At my last job, I was a book publicist, an aspiring, possibly desperate, wannabe New York media girl but lacking the requisite slim thighs or robust Twitter following. We’d have to drink a lot—there were so many parties and launches—and I’d remind myself to be as charming and engaging as possible. I’d encrust myself in fake gold so that I might glitter even if everything I had to say felt painful and dull. Sometimes, I’d like to think I succeeded. Sometimes, though, I’d drink too much and all the meticulously curated proper nouns and New Left Review articles I’d plastered to the inside of my skull were suddenly erased, rewritten with terrible words that I usually experienced as a dull headache. I wanted, more than anything else, to be seen.
So when I was assigned the English translation of Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament, I was thrilled. I would do so much with it. It would be great for my career. I thought about writing chirpy emails with “a heartwrenching tale of trauma and recovery” tossed out with the punchy plainspokenness that gets things noticed, and imagined the celebratory buzz of headlines in all the important places announcing this Very Important Novel. I thought about the parties where I’d smile and say, “Yeah, we’re so excited about this one—it’s about how a girl’s father sexually abuses her as a child, and then later on he dies, and the family fights over the inheritance of cabins. It’s like Knausgaard meets The Incest Diary, it’s coming out for the first time in English, we’re so excited about it, it’s such an Important contribution to the field.”
But then I’d come home drunk on the subway, again, rehearsing conversations that would never happen with my father whom I hadn’t seen in over twenty years, gesticulating madly, elation and righteous anger coursing through me like alcohol: why did you do it, don’t look at me don’t touch me, don’t come near me, again, ever! What would I do? I’d scream myself hoarse, I’d throw a knife at him, no, I’d say nothing and reduce him to ashes with a furious, crackling gaze of my dark eyes (and then practice that gaze right then and there under the unforgiving lights of the subway—hadn’t I seen it so many times in so many Bollywood movies?). Every time, every time, I did this on the subway, drunk, and coming home, and it felt like I was paper thin, weightless, the light and the noise of the world easily passing into me, through me. Once I looked up to see a middle-aged white lady sitting across from me eyeing me with some concern. So in the end I said, no, I couldn’t do it, someone else at the office should work on the novel because I just wasn’t up to the task. And so I ceded even more ground to the ravening blackness that forever follows me, demanding tributes of blood and things newly born, one sacrifice and then another.
The revelation of the abuse Will and Testament’s protagonist, Bergjlot, suffered at the hands of her father comes fairly late in the novel. We spend much of it traversing the paths of her memory with her, woven with the plot in the present day, as she unravels the current conflict with her family. She drinks and wanders into the woods, she texts her family, she emails them, constantly, hoping for words of acceptance and contrition and understanding. It never happens. Instead she’s met over and over again with recriminations and emotional blackmail, or with a dark silence. She drinks, again, she wanders back into the woods, again, she tells her story to strangers, she loves the wrong men at the wrong times. She does her laundry over and over, a Sisyphean task that causes her much anxiety, all the filthy clothes accumulating in her closet that never quite go away; she can spend all weekend sorting and washing them meticulously, and there they are again, sooner or later, befouled anew.
But she does get a memory, a total recall of sorts: she’s entered psychoanalysis and in that process uncovered the memory she repressed. In writing a screenplay, she rereads a paragraph she’s written to see the memory right there in the middle, as a declarative, authoritative, unshaken statement. Overcome with a paroxysm of shock, viewing the spectacle of the latent terror come to life as language, she collapses to the floor.
Why did this story in particular of loss and violation raise such a tumult in me? I’ve been no stranger to them. Bergljot keeps referring to some Danish film I’d never heard of, called Festen. For me, it was finding my mother’s copy of The God of Small Things when I was maybe twelve or thirteen, reading it over and over since, the similarities between my own family and the family in the novel becoming ever clearer. Some parts, even thinking about them as I write this, are seared into me, even now, they send currents thrilling through my electrified blood. Like when Rahel visits her hometown Ayemenem again as an adult, and a creepy old man she talks to scents the odor of tragedy clinging to her, remembering that it was something about “sex and death.” Or this part: “She had learned very quickly to disregard the Father Bear Mother Bear stories she was given to read. In her version, Father Bear beat Mother Bear with brass vases.” Or the part about “the Love Laws. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.” When the twins see The Sound of Music as children, when Estha is molested by the Orangedrink Lemondrink man, they wonder if Baron von Trapp could ever love them, could ever be their father. “Are they clean white children?” they imagine him asking. “Have they, either or both, ever held strangers’ soo-soos? . . . Then I’m sorry. It’s out of the question. I cannot love them. I cannot be their Baba. Oh no.”
