleachers, another hurt-seeking missile of womanhood, a body gone drunk or bruised or barren, another archetype sunk into blackout under the sheets.
We’ve got a Janus-faced relationship to female pain. We’re attracted to it and revolted by it; proud and ashamed of it. So we’ve developed a post-wounded voice, a stance of numbness or crutch of sarcasm that implies pain without claiming it, that seems to stave off certain accusations it can see on the horizon—melodrama, triviality, wallowing—and an ethical and aesthetic commandment: Don’t valorize suffering women.
You court a certain disdain by choosing to write about hurting women. You get your period with sharks around—exposed column of nerve and blood—but everyone thinks it’s a stupid show. You want to cry, I am not a melodramatic person! But everyone thinks you are. You’re willing to bleed but it looks, instead, like you’re trying to get bloody. When you bleed like that—all over everything, tempting the sharks—you get told you’re corroborating the wrong mythology. You should be ashamed of yourself. Plug it up.
Lucy Grealy learned to be a good patient when she learned that it was possible to fail at being sick. “My feelings of shame and guilt for failing not to suffer,” she writes, “became more unbearable. The physical pain seemed almost easy in comparison.” She describes much of her artistic life as an attempt “to grant myself the complicated and necessary right to suffer.”
I’m trying to map the terms and borders of that complicated right. I’m not fighting for a world in which suffering gets worshipped, and I’m not just criticizing the post-wounded voice, or dismissing the ways in which female pain gets dismissed. I do believe there is nothing shameful about being in pain, and I do mean for this essay to be a manifesto against the accusation of wound-dwelling. But the essay isn’t a double negative, a dismissal of dismissal, so much as a search for possibility—the possibility of representing female suffering without reifying its mythos.
In the end, I’m looking for the thirteenth Nude, who arrives at the close of Carson’s poem:
Very much like Nude #1.
And yet utterly different.
I saw it was a human body
trying to stand against winds so terrible that the flesh was blowing off the bones.
And there was no pain.
was cleansing the bones.
They stood forth silver and necessary.
It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all.
It walked out of the light.
This Nude is like the first Nude because she is nothing but ragged flesh, but here the “flesh [is] blowing off” and her nakedness signals strength. Her exposure is clean and necessary. There is no pain. The nerves are gone. The move away from pain requires a movement into commonality: “out of the light” of human particularity and gender (“It was not my body, not a woman’s body”) and into the universal (“it was the body of us all”). Walking out of the light simultaneously suggests being constituted by this light—walking forth from the substance of origin—and also leaving it behind, abandoning the state of visible representation. Once pain is cleansed into something silver and necessary, it no longer needs to be illuminated. Pain only reaches beyond itself when its damage shifts from private to public, from solipsistic to collective.
We aren’t allowed to forget how this thirteenth Nude recalls the first one, that primal artifact of pain, whose bloody ghost limns these silver bones like an aura, reminding us that the cleansing cannot happen without some loss. Like Wallace Stevens and his blackbirds, we see pain from every angle; no single posture of suffering is allowed any monopoly. We can’t see suffering one way; we have to look at it from thirteen directions, and that is only the beginning—then we are called to follow this figure striding out of the light.
We follow this figure into contradiction, into a confession that wounds are desired and despised; that they grant power and come at a price; that suffering yields virtue and selfishness; that victimhood is a mix of situation and agency; that pain is the object of representation and also its product; that culture transcribes genuine suffering while naturalizing its symptoms. We follow this thirteenth Nude back to the bleachers, where a girl is putting on a passion play with her razor. We should watch. She’s hurting, but that doesn’t mean she’ll hurt forever—or that hurt is the only identity she can own. There is a way of representing female consciousness that can witness pain but also witness a larger self around that pain—a self that grows larger than its scars without disowning them, that is neither wound-dwelling nor jaded, that is actually healing.
We can watch what happens when the girl under the bleachers puts down the blade. Suffering is interesting but so is getting better. The aftermath of wounds—the strain and struggle of stitching the skin, the stride of silver bones—contours women alongside the wounds themselves. Glück dreams of “a harp, its string cutting / deep into my palm. In the dream, / it both makes the wound and seals the wound.”
I want to insist that female pain is still news. It’s always news. We’ve never already heard it. It’s news when a girl loses her virginity or gets an ache in the rag and bone shop of her heart. It’s news when she starts getting her period or when she does something to make herself stop. It’s news if a woman feels terrible about herself in the world—anywhere, anytime, ever. It’s news whenever a girl has an abortion because her abortion has never been had before and won’t ever be had again. I’m saying this as someone who’s had an abortion but hasn’t had anyone else’s.
Sure, some news is bigger news than other news. War is bigger news than a girl having mixed feelings about the way some guy slept with her and didn’t call. But I don’t believe in a finite economy of empathy; I happen to think that paying attention yields as much as it taxes. You learn to start seeing.
I think dismissing female pain as overly familiar or somehow out-of-date—twice-told, thrice-told, 1001-nights-told—masks deeper accusations: that suffering women are playing victim, going weak, or choosing self-indulgence over bravery. I think dismissing wounds offers a convenient excuse: no need to struggle with the listening or telling anymore. Plug it up. Like somehow our task is to inhabit the jaded aftermath of terminal self-awareness once the story of all pain has already been told.
“For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on woman,” is how Simone de Beauvoir starts one of the most famous books on women ever written. “The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new.” Sometimes I feel like I’m beating a dead wound. But I say: Keep bleeding. Just write toward something beyond blood.
The wounded woman gets called a stereotype, and sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s just true. I think the possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it. Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.