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Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain

ISSUE:  Spring 2014

Cecily Brown, <i>The Girl Who Had Everything,</i> 1998. Oil on linen, 100 x 110 inches.  (© Cecily Brown. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever.)

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.
The wind

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. 


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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous · 9 years ago


Joshuah K's picture
Joshuah K · 9 years ago

I feel deeply disturbed by your words. Not the ordinary disturbed which means bothered, rather, think more of a pile of leaves tossed by the wind. I'm male, but I have lived my entire life in the shadow of a creature I call female, such a subtle,
mysterious creature, that I long to understand. Thank you for having the energy
and the persistence to vocalize your thoughts. I feel the need to respond. My ability
to respond is completely inadequet, you overwhelm me- but I shall try a few words.
I will say, at least, I understand the mask better, but there is still something lacking. Such a vivid horror, the evolution of the subtle psychology of identity. It develops through culture, through passed-down behaviors, through linguistics. We don't even see the traps that we fabricate.

And yet, it would seem from an objective standpoint that a woman is, biologically
speaking, both of the capacity of her brain to register pain, and in the wiring of
her body to experience it, capable of a phenomenally high level of sensitivity.
Perhaps Eve was weak. Maybe humans are flawed, humanity itself a mistake.
Even you could say, with your present maturity, that in juxtaposition all things
seem to have aquirred a mellow contrast, and each in turn as well as new
experiences that could not parallel past, each have lost the ability to seize the
highlight,  possess the one who does experience, transform them into an agent of
that experience as well as the primary audience of it. Circumcision is a violent
word, but you do not experience it as I have had to, and yet it has not brought me
pain, but an inability to experience both some pain and some pleasure.

In the end, perhaps, pain is meaningless. From a larger perspective, it doesn't
seem to teach much, but to cause problems, to break the psyche, the mind and the body. Perhaps we should find a way to avoid all pain. I would iterate at length on
that thought trend, but I think you can imagine what utopian possibilities
are concievable, I leave the mental narration to you. Suffice it to say that our
species has gained the ability to objectify, to remediate nature through artifice
and complicated logic(read lies), and this transforms how we experience existance,
as well as what we experience. Suffice it to say as a monkey you would not have
experienced 9/10 of the wounds you have experienced. Suffice it to say you would
be just as happy, not to have eaten of the tree of subjective ability to assign
good and evil, but only the tree of nature.

Again, setting aside my personal musings on the dispicableness of reality,
I applaud you- champion your words. I shall not speak of how this seems to leave
woman alone if alive, betrayed and assaulted by a horribly alien male world. I shall
not speak of how this seems to leave male horrible and alien. I only ask that
those who might read your words and these look to see that they apply to all
who feel pain, and I champion that you have explored the why we experience it the
way we do. Thank you. If anything else does not register, if you do not
appreciate anything else, understand that even to such a thoughtless and
uncomplicated creature such as myself, your words have registered a unique
quality and they will continue to impact how I understand others.

But really. I must commit an antithesis. I also could be pursuaded to see
this essay as a thesis with one purpose, to vindicate and validate your identity
as a wound-dweller. Perhaps mind over matter is mind over body, is a real, if elusive,
ability to not only block out pain but never experience it. Many experiences are
not objective but subjective. We can take them how we want to. One person's
foot amputation is another's spilled mcfries. Should we discard the objective
measure of severity, if one might be said to exist, for the subjective whiles and
whims of a capracious conciousness? I ask only for a reply to this.