There’s also Lolita: I still have the tattered, woebegone copy I stole from my high school library. It’s missing both covers and is underlined and dog-eared. If I touch it now, I have to be careful that the pages don’t crumble beneath my fingers. It now strikes me that, when I first read it, I found nothing at all troubling about Humbert Humbert’s desire for Lolita. I even empathized with it. I suppose part of this was teenage edginess, but I don’t think that was the only reason I saw this desire as perfectly natural: how any man would react if he had the care of a young girl—to isolate her, separate her from her mother, love her in a way that was only “a miserable parody of incest.”
Then, of course, came The Incest Diary. I let it sit on my bookshelf for a year before I could bring myself to read it. Then I dreamt of a tiny toddler and her father—not me, not my father—driving somewhere. He looks at her, vulnerable and dimpled and soft, aglow with happiness at being surrounded by her favorite books and her favorite person, and his heart swells with love, until she asks him to put his hand up her dress. He does it, and he likes it. They wake up naked in a barn, clasped in each others’ arms, on a bale of hay, the sunlight softly filtering in, illuminating specks of dust floating gracefully heavenward, and then he watches her gleefully fuck the aging farmhand and all his friends, with hairy hands and yellow, broken teeth, slavering like starved animals over the woman’s breasts quivering obscenely on her little girl’s frame.
But my bond to Hjorth’s novel felt different. Perhaps it was because it was the woman’s story as narrated by her, except not really, because Will and Testament isn’t a memoir, it’s a novel. Perhaps because it’s not about the abuse itself, or even the aftermath of abuse—it’s about what happens when the mute, inchoate terror is transformed into words, into the tidy arithmetic of subject plus verb plus object—you assaulted me, you destroyed me, you took everything from me before I had anything to take—and what happens when you read them, when others read them. What happens when the father dies, when we have to deal with mundane things like wills and property, yet invested with so much meaning. The Love Laws. Who can be loved, and how much. Perhaps it was also the time when it entered my life, when I was struggling to tell my own story to myself, when I was treading the old ground over and over again, searching for the right words for the hurt and shying away from them, desperate to be seen and yet continually slipping behind the shadows.
Unlike Bergljot, I’ve never had a revelatory fainting fit, an ouija-board discovery, the opportunity to accuse and be (dis)believed, but I have something close. I have no memory of the time when what maybe, probably, happened to me happened, but some part of me always believed, a lingering taste in the back of my throat I couldn’t identify. I remember, as a young girl, a doctor speaking to me in a kindly, reassuring voice and shining a flashlight right between my spread legs, while my mother held my hand. I remember, the first time I saw a sex scene on television, at maybe six or seven, and feeling a strange familiarity, that I understood the real meaning of my morbid, erotic fascination with excrement and blood. I remember finding a book tucked furtively in the linen closet: When the Bough Breaks: A Helping Guide for Parents of Sexually Abused Children. I remember my fifth-grade notebooks, full of lurid scribbling about women being raped and decapitated, blood and semen smeared over their clothes. I have the stories told to me over and over, about how, when I was a toddler, my father, employing the legal mechanisms available to him as the earning, green-card holding husband of a completely dependent wife, banished my mother and brother to India intending to keep me with him, alone, together, forever, telling me they had either died or abandoned me. I have the story about how—once they finally managed to return home—I had fungus under my toenails and couldn’t draw a human face and would sit in the tub and scrub my skin raw, saying over and over again that I was dirty.
Years later, as a young woman, I read their divorce papers, where my mother leveled the accusation of sexual abuse against my father, where she described my behaviors as a toddler when she returned to me, and where she indicated that there was a medical examination to see if there was physical proof. Hands shaking, I dug through the filing cabinet of our dank basement and found this report. It was handwritten. But like a sick joke, the ink had almost completely faded. It was so long ago that the words were no longer legible, and there went my best chance to know what really happened.
