‘I Need My Literature to Know About it’
The Details: On Love, Death and Reading
by Tegan Bennett Daylight
Simon & Schuster Australia
Published July 2020
I Choose Elena
by Lucia Osborne-Crowley
Allen & Unwin
Published February 2020
Towards the beginning of Tegan Bennett Daylight’s remarkable essay ‘Vagina’, she writes:
But literature always leaves things out; it can’t tell the whole story, or even half of it… Literature looks for significance; it yearns towards composition – order – and in so doing has sometimes to pretend that people, bodily functions…simply aren’t there.
It is the same with our bodies; most of the time we have to ignore the narrative of the foot, the ear or the arse.
Daylight’s point, in this instance, is that the narrative of the vagina is one that we overlook, for a host of (overwhelmingly patriarchal) reasons. And the essay is very much about this problem, about what happens when we ignore the body and its narratives, or when false narratives or half-narratives are imposed upon it, the confusion and harm that this can cause.
I kept returning to this paragraph while reading Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s I Choose Elena, a memoir about trauma and its narratives, bodily memory, and what it takes to heal. Osborne-Crowley’s body is one that she can’t ignore, because of its two chronic, inflammatory (and for a long time, undiagnosed) illnesses, endometriosis and Crohn’s disease, which cause her so much pain that she faints in toilet cubicles, spends days in bed, unable to move. But these conditions, she argues, are linked to the violent sexual assault she experienced as a teenager, but was unable to speak about, or give a narrative to, for the next ten years.
‘Here’s what I now know my body was doing while I pretended I could wish it away’, Osborne-Crowley writes, when explaining these connections; a traumatised body, unable to process or narrativise its assault, instead becomes hypersensitive to certain stimuli, and develops a ‘disastrously overactive’ sympathetic nervous system – the system that controls stress and fight-or-flight responses. This continual alertness wears on the muscles, the organs, the brain, and can mean that ‘the patient faces a future defined by illness as penance for being unable to escape an unbearable past’. The terms in which she couches this – defined, penance – are striking for their absoluteness, their harshness, and for the narrative that sits just beneath them, implicit in them, of a body that must make amends or be atoned for. There’s something dissociative about this, something unsettled – and this is very much Osborne-Crowley’s argument: we need our bodily narratives in order to be properly able to inhabit our physical selves.
So too does Osborne-Crowley admit that the research that draws these connections, that links chronic illnesses and trauma is ‘in its early stages’. This isn’t something that the book examines in any detail, but this also isn’t the point: the emerging research is important to the author first and foremost as a narrative thread, because it is a thread that ties together her experience, that offers a ‘formula for causation’, even though causation is something she understands that she will ‘never know for sure’. For Osborne-Crowley, uncovering a narrative is integral to recovering – and this is, after all, a memoir of recovery, of moving past pain and trauma, towards ‘acceptance’ and a ‘hopeful’ ending, towards what the author describes as ‘giving myself form and shape and substance’.
I Choose Elena opens with a description of the author’s teenage embodiment, when, as a competitive gymnast, she ‘knew every inch of my body so well I could feel every tiny sensation’ and it seemed that this body ‘belonged wholly to me’. There’s a real joy in this, in remembering both this kind of unselfconscious inhabitation of the body, and the pure physicality of the sport: somersaulting, arching into handstands, twisting in mid-air. Gymnastics, Osborne-Crowley explains, is a sport of strength, and one that pursues perfection. The body must be finely tuned, precise, in alignment with the mind. This, Osborne-Crowley is saying, is what was taken from me, this is what I lost.
Because ‘the thing about being a teenage girl’ she writes, ‘is that at a certain point, the outside world intrudes on this narrative and it reconstructs your perception of your body without your knowledge or permission.’ At a certain point, a girl’s body stops being wholly her own, or she becomes aware for the first time that her body is not her own. That it is subject to forces beyond her control, that it is an object as well as the container for her subjectivity and self. That its significance might be a thing that is imposed upon it, rather than one that she determines herself.
