“For me, at this point in my life (when maman is dead) I was recognized (by books)”
–Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary
Other’s Wounds and My Own
I have spent years reading narratives that talk about grief, telling myself that I was interested in them for purely scholarly reasons: because of my interest in ghosts and other liminal forms, or because of my fascination with psychoanalysis. It wasn’t until I was about to start writing my dissertation on representations of adolescent girls that I realized that all the novels I planned on talking about involve missing or dead mothers. In Edith Wharton’s Summer, Charity Royal meets her mother only to watch her pass away; in William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! and Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding, the mothers pass away right after giving birth to their daughters; in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand Helga’s mother is long dead (along with her father); in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, we know nothing of Janie’s mother; and in Joyce Carol Oates’s Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang, we have a cast of absent or dead mothers.
In the days after finishing my qualifying exams, I stared at this stack of books on my desk, puzzled and numb. My hair was greasy from days of not showering as I sat and typed, papers were scattered all over the room. I was a woman who had just completed her qualifying exams. But I could also have been a girl, mourning the loss of her mother; the books and papers could have been the artifacts one sorts through in the days following a death. Instead of placing photographs and mail into boxes, I placed books back on shelves, discarded papers I no longer needed.
It has become clear to me that I had unintentionally begun to process the absence of my own mother; and yet, in the twenty years since my mom died from cervical cancer, I haven’t been able to bring myself to write about her death. Even in my diaries, my mother is absent. Perhaps that’s because surviving the loss of her feels like a struggle. Surviving can feel like work, like the most intense labour I’ll ever perform. It’s not surprising to me, when I look into the origin of the words, that the meanings of labour and suffering blur into one another. In the first half of the twelfth century, labour meant trouble, effort, affliction, and misfortune. By 1170 labour became a burden. One hundred years later, our labour was our suffering. By the fourteenth century, the words had begun to drift apart; suffering became more specific, with labour denoting physical pain, fatigue, hardship, distress, wear and tear. To survive after the death of a loved one is an affliction; to grieve is to suffer in all of the ways that suffering is defined above. The act of grieving also includes finding ways to process the pain and affliction. We need to give form to something as formless as loss.
Literature has been and continues to be the way I confront, process, and come to terms with her loss. Literature is the form my grief has taken. In the world of novels, I found sentences and images that expressed the grief I could not or did not want to feel on my own. Every time I read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I pause over the section Woolf calls “Time Passes.” It is here that Woolf describes how the house grieves the loss of Mrs. Ramsey:
So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk, and a thin rain drumming on the roof a downpouring of immense darkness began … Not only was furniture confounded; there was scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say ‘This is he’ or ‘This is she.’
In the weeks leading up to my mom’s death, I remember our house being darkly lit, and it felt like it stayed that way for quite a while after she passed. As though the house was mourning the loss that none of us could process. Even after we moved seven years later, the darkened home followed us as we moved from apartment to apartment. I felt this darkness more acutely after I moved out. I would return home for a visit and as night would set in and the apartment got darker, I would get up and turn on a light. The light came as a shock; my brother and father could have remained sitting peacefully in the darkness. But I couldn’t. I still can’t. There is something about a dimly lit or darkened room that makes me feel uneasy.
Given my personal experience with grief, my theoretical and literary investment in grief narratives shouldn’t have been surprising. But it was. I thought that after almost a decade of consistent therapy, plus all the psychoanalytic theory I read, I should have been aware that this was how my unconscious was helping me process her loss. But that’s not how things work. “Grief, when it comes,” Joan Didion writes, “is nothing we expect it to be.”
One of the texts I was drawn to write about in my qualifying exam was Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which tells the story of Bechdel’s relationship with her father, his struggle with his homosexuality, and his tragic death/possible suicide. In my analysis of Bechdel’s text, I looked at how grief holds the power to disrupt form, and in turn, to refigure the body. At her father’s funeral, Bechdel gives us different images of her father in his coffin. The first is of her father by himself:
The second is on the next page: a frame that is split in two.
