Sometimes I am sure there are perfect books, psychic books, balms, bandages (a reader of this blog wrote that this blog was a bandage, which I love, writing as bandage). To me now this book is Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely. I have almost read this book so many times. I have almost taught it. I have read some but not enough. And for some reason recently I re-ordered it from interlibrary loan. And it was on the bureau where I put and forget my student loan bills, my post which makes me postal. And on a whim I picked it up, sank deeply into it.
What is this book? It labels itself an "American lyric," and it is that, a song of oneself, of others. About our mediated selves, our national selves. Our desire to never be lonely, to be alone, a wish for us as a culture to repress trauma. And Claude Rankine is witness, oracle, she sees from the TV set advertisements for antidepressants and other ways to numb sadness, she sees from her TV set George Bush's election, the events of 9/11 and all of this post-trauma, Timothy McVeigh, Abner Louima (very thoughtful meditations on race).
In a way like Chris Kraus' Aliens & Anorexia, the book is about sadness. And loneliness. And illness and death, weaving public stories of trauma & grief with private ones (And in some way meditating on the difference, when we mourn Heath Ledger's & Anna Nicole Smith's & others' deaths more than those of our own? There is a line in My O Fallen Angel, which tries to be about this as well, how we grieve over celebrities much more than our own relatives, the character Mommy naming her golden retriever after Laci Peterson: "It is nothing like the death of a celebrity/To lose them, these constant images/is to remind ourselves that we will die/We will die, too, yet no one will care/Our deaths will not be televised/Then who will watch it?") Here is a section about visiting the Museum of Emotions in London, and she has to play a game, in which one question is, "Were you terrible upset and did you find yourself weeping when Princess Diana died?" Rankine writes:
I told the truth and stepped on the NO tile. I was not allowed to continue. The museum employee, who must have had a thing with shame, looked away as I stepped down. Walking out, I couldn't help but think the question should have been, Was Princess Diana ever really alive? I mean, alive, to anyone outside of her friends and family - truly?
The English were very distraught over her death. On the television they showed thousands of mourners leaving flowers in front of the palace.
Weren't they mourning the protection they felt she should have had? A protection they'll never have? Weren't they simply grieving the random inevitability of their own deaths?
In so many ways Rankine succeeds at what I'm trying, and still failing at, with my Book of Mutter, also about trauma, also madness, this weaving of celebrities and known-knowns with unknowns, my own private tragedy, theaters of rent emotions. There are so many eerie parallels - for example, I also enclose the image of the Arbeit Macht Frei gate at Auschwitz. Although I feel Rankine's is more calm, more philosophical, it is a bandage/balm, the voice of another in solitude, trying to make sense of the world, to navigate existence. My work too hopefully tries to look at how we sedate, in my work, violent women, women choking on their own grief, bringing in Barbara Loden & Frances Farmer & Joan Crawford.
Yesterday visiting family. Yesterday I asked about my childhood. I know the story. I write about it in Book of Mutter. How I did not speak until I was 5 years ago. I was not like Seung Hui-Cho or Lynndie England selectively mute, reacting with violence. Oh I was violent, I was a bleating id-froth. But I babbled words for years, and no one understood me. I had to go to a speech therapist for years, so she could rehabilitate my language, set it free from my mouth. It was like you were speaking another language. They tell me. Like Chinese. And you would grow so angry that we could not understand you. Your sister would translate for you.
Why this was the case I do not know. They say my brain worked too fast for my mouth, which sounds overly mythological and romantic. I think now perhaps I was speaking in Kristeva's pre-Oedipal babble, that I still speak in, this secret other language, the language of the melancholy child. They used this fact years later to diagnose me, to convict me, to other me. And I still sometimes cannot be understood. I am still screaming to be understood.
And last night I realized, with certainty. This is why I am a writer. Because I cannot be mute with my violence. I insist on being heard.