For Osborne-Crowley, this ‘certain point’ was sudden, and shockingly violent: at fifteen, on a night out in the city with friends, she was raped by a stranger at knifepoint. She told no-one, returning home in a taxi and sneaking into her bedroom so as not to wake her parents, returning to school and everyday teenage rituals of dissecting crushes and doodling in classes the following day. Osborne-Crowley does not relate this incident directly, not quite. She focuses on details immediately before – the man’s grip, his orchestrated movements – and directly afterwards – the smash of a bottle against the toilet bowl, the wild eyes of her friends. Instead of the attack itself, she outlines a well-known theory of bodily response to trauma: ‘If you’ve read about trauma,’ Osborne-Crowley writes, ‘you will know that the human body’s autonomic nervous system gives it three options in this kind of situation: fight, flight or freeze’; before outlining what each of these options might have looked like in this particular circumstance. What this means is that the description is dissociated, almost disembodied, in keeping with a freeze response, the option the body falls back on when flight and fight are impossible.
It’s a clever device – one that means both that the writing enacts something of its subject matter, and also avoids anything gratuitous or voyeuristic. The freeze response, Osborne-Crowley argues, is the way in which the body prepares for its own death, and surviving this creates problems of its own. Much of the book is devoted to the long-term consequences of this traumatic response: the author’s illnesses, her sense of shame and loss of self – but there is an immediate cost too. Osborne-Crowley loses her finely-tuned sense of her body, her proprioception, her ‘athletic self’. She starts making mistakes in practice, falls and injures herself in a competition. The muscle memory of her routines are overwritten by the bodily memory of needing to survive, and the loss is ‘devastating’ and ‘profound’.
Two years after the assault, Osborne-Crowley is hospitalised for the first time, for the acute abdominal pain that she now knows is associated with her endometriosis. What she didn’t realise then, she states, is ‘how many more times I would have to do this,’ how many more admissions she would endure before being referred to a specialist, how many tests and exploratory surgeries, how many medical professionals would dismiss her pain, disbelieve her accounts of her own body and its symptoms, treat her with ‘disapproval’ and disdain. ‘Again and again,’ she writes, ‘doctors asked me if I was feeling stressed, or anxious, or depressed, or panicked’; and ‘at nineteen, realising that everyone around me thought my problem was psychological was the hardest part of all.’
This is, we know now (I know now) an incredibly common experience for women with complex (or rare) medical conditions, the kinds of conditions that have unusually varied etiologies or presentations, like endometriosis and other inflammatory diseases (or that doctors only see a handful of times in their decades-long careers, like the rumination syndrome that I live with). Medicine doesn’t know enough about women’s bodies, because it has for centuries considered the male body as standard; medicine doesn’t trust women to understand or narrativise their own bodies, because it has for centuries doubted the rationality of creatures surely ruled by their wombs. More and more, I hear women refer to this as ‘medical gaslighting’; more and more now I think this is a trauma in itself. The studies Osborne-Crowley cites when discussing this have in the past few years become well known. This problem is endemic, but at least we know its narrative now.
‘Ever the journalist’, Osborne-Crowley accesses her medical records in order to confirm how she was seen, how her narrative was shaped, from the other side. What she finds are repeated pathology reports checking for STIs, despite her insistence that it wasn’t possible that she had any; blood work that is described as ‘relatively normal’, despite almost all of it showing raised levels of the cells and chemicals implicated in inflammatory processes; summary comments claiming that her pain had been ‘successfully managed’ and that she herself was ‘well and stable’, despite neither of these being true. The answer was there, Osborne-Crowley writes, it’s just that ‘no one was looking for it’. And she includes herself in that equation, recalling one doctor who did ask her if she had been raped. This was the first time she had ever told ‘the story… out loud, from start to finish,’ but before the doctor could respond she ran. ‘What I know now,’ she writes, ‘is that no doctor would have been able to help me while I was trapped by silence and shame.’
Osborne-Crowley’s narrative is important because its silence and shame, its violence, are things that so many women share, even if only partially, and I Choose Elena is strongest when it is interrogating the ways in which Osborne-Crowley’s story has precedents and recurrences in the wider world. As well as this exploration of illness and medicine, the penultimate chapter, ‘Revelations’, circles back to the author’s experiences as a gymnast, and her realisation that one of the coaches had groomed and abused her for years. She links this to the trial of Larry Nassar, the former medical coordinator for USA Gymnastics who was recently convicted for abusing more than 260 women and girls under his care. Osborne-Crowley lists details from some of the testimonials these women gave at the end of Nassar’s trial, and the way in which they too ‘were imprisoned by silence’: the first ‘disclosure’ was made in 1997, twenty-one years before Nassar was brought to trial, with at least four more sets of allegations raised in the meantime – and not one of these girls was believed.