Reeba Fay's picture
Reeba Fay · 9 years ago

As a woman, girl, wounded, splayed, adored, objectified, inflicted, afflicted, paid-less, waitress, receptionist, hostess, taken advantage of, little miss'ied, brash, defensive, brilliant, screaming, bleeding, chop chop, cha cha heels, red nail polish, scarred, scared, fleeing, flying, drooled on, hit on, played, burnt out, et cetera et cetera eso terica- Man,  put me in my place!  A soundless room, so you don't have to listen to me cry/ a vapid vaccum attach to my womb/ sans gravitas astro man suit where my tears float into space before they fall and stain my face/ ignorance ignors a million realities/ Nikki's Firebird mirrors us both in fragment.  And finally just because I have suffered, wound, scar and bleed I also laugh, sing and breathe. Just because I am woman almost 50 years doesn't mean you can mind over my matter, man.  I have seen men cry, bleed, burn, legless, armless, homeless, paid-less, wounded, cut, arrested, and verboten- these are my brothers! we both dig deep, and can bear each others tears- this is something the greeks and uppity white men can't stand/understand/uberman. it is real, it is real, it is real....

cathy's picture
cathy · 8 years ago

That was awesome, Reeba Fay.

Late to the party's picture
Late to the party · 8 years ago

Joshuah, this may not be the reply you want. Althought, I am a woman, I tend to respond to distress with advice rather than consolation, hoping that if the problem can be rectified, there is no need for consolation.

Assuming you are not just an internet troll, no doubt you did not understand something. There was no judgment about men in this woman's writing about women. You should probably see a therapist about your struggle to understand women and take some college classes in physiology to understand why human animals feel pain. Best of luck to you.

Merrie's picture
Merrie · 9 years ago

What a beautiful exploration of pain, a woman's pain, our Pain, our fear of pain, of becoming and Being Pain, our relation to Pain and its relation to us in the world, which would often prefer that we disguise the pain... and not wallow.

Thank you very much for this, because until now I have never realized how little we have been allowed (in general) to explore this subject, especially as women, who have come to represent pain in its shadow forms. This in-depth exploration and your frankness are a refreshing bit of rebellion, and a call to opening of hearts is where I wish literature could end more often.

Isonomist's picture
Isonomist · 9 years ago

I feel lucky to have some distance from this part of my life, and what's odd about that is how much pain it took to stop focusing on the pain. I remember though, how lost it felt. And I can't help thinking, why didn't I see it? Why don't we all? We're just the modern version of those captive Victorian housewives. Our focus is narrowed on pain because it's easier than forcing ourselves to really live. Why is it easier? Because we know it.

shesaidshesaid's picture
shesaidshesaid · 9 years ago

There's much to admire here. However, I feel it is important to state that one reason women emphasize their emotional and physical pain is because for too long the only way their strength could be judged (culturally and physically) was by how well they could bear pain. Just another point, rather petty, but forgive a fangirl -- Kate Bush definitely wrote about women's experiences with pain but her work covers such a vast and unique range of subjects I feel it is hardly the major theme of her work and her control of her material --- she wrote, arranged and produced her own songs, directed wonderfully wild videos --- make her very different from Tori Amos and other female singer/songwriters.

Rain,adustbowlstory's picture
Rain,adustbowlstory · 9 years ago

"Write toward something beyond blood."

That's it.

EliteComm's picture
EliteComm · 9 years ago

"His touch purges every touch that came before it. She is another kitten under male hands."

Whatever insensitivity maleness brings to my relations with women.  OIt also brings that desire expressed above.  Any woman with whom I would dare dare risk a deep personal relationship with most likely does not understand this desire.  That in me lies a hunger, that burden and ache.  That I can reach beyond her pain, beyond her past and present mistakes, past and present life, past and present men and wipe the slate clean on her behalf. 

I used to teach that women in love with men give up something men can neither comprehend or relate to - I am not sure that it is required to have a love relationship of value. 

I am x number of years older than when I taught interpersonal communication.  I remain single and I can say men live their own perpetual pain and the contemporary emotional charged has yet to accommodate their ability or willingness to express it.  As I read through the narrative my  empathy receptors were clouded by that realization and the reminder that the deepest and worst cuts to my psyche' and  my life have women leaders, manufacturer's and cheerleaders.  I would that I could say different.

