A lyric essay on shame, shamelessness, and writing a novel under duress.
I don’t like novels. I love a few novels and brought some of them with me: The Hour of the Star, Woman at Point Zero, Forever Valley, Maud Martha, Wittgenstein’s Mistress. I also brought a few novels, or novel-like books, that I had not yet read but that I thought I might love: Suite for Barbara Loden, Ban en Banlieue, An Apprenticeship or The Book of Delights. The rest of the reading I planned to do was, directly or indirectly, about shame.
I first heard the term good-enough mother in a conversation with a poet friend who was training to be a psychotherapist. This was years ago; I had just begun to feel what I think is meant by a maternal instinct, or to suspect that my desire to parent might be stronger than my suspicion of that desire—stronger even than my fear of ruining my life. Good-enough seemed possible, seemed right.
I read about the difference between guilt and shame in an essay written about Odysseus by a literary critic long ago. I forget the argument, but I remember the difference, or the fact of there being a difference. Odysseus’s palm tree made an appearance, too—though that might have been in a different essay, one about nostalgia, or was it grief, possibly by someone else.
In my novel, the main character—Eleanor—is a woman who does not want to be a mother. I sent a draft to a new friend, a writer I admired, who said she could relate. I thought of writing back to clarify but was ashamed.
The family next door appeared two days ago: a woman and a man, two small children, and an older man, probably a grandfather. Everyone is very busy, coming and going to and from the car, bright clothing and little backpacks, ready for summer adventures. Except the grandfather, who sits on the porch, softly playing the banjo. I think it’s a banjo, though it may be a mandolin.
“A person may be in solitary confinement,” Donald Winnicott writes in “The Capacity to Be Alone,” published sometime after he invented the good-enough mother, “and yet not be able to be alone. How greatly he must suffer is beyond imagination.” Winnicott goes on to parse the sentence I am alone into a progression of existential maturation: from I (acknowledgment of existence in space) to I am (acknowledgment of being alive) to I am alone (an expression, paradoxically, of the certainty of eventual company—the knowledge that solitude isn’t a permanent state).
I am working through the final copyedits of my novel. My novel are not words that roll comfortably off my tongue. I am a novelist is not something I have ever wanted to say. I began writing the novel when a baby didn’t come. Last night, I saw an artist give a talk at an exhibition opening. She showed tapestries she’d woven to mark traumatic events: instances of racist police violence, her own hate-based attack. She said: “I make this work when the pain is too much for my one body to metabolize. So that the work can hold some of the pain, give it place in the world.”
When I first heard the banjo from next door, I was annoyed. I have only twenty-six days here, which has to be long enough to fall apart and put myself back together again. Now, when the playing stops, I’m sad. One of the children smiled at me yesterday and offered me his ball. They smile at me now, on the subway and on airplanes and in the street, sometimes for a very long time. Sometimes they get snatched away. This morning, I noticed that the father has left. Possibly, he was never here; he may not exist.
What is a story? What is a character? The novels I love have skeletal stories, characters built from small collections of words and facts. Macabéa in The Hour of the Star. The unnamed narrator in Forever Valley. The speaker of Calamities, which I also brought with me (and which is not a novel but describes a character still). About Maud Martha we know more, but we are never forced by lavish description into the role of viewer. We never forget that for us, she is made of language.
Sometimes a character is a sentence, and a story is a word. Put I am in front of a word and you have a sentence, but not all sentences stand in for events. When shame is present, the sentence might be “I am essentially bad” or “I am essentially unworthy” or “I am essentially wrong.” Are these sentences events? Does that mean they have beginnings and ends?
I am looking fruitlessly through the novels I brought for articulations of shame. This is the first time I’ve noticed their absence. It turns out my favorite novels tell the stories of women who refuse—usually under duress—to feel essentially bad, unworthy, or wrong.
I began to observe how other people were raising their children. My opinions were strong, especially as I watched parents contort their desires for the sake of a child-centered life. I would catch myself: Of course they know things I don’t know. Sometimes my thoughts were less generous. How can they not see that they just need to let the child be?
One of the habits of the good-enough mother is sometimes to remain at a distance, available but not overly present. Over time, this trains the child to feel competent to move in the world, to assess the threat of her immediate environment for herself. (This must be easier in environments in which the threat is generally low.) To be at a distance, present but not overly so, can also be a sign of an immature coping state, what the post-Kleinian analyst John Steiner has called psychic retreat. Trauma—anticipated or experienced—seems to link these two states.