He left before I started kindergarten, I think, fleeing the country and child support and alimony obligations. “You and your brats will be homeless in Newark in six months,” he said, or at least so the story goes. I haven’t seen him since and probably never will. I wouldn’t recognize him if I passed him on the street. Unlike Bergljot, I’ll never be able to confront him with a definitive accusation, to be met with apology and contrition, or—more likely—denial. So I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not. When he dies, to whom will he leave his property and his money? To me? Will I be able to accept it? Maybe he has another family, another daughter, and she’ll get everything, his other daughter, whom he loved the right way, whom he took to dance classes and taught to ride a bike and embarrassed by telling corny jokes in front of her friends, whose birthday parties and graduations and choir recitals he came to, beaming with pride; who fought with her over boyfriends and short skirts and staying out too late. Who, because she was loved, was healthy and whole and therefore more lovable than I could ever be, who didn’t get drunk and cry over him on the subway, who didn’t have webs of scars crisscrossing her legs and arms, who didn’t get on her knees for strange, cruel men in hotel rooms and stairways and bathroom stalls and parking lots, searching for his face. She’ll get everything.
As much as I saw myself in Hjorth/Bergljot I also resented this rich white girl who has so much, whose father, no matter what he did, was there and cared for her. She even has the memory and I don’t, the conviction, the words, the tangibility. How dare she have the nerve to tell this story and expect us all to feel sorry for her and how dare these people expect me to get her awards and praise and accolades.
I left my publicist’s job, but Hjorth’s story stuck to me—more importantly, and more self-centeredly, my story about her story, about what it did to me. After Will and Testament was first published in Norway, there had been a storm of controversy—Hjorth’s wealthy and influential family was identified as the subject, and her infuriated sister wrote a novel countering its claims, also a bestseller. And though Hjorth insisted that the book is not autobiographical,1 nobody, least of all her sister, believed it was just a novel. Her denial smacked of coyness, of cowardice.
Despite my multi-layered contempt for Hjorth, or maybe because of it, I felt this kinship with her, as the woman who remembered and spoke when I could not. So I went to see her talk at McNally Jackson earlier this year. I came prepared with a question about repetition, and what function it serves for her protaganist. The thing about the laundry in particular, I had to remember that, because I’m the same way about cleaning my room—it’s never clean, I’m always ashamed, I spend a whole day cleaning it, and then it’s dirty again, and then I fantasize about taking a whole week off work to clean it properly, and it never happens, or happens a little bit maybe, and then it’s dirty again, I’m ashamed, again. It’s all too compelling to believe that this was, just like Bergljot and her dirty clothes, a trauma-induced neurosis that the author would have the answers for.
More than that, I had a vague wish for some kind of dramatic showdown: The discussion would prove too upsetting for me, she would repeat a single innocuous line that somehow dislodged The Truth, hidden in my unconscious like my credit card buried under dirty socks, and I too would collapse to the floor, shaking. Or the remarkable perspicacity of my question would signal to her that we were both kindred spirits, that I was plagued with the same horrors that she was; we’d get drunk afterwards and swap our tales of woe and she’d tell me how, finally, to tell mine.
Obviously, none of that happened. Hjorth was charming, somewhat aloof, funny, and personable. If I had still been her publicist, I would have been pleased that she spoke so well at the event. But, without a trace of coyness, she spoke about her novel as a novel without hinting that it was about her. It was, really, the same kind of book talk I’d seen a million times. She was paired with a smartly dressed, slim-thighed young author and they talked about the difficulties of translation and her personal practice of writing. I asked her about the meaning of repetition in the novel, hoping that somehow she’d give me The Answer that would unlock what I’m trying to write about. Of course, she didn’t quite do that, but the importance of what she did say comes to me as I write it here: That the self is a narrative, but nevertheless there is still a truth, and that people do horrible things to each other and themselves if that truth is denied.