This leads Osborne-Crowley to re-consider her own story, and some of the shame she has been carrying for her silence. Had she or her teammates spoken up about their coach, ‘it’s possible that we simply would not have been believed’; had she reported her rape to the police – a thing that didn’t occurred to her to do ‘because I so quickly decided to dedicate myself to pretending it never happened’ – there would have been no evidence, and a brutal cross-examination where she would most likely be accused of lying. The choice between silence and speaking is really no choice at all, because the narratives – the ‘myths’, as Osborne-Crowley names them – about women who lie about, or are somehow complicit in, their abuse are ‘systemic’ and they are ‘fatal’.
The lines of connection Osborne-Crowley draws here between her experience and those of others are damning because they are so direct; the author also draws upon legal research – she has worked as a paralegal as well as a journalist – and literature to make her case. Across the book as a whole, though, Osborne-Crowley’s arguments aren’t always this clear-eyed, in large part because the sources that she draws upon come from all kinds of places: the poet Rupi Kaur, best known for her illustrated Instagram poems; Cheryl Strayed’s advice column ‘Dear Sugar’; and Brené Brown, a popular psychologist whose TED Talks on vulnerability and ‘daring’ are amongst that site’s most-viewed videos. Motivational and pop-psychological texts, that is, sit alongside literary and academic sources, and this does sometimes cause a strange tonal shift between, and even within, some of the threads of Osborne-Crowley’s arguments. But this eclectic approach to source material is hard to begrudge in a book that is very much about finding ways to shape or understand a narrative that has been suppressed or dismissed by the existing authoritative structures, like medicine and the law. Indeed, the book’s title comes from one of Cheryl Strayed’s columns, where she discusses a woman who has overcome a history of violence and who claims that ‘at a certain point’ we have to decide who ‘we allow to influence us’, and instead of choosing the perpetrators of that violence, she chooses to be influenced by Vincent van Gogh. Osborne-Crowley declares that she has chosen to be influenced by Elena Ferrante, whose protagonists must draw upon ‘vulnerability and resilience’ to ‘overcome their dangerous pasts and possess their own narratives, in all of their complexity.’ But alongside these disparate kinds of sources, there are also points in the book where phrases that have become easy or almost pat crop up, phrases like ‘the body keeps score’, from a seminal psychological text about trauma, and ‘act of disappearance’ to describe a bout of disordered eating, and these too occasionally interrupt the more rigorous aspects of Osborne-Crowley’s work. In many ways, the source material doesn’t matter: solace is solace, wherever it is found; but it does mean that the writing sometimes feels less convincing, less compelling.
Osborne-Crowley’s first reference to Elena Ferrante occurs very early in the book, and discusses the disappearance of Lila, one of the protagonists of the author’s famous Neapolitan quartet, an event which is the catalyst for the books’ narrator, Elena Greco, to sit down and write her story in the first place. Lila has long wanted to vanish, to be invisible; had, as a child, often felt the sensation of her body dissolving. Osborne-Crowley reflects on this, writing that ‘[a]ny person who has moved through this world with the body of a woman will know what it means to wish to be invisible’ and ‘overcoming this feeling is one of the hardest lessons a woman can learn’. Finding her narrative has been, for the author, a means of ‘giving myself form and shape and substance’; finding significance and composition in her experiences has been what has allowed her to move past silence and shame. The act of writing here is one of reclamation.
I keep circling back to the way in which Tegan Bennett Daylight closes her essay: by stating, ‘I don’t need you to know about my vagina. But I need my literature to know about it. To know about women’s lives – to know their bodies, and not just words like “suffering” or “pain”.’ This too is the kind of project that I Choose Elena is pursuing: to speak about women’s lives, and the aspects that are commonly ignored or kept secret, to make sure that these stories are told.
‘Vagina’ is preceded in Daylight’s collection of essays by the first of three pieces titled ‘Detail’, each of which is interested in the ways in which small objects and moments, the minutiae of a world, a life, can help us make sense of much bigger stories – love, death, coming-of-age. But they also trace the use of details in literature, the way in which they can ‘vivify experience’ and ‘amplify… what we’ve seen or felt or heard’; and how what we read becomes a ‘storehouse or granary’ of images and metaphor that ‘floats’ behind our physical lives. It’s a great rhetorical move: opening the book this way both thematises and contextualises ‘Vagina’, which is interested in attending to details that are normally left out, in adding to this storehouse of material that is, by and large, missing from literature and from the stories we speak to each other.
