Grafting and Witness

Because the first chapter of my dissertation is rooted in my own lived, embodied experiences as an injured female athlete, lately my research has included a considerable amount of subjective criticism, poetry/prose of witness, and autoethnography, as I’m trying to articulate how and why I (k)need to write about myself and what happened to me: an extremely personal narrative that is currently informing the most important critical work of my academic life thus far.

offshoot: “Rooted” is particularly resonant for me right now as I plan my next tattoo, also rooted in these same lived, embodied experiences. (It involves tree rings. And my wife has begrudgingly sanctioned it. That’s all I’ll say.)  

Today I spent some time with The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism, whose editors, Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar, argue that the anthology offers “a venue for writers whose essays refuse to separate impetus and content, their lives and their words” (3). I’m similarly refusing (re-fusing) to separate impetus and content, my life and my words. I think now of a crucial misunderstanding I had with a former mentor in the aftermath of the accident. (I first typed “my accident,” but it has never once felt like it was mine, like I had any ownership or agency over it. I often type this, and it always feels like it was a mistake.) She asked me why I wasn’t writing about what had happened. (I was a writer, after all, wasn’t I? If I wanted to be a runner, why didn’t I do that instead?) I tried to explain that I wrote through my body, that if it wasn’t well, I wasn’t well, and I couldn’t write well—at least not the way that I did before.

I’ve spent the last two years (744 days, actually—not that I’m counting) trying to recover that body-self, that runner, that writer. I’m a (different) writer now. I don’t know if I’m still a runner.

(If a runner is injured or disabled, when does she cease to be a runner?)

In her essay in the anthology, “Border Crossing as Method and Motif in Contemporary American Writing, or, How Freud Helped Me Case the Joint,” Freedman argues that women writers must write from “that psychically unrestful juncture—a juncture dangerous for tenure, publication, and promotion—of the personal and the theoretical, in the realm where knowledge is not separated from poetry, where borders of self and other and one genre or language and another collide” (21).

Aptly, as I typed this quotation into my notes, I mistyped “physically” where Freedman writes “psychically.” And, of course, I am writing from a physically unrestful juncture as well. To talk about what happened after my knee collided with that dashboard, I’m finding that I’m going to (k)need to cross a lot of borders, and to straddle that juncture Freedman’s talking about. (Good thing I’ve been working on my glutes in rehab.)

Jane Tompkins’ “Me and My Shadow” follows Freedman’s essay in the anthology. This is one of those pieces that I probably should have read before now, but for some reason or another have not. But I read it today, and I felt myself nodding with recognition when I got here:

The public-private dichotomy, which is to say, the public-private hierarchy, is a founding condition of female oppression. I say to hell with it. The reason I feel embarrassed at my own attempts to speak personally in a professional context is that I have been conditioned to feel that way. That’s all there is to it. (Tompkins 25) 

Yes. This conditioning is the reason I’m always embarrassed to speak personally in professional contexts too, and one of the reasons why I tense and stutter when people ask me what it is I’m writing about in this dissertation I’m allegedly writing. (The other reason, of course, is that I’m socially awkward and require time to prepare articulate responses to all questions. Yes, I realize people will continue to ask me this question. Yes, I realize I’ve had plenty of time to articulate a response to this question. Yes, I am a writer. Yes, I’m working on it.)

This conditioning is also the reason I always enter my surgeon’s office with a list of specific, physical, (relatively) objective symptoms—lateral patella pain when running, lateral popping just past 90 degrees of flexion, occasional lateral and medial pain climbing and descending stairs—but why I’m embarrassed to tell him about my personal symptoms. I’m embarrassed to say “I don’t know how to be in this body if I’m not a runner” or “Some days I don’t want to get out of bed.” Or “When I feel the sun on my back, my desire to be a running body is so strong that I can’t bear to walk or drive or move through the world in any other way,” “I can’t bear the smell of cut grass or the feel of sidewalk beneath my sneakers,” or “In the autumn chill, if I close my eyes, I hear ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ and see the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge like when I ran the New York City Marathon.” This conditioning is why I’m embarrassed, but I will confess anyway, that as I write this now I’m crying again.

But aren’t these details relevant—both to my treatment and my work?

I’m also embarrassed to tell people (before a few gluten-free beers) that I’m in therapy or that I’m on Prozac—that the accident was the precursor to both of these now-routine realities. When I do talk about these routine realities, I’m always sure to refer specifically to my “sports psychologist”—because this makes therapy sound more masculine, less emotional, more objective?

But my sports psychologist and I don’t just talk about sport. We talk about how, if I see a female runner pass me while I’m driving to campus, I sob through the rest of my commute, hastily wiping my cheeks before I walk into the English building to teach my 8 a.m. class. We talk about whom I hold responsible, how that “whom” is multiple and variable, how my desire for these individuals and institutions to love and respect me is at least as strong as my desire to implicate them.

And we talk about shame, like the shame I felt when I saw one of my surgeonsthere are many in this narrative, though so far only three have operated on mein the pool at my local gym. I recognized him by his T-shirt, which bore the name of his practice. I saw his simultaneous look of recognition when he turned aroundmy shaved head and New York City Marathon tattoo are fairly distinctiveand I quickly began another lap and carefully avoided him, waiting until he was at the other end of the pool to get out and slip away into the locker room. Why? Because I didnt want him to ask me how I was doing. I didnt want to tell him, Well, I called your office last July, but they told me I couldnt get an appointment until September, so they referred me to someone else who couldnt help me, who referred me to someone else whom I didnt trust to help me and who denigrated you, and then I found someone else, who wasnt you, to cut me open again, because there were complications after that surgery that you performed.