We see Bechdel’s back, as she looks at her father in his coffin. The frame is split down the centre of Bechdel’s body. The gutter – the white space between frames – is a separating force. But it does not separate Bechdel from her father. Rather, the gutter divides two selves – one living, one dead, both queer – while allowing these split selves to exist side by side.
Bechdel’s split frames reminded me of photo booth photos of my mom and me, taken approximately a year before her death. She was still well enough to go out, but clearly deteriorating. In the first frame my mother’s eyes are open. You’d have to look closely to see how her cheekbones protrude, how her eyes look a bit sunken. In the second frame she can barely keep her eyes open; the smile looks more difficult to maintain. I look uncannily the same in each shot; a slight dip of my chin is the only difference.
In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes describes the act of going through old photographs of his mother after she passed, looking for her but finding only fragments. Barthes identifies what he calls the punctum of the photograph. Different from the studium, which is what we find interesting in a photograph, the punctum catches us off guard; the punctum has the power to wound us. Barthes writes: “As Spectator I was interested in Photography only for ‘sentimental’ reasons; I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound.” Barthes explains how he couldn’t put his mother together into a totality. Then he finds the Winter Garden Photograph: an image of her as a child, standing beside her brother.
Barthes only describes the photo, never letting us see it. He explains why in a parenthetical remark: “(I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’ … at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes … but in it, for you, no wound.)” I agree. Without the context, without knowing about Barthes’s grief and his relation to this photo, it would appear as “ordinary.” In her book The Last Word: Reviving The Dying Art of the Eulogy, Julia Cooper writes: “We might look at the Winter Garden photograph and see a young girl, a mere stranger, where Barthes sees the origin of his world.”
But I’m left wondering why Barthes, in linking “the ordinary” to studium, has decided that the ordinary does not have the power to wound us. In Ordinary Affects, Kathleen Stewart describes the subject of her book as feelings that can be experienced as a pleasure and a shock. Ordinary affects do not provide stable meanings, like Barthes’s studium does. Stewart even notes how Barthes’s writing is a model for her own and that his notion of the punctum – “the wounding, personally touching detail that establishes a direct contact” – is one that she feels called towards and inspired by. For me, it is in the ordinariness of a photograph that I feel the wound (the loss) more profoundly. In the photos of my mother in the year before she died, her imminent death is made visible, undeniable. In those photos we are sharing ordinary experiences. It is in the most ordinary of photos, like those taken in the photo booth, where we find the wound. For it is there, as I look at that photograph, that I realize I had no knowledge that I would lose this person, and that I would lose her so soon.
Forms of Grief and Grieving Forms
Grief is usually caused by the disappearance of a body, either a subject or an object. And as the body vanishes (decaying or just off somewhere else in the world, unknown to us) our own sense of self, our bodily form, and the boundaries that we use to give shape to our lives, tend to vanish also. This is why Freud says, in his famous essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” that the melancholic subject is someone who has introjected or taken in the lost object, swallowed it up, and turned an object loss into an ego loss. In other words, the melancholic turns the narrative of “I’ve lost someone” into “I’m lost; I’ve lost some part of myself. And because of that, I’m worthless.” According to Freud, the melancholic subject is someone who lacks the very boundaries that we so desperately need.
Freud was interested in what I’m calling “forms of grief.” When I talk about “forms of grief,” I mean how we grieve, or fail to: mourning, melancholia, acting out, shutting down, crying hysterically, acting as though everything is okay when really it feels like your world is in pieces. But we also need to think about grieving forms: the places and spaces where grief takes shape, where it forms – oftentimes against our will – where it creeps up on us and takes us by surprise. In Bechdel’s Fun Home, it is the gutter that divides and unites her and her father as he rests in the coffin. In Helen MacDonald’s memoir H is for Hawk, it is the practice of falconry. It could be reflected in a window late at night, in a house that is accumulating more and more objects, as in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Or it could be found in the image-repertoire compiled by the unnamed boys in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides: a photo of an elm tree, a picture torn out of a high school yearbook, a newspaper clipping. I use literary examples here because literature is my grieving form; between the covers of the book there are countless others.