‘Vagina’ is an essay about childbirth, and about the damage that birth – and the doctors attending to it – can cause, as well as how little attention is paid to this, how infrequently we talk, let alone write, about it. The details Daylight imparts are striking because of this – she describes the sensation of forceps being ‘manoeuvr[ed]’, ‘one handle at a time’ into the vagina, being given condoms filled with frozen water to lay along a maternity pad to ease the pain after the birth, along with Panadeine Forte, but nothing stronger, the ‘bristle of stitches’ left behind. ‘Sometimes at night’, she writes:
I thought that if I had injuries like this from anything but birth there would be ambulances, police, counselling. If I hurt myself this way in a car accident there would be weeks put aside for recovery and rehabilitation. Instead I was sleeping only a few hours a night and I was about to step back into a life that was utterly changed.
This too is a kind of medical gaslighting, a refusal to see this kind of pain as valid, as a problem or a kind of trauma, because it is ‘natural’ and not the result of catastrophe, and because it affects the parts of a woman’s body still most poorly understood by medicine and doctors. The birth of Daylight’s second child some years later is easier, but causes longer-term damage, and it takes until the child is old enough to attend school for the author to find appropriate medical care, from a gynaecologist who she describes as having an ‘attractive lion-like quality – a mixture of power, rage and kindness’.
But what ‘Vagina’ is most interested in is thinking about what happens when we tell these stories. Early on, Daylight writes about a friend whose grandmother, in the 1950s, did not know before her first labour that ‘the baby would come out of her vagina’ (‘Imagine not knowing’, she writes), before reflecting on the books that she read whilst breastfeeding her first child (‘small old books’ with ‘soft leather covers’ that ‘stayed obediently open’) like Middlemarch and Barchester Towers – and noticing that they all contained childbirth, and deaths in childbirth, but that they always happen out of sight. ‘Literature generally pretends,’ she writes, ‘… that the vagina isn’t there, unless it’s juxtaposed with a penis… I don’t think I’ve ever seen any [characters] sneaking off to bathrooms to push their fingers up their vaginas to relieve the pressure of a prolapsed bowel or rectum.’ Writing about this, though, becomes ‘a way of taking control’; and talking about these ‘vaginal issues’, in one instance at least, helps Daylight to find a solution.
In the final paragraph of this essay, Daylight quotes James Wood, ‘To notice is to rescue, to redeem; to save life from itself’, and this is very much the work that ‘Vagina’ is doing. But it’s present in the other essays in this collection too, both in the essays that draw from the author’s life – those that discuss adolescence, both the author’s and that of her children, as well as teaching, friendship, family and death – and those that discuss books and reading, and the ways in which other authors attempt to rescue and redeem the world. The collection, that is, is a mixture of personal essays and literary criticism, and it’s held together by this interest in the ways in which the minutiae of life contain much bigger stories.
Both ‘Detail I’ and ‘Detail II’, for example, discuss the author’s relationship with her mother, in the former as a child and adolescent, and in the latter, as her mother is dying of lung disease. Daylight’s mother was also a great reader, having turned to books during a serious childhood illness, and grew to become someone who ‘used books as a form of communication,’ passing on to Daylight the books that she had loved, and also quoting from them, almost ritualistically – vivifying experience in a way that only makes sense to the author now that she too is grown. ‘Detail I’ is partly a biographical essay told through books, but it’s mostly an attempt to understand precisely what it is that the author has inherited from her mother alongside her books – her ‘magpie attention’ for detail, trained, perhaps, through fiction; her sense of being ‘full of words’. ‘The perfect parent for a writer,’ Daylight realises, ‘is the almost-writer, the person or persons trembling on the brink of self-expression’. There’s something beautiful and plaintive about this image, this charting of a lineage that is only now being fulfilled. The essay is also one that prefigures the mother’s death, in Daylight contemplating the ‘conversation’ she continues to have with her mother and her talent for noticing whenever she reads.