But what if Will and Testament is actually just a novel after all? Hjorth’s most recent interview in the Guardian strongly suggests that it is. Bergljot and her laundry, Bergljot and her terror of sleep and the loss of control it brings, Bergljot and her possessive, paranoid, envious mother, Bergljot and her destructive love affairs—all lies, excuse me, all fiction. It’s storytelling, it’s art. Or maybe only partially fiction—Hjorth states in the interview that she drew from her work as a teacher with undocumented people, with refugees, and their trauma in creating Bergljot. Is this worse, that in order to create a national bestseller, Hjorth capitalized on the suffering of vulnerable, marginalized people in order to create this “semi-autobiographical novel”? But after all, Hjorth can’t be blamed for this—the titillating “autobiographical” buzzword originates outside of her: from her sister, her publisher, the theater that staged an adaptation, a gluttonous media machine hungry for the latest provocative development in “autofiction in the era of #MeToo,” and “narrating the self.” Really, all that Hjorth has done is to write a novel that draws partially from her own life, and the lives of people she’s known, just as any artist does. Maybe that includes the incest, maybe it doesn’t, and of course she doesn’t owe the public the innermost details of her personal life, as much as we feel we’re entitled to them. Potential feminist criticisms aside, I don’t feel this same confused, muddled betrayal at David Lynch for directing Fire Walk With Me. But I didn’t go meet David Lynch at a screening to feel a kinship with him; I didn’t feel that, in watching Fire Walk With Me, I was recognized by someone, who, like me, was aching for that same recognition but feared it as well. What this is about really, is actually something Hjorth said standing in that cramped room at McNally Jackson: “Bergljot is alone with her story and almost does not believe her story . . . we tell ourselves who we are in connection with other people. She needs to be seen.” Ah, but how?
In Freud’s “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” he proposes the still-controversial notion of the death drive, a deep-seated, destructive instinct towards a primordial non-existence. This builds from his 1914 essay “On Remembering, Repetition, and Working Through,” where he theorizes a common behavior among his neurotic and hysterical patients—of repeating the same practices and thoughts and dreams, despite or because of the pain that they cause. This could not be explained by seeking pleasure and gratification; there must have been something more complicated at work.
Recently I described to a friend why the changing of the seasons has always filled me with such overwhelming, ecstatic pain, like I’m a solitary monk flagellating his back to ribbons, over and over, kneeling on the cold stones of a cold cell. “It’s because,” I said, “you’ve come back to a place that you thought was new, but there are the same smells, you wear the same sweaters you stowed in the closet last year, and you know that everything is about to be different but all the memories of ‘this time last year’ follow you like ghosts, and you’re still back at the same place, you haven’t changed, but everything else has.”
When I’m drunk on the subway there’s a video I watch over and over again, the climactic song from Pakeezah (1972). In the video, the titular heroine, a courtesan, sings a mournful, plaintive song to her estranged lover at his wedding to another woman, an occasion at which he hired her to perform as an act of humiliation: “Aaj hum apni, duaon ka asar dekhenge, Tere nazar dekhenge, Zakhm-e jigar dekhenge” (“Today I shall see the answers to my prayers / I shall see the arrows of your glances, the wounds of my heart.”)
Her lover stands at the front of the assembly, watching her as she performs. But then she looks over at him and sees that he’s left, that he’s stopped watching her, stopped listening. In a fit of despair and fury, she knocks a towering glass lamp to the floor with a resounding crash, and dances over the broken glass, in front of everyone, her veil tossed aside, her hair wild, her ankles frenzied and jerking as she valiantly maintains the steps, yet she stumbles, blood spattering the white cloth on the floor. She’s driven to this extravagant, public display of self-harm when the restrained expression of her pain is no longer registered, when she’s no longer being seen, when it becomes clear that there is no answer to her prayers and she will see nothing.
Why do we have a constant compulsion to do the same things over and over again, though they hurt us, destroy us? My therapist asks me, “What are you getting out of this? You must be getting something out of this,” when I tell her about all the various things I’ve done for thirty years, that I still do, to feel pain, physical and emotional. She tells me that the same girl at eleven and nineteen and twenty-seven who was cutting and cutting was the same girl at four, scrubbing and scrubbing. In my diary, I write that I can’t write about any of this, I can’t write this story, that I have no words; all I can do is watch Meena Kumari tear her feet open over and over for the whole world to see. Maybe part of that is a kind of wish fulfillment, a fantasy that the furtive and solitary act of self-harm, cloaked in shame, was aggressively and uncomfortably visible, if not to him, then to everyone else.
