Yesterday I wrote a poem about misshelved books, but of course it wasn’t only about misshelved books. It was also about the kinds of memories that get misclassified in the library of my mind. We all get it wrong from time to time. These days, searching for, happening upon, and reshelving these wrongly placed items is part of the inner work I’m doing.
I’ve been angry lately. Angrier.
Last Wednesday I had a long talk with my analyst about this new ire of mine. She is supportive of it, for reasons I’ve mentioned recently (she recalled that an analyst acquaintance of hers used to say something like, “Sadness is bottomless, but anger gives us a ground to stand on”). As I talked, an analogy spontaneously occurred to me: it’s like I have all this terrible stuff that I filed away a long time ago, believing I understood what it all was, but now it appears that I filed most of it in the wrong place. And now my task involves retrieving it, looking it over, and then putting it back – into the appropriate file this time.
There’s a reason it was put in the wrong spot to begin with: because classifying these memories as what they really were would have made it impossible to live with my ex – the cognitive dissonance would have been too painful to bear. So, I called things something else. It makes me think of the Stasis Categories of debate and argument that my students and I talk about in first-year writing. One of them involves Questions of Definition or Category. The idea is that you can make a whole argument just out of asking, What should we call this thing? How should we define it? What category does it belong in?
More specifically: for years – all the way up until over well a year after I left him, actually – my narrative was that he hurt me twice.
The first time was in September 2009, when he assaulted me in our hotel room and broke two bones in my face, sending me to the ER in an ambulance and requiring surgery to repair my orbital floor and my maxillary sinus.
The second time, in late June 2011, he got so drunk that rather than let him drive off somewhere, as he tended to do in that state, I hid his keys. Infuriated, he beat me up for a half-hour from one room to the other – interrupting that long enough to turn out all of my drawers into a pile in the middle of the floor, dump all the clothes in my closet onto the top, and throw several precious things of mine, breaking them against the wall – before concluding by shoving me onto the bed, planting a knee in the middle of my chest, and whipping me across the face with the clasp end of one of my bras. At which point I managed to wrangle out of his grasp, get to my feet, storm over to where I’d hidden the keys, throw them at him, and scream: “FINE. HERE ARE YOUR KEYS. GO DRIVE SOMEWHERE. I HOPE YOU DIE.” Large bruises on my cheek and eye for a week.
Those two incidents went into a thin, elegant folder marked The Assaults.
And yet there were so many other events that I put into another, much fatter and messier folder marked Times When Either I or My Things Got Damaged (But Only Incidentally) As A Result of His Being Drunk.
A few items in that folder:
- The time (the first time ever) that we went out to dinner, had wine, and argued all the way home. I was standing at the foot of the stairs and he shoved me. I fell, got a carpet burn that lasted a few days. The relationship lasted six more years.
- The time his cousin and her boyfriend came down to stay for the weekend, and he got mad at me for something mysterious and threw my phone into the deep end of the pool. We laughed about it the next day. Drunken shenanigans. That was one of three phones of mine he ruined by throwing them against things or into water.
- The time on vacation that he yelled at me, threatened to jump off the hotel balcony, then got mad that I refused to put on a smile and go to dinner with his colleagues, and so when I retreated to the huge hotel bathtub and sat pathetically with my head down and my arms wrapped around my bent knees as if I was weathering a tornado (which in many ways I was), he followed me and threw everything from my suitcase at me, including my hairdryer, which bashed my shin hard enough to flay off a long strip of skin and leave a two-week bruise.
- Another time on another vacation when he shoved me backwards and I fell so hard that the back of my head bounced noisily against the marble tiles of our hotel room’s front hallway.
- The time in the darkened first-class row on a plane when we whispered our argument so viciously that I’m surprised it didn’t poison the whole cabin, and he grabbed my arm and there were three purple, then yellow-brown fingerprints against the skin of my bicep for a week.
- The time on Valentine’s Day when, angry at my sexual rebuff, he shoved me to the floor, pushed aside my underwear while I kicked frantically at him, and shoved two fingers inside me while he screamed mockingly, “Is this it? Is this what you want?”
- The time on New Year’s Eve when, in the middle of a fight, I said melodramatically that I wished I were dead, and he went and got his Glock “Safe Action”® pistol and shoved me facedown on the guest bed, lying on top of me, and put the cold barrel against my temple, and said, “Is this it? Is this what you want?”
All of the items on this by no means exhaustive list are also Assaults. That folder suddenly got a lot thicker. It thickens by the day. In fact, if we wanted to be technical, we might note that we just added a new folder here: it’s called Rape.
In fact, maybe it would be more illustrative not merely to say that all these events were misclassified, but rather to say that they were classified information that has now been declassified – that is to say, it is now open to the public, no longer secret.
Because once these secrets are declassified, they can be brought out for analysis, to see what they really contain. One can begin to assemble some semblance of the pattern at work. One can begin to understand the depths and limits of one’s own complicity, and the other’s atrocity (or vice versa). There is no possibility for “moving on” or “getting over it” until one can call things by their proper names, until one can call upon one’s intelligence to make sense of all this new intelligence.