In ‘Detail II’ both Daylight and her mother turn their attention to death, a subject that, like vaginas, is one from which we normally look away, one which we normally elide. What’s most powerful about this essay is how direct it is, how it dwells in the small moments and conversations that surround a death, and tries to tell them plainly, without poeticising or euphemism. It’s a tactic that is echoed later, in an essay about the late novelist Georgia Blain (who was a friend of Daylight’s), where the author remembers driving Blain home after meeting for lunch – a rather mundane final encounter – and must resist making more of this than what it was. Blain, she writes:
…hated false profundity and sentiment, and she would hate it if I pretended that we had shared something very remarkable at this moment. She was only interested in the truth, and would have laughed or snarled at the neatness of this ‘final memory’ of her. Georgia’s writing was about people close up, the truth of an exchange like this one, the inadequate way we are in the face of death.
It’s this inadequacy that Daylight captures so well in this piece, detailing each moment that she’s unable to make a decision, unable to moderate her ‘tone’ (‘I had decided that I would be best at this… I would be the most capable. I would be the one who did not give way to helpless tears when our mother was in distress’), too tired to go on. And here again it is the telling that makes the difference: the essay ends with the author being flooded by grief in the early hours of the morning on the day after her mother’s death, and, over ‘an hour or more’ detailing ‘all that had happened’ to her husband. ‘It was the single kindest thing anyone has ever done for me’, she writes. Here again it is the narrative, the detail that redeems.
Interwoven with these personal essays are pieces of literary criticism, about writers as varied as Helen Garner – whose Monkey Grip Daylight credits with ‘consciously teaching’ her how to write – the American humourist S.J. Perelman (‘There isn’t anything I can say that will illustrate Perelman’s brilliance so fluently as the work itself’ Daylight writes, ‘… while planning this essay, I’ve been a bit like a monkey with a jar of peanuts – my hand is so full I can’t get it out’), George Saunders, Brian Dillon and Rudyard Kipling. Georgia Blain’s posthumously published Museum of Lost Words is discussed too, in an essay that combines literary criticism with a tribute to a friend.
Daylight’s criticism is often personal – her discussion of Kipling’s Stalky & Co, for example, is also a discussion of adolescence, and of the reading and creative habits of the author’s teenage children; the essay on Brian Dillon touches on her own ‘late brush with depression’. But this isn’t bibliomemoir, not quite – the personal details illuminate the books, rather than the inverse that is usually true of that form. What becomes evident is not so much a portrait of Daylight as a reader, but her skill as a critic, her ability to distill enough detail from a work to understand – and convey something of – its essence, to trace the author’s thinking and engagement with the world. And to figure out exactly what it is that makes the books work – Garner’s ‘illuminating’ attention to detail and ‘eye like a torch’; Saunders’ ‘springiness’ and control of tone and voice.
This is not to say that Daylight isn’t interested in considering herself as a reader, or what it means to be a person who lives largely in and through books. These pieces of criticism are also concerned about what each book or writer means to the author as a person and as a writer, why it is that she is drawn to them or returns to them; it’s also this lineage and its implications that she is tracing in the essays about her mother, her body, her children. And it’s also apparent in one of the most assured of the personal essays in the collection, ‘The difficulty is the point’, which deals with Daylight’s experiences teaching literature at a university, in a compulsory subject for Education students who are, largely, from regional Australia and ‘habitual non-readers’.
Much of Daylight’s job, in this role, is to help her students understand how to engage with literature, how to read, when so many of their upbringings have been devoid of books and much of their lives are spent in what she describes as ‘depressive anhedonia’, the critic Mark Fisher’s terms for ‘the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand’ that he sees as one of the hallmarks of the internet age. But what’s remarkable about this essay is its generosity, its kindness – it is not a piece that despairs of the students, their engagement, their prior education – but one that takes great joy in sharing a love of reading, in adding to that repository of images and ideas for people who barely yet have one. It’s a beautifully balanced piece, finally about why this work ‘is worth it’ and all of the things that literature and language can do – breed thinking, breed resistance, help a person to understand their life and world and the conditions that have shaped them both.
This too is ultimately the project of The Details: to turn a reader’s gaze upon a life, and upon the books and language that have informed it, to redeem experience with and through literature, and to add to that literature the details and narratives that it might otherwise elide. In many ways, the collection is eclectic, but it’s held together by these interests, and by Daylight’s critical eye, her ability to collect and chart the complexities and ambiguities of her experiences, both in the physical world and the world of books. To look beyond ‘just words like “suffering” and “pain”,’ like love and loss and friendship and hope, and into the particularities of what make these experiences individual and illuminating.