Barthes’s definition of literature in Mourning Diary aptly describes my own reading experience: “what literature is: that I cannot read without pain, without choking on truth.” Barthes’s definition of literature is not a generic one – literature is a novel, a short story, a poem – but rather an affective one. Instead of focusing on what he reads, Barthes defines literature as a practice that causes him pain; that makes him “choke on truth.” Maggie Nelson, whose work is indebted to Barthes, describes literature as “felt experience … the flickering bewildered places that people actually inhabit.” These descriptions of literature have influenced my desire to collapse the boundaries we’ve created between literature and theory; I believe that we can read literature as theory and theory as literature – which is something I began to do in my grieving process. Both genres tell us stories about “the flickering bewildered places that people actually inhabit.” Instead of “colonizing the text with theory” as my diaspora professor once put it, I want to think about how literature has something to teach us about theory.
Freud is perhaps one of the best examples of this blurring of boundaries between theory and literature. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud recounts how his grandson Ernst would say fort (gone) and da (there) whenever his mother left for work. As he said these words, he would throw a reel with a piece of string around it so that it was out of view – fort – and then pull it back into sight – da. Freud does not link this behavior to grief, but rather to the compulsion to repeat that is part of traumatic neuroses. But I think that we can read the fort-da game as an example of a grieving form. Freud tells us how Ernst’s mother took care of him by herself until returning to work when Ernst was eighteen months old. The child had his mother all to himself and when she went back to work he lost the round-the-clock attention he got from her. Thus he was grieving the loss of his all-the-time-mom before he could accept this new mother who worked as well as took care of him. So, through his game, he found a way to process this loss. He took control of the loss and gave it a new form: a leaving and a returning.
It took over ten years after my mother’s death before I started to find my grieving form. Before that all I had was forms of grieving: acting out (self-harm, drug abuse) and repression (we never talked about my mother’s death. When we did speak of her, my father would tell us stories about their courtship; of a time before us and thus before her death). When we grieve we are pulled toward different forms: forms of mourning – we might cry all day or not at all – forms of repression or acting out, and, if we’re lucky, forms that give us solace. For me, the forms I turned to following my mother’s death were destructive. I didn’t know how to confront her loss, so I hid from it. We all did.
After my mother passed, my father took my brother and me to Florida to get away from all of the sadness in our house. As he drove us around Florida in a convertible, top down, the Cardigan’s “Love Fool” playing on the radio, I remember thinking: is this what grieving is? Standing in a Florida mall on Halloween, in costume with my brother – I cannot recall what the costume was – everything felt out of place. What were we doing here? Was this what it meant to “move on?”
When we came back we did not speak of the glaring absence in our lives: we did not grieve. If my father mourned, he did so alone. I don’t remember seeing any signs of grief. I believe that he wanted to be strong, had to be strong because he was now a single parent, and was beginning to develop what we would later find out was a rare, slow-moving form of Lou Gehrig’s disease. And so I buried her loss and his illness under all-nighters where I wandered the streets with my friends, high on ecstasy or whatever else me and my friends had found. I buried these losses – one complete, my mother’s, and one partial, as my father’s illness also took him away from us – under other traumas I experienced as a teenager, which combined to mask the feelings of loss I felt in my family: rape when I was fourteen, being witness to a violent murder of a stranger by an acquaintance, an abortion when I was sixteen, and a near overdose when I was seventeen.
It wasn’t until I was in university, after I switched my major to English, that I found the form that would help me grieve, that would enable me to start doing some of the work of processing the layers of trauma I’d experienced.