I hover at the edge of the communal dinners, unsure where to sit. The public-school cafeteria, a commonplace trauma. Some of my friends’ kids are in middle school, high school. The child I chose not to have would be nineteen and French. Half French. He visits me: a tall young man with wild hair, smiling, smoking a cigarette.
There were two of us involved in this failed endeavor. I don’t know how to account for the second person’s experience. I don’t want to speak for anyone but myself.
I go for walks. All of the paths ultimately connect to form a network of loops: you rarely have to retrace your steps. I walk when I’ve come to a problem in the edit that I can’t solve by sitting at a desk. The whole novel is a problem. I walk for hours and return against my will, when a loop closes.
Participation is the working title of my next book, the one I plan to write after the novel about Eleanor. To participate, you can’t be in psychic retreat.
I was told that it wasn’t my fault and that it was my fault. That I was too old and that I still had time. That it was all in my body and that it was all in my mind. I was told to rely on my instincts, which I did, when I was able to identify them. I was told there are “other ways to build a family,” which I knew—but this is where ambivalence and the fact of the second person complicated things.
I was told, “What will be yours will be yours.”
Emerging from psychic retreat means first abandoning established coping strategies (perceived invisibility, melancholia, narcissistic self-aggrandizement—or its inverse, dramatic self-annihilation), then moving through a period of depression (mourning), and finally accepting both the loss of omnipotence over the object and the loss of the object itself. This emergence is fraught with the fact of being seen, and accompanied by experiences of acute discomfort the subject may describe as feeling embarrassed, thin-skinned, self-conscious, sensitive, vulnerable, disconcerted, awkward, blushing, ignominious, improper, indecent, unchaste, demeaned, ashamed, belittled, slandered, debased, defiled, disfigured, contemptible, mortified, scorned, worthless, and humiliated.
In other words, the subject will necessarily feel exposed.
In France, a Catholic country that claims a separation of church and state, a woman who wishes to get an abortion is required to wait for two weeks, receive government-issued counseling, and submit to a prenatal ultrasound in which the health of the embryo or fetus is assessed and communicated in detail. On her way out of the consultation, she is handed a printout of the ultrasound, which shows, in grainy black-and-white, a mass of cells in the shape of a baby. It is February 1998.
In The Hour of the Star, Macabéa visits Madame Carlota, who reads her cards for a price. Last week, on the solstice, I dealt my old tarot deck into the shape of a Celtic cross, and each morning, I learn something from it: what’s below me, what’s behind me.
In Gwendolyn Brooks’s novel, the birth scene happens on page ninety-six. It’s witnessed by Belva Brown, who proudly survives it. “ ‘Now isn’t that nice,’ thought Maud Martha. ‘Here I’ve had the baby, and she thinks I should praise her for having stood up there and looked on.’ Was it, she suddenly wondered, as hard to watch suffering as it was to bear it?”
There’s a hostel next door whose inhabitants change daily. A weathered wooden staircase descends from it to the service road. At the bottom of the stairs, for the last six nights, a small plastic water bottle has stood erect, refusing to topple even in the strong winds. Dented and dirty and filled with a yellow liquid—could it be anything other than urine? If it were drinkable, somebody would have drunk it by now. On the way to dinner, I walked by the bottle again. An unfamiliar man, presumably a guest at the hostel, stood at the top of the stairs gnawing on a giant fruit—papaya or mango. He averted his eyes as I passed, thick yellow liquid spilling through his fingers and onto his feet.
What do we mean when we say someone is shameless? What is the recommended quantity of shame?
What’s below me: the Ace of Pentacles, or coins—an auspicious card in the suit of material life. I collect quarters from the bottoms of my bags for laundry tomorrow. The sky is violet, and the eucalyptus branches are dancing, and I’m full, and it’s evening: time for sleep.
I thought I might dream about Macabéa but instead dreamed of a spider in my underwear when I took it off to pee. Had it crawled out of me? It looked neither dead nor alive but at peace. I felt close to it, as if we were intimates. The other day, a spider hung from the bathroom ceiling, very much alive; someone identified it, with confidence, as a black widow. Between these events, I received a text from a friend, another poet-psychoanalyst, who says she dreamed of a tall young man with wild hair who wanted to sleep with me. She said we both seemed giddy at the prospect.