I was ashamed that I hadnt recovered. I was ashamed that I hadnt called his office sooner. I was ashamed that I wasnt running.

He looked strong and muscular and like everything I wanted to be in that pool. And I had wanted him to save me.

I had expected him to save me.

In “Touchstones and Bedrocks: Learning the Stories We Need,” Victoria Ekanger recalls advocating for her mother’s care after a lumbar surgery and reflects:

I tend to imagine that my mother thinks I’m a little godlike [as her mother thinks the neurosurgeon is godlike]. Not perfect, but optimally effective and oldest-child capable, no matter what I set my mind to. I wish. At any rate, talking to doctors is not something at which she ever expects to be expert, so for major concerns she delegates this responsibility to me. She wants me there, to be the person in command of language, the formulator of just the right questions. My mother knows I can’t protect her from what being in a hospital might mean, but she has a certain faith that—by sheer force of articulate will—I might potentially re-story a threatening outcome. I am the family delegate to hospitals, the language wielder. (96).

I’m a “language wielder” also (“You’re a writer, aren’t you?”), but I worry about my ability to “potentially re-story a threatening outcome,” or to accurately represent what has already threateningly come out.

In Ekanger’s personal anecdote, the one that precedes the above reflection, a nurse spills some of the antibiotic solution she’s about to administer to Ekanger’s mother. When Ekanger first expresses her concern to the surgeon about whether or not her mother is still receiving an adequate dose, he dismisses her. When she asks again, poised, measured, using medical (masculine) language, he listens and asks, “Are you in medicine then?” (96).

This anecdote feels familiar. Specifically, it reminds me of the encounter I had with one of the orthopedic surgeons to whom I was referred last summer. MRI images of my left knee had shown evidence of infrapatellar fat pad impingement. Though it’s not exactly rare or obscure, it’s not your run-of-the-mill (no pun intended) running injury either, so I made sure I did my research while I was popping the anti-inflammatories he had prescribed for me between my first visit and my follow-up appointment. My condition had not improved by my next visit, so I asked him about surgical options—I told him I had read about arthroscopic resection or debridement of the scarred, impinged tissue of the structure. In response to my comment that I’d been “doing some reading” about my condition, he made what I perceived as a somewhat flippant and dismissive comment about the ubiquity of WebMD. “No, no,” I corrected him—“I’ve been reading medical journals.”

I was “professional” with him, but I was also “personal.” (He looked at my chart, referenced my age, and joked that I was “too young” to have had so many surgeries. I cried, told him I couldn’t walk up and down stairs normally, and said, “I can’t live like this anymore.”)

Like Ekanger observed that her mother’s surgeon appeared to be “seriously considering [her] words for the first time” after she adapted her lexicon to resemble his (96), I perceived that my surgeon’s demeanor also changed after I told him I’d been reading medical journals. He described to me the procedures that might be on the table (pun intended) for me—and then he referred me to another surgeon.

These are stories I need to theorize. But these are also stories that I just need to tell.

I texted a good friend of mine—also a writer (“You are a writer, aren’t you?”)—this week, just to tell her that I was fighting to get through the day without breaking into sobs. I asked her, “Is this normal?”

What I think I meant was this: “Will you witness me?” I realized this after revisiting a fragment from Maggie Nelson’s Bluets with her:

92. Eventually I confess to a friend some details about my weeping—its intensity, its frequency. She says (kindly) that she thinks we sometimes weep in front of a mirror not to inflame self-pity, but because we want to feel witnessed in our despair. (Can a reflection be a witness? Can one pass oneself the sponge wet with vinegar from a reed?) (35)

I’m writing these stories because I need to be witnessed. As Arthur W. Frank argues in The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics, “[n]arrative ethics takes place in telling and listening” (163). Actually, I feel the need to quote this passage in full:

Narrative ethics takes place in telling and listening. There is no such thing as a self-story if that term is taken literally; only self-other-stories. The stories we call “ours” are already bits and pieces we have gathered from others’ stories, and we exist no less in their “self”-stories. Ultimately narrative ethics is about recognizing how much we as fellow-humans have to do with each other. As we grope toward some unknowable vision of the good and virtuous, cutting and pasting stories, borrowing and lending along the way, we become communicative bodies. (163)

Maybe I can’t call the accident “my accident” not because it deprived me of agency, but because it’s a self-other-story. It’s not mine alone. 

Maybe I’ve started this blog in this tentatively personal way (but still controlled—I’ve been accused of being “perhaps too careful” in my writing in the past) because I need to become a communicative body, because I need this body and this weeping and these stories to be witnessed.

 offshoot: Aptly, “cutting and pasting stories” sounds a lot like grafting.


Works Cited 

Ekanger, Victoria. “Touchstones and Bedrocks: Learning the Stories We Need.” The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism. Ed. Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. 93-99. Print.

Frank, Arthur W. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Print.

Freedman, Diane P., Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar. Introduction. The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism. Ed. Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. 1-10. Print.

Freedman, Diane P. “Border Crossing as Method and Motif in Contemporary American Writing, or, How Freud Helped Me Case the Joint.” The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism. Ed. Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. 13-22. Print.

Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. Seattle: Wave Books, 2009. Print.

Tompkins, Jane. “Me and My Shadow.” The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism. Ed. Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. 23-40. Print.