And i feel pain about that --

Vivien's picture
Vivien · 9 years ago

I think what I like best about this essay is the length. You stint nothing. Every time I thought it might be over, it had more to say. And none of it was wasted, or dross, or repetition (except the taglines, "plug it up," etc).

I am a post-wounded woman who writes about her pain with distance and presence, alternatingly. I too have disgust for women who wallow, who refuse to get over it and move on (to the next pain). Wallowing, however, is not the same as processing, which is what you're doing, and what many artists do. I think the real dichotomy is not the special pain that women feel vs what others (men) go through, but the two ways in which people of all genders deal with pain - by reveling in it or by dealing with it. People who revel in pain seem not to be able to feel it all the way- if they did, they would notice that it fucking hurts. They are absurd and risible. People who deal with pain are courageous, and this makes them both fascinating and useful. I aim to be the latter, while knowing that my post-woundedness often makes me the former. I am still looking for the courage to feel pain, female or no.

Carrie (not a joke)'s picture
Carrie (not a joke) · 9 years ago

Simply: thank you -- thank you for writing this. Thank you so much.

Nicki's picture
Nicki · 9 years ago

It is not particularly healthy to keep picking at scabs and it is not particular emotionally healthy to pick at unhealed emtional wounds.  This essay does just that.  Acknowledge the injury, care for it, clean it out, lance it if you must, get medical attention for it if you must.  It it isn't pretty, it isn't beautiful, it shouldn't be glorified.  In the end, your scar is just a scar, not a piece of performance art.

Alex's picture
Alex · 8 years ago

Yeah, "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" right? Hell no.

Rick's picture
Rick · 8 years ago

No, she's just saying, "get over it, and get on with your life".  That's not the same thing.

Leona's picture
Leona · 9 years ago

I have a chronic pain condition, a headache never goes away, and that sometimes renders me completely incapable of doing anything but screaming and writhing. I've had flashbacks to my attacks as though they were some trauma. I've lost friends because I needed to be in the dark and quiet and they couldn't be bothered to come with me.

Your section about Lucy Grealy really resonated with me - I've always tried to be an upbeat person and find the good in everything, and accepting that I just couldn't see the good part about this pain of mine, that no matter what sort of introspection or life appreciation it had given me, I would trade it all away just to not be aware that it was going to hurt me again any moment...that was really hard for me. It wasn't until I had someone who truly loved me tell me that it was okay not to look on the bright side once in a while that I really felt like I had a handle on my own feelings. Accepting that I was suffering, that I was wounded, and that there was no way to see it as positive was actually a positive step for me, because that made me accept that sometimes that happens to people, even me, and that my facade didn't have to be that good. Not, at least, while I'm alone with my loved ones who really care for my feelings. 

I have often felt the impulse to make art out of it, to take up sculpture so I could put something tangible in the world that would stand for what I felt, so I could look at it and think, that's not so big. But then I remember Frieda Kahlo, and how I could not empathize with her paintings because they were so personal, and I think, I don't want to be like that, where what I leave behind in the world is all images of pain. My personified headache screaming with spikes forcing their way out of its skin - that's grotesque, and I want to create something beautiful. But that means that my pain will go forever unexpressed. 

Thank you for writing this. There are so many kinds of suffering. I can't help but think that it's the impulse to express it, rather than the pain itself, that is more feminine. Men must hurt as well. That's being human, isn't it?

Dana's picture
Dana · 7 years ago

I also suffer from chronic headaches. I found this page while searching for some much needed perspective on them. I try to look for the bright side in my pain purely because I know others will get sick of me talking about how much it sucks. Tonight I wrote about how I feel when I found out the pain will never go away. I hope this makes you feel less alone and please know that your words helped me. I hope mine can help you too.


I have felt a lot of pain in my life; but the worst pain is the loss of hope that occurs when you know it in your bones that you’ll be dealing with that pain for the rest of our life. The most intense pain that a person feels that is also fleeting doesn’t hurt that bad because you have hope. Hope that it will end. Hope that you’ll be able to live pain free again. Instead, I have had the crushing experience of losing that hope more times than I can count.