I have come to the part in the novel that I cannot defend. But who is accusing me? Is the combination of experience and imagination really such a failing, such a threat?
In the syndrome known as Cotard delusion, the patient believes that her body, in whole or in part, has disappeared: phantom limb in reverse. She might believe she is physically dead and claim to be able to smell her own putrefying flesh. In Winnicott’s formulation, I think this would translate to a truncated sentence: am alone. Before the capacity to be alone must first come the capacity to I.
I spoke to the grandfather at last. It’s a mandolin.
Macabéa is not devoid of feelings of shame (I was wrong): “She’s never seen herself naked because she’s ashamed.” And yet “she was sensual.” Too sensual or sensuality misplaced: her boyfriend, Olímpico, leaves her for her coworker Glória, who “from her hips you could tell was made for childbearing,” while Macabéa “seemed to have in herself her own end.”
To have within oneself one’s own end. To translate childlessness as the capacity to be alone. If the book is my child, why am I trying so hard to author it? So what if it wants to grow up to be a novel? What would it take for me to let my book-baby be?
At various moments in the last year, I’ve found myself saying I need to mourn for my lost mother self. Saying it as if I know what mourning means.
There are times when to watch suffering is the same thing as to bear it. When I refer to the second person as “the second person,” I don’t mean to reduce his humanity to an abstraction. I mean to acknowledge the way grief separates, even when its catalyst is shared. To say “the couple grieved” or “the family grieved” or “the nation grieved” is to speak metaphorically. I mean to respect, with tenderness and the perspective of love, the second person’s right to feel how he needs to feel.
The paths that diverge and loop back on themselves are like a dream—literally, a dream I’ve had since I was a child. Literally is not what I mean, though the word is often misused in this way. Do I mean an actual dream? Actual is also a false friend in the relationship between the two languages I know best. Does actual mean “real,” or does it mean “current”? That the paths are a current dream feels real: I walk them, my child just out of view up ahead. The child turns, and time stops—literally stops.
It isn’t only my child who walks with me. The paths themselves are scars on Miwok land. I am often solitary when I trace them, but I am not alone.
Below a National Parks sign for the Miwok Trail, a stretch of coarse gravel has given way to fine sand so distinct in texture that it seems to have come from somewhere else. There are sentences we—collectively and individually—are still learning how to read.
When the “other ways” also fail, a new shame is born: the shame that burns to infect, a priori, all the other other ways.
Thinking explicitly about the concept of shame has a distancing effect on the feeling of shame. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve thought of the act of defining as an act of dominance (this is not an original thought). If I can define my shame, will it lose its hold on me? In the language of polyamory, the word primary defines itself but also, by implication, its mirror—defending its other ways, like a salve.
Shame, a definition: the tipping from a tentative not-knowing to a certain knowledge of the worst. Not even a tipping. A coming home—shame claims for itself the deepest truth. To be defined by shame: my secret self is an imposter.
What’s above me: the Hermit, a lantern shining down and in. To defy the definition, from below, when the definition is wrong.
To put oneself back together again is a metaphor; it misleads. The falling apart actually happens. The second part isn’t a reassembling, though. The second part has to be the birth of something new.
Capacity is also a false friend, to itself. How can a word mean “talent” or “ability” while also tracing the limits of what a vessel can hold, what a body can metabolize, what a single person can take?
With the deadline a week away, I finished the edits. Today is July 4. It’s overcast. Ghosts fall like silver fireworks from a silver sky.
Anna Moschovakis is a writer, translator, and editor with an interest in crossing modes of poetry, narrative, philosophy, and documentary prose. She’s the author of three books—including You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake (Coffee House, 2011; winner of the James Laughlin Award) and They and We Will Get into Trouble for This (Coffee House, 2016)—and more than a dozen chapbooks. She is a longtime member of the Brooklyn-based publishing collective Ugly Duckling Presse, and in 2015, she cofounded Bushel, a collectively run art and community space in Delhi, New York. Her most recent book is Eleanor, Or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love.
Excerpted from “The Capacity to Be Alone,” by Anna Moschovakis.
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