The thing that is so vital about grieving forms is that they can help us find a way to be confronted by loss, but not be shattered by it. And they can help us find a space to do the most difficult work we may ever have to do: grieve. Grieving forms evoke grief and make us feel it. But grieving forms – as was the case with Freud’s grandson Ernst – can also open up new feelings, such as joy.
The Blank Page
“When I was told I was going to die from cancer I wanted to leave you this letter, hopefully to make you feel better and to feel close to your mother … I know this is a great time of sadness and pain for you, a pain I wish I could take away.” So begins the five-page letter than my mom wrote to me before she passed away. Inscribed inside a small, purple journal, this the last trace of her handwriting that I have. I’d forgotten that this book existed and was surprised to rediscover it when I began to write this essay. In her letter to me, my mom suggests that I use this book to write to her; she tells me that she’ll make sure my brother and dad don’t snoop in it. But I’ve left the pages blank. The blankness of the pages – a signifier of my inability to write, my inability to confront the pain of her loss – produce in me a greater sadness than her letter.
In the years following her death, I could not, as my mother tells me in the letter, “Remember [that] tears are good.” My mother warns me that “You cannot keep the pain bottled up inside as it will take longer to go away.” My mom was able to anticipate my grief prior to its happening; she was able to recognize me. Her letter gives new meaning to the epigraph that I chose to begin this essay. Barthes writes, “For me, at this point in my life (when maman is dead) I was recognized (by books).” I would revise Barthes’s statement: by books and in books, I was recognized. And in books, and this book in particular, I recognize her presence as well as her absence and how her loss shaped me.
Her absence has taken one final form. Before she died my mother recorded a message on a tape: one for my brother and one for me. I recall listening to my tape shortly after she died. I remember her calling my dad “daddy,” a term of endearment that she didn’t like. Her decision to use it signaling, more than anything else, her recognition that she is dying. But that’s all I remember.
When I rediscovered the book she’d left for me, I was actually looking for the tapes. I wanted to listen to them, with the intention of inserting some of her words into this essay. I found a microcassette player, and I inserted each into the cassette player. They were empty. No sound except for that of the tape turning.
I wanted to believe that there was an issue with the player, not with the tapes. But when I asked a friend for help, she told me that indeed, try as she might to pick up some sound of my mother’s voice on those tapes, there was nothing. No sound. No voice. And so we go from blank pages to blank tapes. I wondered if I’d imagined the tapes. I call my dad and ask him: “Did mom make tapes for [my brother] and I before she passed away?” His response, punctuated by a long pause: “I think so.” Either they’d never existed, or they’d been erased over time, losing the information that contained her voice.
Loss upon loss. First the loss of my mother. And then, twenty years later, the loss of her voice, of her words, on those tapes. And then there’s the loss of the possibility of knowing her final words to us. Having only listened to the tape once, I can barely remember what her final message to me was. I tried to tell myself that I could turn this discovery into a poignant ending for this essay. I wanted to produce an ending that was painful, but perhaps also pleasurable, an ending that would move or touch you. Instead, I have found that my search for a poignant ending has brought me back to one of the original meanings of the word poignant: a painful sharpness, akin to hunger or thirst. Pain that is marked by deprivation, by an absence that, in this case, can never be sated. Not only is she absent in my life, she is also absent on these tapes. But then I remember that I have been able to find her elsewhere, in places I didn’t expect: within the pages of every book I’m drawn to, there’s a trace of my mother. And a trace of myself, of the girl who couldn’t grieve but wanted to so desperately.
Margeaux Feldman is a PhD Candidate in English and Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto and holds a Certificate in Community-Engaged Learning. Margeaux’s academic and creative work has been published in Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, Hook & Eye, the zine Theory Boner, and on her blog floralmanifesto.com. She is currently at work on a book chapter on the gendered nature of emotional labour within the university and will be travelling to the American South this summer to work on her current dissertation chapter on narratives of teen pregnancy.