The most excruciating thing is falling apart behind the wheel of your car after the doctor’s appointment because you found out it will never get better. You know the news could have been worse. You could be dying after all. However, that doesn’t make it any easier to handle.

Sera's picture
Sera · 9 years ago

This may be the best thing I've ever read. And the most timely. I feel so very grateful to you, for this framework, for this map, for this account of your journey. You articulate what I am too young to conceptualise in wholeness and reflect on with perspective and compassion. I am in it and not in it. The veil feels thin, my skin in places translucent or broken, and in others thick enough to prune from time spent too deep, too long. I am flitting in time, flitting in maturity, reflective, self reflective, self consciously self reflective, from what feels fertile, from what feels poetic, from what feels raw and true, from the cracks that let the light in that I would not do without, except maybe I would, to the pathetic and self pittied, self loathed shards not scattered to the wind but lying in their own, mine own, ~melodramatic~ blood pool.

Here I have found an other I can relate to in myriad, and the intelectual feminist, and woman in her many faces, and the mythic, the imaged burned of the woman who is not you or me or anyone we know, the one who is all of us, bones unbound.

Yep, thanks. 

Ashley 's picture
Ashley · 9 years ago

This is a really great article that put up front what pain is, and that it is okay to talk about it, or even think about it.  Many women are forced to hide their pain because it is shameful, and many people don't take women's pain seriously. 

Thank you for such a good article. 

James's picture
James · 9 years ago

This resonated with me quite a bit. Like, I have analogous experiences for pretty much all of this. I happen to be male. Am I just particularly bad at Being A Man, or do you think maybe this could be productively generalized to humans in general rather than only women? The cultural treatment has surface differences but I'm not sure the internal experiences do.

Sarah's picture
Sarah · 9 years ago

I think that's what she was going for at the end, with the 13th Nude, that when you express pain honestly without glorifying it or being ashamed of it, you make it universal.

Noelle's picture
Noelle · 9 years ago

So lucid. Thank you. I had such little awareness around this until reading your piece. You have put words to a vague tug of war I have been experiencing forever, but never recognized. Very validating.

James 2's picture
James 2 · 9 years ago

The writer reports that the study "The Girl Who Cried Pain" tried to make sense of the fact that women who report pain to their doctors are more likely than men to be given sedatives.

I admire the writer's eloquent discussion of the 'emotional' and 'psychogenic' dimension of that pain; but she inadvertently demonstrates the appropriateness of this medication.

The study does not reveal a 'disturbing set of assumptions'; it does not mean that women's pain is 'not real', or that women are 'prone to making it up'.  It shows that the physician knows perfectly well that the pain will not respond to analgesics.

The physician learns her craft from experience with thousands of patients.  The writer's essay has nothing to teach her: she is wearily familiar with this kind of patient, even down to her indignation at the possibility of treatment with sedatives or anti-depressants, while her self-description and her thick file exhibit classic psychiatric symptoms.

While of course the reality and complexity of this kind of female pain is hardest on the sufferer, spare a thought for her loved ones, who would literally do anything if it would help their beloved.  Little do they know that her innermost thoughts compare them to Hitler, yet long for the brute to stamp on her face.  She is beyond their help.  Absent psychotropic drugs, she is a vortex that sucks in and destroys everyone close to her.

Perhaps such a person can help herself, but everything her loved ones try to do will be wrong.  The only sane course for them is to keep her at a distance, like a heroin addict or an alcoholic, so that her self-destructive madness does not also destroy them.

And isn't it fantastic!  The pain, the heroic suffering, the rage, the sympathy, the self-importance, the purpose, the power, the shame, the mixture of indignation and longing.  It's a better high than heroin.

It is an illness.  It is one that will end only when the sufferer decides it must end, and then seeks psychiatric treatment.