The compulsion to repeat is the wordless voice of what is repressed fighting to be made legible. Sometimes things happen to us before we have language to render them visible and tangible; often horrible things. Or sometimes things happen to us that are just too horrible for conscious language, that will crack the very infrastructure of our conscious mind if they are allowed to remain there, so they pass beneath it, burrowing into the dark soil of the unconscious; into the vague, disconnected, half-sensical language that dwells there. But nevertheless they demand to be known, and compel us into doing the same things over and over again that bring us to that tender, raw, flensed place between pleasure and pain. We have to keep going back into the woods, like Bergjlot, trying to find our footsteps in the snow. I read somewhere, and I can’t recall or find where or I would cite it, that it’s like your tongue unable to resist seeking the excruciating pain of a diseased tooth. It hurts so good, and you have to make yourself feel its pain to know that there’s something rotting there, something that needs to be excised.
In psychoanalysis then, the aim is to recreate this repetition in a controlled environment, coaxing the memory slowly out of where it’s been buried, so that knowing can remember, so that the compulsion to repeat can be channeled into the more productive work of reckoning and working through. Bergljot’s memory surfaces, and is literally made legible after this psychoanalytic process. But ultimately, does this help her? I have asked myself, over and over, whether it will really help me if I remember what happened to me. It seems an easy equation. Maybe I have a real reason to be this fucked up. That would be better than being fucked up for no reason, or because there’s something in me that, independent of anyone else, is just fundamentally sick. What would I do with this knowledge? What does Bergljot do with her knowledge, except to invite more conflict and sorrow and loss into her life? When does rendering the terror into words make the words no longer terrible? Is the most I can hope for getting closure about never getting closure?
I wonder what purpose Hjorth’s novel served for her, and what purpose writing this essay—publishing this essay—serves for me. This is the first time I’ve written about any of this. I’ve always been somewhat cynical about sexual violence tragedy porn, yet here I am. Like Bergljot, I’ve gotten drunk and told my story to strangers, told other horrible stories to strangers, and woken up hungover and ashamed. Telling the story drunk, crying on the subway drunk, gives you the deniability you need to slink back into the dark woods, alone, so you can do it all over again, and pity yourself because nobody sees you. I suppose the effort of suppressing-this-but-not-really, feeling its ache just beneath the skin, shamelessly exhibiting myself and then crawling away, has proven too much for me. But is this really a sober confession to a caring listener? I’m still writing under a pseudonym to mostly strangers after all, though my identity is fairly clear to anyone reading this who knows me. But it’s not a novel, I can’t pretend it happened or didn’t happen to someone else, I can’t be seduced by the trick of my subconscious, displacing in dreams what is probably at least partially a memory onto a fictional character. This can’t be another repetition, another false footprint.
Working through is so much harder than repeating, than inflicting pain upon yourself. In the grip of the wordless memory, of the terror, everything around you is impregnated with this powerful, potent, hidden meaning. Your skin is alive and sensitive to it in the most exquisitely agonizing way, like it’s been rubbed with sandpaper and ground glass. The not knowing is somehow more liberating, because it’s unmediated by the more complicated world of language and symbology; it just is, massive and unyielding, like the stony face of a desolate cliff, unshaken by the relentless waves that hurl themselves blindly at its jagged surface. To this pain you can attribute anything you want, whatever’s convenient. It asks no complicated questions but simply demands to be felt, and you do whatever it takes, again and again, to satisfy it.
The thing about words is that they require a respondent; they are not legible unless they are read. When the knowing remembers, when the terror is given language—language that is imposed by others, that obeys the laws of the external world with all its complications and questions—your pain, that seemed so preciously unique to you, now becomes a narrative, now involves other people, now needs truth and objectivity that can only be bestowed by something, someone external. You did this to me, you need to recognize it, you need to help, I’m opening up to you.
Bergljot learns this the hard way when she makes the revelation to her family. Does it help her? It certainly doesn’t cure her of her repetitive, self-destructive behaviors, doesn’t stop her from seeking the wordless pain that was once so comforting in its totality. If I am able to remember, does that break the spell and quiet the roaring of the waves? Will I stop having nightmares, stop fearing that rats will crawl over me in my sleep, stop taking boxcutters and lit matches to my skin? I doubt it. Each faulty respondent from whom we seek an acceptance of our words, each event that still smells like old blood, sends us back along the spiral. Maybe this is not such a bad thing, to have to go back into the woods when you thought you left. After all, they’re lovely, and dark, and the trees ask nothing of you, they witness you, silently, and because they do not speak, they believe.