Jessica's picture
Jessica · 8 years ago

This isn't about mental health treatments, but I can see how you might not be able to follow her line of thinking and be clear on that. This writer was not expecting analgesic pain medication to be prescribed for mental anguish. 

This is the abstract for the study "The Girl Who Cried Pain":

"In general, women report more severe levels of pain, more frequent incidences of pain, and pain of longer duration than men, but are nonetheless treated for pain less aggressively. The authors investigate this paradox from two perspectives: Do men and women in fact experience pain differently - whether biologically, cognitively, and/or emotionally? And regardless of the answer, what accounts for the differences in the pain treatment they receive, and what can we do to correct this situation?"

That was a study on medical ethics from 2001.

A few months ago, my orthopedist said that it is lately thought that hormones play a part in some types of oversensitivity in ligament pain seen more often in women. This isn't a psychological health issue, it's neurochemical. Neuropathic pain generally responds best to anticonvulsants and anti-inflammatories, not antipsychotics or analgesics or antidepressants or benzodiazepines.

It's not easy to find truly competent doctors. Everyone should take an advocate to any kind of medical appointment. The one time I was unable to accompany my father to an appointment with a new physician, he was given a medication that sent him into congestive heart failure. I then spent a week in the hospital making sure he didn't fall out of bed, because the nursing staff was inadequate. I wish I could say things like that are atypical where I live, but it's pretty much par for the course. So, it's a nice fairy tale that the doctor always knows what she's doing, but don't bet your life on it. Question everything.


Anonymous's picture
Anonymous · 9 years ago

I've done the female pain thing. Here is why I would spay myself with my bare hands before I'd even think about going there again:

1) The worst thing that ever happened to me was random and senseless. It didn't make me beautiful, desirable, virtuous or wise; it pretty much broke me. Almost 20 years later the scars it left are still somewhat obscene to me. Knowing what I now know about the cheapness of a human life means that I can no longer afford to stay wounded - the blind idiot gods might come back to finish me off.

2) It doesn't escape my notice that while we cultivate our feminine pain and devise many elaborate new ways to hurt ourselves, the men despite their masculine pain continue to run the freaking world. Here's what I've picked up of their technique so far: You set aside what the pain does to you in order to fix the underlying problem, or at least to power your way through it. Maybe you can't oust that dictator or cure that disease; maybe your problems make downright unworthy opponents. But at least there's a sense in which you become stronger than the pain itself as you overcome it. That strength equips you to master what's outside your head as well.

Of course "taking it like a man" is stifling, hazardous, and it never quite works as advertised. Still, let me at least strive for that "jaded aftermath" rather than...whatever I'm supposed to accomplish by blundering among the sharks until I'm all bled out. Probably another round of the same old spiral: helplessness invites contempt fuels self-hate becomes helplessness until it's time for another sedative pill.

romana.klee's picture
romana.klee · 9 years ago

i have/until-very-recently-had the dreaded vaginismus. gynecologists want it to be a psychiatric disorder and psychiatrists want it to be gynecological. and it seems like this has been going on since the 1850s(!) when the condition was first described. 

it is so important for women to talk in public about pain and i feel like we've barely even started.

your essay is wonderful.  

Scott Shulman's picture
Scott Shulman · 9 years ago

First, may I say that I loved your essay. I was touched by what obviously has been a long road of integration, a journey of integration of what at first seems a static, ancient self-image from adolescence (?) into a voraciously attained wider world of cultural, literary and historical culture.  I'm not certain that the obsession and self-pity in which you struggle is trite. I certainly don't see it that way. That said, I'd like to offer spme brief objective response to some of the issues you raise. I am a male neurologist. the neuropsychiatric behaviors (I don't use that term to imply a biological cause, just a clinical classification) the cutting behavior and-- yes, I'm afraid-- somatization of psychic pain -- is considerably more common among females. Trite? Well, I wouldn't say so. Just true; maybe it has been such a common literary theme because it has been a common phenomenon. It should of course be conceded that these perceptions have long, culturally and historically, been through male eyes; witness, famously, the history of the 19th century phenomenon of Charcot's 'hysteria' and 'catalepsy.' Yet in neurologic practice in the 20th and 21st century we see a huge amount of patients with what we call conversion disorder (psychologically-induced symptoms such as paraplegia, blindess etc and psychogenic nonepileptic pseudoseizures (seizure like events which are psychiatrically and not neurologically mediated). These are bizarre though interesting, phenomena, when one thinks about it. It is not "faked," and usually, though not always, the patient is very resistant to any implication that the problem is 'in their head." The lion's share of these patients have a history of childhood trauma, usually sexual abuse. It isn't a part of your esssay, and, hopefully, your history, but it is an exceedingly common problem for countless women with prominent pschologically mediated or exacerbated neuropsychiatric symptoms (whatever this nosological term means means ontologically-- I'm not going there) ,  symptoms. And, well,  it is much, much more usual to see women with this problem. I guess my major point is that, at least for many of the women in cultures past and present, these types of problems are related to childhood sexual abuse. I would hope that this isn't a problem intrinsic to womanhood.


Kirie's picture
Kirie · 8 years ago

Lucy Grealey did not survive as an artist. She could never quite bring off another book. She killed herself with heroin, or at any rate, heroin killed her. Whoops. I first wrote heroine.

Thanks for the powerful and complex essay, and I will be reading it again. I wonder about this: "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."

I am many decades older than the "girls" on "Girls."I came of age in the Sixties. However, that description applies to many of us who experimented then. (My father never forgave me.) I still write about woundedness, I suppose, but also, of course, about survival, because here I am! No stones in the pockets into the River Ouze or head on an oven door. I resented my heroines for not sticking around to show me how it's done. Survival, that is.

Owen Scott, III's picture
Owen Scott, III · 8 years ago

I'm an older white male psychologist who's worked in the field of Post-traumatic Stress these past 33 years. I was drawn this area because the suffering of persons who had undergone horrible experiences was so clearly legitimate. When people have involuntary recurring dreams and flashbacks of awful things and are desparate to get rid of the symptoms, it's difficult to question whether their condition is authentic. After many years and thousands of hours listening and learning to help, I came to understand that the complex adaptations we make to physical and emotional pain stem from basic facts of the human condition. In particular, we are always vulnerable, always needy, and we feel shame when confronted with our inabilty to prevent bad things from happening to us. It's not anyone's fault but shame drives us to hide, to avoid, to detach, and to deny. Healing is the process of coming to understand and accept ourselves as vulnerable, needy human beings. Our pain is legitimate and expressing it is always a performance in the sense that a musician playing a song with skill and passion is performing. Ms. Jamison's essay is remarkably courageous and honest and it challenges the reader to step up and follow her example. Not everyone can do this and there's no shame in that, either.

Pallas's picture
Pallas · 8 years ago

Eloquent - I have worked as a psychiatric R.N. with women who have been so badly wounded. The ones who survive the best discover themselves as Wounded Healers. Too many are unable to do so, they remain walking wounded, unable to reach out. I finally just started asking gently "how long did the abuse last?" when I was doing an intake interview & physical and saw the stigmata of cut marks. I found that women had been waiting for someone to ask that question. Often the response would be "how did you know?" and I would reply that, whenever I saw such scars I had learned that was the cause. They would say "I thought I was the only person to whom that had happened." One woman, who had been battered repeatedly by her spouse said that she would go to the E.R. to be patched up and wait for someone to ask her how she had acquired such injuries "but no one ever did ask -- and I was too ashamed to open the topic myself." Several E.R. Clinical Nurse Specialists fought to have this be asked of every woman who came in to the E.R. -- it took a while but finally that was introduced as a policy. Eventually, it became a national standard. Then we had to get agreement to ask men, too -- if anyone was beating on them regularly. Anyway, asking the question seems to brink some immediate relief because finally someone will listen.  



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